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Shame is a perfectly normal emotion to feel when confronted with your own negative actions. It’s normal to feel shame for a few hours or even days after doing something negative that invokes that feeling.
Toxic shame is different.
Toxic shame is often rooted in childhood abuse and neglect, where the child was made to feel rejected, neglected, or unaccepted by their parents.
The parent might have been absent, negligent, a substance abuser, mentally ill, or otherwise too overwhelmed by their own problems to be a present and loving parent.
It may also be caused by a traumatic experience, domestic abuse, or addiction.
The internalized shame that the person carries with them hangs around and warps their perception of themselves.
In some people, it can become their personality and be responsible for problems like codependency, PTSD, substance abuse, and depression. For others, it sits beneath the surface and can be triggered by mistakes or feelings of unworthiness.
Identifying toxic shame can be difficult because it doesn’t always rise to the surface, but some signs of toxic shame include…
1. An external trigger is not required to cause shame.
A person who is living with toxic shame will not need an external trigger to cause their shame. Their own thoughts can bring on those feelings, sometimes without there being a real correlation between an event and the feelings.
Or, if there is an event, it may not be shameful at all. Instead, it’s tapping on those feelings of inadequacy, which sets off a shame spiral.
2. They experience shame spirals that lead to extremely unhealthy thinking.
A shame spiral goes much further than what one would expect from just experiencing shame. The person might experience severe depression, despair, and hopelessness because of their shame as more time goes on, and their thoughts continue on.
3. Toxic shame often involves a “shame story.”
The shame story of a person is how their mind justifies the negative feelings they have about themselves. That may include thinking things like, “X person was right about me, I am trash.”
Statements and narratives surrounding those thoughts often point back to the source of the shame. That may include events in one’s childhood, dealing with substance abuse disorders, or a destructive relationship.
4. Toxic shame may not have a clear and distinct source.
Toxic shame may also be the result of long-term abuse that doesn’t necessarily have one specific catalyst. It can be the product of years of exposure to that negativity where that entire experience was responsible for creating the toxic shame.
5. Natural occurrences of shame may be longer and more intense.
It’s natural to experience shame when we do something we aren’t proud of. A person without toxic shame will typically not feel shame for longer than a few days or when they make amends for their action.
People with toxic shame will experience it much longer, even if they fix the problem that inspired the original feelings of shame. The intensity of those feelings may be overwhelming.
6. They may also feel inadequate.
Inadequacy is a struggle for people with toxic shame. They may never or rarely feel like they are good enough for success, for other people, or for the good things that can happen in life. They will often feel undeserving and like they need to earn their place within a relationship.
These types of feelings can fuel codependency and lock that person into unhealthy relationship patterns until they can break their cycle.
7. They may experience “shame anxiety.”
That is, they become very focused on trying not to experience any kind of shameful feelings. This may look like overcompensation in relationships, excessively apologizing to other people even if no wrong has been committed, or before a wrong has been committed.
The person will make changes to the way they conduct their life to avoid the potential for shame, like not taking calculated risks, not applying for promotions, not asking someone out on a date, and people-pleasing.
8. They may have consistent negative self-talk and shame-based beliefs.
Negative self-talk and shame-based beliefs sound something like this:
– I’m a trash person.
– I am unlovable.
– I am unattractive.
– I’m not good enough.
– I wish I didn’t exist.
– I shouldn’t have been born.
– I am stupid, ignorant, or worthless.
– I’m a phony, a fraud.
– I’ll always be a terrible person.
9. The excessive idealization of others.
An unhealthy, excessive idealization of other people can point to toxic shame. That is when a person thinks of other people as much better than they are due to whatever qualities they believe these people have.
A person may tell themselves that other people are more attractive, smarter, or better. They may feel that they can never measure up to this impossible standard that they are setting for themselves. That is by design of their avoidance of shame.
There’s a smaller chance of feeling shame for not having succeeded if they set the bar so far out of reach that they can’t believe it’s possible for anyone but the most skilled to reach it. That idealization becomes an unhealthy defensive mechanism that gives them permission to not try.
The major problem with toxic shame…
Though there are many problems with how toxic shame can harm the person who is living with it, the biggest issue is being unaware of these harmful coping mechanisms and behaviors.
By using negative coping mechanisms, they become strong habits, which are much harder to break as time passes.
The good news is that toxic shame can be healed, and these habits broken. It just requires some time and additional work.
Think you might have toxic shame and want some help to overcome it? Speak to a therapist today who can walk you through the process. Simply click here to connect with one.
You may also like:
- The Underlying Cause(s) Of Shame (+ Why It’s Not All Bad)
- How To Deal With Shame: The Process For Overcoming It
- 10 Things You Should Quit Being Ashamed Of