Toxic shame is a debilitating feeling of worthlessness and self-loathing.

No- one is born ‘ashamed’ – “Wherever there is shame, there has been a shamer”. Ref this

Ordinary Shame

Shame is an uncomfortable feeling that you get when you have done something wrong or embarrassing, or when someone close to you has.

Shame is a word we attribute with many meanings. We say we ‘feel ashamed’ if we mess up at work, or disappoint a partner. Or ‘don’t shame me’ if someone is putting us down.

It is an uncomfortable sensation we feel in the pit of our stomach when it seems we are in open view of judgement of others. 

Ordinary shame is a feeling in response to wrongdoing or thinking something you believe is immoral. Usually, ordinary shame dissipates in a few days and is tied to only one specific event.

Most people have experienced a feeling of shame at some point, usually due to doing something they feel was foolish or wrong. For example. we may feel humiliated by people finding something personal out about us we didn’t want them to know.

Neurobiology of Toxic Shame

Two key areas of the brain are activated by shame: the prefrontal cortex and the posterior insula.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with moral reasoning. This is where judgements about the self occur.

The posterior insula is the part of the brain that engages visceral sensations in the body, likely related to the “pit in your stomach” feeling.

Feelings of shame can also cause the brain to react as though it were in physical danger. This may activate the sympathetic nervous system and trigger defence responses like fight, flight, or freeze.

Where is Toxic Shame Held in the Body?

While many people have a physical response to shame, different people hold shame in different parts of their body. Clients commonly report feeling a pit in their stomach, tension in their shoulders, or discomfort on their skin.

There are three physical cues that can help therapists detect the client feels shame:

  1. Downward Gaze
  2. Difficulty Making Eye-Contact
  3. Slumped Posture

Toxic Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are often confused. For instance, when we injure someone, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame).

  • Guilt: Guilt is generally about something that you have done. It refers to something you did wrong or a behaviour that you feel bad about.
  • Shame: Shame refers to something about who you are as a person that you believe is unacceptable. Shame is not about doing something wrong. It is about a feeling that you have when you perceive that you are not good enough in some way.

‘Embarrassment’ is often used interchangeably with ‘shame.’ Although there is some overlap, embarrassment and shame are distinct constructs.

What is Toxic Shame

Unlike ordinary shame, toxic shame is a chronic feeling of worthlessness. People may not know they have toxic shame because it isn’t always felt constantly.

People who experience shame usually try to hide the thing they feel ashamed of. When shame is Toxic, it can feel that you are fundamentally flawed. 

This lasting and intense internal shame often develops in childhood, when we’re still developing a sense of self and are most susceptible to critical messages from parents, teachers, and other adults about ourselves which may cause internal trauma.

 Toxic Shame

Childhood abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences can cause toxic shame and make us believe we’re not good enough.

People with toxic shame internalise these critical messages and often begin to believe they are inadequate or “bad” people.

People who feel toxic shame often feel like they’re not good enough and are ashamed of themselves. This can lead to procrastination, perfectionism, and other self-sabotaging behaviour.

Shame can feel even worse when it is accompanied by rejection.

Feeling shame is often accompanied by a feeling of rejection because we feel the other person treats us a certain way because there is something wrong with us. 

Shame is not necessarily a result of hurtful or demeaning things done to a child.  It can be the child’s inward response to the chronic, ongoing absence of something that was essential and developmental to their emotional well-being. 

Things that separate toxic shame from ordinary shame:

  • Negatively impacted sense of self
  • Ongoing feelings of inadequacy
  • Thinking “I am a bad person” instead of “I did a bad thing”
  • Intense and longer-lasting shame
  • Constant negative inner dialogue
  • Avoidance of future shame
  • Can be triggered by thoughts, not just an external event

Symptoms include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stomach pain
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance addiction

Toxic shame can come flooding in the moment someone is triggered.

  • Feeling sensitive or being worried about what others think of you
  • Feeling unappreciated, used, or like others take advantage of you
  • If people criticise you, you get very offended
  • Feeling rejected, regretful, inadequate, or like you have little impact
  • Uncontrollable blushing, or being afraid to look inappropriate or stupid
  • Worrying that you aren’t treated with respect, or wanting to have the last word
  • Feeling that you can’t be your true self, losing your identity, or not sharing your thoughts or feelings because you are afraid to be embarrassed
  • Feeling nobody would like you if they knew the ‘real you’ 
  • You hide things or have different selves around different people
  • Being more worried about failure than doing something immoral or dishonourable, being a perfectionist
  • Feeling like an outsider, that you are different or left out, or feeling suspicious and like you can’t trust others
  • Being a wallflower or shrinking violet, wanting to shut people out or withdraw, trying to hide or be inconspicuous, or not wanting to be the centre of attention

Aside from that there are Behavioural Defences of Shame

  • Rage
  • Contempt
  • Striving for perfection
  • Striving for power
  • Transfer of blame
  • Internal withdrawal
  • Humour
  • Denial / forgetting

Most of the impact of shame lead to behaviour that create a vicious cycle. Feeling shame, can cause behaviours that can lead to more feelings of shame.

Toxic shame impacts how people think about and treat themselves. They try to avoid embarrassment or a shame trigger, toxic shame impacts life choices and joy.

How can we deal with Toxic Shame

The more we engage in certain thoughts and behaviour, the more we become prone to having such thoughts. In essence, such thoughts become habits. 

Engaging in new thoughts and behaviour helps to increase the number and strength of nerve connections in the brain. to this Neuroplasticity is capacity to change the brain.

Sharing about our shame can help us realise that others will accept us despite self-perceived flaws. Further, sharing often provides a space where others open up and actually relate to our experiences, which decreases the sense of aloneness and can increase our trust in opening up to others.

How to Recover From Toxic Shame

  1. Become aware of how you talk to yourself. Try to observe your own thoughts but not react to them.
  2. Have compassion for yourself. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. …
  3. Practice mindfulness. …
  4. Recognise when you’re feeling shame. …
  5. ‌Seek support.

Is there a positive side to shame?

Untitled-design-39 Toxic Shame

Do people who are shameless experience a more carefree and easier existence?

Low shame is among high scorers on ‘psychopathy’ testing. This lack of shame (and guilt) could grant ‘high psychopathy’ individuals with the capacity to exploit others without feeling remorse.

Not feeling ashamed is a way of signalling that you are true to your desires and don’t care or that a decision made is more important than about what others think of you or your actions. So it could be said it is a trait of people with high self esteem.

Most of us do things that may give feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse. Making mistakes is an important part of learning, and therefore maybe shame is an excellent teacher.

For example help us to repair when an action has caused harm to relationships. It helps us to identify and take accountability for our actions, and when others see we are experiencing some degree of shame, defences usually go down and calmer conversations can take place. When we feel shame about something self-inflicted (drinking, drugs, putting ourselves in dangerous positions, etc.), we can assess the steps we need to take in order to prevent doing harm to ourselves in future.