man sitting on floor with face in hands representing healing toxic shame

Define Shame

What is toxic shame? Shame is a normal emotion that many of us feel from time to time but don’t often recognize. Most of us will experience shame in our lifetime and it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong or “bad” about us. 

Usually, it feels like wanting to hide, trying to camouflage or blend in, and feeling bad or worthless. Shame can be really informational about our experience and how we react to certain events or people. Toxic shame on the other hand is taking these feelings and expanding on them. When there is an interference in your normal life due to feelings of shame, it can be an indicator of toxic shame. 

If you are reading this and it’s resonating with you, you are not alone. As a Denver therapist and online life coach, I work with clients around feelings of shame and establishing a healthy relationship with their emotions, life events, and people. If feelings of shame are impacting your life, causing unhappiness, distress, or the inability to fully live your life, go to work, or interact with others then you may be experiencing toxic shame. 

In this article, I hope to shine some light on toxic shame, what it looks like and how you can begin to heal if you are experiencing toxic shame in your own life. 

Signs of Toxic Shame

When shame crosses the line into toxic or unhealthy territory, it can look like:

  • Obsessing over your mistakes to the point of interfering with sleep, work, or relationships. (Maybe it’s all 3.)
  • Low self-esteem while feeling worthless, hopeless, ruined, or bad.
  • Feeling as though you deserve bad things to happen to you or that you don’t deserve good things.
  • Saying sorry repeatedly for things.
  • Feeling as though you need to overextend yourself to make others like you.
  • Basing major life decisions on the feelings of shame (for example, passing on a promotion because you don’t think you’re “good enough” even when you’re aptly qualified).

Do you relate to any of the above? It’s okay if you do, it doesn’t mean that there’s no way out. In fact, there is a way out – and there is a happier, healthier you on the other side of toxic shame. Working through and healing from toxic shame is a process, but with time and a good support system you can start to see changes take hold! It is time to stop beating yourself up and really take charge of your life.

When beginning this healing process, I like to discuss the difference with my therapy clients between normal shame and toxic shame – it can be helpful to better understand how shame shows up in your life, why it shows up, and how to work through it if you can first determine what’s toxic versus what isn’t.

Where Does Toxic Shame Come From?

If you experience shame, congratulations, you’re human! We all experience it from time to time. There’s not one cut and dry answer for why toxic shame exists. Focusing into these feelings can help provide some insight into what might be causing your potential shame. Although figuring out the reasoning could be relieving and informative, I want to mention that it’s okay if you don’t know. What matters is that this is something that resonates and affects your life, regardless of the “why” behind it.

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How Do I Stop Experiencing Toxic Shame?

Toxic shame thrives in avoidance, ignorance, and secrecy, and it wants to keep you isolated. By illuminating our feelings and giving them attention, we can start to protect ourselves from feelings of toxic shame. 

It can be painful in the beginning to show up for yourself in this way. If you have been experiencing toxic shame for sometime, you might feel like the darker blanket of avoidance is more comforting than the unfamiliar air of illumination, but if you sit in the sun for just a little bit you’ll start to feel the warmth of bringing to light toxic shame and working through the experiences that hold you back. 

How To Deal With Shame

If you want to make lasting changes in your relationships, workplace, and personal life – the first step is going to be identifying your toxic shame triggers and developing techniques to help you heal. 

Here’s a list of other things you can try when experiencing toxic shame:

  • Identify your triggers (think about emotional states, people, places, or events that increase your shame).
  • Create alternative thoughts or coping techniques.
  • Talk with a therapist or coach about your shame.
  • Confide in your friends and family about your experiences with shame (it’s likely they’ve had similar experiences!).
  • Find a mantra that you can tell yourself in times of shame

Is there a Treatment for Toxic Shame?

Unfortunately there isn’t a magic shame pill or “Stop it!” button to help us from experiencing toxic shame. I believe that if you’ve already identified that toxic shame is something you struggle with, you’re already on your way to healing. Self-compassion is a useful tool to help combat toxic shame.

Practicing Self Compassion

If you aren’t familiar with self-compassion, I encourage you to reach out to a friend, loved one, or support group that can help encourage you on this journey. Many times when we are stuck in an unhealthy place – it’s hard to see the good or light that may be part of or surrounding us – having someone or a group of people who can help call out the good and lovely in you can be very helpful. 

Here are a couple ways to practice self compassion:

  • Accept that the moment is painful or uncomfortable
  • Respond kindly and gently to yourself
  • Honor your feelings
  • Remember that imperfection is part of being human

For more information on self compassion and tips for practicing this form of self-care in your daily rituals, you can read more about mindful self-compassion practices. These include thinking about how to practice self-love and emotional self-care when your life is falling apart.

Getting Help for Toxic Shame

Sometimes it’s difficult to face toxic shame alone, and you shouldn’t have to. Working with a trained professional, like a coach or counselor, can help you navigate toxic shame, vulnerability, and self compassion. When working through toxic shame, you may find that other emotions that come up. You may feel anger, hurt, unwillingness to forgive past hurts, feelings of unworthiness, overwhelmed, or sad. 

I want to remind you that there is good for you. There is happiness, and you can feel confident and worthy once again. It just takes time. If you put in the work, overcoming toxic shame is not only possible but can enrich your life in many other ways.

If you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please feel free to share this content with them. We all struggle with shame from time to time, if it’s causing you or a loved one to live a life of hurt and loneliness – it may be time to reach out for help.

Wishing you warmth and healing, 

Growing Self

Therapy Questions, Answered.

2 Comments

  1. I really appreciated this article, I have to be more intentional about the shame in my life and the avoidance behaviors it encourages. Thanks for the great read!

  2. I really appreciated this article, I have to be more intentional about the shame in my life and the avoidance behaviors it encourages. Thanks for the great read!

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