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December 4, 2023 Dec 04, 2023 8 min read

Understanding and Overcoming Toxic Shame: Healing Strategies for a Fulfilled Life


  • Healthy Shame vs Toxic Shame: Healthy shame reflects a concern for the impact of our actions on others, while toxic shame involves feeling fundamentally unworthy and flawed, often stemming from childhood experiences of abuse or neglect.
  • Toxic shame disrupts the formation of a healthy self-identity in children, leading to compliance or people-pleasing behaviors as they internalize negative voices and struggle to assert their needs.
  • Toxic shame not only hinders the formation of close relationships but also creates impostor syndrome in success and makes it difficult to trust positive experiences, often resulting in physical manifestations like poor posture and depression.
  • Overcoming toxic shame involves cultivating self-compassion, sharing experiences with empathetic individuals, practicing mindfulness, seeking therapy, and shifting focus from a negative life story to one that emphasizes strengths, kindness, and self-respect, ultimately paving the way for a more fulfilled life.
  • Ways to Overcome Toxic Shame and Build Self-Esteem

Healthy Shame vs Toxic Shame?

To live together with others, human beings need to be able to experience shame. Shame shows that we care about our effects on others and feel empathy for them. We feel shame when we do something that goes against important social norms and cross a boundary that does not live up to our own standards. 

If we make mistakes, we can feel healthy shame or guilt, apologize, and take action to make repairs. But toxic shame is when we feel fundamentally bad about ourselves. Toxic shame involves feeling unworthy, unlikable, and unlovable, and fundamentally flawed. This kind of shame makes it very difficult to have any real pleasure in life, success, and genuine close relationships.

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Causes of Toxic Shame

Toxic shame begins early and disrupts how a child’s identity develops.

All children need to feel safe, cared for, and loved to flourish and develop a good sense of self.

When parents, family members, or other caregivers abuse and neglect the children who are dependent on them, children cannot develop a healthy sense of who they are and what they have the right to.

Abused children internalize the negative voices they hear and that becomes how they view and feel about themselves. Instead of developing their own preferences, interests, and desires, they can become very compliant, becoming what is now commonly called people pleasers, unable to say no or to assert their own needs. 


Children cannot understand why they aren’t valued and feel like there is something wrong with them. Unable to defend themselves, they have no alternative but to find a way to avoid being abused and keep hoping to receive love and attention. They cannot understand that this is not their fault and blame themselves for being unlovable. These feelings can last throughout adulthood if you don’t try to look at them and change them. It is a process of understanding that it wasn’t something about you or your fault that you weren’t given the support, attention, and love you needed.

Effects of Toxic Shame

Toxic shame can make you hide and create what the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called a false self. You may feel like you can never show your real self if you want to be liked and accepted. This makes it very hard to form close relationships.


Because of the lack of self-esteem that results from toxic shame, even when you are successful or someone clearly likes you, you may feel like an imposter or want to flee before your lack of worth is discovered. If you grew up experiencing abuse and neglect, it is very hard to trust anyone or to believe you truly deserve the good things that come your way. 


Toxic shame can also come from intense remorse for something you may have done or not done. Taking action to apologize and repair whatever happened is the best route to take in these situations. Otherwise, your shame can intensify and become an exaggerated feeling that pervades how you feel about yourself and stops you from going forward in life.


Toxic shame also has a physical impact, causing poor posture, slumped shoulders, lowered eyes, and draining you of vitality and spontaneity. Shame goes along with depression since you are out of touch with your true value and worth. It also can provoke anger and irritability, as you can easily be triggered and hurt because of your baseline lack of positive feeling about yourself.  


All kinds of addictions are a way to relieve feelings of shame. Being addicted, whether it is to drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, or working, becomes yet another way you may criticize and attack yourself. But when people share their problems, they can get to the root of the addictions, stop harshly judging themselves, and get a hold of their lives. 


All of this can be reversed. If you relate to this description of shame, you can get a more realistic sense of yourself and leave this state of mind and its impact behind you. 


What to Do to Overcome Toxic Shame

Having Compassion for Yourself and Sharing Your Feelings

 As with all negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves, a first step is having compassion for yourself. To overcome toxic shame, you have to look at how you feel and become more aware of what is driving and triggering you. It’s important to develop an understanding of what happened to make you feel this way. It can be a painful process, and it is important to treat yourself with kindness along the way. 


Healing from shame cannot come about without sharing how you feel with others who have empathy for your experience. So many people have found freedom from shame by finally sharing their pain with others. 


 We usually hide and conceal these feelings but when we share them with understanding and caring people, we can get a perspective on them and begin to heal. If you share your feelings, you can get a deeper understanding of what triggers your shame that can help you lessen that reaction.


Sharing your experience with others will also help you realize that you are not alone in having such feelings. You can also be reminded of the good things about yourself that have been overshadowed by shame.


Reflecting on your good qualities and things you have done in your life can help you release toxic shame.

Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness is one of the ways you can start getting in touch with the source of your shame and can help you look more calmly and objectively about how you feel. Often shame becomes an unconscious background to your life, and you aren’t even aware of how it is hindering you and shaping your actions. You can learn to stop constantly putting yourself down, blaming yourself, and comparing yourself to others. You can become acutely aware of your triggers so you can manage them and eventually stop responding with shame or other intense feelings.


 Individual therapy, group therapy, and support groups can all lead you out of shame. Making connections is the path to healing. You can start freeing yourself of the past, set new goals in the present, and build your self-esteem through taking action and having feelings of accomplishment. You can awaken to who you really are and all your potential that has been hidden. 


Creating a New Narrative

Instead of believing in and dwelling on a negative story of your life, shift into focusing on your good qualities and taking action in the present. Being kind to yourself, building on your strengths, and developing relationships based on self-esteem and self-respect will create a new story for you. 


Believing that you have as much right as anyone to have a good and fulfilling life is possible when you release the shame that has been holding you back.  


You have a lot to look forward to as you work through your feelings of shame. You can learn a great deal from what you have been through, difficult as it may be. Being released from the secrets and injustice of living with toxic shame will open you up to joy and happiness in a way you may never have experienced before. 


There is a difference between healthy shame and toxic shame. Healthy shame shows we care about how we affect others. Toxic shame is harmful and distorts our sense of ourselves and who we are. It is often a reaction to trauma and keeps people stuck in the past and unable to forgive themselves. Chronic childhood neglect and abuse makes children feel unworthy because they cannot understand that they are not to blame for not receiving the support and attention they need. Instead, they feel ashamed and do not develop healthy self-esteem. 


Sharing your experiences of shame with others is an essential step in healing. By speaking with kind, understanding people, you can begin to feel better about yourself. You can shift your focus to the good things about yourself. You can take actions to develop new opportunities, new relationships, and greater self-esteem and self-respect. This will all help you release shame and live a happier, more fulfilled life. 


Author Bio

Susan Ellis studied psychology and anthropology at Barnard College and the University of Chicago. She has worked in many aspects of publishing, including editing and marketing scholarly journals, mainstream magazines, and books on psychology and psychoanalysis.  

Welcome to your Building Self-Esteem and Overcoming Shame Journal! This journal is designed to help you overcome feelings of shame and increase your self-esteem. By regularly recording your thoughts and feelings, you can gain insight into how you are shaming yourself and what you can do to stop and build your self-esteem. Download your tool and start your journey today.

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