Shame: Toxic Shame and the Gifts of Healthy Shame

Shame is a chemical (emotional) messenger which informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, regret, or disconnection. When I think of shame, I think of feeling embarrassed, humiliated, self-conscious, mortified, and culpable. I recently spoke with a counsellor in the field who expressed their belief that shame is a harmful and unnecessary emotion. I didn’t agree. I said I believed humans can have (and maladaptively create) toxic levels of shame and healthy levels of shame. I want to offer my definition of Toxic Shame and Healthy Shame, and why I’ve come to believe there are both.

Toxic Shame is the kind of shame that does not serve us. It consumes us, either consciously or unconsciously, and it can be very harmful to our self-worth, self-esteem, self-image, confidence, motivation to be effective in the world, love for others and ourselves (to name a few things). Shame is aligned with our identity, and when it reaches those toxic levels, we can find ourselves behaving in some maladaptive ways. According to my research, toxic shame can result in over-stimulated states of shame and under-stimulated states of shame.

  • Over-stimulated states of shame: believing you are worthless (and associated feelings and sensations), feeling mortified or humiliated when you are exposed by someone about something you perceive to be an inadequate, “pathetic” or “weak” quality, attribute or behaviour about yourself. Generally, when our vulnerability is exposed to another person, or even ourselves, without intentionally being vulnerable, we may shrink and contract, and want to hide, or we may become aggressive and draw on a range of other defense mechanisms to make ourselves feel better.
  • Under-stimulated states of shame: this category could also be called “shamelessness” – when a person’s shame becomes so overwhelming, they adapt to it by exposing all their shame to protect themselves. People who are under-stimulated in a toxic shame cycle may have no personal boundaries (e.g., consciously or unconsciously talk inappropriately, dress inappropriately, behave inappropriately), they may be arrogant and stubborn, selfish, self-centered and grandiose.

Healthy Shame is a naturally evolved response which has survived the age of time because it has usefulness. To get an idea of why shame might be a useful emotion, I’d like you to imagine a world full of people who weren’t able to feel shame. What comes up for you? For me, I imagine a society of people who are self-absorbed, egotistic, lacking morals etc. It is said that sociopaths and psychopaths are not able to experience shame. I don’t know if that is true or not, but now that you have the idea of every person on the planet being a psychopath, you might get what I’m trying to say. I think a healthy amount of shame keeps us humble. Healthy shame allows us to grow and guides us in the direction to who we want to be – what we want to aspire to. In my opinion, healthy shame is a reminder that we’re not perfect, but being aware of our shame can direct us towards self-development and progress. The gifts of health shame include:

  • Humility
  • Fallibility
  • Learning
  • Self-responsibility
  • Morality values
  • Self-awareness (and ‘other’ awareness)
  • Inner boundary connection
  • Self-regulation

Characteristics of Toxic Shame

By Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT (2019)

  • It can hide in our unconscious, so that we’re unaware that we have shame.
  • When we experience shame, it lasts much longer.
  • The feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity.
  • An external event isn’t required to trigger it. Our own thoughts can bring on feelings of shame.
  • It leads to shame spirals that cause depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair.
  • It causes chronic “shame anxiety” — the fear of experiencing shame.
  • It’s accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs originating in childhood and is associated with a negative “shame story” about ourselves.
  • We needn’t recall the original source of the immediate shame, which usually originated in childhood or a prior trauma.
  • It creates deep feelings of inadequacy.

Further Learning

For some additional learning, I highly recommend that you learn from Peter K. Gerlach. He is no longer alive but his legacy can be found here:

South Pacific Private (SSP) is a recovery-based mental health hospital located in Curl Curl, on Sydney’s northern beaches. The hospital is fully licensed with the NSW Department of Health and registered as an acute care psychiatric hospital. Here is a video sourced from Youtube created by SSP on “Dealing with Shame in Recovery at South Pacific Private”.

Here is a video, also sourced from Youtube created by Pia Mellody, who I believe to be a pioneer in addiction and co-dependency recovery. She inspired the model that South Pacific Private use at their facility. This video is on SHAME. Check out Youtube for CD2, CD3 and I think there is a CD4.