What Is Toxic Shame And How To Deal With It
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Nobody’s perfect. We know this.
Yet every day, every time we stumble in our attempts to behave like better people, we too often go overboard on the self-criticism.
As if by now we really should have grown past the tendency to act like fallible humans.
It’s one thing to feel some momentary shame when something we’ve done reflects poorly on us.
We can say, “Okay, that looked bad. I did not shine, there. Guess I still need to work on that.”
It’s another thing, though, to turn that slip-up into “proof” that we’re no good, terrible, rotten human beings whose very existence is a plague.
When you internalize shame and feel it all the time (to a greater or lesser degree — but always), you have what’s called toxic shame. And that, my friend, is a real plague.
But it’s not one you have to live with for the rest of your life.
What is Toxic Shame?
Feeling shame about who and what you are as a person — all the time — is toxic and exhausting.
You never get a break.
No light cracks in to illuminate the truth of who you are, so you’re left alone in the dark, feeling isolated from everyone and from all that’s good in the world.
When something has taken deep root within you, consciously telling yourself nice things every day isn’t enough to reach and extract the poison.
In a contest between slower conscious thought and lightning fast and pervasive subconscious thought, guess who wins.
The good news is that your subconscious can be retrained with the right messages.
So, how do you go about changing those scripts and removing toxic shame from your consciousness?
First, you need to know how it got there in the first place.
What causes toxic shame?
Toxic shame is usually caused by some form of emotional trauma, often in childhood.
It’s possible, though, to develop toxic shame in adulthood.
The people whose opinions of us matter are the ones whose words and behavior toward us take the deepest root.
When it comes to toxic shame causes, here are some of the chief culprits:
- Childhood abuse — physical and/or emotional
- Parents who withheld affection
- Feeling invisible or unimportant at a young age
- Constant disapproval and criticism from parents, teachers, bosses, etc.
- Traumatic experiences such as rape, incest, and other forms of sexual assault
Shame is not the same thing as guilt or remorse, which brings us to the next topic.
The Difference Between Shame and Guilt
When you feel guilty, you feel bad about something you did.
When you feel ashamed, you feel bad about the kind of person you are.
Related: 8 Strategies for Overcoming Shame
It’s not the worst thing to feel ashamed of what something you did says about your character.
We all have things to work on. But when you start telling yourself the following things, your shame has taken a poisonous turn.
- What I’ve done — and what I am — is unforgivable.
- I’m a bad person. It’s just who I am.
- I’m unworthy of love.
- I’m defective, and I can’t be fixed.
- What I’ve done is (further) proof that I’m a soulless monster.
- I’m no good on my own, but I’m no good for anyone else, either.
- I poison everything I touch.
- I’m ugly, and no one could ever be attracted to me.
- I’m stupid. I don’t have any good ideas. I should just keep quiet.
- I don’t matter. If I died, probably no one would notice or care.
Dealing with shame begins with recognizing it for what it is, addressing its causes, and taking steps to change the subconscious lies at the root of it.
Only then can you let go of toxic shame and the false beliefs that go with it.
Is there such a thing as healthy shame?
In an article on Brené Brown’s website, she describes guilt as something we have when we compare something we’ve done or failed to do to our deeply-held values and feel psychological discomfort.
This, in and of itself, is not harmful and can even help us to grow.
Shame, on the other hand, is not helpful or healthy.
Related: 31 Quotes About Toxic People
We feel shame when we take something we’ve done or failed to do and use it as proof that we’re unworthy of love or connection.
We turn our human flaws into barriers between us and other flawed human beings.
And it can make us dangerous.
Because if we’re unworthy of love, we have nothing to lose.
Signs of Toxic Shame
If you’re living with toxic shame, the following symptoms should sound familiar:
- Low self-esteem and constant self-criticism
- Feelings of chronic worthlessness
- Chronic and compulsive people-pleasing
- Feelings of irrational guilt over things you’re not guilty of (or not uniquely so)
- Angry or defensive behavior
- Settling for less than you truly want in your career, relationships, etc.
- Imposter syndrome (“If people knew who I really was, they would hate me.”)
- Dysfunctional relationships with others
- Failure to connect or fear of connecting with others
- “Shame anxiety” — the chronic fear of being shamed or exposed to shame
- General suspicion or mistrust of others
When you get it into your head that your flaws make you unworthy of love, it comes as no surprise when people leave or when someone decides to tell the world how terrible you are.
It’s only what you’ve come to expect from people (or from most of them).
Then you might be surprised at how easy it is to shut down and go into “machine mode.”
Machines don’t need love or friendship. They don’t expect to be treated with kindness or respect. And they know all about planned obsolescence.
To a machine, everything has an expiration date – including relationships.
For someone living with toxic shame, every new connection they make is a ticking time bomb.
And often they’ll do something to sabotage the relationship and break the connection before it explodes in their faces.
After all, if it’s going to detonate, best to control when and how in order to minimize the damage.
How to Overcome Toxic Shame
Healing shame isn’t the work of a few minutes or even a few days.
It’ll take real, focused effort to free your whole being from its grip.
The following steps, taken consciously and with a sincere desire for freedom and growth, can get you there more quickly.
1. Look in the mirror and see yourself.
How often do you really look yourself in the eye when you catch your reflection in a mirror?
When you do see your own face, what thoughts immediately come to mind?
What are you telling yourself every time you make eye contact?
Maybe you think they’re just random thoughts like “Where did that chin hair come from?” or “Have I always looked terrible on this side of my face?”
But if you’re focusing only on the things you don’t like about your appearance, you’re passing up the opportunity to notice and feel gratitude for the good things.
Try looking yourself in the eye and saying — or at least thinking — something complimentary, even if all you can muster at first is “You’re not half bad. Nice eyes. Good smile.”
And give yourself a smile of genuine warmth, even if only briefly.
No need to gush. Just give yourself a little love every time you see yourself.
Not everyone will give you a smile today, so give yourself the kind of smile you want to receive.
2. Listen to and correct your toxic self-talk and false beliefs.
When you catch your own toxic thoughts, take a moment to reflect on whether the things you’re telling yourself are really true.
Ask yourself if you honestly believe them or if you’re just trying to harden yourself to the hate and rejection you expect from others.
If no one in your life calls you out for trash-talking yourself, you’ll have to get better at catching yourself in the act and being the friend you wish you had — and the friend you want to be for others.
Because you’re not the only one living with toxic shame.
Start by making a list of the things you usually tell yourself in certain situations:
- When you see your reflection
- When you make a mistake
- When you get called out for something at work
- When someone else insults you
- When you’re feeling low
- When you’re giving into temptations or falling back on old habits
Then practice telling yourself something different. And make sure it’s 100% true.
Don’t just repeat what you’ve heard or what you’ve always believed to be likely or “true enough.”
Do yourself the justice of calling out what’s good.
Especially if no one else will.
3. Learn how to change your subconscious self-talk.
The subconscious mind is more receptive to reprogramming when you’re in a relaxed state, which is when you’re experiencing alpha or theta brain waves.
When you’re in a relaxed state, you can take the negative self-talk scripts and flip them.
Just be sure to express their opposites as positive statements.
For example, don’t say, “I’m not ugly” or “I’m not a failure.”
Your subconscious can be an idiot, and the “not” tends only to amplify the words that follow.
So, stick with positive phrases like “I look great today” or “I did good work today” or “I have more than enough energy to get things done.”
You can also use a memory to create an anchor or trigger for a positive emotion.
Recall a time when you felt real joy (or intense love, peace of soul, confidence, etc.), and spend a moment recalling as much as you can about that moment.
Think of something you can draw from that experience to use as an anchor or a trigger.
It could be a word, a small gesture (like hugging yourself or rubbing your chin), or a brief song lyric.
Use that trigger while you’re experiencing that feeling. Then shake yourself out of it by switching your focus to something else for a bit.
After a minute or so, recall the memory and use the trigger again.
Repeat this as many times as you need so that the next time you use that trigger, you feel the emotion associated with it.
4. Release the tension in your body.
There are a number of ways to do this, but here are a few you may want to try:
- Get a massage.
- Apply heat to tense muscles (heated massage pillow, hot shower, etc.)
- Take a long soak in an Epsom salt bath
- Give your muscles a gentle stretch.
- Try some yoga.
- Take a long, refreshing drink of water.
- Take a walk at a comfortable pace.
- Light some candles and relax with a glass (or mug) of something soothing.
- Write it out.
- Spend time with your pet.
- Listen to some soothing music and just breathe.
When you’re physically relaxed, it’s much easier to feel mentally and emotionally relaxed – which makes it easier to exchange toxic self-talk for truthful and healing affirmations.
5. Reconnect with and re-parent your inner child.
Think back as far as you can to a moment in your childhood when you felt blissfully happy or at least peaceful and content.
What were you doing?
What were you hoping would last forever?
What did someone do for you that you’ll never forget (in a good way)?
What do you wish someone had done for you?
And what can you do now to give your inner child what they still need and have been looking for since then?
When you look back, do you recall finding solace or joy in any of the following?
- Drawing, painting, or coloring
- Taking things apart to learn more about them
- Swimming or playing on a beach
- Soaring on a swing
- Taking long walks
- Looking for frogs, fireflies, turtles, etc.
- Tending a garden or flowerbed
- Collecting rocks
- Writing stories of your own
Find ways to do one or more of the things you enjoyed then, and enjoy them as a child would.
6. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and risk the outcome.
As Brené Brown said in her TED talk, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
Toxic shame keeps you stuck in a risk-averse shame spiral – fearful of losing what little comfort you have.
Unless you can see or, on some level, believe in the possibility of a better life and better relationships, it’s much safer to plant your feet and cling to your invisibility cloak.
But it is possible to break free of this and grow beyond old, self-limiting beliefs. Think of what you’ve survived so far, and remind yourself, “Whatever happens, I’ll survive that, too.”
You’ll do more than survive, though.
Just making the leap changes things in you. It gets the wheels of transformation moving. And it opens your eyes to other possibilities.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable takes courage, and even if it blows up in your face, you’ve just learned that you have the courage to take that risk and the resilience to survive the outcome, however painful it might be.
And just knowing that about yourself loosens the grip of toxic shame.
7. Forgive yourself and those who’ve hurt you.
Forgiveness is the most powerful gift when it comes to breaking free from old patterns and growing into the person you want to be.
Without forgiving yourself and others, you remain stuck.
But once you decide to forgive from your heart — even if all you can muster is the sincere desire to put that anger behind you and to wish the other person only good things — you reclaim the power to triumph over anything.
No matter what happens to you, you can turn it all to good.
Because that’s what you were created to do. And that’s the power behind forgiveness.
There’s science behind that, too. When you forgive someone from your heart (even when they’re not physically present), your brain goes into an alpha wave state.
This state makes it possible for you to retrain your subconscious and undo the damage from resentment and false beliefs.
So, when you forgive others and focus your will on their healing, you enable your own.
How is toxic shame damaging you?
Now that you have a better understanding of false shame and how to overcome it, what would you like to focus on first?
How is toxic shame hurting you the most, and what can you do today to start healing?
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Or do you know someone who struggles with toxic shame? Maybe you read this for some ideas on how to help your friend see what you see.
Toxic shame blinds you to your worthiness because it blinds you to the truth of who and what you are.
As much as we complain about the “guilt trips” other people might impose on us, the real harm doesn’t come from knowing we’ve done something harmful but from thinking our harmful acts make us unworthy of love.
They don’t. They just prove you’re as fallible as every other human being.
So be as kind to yourself as you want others to be.
And may your compassion and forgiveness influence everything you do today.