Toxic Shame: The Insidious Force that Can Rot Your Mental Health

Shame, when toxic, is a paralyzing global assessment of oneself as a person. When severe, it can form the lens through which all self-evaluation is viewed… Everyone experiences shame at some time, but not everyone is ruled by toxic or overwhelming shame. Some researchers suggest that shame comes about from repeatedly being told, not that we did something bad, but that we are something bad. Consequently, it can close us off from accepting any form of positive regard from others or ourselves.

Paralyzing shame can lead us to feel undeserving of such regard. It can undermine being fully present with others and with ourselves. This makes perfect sense: It takes a lot of energy to protect us against our vulnerability to feel shame. Most important, difficulty with shame leaves us prone to anger that results when natural desires for love, connection, and validation are inhibited by the impenetrable barrier of shame.” Bernard Golden, Ph.D

Toxic shame.

It’s that hot prickly feeling on the back of your neck when you walk into a crowded room, and everybody turns to look at you.

It’s the way your eyes instinctively dart to the angriest-looking face in the room. And the way you immediately shift your gaze to the floor in response.

It’s the way you have to force yourself not to turn and run back out the door.

(Or maybe you do turn and run away in a panic.)

It’s the feeling that, no matter who you are or what you do, you are somehow fundamentally “worse than” almost everybody else.

It’s the intense internal rage, directed at only yourself, anytime you make a mistake or feel an emotion. 

It’s the feeling that you are doing something wrong, all the time. No matter where you are. No matter what you’re doing. 

Toxic shame kept me increasingly isolated back in high school. 

Toxic shame had me teetering on the edge of alcoholism between the ages of 18 and 21.

Toxic shame had me emotionally paralyzed when I graduated college and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.

I felt so inferior– everyone else was better than me, and no matter what I told myself, no matter what anyone else told me, I couldn’t convince myself that I was worthwhile. This force of toxic shame had peers in high school literally asking me, “are you anti-social?”, which of course, only kicked up more shame. (I forgive them.) 

And when I got to college, I wanted so badly to be included. I wanted to go to parties and to drink at bars (even though I didn’t really enjoy them, I just enjoyed being drunk and feeling included). My friends were so kind; it was never their fault. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t “just get over” the thoughts of:

I’m scum compared to these people. (For no good reason, really.) They’re all looking at me. They’re  laughing at me. I’m so awkward. I’m so ugly. Why am I even here? 

Toxic shame is the racing heart and spiraling thoughts anytime another person even seems angry.

Because your brain will automatically say, every single time, that their anger is your fault. You did something wrong. 

Toxic shame is the intense discomfort when existing around any kind of anger. It’ll have you trying to please even the mildly annoyed person, to make it better, to “make sure they’re not mad” at you. Even if they tell you it has nothing to do with you. 

It is the inability to distinguish constructive criticism from manipulation; manipulation feels justified. Someone could outright abuse you, and you’d find a way to blame it on yourself. It’s almost impossible to tell, without outside help, when you might have done something wrong, as opposed to when the other person is simply being an asshole. Toxic shame is: it’s always my fault. 

When you carry toxic shame, you see shame everywhere.

Without trying. Often, you have no idea how wrong your self-perception actually is.

With toxic shame, you hear, again and again– often from therapists themselves– that you need to just “change your thoughts”. 

And so, of course, you try! You try to change those thoughts and do all the self-love practices. You want to believe that that therapist is right, and that your thoughts are the only problem here, and that they’re so easy to just change, and so you try and try. But too often, trying to push the shame thoughts away makes them bounce back stronger, like a springboard. 

Then, when you describe to ordinary people what you’re feeling inside, they tell you the same thing. “Nobody’s thinking about you. It’s all in your head.” 

Of course it is, you agree. 

But not even a day later, you’re back to believing that they all despise me. Why wouldn’t they? I’m ME. 

So, you feel even more ashamed. You believe that if you had stronger willpower, or if you were smarter, or if you were more spiritual, you’d be able to “change those thoughts”. But you simply can’t do it, no matter how hard you try. You may even think: well, if these thoughts won’t go away, maybe I simply AM no good. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I can’t change my thoughts because they ARE true.

But they’re not true. And toxic shame is not a hopeless case.

Please know, at this point, that I’m not in any way anti-therapy. I’ve had experiences with therapy which have made my toxic shame worse, and I know I’m not alone in that. I know I’m not alone in thinking that cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t often help in these cases. However: trauma-informed care is a game changer. And that leads me into my next point. 

What I wish I’d learned when I was still seventeen (though it likely wouldn’t have even sunk in at that point), is that toxic shame is a trauma response. 

And when our brains are wired by trauma– which could come from your childhood, but also from an abusive relationship or traumatic experience in adulthood (losing your home, being assaulted, etc.)– we become perpetually stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response. We cannot simply “think” our way out of it, until we begin to heal from the trauma. Our brains and bodies believe that we’re still in danger. 

“The freeze of shame, like the freeze of trauma, has survival value in allowing a person to get through an intolerable situation.” –Bret Lyon, Ph.D

Toxic shame is an emotional burning at the stake, day in, and day out. Even in the most ordinary of moments. Toxic shame may look, to anyone else, that we’re just being way too damn dramatic. Or even that we’re “self-absorbed”. Some may even call us narcissistic. It makes my skin crawl– because calling ourselves “narcissistic” when we’re stuck in the quicksand of toxic shame is like pouring gasoline on a fire. 

If this is you– if you relate to most of what I’ve said here– please know that your shame is not the truth about who you are. Someone– either a true narcissist, or someone who carries an unhealthy amount of shame themselves– handed this shame to you. Somewhere in your past, someone repeatedly made you feel less than lovable, maybe even less than human. This is where toxic shame comes from.

What hurts is that we can carry it around for our entire lives, completely believing the lie that we are just “no good”. 

Yet, as I have come to realize, there is hope. I promise you!

I promise that you don’t have to spend your days eternally feeling like shit on a shoe. (Or as I so eloquently put it in one of my journals back in 2015, feeling like a used condom.) 

I promise that you don’t have to isolate yourself from everybody forever, for fear of someone “finding out” that you’re “awful”.

I promise that you don’t have to shame yourself for isolating yourself anymore. (Seriously, if you resonate with this, at least cut yourself some slack. This shit IS extremely isolating, but you will heal.)

Most importantly:

I promise that this is not the truth of who you are. 

No matter what your brain tells you. If you carry toxic shame, then your shame is not the truth of who you are. End of story. 

“But what if I’ve done bad things?!?!?!” your brain screams. I know– mine does too.

First of all: you’ve likely done a lot of things that you only perceive as bad. Your toxic shame will blow everything out of proportion. Most likely, these things weren’t even “bad” to begin with. Example: boundary setting. I’ve set boundaries before, and soon after, dissolved into a shame response, believing that I was “so mean”. That simply wasn’t true.

But second of all: you probably have done some “bad” things. All humans do bad things. That is where guilt comes in. Guilt, remorse, or “healthy shame” as some like to call it, is this: I did something bad. I can make amends. Next time, I can try to do better. 

Toxic shame, however, is grounded in trauma, not in reality. Toxic shame is: I’m a terrible, unlovable, irredeemable person. Nothing I do can change this. As such, toxic shame will never fix anything that you have actually done. In fact, toxic shame is so fucking painful and disorienting, that it’s actually more likely to cause you to act out of your pain, and to do more harmful things in the future. 

Whatever you’ve done, whether it was small or massive, you deserve to make peace with the past. You deserve a more healthy self-relationship. Toxic shame will not get you there, but healing your trauma can. 

The only bad news is that it takes work. (That isn’t really such a bad thing.)

It takes time. It takes discomfort. It takes, most often, trauma-informed therapy. (We can’t heal in a vacuum.) 

But please know, that if this is you, you’re NOT alone. 

I’ve been there. I am there. For years, stuck in CBT which only focused on “changing thoughts” and never validated all the shame-inducing experiences I’ve been through, I believed that I could not change. I believed that I was fundamentally defective. This is simply not the case for me, and it’s not the case for you either. 

If you’ve been to therapy before, and got absolutely nothing out of it… I see you. Non-trauma-informed therapy usually just does not work for this sort of thing. 

For you, trauma-informed care will be huge. I’m talking about trauma-focused therapy, IFS therapy, or trauma recovery coaching. In addition, I’ve found that simply getting educated on trauma, shame, and attachment theory is massively helpful. Read books about trauma, listen to podcasts about trauma, etc.

Finally: please know that, if anything, at least one person in the world sees you. 

I see you. 

This is a horribly isolating experience.

You are not “just being negative”. 

You don’t need to toughen up.

You don’t need to be more spiritual.

You aren’t “anti-social”.

You aren’t different, bad, broken, or wrong.

I am still struggling through it with you. There is hope. Don’t give up. 

Know someone who might struggle with chronically low self-image, fear of relationships, self-blame, people pleasing, or self-sabotage? Share this post with them! ❤

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