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Check out our blogs! Get valuable information, tips and tricks for dealing with anxiety, overcoming depression and overall self-care!

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What is Toxic Shame?

February 27, 20244 min read

Shame is a powerful feeling that can change the entire human experience. It is a part of our emotional makeup that influences how we think, behave, and relate to others. Generally, there are two types of shame: the healthy shame and the unhealthy or toxic shame. Let’s find out more.

What is Shame?

Shame, as defined by the online Oxford Dictionary, is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. We feel shame based on how we believe others see us and how we see ourselves. Shame is more centered on our identity and self-worth rather than our actions.

In the early stages of development, we started to internalize societal norms and values through socialization when we were children. Shame can arise when we perceive a disapproval of our actions from parents or friends. The experience of shame at this stage contributes to the formation of our conscience and the development of our moral reasoning.

In our adolescent years, our self-awareness and comparison increases. We may experience strong feelings of shame related to our body image, social status, or academic performance. These experiences can significantly impact our self-esteem and identity formation.

Then as we become adults, shame continues to play a role in shaping our interpersonal relationships. It influences our career choices and impacts our mental health. If we have unresolved shame from earlier stages of our lives, it can contribute to us having low self-esteem or experiencing depression and anxiety.

Let’s discuss the two types of shame and get a better understanding of toxic shame and its characteristics.

Healthy Shame

Healthy shame serves an important role in maintaining social connection and ethical behavior. It acts as a moral compass, guiding us towards self-reflection and correction when we deviate from societal norms or personal values. Healthy shame is adaptive, fostering personal growth and accountability.

Toxic Shame

On the other hand, toxic shame is destructive and debilitating. It often originates from early childhood experiences, where you may internalize negative messages about yourself. Toxic shame can lead to a distorted self-perception, feelings of worthlessness, and self-sabotaging behaviors. It also hinders personal development and can contribute to mental health issues.

Distinct Characteristics of Toxic Shame

1. Self-Loathing

One of the obvious characteristics of toxic shame is a pervasive sense of self-loathing. Experiencing toxic shame means believing that you are flawed and unworthy of love or appreciation. This perspective of yourself can make a massively destructive and negative impact on your mental health.

2. Perfectionism

Toxic shame often leads you to cope through perfectionism. Doing everything perfectly becomes your way to prove your worth to yourself and others.

3. Difficulty Setting Boundaries

When you grapple with toxic shame, you may find it difficult to set healthy boundaries in your relationships. Your fear of rejection or abandonment intensifies. This can lead you to overcommit, prioritize pleasing people, or avoid conflicts.

4. Negative Core Beliefs

Your core beliefs about yourself and others are often formed during childhood. These beliefs guide how you interpret your experiences. Sadly, people who are struggling with toxic shame have negative core beliefs, which include the feelings of “not enough”, being unloved, and thinking you are damaged beyond repair.

5. Fear of Vulnerability

Toxic shame can make you think that opening up emotionally means showing your weakness or exposing yourself to rejection.

How to Confront and Overcome Toxic Shame

1. Awareness and Acknowledgment

The first step in overcoming toxic shame is to be aware and acknowledge its existence. Do not deny it when you know you are experiencing it. Recognize its distinct characteristics so you can start to create a stronger, more positive perception of yourself.

2. Seeking Counseling or Therapy

Therapists or counselors can help you address and heal toxic shame. Therapy provides a safe space for you to explore the origins of shame, challenge your negative beliefs, and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

3. Self-Love and Acceptance

Practicing self-love and accepting yourself with kindness is a powerful antidote to toxic shame. Learn to embrace your imperfections and understand that no one is immune to flaws.

Toxic shame is a formidable enemy, but you can stand up to it and take control of your life. When you understand all of the above, you will be confident enough to face toxic shame when you experience it. It’s time to reclaim your sense of self-worth!

Healthy ShameUnhealthy ShameCharacteristics of Toxic ShameOvercoming Toxic Shame
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Jeanne Prinzivalli

Jeanne Prinzivalli is a licensed psychotherapist working with adult individuals. She supports people on their journey to self-awareness, self-care and overall wellbeing.

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Jeanne Prinzivalli
Therapist + Coach

I help ambitious, anxious women learn how to trust and put themselves first, so they can stop burning themselves out trying to meet other people's expectations.

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