Toxic Shame: Causes, Signs, and What to Do

Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough- Brene Brown

We all feel shame from time to time. It’s a natural human response to making mistakes or hurting the people we love. Healthy shame can motivate us to be better people and think more consciously in the future.

But toxic shame refers to a surplus of chronic and intense shame. If you have toxic shame, there’s a pervasive feeling of never being good enough. As a result, you may perpetually feel like a bad person, struggle with negative self-talk, and experience various mental health issues.

Differences Between Ordinary Shame and Toxic Shame

It’s normal to experience shame when you believe (or know) you did something wrong. But this kind of shame tends to be reactionary to a specific event, and it usually fades quickly.

Toxic shame is pervasive. It often pairs with other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. People with unhealthy shame have a negative self-evaluation that makes it hard to challenge negative thoughts or practice forgiveness.

What Causes Toxic Shame?

Shame isn’t random, and toxic shame is a product of feeling unloved, unimportant, or otherwise neglected. This can happen either directly or indirectly, but it has a significant impact on someone’s emotional development.

Toxic shame often results from trauma. When we undergo trauma, we fear for our safety and need to rely on whatever coping skills we have on hand to deal with the situation. If you were a child, you didn’t have proper tools. Unfortunately, many children internalize their trauma and either assume they caused the event to happen or that they’re directly responsible for how it affected their mental health.

Toxic shame often also goes hand-in-hand with mental illness, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use. Shame may exacerbate your mental health symptoms. Likewise, your mental health symptoms may bring you shame, causing a vicious cycle.

Toxic shame can also stem from systemic issues. Certain religions or cultures use shame to mold behavior. This mindset is also common in cults, where cult leaders essentially rely on shaming people into conformity.

Signs of Toxic Shame

Unlike ordinary shame, toxic shame becomes embedded in your personality and relationships. Toxic shame, at its core, is an ongoing manifestation of self-loathing. It often contributes to intense emotional distress, even if most people aren’t inherently aware of what it is.

Here are some signs that you may struggle with toxic shame:

Feeling Worthless

People with toxic shame struggle to have any healthy sense of core identity. They may imagine their ideal self, but they’re stuck in past actions or old trauma. As a result, shame and guilt (and sometimes anger) are the main emotions they often feel.

Compulsive Behaviors

People struggling with substance abuse, eating disorders, or repetitive forms of self-harm often experience toxic shame. These behaviors are solutions for that shame, but they often perpetuate more feelings of distress.


High levels of shame may coincide with a strong need for perfectionism. This is because people who feel toxic shame often measure their worth based on what they do rather than who they are. They find it challenging to practice self-compassion if they make a mistake.

Low Self-Esteem

Feelings of shame undoubtedly make it hard to practice self-love. Unfortunately, toxic shame often runs in families. Your parents may have been hard on you as a child. Or, they may have unknowingly invalidated your emotional needs. These experiences can create self-doubt.


Sometimes toxic shame comes from trauma denial. You may, for instance, dismiss childhood abuse or sexual abuse, or you may ignore the negative emotions associated with your past. These reactions tend to be subconscious, as your mind is simply trying to protect itself and move on as best it can.

Fear of Change

Let’s say that you recognize you want to make a positive change in your life. You may even make some strides in the right direction. But then, you feel defeated. You don’t know what to do next. You’re scared that things will eventually fall apart. This sometimes happens because you feel shame about changing the status quo. In a sense, you’re used to your current mental health, and you may not feel like you deserve growth.

Problematic Relationships

There is a well-known saying that water seeks its own level, and toxic shame seeks its own toxic shame. In other words, you may be in a pattern of relationships that reinforce your negative self-talk or intense feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or humiliation. These relationships often mimic early childhood relationships- in a sense, your shame causes you to recreate the trauma you desperately wanted to escape.

No Sense of Self

Shame makes it hard to know your own needs and desires. As a result, you may simply adapt to what you think people want from you. When you lack a sense of self, you’re at the mercy of other emotions. Self-acceptance often seems impossible because you don’t really even know what you’re supposed to accept.

Explosive Anger

Some people with toxic shame project their internal self-loathing onto others. They become aggressive, violent, or stubborn. This often comes from a strong need to protect yourself. Any inclination toward criticism makes you feel insecure. But instead of centering yourself or recognizing that everyone makes mistakes, you become volatile.

What to Do If Toxic Shame Is Impacting Your Life

Recognizing the role shame plays in your life is the first step towards feeling better. First, it’s helpful to remember that everyone experiences shame. Keep in mind that you will need patience when overcoming toxic shame. Your mind has been in self-preservation mode for a long time, and you will need to give it plenty of new experiences to heal.

Label Your Shame

It can be helpful to start recognizing and calling out shame when you notice it. This entails being able to identify your emotions accurately. Some people find that meditating or sitting quietly with their thoughts and feelings helps them with this task.

Recognize How Toxic Shame Coincides With Self-Harm

What does your shame cause you to do to yourself? How do you continue harming or sabotaging your well-being? Getting a better sense of these patterns can help you pause and intervene before you react.

Consider What You Need

The next time toxic shame creeps up on you, pause. Consider what might be making you feel shame right now.

Are you feeling this way because you’re feeling vulnerable? Maybe you need support from a loved one. Is the shame related to feeling like an imposter or fraud at work? Maybe you need to remind yourself of all your professional accomplishments.

Prioritize More Self-Compassion

Self-compassion helps neutralize shame. When you are kind to yourself, you inherently practice more forgiveness and cultivate a healthier self-image. You recognize that you’ve experienced pain, but you also recognize that your pain doesn’t make you a bad person.

Self-compassion is an essential part of self-acceptance. Of course, this work takes time (and shame makes the healing process difficult). But keep trying to treat yourself as you’d treat one of your best friends or an innocent child. Chances are, you’d be much kinder to them- and much more accepting of their feelings.

Allow Yourself to Experience Shame (In Healthy Doses)

Sometimes you need to just sit with your feelings, as painful as they are. This is part of acceptance. When you can practice mindfulness and acknowledge that all your feelings are okay (even the ones that scare you), they often feel less intense.

At the same time, it can also be helpful to acknowledge your feelings while planning how you will cope with them. There’s a difference between sitting and wallowing. If you sense that you’re wallowing and want to feel better, consider which coping strategies you can use to improve your situation.

How Therapy Can Help You Overcome Toxic Shame

Toxic shame can range from feeling mildly distressing to entirely debilitating. However, the right therapy can help you get in touch with your emotions and break free from feeling shame.

Together, we can discuss the variables contributing to your low self-worth and review healthier coping strategies. EMDR can be influential in healing shame related to trauma.

At first, therapy may feel raw and even be somewhat of a painful experience. But many people find that having the right support makes a valuable difference in their emotional well-being.

No matter your circumstances or needs, I am here for you. I understand the negative impact toxic shame can have on your life. I understand how challenging these feelings may be. I would be honored to support you with your healing journey.

Contact me today to schedule your consultation.

4601 Spicewood Springs Road Building 3, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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