Shame is a powerful emotion that can cause a wide range of intense emotions to develop. Anger, guilt, and embarrassment are often intertwined when it comes to shame, and some people may project these feelings outward onto others, while others may internalize it. Shame is a normal human emotion that can make us feel as though we have failed and it can drive negative thoughts, but when dealt with appropriately, it can help us learn and grow.
There is a difference between healthy and unhealthy shame. Healthy shame is what we feel when we take an action that goes against our values. What triggers feelings of shame is different from person to person and the intensity to which it is felt is often informed by past experiences, cultural influences, and other factors. It can motivate us to rectify a situation or make amends with someone. At some point, we are able to let that feeling of shame go through some form of a resolution. When a person feels unhealthy shame, however, it can become a powerful force that we allow to define us.
Unhealthy shame is often called toxic shame and unlike regular shame, toxic shame can become internalized and alter a person’s perception of self-image or feelings of self-worth. It can actively impact the way a person interacts with the world around them or it may lie just below the surface of a person’s exterior, becoming easily activated by triggers they may not be consciously aware of.
Identifying Toxic Shame
Toxic shame can last well beyond a few hours or days and may take form in shame-based beliefs about oneself. Some ways you might identify toxic shame include:
- Feelings and pain associated with shame are incredibly intense and powerful
- The experience of shame lasts a long time
- Internal thoughts and feelings can trigger feelings of shame
- The feeling of shame causes symptoms of depression and anxiety to surface
- You experience fear about feeling shame
- The shame makes you feel deeply inadequate
- Shame may not be associated with a particular experience, but it informs how you view yourself
Toxic shame is often internalized and can cause a person to struggle with negative thoughts. These thoughts do not go away, however, and a person may use these thoughts as a form of identity and to justify how their relationships work. Some common themes in toxic shame include:
- I am a bad person
- I hate myself
- I do not matter
- I am stupid
- I am unattractive
- I am inadequate
- I am a fraud
- I should not have been born
In many cases, toxic shame develops as a result of chronic, intense experiences in childhood. These messages may have been intentionally or unintentionally transferred to a child by their parents early in life. Both communications and behaviors can inform toxic shame. For example, a child may struggle due to experiencing symptoms of a parent’s mental health disorder. Parents that communicate messages of irritation, indifference, or inadequacy to children can unintentionally teach a child to internalize those emotions. These feelings can be difficult to overcome later in life, even if they experience positive messages that convey the opposite feeling.
Treating Toxic Shame
Overcoming toxic shame can be difficult, but it is possible with the help of professionals. Ridding yourself of toxic shame requires you to change your mindset, becoming more self-aware and actively working to change your inner dialogue. Because toxic shame becomes intertwined with one’s identity, it can be difficult to overcome alone. Some ways to overcome the toxic shame include:
- Enlist the help of a mental health professional: A mental health professional who specializes in trauma and shame can help you work through difficult thought processes and experiences that inform toxic shame.
- Avoid relationships that reinforce feelings of a lack of self-worth: Cutting ties with those who reinforce negative thoughts and feelings you have for yourself is important in changing your view of yourself.
- Nurture relationships that make you feel valued: Building relationships with those who support and value you can help you change your mindset about yourself.
- Develop a sense of compassion for yourself: We often extend more forgiveness and understanding to those around us than to ourselves. People make mistakes, have flaws, and weaknesses, and understanding that we all experience that can help you feel less isolated and alone.
- Forgive yourself: Hindsight is 20/20 and it is easy to beat yourself up over something that happened in the past. Making peace with yourself and forgiving yourself for past actions can help you heal and let go of the shame associated with it.
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