Treating Toxic Shame

Toxic Shame is a neurotic, irrational feeling of worthlessness, humiliation, self loathing and paralysing feeling that has been inflicted onto an individual through repeated, traumatic experiences often, but not always, rooted in childhood.

It is described as toxic both because it permeates and corrupts every level of the human system and because of the corrosive effect it has on the individuals psychological outlook, emotional states and ability to maintain a positive self image.

Handling Toxic Shame is key to overcoming the effects of Complex PTSD that is rooted in adverse childhood conditions. Complex PTSD is the effects of being raised in a traumatic, confusing, violent, demanding and contrary emotional environment. It is like PTSD but described as “complex” as its roots are harder to define than normal PTSD. The effects of CPTSD are “emotional flashbacks” as opposed to the “context specific flashbacks” of standard PTSD.

Because many of these experiences are rooted in childhood and were vague or implied what the brain recalls is the feelings rather than the event. These are called “emotional flashbacks”.

Toxic Shame is one form of an emotional flashback where, typcially, a neurotic parent with an overly strict parenting style uses “shame” as a tool to control the child’s behaviour.

Examples of OVERT shaming statements:

“Stop blubbering/whinging you wimp/wuss, I’ll give you something to REALLY cry about!”

“Look what you’ve done, you idiot!”

“Look at that/dont do that, you disgusting animal” (Particularly effective in trauma-bonding children to shameful feelings related to any kind of bodily function i.e. if they wet the bed, masturbate, go on their period etc etc. To make this extra effective abusive parents will couple the shaming phrase with some physical abuse like smacking the child.)

There is also the ability to use shame by IMPLICIT means via the meta-communication of body language or voice tone that conveys:


Adults raised in this kind of childhood environment can look forward to overwhelming feelings of shame for little to no reason whatsoever. When we are talking about Avoidant personality disorder or social anxiety. Many of my clients, and in my experience also, report an unpleasant, corrosive, itching feeling of the skin, as though you the skin itself is burning. Coupled with a desire to “sink through the floor”.

These are feelings rooted in Toxic Shame.

Toxic Shame will lead to an adult with porous and weak ego boundaries who suffers from “People Pleaser Syndrome”.

People who are “Shame Bound” are exceedingly shy, avoidant of intimacy and vulnerability making it hard to form healthy relationships, attract abusive personality types like narcissists and borderlines, will be co dependent in relationships, easy to manipulate through guilt, obligation and fear “of some terrible unnameable consequence”, are prone to “black and white” and “catastrophic” thinking, feel anxious all the time for no reason, are prone to depression and impulse control issues, are frequently addicted (sex, gambling, drugs, food etc) and generally struggle to do things that other people seem to find easy to do.

“To be shame-bound means that whenever you feel any feeling, need or drive, you immediately feel ashamed. The dynamic core of your human life is grounded in your feelings, needs and drives. When these are bound by shame, you are shamed to the core.”

John Bradshaw
Healing The Shame That Binds You

So How Do We Treat "Toxic Shame"?

We have to go to the root of the problem and to the right space and time where the problem began. Right time, right location, right person.

If the shaming was performed during childhood we need to create a communication with that part of ourselves that was shamed, lets call it the “inner child” for now and that person or persons who performed the abuse who we have internalised, lets call it the “shaming voice”.

I found a few simple exercises online that I liked for this purpose. Simple, powerful and that get straight to the point.


 the exercise within it 

1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience. What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at that time? Write this statement down on a piece of paper.
2. Imagine that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.
3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?”

Picture yourself sitting in front of you. Think about details like how you’re sitting, what you’re wearing, and what your face is expressing. Now, out loud, criticize the person you see in front of you. This will likely be painful, but remember, you’re already doing it. This is a process to make the negative thoughts you already have conscious. Criticize the image of yourself sitting before you. Tell him what he should or shouldn’t do. Don’t hold back—be extensive in your critique. Really throw it all out there, and listen to the tone in your voice as you spit out these criticisms.
When I did this, I found it easier to write my thoughts down while holding the image of myself in my mind. As a writer, I found the thoughts flowed out of me more spontaneously that way. After I’d dried up (and written several pages), I read it out loud to my imaginary self. Either way is fine—just try to keep the thoughts flowing without censorship. Let it all pour out.
Now, switch places with your alter ego—and answer these criticisms. How does it make you feel, to hear these things? Pay attention to details still—like, how does your voice sound now, answering the cruel judgments of the Shaming Voice? Though you can continue imagining your image, you can also move to a mirror and answer the voice while looking at yourself in real life. This is an act of bravery, and will beincredibly hard to do at this stage in the healing process, but I recommend trying it. Saying just a few positive things about yourself while holding eye contact can do wonders to combat even pages of criticisms.”

Final Tips:

Two things have been shown to work well in eradicating “Toxic Shame”.

1. Compassionate Dialogue

If you can find someone to talk to about these experiences and the feelings they have left you with in an atmosphere of empathy, trust and one in which you can start to feel ok about being vulnerable in (vulnerability being something the “shame bound” will neurotically avoid) then this has been proven to be effective in easing the shameful feelings, the emotional flashbacks and the general stress and paralyzing “laziness and procrastination” that many of my clients report having. It is of course not “laziness” but a “freeze” response to the threat of the relived trauma. Procrastination can be an effect of long term supression of emotion. People with complex PTSD can become emotophobics and fear the expression of emotion in case it overwhelms and debilitates them. Of course it ultimately debilitates them through the emotional constipation of numbing/freezing them into inaction.

2. Externalisation

Shameful feelings and shame itself by nature is something that we cover. It is rooted in secrecy, the covert, that-which-is-hidden (which is the true meaning of the word “occult”) and masking. To bring these feelings/experiences into the light and talk about them in a matter of fact way is very, very powerful. This can be done with a coach/therapist or you can find ways to externalise on your own. Journalling or expressing ideas out loud are both powerful forms of externalisation.
Doing it with a coach is better of course because you have the experience and input of another person.

From the get go with my coaching I strongly intuited that compassion was key and “moralising” about issues had to be stopped at all costs but I didn’t really know why. I now believe it is because of the ill effects of Toxic Shaming. I often hear clients being dismissive of their pain, emotions, experiences and of their own wants usually in another persons voice.

That voice, that “shaming voice” is a recording running in their head of the original abuser.

And it must be stopped.

These exercises are a start, I’m open to all suggestions as to how else to tackle this issue, please share in the comments below.

About The Author

richard grannon

Richard Grannon, is passionate about helping people defend themselves, get back on their feet, and finally free themselves from narcissistic abuse

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