What Is “Toxic Shame”?

What Is "Toxic Shame"?

Toxic shame is an enveloping feeling of worthlessness that results from internalizing the way other people treat you. It’s different from regular shame. Rather than being situational and based on regretting specific actions or behaviors, it’s pervasive and all-encompassing. It often develops during your formative years, when you’re most vulnerable to criticism and other negative signaling from the adults in your life.

Toxic shame can lead to a host of self-sabotaging behaviors, from perfectionism on one end of the spectrum to depression, anxiety and addiction on the other. Read on to learn about the origins of toxic shame, how it can impact your life and, most importantly, how to break free from its grip.

Understanding Toxic Shame: Its Definition and Impact on Mental Health

Toxic shame can have a devastating impact on your life. But what is toxic shame, exactly? It’s an all-encompassing feeling of worthlessness and self-loathing that differs from ordinary shame, which is a natural emotional response when you do something wrong. Events that may cause or contribute to toxic shame include abuse, neglect and bullying, particularly during childhood and adolescence. It can also be perpetuated by societal norms and expectations that create shame around certain behaviors or identities.

Toxic shame can impact mental health because it reshapes the way you think about yourself. It can cause you to hold yourself up to impossible standards of perfection. It can also cause you to avoid situations that may trigger shame, leading to isolation and loneliness. It can be pervasive, or it can be intermittent, often triggered by certain events or even thoughts.

Healing from shame involves recognizing and challenging negative self-talk and rebuilding your sense of self-worth. Therapy can play a key role, as can building a strong and supportive social network.

The Origins of Toxic Shame and How It Manifests in Our Lives

Toxic shame typically develops or at least begins to take shape in childhood or adolescence at the latest. This is the period when we’re developing our sense of self, and as such, we’re especially susceptible to messaging from people we look up to — typically parents, teachers and other adults we believe have wisdom and life experience.

When the messaging we receive from influential adults is mostly negative or critical, it can lead to a negative sense of self that manifests as toxic shame. Often, adults with toxic shame have a history of clear-cut abuse or neglect, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, it results not from explicit abuse but from pressure to live your life a certain way or be someone who doesn’t comport with your authentic self.

It can also stem from other traumatic experiences, such as bullying. People with toxic shame internalize the critical messages they receive at a vulnerable time of life, causing them to have low self-worth or believe they’re inadequate or defective.

Toxic shame can manifest physically and psychologically. Its constant presence may trigger the body to secrete stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can cause symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches and muscle tension.

Psychologically, toxic shame can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. It can also lead to maladaptive coping behaviors, such as substance abuse, eating disorders and self-harm.

Breaking Free From the Grip of Toxic Shame: Coping Strategies and Healing Pathways

Toxic shame can rob you of the ability to enjoy life and be the best version of yourself. Fortunately, there are coping strategies and healing pathways that can help you break free from the grip of toxic shame.

  • Recognize and acknowledge your toxic shame: The first step in overcoming toxic shame is to recognize and acknowledge its existence and the impact it has on your life.
  • Challenge negative beliefs: You can start to overcome your negative beliefs about yourself by questioning their validity — ask yourself where these beliefs come from and why you feel that way — and replacing them with positive thoughts.
  • Seek support: Build a solid support network of friends, family members and possibly therapists. They can provide a nonjudgmental space for you to explore and heal from your toxic shame.
  • Practice self-care: Engage in activities and hobbies that bring you joy. Avoid situations that trigger or heighten your shame.
  • Recognize your shame triggers and challenge them: Identify situations, people or environments that trigger feelings of shame and work on challenging them. Develop strategies to cope with these triggers and remind yourself of your worth and value.

Breaking free from toxic shame is a journey that takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and understand that breaking its grip might sometimes involve two steps forward and one step back. Celebrate small victories along the way, and don’t beat yourself up over stumbles or setbacks. With the right coping strategies and healing pathways, you can overcome toxic shame and restore your self-worth.

The Role of Therapy in Addressing and Healing Toxic Shame

If you’re experiencing toxic shame, therapy can help you break its grip by getting to the root of your shame and the ways it’s impacted your mental health. Popular therapy methods to address toxic shame include cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy and psychodynamic therapy.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy involves recognizing negative patterns of thought and behavior and consciously replacing them with healthier ones. It can help you identify your toxic shame and squelch it before it impacts your mental health. A review of 269 meta-analyses showed CBT to be highly effective at treating a number of conditions associated with anxiety and depression.
  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PE): This involves exposing you for incrementally longer periods of time to the triggers that bring on your toxic shame. The idea is to build resiliency and teach you to avoid responding to these events and thoughts with feelings of shame and worthlessness.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: This therapy method helps you reduce or eliminate toxic shame by identifying and addressing its root causes.

Empowering Yourself to Overcome Toxic Shame and Cultivate Self-Compassion

There are various signs of shame in a man: negative self-talk, self-neglect and constant self-deprecating humor, to name a few. If you or someone you love is exhibiting these behaviors, know that you can overcome toxic shame and cultivate self-compassion.

That said, it isn’t always easy to do it on your own, especially if you lack a network of supportive people around you. That’s where Restore Mental Health comes in. Our staff has decades of combined experience treating a variety of mental health conditions and helping patients find their best selves. Call us today for a consultation with one of our compassionate professionals.