Shame is a popular topic these days, with educators and mental health professionals alerting us to the effects of toxic shame on our health and wellbeing. But identifying toxic shame and how it creeps into our lives and relationships—particularly our relationship with ourselves—can be quite tricky.
You may have heard about the effects of toxic shame from speakers like Brené Brown in her many Ted Talks and YouTube videos about the topic, but what can feel confusing is identifying when toxic shame creeps into our lives today and impacts our relationships, particularly with oneself.
What Is the Difference between Healthy Shame and Toxic Shame?
Some Jungian analysts refer to shame as “the swampland of the soul.” They’re alluding to the way we can get sucked into and stuck in the painful and untrue stories of shame we’ve internalized. By wading through the muck and shedding light on toxic shame and its origins, we can begin to embrace our authentic selves and end the shame spiral.
What Is Healthy Shame? Why Do I Need Shame at All?
Healthy shame is closely linked to guilt; it is the feeling that tells us we have disappointed or hurt someone in our relational field. Starting at about 15-30 months, we begin to develop a sense of healthy shame. When a parent or caregiver scolds us around this age, we learn that we have disappointed someone we care about and rely upon to meet our needs.
Unlike toxic shame, healthy shame can provide guidance, teach us boundaries and safety, and help us fit into social norms. For example, think of a parent scolding a child acting out in a public place, like a grocery store or restaurant. The child learns the expectations of the social environment from the message, “That behavior is not acceptable here.” Healthy shame teaches us family and cultural expectations and how to meet them.
Healthy Shame and Guilt Are Learning Tools
Healthy shame and guilt shape our moral compass and behavior. They give us guidance about what is wrong or unacceptable in relationships with others. Feelings of shame or guilt can be early warning signs that we are poised to break trust with another person. They encourage us to stop, reassess and choose not to violate another person with our anger, harsh words or actions.
Guilt teaches us that mistakes are a normal and expected part of life’s journey. We are imperfectly human! And making mistakes gives us the opportunity to learn.
We learn this lesson throughout our lives when we say something insensitive or hurtful to someone we care about (or even a stranger). We can see from their reaction that we have broken a sacred boundary. Our healthy sense of shame and guilt tells us we need to repair the relationship with this person, typically through a genuine apology.
Because we are designed for connection, we are usually willing to accept one another’s mistakes and apologies. In the episode I’m Sorry: How to Apologize & Why It Matters of the Unlocking Us podcast, Harriet Lerner and Brené Brown discuss what makes a genuine apology and why it’s helpful to give them, even if the other person is not able or ready to accept it. Making an apology is important for our growth and the development of healthy shame, regardless of the outcome.
Since we have all made mistakes and relational transgressions, we expect that no one is perfect, but that just because we make an epic blunder, it does not mean the end of the relationship. On the contrary, it gives us the opportunity to learn.
What Is Toxic Shame and Why Is It So Hurtful?
Toxic shame, on the other hand, is a fundamental belief that “I am bad. I am broken. I need to hide my authentic self from the world.”
Rather than evaluating your actions and other’s reactions to them, toxic shame tells you that you are the problem. You are not enough and do not deserve to have true intimacy or connection because there is something wrong with your true nature that you must hide from others.
How Does Toxic Shame Happen?
Attacks by parents, peers or partners during development and adulthood can contribute to toxic shame. We often internalize harmful statements about us, believing they define us as people.
Some examples of hurtful statements that may contribute to toxic shame include:
- “You are stupid.” When you secretly dream of being a university professor.
- “You are worthless.” When you try to please others and help out when you can.
- “You are a loser.” When the job you just landed isn’t as prestigious as you’d like.
- “You are a fat lump.” When you have been struggling with weight and feeling hungry for months.
- “You are crazy.” When you are vulnerable and express your deep emotions.
You can probably think of examples in your own life when someone’s words did not match up with what you believe about yourself.
Statements like these, along with actions such as withholding love, ignoring or constant criticism, can bore into our sense of self like a drill into wood, leaving a void that gets filled with toxic shame about who we fundamentally are.
The logical mind may be able to distinguish between truth and the bombardment of negative messages, but our emotional mind will often begin repeating these words like a mantra.
We internalize these negative messages about ourselves and our personality until they become part of our identity. This is toxic shame.
What Happens with Toxic Shame?
When a deep sense of toxic shame develops, it can be challenging to form connected, attuned long-term relationships. You may expect that a partner or friend will eventually abandon you once they discover who you really are. You may even isolate and avoid relationships, resulting in loneliness that only affirms the negative self-talk: “I don’t deserve love.”
Toxic shame can result in negative or difficult emotions, such as:
- Anger toward yourself or others
- Self-loathing or self-pity
- Worry, anxiety and fear
- Sadness, depression or a negative outlook on the future
Toxic shame can also fuel perfectionism in an effort to prove to yourself and others that you are, indeed, worthy. Perfectionism is often an attempt to “outdo” negative aspects and appear to the outside world as driven, successful and motivated. Bragging and self-inflation can accompany perfectionism as a way to create or illustrate your ideal self.
Toxic Shame and Harmful Behaviors
It’s difficult to feel bad about ourselves, and toxic shame’s “cover-up operation” can be exhausting to uphold, which is why people with toxic shame can develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as:
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
Toxic shame prevents personal growth because upholding the image you wish the world to see stunts self-awareness and healing. This is why recognizing signs of toxic shame is critical to start the healing process.
I Think I Have Toxic Shame; What Can I Do?
Gaining a sense of awareness around the narrative you have been repeating is vital. However, it’s also essential to understand that these deep-rooted narratives require conscious effort to unwind. You cannot expect to get up one morning and decide that toxic shame is gone for good. It requires practice.
When you find yourself reinforcing negative self-talk like, “I am worthless. No one will ever truly love me,” stand back for a moment. Ask yourself: Is that true? Whose words am I repeating? Then, see if you can offer yourself another perspective and say, “Well, that’s not really true. My grandma loves me; my sister loves me; my dog loves me!”
We need to pause amid a shame attack and take a realistic account of what is happening. Toxic shame cycles can trigger a fight-flight-freeze fear response, especially in a disagreement or argument with a loved one. In a sense, shame hijacks the brain because the part of the brain wired for a logical response shuts down, and the survival part takes over.
If we can take the time to pause and re-evaluate, we give ourselves a chance to stop the shame spiral and bring our “thinking brain” back into the conversation.
When you’re ready to go deeper, working with a trusted therapist can help you uncover and address the core roots of toxic shame and can be very helpful on your healing journey.
Compassion Can Be an Antidote to Toxic Shame
It’s time to rebuild those compassion muscles! When we are in toxic shame, we can lose empathy for ourselves and others. We look at ourselves as inherently bad and at others with skepticism and doubt. Responding with compassion to our mistakes is a good place to start countering shame. Remember, our successes and failures are a part of the collective human condition. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We are all imperfect.
Letting yourself off the hook with kindness and empathy when you mess up can help your brain return to its natural state of homeostasis and out of constant survival and anxiety mode. In addition, connecting with others and extending them the same compassion will improve relationships—and is healthy for your brain and emotions!
When we can lovingly accept our own imperfections, we are more empathic toward others.