Understanding Toxic Shame

What is the difference between healthy shame and toxic shame?  

Imagine you are at a party and you accidentally spill a drink on your host’s nice white carpet. If you have a healthy sense of shame, you feel bad about it, you sincerely apologize and maybe offer to clean it up. Once it’s put right, you carry on with enjoying the party and no permanent harm is done. You made a mistake, you took responsibility for it, then you moved on. 

However, if you have toxic shame, you at once feel a gut-wrenching sense of deep shame about it. You spilt the drink because you’re an idiot, you’re a stupid person who is always making mistakes. You feel like you’re deeply flawed, and you have gone and shown this to everyone at the party.  

Healthy shame tells that you are a good, worthy person who makes mistakes sometimes. Toxic shame tells you that you are a bad person, unworthy and stupid. 

Healthy shame is about what you did. Toxic shame is about who you are.     

Shame is a very necessary function. Without a healthy sense of shame, we wouldn’t know right from wrong. Without it, we might act very inappropriately, cause a lot of harm and we wouldn’t be very socially aware. 

A sense of shame develops early in childhood when we first learn right from wrong. Our parents will tell us when we are doing something that they view as socially or morally inappropriate. Each time, we will feel a little guilt and correct our behavior accordingly, then move on. Gradually we will come to develop a sense of shame and a healthy moral code.  

When young children experience negative events happening around them or to them, and they don’t fully understand why it is happening, they can come to believe that it is their fault. A negative belief can start to form; “If bad things happen to me, it must mean I’m bad.” Young children are particularly receptive, and they internalize everything that happens around them. As they grow and their sense of identity develops further, this intrinsic sense of toxic shame grows with it and becomes a core part of their identity and self-concept as they develop into adults. 

Toxic shame can come from traumatic experiences, abuse and neglect in childhood. It can also come from overly strict parents or from parents who have high expectations. When a child sees that what they do is never enough, they can come to believe that there must be something wrong with them, and that they are not fundamentally enough as a person. 

Once toxic shame has begun to develop, it will only grow, and every time a negative experience happens, the feeling that “It’s my fault” and “I’m a bad person” just grows bigger. This carries on well into adulthood and beyond, and if it isn’t recognized and healed, it will only continue to grow.  

When children are reassured that they are worthy of love and that their bad behavior does not make them a bad person, then they learn to separate their own sense of worth from their actions or what is going on around them. When they are shown love demonstratively, with hugs and kisses, and told that they are loved, they will know that they are intrinsically worthy, and shame will remain at a healthy level.  

To be able to separate themselves from external negative events, a child needs to be shown some openness and at least a basic understanding about what is going on. For the best intentions, many parents try to shield and protect children from relationship break-ups, illness, death and other traumatic events around them. However, children tend to be highly perceptive, and they will experience the effects of traumas, whether they are shielded or not. If what is happening isn’t explained clearly and plainly, then the child will fill in the gaps for their self. This is when the child asks their self why these bad things are happening, and the conclusion is often that it must be because of them somehow.  

A child who has developed a sense of toxic shame will enter adulthood with little or no real sense of self-esteem. This may display as shyness and social awkwardness or they may have learned to mask their low self-esteem and overcompensate by being loud and extroverted. Or they may fluctuate between the two extremes. 

People with toxic shame often become people pleasers. They feel so unworthy of love that they feel that they have to be overly nice to others to feel liked and loved. They may go out of their way to please others and ignore and suppress their own needs. 

They may have entered into unhealthy co-dependent relationships with toxic individuals. When someone has a toxic sense of shame, they will feel that all they are worth is someone who will treat them badly. They often won’t know what sort of love and care they actually do deserve. 

People with toxic shame may end up with addiction problems. They will do anything to escape the feeling of worthlessness and to feel something like love, even for a while. Often, the behaviors which result from the addiction worsen the feeling of toxic shame. A vicious cycle often develops of using the addiction to escape the toxic shame feelings, then feeling even more toxic shame because of the effects of the addiction. 

Toxic shame is pervasive and entrenched and its roots tend to run very deep, but it can be healed. Slowly, gently and safely understanding and becoming aware of where the toxic shame came from and starting to accept that you are worthy and enough shifts the shame to a healthy level. Within a safe, therapeutic environment, toxic shame can be understood and seen for what it really is. You will start to regain control over your own mental health, and you will know that you are, and always have been, enough.  

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