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Shame Is Sabotaging Your Happiness. Here's How to Stop It

Shame can increase stress and anxiety levels. Here's how to take control.

Hedy Phillips CNET Contributor
Hedy Phillips is a freelance lifestyle writer based in New York. While she's not writing on topics like living on a budget and tips for city dwelling, she can usually be found at a concert or sightseeing in a new city. Over the past 10 years, her bylines have appeared in a number of publications, including POPSUGAR, Hunker, and more.
Hedy Phillips
5 min read
Woman hidden behing a balloon with a sad face drawn on it over blue background.
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Toxic shame is slightly different from regular shame — it's more intense and prolonged. It's that constant feeling of low self-worth and feeling like everyone blames you for something. While it can be common to feel shame in a negative situation, toxic shame comes from a false perception of unworthiness. Toxic shame can weigh on you mentally and physically, leading to larger health issues if not managed. However, this negative cycle can be broken with time and care. Here's everything you need to know about toxic shame and how to be happy.

What is toxic shame? 

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Shame and guilt are two things that are easy to get mixed up. However, these two feelings are not the same, and it's important to understand the difference. Shame is about feeling like you're not good enough and that you've done something wrong. Shame can often be attributed to interpreting how others feel toward you — you may think those around you view you as lesser than. Conversely, guilt is what you feel if you've done something wrong (and you know it). You may feel guilty when you've gone against your conscience. This usually is not attributed to outside factors of how others view you. 

When you look at toxic shame, it's even deeper than shame because it's prolonged and profound. If you experience toxic shame, you may constantly feel bad about yourself rather than feel bad about yourself after an instance that could trigger it. For example, some people may feel shame if they mess up a project at work, but that eventually goes away when they move past it. If you experience toxic shame, that feeling lingers, regardless of performance, feedback and so on. 

Toxic shame often comes from a pattern of belittling. For some people, this starts in childhood with parents who treated them poorly and punished them for everything (even if it didn't merit punishment). It could also come from an abusive relationship with a partner who gaslights you or always puts you down. After being told you're lesser than others for so long, you feel that way all the time.

Culpability concept. Woman in the middle with lots of pointing fingers at her.
Francesco Carta fotografo/getty Images

How can toxic shame affect your behaviors? 

According to PsychCentral, toxic shame can increase your stress levels, bringing about even more issues than the constant feeling of unworthiness. You may feel intense bouts of anxiety or even fall into depression. It can also affect your sleep by making you sleep too much or too little. Your appetite could also be affected, potentially causing you to experience disordered eating

If you recognize the warning signs of shame, just know that there are ways to manage it. We'll go into details below.

Common warning signs associated with shame include:

  • Negative self-talk and negative self-view
  • Questioning your worth 
  • Fear of looking dumb
  • Constantly worrying about what others think of you
  • Questioning everything you do
  • Trying to be a perfectionist

Toxic shame can be detrimental to your well-being if not dealt with. It can seriously affect your physical and mental health if it goes on for too long, but it's not irreversible. 

6 ways to stop shame cycles

You have the power to stop the shame cycle when you choose to. It may be a challenging task, but you can do it (and you can always ask for help). Here's how to start.

Name what you're feeling

The most important thing you can do to stop the spiral is to identify it. You likely have recognized that you feel down about yourself, so now it's time to become fully aware of it so you can move on from it. It's helpful to keep a journal to track the things you're feeling as soon as you feel them. Sometimes, looking back days later, you can make more sense of what's happening around you and your feelings.

Identify your triggers

Once you've started that feelings journal and have a good writing routine, start looking for any triggers that kick off those bad spots. Maybe it's a certain person or a certain situation. It could be a certain insult that gets to you when you hear it. If you find yourself in a situation that particularly tears you down, write down what happened and how it made you feel. When you see a pattern, you'll be able to identify your triggers to figure out how to handle them better.

Show yourself some compassion (and stick with it)

It's not always easy to get rid of toxic shame. That's OK. Go into this process understanding that it's not easy to do, and keep going when it gets hard. This is a good time to open up to someone who will support you. This could be a friend or a partner who has your back. Tell them what you've been experiencing and how they can support you in staying on track. Showing yourself compassion will help you deal with toxic shame.

Use mindfulness to connect with yourself

Man meditating while sitting on the floor.
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Meditation and mindfulness can always help keep your thoughts positive simply because they can help alleviate any stress and negativity. Meditation centers your brain and gives you a peaceful place to be. Try starting the day with meditation to have a positive beginning, then practice mindfulness throughout the day. To do this, make yourself aware of your conversations and how they affect you. Awareness is a big step toward working through something like toxic shame. (And once you know it, write it in your journal!)

Question automatic negative thoughts

With toxic shame, there's a good chance you're having many negative thoughts about yourself. You might tell yourself you're not good enough or that everything is your fault. When you do that, though, instead of just accepting that as the truth, immediately follow up the thought with a question of why. Use this opportunity to be more positive and reframe those thoughts into praise for yourself. Instead of telling yourself you're not good enough, tell yourself you are enough. Tell yourself you're worthy — even if you feel it's not true. And then congratulate yourself on something you accomplished that day (even if it's small, it's worth being proud of).

Ask for help

Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Knowing how to approach toxic shame can be hard, and seeing a medical professional can get you on the right track. A therapist can help you identify and work through your triggers. You can also confide in a family member or a friend who can support you while you work through toxic shame. Just take care to open up to someone who will be a positive influence on you. 

Too long; didn't read?

Toxic shame is an intense and prolonged feeling of unworthiness that can affect your physical and mental well-being. While it's different from guilt, it can feel similar if you don't understand it. But if left to fester for too long, it can grow into a real problem — it can be fixed. You can always reverse toxic shame and get yourself on a path to a more positive sense of self-worth.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.