What is Toxic Shame (5 Signs & Tips to Overcome It)?

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Toxic shame can make it challenging to be your authentic self, enjoy life, and have good mental health. That’s why it is so important to identify and deal with this unhelpful feeling.

What is the Difference between Shame and Guilt?

Shame and guilt are intertwined and related emotions that we often experience together. However, there is a significant distinction between the two. The main difference between shame and guilt is in their internal (shame) vs. external focus (guilt).

While guilt is always related to behavior and an understanding that we have done something wrong, shame involves negative beliefs about ourselves. When you realize you did something you shouldn’t have, you might feel guilty and think, “I did something wrong.”

Shame would look like saying, “I am a bad person,” in the same situation. In other words, shame is how you feel about yourself, while guilt is knowing that what you did hurt someone else. Therefore, while guilt leads to self-reflection and self-improvement, shame causes low self-esteem, anxiety, aggression, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health problems.

What is Toxic Shame?

Toxic shame involves believing you are wrong, inferior, and worthless. It typically develops as a result of traumatic experiences in childhood. People mistreated or abused by caregivers often internalize the belief that they somehow deserve it.

So, the central aspect of shame is a feeling that there is something basically wrong with you, causing you to struggle with a sense of self-worth.

When Does Normal Shame Become Toxic Shame?

Everyone experiences shame at least once in their lifetime. However, if your feeling of shame is extreme and ongoing, it can become toxic, damaging your self-esteem and well-being.

When a child is frequently humiliated and shamed, this can turn into toxic feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness, causing them to internalize the belief that they are not good enough. So, they become self-conscious and ashamed of themselves, carrying this feeling into adulthood. 

Children who grow up feeling they are not worthy of love or valued frequently grow into insecure adults with toxic shame who lack confidence, believing they are not enough. Frequently they think they are unworthy of love, pleasure, or success.

These people are prone to self-sabotaging patterns such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, imposter syndrome, procrastination, and self-criticism.

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5 Signs of Toxic Shame You Should Recognize

Self-imposed inferiority may prevent you from being happy, having good relationships, reaching your goals, and living the life you deserve.

But there are ways to overcome toxic shame. The first step in coping with toxic shame is to recognize it. 

So, here are 5 signs of toxic shame.

1. Isolation

Shame promotes hiding and isolation. You may avoid social interactions and feel lonely and isolated because you fear others will judge you. You may also struggle with intimacy and communication issues in your relationships, feeling afraid of being vulnerable and exposing yourself to your partner.

For people with toxic shame, being vulnerable and exposed is the same as being humiliated and shamed. They were taught to associate vulnerability with weakness and shame (“You’re such a crybaby,” “Real men don’t cry,” “It’s all your fault,” etc.). So, they learn to distance themselves whenever someone tries to get too close to them to avoid this fear of being exposed and humiliated.

2. Low Self-Esteem/Worth

If you have toxic shame, you may feel worthless and unworthy of love no matter what you do. Harsh self-criticism can change how you feel and act. But, unfortunately, it can also lead to negative beliefs about your own worth, making you feel anxious, depressed, and isolated.

You may start eating too much or too little to numb these feelings, turn to excessive alcohol or substance use, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and isolate yourself from friends and family. 

3. Feeling Inferior

As an adult, you may struggle with self-worth if you continually feel inferior to others as a child. If you think you’re not good enough, you might get into bad relationships with people who mistreat you and make you feel even worse about yourself.

4. You Constantly Apologize or Feel Guilty

Furthermore, feelings of inferiority and low self-worth may cause you always to please others to feel appreciated and loved. Over time, the urge to please caregivers and have their love can become a way of life. As a result, you may always feel guilty, whether it is your fault or not, and you may feel compelled to apologize for things that are not your fault.

Unfortunately, such a mindset may make you an ideal candidate for narcissistic supply, pushing you into toxic codependent relationships where you might struggle with advocating for yourself, setting boundaries, and protecting your rights.

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5. Perfectionism

Toxic shame can cause perfectionism. Because your “all or nothing” way of thinking might make you think that you have to do things perfectly or not, you might become very hard on yourself, fear failure, and see mistakes as massive failures.

You may set extremely high and unrealistic goals, be obsessed with them, and strive to achieve them at all costs. Unfortunately, such a mindset can often lead to procrastination, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Overcoming Toxic Shame Begins with Setting Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are the best way to overcome toxic shame and start treating yourself with the compassion and love you deserve.

Boundaries involve limits between other people and us; we set them to protect our rights and well-being. They allow you to say “no” without further justification and communicate to others how you expect them to treat you.

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It’s Okay to Ask for Help

It is okay not to know how to cope with difficult emotions such as shame. And it is okay to seek help from a professional.

A qualified counselor, certified coach, or therapist can help you learn to identify toxic shame and set boundaries. You can learn how to experience less anger and resentment, prioritize your needs, and feel safer in your relationships. They can also help you learn strategies to sustain positive change over the long term.

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Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood is a Certified Life Coach, and best-selling author. Her mission is to empower high-performing adults and teens to become resilient self-leaders by reducing stress and anxiety, overcoming imposter syndrome, working through trauma, and re-discovering their AuthenticMe®.

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My name is Kamini Wood, and I’m here to accompany you on your journey toward understanding yourself on a deeper level so can create the life you want personally and professionally. It’s time to embrace your AuthenticMe ™