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What is toxic shame?

What is toxic shame

Toxic shame is when someone is carrying shame that does not belong to them. Usually it has been forced on them by their parents or sometimes other caregivers such as a relative or a teacher.

This is not necessarily in a malicious way. It could be that the person does not know what to do with the toxic shame they are carrying and so subconsciously are pushing it into someone who is powerless.

The word “toxic” means “very harmful in an insidious way” and derives from Latin toxicum meaning “poison”. That is exactly what this type of shame is like.

A person suffering from toxic shame will always feel that there is something down in the dark. It is something that’s attempting to destroy them, like a poison.

Then once this poison is inside, it doesn’t matter where they go or what they achieve in life – the toxicity stays there.

When the snake bites, the bite is not the real problem. It is the poison it leaves behind that does the damage.

A shame that binds you

“Toxic shame” as a term was originally used by psychologist Silvan Tomkins at the start of the 1960s.  But counselor, speaker and author John Bradshaw really put the spotlight on it with the 1988 publication of Healing The Shame That Binds You, which is one of the world’s bestselling recovery books to this day.

He wrote how toxic shame was behind so many mental health problems. This includes codependency, addiction, compulsion, perfectionism and a constant striving for overachievement.

Some people confuse guilt with shame. But they are not the same at all.

Bradshaw wrote and spoke about the huge difference between guilt and shame: “Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am not good.

“Guilt says I made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake.

“If our primary caregivers are shame-based, they’ll act shameless. They will pass their toxic shame onto us.

“There is no way to teach self-value if one does not value oneself. So toxic shame is multigenerational.”

Healthy shame

Healthy shame

There is a healthy level of shame. It lets us know our limits, that as people we have limits.

It reminds us that human beings will make mistakes. It keeps us grounded and lets us know that at times we need to ask for help.

“Healthy shame lets us know we are limited,” John Bradshaw wrote in Healing The Shame That Binds You. “Limitation is our essential nature. Grave problems result from refusing to accept our limits. Like all emotions, shame moves us to get our basic needs met.”

But toxic shame is completely different. Someone who has had it shoved on them so that it gets inside them will always have a flawed perception of themselves.

It most often stops them from accepting love. They will also struggle greatly to realize any self-love.

Toxic shame is an extremely deep emotion. It causes a severe feeling of inadequacy.

Feeling flawed

There is something wrong with me

Toxic shame comes from abuse in every form, especially sexual abuse. It is usually accompanied by relentless criticism and a refusal to ever say “sorry”.

It is parents (or caregivers) blaming children for their own failures and their own faults. It comes from someone continuing to blame someone who is vulnerable and defenseless for their own behavior. 

Any child on the receiving end of this will feel increasingly imperfect and flawed. This shame that’s forced on them will become internalized.

They will grow up and then develop into an adult with a constant noise in their head. It is a noise that’s always saying: there is something wrong with me.

Shame-based negative beliefs will be dominant. This is often thinking such as: I’m unlovable; I’m never good enough; I’m such a loser; I’m so insignificant; I’m really stupid; I’m so ugly; I really hate myself…

If left untreated, toxic shame can lead to:

Recovery from toxic shame

Recovery from toxic shame

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead author Brené Brown says about it: “Shame is not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior.

“Shame drives two big tapes – ‘never good enough’. And if you can talk it out of that one – ‘who do you think you are?'”

Carrying toxic shame means it will be impossible to truly enjoy meaningful relationships and work. Life in general will seem deficient – and unless addressed that feeling will always get progressively worse.

Toxic shame ruins lives. It is not necessarily brought on by any triggers because it lives inside the sufferer.

We carefully listen in confidence to all our guests here. Then we offer a completely individualized treatment program to work for the best and most enduring recovery.

Tikvah Lake Recovery is a wonderfully peaceful environment. Our experienced professional team understands all types of mental health conditions.

To discuss how we can help you or someone you love, contact us today.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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