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Intense shame that keeps coming up can become toxic. There are ways to cope.
Most people have experienced shame at some point, usually due to doing something they feel is foolish or wrong. They may feel humiliated sharing something vulnerable in front of others or defeated over losing a sports match.
But when these feelings become more frequent or intense, they can become toxic shame. Toxic shame can lead to emotions that can make you question your worth.
Lingering toxic shame can adversely affect your life and potentially lead to harmful behavior. But coping strategies and techniques to reframe your emotions can help you overcome shame-related feelings of worthlessness.
Toxic shame is a debilitating feeling of worthlessness and self-loathing, according to Taylor Draughn, licensed professional counselor in Louisiana.
“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 behaviors,” says Draughn.
Childhood abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences can cause toxic shame and make us believe we’re not good enough.
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.
People with toxic shame internalize these critical messages and often begin to believe they are inadequate or “bad” people.
Psychotherapist Dr. Jacqueline Burnett-Brown describes shame-based behavior as “burying the bones in the backyard. Often when we feel our behavior is shameful, we tend to hide the evidence of our crime,” she explains.
Here are some attributes of shame-based behavior according to psychiatrist Peter Breggin in his book “Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety“:
- feeling worthless
- worrying what others think about you
- being afraid to look stupid
- perfectionism in response to fearing failure
- constant negative self-talk
- anger in response to shame triggers
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.
Unlike ordinary shame, toxic shame is a chronic feeling of worthlessness inside you. People may not know they have toxic shame because it isn’t always felt constantly. But intense shame can come flooding back the moment someone is triggered.
The following characteristics differentiate toxic shame from ordinary shame:
- negatively impacted sense of self
- intense and longer-lasting shame
- ongoing feelings of inadequacy
- constant negative inner dialogue
- thinking “I am a bad person” instead of “I did a bad thing”
- avoidance of future shame
- can be triggered by thoughts, not just an external event
Toxic shame can manifest physically and psychologically, says Burnett-Brown. Intense shame can trigger the body to secrete stress hormones, which can cause symptoms, she explains.
- low self-esteem
- oversleeping or inability to sleep
- stomach pain
- overeating or loss of appetite
- eating disorders
- substance use disorder
Toxic shame impacts how people think about and treat themselves. Because many with toxic shame try to avoid embarrassment or a shame trigger, toxic shame also robs them of many life choices and joys.
But regaining a more positive sense of self — separate from the shame caused by poor childhood treatment — is possible.
Toxic shame can feel debilitating, but it doesn’t have to last forever. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there are steps you can take to begin healing and managing shame.
Acknowledge your thoughts
The first step to coping and healing from toxic shame is noticing the shame, says Brent Metcalf, a licensed clinical social worker in Tennessee. “If we want to heal from it, we have to acknowledge it and feel our feelings,” he adds.
It’s also important that we do this in a nonjudgmental way. The shame is there, and it’s not wrong that it is.
Recognize your triggers
Perhaps particular people or even thoughts about yourself cause you to feel shame.
Practices like journaling and mindfulness can help you reflect on the events, situations, people, or phrases that brought up shame.
Once you know your triggers, you can learn to avoid them or build coping strategies.
Challenge and reframe your thoughts
Shame can feel so intense it forces you to react. Consider pausing and questioning your thoughts before they snowball into extreme viewpoints or intensity.
While you’re sitting with your thoughts, Metcalf suggests listening for toxic self-talk or negative thoughts, then challenging them. When these thoughts arise, ask yourself, “Do I really believe that?” or “Is this really true?”
“Reexamine your thoughts by reframing,” suggests Metcalf.
To challenge and reframe your thoughts, consider this cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) technique:
- acknowledge your thought (I’m feeling this way…)
- recognize your trigger (where did it come from?)
- challenge your thought (is there evidence this is true?)
- reframe your thought (use the evidence to construct a positive thought)
Many techniques may help you replace negative thoughts with more positive ones.
Practicing compassion involves loving yourself and accepting love and kindness from others. “The more we practice this, the more likely we can heal from the toxic shaming,” says Metcalf.
Self-love takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. Exploring positive traits within yourself can help you regainyour self-worth.
Consider jotting down your positive characteristics in a journal or on a note near your computer, as if you were speaking to a friend. They may be helpful to read whenever you feel a negative thought arising.
Take to a therapist
If you’re experiencing toxic shame, talking with someone can help. With guidance from a professional, you can address any emotional distress.
Therapists can help you develop coping strategies to manage your emotions. Psychodynamic therapy can help explore the root of your shame to heal your original trauma.
Consider an online therapist directory to help you find a professional that will suit your specific situation.
Toxic shame is a painful experience, but you can manage the symptoms and cultivate new thinking habits.
Recognizing shame-based thoughts and challenging them takes practice. But learning coping techniques and treating yourself with compassion can dissolve toxic shame.
You don’t have to go through this alone. In addition to practicing the strategies for coping and healing, consider speaking with a mental health professional. They can help you take additional steps to overcome shame.