Toxic Shame: How To Overcome It

Person overcoming shame

November 8, 2020

By: Jennifer Seip

Let’s talk about Toxic Shame. What comes to your mind when you think of it? For me, it’s a dark, sinking feeling in my gut. My breathing gets shallow and I want to spend all day curled up in bed, alone, by myself. For others, it’s raging adrenaline. Their heart feels like bricks and the only way to get a release is to yell, scream and blame.

But what is shame really and how does shame manifest?

Shame is the harsh and unforgiving way we judge ourselves when we fail to live up to our own expectations or the expectations of those who we seek approval from.


Presentation of Toxic Shame

Like all feelings, shame manifests itself physically in our bodies and internally in our minds.

The physical presentation of degradation varies from person to person. Like in my earlier example, some people feel a weighted chest or abdomen. Shallow breathing and stiffness are more examples. The physical manifestation of shame will be in sync with your fight flight or freeze response.

Man feeling shame

In turn,  when shame is demonstrated internally, it is verbal. We says things to ourselves such as, “you are worthless.” “You fail at everything.” “You do not deserve to be loved.” “You let everyone down.”

Think of shame as the exact opposite of compassion. 




Origin Of Toxic Shame

couples and relationships stop shame

The root of shame is systemic. It’s most often passed down generationally from parent to child.  It’s usually pervasive in your relationship with an attachment figure.

For example, let’s look at Lazare a 6 year old boy. He has a lot of energy. In fact, some might think that he has too much energy. So when he trips and scrapes his hands and knees on the gravel, his parents say to him, “I told you to slow down. Now you got dirt on your pants.”

Lazare gets this negative feedback from his parents often and as he grows up, his own internal dialogue begins to mimic the lessons he is learning from his parents. “I am too much and I do stupid things.”

Contrarily Lazare’s parents could say, “wow that was quite to fall, are you alright? Perhaps next time you could try going a little bit slower.”

Another place where toxic shame can manifest is an abusive relationship. Shame is a very powerful manipulation tool and abusers use it to control their victims thoughts and behaviors.


Overcoming the Shame dialogue

Like any other negative feeling, shame can be faded if it is replaced with a different dialogue. Our brains are plastic so we can actually change the way we internalize our perception of self. If you are attempting to change your internalized shame dialogue try these things over the course of 4 weeks.

  • Week 1. Keep a notebook with you (or have access to the notes section on your phone.) For one week be as present with your internalized self as possible. Write down all of the negative messages you tell yourself and also, what do you feel in your body when you are shaming?
  • Week 2. Begin to challenge your shame dialogue with self compassion. Slow down your breathing and tell yourself that you are like all humans. You have flaws and you also have strengths. Perfection doesn’t exist. So, in what way can you go easy on yourself.
  • Week 3. Begin the healing process. Why are you so mean to yourself? Where does it come from? Journal about the pain you’ve experienced because you were taught to internally shame instead of love.
  • Week 4. Forgive your past self for the hurt that you did to you and others. Now that you have new tools and information you can do things differently.


Book Recommendations

I Don’t Want To Talk About It by Terry Real

I Thought It Was Just Me by Brene Brown

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety : Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions

One Thing You Should Be Doing Every Week For a Better Relationship

How To Deal With Toxic People!

Mind Reading: The Good and Bad

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