Toxic shame is a serious threat to personal wellbeing, but professional support and treatment can help you understand, manage and eventually overcome its effects.
Shame is one of those feelings that buries itself deep into our psyches, an emotional wound that rarely completely heals. If we are lucky, we experience it only a few times, inflicted by the words of a bully, or even by ourselves as a reaction to a particularly egregious mistake. In a small dose, the poison of shame is something we can gradually recover from, even if we never completely forget it.
When shame is regularly doled out, particularly by those we rely on for support, it is incredibly toxic. It negatively affects our sense of self, our relationships with others, and the way we view the world.
What is Toxic Shame?
Shame is a powerful emotion involving a poor view of oneself and a sense of worthlessness. It usually occurs as a result of criticism that focuses on the integral nature of a person, such as someone’s character, intellect, appearance, or personality. It becomes toxic when it is repeated to the point that the person experiencing the shaming then internalises it.
Shaming often begins in childhood, and may be employed by a parent or other authority figure as a method to correct behaviour. Instead of using constructive language that focuses on a task or action, people who shame put the person at the center of what needs to be corrected, implying that the person themselves are somehow wrong or inadequate.
It is the difference between saying, “The next time you clean your room, I need you to work on making sure everything is put away neatly,” and “Your room is always such a mess – you’re so lazy, it’s disgusting.” Over time, these comments can make you begin to believe that you’re not enough, or even that you are a bad person.
Abusive personal relationships often feature shaming language or actions as a way to control and manipulate someone, tearing apart their self-worth and confidence in order to make them believe that the only person who would put up with them is their abuser. Shame can also come from neglect, as those who are repeatedly denied their physical or emotional needs may begin to believe that they do not deserve those things.
Regardless of where shame comes from, its impacts on a person’s emotional, mental and physical health are powerful and sobering. No one deserves to live with the burdens of shame.
Recognising Some Key Features of Toxic Shame
Toxic shame can be insidious, and potentially affect your mental health to the point where it is difficult to pinpoint it. Here are some common characteristics of toxic shame:
- The feelings of shame cut deeply and are long-lasting
- The shame also manifests in physical symptoms, like unexplained pain, stomach problems, or headaches
- The shame may be hidden in your subconscious, but come flooding back with certain triggers
- The shame is not only brought on by something external, but by your own thoughts
- You feel anxious about doing anything which may bring about shaming
- The shame results in a sense of inadequacy and feelings of depression and hopelessness
- The shame may be associated with images, beliefs or voices from childhood
- The shame creates a negative personal narrative in your head that is doubtful, critical, and insulting
Effects of Toxic Shame
Because toxic shame distorts our sense of self, the effects of it can be catastrophic to one’s personal goals, relationships and general outlook. There are several key ways that toxic shame can seriously impact your life.
Toxic Shame Isolates You
Just as we instinctively flinch and draw our hand back when we brush up against a hot stove, the pain of shame causes us to emotionally withdraw, turning inwards to try to tend to our wounds. When shame is regularly inflicted, it can cause a more permanent retreat away from others in an attempt to protect oneself from further emotional injury. Unfortunately, this avoidance may extend even to those who are loving and supportive as shame erodes the foundational element of trust.
Toxic Shame Seeps into Your Emotions
For some people, shame is accompanied by a powerful and righteous sense of outrage at the way they have been treated. However, this pent-up anger may be directed at people who are not responsible for the shaming, or at one’s own self, and can result in seemingly inexplicable emotional outbursts or self-destructive behaviour.
Sadness, embarrassment, fear, and anxiety are other common emotional responses to toxic shame that can become all-encompassing, permanently casting a negative tone to most interactions and experiences.
Toxic Shame Tends to Bring on Negative Coping Mechanism
The pain of toxic shame is always present, and many who struggle to live with it turn to coping mechanisms that are unhealthy. Substance abuse, self-harm, or disordered eating are just a few ways that people attempt to manage the persistent discomfort of toxic shame. While these mechanisms may provide some immediate relief, they typically result in further feelings of shame or self-loathing, perpetuating the cycle of shame and prolonging real healing.
Toxic Shame Gets in the Way of Good Relationships
When you have internalised that you are not good enough, this has profound impacts on the people you choose to have relationships with, as well as how much of yourself you allow to be present in relationships. Partners may find you distant or evasive, which can affect trust. You may also be with people that don’t treat you well, or that you don’t feel a deep connection with, because you believe you don’t deserve any differently.
Even in healthy relationships, feelings of toxic shame can be triggered by natural interactions – a difference of opinions, a well-meaning comment about behaviour, or even suggestions about new activities to try can tap into deeply buried feelings of shame and provoke an emotional reaction that may seem completely out of nowhere.
To stop the effects of toxic shame from wreaking havoc on fundamental aspects of your life, it’s important to commit to recognising and addressing it so that real healing may begin.
How to Heal from Toxic Shame
Moving beyond the hurt caused by toxic shame is both possible and life-changing. Free from shame, you will be able to cultivate a new, positive relationship with yourself and those around you. You will see the world on your own terms, not those imposed on you by a bully or an abuser. Here are several steps to take when turning your attention to recovering from shame:
- dentify the root cause of shame – in order to fully remove shame from your psyche, you must know what put it there in the first place. This may be painful to consider, but facing this will ultimately help you in fully addressing it.
- Understand your self-talk – when you suffer from toxic shame, those beliefs tend to be embedded and oft-repeated in your own inner narrative. Understand that for a while during your healing process, the self-talk you are going to hear will be reflective of this shame, and try not to react to it.
- Be gentle with yourself – we all make mistakes. This isn’t related to you being a defective person, but what ties you in to the rest of humanity. Mistakes are meant to be made, learned from and grown upon. Allow yourself the opportunity to move forward.
- Be mindful – toxic shame has likely crept up in many of your thoughts and feelings. By simply noticing it and understanding it as shame, you take away the need to react to it, which can set a powerful precedent for operating in ways not driven by shame. If you need to, talk to a trusted friend and partner about what you are feeling to help break the isolation of shame and get validation and support.
- Seek professional support – if you’ve recognised that you are struggling with toxic shame, it is likely that it’s been affecting you for a long period of time. Reaching out for professional support can ensure that you have all the resources you need to remove this poison from your life, as well as the backing of a compassionate, experienced community during your healing process.
Overcoming Toxic Shame at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab is a mental health retreat in Thailand created to foster an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and overcome addiction or mental health issues. Internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International, The Dawn offers personalised treatment plans that cater to each individual’s needs by using a comprehensive, holistic treatment method and modern techniques with proven results.
You don’t need to suffer the legacy of toxic shame any longer. Call us today to learn how we can support you in your journey towards healing.