Feeling bad about something awful you just did is okay. Feeling horrible over the fact that you might have hurt somebody is a good thing. However, feeling bad about yourself, especially if you’re not finding any reasons why, might mean you have to deal with something else—the elusive and deceitful thing called toxic shame.
What is toxic shame?
Let’s first define shame:
a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
Toxic shame has been widely talked about, at least among researchers, especially when considering the following points:
- If you’re feeling shame, then you should be feeling guilt, too.
- But why feel guilt?
- Isn’t shame and guilt the same thing?
- Shame shouldn’t be all bad.
Those speculations could be tricky, and it’s by that reason you should be able to identify what shame really is. Because there will be times you’ll be in some “mood” with which you won’t know how to deal and if you’re not convinced it’s toxic shame, then you won’t be able to move on to navigate the world in healthier ways.
Shame is usually interchanged with guilt but they’re not the same. Just think about it this way: Shame is feeling bad about yourself while guilt is feeling bad about something you did.
Okay, now you might be thinking, shame, toxic shame—which is which?
Shame arguably is toxic shame already—some researchers, notably Brené Brown, say there’s no such thing as good or healthy shame. All shame is unhealthy and destructive. Because what you do should not affect your worth as a person.
Shame is thinking you’re no good, you don’t deserve or are not worthy of anything good, and you’re the unluckiest person to walk this planet ever. That kind of thinking blindly held on to over a long time gives you the complete package that is toxic shame.
Perhaps the worst part about toxic shame is that it convinces you that all the negative feelings you have about yourself are ultimately true. It operates like cancer—it creates a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness without knowing its real cause. You don’t usually need an external trigger to feel it and if there is one, it happens on a subconscious level.
Arguably there’s only one good purpose of shame, but it’s in the context of “having shame” just when you’re about to do something socially unacceptable, as opposed to the shame felt after the bad deed is done.
You wouldn’t run naked and start hugging everybody inside the mall now, would you? Or confront and rebuke your hardcore religious next-door neighbors just because you don’t believe in what they believe in, all while said neighbors are well-respected in your small town. Bummer.
That is what I mean by “having shame.” That kind of shame keeps our actions grounded in values and norms that have emerged in our cultures and communities. Although it’s the only kind of “healthy shame,” it still only develops with the presence of outside forces, i.e., other people. The term “healthy shame” does need the quote marks because I believe shame still is not a healthy emotion all in all—your worth as a human being is independent of the things you do. This is where guilt (or remorse) comes into play, when you realize the wrong you’ve done and are willing to expiate it moving forward.
Toxic shame, on the other hand, has already grown its roots in that it almost certainly feels like it’s a part of your identity. Like some illnesses, toxic shame seems incurable; it’s only treatable at best. Your forever trickster companion, for sure.
Where does toxic shame come from?
Childhood is usually the stage where toxic shame starts to develop. When wrong messages are repeatedly internalized by a kid, those thoughts unfortunately flourish that when he reaches adulthood, they become strong beliefs almost impossible to undo.
Some forms of shaming are:
- The put-down: “You’re such a moron!”
- The comparison: “Look at Timmy. You should be as smart as him.”
- Moralizing: “Good girls don’t do that.”
- The age-based expectation: “Stop acting like a baby!”
- The competency-based expectation: “Future astronauts don’t get these grades!”1
It doesn’t really matter how you were shamed as long as two things happened: they made you feel worthless and unlovable, and the shaming was chronic.
Imagine this: You’re once again a kid and you’re a “shame bank,” into which monies of toxic shame are deposited by your parents or guardians every single day. This theoretical depositing only stops when you’re an adult and able to live independently. You’ll certainly be toxic-shame-rich at that stage.
The thing is, toxic shame isn’t some popular piece of knowledge. It’s something known only to psychologists or something. Parents could inadvertently be building their kids’ toxic shame empire without anybody noticing it.
A breach made by a parent can be compensated well for by acknowledging it, saying sorry, and making up for it. Sadly this is impossible in dysfunctional families, e.g., with narcissistic parents.
Shaming children is a shortcut. If we’re being brutally honest, shaming feels good to stop any tantrums or whatnot on a bad day in which we could not handle tantrums or whatnot. It’s an anger release. It’s quick. But this parenting “technique” is terribly detrimental to children’s developing sense of self-esteem and overall health.
Kids are supposed to be kids. Parents that expect kids to suddenly act like 30-year-olds don’t deserve to be parents. (But that’s for another post.) Kids could be annoying at times, sure, but they’re only following all the lucky results and developments of their millions of years of evolution—as human kids. They are curious, playful, reckless, and noisy, and they should be. What they need are leaders that will help them know themselves and understand the world. Parents (or guardians) should encourage kids to productively use their boundless amounts of energy and not suppress them simply because the parents are not “feeling” it. Whoever said parenting is easy should be ashamed of themselves (just kidding, of course).
Shaming is very common, too. In fact, it’s also common among normal and non-abusive families. Just imagine the relief you would feel without having to spend the time and energy to get rid of a kid’s unpleasant behavior, especially without anyone else around. You know, just you and the kid. It makes me think how power indeed corrupts. Having power over helpless kids can corrupt you, making you do easy things rather than right. Be careful, Chief.
But parents that abuse their kids most probably have been abused by their parents, too, who, of course, have also been abused. You can’t really say one has had it worse than another. To someone, “mild” and intense abuse can be the same. Our susceptibility to mental illnesses also varies genetically.
Nevertheless, this is something you must understand: to heal from toxic shame you need to accept the fact that it’s simply how the world works—you can not choose your family; you can not really choose your circumstances.
And it’s not just the parents. Teachers, peers, and just about anybody could further build the toxic shame that’s already a burden at home.
Thing is, there’s also a phenomenon called revictimization, in which a victim of some form of chronic abuse is highly likely to become a victim again. Revictimization is not “playing victim” used by manipulators to gain the sympathy of others so they can pursue some hidden agenda. Revictimization is a result of complex and sometimes unknown mishmash of causes, but to put it simply, victims of toxic shame or abuse tend to attract people that have behaviors and characteristics similar to those of their past abusers (e.g., their abusive parents) because the abuse has been that bad it’s the only world they’ve come to know. (I know I’m already talking abuse here and it’s getting heavier.)
Humans are averse to change and likely return to what is familiar. People who’ve grown in toxic shame are no different. They’ve felt this kind of horrible feeling all their life. Toxic shame then manifests different physical and emotional symptoms that highly attract the same kind of people that inflicted it upon them in the first place.
Another cause of toxic shame is the guardians’ abandonment: it doesn’t necessarily mean they were abusive; it simply means they were not providing their kids’ most basic needs. It’s about the fact that they could not take care of themselves first and that crept up on the people they also should be taking care of. An example of this is when the guardians have undiagnosed mental illnesses. When children feel their parents’ fears and anxieties, the children start to internalize them, which of course isn’t good. They should be with someone they can depend on.
People who are “different” also tend to feel shame at some point in their life, whether or not other people inflict it upon them. However, thanks to supportive communities and movements, the public is being made aware that being born “different” is not really different. I’m talking stuff like ADHD, dwarfism, blindness, etc.
Since we’re talking about “different” or “abnormal,” unfortunately toxic shame that starts in childhood can physically change the brain. I don’t want to get into the technical details, but the false reality forced upon a kid becomes the absolute reality she knows. The brain changes physically, as if being sculpted, that it learns to react to the real world only as if there’s a threat to one’s peace and existence—there’s no other way.
When you’re having some inexplicable emotion like anger or a sense of helplessness or sadness, you could resort to the fact that toxic shame is only at play. That you’ve only been conditioned to feel bad about yourself and everything around you.
Of course it’s not fair, but sometimes when you think about it that way, it could make you feel better and remind you that you are now a work in progress.
What are the effects of toxic shame?
In paper, toxic shame can yield a lot of negative effects. But I believe they’re only symptoms of one major underlying effect, and that is to hide—to hide the shame itself, hide the vulnerable self that has never learned how to face the real world, or hide the emotional pain one has been carrying throughout the years.
For example, toxic shame is related to mental health problems.
Let’s pick depression. Although the causes of depression may vary widely such as cognitive distortions, one’s genetic predisposition, or even unknown causes, depression could also be an effect of isolation due to hiding all the time. As social animals, our wellbeing depends on the relationships we form. We are hardwired for social interactions. Yes, even if you’re a hardcore introvert. Denying this evolutionary feature of ours is denying to be what we really are. Isolating ourselves from the outside world caveman-style is bad news for our overall health.
Let’s take bullying, too. Bullies most likely are or have been bullied themselves…and again it probably started at home. A safe household led by safe, rational, and attentive guardians would encourage autonomy and healthy boundaries. Children who grow in safe environments develop a healthy sense of learning—calm and stress-free. Try taking a closer look at the home life of a bully (don’t be a creep, though), and you’ll find out he’s living a helpless life. His natural self is suppressed through harsh, toxic, and controlling methods. Of course everything falls back into a sort of homeostasis, a balance. Armed with his learned toxic knowledge, the bully goes out looking for something that would fulfill that balance—to feel better. He needs a human outlet, a victim.
Of course bullies evoke our anger. We tell our kids to fight back if they need to. But bullies may not really be the ones to blame. They just live and do what they’ve learned. With this thought process you might ask, “Who’s to blame, then?” Their parents? But parents were also just kids who shared the same fate. Grandparents?
Well, maybe we shouldn’t be asking that question. Rather, we should be asking, “What can we do, with the wisdom we’ve learned and the people we know, to help stop our communities from blindly producing more misunderstood bullies?”
We could group many other mental issues as an effect of hiding because of toxic shame. There’s perfectionism: Trying to be always “perfect” hides the fact that we feel shame when somebody else sees we’re making a mistake, which is otherwise very normal. There’s addiction: Using drugs or doing self-defeating activities gives one “manufactured” feelings to mask the shame they can’t accept and heal otherwise. There’s anger: Anger is a form of “acting out” in that you could be angry without really knowing why. Sometimes you feel defeated and helpless that the only way to make other people aware of it is by simply lashing out.
To make things worse as if they’re not horrible already, kids who are perceived to be trouble are likely to get rejected by their peers.2 The stage in which the brain is developing and beliefs are being formed is compromised early. These kids learn that they’re left to their own devices—without much of a choice. They could look normal on the outside but in reality they’re dealing with their troubles alone and they’re clueless.
Because of that, the adult child finds it hard to form healthy relationships. It gets tricky when he can finally think and decide for himself. Toxic shame will make you think you can handle the same toxic relationships you’ve had but this time you can have a different, better outcome. Instead of heeding the red flags you’ve known all your life, you’ve developed subconscious thought patterns convincing you that things could turn out great this time—the way you’ve always wanted it to be.
Of course those relationships will again likely be trouble, especially when toxic shame makes you preoccupied with yourself in the first place. Unlike guilt, toxic shame won’t let you learn empathy. Toxic shame makes you alert about the things you could be screwing up and about projecting the image that you’re worthy to be accepted. It then makes you a people-pleaser. Toxic shame keeps you from being vulnerable when it’s one of the ways you could start building authentic relationships.
It all goes back to hiding. Toxic shame taught you to hide when ironically you need to show up to defeat it.
How to Heal from Toxic Shame
I’ll start with the cliché that you are in control of your life. Your environment, the people who used to shame you (or still do), and your circumstances sure matter, but they only matter a little. Plant an idea in your head and nurture it. You may not see results in the short-term—which arguably should be—but over time you’ll realize that if you stick to a better idea while changing your thoughts and doing the work in the process, you can get somewhere. You alone are responsible for your own life.
Here are ways to heal from toxic shame:
1. Label that thing.
Living with toxic shame means living with somebody else—your inner critic. This critic plays like a broken record in your head and usually messes with your heart, telling you how a worthless piece of crap you are. When you think or feel that way, that should be a light bulb moment for you: It’s just toxic shame. Good morning, toxic shame!
When you put a label on it, it’s like telling yourself that it’s just what it is, and more important, that it’s not your fault. Sure for two decades it’s the only way of life you’ve known, but now you know there’s another way.
Suddenly you start looking for solutions, maybe starting with something like changing your habits, instead of mooning about how the world has conspired to crush you.
Labeling toxic shame already is a mindset shift. Imagine for some reason your bodily hormones just decided to make today a bad hair day. You undergo these mood swings and start the usual downward spiral. But then you recognize it’s just toxic shame—you see it for what it is, take a step back, take a break and relax. You know it’s there, but you also know well it’s just trying to trick you.
2. Seek support.
Ain’t it funny that for the most part, toxic shame actually keeps you from seeking support? Any kind of support is welcome, whether it’s a therapist or your neighbor or a support group—as long as you trust them and can create a healthy relationship with them.
Of course you have trust issues. How can you just trust someone when the world has betrayed you? But know it’s okay. It’s normal. It’s part of the process. Just beware of people that dismiss your trust issues, though. It sure is tricky, but it will take time before you find someone reliable.
For example, not all therapists are professionally trained to handle toxic shame or trauma and even if they are, you merely won’t be able to work comfortably with any one of them. If you want to hide your therapy life in the meantime, i.e., you don’t want anybody else finding out you’re on therapy, then the harder it could even be for you to look for a qualified therapist you like.
Being able to hang out with everybody, without toxic shame, is considered a success. But for now, you must look for a support person or group of people. Hell, try online forums and be anonymous. Who knows, by the grace of this fabulous invention called the internet, you might find a real human you can make a real connection with.
There’s no better support person than the one who has had eerily similar experiences like yours and who consistently try to better themselves.
3. Let your learned toxic shame help you find your purpose.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl has said we can find meaning in suffering.3 You did not ask for that kind of shame and if only there were a time machine, you would probably use it to change the place where you are at this moment. You’ve learned it nonetheless, but it doesn’t mean all hope for the future is shattered. It may only mean that compared to “normal” people, you have a different way of seeing the world, and you should use that to contribute something to society. That’s what purpose means: doing or creating something of value and sharing it with the world.
Philosophers have been asking, “What’s the purpose of life?” and even though we can not have a definite answer, we can, however, use our time well and eliminate destructive habits that are keeping us from making progress.
4. Know your boundaries and be strict about them.
Because of toxic shame, chances are you’ve lost your sense of identity—you can’t figure out what kind of career is right for you, you don’t have hobbies, you have no idea what truly interests you. A huge reason for that is that some figure of authority in your life has violated your boundaries when you were young. (If you didn’t know, even kids need boundaries.) These boundaries help a person know and be comfortable with themselves. These boundaries facilitate the processing of emotions when something unexpected upsets them and they need to understand the hard lesson behind it. Even in an emotionally-charged event, boundaries encourage rational thinking so that things can be seen in an objective manner and solutions figured out, if any.
You didn’t learn how to impose boundaries. But now that you’re a grownup, you know they exist, and not honoring them (even by you) means serious consequences. It’s time for you to discover your personal boundaries. It’s never too late to know yourself even if you feel you’ve become a stranger. Imagine you’ve lost your best friend for a long time and you just found her. You want to make up for that lost time, start making new memories, and start living again. The same can be said for losing your sense of self to toxic shame. To be able to heal, undo the damages it has done, and rediscover yourself, you have to strictly enforce personal boundaries.
5. Be awkward, be yourself.
You’ve had those “awkward moments” living under the spell of toxic shame. They unfolded because of a counterintuitive belief. Let me explain.
So at some point you turned into a people-pleaser. You wanted everybody to like you. Because of that, you wore different masks depending on the people close by. And then you tried being “cool,” not “awkward.” But trying to be “cool” usually backfired because people would sense you were only trying to get them to like you, making you awkward instead, for-real and catastrophically awkward this time.
When you’re healing from toxic shame, you want to restore the real you, or in some cases, create the real you, from scratch, with the right people. Defeating toxic shame means emerging from the darkness of your past and curiously probing your new-found self. In the end, those “cool” personas you were trying to project didn’t mean anything. Being yourself around anyone is the best way to live, even when it gets awkward at times. Forming authentic relationships is an investment anyway; you’re better off not fooling yourself right from the start.
6. Focus on your skills.
You might be thinking this has nothing to do with healing from toxic shame and you would be wrong.
Living with toxic shame has taught you to be pathologically and overly conscious of yourself. It’s like there’s a fog constantly covering you, distorting your vision. Instead of seeing clearly what you want and what you would like to become, the fog of your past keeps you where you are, without progress. As you already know, toxic shame once again becomes the downward spiral you don’t want to get mired in.
I know it mind sound difficult, but focusing on developing skills—even rare skills—makes you feel better about yourself. It will take time and it will be hard, not gonna lie, especially if you’re used to being shamed for things you liked doing, but as I said, if you recognize and label toxic shame for what it is, it makes things easier.
In some ways honing skills is like mindfulness meditation.
For an experiment try this: On a shitty day, when you’re not feeling good (e.g., you’re angry, feeling down or hopeless), stop for a moment, take deep breaths, relax, and try doing some craft you like, and do it consistently from now on, whether it’s a shitty day or not. If you’re like me, you’ll find that focusing on the work and doing a good job just for the sake of it somehow makes bad days better. And I don’t mean suppressing all your unpleasant feelings and temporarily keeping them at bay.
Remember that you want to heal from toxic shame, or at least live with it in much more productive ways. At some point you’ll be able to accept that toxic shame is not your fault, but despite living with it, you’ll still manage to live a life that contributes to society at large—by honing your skills.
In mindfulness meditation you choose an anchor on which you focus, usually your breath. While meditating, a slew of different thoughts tease your focus, but it’s never your aim to stop those thoughts from showing up. You rather aim to not lose your focus on your breath. When you make meditation a habit, you reap all the great rewards from simply planting your butt and keeping focus.
Being good at a craft is just like that but now you’re doing or creating something of value. You might feel you’re cursed with toxic shame, but you overcome it. Your focus is now diverted to something meaningful. You’ve suffered but that suffering has led you to this point in which you can do and be something.
One thing I’ve noticed is that for some reason I tend to be masochistic, subconsciously of course. Bad habits indeed die hard. When you’re living in toxic shame, everything looks hopeless that you might think that if you were to suffer again (or maybe even die), there wouldn’t be much of a difference.
Now, imagine a two-year-old kid you love. It must be a two-year-old. It could be your own kid, nephew, or your closest friend’s kid. Imagine every ugly thing you’ve gone through is about to happen to that kid and by the time he’s your age, he’ll be suffering from the toxic shame you are, maybe even worse and for longer.
What would you do this time?
Self-compassion is treating right that two-year-old in you. In the treatment of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), you would imagine your current, grown-up self taking care of your “kid self” a.k.a. your “Inner Child.” What would you tell your Inner Child amid distress? How would you comfort her?
It’s easy to think you should be stronger now that you’re an adult. Or you should be wiser. But the reality is that you’ve been robbed of the opportunity to mature. You have to grieve for what’s been lost. Reality might hurt, but it’s by embracing reality that you truly start to heal.
If you’re feeling tired, take a rest. You don’t have to prove to anybody something anyway. If your job is stressing the hell out of you, look for another one. If you spot a toxic person discreetly trying to manipulate you, cut ties. Tell your inner critic to shut up. And just go to bed. Being highly critical of yourself has been a learned skill—definitely destructive, but you can unlearn it.
Self-compassion might look rude on the outside, but that “rudeness” would be good for everybody, especially yourself. The world becomes a much better place if everybody just worked on themselves first rather than on other people.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Post a comment below.
- “Good” Children – at What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame. The Natural Child Project.
- What’s wrong with classroom behavior charts: Why shaming backfires. Parenting Science.
- Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.