Toxic shame is a deep emotion that causes an intense feeling of inadequacy.
Someone suffering from toxic shame will have such low self-esteem that it will negatively impact on every area of their life. That includes their relationships and professional life.
It is essentially where someone carries shame that doesn’t belong to them. Usually, it has been passed to them by parents or a caregiver – normally as that person attempts to transfer their own shame through what they say and do.
For many people, toxic shame overwhelms their personality. With others, it is always there at their core waiting to be triggered – as it can be very easily.
Toxic shame frequently happens from growing up in a house full of conflict. This is always accompanied by huge amounts of criticism.
That means familiar phrases to people carrying toxic shame are such as: “Look what you made me do”; “It’s always your fault”; or “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be like this.”
It is an adult blaming others, usually their children, for their own shame, faults and failures.
As well as a parent, it could come from someone else significant in a child’s life. This could be such as a teacher or sports coach.
The person on the receiving end will constantly feel flawed as a human being. They will think that there has to be something wrong with them.
It comes from abuse in all its forms of emotional, physical and sexual. It creates a primal fear of being “cast out” from a group such as a family or even society itself.
The basic belief with anyone suffering from toxic shame is: “I’m unlovable. I’m unworthy of any connection with other people.” They blame themselves for this.
It leaves people feeling alone. This often leads to isolation.
Someone such as a partner or a boss can also cause toxic shame to someone when they have reached adulthood. Or this can happen for instance following military action or as with a drunk-driver who causes a crash that disables someone.
Toxic shame seems to invade every cell of a person suffering from it.
World-renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said:
“Shame is the swampland of the soul.”
What are the signs of toxic shame?
- Hopelessness and despair.
- When someone has any shame it lasts much longer and is of greater intensity.
- Nothing actually needs to happen to bring it on as the feelings of shame are ingrained.
- It can be accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs that started in childhood.
- Constant striving for overachievement.
- Eating disorders.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some therapists say this is a way of trying to clean someone’s sense of feeling “dirty” if for instance they have been sexually abused.
- Intense feelings of inadequacy.
- Shame-based negative beliefs such as frequently thinking: “I’m a loser; I don’t matter; I should never have been born; I’m unlovable; I’m stupid; I’m ugly; I never do anything good enough.”
- Feelings of insecurity.
- Being argumentative and/or overbearing.
- Anger and rage. This distracts from the feelings of shame but often arises seemingly uncontrollably when the natural need for love and connection are blocked out by the barrier put up by the person affected by toxic shame.
- Lack of trust.
- Feeling alone.
- Physical symptoms such as high blood pressure or obesity can arise connected with these mental and emotional issues.
“Toxic shame” was a phrase originally coined by psychologist Silvan Tomkins in the early 1960s.
It was a perfect choice of words as “toxic” means “very harmful in an insidious way” deriving from Latin toxicum meaning “poison”.
But it was counsellor, speaker and author John Bradshaw who really brought it into public awareness in his 1988 self-help classic Healing The Shame That Binds You.
Bradshaw wrote how toxic shame is behind many problems including compulsion, co-dependency, addiction, perfectionism and the constant drive to overachieve that leads to burnout.
He described how there was such an emotion as “healthy shame” that keeps us grounded. It reminds us that we will make mistakes and that we sometimes need help.
So it can be positive in moving us toward healthy thinking and behaviour. But toxic shame does not perform that role.
Then Bradshaw made a clear distinction between guilt and shame: “Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.”
Because of this flawed perception it often blocks off someone with toxic shame from accepting love or kindness.
That’s not only from other people but also from themselves.
Professor and author of Daring Greatly Brené Brown also speaks about this when she says:
“Shame is not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour.”
Brown spent several years studying shame and described it as the “gremlin who says: ‘You’re not good enough… I know those things that happened to you growing up, I know that you don’t think you’re pretty, smart, talented or powerful enough…’
“Shame drives two big tapes – ‘never good enough’. And if you can talk it out of that one – ‘who do you think you are?'”
How do you overcome toxic shame?
Letting go of toxic shame requires a great deal of work. It’s been discovered that talking with a therapist is vital for most people.
It involves such as becoming aware of thinking and taking steps to avoid what might trigger negative thoughts. Also, a therapist can help someone learn how to replace these with positive self-compassionate thoughts.
Under professional guidance, some people suffering from toxic shame have found it useful to talk to themselves as children as the adult they are now. They can offer the love that was perhaps missing and say such as: “You didn’t deserve what happened to you.”
To deal with toxic shame people often have to learn to love themselves for the first time. They can do this by such as focussing on their good points and qualities they have.
We have considerable experience in helping people with toxic shame issues.
Contact us today to see how we can help you or someone you care about to move forwards to a fulfilling and happy life.