How to Heal Toxic Shame – The Deepest Wound

When shame becomes toxic, it can ruin our lives. Toxic shame is a deep, incapacitating state that causes an intense feeling of inadequacy. Unhealed, it can lead to addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD and uncontrollable anger. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and co-dependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success.

There are two types of shame: healthy shame and toxic shame. Healthy shame happens when we do something wrong, and then we feel not just guilty but remorseful, sick and even a little self-loathing at first, in that internal conversation that is always going on in our thoughts. An example of a healthy shame expression is, “I did something bad!” Healthy shame motivates us to not repeat a wrong action by making us feel bad about doing it.

An experience of being hurt, rejected, abused, left out, neglected, betrayed, any kind of trauma, carries with it an internal message of toxic shame. Where healthy shame says, “I did bad,” toxic shame’s message is, “I am bad.” Two very different internal messages. Strong feelings of shame stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction. We instantly feel exposed which triggers the urge to hide or react with rage. This means we often feel profoundly alienated from others and also from the good parts of ourselves. We may not be able to think or talk clearly and be consumed with self-loathing, which is highly pronounced because we can never get away from ourselves.

“This deep internalised shame gives rise to distorted thinking. The distorted thinking can be reduced to the belief that I’ll be okay if I drink, eat, have sex, get more money, work harder, etc.”

– John Bradshaw

We all have our own specific triggers or tender points that produce feelings of shame. The intensity of our experience varies depending upon our prior life experiences, cultural beliefs, personality, and the activating event. Unlike ordinary shame, toxic shame hangs around and alters our self-image. For some people, toxic shame can monopolise their personality, while for others, it lies beneath their conscious awareness, but can easily be triggered.

Characteristics of Toxic Shame

Toxic shame differs from ordinary shame, which passes in a day or a few hours, in the following respects:

It can hide in our unconscious, so that we’re unaware that we have shame.

When we experience shame, it lasts much longer.

The feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity.

An external event isn’t required to trigger it.

Our own thoughts can bring on feelings of shame.

It leads to shame spirals that cause depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair.

It causes chronic “shame anxiety” – the fear of experiencing shame.

It’s accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs originating in childhood and is associated with a negative “shame story” about ourselves.

It creates deep feelings of inadequacy.

Trauma can cause two types of damage, physical and spiritual. The physical damage occurs when trauma is severe enough to damage the body and sometimes damage the brain. The spiritual damage happens in the core identity of the soul. It is caused by the toxic shame from the trauma. The most damaging aspect of trauma is the toxic shame. The core of trauma therapy is healing from toxic shame.

“Toxic shame also wears the face of grandiosity. Grandiosity is a disorder of the will. It can appear as narcissistic self-enlargement or wormlike helplessness. Each extreme refuses to be human. Each exaggerates: one is more than human; the other is less than human.”

– John Bradshaw

Shame-Based Thoughts & Beliefs

The fundamental belief underlying shame is that “I’m unlovable — not worthy of connection.” Usually, internalised shame manifests as one of the following beliefs or a variation thereof:

I’m stupid!

I’m unattractive! (especially to a romantic partner).

I’m a failure, so I won’t try!

I’m a bad person!

I’m a fraud!

I’m selfish!

I’m not enough! (this belief can be applied to multiple areas).

I hate myself!

I don’t matter!

I’m defective or inadequate!

I shouldn’t have been born!

I’m unlovable!

I’m bad, dirty, evil!

I don’t belong!

I’m undeserving!

For us to be able to disagree with any of these messages, it requires a prefrontal cortex, left-brain decision. When many, if not most of these toxic shame messages are sent, the brain is in a low-road response, in other words, a fight-flight-freeze response. One reason this is so important is that when the brain is in a low-road response, the prefrontal cortex is offline, so there is no chance for disagreement. However, the message is not a misunderstanding of information. It is, instead a right-brain/limbic system internal state that is emotional, visceral, sensory and spiritual. You cannot take a left-brain solution to a right-brain problem and be successful. It’s like taking your bathroom scale to a height-measuring contest. Wrong instrument.

“The world needs people who have survived mistakes, tragedies, and trials to help the rest of us through. Where would we be if Victor Frankl had never experienced what he did during the war? He wouldn’t have used his experiences to benefit millions of people around the world.
The world needs you to let go of self-pity and shame regarding your life experiences, too. The world needs you to use the things you have learned for good. Stop letting your past mistakes define you and affect your value. Let go of separation and victimhood and find meaning in what you have been through.”
― Kimberly Giles

5 Signs You May Have Toxic Shame

1.You Wear Masks

When you suffer from toxic shame, one of the most common things you will do is wear a mask to cover your true identity. This is not a COVID mask to cover your physical identity, but rather a mask to cover who you truly are inside. Toxic shame makes you feel like who you really are is so bad that it isn’t presentable to the public. So, you create a version of yourself that you think would look better to others.

2.You Isolate Yourself

Even ordinary shame will make you isolate yourself for a little while, but usually not for too long. Most of the time healthy shame fades a bit as friends and family support you while you forgive yourself. The isolation from toxic shame can carry on for a long time, even after friends and family have tried to coax you out of your shell. If you’re isolating yourself from everyone and everything, you could be dealing with toxic shame.

3.You Won’t Express Yourself

You refuse to speak about the situation or event that caused your toxic shame. Usually, there is much more than a linear story and much more than a concrete right and wrong. It’s important to express yourself when you’ve made mistakes or lived through traumatic events. It’s even more important to express yourself about childhood issues that have caused shame in adulthood. If you don’t have anyone in your life that you trust enough to share your experiences with, then seek a professional. When emotion flows – pain goes.

4.You Lie About Many Things

Toxic feelings of shame will make you lie because the truth is harder to accept. If you’re asked about various personal things, you will lie, not only by distorting or deleting information, but also by fabricating the truth. You even lie to yourself about how you feel. By employing this tactic, you may temporarily feel some relief from the shame, but it never lasts. Toxic shame will continue until you accept the truth for yourself.

5. Low Self-Worth

It’s impossible to have high levels of self-worth and toxic shame at the same time. Your negative feelings about yourself, which have grown into an unrelenting shame, will cause extremely low-self-worth. A good indication of toxic shame is putting yourself down in front of others.

“Humans have long used shaming as a weapon to preserve social order and cohesion; indeed our brains are hardwired to register shame.”

– Shaili Jain

The Cause of Toxic Shame

Families are as sick as their secrets. The secrets are the things they are ashamed of. Family secrets can go back for generations. They can be about suicides, homicides, incest, abortions, addictions, public loss of face, financial disaster, etc. All the secrets get acted out. This is the power of toxic shame. In most cases, shame becomes internalised or toxic from chronic or intense experiences of shame in childhood.

Toxic shame is often the result of living with a narcissist and is the result of particularly manipulative conditioning. Children believe and internalise what their parents say about them. It is sadistic and destructive for a parent to make repetitive jokes at the expense of a vulnerable child. Many people discover this while healing childhood wounds and some develop toxic shame later in life due to traumatic or abusive relationships. Wherever it comes from the result is the same – a heavy weight pressing on your soul making it difficult for you to be authentic. Because toxic shame is often brought about by invalidation linked to lies, you can never really be sure of yourself. This makes building a healthy connection to who you truly are extremely difficult.

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”

― Carl Gustav Jung

Healthy control or invalidation is when someone tells you that you’re wrong. It’s usually about something that you’ve done and it may make you feel guilty. Toxic shame means that you feel wrong no matter what you do. Parents can unintentionally transfer their shame to their children through verbal messages or nonverbal behaviour. For an example, a child might feel unloved in reaction to a parent’s depression, indifference, absence, or irritability or feel inadequate due to a parent’s competitiveness or over-correcting behaviour.

Children need to feel uniquely loved by both parents. When that connection is breached, such as when a child is scolded harshly, children feel alone and ashamed, unless the parent-child bond of love is soon repaired. Toxic shame frequently happens from growing up in a house that is full of conflict. This is always accompanied by huge amounts of criticism. This is displayed by an adult blaming others (usually their children) using phrases such as: “Look what you made me do”; “It’s always your fault”; or “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be like this.”

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

― Brene Brown

The person on the receiving end will constantly feel flawed as a human being. They begin to think that there must be something wrong with them. Someone such as a partner or a boss can also cause toxic shame to someone when they have reached adulthood.

Relationship Dynamics

For those dealing with toxic shame, the charisma of the narcissist is an attracting force. The narcissist sweeps you off your feet, pulling you into a fantasy world where you are lavished with the love you have longed for since childhood. The irony is that some narcissists are also dealing with toxic shame, but they have responded by shutting off all feelings and creating an alter-personality that has covered up all the same by wearing the mask of grandiosity and selfishness.

People with toxic shame may also be driven to find a partner in a person they see as broken and needy.  The individual internalising shame from childhood can see the alcoholic as a way to redeem themselves by helping another and becoming their healer, saviour and caregiver. The result is a co-dependent relationship that neither is likely to leave.

“We cannot heal what we cannot feel. So without recovery, our toxic shame gets carried for generations.”

– John Bradshaw

How Can We Overcome the Paralysis of Toxic Shame?

You have the power to change your life if you are willing to change your thinking and release the patterns that keep you living in the past. Working through toxic shame requires:

Getting out of your own thoughts – talking to others about how you feel about yourself and not hiding away from shameful thoughts is a critical step in addressing the problem and moving towards healing. The thoughts we choose to think are the tools we use to paint the canvas of our lives.

“Shame is internalised when one is abandoned. Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically.”

― John Bradshaw

Inner child work – We did not come into this world loathing ourselves or wishing to numb our feelings. As small children, we operated from a place of wonder, curiosity, spontaneity and creativity. Reclaiming your inner child is part of the healing process. Often the inner child holds information and feelings for the adult. Some of these feelings are painful; others are actually fun. The child holds the playfulness and innocence the adult has had to bury. Healing that little child inside you who is looking for love and recognition is critical. This is also a step in co-dependency treatment, and it is an effective way to address the anxiety, depression, and perfectionism that many people with toxic shame experience. If we make a conscious decision not to be victims of the past and go about creating new lives for ourselves, we are supported by this power within, and new, happier experiences begin to unfold. Most of us have an inner parent that doesn’t take care of the inner child’s needs properly. They are more focused on the needs of the ego, such as pleasing other people in order to feel needed, or achieving success and getting recognition from others. This makes the inner parent happy for a short period of time, but it doesn’t last. There is always a feeling of not being fulfilled, no matter how much you achieve, because the inner child’s needs are not being met.

“Spiritual and emotional recovery are possible because the human brain is a living organ that we can transform by making new choices and being in non-shaming recovery-based environments.”

― Christopher Dines

Learning to love yourself – Self-improvement without self-love is like building a house on sand. You can build and build, but it will always sink. Love erases even the deepest and most painful memories because love goes deeper than anything else. There is only one thing that heals every problem, and that is: to love yourself. To learn more about this see our article on Self-Love

“A toxically shamed person has an adversarial relationship with himself. Toxic shame — the shame that binds us — is the basis for both neurotic and character disordered syndromes of behaviour.”

– John Bradshaw

The company you keep – In order to heal from toxic shame, it is essential to remove the toxic people who are involved in criticising and shaming you. This will take strength and may be difficult as first. Building new relationships with trusting, positive, and authentic people can help in this necessary step.

“Your pain needs to be recognised and acknowledged. It needs to be acknowledged and then released. Avoiding pain is the same as denying it.”

― Yong Kang Chan

How to Dissolve a Swamp of Toxic Shame

What follows is a combination of practices drawn from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to address shame as an implicit memory of attachment trauma.   Resourced with enough mindfulness, shame can be experienced as just another implicit memory of body sensations and chemicals. Shame no longer needs to block our experience of ourselves as whole, flexible, resilient, and loveable in any moment.

  1. Safety First

In order to feel safe opening our minds and hearts to the awareness of anything arising, we need to feel like someone has our back.  Here’s a meditation practice that can assist you to increase your sense of safety.

Place your hand on your heart.  Breathe gently and deeply in and out of your heart centre. Breathe in through the front and out through the back. Breathe in through the back and out through the front. Now breathe in any sense of goodness, safety, trust, acceptance, ease, you can muster.

Once that’s steady, call to mind a moment of being with someone who loves you unconditionally, someone you feel completely safe with.  This may not always be a partner or a parent or a child.  Those relationships can be complex and the feelings mixed.  It may be a good friend, a trusted teacher. It may be your grandmother, or even a pet.

As you remember feeling safe and loved with this person or pet, see if you can feel the feelings and sensations that rise with that memory in your body.  Savour this feeling of warmth, safety, trust, love in your body and feel it expand. When that feeling is steady, let go of the image and simply bathe in the feeling for 30 seconds.

The hand on the heart and the deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms us down.  Evoking the image of feeling safe and loved can activate the release of oxytocin in the brain.  Oxytocin is the hormone of safety and trust, of “calm and connect”. Oxytocin acts as an immediate antidote to cortisol, the hormone of the stress response, quelling the stress response of fight-flight-freeze.  Oxytocin is one of the best resources we have to recover from the effects of toxic shame and to support mindfulness practice, and we activate it by feeling loved and cherished. Doing the one-minute Hand on Heart exercise 5 times a day will actually begin to heal the heart and re-wire the brain.

  1. Regulating With Mindfulness

Even before we face the toxicity of shame directly, we can use the first foundation of mindfulness (mindfulness of the body) to train the mind to focus attention on, and hold an experience, without reactivity. All trauma memories, including the trauma of shame, are stored implicitly, unconsciously, as body sensations, posture, and movement.  Focusing attention on body sensations, especially neutral or positive body sensations, like the touch of clothing on the skin or the warmth of the hand on the heart, trains the mind to hold experience with equanimity, without reactivity, without judgment.

Here we can use the second foundation of mindfulness (mindfulness of feeling tone) to catch the initial response to any experience as positive, negative, or neutral.  The amygdala, the part of the limbic system of the brain that assesses for safety/danger 24/7, also assigns an emotional valence to any experience.  If we can catch the emotional valence or feeling tone of our responses before any story or belief system arises, we can let it go, or intentionally shift it, and short circuit a full-blown attack of toxic shame.

The third foundation of mindfulness is noticing and naming thoughts, feelings, and beliefs as thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.  When we notice what’s happening and name what’s happening – “this is fear again”, or “this is anger again”, or “this is my story that I’m not good enough again”, “here’s one part of me being disgusted and critical of another part of me again” – the noticing and naming keeps the frontal lobes of the higher brain firing. This is the part of the brain that knows what’s what, and decreases the firing of the amygdala, the part of the brain that sends us into alarm or shame.

Mindfulness is the primary tool we have to stay in and expand the window of tolerance. If we’re too anxious, too hyper aroused, we go up out of the window of tolerance. If we are too ashamed, shut down, we collapse down out of the window.  With equanimity, we can be present, aware, accepting, going with the flow, rolling with the punches, embracing experience exactly as it is.

3.  Experience with Compassion

From here, we can learn to hold any experience that arises with compassion, including moments of shame, failure, humiliation, including the disgust of the inner shamer-blamer. Here is where it’s important to understand the power of implicit memory. Most of the time when we are holding an experience of shame, we are holding an implicit memory of shame.  Those patterns of earlier response to relational injury are stored implicitly, outside awareness.  When we are triggered into an implicit memory of shame, there is no sensation of remembering, so the experience seems related to something that is happening in the present moment. The myriad of feelings, thoughts, and body sensations are there with no sense whatsoever that what we are actually experiencing is a memory.

So the third step is to contain the implicit memory of shame – the contraction, the collapse, the “I’m a terrible person” or “nobody loves me and nobody ever will” – with emerging self-compassion, self-empathy, self-acceptance. Self-empathy shelters the personal self that is having these experiences. “How painful it is that that memory of the experience of shame is here again.  Oh, this is so awful, so painful.  And I can love myself through every bit of it.” You are literally re-parenting that part of you that needs love.

Place your hand on your heart.  Breathe gently and deeply in and out of your heart centre. Breathe in through the front and out through the back. Breathe in through the back and out through the front. Now breathe in love, goodness, safety, trust, acceptance, ease, and gratitude. Expand this feeling and hold it for 30 seconds.

Beyond trusting that others find us loveable, we need to claim ourselves as loveable. This self-acceptance rewires our brain and heals the trauma of shame. When we have a hard time transmuting the empathy of others into empathy for ourselves, it helps to get the oxytocin flowing by first extending compassion to someone or something you love, like in the meditation.

4.  Reflection with Acceptance

When we step back from the experience of the moment and observe it without judgment, we are strengthening our capacity for mentalising – the self-reflective function that helps us move from the embedded “me” – this is who I am; I will never change – to a reflective “I” that is able to hold the many states and traits of self in a larger perspective where shame is seen and known as only one state of being, not a global truth or a trait.

Remember a moment in your life when you were free of shame, a moment of delight or inner peace or serenity, when neither shame nor the shamer were anywhere to be found.  Feel that feeling in your body, holding it in awareness and acceptance. Then “step back” from that experience and “see” that your reflective self, the witness, the seer, is holding that experience as one possible experience out of many.  You can repeat this exercise with as many different emotions or states of mind as is necessary to eventually be able to “step back” from an experience of shame and “see” it also as just one possible experience out of many.

From the view of the reflective “I” we no longer have to identify with any of these experiences or states as “me.”  The awareness holds all these experiences, as implicit memories in the moment, with understanding and acceptance.  We can then begin to work with these states to re-wire them in ways that are more adaptive.

  1. Repairing and Rewiring

Our bodies are amazing. We are built with neural plasticity – the capacity for our brain to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections lifelong. Repairing and rewiring  is the moment of brain change. We pro-actively re-pair the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy, self-compassion, and self-love.

We evoke the old experience or memory of shame; activating those well-rehearsed neural networks.  We cultivate self-empathy, self-compassion, self-love, and now those neural networks are firing. These two patterns of neural nets begin firing together at the same time.  They wire together, and new circuitry is created in that moment, sometimes quite dramatically! The sense of shame literally dissolves in the larger self-awareness and self-empathy, like a teaspoon of salt in a lake. No more charge.  No big deal.  We may have to practice this over and over if we have a swamp of salt to dissolve, but this is how it works.

Place your hand on your heart.  Breathe gently and deeply in and out of your heart centre. Breathe in through the front and out through the back. Breathe in through the back and out through the front. Now breathe in love, goodness, safety, trust, acceptance, ease, and gratitude. Expand this feeling and hold it for 30 seconds.

We repeat this practice of re-pairing as many times as is necessary to re-wire the old neural nets of shame.  The emerging flexibility in how our brains process relational experiences allows us to relate to self and others with new ease, acceptance, resilience, and love.

“Some researchers have proposed that experiencing empathy and compassion through the mirror neuron system is equivalent to having compassion for yourself. Thus, “giving is receiving ” is a brain-based truth. Insensitivity and selfishness are essentially bad for your brain and your mental health. In contrast, compassion and loving relationships are good for your brain and your mental health.”
― John B. Arden


Recent Posts

Follow us on your favourite platform to receive daily updates. Not all platforms are created equal. Click on the ankh to make your selection and we’ll see you in the comments.

Send Us A Message

error: Alert: Copyright Pure Element 5 (2020) Content is protected.
%d bloggers like this: