What Causes Toxic Shame?
Sometimes I get clients who are really nice people, they seem honest, and really want to feel better, but they just don’t budge. Almost always the underlying reason is toxic shame. They have a deep belief that they are bad, and they don’t deserve to feel any better.
That’s utter nonsense. Everyone has a beautiful light inside. Sometimes we let poor choices overshadow it and we forget to let it shine. Or sometimes we grow up in invalidating environments and the people around us throw so much shade that we don’t learn that it’s there. Whatever the reason, we don’t have to live with it. Every day is a new opportunity to have a different life. We just have to choose, then stay the course.
Sometimes that’s easier when we know that it’s not our fault, so let’s look at what causes toxic shame.
What Causes Toxic Shame?
- Traumatic abuse – beatings, molestation, incest, rape, homelessness, hunger, abandonment
- Emotional abuse – bullying by other kids, name calling (Fatty, Ugly, Stupid, etc.), invalidating comments – even if they are not spoken in angry tones, such as “Are you going to wear that?” or “Don’t come home without an A.”
- Judging you as bad or wrong instead of targeting behaviors. Example: “You’re a bad boy” instead of “Let’s work on getting this grade up.” This usually starts in childhood with parents or teachers, but could be done by your boss, lover, or anyone at any stage of life.
- Being left out of typical developmental events due to physical isolation, poverty, uninvolved parents, mentally ill parents, or parents with addiction issues.
- Feeling like you don’t belong because you’re part of a minority group – particularly if you perceive that the dominant group is actively marginalizing you.
- Inconsistency. If you get mixed messages (I love you/I hate you) from someone in authority, someone you trust, or someone you love, it’s easy to take responsibility for whatever problems arise.
- Withholding praise, love, and affirmation. Everyone needs warmth, protection, approval, and a sense of belonging.
- Feeling invisible. This can happen in many ways, for example you’re an outlier (too smart, not cool, you look different, you’re wildly talented, etc.), you live in a single parent household and your parent is away working all the time, you are an only child, you have a helicopter parent and don’t get to make your own decisions.
- When someone in authority invalidates you. For example, you have real medical symptoms that doctors can’t explain so they accuse you of malingering.
- Being a victim to a crime that you feel you failed to stop. When it’s all over, it may seem to you or others that you could have done something different. This could make you feel that it was your fault. It’s not.
The bottom line is that repeated invalidation, rejection, and negative judgments are the seeds of toxic shame. The way we were treated becomes the way we treat ourselves and sometimes others.
Now that you know what causes it, if you see yourself doing this to others, stop. If you see it happening to you, either ask the other person to stop or remove yourself from the situation. It’s almost impossible to heal from the situation if it’s ongoing. The continued invalidation will just undermine any progress that you make. But rest assured, you can heal from this. For more on that, click here.