Toxic Shame In Relationships: How To Know & Heal From It

Shame can break people apart. Use these actionable steps from experts in family therapy and marriage counseling to heal from toxic shame in relationships.

Shame is a learned emotion that we are not born with. We learn it because our societies need a healthy amount of shame to deter us from our darker instincts.

But when shame turns toxic, it can cause withdrawal, self-sabotage, conflicts, breakups, and loneliness inside a relationship.

What is toxic shame? Toxic shame is a chronic, deep-seated feeling of unworthiness and self-hatred, that can have serious negative effects on mental health and relationships.

Toxic shame can dig deep craters in our relationships. But there is hope.

Toxic Shame In Relationships
Photo by Keira Burton, Pexels

How Does Toxic Shame Show Up in Relationships?

What are the symptoms of toxic shame? Here are some common symptoms of toxic shame:

  1. Low self-esteem: Individuals with toxic shame often struggle with feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and a lack of self-confidence.
  2. Perfectionism: They may set unreasonably high standards for themselves and constantly feel like they are falling short, leading to feelings of failure and guilt.
  3. Self-criticism: They are prone to harsh self-judgment, negative self-talk, and a tendency to focus on their perceived flaws and mistakes.
  4. Fear of rejection: Toxic shame can lead to an intense fear of rejection and abandonment, causing individuals to avoid vulnerability and emotional intimacy in relationships.
  5. Social withdrawal: They may isolate themselves from others, fearing judgment and ridicule.
  6. Difficulty asserting needs and setting boundaries: People with toxic shame often have a hard time expressing their needs and asserting their boundaries, leading to unhealthy relationships and patterns of codependency.
  7. Self-sabotage: They may undermine their own success or happiness, believing they don’t deserve it, or fearing that they will eventually be exposed as a fraud.
  8. Addictive behaviors: Some individuals with toxic shame may turn to substances or behaviors to numb their emotional pain or to seek temporary relief from their feelings of worthlessness.
  9. Chronic guilt and shame: They may experience ongoing feelings of guilt and shame, even when there is no clear reason for it.
  10. Difficulty accepting compliments and positive feedback: People with toxic shame may struggle to accept praise, believing that they don’t deserve it, or suspecting that there are ulterior motives.
  11. Negative relationship patterns: They may find themselves in a cycle of unhealthy relationships, either with partners who reinforce their feelings of shame or with partners they feel they need to “save” or “fix.”
  12. Depression and anxiety: Toxic shame can contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

Shame has strong links to depression, addiction, violence, aggression, bullying, eating disorders, and suicide.

“Shame has led me to alcoholism, depression and a refusal to pursue my goals.”

– SleeperNo1 (made-up name of a real victim of shame)
We need to talk about shame | Brené Brown

What is the root of toxic shame?

The root of toxic shame often lies in early life experiences and the environment in which a person grows up. Various factors can contribute to the development of toxic shame, including:

  1. Childhood abuse or neglect: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, as well as neglect, can lead to feelings of shame and worthlessness. These traumatic experiences can instill a belief that the individual is inherently flawed or undeserving of love and care.
  2. Dysfunctional family dynamics: Growing up in a family where feelings are not acknowledged or validated, where there is excessive criticism or unrealistic expectations, or where emotional manipulation is common can contribute to the development of toxic shame.
  3. Bullying or peer victimization: Experiencing bullying or social exclusion during childhood or adolescence can lead to internalized feelings of shame, self-blame, and a sense of unworthiness.
  4. Cultural or societal influences: Societal expectations around gender, race, sexuality, or appearance can lead to feelings of shame for those who do not fit the perceived “norms.” Discrimination or marginalization can further contribute to the internalization of shame.
  5. Relationship trauma: Toxic shame can develop as a result of traumatic experiences in relationships, such as domestic violence or betrayal by a trusted partner or friend.
  6. Mental health issues: Individuals struggling with mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders, may experience toxic shame as a result of their condition or the stigma surrounding it.
  7. Insecure attachment: Insecure attachment styles, such as anxious or avoidant attachment, can cause feelings of worthlessness and fear of rejection or abandonment. Early attachment experiences with caregivers can play a role in the development of shame. This research found a strong relationship between shame and anxious and avoidant attachment style.
  8. Parental or caregiver shame: Sometimes, a caregiver’s own unresolved shame can be unintentionally passed on to the child. This intergenerational transmission of shame can lead to a cycle of toxic shame within families.
Trauma, shame, and being enough | Patti Ashley | TEDxCU

How To Heal From Toxic Shame In Relationships

Here are some actionable steps to heal from toxic shame in relationships, drawing on expert advice:

1. Identify & Acknowledge Toxic Shame

The first step to healing from toxic shame is to not escape or hide from, it but acknowledge its presence in your life. This may be uncomfortable, but it’s essential for growth.

Recognize the signs of toxic shame, such as feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, or undeserving love, and talk about your feelings to your partner.

Shame loses its toxic power once it is discussed and shared.

Brené Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”

2. Set Boundaries & Assert Your Needs

Toxic shame often arises from a lack of self-worth, making it difficult to assert your needs in relationships.

You can solve this by establishing healthy boundaries and learning to communicate your needs to your partner more assertively. It lets you reclaim your independence and self-confidence.

Brené Brown says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

3. Foster Secure Attachment

Trust, support, and emotional availability. are hallmarks of a secure attachment,

Research shows people prone to shame tend to have insecure attachment styles (anxious and avoidant), unhealthy interactions, and less satisfaction in their relationships (Johnson and Nguyen, 2015).

Secure attachment in your relationships can help overcome toxic shame more quickly, and with less chance of recurrence.

To build a secure attachment, be open and vulnerable with your partner, while also offering a safe space for them to do the same.

Sue Johnson notes, “When we know we can lean in and be responded to, we are stronger, more resilient, and more open to life and love.”

4. Share Your Vulnerabilities

Healing from toxic shame is a journey that takes courage and patience. Once you have owned your shame and vulnerability, share them with those who care for you.

“We need never be ashamed of our tears.” ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

But before sharing your story, you must ask yourself: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?”

As Brené Brown said, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”

Practice Self-Kindness & Self-Compassion

Self-compassion involves recognizing that you, like everyone else, are deserving of love and empathy.

Empathy is the antidote to shame. When you learn to treat yourself with kindness and understanding, you no longer blame yourself for the feeling of toxic shame and start to outgrow it.

Kristin Neff points out, “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”

Cultivate A Strong Support System

A strong support system is extremely crucial for healing from toxic shame.

Surround yourself with people who understand you, empathize with you, and validate your emotions. If you don’t have such people in your connections, seek out emotional health support groups.

In Haruki Murakami’s words, “What we need are not prohibitions, but support and understanding.”

Address Your Unresolved Past Trauma

Toxic shame can often stem from past experiences, such as childhood trauma or abuse, which you may have never dared to talk about with someone, even yourself.

When your unresolved trauma memories cause you pain, remind yourself that your past experiences do not define your present worth.

Working through your trauma with a therapist or support group can start the process of rethinking your life story and rebuilding its meaning.

Carl Jung famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”

The price of shame | Monica Lewinsky | TED
Monica Lewinsky examines our “culture of humiliation” and the price of shame.

Give Yourself Positive Affirmations

Positive affirmations can help rewire your thought patterns and combat negative self-talk that feeds toxic shame.

Practice daily affirmations that focus on your strengths, accomplishments, and inherent worth.

Here are three self-affirmations:

  1. “I am deserving of healing and growth. My past experiences do not define my worth or my future.”
  2. “I am strong and resilient. I have the power to overcome my past and create a meaningful, fulfilling life.”
  3. “I am not alone in my journey of healing. There are people who care about me and support my growth and well-being.”

Lao Tzu said wisely, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Develop Resilience

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and outgrow your challenges.

Cultivating a strong resilience can help you better navigate the healing process and better cope with future setbacks.

Maya Angelou told us, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Practice Forgiveness

Forgiveness, and self-forgiveness, are topics close to my heart.

I feel many more of us might be able to forgive our offenders if we reframe forgiveness as an act of evicting a hurtful person from our mind space.

Forgiving yourself and others is a powerful way to release toxic shame. Understand that everyone makes mistakes and that forgiveness is an essential part of healing.

Desmond Tutu once said, “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”

Nurture Your Hobbies & Passions

Activities that bring you joy and a sense of accomplishment can help counteract feelings of shame.

Pursuing your hobbies and passions with your full presence can help you stop overanalyzing the past and build your self-esteem.

A daily exercise regimen or a mindfulness meditation practice can be highly effective hobbies to deal with emotions of shame.

As you become more skilled at your passion pursuits., your sense of willpower and self-worth grows.

Eleanor Roosevelt noted, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Educate Yourself On Shame & Emotional Health

To heal from toxic shame, it can be helpful to understand the dynamics of your shame on your emotional well-being.

Read books, listen to talks and podcasts, and attend workshops to expand your knowledge and gain practical tools to empower your healing journey.

Did you know that while shame and guilt are both “self-conscious” emotions, they are different?

Brené Brown explains, “The thing to understand about shame is that it’s not guilt. Shame is a focus on self. Guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is, ‘I did something bad.'”

Seek Professional Help

Working with a trained therapist or counselor can be invaluable in addressing toxic shame. They can help you identify the sources of your shame, as well as provide guidance and support throughout the healing process.

As John Bradshaw suggests, “To heal from shame, one needs a nurturing therapist who can mirror one’s true self.”

FAQs

What are the brain regions that respond to shame stimuli?

Shame is a complex emotion, and multiple brain regions have been implicated in processing and responding to shame stimuli, including:
1. Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): The ACC plays a role in processing social emotions, such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
2. Medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC): The mPFC is associated with self-referential thinking and self-awareness, and has been linked with emotions related to self-evaluation and social feedback, including shame.
3. Insula: The insula has been linked to the experience of shame, as it helps process the negative emotional and bodily sensations that accompany shame.
4. Amygdala: The amygdala plays a crucial role in the experience of shame, by contributing to the processing of social threats, fear of rejection, or humiliation associated with shame.
5. Temporoparietal junction (TPJ): The TPJ helps understand the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others. It has been linked to the processing of social emotions, including shame, as it helps us evaluate our actions and behavior from an outsider’s perspective.
6. Orbitofrontal cortex (OFC): The OFC is involved in decision-making, social behavior, and the processing of rewards and punishments. It may play a role in the shame experience, as it relates to the evaluation of our actions and the anticipation of negative social consequences.

The Shame of Narcissists

Narcissists harbor deep shame and struggle to face their own demons, constantly fearing being found out and abandoned.

So, they exaggerate the truth, shift the blame, and play the victim, while thinking that you aren’t intelligent enough to see their ruse and betrayal.

“When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Final Words

Toxic shame can be crippling, but with dedication and effort, you can recover and reclaim your self-worth.

Believe that you can create healthier and more fulfilling relationships with yourself and with others.

Finally, if you think you cannot handle it, seek professional help from a therapist or counselor experienced in addressing shame and allow the process of healing and self-compassion to begin.

• • •

Author Bio: Researched and written by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism). Reviewed by my colleague who’s a family therapist.


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When it comes to mental well-being, you don't have to do it alone. Therapists can help you work through your trauma triggers and emotional patterns. Reaching out to a professional to feel better is a positive choice.