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What Is Toxic Shame?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021

Toxic shame is a feeling that you’re worthless. It happens when other people treat you poorly and you turn that treatment into a belief about yourself. You’re most vulnerable to this type of poor treatment during childhood or as a teen. When you feel toxic shame, you see yourself as useless or, at best, not as good as others. 

What’s the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

These two emotions are often confused with one another. You feel guilt when you know that you did something wrong. It can be a helpful emotion when maintaining relationships. Guilt can keep you on track when you’ve drifted from your moral standards.

But you feel shame when you believe you’re not enough, usually because parents or peers keep telling you so. Your confidence suffers from this deep-seated emotion that affects the way you see yourself. 

Guilt tells you, “That thing you did was wrong.” Shame tells you, “Because you did that thing, you’re a bad person.”

How Does Shame Become Toxic?

You probably have felt and will continue to feel shame at various times in your life. Shame can last a few hours or even a few days.

Toxic shame, though, comes from constantly being told you’re not enough. It results in negative self-talk that stays with you.

Toxic shame can start in the way you were given feedback for certain incidents as a child, usually by a parent. For example, if you wet the bed, your parent might have reacted in one of two ways:‌

  • They reassured you that it was all right and cleaned up without making a fuss.
  • They lashed out at you and said things like, “Why do you always do this? What’s wrong with you?"

The second reaction would probably have led you to believe that there was something wrong with you. Your feeling of shame can turn into toxic shame when the second scene keeps repeating. Other repeated phrases that can cause toxic shame, depending on the incident, are:

  • “Why are you doing it like that? You’re wrong.”
  • “What were you thinking?”
  • “You’ll never be as good as them.”

If you’re told these things often enough, you might start to tell yourself, for example, “I’m not worthy of love.” And holding onto feelings of unworthiness can be very damaging to your mental and physical health.

The Dangers of Toxic Shame

Shame is behind these two common symptoms:

  • Withdrawal. You might want to curl up in a ball and disappear when you feel shame. Shame makes us feel like we’re not good enough, and all we want to do is hide away.
  • Anger. Because you feel emotional pain, you become angry to try to aim your pain away from yourself.

Toxic shame has also been linked to substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. 

These unhealthy coping mechanisms can serve as an escape from your emotional pain or inability to face yourself. ‌

You may also become a perfectionist or have unrealistic expectations in your attempt to avoid being shamed again.

How to Recover From Toxic Shame

It’s possible to overcome toxic shame and change the way you think. Self-compassion is key to the process. You also need self-awareness, mindfulness, and patience. Try these tips to overcome toxic shame.

Face the root of your shame. It’s important to understand and examine your feelings. Find the cause of your shame in order to move forward.

Become aware of how you talk to yourself. Try to observe your own thoughts but not react to them.

Have compassion for yourself. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. Even if it seems like your mistakes were huge, accept that you’re only human. Learn from the past, but don’t get stuck in it.

Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness and meditation can work wonders as you learn to observe your thoughts. Feeling shame forces you to react, so it can be very powerful to just notice your thoughts and question them.

Recognize when you’re feeling shame. Mindfulness can help alert you to when you’re feeling shame. If you are, mention it to a friend or partner. Shame thrives in dark places, so shine a light on it and watch its power fade away.

‌Seek support. A support network can give you an outlet to talk things out when necessary and boost your sense of belonging.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Behavioral Scientist: “Recent Advances in the Empirical Study of Shame and Guilt.”

CeDAR: “Toxic Shame and the Loss of ‘Self.’”

Europe’s Journal of Psychology: “Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt.”

‌THE FAMILY INSTITUTE: “YOU CAN FREE YOURSELF FROM TOXIC SHAME.”

‌gateway foundation: “SHAME AND ADDICTION.”

‌Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri: “Overcoming the Paralysis of Toxic Shame.”

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