What is Toxic Shame? (The Little-Known Mental Illness)

March 30th, 2024

By Aletheia Luna

Guest writer for Wake Up World

“Shame on you!”

How many times did you hear those words as a child?

As children, our teachers would shame us for doing something naughty in class, just as our parents and peer group would occasionally shame us – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. The experience certainly wasn’t pleasant, but the shame was temporary and it quickly passed.

We all experience shame sooner or later. Some people even argue that shame is useful because it keeps law and order within our societies by preventing offenders from harming others.

So what’s the big deal?

While shame is a normal (and extremely painful) emotion to go through, it becomes abnormal and highly destructive when we internalize and carry it with us.

What is Toxic Shame?

“Toxic shame” is a term that was first coined by psychologist Silvan Tomkins in the 1960s. Unlike normal shame, toxic shame stays buried within the mind and becomes a part of our self-identity. In other words, a person suffering from toxic shame will experience a chronic sense of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and self-loathing – all connected to the belief that they are innately “shameful” or “bad.” Toxic shame is the internalized and buried shame that rots within us.

What Causes Toxic Shame?

Toxic shame is most commonly reinforced through childhood experiences. For example, our mother or father may have constantly physically punished us or verbally expressed how ashamed or disappointed they were of us. We may have even adopted the idea that we were shameful indirectly through nonverbal displays from our parents, e.g. our mother or father withholding affection, looking at us in a certain way, favoring our siblings more than us. Shame can also be internalized through experiences at school with our teachers, friends, or other family members. And of course, toxic shame is also caused by extreme forms of abuse like incest, rape, and other forms of sexual assault that cause us to lose our grounding in reality.

Sometimes toxic shame develops from later life traumatic experiences such as living in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, work incidents in which we are humiliated, repeated rejection from other people and organizations, betrayal, and so forth.

What is the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

Don’t confuse guilt with shame: they might seem related, but they are completely different experiences.

Guilt is feeling sorry for something you have done.

Shame is feeling sorry about who you are as a person.

And toxic shame is feeling bad about who you are as a person all the time – it is pervasive.

Symptoms of Toxic Shame

As a person who has suffered from toxic shame, I know how viscerally painful this emotion can be. When toxic shame hangs around you long enough, it gets embedded not only in your mind, but in your body: in your defeated posture, in the way you move, the way you talk, and the way you relate to others.

Toxic shame can sabotage your best efforts and undermine every good experience that you have. This is why I feel that it’s so important for people to be aware of this ‘little-known’ mental illness. No, it is not a classic mental illness like anxiety or bipolar disorder, but I believe that it forms the very basis of many major mental illnesses out there, and thus, it is vital that we explore and understand it.

If you’re suffering from toxic shame, there will be a number of signs:

  • Frequently reliving traumatic memories from the past that cause shame
  • General suspicion and mistrust of other people (even when they’re trying to be nice)
  • Self-loathing and low self-esteem
  • Feelings of chronic unworthiness
  • Dysfunctional relationships with others (often involving codependency)
  • Self-sabotage
  • “Shame anxiety” – the fear of experiencing shame
  • Feelings of being a “fraud” or phony (also known as imposter syndrome)
  • Self-martyrdom and self-victimization
  • “Settling” for unfulfilling jobs, relationships, or situations
  • An angry or defensive persona (as a defense mechanism)
  • People-pleasing (to compulsively try and feel better about oneself)
  • Perfectionism
  • Frequently feeling a sense of irrational guilt
  • Addictive tendencies (to escape and numb the shame)
  • Mental illnesses that branch off toxic shame such as depression, anxiety, PTSD

Common core beliefs that a person who suffers from toxic shame carries may include:

  • I am unlovable
  • I am worthless
  • I am stupid
  • I am a bad person
  • I’m a phony
  • I don’t matter
  • I’m defective
  • I’m selfish
  • I am a failure
  • I am ugly
  • I shouldn’t have been born

How to Heal Your Toxic Shame

Believing that you are innately and fundamentally unworthy, inadequate, and despicable as a human being is incredibly hard to live with. If you are struggling with this issue I’m sure that you don’t need to be told how painful it is.

Having struggled with toxic shame, I want to share with you what helped me get out of this self-destructive mindset and turn my life around. I hope that this advice helps you too:

1. Look into the Mirror

The mirror exercise is one that you need to prepare a space for by first relaxing and setting aside five to ten minutes. Once you have set aside a quiet space, sit in front of a mirror (or stand if you prefer). Look directly into your eyes and allow yourself to feel any of the emotions that arise. When I first did this exercise I cried … all the pent up emotions I had been storing just flooded out, particularly all the self-hatred I was carrying. So let yourself cry if you feel the need to. You might also experience feelings such as disgust, embarrassment, shyness, awkwardness, or anger … and it is OK to experience these.

Once you’ve let any emotions out, it is now time to let the outside in – by that, I mean gaze at yourself in the mirror. Look into your eyes and think of something sincerely loving and caring to say such as “I love you,” “I accept you,” “You are worthy,” “You are beautiful.” You can spend anywhere from three to ten minutes doing this.

When you are finished, genuinely smile at yourself in the mirror. Notice whether your face looks different or not. Interestingly, mirror work has the tendency to soften the face or slightly changing its appearance. I also like to finish by cradling myself in a hug, and I encourage you to as well. For more guidance on how to do this practice, see our mirror work article.

2. Release tension from your body

Our thoughts, emotions, and traumas are stored within our bodies as sickness and muscle pain. The most common area where shame is stored is in the lower back and stomach region (check out the many different bodily correspondences of muscle tension here). In order to facilitate the process of healing, I highly recommend that you learn how to calm and soothe your body through practices such as yoga, qi gong, tai chi, massage therapy, or simple stretching every day. One of my favorite tools to use is the AcuBall ball which gives an amazingly satisfying deep tissue massage. You might also like to use foam rollers that athletes use or other myofascial release tools that you can buy from Amazon or your local sports store.

3. Become aware of your self-destructive thoughts

Explore your core beliefs and cognitive distortions. These are essentially the darkened lenses that you see yourself through. Keep a private journal and record these thoughts and your feelings about them. It’s important that you keep a journal because otherwise there will be no way to record your insights, progress, and inner work. Learn more about how to journal.

4. Practice authentic self-compassion

Self-compassion is about showing yourself genuine concern, care, and love. It can take a while to shift from a self-hating mindset to a self-compassionate mindset, so I recommend starting small. Do one caring this for yourself every day. For example, you might like to repeat a comforting statement like “I am worthy of love” or take care of your physical needs. Start wherever the biggest concern for you is. For example, if you have “settled” for unfulfilling friendships, try to remove these people from your life and seek out more supportive friends. If you have physical health concerns such as obesity, change your diet. Perform every act as an expression of love for yourself.

Self-compassion is something that needs to be practiced every.single.day. No exceptions. No matter whether you plan for it or let it come spontaneously, ensure that you’re always seeking to care for yourself in some way. In this manner, you will slowly reprogram your unconscious mind by asserting that yes, you are worthy, loveable, intelligent, strong, and capable.

5. Re-parent your inner child

Toxic shame has its roots in childhood abandonment, abuse, and trauma. As such, feeling better will almost always go back to accessing your childhood self – the very part of you that was confronted with the trauma in the first place. Learning how to interact with and care for your younger self is called inner child work, and there are a number of reasons why this practice is powerful. Firstly, inner child work helps you to access feelings that you may have repressed and dissociated from in an attempt to protect yourself as a child. By re-experiencing these emotions, you will be able to release them from your body and mind and generate deep healing. Secondly, inner child work is tremendously insightful and revealing: often some of the most important questions you’ve carried consciously or subconsciously are answered while doing inner child work. Thirdly, inner child work is self-compassion in action. When you learn how to re-parent your inner child you develop a deep and strong connection with yourself which has a ripple effect on the rest of your life.

Some of the best ways to connect with your inner child include painting and drawing (art therapy), creative writing, meditating with pictures of yourself as a child, visualizations, and doing whatever you loved to do as a child. By learning how to listen to and care for that vulnerable place inside of you, toxic shame will have no place to grow. For more help, read my article on re-parenting your inner child.

Toxic shame is an excruciatingly painful thing to carry around inside. But now that you have read this article, you are at the very least conscious of its potential existence within you. Simply being conscious is a huge step in the direction of healing and recovery!

The next step is to take any of the tips in this article and actively apply them to your life. Don’t skip this step! Without taking action you will continue to suffer. So go right now and re-read the section above on how to heal toxic shame. Choose one activity that calls to you and practice it starting from today. Also, don’t forget to keep a journal of your progress. Journaling is an extremely useful tool that anyone can use (regardless of how good you are at spelling or not!).

About the author:

Aletheia Luna is a prolific psychospiritual writer, author, and spiritual mentor whose work has touched the lives of millions worldwide. As a survivor of fundamentalist religious abuse, her mission is to help others find love, strength, and inner light in even the darkest places. She is the author of hundreds of popular articles, as well as numerous books and journals on the topics of Self-LoveSpiritual Awakening, and more. See more of her work at lonerwolf.com.

This article, 9 Ways to Create a Deep Spiritual Partnership With Your Loved One, was originally published on lonerwolf.com, and reproduced with permission.

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