Shame isn’t an inherently bad emotion. However, it can turn toxic when it becomes persistent and interwoven with your beliefs. Toxic shame leads to unhealthy and negative views of one’s self-worth, identity and place in the world. It leaves the individual feeling small and not good enough.
What Are the Differences Between “Toxic Shame,” “Normal Shame” and “Guilt?”
Toxic shame is chronic, frequent and doesn’t go away unless it’s addressed.
- Negative overgeneralizations: e.g. “I’m a failure” or “I’m worthless.”
- Beliefs about others intertwined with negative thoughts about themselves: e.g. “no one will ever love me,” or “my mom treated me so poorly because I’m unloveable.”
- Deep self-loathing: connected to an individual’s actions, the trauma they have experienced, or societal expectations and stigma.
“Normal” or typical shame is usually experienced and then goes away like any other emotion. It leads a person to think poorly of themself due to their actions. For example, you may feel ashamed if you gossip behind your friend’s back and think, “I’m a bad person.”
The feeling of guilt focuses on an individual’s behavior, like skipping your friend’s birthday dinner or yelling at your children.
- Guilt generally leads a person to change their behavior or try to atone for their mistakes in some way.
- The feeling usually goes away after it’s felt and the person addresses their remorse.
- The individual views their behavior as negative, not themself.
Understanding the Symptoms (Characteristics) Of Toxic Shame
Internalized toxic shame changes a person’s view of themselves and their place in the world. This negatively affects all areas of the individual’s life, including the physical, emotional, physiological, mental and relational aspects.
When faced with shame, individuals often alter their speech patterns and avoid eye contact. They may curl inward as though wanting to disappear from the world. Shame also prompts individuals to withdraw physically from others to avoid humiliation or judgment.
Ongoing toxic shame leads to emotional repression. Individuals will avoid expressing emotions due to their view of themselves. Shame leads people to avoid the vulnerability that comes with sharing feelings. Self-loathing inhibits individuals from experiencing other emotions. Different emotions may come up, but the person won’t allow themself to feel them due to shame. Ongoing emotional suppression harms one’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Shame impacts multiple systems in the body. When you feel ashamed, you’ll likely have an automatic reaction, such as blushing, sweating or increased heart rate. The body also responds to shame as a crisis or stressor. The autonomic nervous system activates, and your body goes into flight-flight-freeze mode.
Toxic shame is associated with mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide. This may be due to:
- Emotional distress, pain or self-loathing
- Trauma (e.g., domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse)
- Societal stigma
Individuals dealing with toxic shame have difficulties with vulnerability and connection within relationships. Shame often results in anger, lashing out, defensiveness and withdrawn behavior. This can lead to unhealthy communication patterns, mistreatment or abuse.
How To Build Resilience Against Feelings of Shame
Everyone feels shame at some point. The key is learning to allow space for shame and working through it. That way, it does not become ongoing and toxic.
- Identify Coping Strategies
Confronting and processing shame is hard work. Before you begin, identify coping strategies to help you when you’re distressed. These might include breathing techniques, physical exercises, mindfulness or grounding activities, listening to music or journaling.
- Recognize Shame
Notice when you feel shame. Pay attention to how it feels in your body and what thoughts are going through your mind. Are there certain behaviors you’re doing when you feel ashamed? Do you isolate, binge-watch TV or lash out at your loved one? When you recognize how shame shows up in your mind and body, you can begin to spot it sooner.
- Pinpoint the Source of the Shame
Work to identify what triggers your shame. Understanding your triggers prepares you to handle them when they arise better. Recognizing different triggers can also help you see shame patterns and work toward the root of your shame.
- Seek Support
Build caring relationships with safe, loved ones. Compassion and support from others challenge the negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself. Safe relationships can also provide opportunities for you to be vulnerable.
Shame is often intertwined with trauma, lack of safety, pain, self-loathing and other mental health conditions. Therefore, therapy may be the best option. A trauma-informed therapist can provide the safety and support necessary to process and heal.
If you need support, help is available. The Recovery Village has treatment centers across the U.S. Our team of experts addresses shame alongside substance use disorder and other mental health conditions. We’ll meet you wherever you are on your journey to provide expert-level care. Contact us today.
Toxic Shame FAQs
How do you stop a shame spiral or shame cycle?
Practice self-compassion and mindfulness. This will help you notice when you feel shame in your body without judgment. When you recognize shame, pause to take note of your thoughts. Challenge those thoughts.
For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “I’m a complete failure,” pause to think if there is any evidence that makes that absolute statement false (e.g., conducting basic tasks to take care of yourself or going to school, work or a scheduled appointment that day). Chances are you’re not a complete failure. You can also disrupt the shame spiral by moving your body. Go for a walk, dance in your room or shake out your extremities.
What is shame resilience theory?
Dr. Brené Brown developed shame resilience theory (SRT), which is built on four components that help individuals address shame:
- Recognize and identify shame triggers.
- Practice self-awareness to understand the cause of your shame.
- Build meaningful and vulnerable relationships with others.
- Talk about your experiences of shame.
How do you stop feeling humiliated?
You’ll want to reach out to loved ones or a therapist for support. Use coping skills to manage the distress you feel. Notice and challenge any negative thoughts you have about yourself.
Recognize you aren’t alone in feeling humiliated. Many people experience this at different times in their lives. If another person embarrasses and hurts you, evaluate your safety moving forward. Do you need to set boundaries with this individual? If there is abuse within the relationship, you can seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
How do you stop feeling regret?
If you find yourself stuck in remorse:
- Allow yourself to feel: This may include grief, sadness, disappointment or anger. These emotions can be uncomfortable, so individuals may try to push them away and avoid feeling and processing them.
- Give yourself compassion and permission not to be perfect.
- Evaluate your beliefs about learning from mistakes. Can you allow yourself to learn from your mistakes?
- Be accountable. If you’ve harmed others, take responsibility for your actions and their impact.
- Seek support from loved ones.
- Attend therapy. Shame, regret and pain may be deeply entangled. Therapy may be a safe place to work through your remorse and the implications of your actions that led to the regret.
Why do some people feel guilt or shame more than others?
Just as some individuals are more likely to have certain health conditions, others are more prone to shame and guilt. This may be a combination of their environment, genetics, personality and trauma history.
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Brené Brown, “Daring Greatly, how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead“>Daring G[…]rent and lead.” 2012. Penguin Random House, UK.
Miceli, M., Castelfranchi, C. “Reconsidering the differences between shame and guilt“>Reconsid[…]ame and guilt.” Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 2018. Accessed September 8, 2022.
Terrizi, J.A., Shook, N.J. “On the origin of shame: Does shame emerge from an evolved disease-avoidance architecture?“>On the o[…]architecture?” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2020. Accessed September 8, 2022.
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