What is Toxic Shame?

shame-manWhen shame becomes toxic, it can ruin our lives. Everyone experiences shame at one time another. It’s an emotion with physical symptoms like any other that comes and goes, but when it’s severe, it can be extremely painful. Strong feelings of shame stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction. We feel exposed and want to hide or react with rage, while feeling profoundly alienated from others and good parts of ourselves. We may not be able to think or talk clearly and be consumed with self-loathing, which is made worse because we’re unable to be rid of ourselves. We all have our own specific triggers or tender points that produce feelings of shame. The intensity of our experience varies, too, depending upon our prior life experiences, cultural beliefs, personality, and the activating event.

Characteristics of Toxic Shame

Unlike ordinary shame, “internalized shame” hangs around and alters our self-image. It’s shame that has become “toxic,” a term first coined by Sylvan Tomkins in the early 60s in his scholarly examination of human affect. For some people, toxic shame can consume their personality, while for others, it lies beneath their conscious awareness, but can easily be triggered. Toxic shame differs from ordinary shame, which passes in a day or a few hours, in the following respects:

      1. It can hide in our unconscious, so that we’re unaware that we have shame.
      2. When we experience shame, it lasts much longer.
      3. The feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity.
      4. An external event isn’t required to trigger it. Our own thoughts can bring on feelings of shame.
      5. It leads to shame spirals that cause depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair.
      6. It causes chronic “shame anxiety” – the fear of experiencing shame.
      7. It’s accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs originating in childhood and is associated with a negative “shame story” about ourselves.
      8. We needn’t recall the original source of the immediate shame, which usually originated in childhood or a prior trauma.
             9. It creates deep feelings of inadequacy.

Shame-Based Beliefs

The fundamental belief underlying shame is that “I’m unlovable – that I’m not worthy of connection.” Usually, internalized shame manifests as one of the following  beliefs or a variation thereof:

      • I’m stupid
      • I’m unattractive (especially to a romantic partner)
      • I’m a failure
      • I’m a bad person
      • I’m a fraud or phony
      • I’m selfish
      • I’m not enough (this belief can be applied to numerous areas)
      • I hate myself
      • I don’t matter
      • I’m defective, inadequate
      • I shouldn’t have been born
             • I’m unlovable

The Cause of Toxic Shame

In most cases, shame becomes internalized or toxic from chronic or intense experiences of shame in childhood. Parents can unintentionally transfer their shame to their children through verbal messages or nonverbal behavior. For an example, a child might feel unloved in reaction to a parent’s depression, absence, indifference, or irritability or feel inadequate due to a parent’s competitiveness or over-correcting behavior. Children need to feel uniquely loved by both parents. When that connection is breached, such as when a child is scolded harshly, children feel alone and ashamed, unless the parent-child bond of love is soon repaired. However, even if shame has been internalized, it can be surmounted by later positive experiences.

If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success.

We can heal from toxic shame and build our self-esteem. To learn more about how to and the 8 steps to heal, read Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. You can watch my Youtube on toxic shame.
©Darlene Lancer 2015

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12 thoughts on “What is Toxic Shame?

  1. I found your articles and can really relate to them. However, you seem to emphasize the role of parents in the origination of shame. My earliest shame experiences were from verbal teasing by older brothers making me feel ugly or undesirable. Even though they would say they were kidding, it still stuck. Growing up in a small town and not being one of the cool kids in my small school, I often befriended the new kid who just moved there, only to get close and then watch them move away. And as a teenager, a “friend” of mine often found pleasure in embarrassing me in front of boys. You should mention the impact of siblings and friends more.

  2. I just love Juli’s message! (Post in reply to Simon’s ) so compassionate and encouraging! Thank you! ( I hope Simon got to read it and help him with healing.
    Thank you Darlene Lancer for such a humanitarian labor, awesome job! God bless you and everyone who is touched by your blog!

  3. I found your research and conclusions very interesting and informative. I am a codependent adult child that suffered severe abuse from my mother and from an alcoholic father. I thank you for giving me an answer to a question that never in the past got an answer.

  4. I think I’d almost rather be misdiagnosed manic-depressive again (when do I get the manic phase?) and uselessly drugged to the gills for that than face the fact that this fits awfully well. I always thought shame was useful as a tool to tell us when we’re doing something “bad.” I always tried to steer by that star. Of course it just makes me frantic all the time. This makes too much sense. I don’t know if I can take it.

  5. I just turned 37 years old I have two beautiful children and I’ve been in an on and off relationship for the last 15 years… this time realizing my part of the separation I really started trying to figure out why I was so disconnected, although I still haven’t figured all that out I have discovered that I’m not alone and there is hope to have a “normal” life… is there any free therapy available?

    • You may want to contact a local clinic, but no therapy is completely free to my knowledge, other than 12-Step programs, which I highly recommend. People say that doing the exercises in my books and ebooks have been life-changing for them. So there is always self-help.

  6. Simon,

    You shouldn’t try to deal with your issues in isolation. You’re punishing yourself and you don’t need to further hurt the child hurting inside you. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment, baby Jesus, how he was so innocent and grew up to receive and bear so much pain and there was no one to take his place. We are all still little children in our hearts. Wrap your arms around yourself and tell the little boy how sorry you are that you couldn’t protect him then, but you’re going to do everything in your power now to help him enjoy life, and live! Kick despair in the ass, Simon!


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