Toxic shame: what it is, what causes it and how it affects us

We have all experienced the feeling of shame at some point; it is one of the emotions, along with pride and guilt, called self-awareness. Shame is accompanied by the manifestation of a whole series of symptoms, both physical and mental. And like the rest of the emotions, it has its specific function: to alert us that we have done wrong and allow us, ultimately, to correct ourselves. It cannot be called negative or positive.

There are different specific situations that trigger shame reactions in most of us, although this also depends on our upbringing, culture and ultimately our past experiences. This modulates the intensity of the emotion, that is, no two people experience the same degree of shame in the same situation. However, when we talk about toxic shame, we are not talking about excessive shame, but rather constant shame.

“Normal shame”, like any other emotion: it comes and goes. But in some people it settles permanently and can become extremely painful, even disabling. In this article Let’s see what toxic shame is all abouthow to differentiate it from guilt, its main causes and how to overcome it.

    What is toxic shame?

    Shame usually arises when we look at ourselves with a critical eye and rate ourselves harshly. We often do this for things or situations over which we ultimately have little or no control, such as what others think of us.

    The term “toxic shame” was first coined by psychologist Silvan Tomkins in the 1960s. This differs from normal shame by its omnipresence: it settles in our minds and is part of our identity.

    A person with toxic shame experiences chronic feelings of low self-esteem, poor self-image, and self-loathing. All of these thoughts are derived from the unfounded belief that they are inferior to others or that they should be ashamed of not being enough. In other words, we could say that toxic shame is internalized negative shame that is part of us, that is, it has become part of our personality.

      What is the difference between shame and guilt?

      Guilt is often confused with shame. And while they may seem related, they are completely different emotions. Guilt is described as the unpleasant feeling of sadness for something you have done, i.e. it is born out of a sanction from you or someone else. Shame has nothing to do with what we do, but with us is the unpleasant feeling of sadness because of the way we are as people. And, ultimately, people who suffer from toxic shame constantly feel uncomfortable. Toxic shame is a pervasive feeling.

      However, there is a paradox: we feel guilty for being ashamed. And it’s easier to admit the former (that we feel guilty or hurt) than to admit we’re ashamed, which is why people are ashamed of being ashamed. As we see, feelings of shame are paradoxical and reoccur.


        Toxic shame usually begins and is reinforced by early childhood experiences. As we grow, we are able to understand how our actions affect others, which it depends on many extrinsic factors, e.g. cultural beliefs. There are several countries like China and India where burping is well regarded, moreover, it is a gesture of courtesy and means that we are satisfied with the food. From these observations, we begin to understand and differentiate the behaviors we may exhibit and classify them as acceptable or unacceptable.

        At this moment, our close environment and our parents play a fundamental role. At best, reminding ourselves that we are not born knowing what we can do and teaching us other types of behavior, or at least not punishing ourselves for an unplanned mistake. However, in some cases, this does not happen and we receive messages, apart from useless, quite harmful messages, when we make a mistake or worse, when we express an idea with which we do not agree.

        Showing disapproval or disappointment, instead of guiding other behaviors, can very negatively affect the development of children’s self-esteem. But, if in addition, these emotions are not focused on the actions of the child, but on aspects that have to do with him, they can lead to the appearance of a whole series of negative feelings, such as vulnerability, the inadequacy, even the puede hacer. , ultimately, that these children feel unworthy of receiving love or positive attention.

        Also after emotionally distant parenting or in cases where there has been abuse or neglect development of self-esteem issues, self-mockery, and toxic shame are common. Parents who fail to attend to or ignore needs, whether physical or emotional, pass on to their children the idea that they are unlovable and flawed.

        Although, as we have seen, toxic shame develops during childhood and adolescence, it can also occur in adulthood. It happens when mistakes from the past settle in our heads, even long after they happened. In this case, not facing them or burying them deep in the subconscious can cause this type of toxic feeling to develop.

          The Effects of Toxic Shame

          Constantly hearing negative comments about a lack of intelligence or one’s own personality will likely lead the person to believe they are true and internalize them. Although this is a completely natural response, that does not mean that it is always very harmful. In the case of adults, carrying the shame of bad decisions for long periods of time it can make a person feel useless.

          A person with toxic shame feels deeply unworthy, humiliated, and flawed as a person. He may also believe that he is missing something vital and he feels haunted by an omnipresent emptiness and absence. This feeling affects their whole being and makes them very unhappy. Also, ultimately, toxic shame can become part of the identity, damaging the person’s self-perception and affecting their self-esteem. This is especially true for children who are just beginning to form a self-image.

          The toxic shame and other negative feelings that come with it have a whole host of consequences. These can dramatically shape who we are (it’s more than an emotion that shows us our limits). Feeling toxic shame is like believing that we no longer deserve to be seen as human beings by others, because it involves a deep sense of failure. Therefore, it can cause the person to hide all aspects of who they are inside and their true personality. In severe cases, the person loses confidence in themselves and in what can be trusted. The deep toxic sense of shame makes the person feel completely alone and isolated from the world.

            How do you overcome toxic shame?

            Toxic shame is difficult to deal with because it can go unnoticed and, moreover, it is difficult to admit. However, there are a series of strategies that we will explain below that can help us begin to recover, in the case of facing this feeling, such as changing the messages we send to ourselves, meditating, opening up to others and sharing the feelings of shame that torments us, seek fulfilling relationships that bring us compassion, and if we deem it necessary, we can also undergo therapy. A professional can help us take the first steps to deal with the problem.

            Toxic shame usually has a deep origin and is rooted in us, but compassion and self-love can be useful tools to soften it and its more negative consequences. The approaches psychodynamics can help us unravel and heal anxiety at its source.

            Working with the issues of our inner child can help us address the shame derived from childhood and adolescence. This therapeutic awareness and practice helps to replace shame and early disgust with healing love and kindness. In addition to allowing us understand that our values ​​may be different from those we have been taught and separating our identity from the feeling of shame. It also allows us to realize how toxic shame affects our present.

            Overcoming this emotion allows us to develop skills as important as assertiveness and self-expression. Therefore, we are also able to connect with ourselves and others authentically. Also, by not being in our head or evaluating what we did wrong, we can enjoy the present moment.

            Bibliographic references

            • Beana, AL (2015). The anti-harassment method. Protect the children and help them defend themselves. Trent: Erickson.
            • H. Lewis, (1971) Shame and guilt in neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.

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