What is Toxic Shame and How Can We Heal From It
In life, all of us have done some things wrong. And made many mistakes. Too many to count. Some may have happened in moments of recklessness and impulsivity. Others may have happened even after careful planning. No matter how your mistakes happened, you probably ended up feeling many different emotions, including emotions like guilt and shame.
Shame vs Guilt
At first glance, it might look like guilt and shame are the same emotion, just with different labels. And they do overlap: guilt and shame are both self-conscious emotions you experience when you have done something wrong. However, these two emotions are a result of focusing on two entirely different things.
When you experience guilt, you evaluate your wrongful behavior, thinking: “What I did was wrong” or “I cannot believe I did something this terrible”. You regret your action and have a strong urge to fix it: you want to make things better again.
However, when you experience shame, you evaluate and judge yourself based on your actions. You might think: “Because I did this, I am a horrible person” or “Because I acted in that way, I am bad”. You attribute the quality of the unacceptable behavior to yourself and your personality: you think that, because you did something terrible, you must be terrible.
Healthy Shame vs Toxic Shame
Shame is an emotion that helps us stay on track with the norms of the society we live in. When we experience shame, we judge ourselves and fear judgment from others. So, to feel accepted, we avoid shameful behavior because we don’t want to think or let others think, that we are bad. That is a perfectly normal and healthy form of shame.
Healthy shame is uncomfortable, but after a while, it goes away. If you notice that your feelings of shame keep lingering and never completely leave, the case might be that you are dealing with toxic shame. In toxic shame, the thoughts of being “bad” or “inadequate” have become so internalized and frequent that it has become a part of who you are: you start believing your thoughts and start seeing yourself as bad and inadequate. You might be trying to show yourself in perfect light on the outside, but on the inside, you may be feeling sad, insecure, and lonely.
What Is Toxic Shame & What Causes It?
Toxic shame can be shaped by negative experiences throughout life, starting from the day you were born up until this very moment. These negative beliefs about being “inadequate”, “bad” or “not good enough” can develop into toxic shame in many ways but can be divided into two big categories: how others treat you and how you talk to yourself.
The effect of others
Important people in your life and how they treat you shape who you are today. Some of us may have experienced our caregivers and teachers often attributing our bad behaviour to our personality: calling you “stupid” when you got a bad grade. Yell “What is wrong with you?!” when you would misbehave. Some of us may have experienced emotional, domestic, or sexual abuse, or have been bullied. Some of us may have gone through childhood without having emotional needs met. The chances are, going through such experiences for years on end makes it more likely to start believing things others have been saying: that you are “unimportant”, “inadequate”, “stupid” or “unlovable”.
The effect of negative self-talk
When mentioning negative self-talk, we often see it as our “inner critic”: that negative, nagging voice in your head that undermines anything positive about you and your life. You may have learned this negative self-talk from your family, or you may have developed it on your own. This kind of self-talk was maybe even a helpful way to cope in some situations in your life, but in the long run, it turns into an enemy. When your inner critic grows strong, it can help you find negative aspects in anything you do, while saying that the positive aspects are “not important” or simply “don’t count”. After a while, you may slowly generalise that critique and start thinking: “Wow, I suck. I cannot do anything right”.
Consequences of Toxic Shame
When you experience toxic shame, you constantly remind yourself what a bad and inferior person you believe you are. Such negative, self-defeating thoughts probably affect different areas of your life. For example, because of toxic shame, you may also be experiencing:
Healing from Toxic Shame: 4 Steps
1. Find out where the toxic shame came from
Understanding the source of your toxic shame can be an important first step towards your recovery from toxic shame. Take a trip down the memory lane and think: “How have I been treated by my family when I did something wrong?” “How have my friends been treating me?”. Then, ask yourself “What about me? How have I been treating myself? What do I say to myself when I make a mistake or even forget something?”
2. Figure out when you feel toxic shame
Reflect on the past moments where you strongly felt like you were “inadequate”, “unimportant” or “bad”. Are there any patterns? Maybe you experience toxic shame more strongly around certain people. When you feel lonely. Maybe you feel mostly ashamed about your professional skills. Or maybe your shame is connected to academic achievement. Keep a diary and try to figure out what triggers your toxic shame.
3. Practice reframing your thoughts
You can reframe negative comments coming from others, but it is vital to apply it to your negative self-talk. Think once more about what you keep telling yourself and write these sentences down, word for word. Think about how much you believe each sentence and reflect on how it makes you feel. It is likely that these harsh words hurt you and make you feel sad and depressed. That is perfectly reasonable. Nobody feels happy when they believe the worst about themselves.
Think about proof that would support your thought then focus on proof that says otherwise. The chances are, you may also find that your negative thoughts have some form of cognitive distortion. As the last step, think about all the proof you have gathered and how you could reframe the original thought into a healthier one. For example, instead of saying “I am hopeless” you may say “Yes, sometimes I make mistakes, but that doesn’t make me hopeless. I have also done many things right in the past”.
4. Remember to be kind to yourself
Toxic shame may keep you in a dark place where everything about yourself is bad and inadequate, and anything that says otherwise is unimportant and forgotten. Keep a diary of things that you did right, or things that you “messed up”, but were with good intentions. For example, you wanted to bake a cake for your friend's birthday, but it did not turn out well. Your inner critic may call you a failure but remind yourself why you wanted to bake it in the first place: you wanted to surprise your friend and make them happy. It may not have worked out, but it came from a place of care and kindness - make sure you give yourself credit for that!
It may be hard for you to accept it, but everyone makes mistakes, including you. If everyone makes them, it seems like mistakes are a very human thing to do. Just because you did something wrong, it doesn't make you a monster or a failure unworthy of love. It just means that you are a human too. Keep telling yourself that.
Overcoming toxic shame can be a demanding journey full of ups and downs. Some days, the path may be easier, and on other days it might be a hurdle. Remember that things take time to change: something you have been doing to yourself for years cannot be erased overnight. If you at times find this journey to be overwhelming, know that you are not alone. You can seek support from your loved ones and, if you ever need an extra hand, here at Antiloneliness we are happy to support you.
Written by Tena Mijić, Intern Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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