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What is Toxic Shame? (The Little-Known Mental Illness)
by Aletheia Luna ·
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“Shame on you!”

How many times did you hear those words as a child?

As children, our teachers would shame us for doing something naughty in class, just as our parents and peer group would occasionally shame us – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.

The experience certainly wasn’t pleasant, but the shame was temporary and it quickly passed.
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We all experience shame sooner or later. Some people even argue that shame is useful because it keeps law and order within our societies by preventing offenders from harming others.

So what’s the big deal?

While shame is a normal (and extremely painful) emotion to go through, it becomes abnormal and highly destructive when we internalize and carry it with us.

Table of contents
What is Toxic Shame?

“Toxic shame” is a term that was first coined by psychologist Silvan Tomkins in the 1960s. Unlike normal shame, toxic shame stays buried within the mind and becomes a part of our self-identity.

In other words, a person suffering from toxic shame will experience a chronic sense of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and self-loathing – all connected to the belief that they are innately “shameful” or “bad.”

Toxic shame is the internalized and buried shame that rots within us.

What Causes Toxic Shame?

Toxic shame is most commonly reinforced through childhood experiences. For example, our mother or father may have constantly physically punished us or verbally expressed how ashamed or disappointed they were of us.

We may have even adopted the idea that we were shameful indirectly through nonverbal displays from our parents, e.g. our mother or father withholding affection, looking at us in a certain way, favoring our siblings more than us.

Shame can also be internalized through experiences at school with our teachers, friends, or other family members.

And of course, toxic shame is also caused by extreme forms of abuse like incest, rape, and other forms of sexual assault that cause us to lose our grounding in reality.

Sometimes toxic shame develops from later life traumatic experiences such as living in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, work incidents in which we are humiliated, repeated rejection from other people and organizations, betrayal, and so forth.

What is the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

Don’t confuse guilt with shame: they might seem related, but they are completely different experiences.

Guilt is feeling sorry for something you have done.

Shame is feeling sorry about who you are as a person.
And toxic shame is feeling bad about who you are as a person all the time – it is pervasive.

Symptoms of Toxic Shame

As a person who has suffered from toxic shame, I know how viscerally painful this emotion can be. When toxic shame hangs around you long enough, it gets embedded not only in your mind, but in your body: in your defeated posture, in the way you move, the way you talk, and the way you relate to others.

Toxic shame can sabotage your best efforts and undermine every good experience that you have.

This is why I feel that it’s so important for people to be aware of this ‘little-known’ mental illness.

No, it is not a classic mental illness like anxiety or bipolar disorder, but I believe that it forms the very basis of many major mental illnesses out there, and thus, it is vital that we explore and understand it.

If you’re suffering from toxic shame, there will be a number of signs:
  • Frequently reliving traumatic memories from the past that cause shame
  • General suspicion and mistrust of other people (even when they’re trying to be nice)
  • Self-loathing and low self-esteem
  • Feelings of chronic unworthiness
  • Dysfunctional relationships with others (often involving codependency)
  • Self-sabotage
  • “Shame anxiety” – the fear of experiencing shame
  • Feelings of being a “fraud” or phony (also known as imposter syndrome)
  • Self-martyrdom and self-victimization
  • “Settling” for unfulfilling jobs, relationships, or situations
  • An angry or defensive persona (as a defense mechanism)
  • People-pleasing (to compulsively try and feel better about oneself)
  • Perfectionism
  • Frequently feeling a sense of irrational guilt
  • Addictive tendencies (to escape and numb the shame)
  • Mental illnesses that branch off toxic shame such as depression, anxiety, PTSD
Common core beliefs that a person who suffers from toxic shame carries may include:
  • I am unlovable
  • I am worthless
  • I am stupid
  • I am a bad person
  • I’m a phony
  • I don’t matter
  • I’m defective
  • I’m selfish
  • I am a failure
  • I am ugly
  • I shouldn’t have been born
How to Heal Your Toxic Shame

Believing that you are innately and fundamentally unworthy, inadequate, and despicable as a human being is incredibly hard to live with.

If you are struggling with this issue I’m sure that you don’t need to be told how painful it is.

Having struggled with toxic shame,
I want to share with you what helped me get out of this self-destructive mindset and turn my life around. I hope that this advice helps you too:

1. Look into the Mirror

The mirror exercise is one that you need to prepare a space for by first relaxing and setting aside five to ten minutes. Once you have set aside a quiet space, sit in front of a mirror (or stand if you prefer).

Look directly into your eyes and allow yourself to feel any of the emotions that arise. When I first did this exercise I cried … all the pent up emotions I had been storing just flooded out, particularly all the self-hatred I was carrying.

So let yourself cry if you feel the need to. You might also experience feelings such as disgust, embarrassment, shyness, awkwardness, or anger … and it is OK to experience these.

Once you’ve let any emotions out, it is now time to let the outside in – by that, I mean gaze at yourself in the mirror.

Look into your eyes and think of something sincerely loving and caring to say such as “I love you,” “I accept you,” “You are worthy,” “You are beautiful.”

You can spend anywhere from three to ten minutes doing this.

When you are finished, genuinely smile at yourself in the mirror.

Notice whether your face looks different or not. Interestingly, mirror work has the tendency to soften the face or slightly changing its appearance. I also like to finish by cradling myself in a hug, and I encourage you to as well.

For more guidance on how to do this practice, see our mirror work article.

2. Release tension from your body

Our thoughts, emotions, and traumas are stored within our bodies as sickness and muscle pain.

The most common area where shame is stored is in the lower back and stomach region (check out the many different bodily correspondences of muscle tension here).

In order to facilitate the process of healing, I highly recommend that you learn how to calm and soothe your body through practices such as yoga, qi gong, tai chi, massage therapy, or simple stretching every day.

One of my favorite tools to use is the AcuBall ball which gives an amazingly satisfying deep tissue massage.

You might also like to use foam rollers that athletes use or other myofascial release tools that you can buy from Amazon or your local sports store.

3. Become aware of your self-destructive thoughts

Explore your core beliefs and cognitive distortions. These are essentially the darkened lenses that you see yourself through.

Keep a private journal and record these thoughts and your feelings about them. It’s important that you keep a journal because otherwise there will be no way to record your insights, progress, and inner work.

Learn more about how to journal.

4. Practice authentic self-compassion

Self-compassion is about showing yourself genuine concern, care, and love. It can take a while to shift from a self-hating mindset to a self-compassionate mindset, so I recommend starting small.

Do one caring this for yourself every day. For example, you might like to repeat a comforting statement like “I am worthy of love” or take care of your physical needs.

Start wherever the biggest concern for you is. For example, if you have “settled” for unfulfilling friendships, try to remove these people from your life and seek out more supportive friends.

If you have physical health concerns such as obesity, change your diet. Perform every act as an expression of love for yourself.
Self-compassion is something that needs to be practiced No exceptions.

No matter whether you plan for it or let it come spontaneously, ensure that you’re always seeking to care for yourself in some way. In this manner, you will slowly reprogram your unconscious mind by asserting that yes, you are worthy, loveable, intelligent, strong, and capable.

5. Re-parent your inner child

Toxic shame has its roots in childhood abandonment, abuse, and trauma.

As such, feeling better will almost always go back to accessing your childhood self – the very part of you that was confronted with the trauma in the first place.

Learning how to interact with and care for your younger self is called inner child work, and there are a number of reasons why this practice is powerful.

Firstly, inner child work helps you to access feelings that you may have repressed and dissociated from in an attempt to protect yourself as a child.

By re-experiencing these emotions, you will be able to release them from your body and mind and generate deep healing.

Secondly, inner child work is tremendously insightful and revealing: often some of the most important questions you’ve carried consciously or subconsciously are answered while doing inner child work.

Thirdly, inner child work is self-compassion in action. When you learn how to re-parent your inner child you develop a deep and strong connection with yourself which has a ripple effect on the rest of your life.
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Go on a journey through the deepest and darkest corners of your psyche. Embrace your inner demons, uncover your hidden gifts, and reach the next level of your spiritual growth. This is deep and powerful work!
Some of the best ways to connect with your inner child include painting and drawing (art therapy), creative writing, meditating with pictures of yourself as a child, visualizations, and doing whatever you loved to do as a child.

By learning how to listen to and care for that vulnerable place inside of you, toxic shame will have no place to grow. For more help, read my article on re-parenting your inner child.
Toxic shame is an excruciatingly painful thing to carry around inside. But now that you have read this article, you are at the very least conscious of its potential existence within you.

Simply being conscious is a huge step in the direction of healing and recovery!

The next step is to take any of the tips in this article and actively apply them to your life. Don’t skip this step! Without taking action you will continue to suffer.

So go right now and re-read the section above on how to heal toxic shame. Choose one activity that calls to you and practice it starting from today.

Also, don’t forget to keep a journal of your progress. Journaling is an extremely useful tool that anyone can use (regardless of how good you are at spelling or not!).

What is your experience with toxic shame … and what advice can you share for others in a similar position? Comment below!
« 13 Signs You’re Struggling With Emotional Numbness (the Secret Illness)
13 Signs You’re a Judgmental Person (and How to End the Habit) »
About Aletheia Luna
Aletheia Luna is a prolific psychospiritual writer, author, and spiritual mentor whose work has touched the lives of millions worldwide. As a survivor of fundamentalist religious abuse, her mission is to help others find love, strength, and inner light in even the darkest places. She is the author of hundreds of popular articles, as well as numerous books and journals on the topics of Self-Love, Spiritual Awakening, and more. [Read More]
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(52) Comments
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  2. Erin
    October 03, 2021 at 3:32 am
    You know… it is incredible interesting and definitely not by chance that I stumbled across this article today. Thanks to my obsession with Pinterest, and my desire to learn more about certain Niches … I saw ” Toxic Shame” and decided to dive into it. … Low and behind… I had literally every single sign of toxic shame that you mentioned in this. I never knew what was “wrong” with me. I always have struggled with wondering if I am good enough- even the causes of toxic shame in this article were spot on for me. This article is so important to me now in the fact that … now I know and can start taking the steps to heal. I just marked this date down in my journal too. This day.. this article. You may have just saved a life.
    <3 Thanks. I will be grateful to you for writing this article for forever and always- and even after that!!!
    • Erin
      October 03, 2021 at 3:34 am
      Also- pretty funny how it said no matter how you are at spelling because I obviously suck. Proof above lol.
    • Aletheia Luna
      January 14, 2022 at 1:46 pm
      Wow Erin, just wow, a comment like yours really hits my heart and makes my day. I’m so glad you found this when you most needed it – destiny! Much love for your healing journey ♡
  3. Marie June Menzies-Brown
    April 13, 2021 at 7:39 am
    this is excellent information
    Thank you
    Not many psychologist are aware of this component of mental health and it’s effects for continued contributory factors in depression and mental health
  4. Don O
    January 22, 2021 at 4:04 am
    To Alex,
    Your experience sounds a lot like my own in many ways. Around the age of 10, I knew there was something different about me. You describe your good grades, dislike of sports, and lack of social skills. Same here. I remember crying myself to sleep many nights wondering why I wasn’t like the other kids.
    My dad was in the service and was pretty much non-existent for the first five years of my life. Then they divorced around that time so I think I saw him maybe twice after that. My mom was very young when she had me and I don’t think she had the capacity to be a parent at that time. My grandparents pretty much raised me but they worked a lot and I was kind of regarded as something that needs to be fed and bathed. In spite of that, I thought I had a pretty good childhood until I started remembering some of the BS that happened to me growing up. I knew there was a reason I am the way I am but I didn’t know what to call it or what caused it.
    Toxic shame hits the nail square on the head for me
  5. AutumnSky
    September 30, 2020 at 8:17 pm
    What I don’t understand, is why do you think that physical abuse is the initial cause of internalized shame? I would assume that shame in such situation would be a reaction of only someone with already damaged and warped self-esteem, but not the initial reason for it.
  6. Karen
    July 27, 2020 at 12:58 am
    This is a highly relevant topic for me.
    I would also put this condition in with Complex PTSD.
    I have experienced all of the above symptoms, traumas and experiences. I have been diagnosed with not only bipolar 2,CPTSD, dual diagnosis a long history of substance issues to boot. I was put on an ITO for just over a month after yet another failed suicide attempt.
    Finally I was correctly diagnosed after decades of antidepressants for manic depression.
    My longtime personal motto that I now have proudly tattooed on my arm is
    Never be ashamed of your yesterday’s or afraid of your tomorrow’s.
    I hope other troubled souls claim that affirmation for their own too
  7. Asia
    May 19, 2020 at 12:39 am
    Thank you for this article. I lived with a toxic shame for my whole life not even knowing about it. I was agressive, impulsive, distancing myself from my vulnerability and kindness of others. I felt scared when someone was kind to me, intimacy was a big threat to me. I never thought i could speak withought being judged negatively. After riding this article i did inner child work. I saw myself as a terrified child in a deep hole. Wild and snarling like a trapped animal . And upstairs was a group of adults shouting and being aggressive towards me. My currend self appeared there, saved my inner child and led her to a village full of cheerful children and warm women. It took a while to build trust but after a while my little self feld good, loved like never before. I cried and after the process I felt relief. I felt something unlocked. Thank you Aletheia
  8. Scott
    April 04, 2020 at 10:49 am
    Lots of the suggestions here revolve around positive self-talk and affirmations. Look into a mirror and tell yourself “I am worthy of love.” At least once a day, tell yourself something like “I accept you.”
    But what if these statements just aren’t true?
    I mean, I can repeat to myself over and over, “I am worthy of love,” and I suppose it’s possible that if I do that enough, I might start to believe it.
    But just because I believe it does not make it the truth.
    • Heidi
      June 03, 2020 at 4:11 pm
      Oh Scott! This is the very definition that the article above is trying to describe! EVERYONE is worthy of love!
    • Ellie
      September 13, 2020 at 5:16 am
      It is the ultimate truth.
    • MNB
      February 07, 2021 at 8:29 am
      Scott, your question is addressed on another page: How to Practice Mirror Work (7 Step Guide)
      That page suggests using affirmations that are indeed honest and true for you where you are, like “I am learning to love you” or “It is ok for me to feel sad” or others, just worded in a positive way.
      Here I am like I know something!! I’m starting at the same place as you, experimenting with what statements are true enough for now. I hope you find some that work! For starters, you are brave enough to post about a limitation you bumped into! Way to go!
  9. Karen Whitfield
    March 11, 2020 at 10:13 pm
    I’ve never heard of this until I ran across it on Pinterest. It describes most of my life to a tee..I have been treated for bipolar and mamic depression and slso most of my life I’ve ever self medicated to o ease the pain which caused me to be an addict from around the she of sixteen. I’m fifty six now and desperately want to seek help for my addictions. And I have been trying lately to get up the courage to tell ake the first step to do so
    Actually fiance and I had just discussed and agreed to do something about our issue ASAP. Then I gaiund this. It kind if helped me realize why I turned to drigs and alcohol to begin with. I’m thankful that you wrote this article or else I might not have gone through with my plans to get to the help that I do desperately need. We hat I read just inspired me to to what I have to do TODAY. I’m taking the first step to get the help I’ve been afraid to get because I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and I’m afraid of failure. Sldo have trust issues. Thanks again for sharing this knowledge that me and ,I’m sure ,many many others need to find.
  10. Alex
    January 28, 2020 at 10:39 pm
    This is stupid and I hate this.
    Everything is wrong and it drives me crazy. Why can’t I be like everyone else? What’s the point in having all these sensibilities if all they bring is suffering and pain? What’s the point of being smart if it just shows you how flawed you really are? Why can’t you be like everyone else?
    Being ‘special’ means you are different, not normal, separate, distant from others, alone in your ‘uniqueness’. All I ever wanted is to be like everyone else, part of the herd, not feeling the anxiety of wondering if I’ll be accepted or not.
    My parents were rather distant. My father worked abroad so much the first time I ever saw him I was 3 yo and didn’t knew who he was. He was a stranger to me and this funny little notion was passed around my family as a joke: “Look at him, he doesn’t remember his dad! :D See this, dad? You work too much, your son doesn’t recognize you. XD ” Hilarious.
    My mother was around but sometimes felt even further away than my father did. I keep telling myself she tried her best but what I feel and what I know are two different things. Can’t fool myself with this silly attempt at reconciliation. Emotions and feelings are often irrational.
    I was a smart kid and obedient kid although way too emotional and lacking behind in social skills. Never got into trouble, very good grades at school, you might think ‘a parent’s dream child’. But it wasn’t enough. I can’t count how many times I heard the same dialog:
    “Hey mom, I got an ‘A’ at school today!”
    “That’s good but why not an ‘A+’, Alex?”
    “Hey mom, I got an ‘A+’ at school today!”
    “That’s good Alex, but who else got one?”
    “Hey mom, I got an ‘A+’ at school today and I was the only one who got it!”
    “That’s good Alex, but why just one ‘A+’?”
    There was no way I could ever please my family, not just my mom. Being a single child with a difficult birth and some embarrassing health issues the responsibility and expectations fell to me. No way out, you either deal with it or you will be dealt with.
    Around that time I figured out there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t like the other boys. They liked football, I didn’t. They liked rap and hip-hop, I didn’t. They liked cigarettes, alcohol and joints, I didn’t. They liked girls…I didn’t…. They got gf and fell in love, I couldn’t.
    Living in a small town where everyone knew everyone there was little room for the abnormal. I heard what they did to some unfortunate boy who opened up to his friend and how he jumped from the 5th floor because he couldn’t suffer the constant abuse. So I did what I had to do, to survive among the herd that wouldn’t accept me for what I really was. And for some time it was good, or so I keep telling myself.
    With time came more expectations: “When will you introduce us to your girlfriend?” “Don’t you want to have a wife and family?” “We want to be grandparents.”
    There is only so much a mind can withstand. I got depressed and remembered the 7th grade boy who jumped from his window and the idea came to my mind. Long story short – I write this only because my roommate pulled me away from the window sill. I got to therapy, I got medication, I got better. For a time at least. With my stunt I scared away most of my friends and now live alone. Can’t keep a job for long, can’t finish anything I start, even my hobbies feel pointless. Yes, I know how this sounds and I can this is just depression talking but still.
    Maybe it’s better this way, no one to disappoint, no expectations to fulfill, no more people to lose. I feel constant shame for being different, shame for not being enough. Sure I understand the reasons for it and keep telling myself it’s my fault but it just doesn’t work like that. I know what and who I am and I wouldn’t like to be friends with someone like me. I couldn’t love a person like me – posing for someone I’m not, for what? For the price of acceptance? Pathetic. Disgusting. A failure.
    This is stupid and I hate this. I hate myself, I’m ashamed of myself. Ashamed of what I am, how I act, what I did or didn’t do. Ashamed of people I lost, of opportunities I passed, of things that could have been but didn’t.
    When I was 14 or 15 yo I said to myself: “You either do something profound, make something of yourself by the time you’re 40 yo or you end this charade.”
    Well I’m going to turn 40 this year.
    This is stupid and I hate this.
    • Becca
      January 29, 2020 at 3:24 pm
      Age is of no importance to success. And putting yourself on a timeline adds much stress to yourself. I do know how you feel. Both my parents were perfectionist who used their intelligence to put people down. I never did nothing they liked or approved of. They would ignore me, physically harm me or abandon us to strangers.
      I was 50 when I went back to college. I was determined I was going to graduate with honors. My dad was dead, but I was going to prove to him that I could amount to something. I made straight A’s. I wouldn’t accept anything below. And I did graduate with honors. I had something to prove, and I did. It taught me degrees are nice but it’s just a title. I became a nurse. No matter what money you may have, or cars or houses or clothes. It’s all materialistic. I can’t take it with me in death. It doesn’t make me better than anybody. Success now for me would be when I die, did I do good for the world especially the ones the world pretends not to see us.
    • Blanca G
      February 12, 2020 at 12:24 am
      Dear Alex, you are the most beautiful soul in the world. There is so much love in the world, we just have to see it with our mind’s eye. I promise if you look deep inside—deeper than your parents’ voices , anger, deeper than your friends’ ridicule, siblings hurtful jokes —separate from, and ever deeper than every voice or thought you’ve ever had —just beneath that is a spark of the brightest shiniest light you have Ever seen! You are braver right now than anyone I know, for sharing your life journey, and your pain. Think of how
      Much you have helped someone reading your post who is in similar toughest journey. I’ve been in the depths of despair many times myself and I decided to stop listening to the outside voices and loving my inner voice. The beautiful one that I had forgotten I ever even had…..I’m not a counselor or teacher or professional, just a person who overcame (and still working on it) all the negative feelings and thoughts I “bought into.” Feel free to call me 954-243-8920 for any reason. Don’t ever leave this planet before your time because I would miss you deeply and you don’t even know me! And I’m sure there are plenty of others who would miss you too!! ❤❤❤
    • Kris
      February 01, 2021 at 3:42 am
      Alex, you are worthy and you matter. Please find a therapist to talk to. You deserve good things.
  11. Chantay
    October 16, 2019 at 8:20 am
    Toxic Shame has become very prominent on my healing journey. I suffer from it every single day. It doesn’t matter how much i smile and speak positive affirmations to myself, it’s still there. As I work towards a better, healthier mindset, coming face to face with these raw uncut emotions/ thoughts is hard. It hurts sometimes, dealing the with self sabotaging mistakes I’ve made in the past. I feel like I must go back 23 years to accept/correct/fix/understand my wrongs so I can finally lay my past to rest and move on. It’s easier said than done, just let it go, don’t think about it and move on. It’s way more of an emotional, mental cage that your mind can’t break free from. However, I’m determined to heal myself from my past, and move forward with a reborn soul. Pray for me, idk how long this is going to take. However, I’m committed to the ride.
  12. Shelbie
    October 16, 2019 at 7:19 am
    Honestly this is the first article that nailed every part of inner struggles on the nose. From my substance abuse addictions. Feeling rejected or unwanted as a child and abused by my father in the less talked about way. All the way to accepting relationships that usually end up being abusive. Thank you. I’m going to try to purchase the work books eventually. But im gonna begin the exercises right away.
    • K.N.
      January 05, 2020 at 8:20 pm
      I know, right! I knew I was carrying around shame but I didn’t understand that it was directing my life and was such a big part of my identity and intertwined with some really unhealthy core beliefs. I’m ready to heal. Good luck on your journey, I’m rooting for you!

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