I’ve never had any client come into my office saying, “I suffer from toxic shame.” In fact, a lot of people don’t know what it is or that it’s a problem. They think of it as something “normal” or “not a big deal.” Toxic shame can keep you from living a vibrant, healthy life. So let’s take a look at it.

Guilt Is Not The Same Thing as Shame

Guilt is the unpleasant feeling that happens when you don’t live up to your values or other people’s expectations. For example, if I like being perceived as reliable, and I say that I will do something and don’t do it, I may feel guilty about it. If I want my mother to think well of me, and I forget all about her birthday, I might feel guilty about that.

Guilt happens to remind us of what’s important to us so that we can self-correct, make amends, and learn from the experience. When we use guilt as a gentle wake up call, it’s a healthy and short-lived emotion that doesn’t visit often.

Healthy Shame vs. Toxic Shame

People experience guilt when we do something that is not in alignment with our self concept. Doing “wrong” isn’t enough to create shame. Shame happens when someone else knows that we’ve done something “wrong.” It’s the fear of being ostracized because of what we did.

Like guilt, shame can be healthy if we use it as feedback to help us become kinder, more considerate, fix what was broken, and behave in more pro-social ways.

Humans are social creatures. We need each other to survive, so it benefits us and others when we get along well and practice healthy boundaries. It makes us and others happier. Feeling shame is a way to move us back to that soft, loving place of belonging.

Shame becomes toxic when we make it personal. The message isn’t “I did something bad.” It’s “I’m bad, worthless, unlovable, unworthy, no good, defective, selfish, a failure,” or something like this. When we have these sorts of thoughts, shame is self-destructive. We may even try to escape it by harming others. So how do you know if you have it? Let’s take a look.

Symptoms of Toxic Shame

  • lack of engagement. This can look like not trying things out of fear of failure, underachievement, not speaking up to avoid looking stupid or being judged, or staying to yourself.
  • perfectionism. One one hand someone with toxic shame may not try at all. On the other, they may try to avoid shame by being perfect. Neither is sustainable and will set them up for failure. One sets the bar too low and the other too high.
  • avoidance of conflict. Conflict is normal. It’s a way to get our needs met and be heard. If we avoid it because we don’t think we deserve to be heard, or we feel we’re wrong before you even speak, we could be suffering from toxic shame.
  • self-loathing. This might show up as not being able to accept a compliment or see nice things in ourselves. Perhaps we don’t feel we are capable of doing well or succeeding. Some people tear others down to hide their self-loathing. They elevate their status by making someone else lower.
  • ruminating over past “failures” or embarrassing situations.
  • lack of trust and suspicion.
  • substance abuse. This is a way to escape from the feelings.
  • short-lived relationships that are plagued by dysfunction.
  • avoiding mistakes by letting opportunities pass you by, lying to cover up mistakes, blaming others, not apologizing, and not making amends. This is burying our head in the sand. It’s like saying, “If I don’t acknowledge it, it didn’t happen.”
  • disappearing. It’s too painful to face other people. We don’t want them to find out the truth about us, so it’s easier to just stay away.
  • angry outbursts. Anger helps us avoid feeling the shame.
  • blaming. This shifts the responsibility to someone else so we can avoid feeling shame or being perceived as wrong or bad.
  • people pleasing. If we appear good and can get someone else’s approval, perhaps we’re not so bad after all.
  • settling for less than we really want because we don’t feel you deserve more or could have something different.
  • mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and intense mood swings.
  • negativity. Since we don’t trust people, we tend to see the worst in others and can be critical.
  • hypersensitive to criticism. People with toxic shame expect pain and criticism, so they may see it even if it’s not intended.
  • self-sabotaging behaviors. People with toxic shame tend to be victimized by others because they fail to protect themselves and feel they deserve poor treatment.
  • they may be self-improvement junkies because they think there is so much wrong with them.

If you’re looking at this list and saying, “Oh, my gosh! I have some of those!” relax. We all have some of them some of the time. It’s normal. However, if you have more than a few that have been around for a long time, and nothing seems to help, you may be carrying toxic shame.

Since this doesn’t seem to be something that people are aware of, I wanted to bring it out into the open. People need to be aware that it’s a problem and that it can be healed. No matter what happened to set the wheel of toxic shame into motion, it is absolutely, positively not your fault. The things that happened to you did not make you worthless. Nothing can do that. The things that you did are not unforgivable. Everything can be healed.

More information on what causes toxic shame, click here.