Shame typically comes up when you look inward with a critical eye and evaluate yourself harshly, often for things you have little control over.
This negative self-evaluation often has its roots in messages you’ve received from others, especially during your childhood. When parents or teachers criticized you, rather than any poor behavior choices you may have made, they planted the seed of shame.
Shame centers on your very identity as a person, and it becomes particularly toxic when it starts to impact your sense of self.
Toxic shame opens the door to anger, self-disgust, and other less-than-desirable feelings. It can make you feel small and worthless. It can trickle into your inner dialogue like a poison, locking you into a painful loop of negative self-talk.
When toxic shame lingers without resolution, the desire to hide from it or escape from yourself can lead to potentially harmful behaviors like substance misuse or self-harm.
Pretty much everyone experiences shame, though some people experience it more frequently or intensely than others.
Shame often has a cultural component. It can help maintain social norms by reinforcing the idea that certain behaviors can harm others and have a negative impact on society. If you engage in — or even have thoughts about — these potentially harmful actions, you might feel shame.
But when does normal, run-of-the-mill shame become truly toxic? It’s complicated.
Shame vs. guilt
Say you got caught teasing a classmate in elementary school and your parents sharply scolded, “You should be ashamed of how you treated them.”
Their criticism inspired guilty feelings: You regretted your actions and wanted to make up for your shameful behavior to earn their approval once again.
To understand how shame can become toxic, let’s take a step back to explore the difference between shame and guilt, two self-conscious emotions often confused with each other.
Guilt relates to specific actions, such as:
- making a mistake
- doing something you know you shouldn’t
- causing harm to another person, intentionally or otherwise
People often find it easier to discuss guilt, perhaps in part because guilt implies remorse. It may feel more natural to talk about a wrongdoing when you regret it and want to repair any damage you’ve caused.
Like guilt, shame can promote behavior change, since disappointment with yourself can prevent you from making a similar mistake. But shame relates to your sense of self, and it can cut deeper, so these feelings can linger long after you’ve apologized or made amends.
Toxic shame refers to shame that sticks around and starts to contaminate the way you see yourself.
As you grow up and learn more about how your actions affect others, you begin to develop a better sense of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Your parents play an important role by (ideally) reminding you mistakes are normal and guiding you toward better choices by teaching you about the consequences of your actions.
Yet parents can send unhelpful, harmful messages, too:
- “I can’t believe how dumb you are” rather than “It’s OK, everyone makes mistakes.”
- “Stop sitting around like a fat lump” instead of “Let’s go take a walk and get some fresh air.”
- “You’re not smart enough,” when you share your dream of becoming a doctor.
Disapproval and disappointment that focuses not on actions, but aspects of the self, can make you feel painfully vulnerable, inadequate, even unworthy of love or positive attention.
Abuse, neglect, and emotionally distant parenting can also trigger the development of shame. Parents who ignore your physical or emotional needs can give the impression you don’t belong or deserve love and affection.
Toxic shame can also develop in adulthood, when mistakes continue to haunt you long after they happen. Feeling unable to admit what you did or take some sort of reparative action can make this outcome even more likely.
If you keep receiving negative messages about your personality or intelligence, you’ll probably end up internalizing them. This is a totally normal response, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful.
Instead of briefly feeling ashamed of poor choices and learning from them, you carry a (false) idea of your own worthlessness forward. This shame becomes part of you, damaging your self-image and becoming part of your self-talk — particularly in childhood, when you’re still figuring out your own self-perception.
Toxic shame blocks a more positive view of yourself. If you believe you’re evil, unlovable, stupid, or any number of other negative and untrue things, you may see these as permanent states you can’t do anything to change and struggle to develop healthy self-worth.
Here’s a few other things toxic shame can do.
It isolates you
Believing negative messages about yourself can lead you to avoid and withdraw from others. The idea that you’re unworthy of friendship or intimacy can make you feel anxious about revealing your “real” self to people who seem to care about you.
Toxic shame can also relate to actions you regret, such as infidelity or dishonesty. You might worry you’ll end up hurting anyone you try to form a relationship with or decide you don’t deserve another chance.
It causes emotional distress
The negative self-talk that usually accompanies shame can trigger unwanted emotions, like:
Toxic shame can also fuel perfectionism. Shame
You might feel as if doing everything perfectly can help undo harmful messages you’ve absorbed or make up for your “badness.” Perfectionism can also rise from the desire to avoid showing any flaws for people to criticize.
It affects relationships
Living with toxic shame can make it difficult to open up to others. If they learn how awful you really are, you might assume, they’ll run away. So you keep a lot of yourself back and never feel comfortable relaxing your guard around loved ones.
This could make you seem distant, so loved ones may feel as if you’re hiding something and have a hard time trusting you.
Shame can also contribute to relationship conflict. Well-intended constructive criticism or comments about your behavior, however kind or empathic, could remind you of being shamed early in life and reinforce ideas of your own inadequacy.
Difficulty accepting criticism could provoke defensiveness, feelings of anger and sadness, and lead you to lash out at your partner or shut down emotionally.
It can lead harmful behaviors
Toxic shame isn’t pleasant to live with, and many people turn to unhealthy coping strategies to manage or numb the pain it causes.
Substance misuse, self-harm, or disordered eating habits can all serve as attempts to block shame and maladaptive attempts to regain control of your life. These methods of coping might offer some short-term relief, but they don’t do anything to heal the shame.
Toxic shame can fester like an untreated wound, but the strategies below can help you begin to recover.
Challenge and reframe negative internal messages
You can’t heal shame without recognizing how it shows up.
Perhaps you notice certain phrases constantly run in the background of your thoughts:
- “I can’t do anything right.”
- “I’m ugly.”
- “I’m stupid.”
- “I’m hopeless.”
These beliefs come from somewhere, but they’re not an accurate representation of reality.
To start reframing them with a self-compassionate outlook, try this:
- Acknowledge the thought. “That’s one way of seeing things.”
- Explore where it comes from. “My parents always looked at me like I was a failure when I didn’t meet their expectations.”
- Consider evidence for or against it. “What about the things I’ve done right?”
- Consider other perspectives. “I made a mistake, but I can fix it — and now I know what not to do next time.”
Treat yourself with kindness
Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s only natural you will, too. You’re not flawed, or a failure. You’re a human, worthy of love — especially your own love.
Like other kinds of love, self-love doesn’t happen overnight. You have to nurture it before it can flourish. Exploring positive traits about yourself, or personal values you consider important, can help you practice strengthening self-worth.
Meditation can also help you promote compassionate and loving feelings toward yourself. Mindfulness meditation can increase awareness of shame-triggered beliefs that come up throughout your day, but that’s not all it does. It can also teach you to let these thoughts pass without intense emotional distress.
New to meditation? Here’s how to make it a daily habit.
Seek out supportive relationships
People living with toxic shame often end up in toxic or troubled relationships. Patterns that resemble childhood circumstances can seem attractive, in part, because they seem to offer the opportunity to redo those early relationships and heal the pain they caused. Or, maybe you believe you don’t deserve any better.
Allowing yourself to pursue fulfilling relationships with people who care about your well-being generally has more of a positive impact on your efforts to break free of toxic shame, however.
It may take plenty of support and compassion from loved ones to rewrite deep-seated shame, but patience and self-compassion can make this possible.
Sharing feelings of shame can also have benefit, though it requires vulnerability. Shame is common, and learning people you admire and care for experience similar feelings can help you feel less alone. It may even prompt you to reconsider some of those long-held negative beliefs about yourself.
Talk to a professional
Shame can be so pervasive that working through it alone can seem daunting, but don’t give up hope. A trained, compassionate therapist can offer guidance and support as you begin to explore its origins, identify its impact on your life, and practice confronting it when it creeps into self-talk.
A therapist can also provide treatment for mental health concerns related to toxic shame, including:
If you’d like to learn more about challenging and reframing negative thoughts, cognitive behavioral therapy may be a helpful option.
Psychodynamic approaches, on the other hand, can help you unpack and heal distress at its source.
Inner child work can have particular benefit for addressing shame that began in childhood. This approach provides the opportunity to get in touch with your inner child and replace early shame and disgust with healing kindness and love.
Toxic shame often cuts deep, but self-compassion and self-love can be helpful tools for smoothing away the scars it leaves behind.
Confronting shame might feel impossible, but you don’t have to do it alone. When you feel ready to heal (and there’s no time like the present), a therapist can help you take the first steps.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.