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What Toxic Shame Is and How To Overcome It

woman smiling
woman smiling

When we do something wrong, by our or others’ standards, we feel ashamed. 

Although utterly uncomfortable, this emotion is often a positive push in the right direction. 

However, in my thirty years of working with clients worldwide, I have seen many being held back by a resembling feeling—toxic shame. I have also been awarded an opportunity to help those people release toxic shame and watch them thrive.

In this article, I will be sharing:

Normal Shame vs. Toxic Shame

What is toxic shame? The best way to understand this complex experience is to contrast it with normal, healthy shame.

“Normal” shame is our emotional reaction to doing something we consider to be wrong

When our values and our actions are in a mismatch, we feel embarrassed. We tell ourselves: “What I did was wrong.”

Even though it is extremely unpleasant, this kind of shame is actually healthy. It teaches us not to repeat our mistakes. We realistically assess our responsibility in a situation and see that we should have done better. 

Thanks to healthy shame, we see the path towards becoming better people.

Guilt is similar to shame, although there is a difference between these two emotions. 

Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for a wrongdoing that hurt others. 

Shame does not necessarily mean hurting others. Rather, it is the painful feeling arising from violating norms and values. Shame is about doing something improper or ridiculous. 

Toxic shame, however, is an emotion that is not evoked by your actions. It is pervasive and built into your psychological core. Toxic shame is a consequence of a deeply-rooted belief that you are unworthy.

When you feel toxic shame, you are not thinking that your behavior was wrong. You are convinced that YOU are bad, contemptible, and undeserving of anything good. “I’m a horrible, awful person,” or a variation of this thought echoes through your mind.

Shame, guilt, and toxic shame could be triggered by similar situations. 

Let’s say that you were in a rush to catch a bus. While you were running, you accidentally pushed an elderly lady who stumbled. You kept on running because you had a meeting to get to. Immediately after you have boarded the bus, you feel flooded by emotions. Here is the difference:

  • Shame would make you feel embarrassed because others saw it and probably thought bad of you. You also feel it was wrong. You think about your values and priorities, and decide to be more careful and considerate in the future.
  • Guilt would come from imagining how the elderly lady must have felt. The empathy you feel would make you decide to stop the next time it happens, let the bus drive off, apologize, and make sure the lady was alright.
  • Toxic shame ignores the possibilities of making amends. It is also not realistic. In other words, it is an emotional overreaction, void of constructive criticism. It makes you jump straight to: “I’m a despicable human being! I deserve to suffer and get pushed around by everyone forever.” 

I have seen this over and over again in my career as a therapist. So many of my clients did not realize that the reason they couldn’t move ahead in life and be happy was a deeply rooted feeling of toxic shame. 

Toxic shame symptoms

symptoms / girl illustration with blue hair

The symptoms of toxic shame vary from person to person. 

Toxic shame can be very difficult to recognize because it lives in your subconsciousnessthe deeper part of your mind in which your core motives and beliefs reside. Therefore, it finds various ways to manifest itself based on your particular situation and traits. 

Here are its main characteristics:

  • Compared to regular embarrassment, it lasts much longer and feels all-encompassing.
  • You feel emotional pain and other adverse emotions that are disproportionate to the situation.
  • There is often no external event that would trigger shame—it comes on its own or because of your thoughts.
  • You feel inadequate and find yourself avoiding challenges and missing out on opportunities in life because you are trying to avoid the feeling of shame.

The Roots of Toxic Shame

Toxic shame usually emerges as a consequence of childhood or adult trauma.

If your parents were overly criticizing, distant, or downright abusive, you might have developed a conviction that you are unworthy of love. 

Self-shaming became your mode of being and a foundation of your identity. You did not learn to trust yourself and accept yourself. As a result, the toxic shame you developed makes you feel inadequate in various realms of life.

A traumatic experience in adulthood, especially if in romantic relationships, also has a way of making us start doubting our worthiness. If you were involved in a codependent relationship, toxic shame might have been a large part of the dynamic between you and your partner. 

As a codependent, you would have required your partner’s approval. You would have depended on them to tell you if and under what conditions you are worthy. Such a dynamic is a fertile ground for toxic shame to develop.

You could have started believing that something was wrong with you if you were a victim of abuse. Research revealed that toxic shame often comes from being abused by a partner with a narcissistic personality disorder.

Whatever the path was that led you to this point, now you are stuck thinking that you are not worthy and deserving of abundance, love, and happiness. Simply put, you are convinced that, no matter how hard you try, you will never be enough. Luckily, this can change. I will show you how.

What Toxic Shame Can Do To Your Life

girl sitting on bed looking out the window

During the past three decades of helping clients, time and time again I have witnessed the devastating consequences of a shame-based identity. 

Too many people live far below their potential because of the psychological effects of shame.

Directly and indirectly, toxic shame causes people to underperform and settle for less than they deserve. So many of us might not even try to realize our dreams if we think we are unintelligent, unlovable, and “a bad person.”

These are the three most striking effects of toxic shame I had seen in my clients before we started working on liberating them from it:

Social isolation and unhealthy relationships

People troubled by toxic shame often either isolate themselves from others or engage in utterly unhealthy relationships

If you believe that you are not good enough to have love and friendship in your life, you might avoid people altogether. Toxic shame is often the reason for developing a fear of rejection, fear of love, and fear of intimacy.

When toxic shame is coupled with a fearful-avoidant attachment style, the result is often a “push-pull” kind of a relationship. Any hint of criticism, no matter how well-intended, initiates the cycle of withdrawing and ensuing anxiety.

I have also seen many fall prey to abusive partners due to toxic shame. They were easily manipulated by their fear of revealing their “weaknesses.” The abuser would notice their need to be liked and a fear of being ashamed. The abuser would then skillfully suggest how they adore the victim—but would be completely disenchanted if they found out that the victim is, in fact, not perfect.

The door to abuse opens then and there. The victim is ready to do and withstand anything, only to maintain that initial idealized image of oneself. They sacrifice everything to prove that they are worthy and to avoid shame—or suffer because they deserve a punishment. The abuser stops being so delicate and moves on to open insults and violence, “justified” by the victim’s “unworthiness.” 

Emotional disturbances and vulnerability to toxic perfectionism

Toxic shame can trigger bouts of depressive mood. Internalized messages about your lack of value make you believe that you are vile or incapable.

Similarly, toxic shame can give rise to anxiety. When you feel that there is so much to feel ashamed of, it is only natural to become apprehensive.

Toxic perfectionism, as was revealed in scientific studies and witnessed in my years of practice as a therapist, is a frequent consequence of toxic shame. 

If you are inherently ashamed of yourself as you are, you probably bend over backwards to be perfect. You feel that you must do everything it takes to stop others from revealing your imperfection.

Harmful behaviors

When you believe that you are bad, self-loathing is a natural response. Some people then take it one step further—they start to punish themselves.

Many of those weighed down by toxic shame engage in self-harming behavior. Addictions, promiscuity, over-eating, self-injuring, self-sabotage—I have witnessed it all. More often than not, with my clients, the source of these harmful behaviors stems from toxic shame. 

Toxic shame initiates a vicious cycle. You feel unworthy and do things that are bad for you. You might even provoke external punishment. For example, you cheat on your spouse, underperform at work, or start a bar fight.

You drink, do drugs, gamble, or eat enormous amounts of unhealthy food. As a consequence, you feel ashamed. To put things right, you punish yourself—and the cycle starts over.

How To Overcome Toxic Shame

How To Overcome Toxic Shame illustration of girl with long black hair wearing a red heart jumper

Have you had enough of all this? Don’t worry. Although it probably took years for you to reach the point where toxic shame runs your life, this can be mended in as little as a few weeks.

In my career of over three decades, I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the most successful people in the world. However, many of them were not successful when we first met. What made the colossal change in their lives was the work we did on overcoming toxic shame.

I have watched dozens of desperate people make a 180-degree turn and become thriving, happy individuals. I am so honored that I had the opportunity to assist them in finding their way out of the clutch of toxic shame. Here I give you four methods I found effective when healing toxic shame. They will work for you as well.

Self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and self-care

We all make mistakes. That does not mean we deserve no love. You are worthy of love, compassion, and care—and you need to learn to award them to yourself

Self-love does not happen overnight if you spent the majority of your life in the toxicity of unhealthy shame. However, it can be learned. 

The first step is to forgive yourself. You can try writing a letter of forgiveness to yourself. Let it all out. List your “transgressions” and traits you are ashamed of, and then forgive yourself.

Replace self-loathing with self-compassion. Whatever it may be that you are ashamed of, trust me, you are not alone. Give yourself the kind of understanding and compassion you would give to someone you love.

Finally, make a self-care plan. Take care of your body and physical health. Eat and sleep well. Surround yourself with supportive people. Make time for hobbies and fun activities. Pamper yourself. Why? Because you deserve it.

Meditation and mindfulness practice

woman meditating

Toxic shame is deeply rooted in your mind. To get rid of it, you need to unlearn the old ways of how you see yourself. 

At the moment, your automated reaction is: “I am unworthy.” You mostly see yourself as a pool of foulness and weaknesses. However, now you need to start practicing seeing yourself as an imperfect human being. Someone who does occasionally err—but also possesses plenty of great traits and potential. 

You get the power to choose who you will be every day. You can change the way you see yourself, and, consequently, the impact you have on this world. 

Changing your self-image may not come easy for many. One way to get there faster is through meditation.

Your thoughts control your feelings. Your feelings control your actions and your actions control your events.

Most of us identify with our feelings and thinking. We believe that they are true. We feel that we are our emotions and thoughts. With meditation, you learn that this is not the case. 

Various forms of mindfulness practices harness the power of your mind. It helps detach from feeling in a specific, habitual way. 

You become proficient at seeing feelings and automatic thoughts as separate from your core being. You learn to spot an emotional storm coming your way, and, most importantly, you develop an ability to step away from it.

Simply put, mindfulness helps us notice toxic shame at the moment when we are feeling it—and release it. Instead of being engulfed by toxic shame that came out of the blue, with mindfulness, you will be able to control it. 

The first step is to learn to notice your emotions and thoughts. Whenever you experience something, try to name the feeling. Try to hear the thought clearly in your head. Practice to keep them in your awareness.

Then, practice not judging them. Merely recognize their presence: “I feel incompetent right now,” and not “I feel incompetent and that’s horrible, that’s wrong, I shouldn’t feel that way!” 

The next step is to let go. Emotions and thoughts are transient. Therefore, acknowledge, non-judgmentally, your experience, and let it float away from you. When it comes back again, do the same. Let it drift away.

With time and practice, you will witness an inner balance develop. 

Working with a therapist

Your mind has the most healing potential on the planet

In the early days of my career as a therapist, I noticed that to help with an issue as complex as toxic shame, addressing both the conscious and subconscious mind is vital. I developed a ground-breaking method called Rapid Transformational Therapy® (RTT®), which does just that.

It combines the most effective principles from hypnotherapy, NLP, CBT, neuroplasticity psychotherapy and neuroscience. As such, it addresses both conscious and subconscious beliefs that led you to where you are now. A trained RTT® therapist works to help you reprogram your mind and open you up to a life filled with joy, love, and abundance.

I Am Enough program and masterclass

Based on three decades of experience working with clients riddled with toxic shame, I  developed an award-winning I Am Enough program. I yearn to share my insights and help you rediscover the confidence and self-love you were born with.

How does it work? Using various techniques, including hypnotic root causes, the program implants a new, powerful belief in your mind—that you are enough.

When you keep repeating to yourself that you are enough, your mind can no longer stick to the conviction that you are not. Your subconsciousness now works to confirm a healthy, empowering belief. The simple but powerful phrase helped many people worldwide kickstart their lives.

You do not need others’ reassurance and approval. You are not weak, unworthy, bad, or unlovable.

The truth is, you are enough. You will always be enough and you have always been.

If you want to rewire your brain to dismiss self-hate, self-doubt, and toxic shame, start your journey with the free I Am Enough masterclass. This masterclass will help you shift your focus from what you think are your insufficiencies onto your strengths and abilities.

Move on From Toxic Shame To Self-Love

Toxic shame is not a realistic feeling to serve as the basis of your self-image. It was imposed onto you in times of vulnerability. However, now you get to choose a new belief to found your identity on. Choose I Am Enough and turn your world around.

Summon abundance, love, and health. Contact an RTT® specialist therapist, try my I Am Enough program and a free masterclass, and break free. I am so excited for you to try my method—and I cannot wait to hear how it changed your life.



Marisa shares her 30 years of experience as a multi-award-winning therapist to celebrities, top athletes, and even royalty. She is the founder and creator of RTT®, the cutting-edge method and hybrid solution-based approach that can deliver extraordinary transformations.



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