How toxic shame affects your whole being - and 3 steps towards healing yourself

Category: Better Mood | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 14-07-2017 | Modified: 05-11-2018

Toxic shame can have an enormous impact on your mental health - scientists and mental health professionals agree.

If you've landed on this page, you too might be suffering. I'd like to reassure you right off - you're not alone!

You may be:

  • ashamed of your body
  • ashamed of being gay
  • ashamed of sex
  • ashamed of the way you speak
  • ashamed of your past
  • ashamed of being you - everything about yourself

If you suffer from the latter, you could be feeling that you're never 'good enough'. Your self-esteem is in your boots.

Research suggests that such a profound sense of shame has a major hand to play in addiction. It also plays a role in depression and social anxiety disorder, as well as many other problems.

In this article, I'll talk about the differences between guilt and shame, and particularly shame’s link to low self-esteem. You'll discover how shame can become toxic and the effect it can have on you. And...  of course I'll aim to help you make a start in overcoming that sense of shame and improving your self-esteem.

Let's start with separating guilt from shame…

Are you feeling guilty or ashamed?

When you experience guilt, you're likely to feel something like: “This thing I’ve done is wrong”. In other words, you think about your behaviour. In that case, you're able to separate your sense of self from your actions. You're able to learn from the consequences of your behaviour and you can choose to change it.

When you experience shame, what you’re saying to yourself is altogether different. You’re no longer separating your ‘self’ from your actions. You believe that how you behave indicates that you're a bad/wrong human being! This feeling - at its worst - can be so overwhelmingly painful that your mind/body responds as it might in a major emergency. You want to run away, fight your way out or you simply freeze.

The good news for many is that you’re able to overcome that. That feeling is likely to become less intensive and will pass within a few minutes, hours or a couple of days. You’re able to process the situation and possibly treat yourself more kindly in future. You were still able to learn and adapt your attitude and behaviour accordingly.

Healthy shame is an emotion that teaches us about our limits. Like all emotions shame moves us to get get our basic needs met."

John Bradshaw

What if that sense of shame becomes toxic?

It may be that some of your life experiences have led to you to succumb to something much more destructive. Perhaps, as a child, you were severely or repeatedly shamed by a parent figure (whether deliberately or unknowingly).

Or, as a child or adult you experienced a traumatic shaming event and you were/felt unsupported. You could, for example, have been bullied at school, in the workplace, or been singled out for humiliation by a teacher or manager.

It's possible, then, that that sense of shame has taken up residence inside of you. You carry it permanently with you. You might find that you constantly feel ashamed of yourself, your thoughts, your actions, your body and any one or all of the aspects of your personality, regardless of what others say. That's what 'toxic' shame is all about.

Image quote: Hold on to hope and take steps towards a new tomorrow. Baby steps are fine!

How shame leads to depression

These constant feelings of being “less than” may lead to feelings of depression or hopelessness. Over time, your internal belief system - how you view yourself - can become something like...  

  • “I’m stupid, and I’ll never learn. In fact, I’m incapable of learning.”  
  • “I’m a failure now, and I’m probably always going to be a failure.”
  • “I’m unlovable. I’m probably going to die alone.”
  • “I don’t matter to anyone. My parents, friends, partner might say they love me, but they don’t really mean it.”
  • “I’m ugly, why would anyone find me attractive?”
  • “I’m a fraud. People keep telling me I’m intelligent or good to be around but they don’t know the real me.”
  • “I am defective - I was born defective. I’m different to everyone else, and I’ll never fit in.”
  • “It just would have been better for me and everyone else if I’d never been born.”
  • “I’m not now and nor will I ever be enough. I’m not intelligent enough, good looking enough, driven enough, tough enough, loveable enough, likeable enough…”

The most debilitating thoughts are:

“If I or anyone else tries to tell me anything different about any of the above - it’s a lie. They don’t mean it. They don’t know me. I don’t deserve to be what they’re telling me I am…”

That toxic shame - the gremlin on your shoulder - reinforces feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. It also fights off and denies anything positive. That gremlin now has the upper hand. It acts as a filter between you and the world. It filters out anything positive, and it highlights the negative. In fact, I suspect that you turn any conversation or event into something that fits your (negative) perception of yourself, no matter what.

As we've seen, it isn't necessarily wrong to feel a measure of guilt if you think you've done wrong (please also read my articles on Dealing with Criticism and Signs of an Abusive Relationship). What isn't helpful is if you allow that gremlin free range to turn anything and everything into a shaming hell!

Wooden doll trying to hide behind arms.

What is toxic shame?

Watch this short video by Dr Lauren Costine to learn where the term comes from and what it means...

How toxic shame, a sense of worthlessness and low self-esteem are linked

If your sense of shame has become so toxic that it rears its ugly head when there's no need, I want you to know that there's hope! You can heal!

Let's first get that gremlin - that voice in your head - to face the light.

Here's what I suspect happens…

When someone says anything like: "that's great", you wait for the big "BUT...".

You immediately come up with stories about how you've messed up similar situations in the past, just to confirm your worst fears...

3 Ways that a deep sense of shame can affect you

  1. You rewrite your personal history
  2. You negatively predict your future
  3. You aim for perfection

1. You may be rewriting your personal history

It's possible that you're also applying all of the above 'stories' to past events just to 'prove' to yourself that you're 'no good'.

For example, you may have applied ”I’m stupid, and I’ll never learn” to any memories of perceived mistakes that even slightly resemble a present situation. “See - that's what I did then - proof that I can’t learn, I'm an idiot! Look at all of these times I've messed up in the same way!”

2. You're predicting your future

Chances are that as well as looking into your past for 'evidence', you also look to your future and predict: “I’ve never learnt from my mistakes in the past. I’ve proven that to myself because I’ve just made the same bloody mistake right now…I’m never going to be able to learn. I will always be like this!”

That is one of the most painful and destructive aspects of it all. Every time you get into a story about how bleak you think your future is, you damage the relationship with yourself even further!

 3. You've solved it - the 'solution' is aiming for perfection

Toxic shame has yet another symptom that negatively affects your ability to forge a loving relationship with yourself, and indeed anybody else. But, you thought you found a way to deal with that sense of shame and worthlessness: 'simply' prevent any mistakes by striving for perfection. That would doubtless prevent any chance you'd look the fool, and another painful episode of punishment.

And so you're setting yourself up for failure because part of the human condition is that we all make mistakes - we're all perfectly imperfect. Rather than learn from any mistakes, you've found yourself in that self-critical loop. Your 'solution' is now compounding the problem.

A glimmer at the end of the tunnel

Book cover: Healing the shame that binds you. John BradshawAn invaluable help in healing yourself

Please know that you can overcome those destructive feelings.

It will take time - it's not is not an overnight journey - but you can do it! It takes courage - which you have in bucket loads (just think how much courage it takes just to face the day!).

It also takes commitment - which you have too. Haven't you been completely committed to undermining yourself at every turn? ;-)

Maybe, just maybe, you can see that you're worth more than the pain you put yourself through. So, let's start...

Ways to help overcome that toxic sense of shame

3 Steps towards healing yourself

  1. Notice when you're giving yourself a hard time
  2. Write down simple statements you can believe about yourself 
  3. Be kind to yourself

1. Notice when you shame yourself

Are you feeling less than your colleagues, your friends or anybody else?

Are you biting back from a place of hurt if your partner points out that something you’re doing might not be for the best?

Are you beating yourself up for not getting something right on the first try?

Notice where that’s coming from - you, or that gremlin?

Once you’ve noticed it, pause and honestly ask if that voice in your head is right. This a critical step, for once you're able to separate yourself from the problem, you gain a measure of control.

2. Write simple value statements about yourself

Your core values are your guiding principles that help you to make decisions, from micro- to life-changing ones, thereby helping you to shape your life.

They can either be values you know you have. Or, if you struggle with that, write a shopping list of values you'd like and you're sure would really fit you.

Here are some examples:

“I value my tenacity.”
“I value my courage.”
“I value my patience.”
“I value my intelligence.”
“I value my kindness.”

Your values could also include: learning, honesty, health, creativity. Find out what things really matter to you (see link at the end of the article for a long list of values).

Please note: these affirmations only work to your advantage if you truly believe them. Therefore do take your time to write them. Don't just stand in front of the mirror proclaiming that you're the most this or that when, deep down, you don't believe that.

It's vital that reminding yourself of your values becomes part of your daily routine. They provide a framework to support your healing, help to improve your self-esteem and guide your daily actions. They act like your best friends in times of trouble and uncertainty.

3. Approach yourself in a more loving way

Whenever you notice your shame gremlin rearing its ugly head, and that voice kicks in with:

“You’re not good enough for this. You’re too scared to get your point across, don’t even bother trying.”

Then take a value statement and reply lovingly with:

“I know I’m scared, that’s okay. I value my courage and I value my intelligence. Therefore, I will be all right. I can do this.”

Has your sense of shame led to other mental health problems?

That deep-rooted feeling may have manifested itself in other mental health problems such as addiction, co-dependency, depression, anxiety or myriad other issues.

No matter what - you are not alone, and even the tiniest step out of that hole is worth it. You are worth it, even if you can't bring yourself to believe that right now.

Taking care of yourself

Here's a free printable worksheet to you help you nurture yourself...

Free printable worksheet

Specially for you - to help you move forward. Click the link to download the Taking Care of Yourself worksheet.

The foundations of change - how to build your self-esteem

Those 3 ways of tackling toxic shame, worthlessness and low-self-esteem serve as a great start. But, you and I know that toxic shame is a complicated and deep rooted issue. You'll have experienced how it affects every aspect of your life.

I'd therefore really like you to consider getting some professional help in addition to the above steps. You're likely to need help with getting that constantly whispering gremlin of your shoulder. A professional, licensed therapist will take all the time necessary to understand you. He or she will champion every tiny step forward, and support and encourage you when you feel it's all become too much to deal with.

You can contact Better Help or, if you're in a relationship, for professional counselling. You'll be able to connect with your own therapist - in confidence - any time you need to and on any device.


I know that if you're so ashamed of all that you are, you're going through a very dark time right now.

Know that nothing lasts in life and that this too will pass if you really commit to overcoming that toxic shame. Allow the world to benefit from that unique combination of resources - talents and skills - you were born with. Even if you don't believe in it right now, know that every single human being is uniquely talented and capable, and that includes you.

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Related articles

How to Build Your Self-Esteem
How to Deal with Depression
How to Deal with Stress
Stages of Alcoholism
Warning Signs of Alcoholism
Nervous Breakdown Symptoms

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