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Self-doubt and toxic shame

From overthinking to self-acceptance: how to overcome self-doubt and toxic shame

1. Self-doubt and trauma identity


… questions your own abilities, decisions, or self-worth. Instead of a reflection and examination, doubts are negative thoughts or inner criticism that do not deepen knowledge about oneself, but rather impair confidence in one’s own competence and self-image. Self-doubt can be situational or chronic and is associated with insecurity, anxiety and a lack of decisiveness. They mainly arise from previous negative experiences, failures or constant confrontation with critical or derogatory remarks from others.


… on the other hand, is confidence in one’s own abilities and judgement. It is the conviction that one is capable of mastering challenges, making effective decisions and achieving personal goals. Self-confidence in no way excludes critical self-perception and uncertainty in the face of challenges. Self-confidence is dynamic and changes depending on the environment and phases of life. It is strengthened by positive experiences, a sense of achievement, recognition and supportive relationships.

Self-doubt is an omnipresent phenomenon in human experience. It manifests as inner questions and criticism that question your abilities, decisions and self-worth. Although a certain amount of critical self-examination is healthy and necessary for personal growth, excessive self-doubt paralyses personal development.

Self-doubt arises from past experiences, particularly in childhood, which lead to toxic feelings of shame. This type of self-doubt is then not just a temporary insecurity, but becomes a permanent part of the inner dialogue, an inner critic that is deeply rooted in the identity.

The effects of persistent self-doubt are therefore manifold and affect both personal and social life. It causes anxiety, depression, diminishes self-confidence and distorts self-perception. Self-doubt undermines the willingness to face challenges and seize new opportunities, thereby limiting the quality of life and opportunities for success.

Dealing with self-doubt therefore requires not just a superficial treatment of symptoms, but a profound process of self-reflection and understanding of the underlying causes. This can be achieved through various approaches, including therapy, self-help strategies and philosophical reflections, which help to uncover the roots of self-doubt and open up new paths to self-acceptance and inner peace.

Trauma identity: basics and meaning

Trauma identity is a concept that describes the profound and often persistent impact of trauma on identity formation. It assumes that traumatic experiences are not just isolated events, but that they can fundamentally influence the way in which individuals see and understand themselves.

The trauma identity that develops after a childhood trauma is often characterized by three key elements:

  • the 4F reactions (Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn),
  • emotional dysregulation,
  • cognitive distortions and
  • Attachment disorders.

These aspects play a central role in the way those affected perceive and react to the world and themselves.

1. 4F reactions

   – These reactions are childhood defence patterns that develop in response to traumatic events. They represent the basic survival strategies of all children, which, however, cannot “grow together” due to the trauma:

     – Fight: This creates a pattern of anger, aggression or grandiose self-expression.

     – Flight: This reaction is characterized by an attempt to escape the threatening situation, often through avoidance behaviour. Perfectionism and incessant striving for achievement also belong here, which are intended to avert an impending catastrophe.

     – Freeze: In this state, the person feels paralysed or unable to act – this includes all forms of escape from reality: from harmless daydreaming, to alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, shopping addiction or dissociation.

     – Fawn (submission): Here, submissiveness or endeavouring to please others, conflict aversion and self-denial are intended to avoid rejection.

   – These reactions unconsciously become deeply ingrained in the identity of those affected and form long-term behavioural patterns.

2. emotional dysregulation

   – Traumatic childhood experiences regularly lead to difficulties in controlling and expressing one’s own feelings. The children affected simply had no way of regulating their emotions appropriately.

   – The consequences are extreme emotional reactions, mood swings or a persistent emotional numbness, which significantly damage interpersonal relationships, self-image and quality of life.

3. cognitive distortions

   – Cognitive distortions are faulty thought patterns that interpret reality in a distorted way and influence how those affected see themselves, others and the world.

   – Typical examples of such distortions are catastrophizing (constantly expecting the worst), black and white thinking (no room for shades of grey or ambiguity) and overgeneralization (applying a negative experience to everything).

   – These thought patterns are typical breeding grounds for chronic self-doubt, anxiety and depression and weaken the ability for realistic self-assessment and problem-solving.

4. attachment disorders

   – Attachment disorders are an essential component of trauma identity when children have repeated experiences of neglect, abuse or inconsistent care.

   – Such experiences shape their expectations of interpersonal relationships and their understanding of closeness and security. The result is often a deep mistrust of others, difficulties in opening up emotionally, and a general insecurity in relationships.

   – People with attachment disorders either avoid relationships because they are afraid of being hurt, or adapt excessively in relationships to avoid rejection.

   – These patterns are often unconscious attempts to deal with the fundamental insecurity and fears caused by the trauma and disturbed attachment experiences.

   – Attachment disorders interact with other aspects of trauma identity, such as 4F reactions, emotional dysregulation and cognitive distortions. They can, for example, lead to an increased tendency to “fawn” reactions (submission) or reinforce “freeze” behaviour in interpersonal conflicts. Emotional dysregulation, which often occurs with trauma identity, can further impair the ability to maintain stable relationships and increase the tendency to extreme emotional reactions in relationships.

Trauma identity blurs the boundaries between the past and the present. Traumatic experiences, whether of a physical, emotional or psychological nature, leave traces in the self-image and influence behaviour, ways of thinking and emotional reactions. People with a trauma identity can find it difficult to distance themselves from the stressful experiences.

Understanding trauma identity is crucial for the development of effective therapeutic approaches. It enables a holistic view of the self and one’s history, rather than focussing only on individual symptoms. By recognizing how central, the trauma has become to a person’s sense of self, therapists and sufferers can work together to form a new, healthier identity that transcends the trauma. This process involves re-evaluating one’s history, regaining control of one’s life, and developing resilience and a more positive self-image.

2 Philosophical perspectives on self-doubt

Self-doubt: understanding and interpretation

Philosophical perspectives are not only relevant for understanding self-doubt, but also for general emotional development and self-understanding.

1. discovering the sources of emotional wounds

   – De Botton emphasizes the importance of recognizing the origins of your emotional wounds. If such wounds originate in childhood, they shape your personality and behaviour in adulthood. Understanding these sources is a crucial step in overcoming such traumas. It enables you to recognize the deeper causes of today’s emotional reactions and defence mechanisms.

2. development of defence mechanisms

   – In response to early injuries, defence mechanisms develop for protection. However, such childlike mechanisms later lead to limitations if they prevent us from responding to our environment and our own needs in an adult way. Awareness and overcoming these defence mechanisms are therefore central to healing and personal development.

3. emotional distortions without dramatic events

   – De Botton points out that emotional wounds can also develop without dramatic events in childhood. This emphasizes that trauma does not always result from obviously negative experiences, but also from more subtle, often overlooked emotional neglect or misinterpretation.

4. importance of emotional understanding of the past

   – A key aspect of dealing with trauma is developing an emotional understanding of the past. This goes beyond mere intellectual understanding and involves a deep dive into the emotional experiences and reactions that shaped your past self. Such understanding allows you to re-evaluate the past and gain a healing perspective on your life experiences.

These insights show that processing trauma requires a comprehensive examination of your emotional history. It is not only about identifying and understanding traumatic events, but also about recognizing and transforming the resulting emotional patterns and defence mechanisms. These processes are crucial to developing a healthier, more resilient and authentic identity.

3 The nature of toxic shame

Definition and characteristics

Toxic shame is a deeply ingrained emotional pattern, understood as an overwhelming and pervasive emotional response characterized by a profound sense of inadequacy and worthlessness.

Psychological origins and effects

Toxic shame arises in early childhood as a result of unfairly critical, devaluing or neglectful treatment that damages the child’s inner image of self.

Toxic shame is thus considered a central feature of several dysfunctional schemas. “Schemas” are broad, deeply rooted patterns or themes that influence a person’s thoughts, feelings and actions and usually emerge in childhood or adolescence. Jeffrey E. Young identified 18 such schemas, which are grouped into five domains:

1. detachment and rejection

   – Abandonment/instability

   – Distrust/abuse

   – Emotional deprivation

   – Defectiveness/shame

   – Social isolation/alienation

2. impairment of autonomy and performance

   – Dependence/incompetence

   – Vulnerability to damage and illness

   – Entanglement/underdeveloped self

   – Failure

3. impairment in relation to boundaries

   – Aspiration/grandiosity

   – Insufficient self-control/self-discipline

4. externalization

   – Submission

   – Self-sacrifice

   – Striving for recognition and approval

5. excessive vigilance and inhibition

   – Negative thinking

   – Tendency to punish

   – Emotional inhibition

   – Inflexible standards/overly critical attitude

   – Suppression of emotions and impulses

Toxic shame is a central feature of the “defectiveness/shame” schema in Jeffrey Young’s schema therapy. This schema falls under the “detachment and rejection” domain.

This pattern makes individuals feel profoundly flawed, inadequate or unworthy. They believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them that they need to hide from others. Toxic shame in this context refers to the painful feeling of worthlessness and the feeling of being deficient. The consequences are low self-esteem and therefore difficulty accepting love. Those affected generally feel uncomfortable in social situations because they fear that others might recognize their supposed defects or inadequacies.

In connection with the “abandonment/instability schema”, the mistrust arises that no one will provide the affected person with sufficient emotional support or validation. This in turn often activates beliefs from the area of increased externalization.

The characteristic of toxic shame related to core beliefs is that it is completely unconscious and instead manifests in automatic thoughts, self-sabotaging behaviour and extreme emotional reactions. Individuals suffering from toxic shame have a relentless inner critic that belittles their achievements and causes them to withdraw in social situations. They may have difficulty accepting praise and positive feedback because it does not align with their inner belief system.

4. Overcoming self-doubt and toxic shame

Dealing with toxic shame in self-reflection must uncover and overcome such deep-seated beliefs and emotional patterns. Therapeutic techniques such as cognitive restructuring and emotional work with the inner child help to recognize, understand and ultimately overcome toxic shame. The aim is to develop a healthier self-image and enable emotional healing.

Challenging toxic shame and self-doubt

Questioning self-doubt and toxic shame is a central process in personal development and healing. To break through negative patterns of seeing the self and the world and the associated behaviours, they must be actively challenged. This process begins with awareness and recognition of such beliefs. By becoming aware of your inner dialogues, you can begin to identify and challenge the beliefs that underlie these feelings. This often involves exploring the origins of your self-doubt and toxic shame, which often lie in early formative experiences. Critical self-reflection, supported by self-care and therapeutic approaches, helps to expose these deep-seated beliefs and replace them with more realistic and benevolent self-perceptions. The key is to treat yourself with more compassion and understanding, and to free yourself from the burden of unfounded self-criticism and shame. This path requires patience and perseverance, but leads to a stronger and healthier relationship with yourself and a more fulfilling life.

Philosophical approaches to self-doubt

The path from toxic shame to self-acceptance and transformation is through self-awareness, honesty, supportive relationships and open communication.

Self-acceptance is a crucial step on the path to personal development. It requires an awareness of one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings and a willingness to face up to them instead of suppressing them. Recognizing and accepting mistakes and shortcomings is part of dealing with yourself honestly and truthfully. The result is a realistic and favourable self-image.

Another important aspect is being honest with yourself. It takes courage to recognize your own dark and difficult sides and to deal with them. This self-confrontation is a key step in changing self-perception and behaviour.

The social environment also plays an important role in overcoming self-doubt. Healthy relationships make it possible to recognize and accept weaknesses. Understanding and support from others reduce negative self-images and strengthen self-acceptance.

This is why communication is so important for self-reflection. Sharing thoughts, feelings and fears with others helps us to understand and know ourselves better. Dialogue requires a sufficient understanding of ourselves to be able to explain ourselves to others, and at the same time enriches our self-perception with the perspective of how others perceive us. This disempowers the inner critic when it threatens to gain the upper hand.

Practical therapeutic approaches and methods to overcome toxic shame and self-doubt

Various methods aim to recognize, understand and ultimately change dysfunctional schemas and the associated emotional patterns. Here are some examples:

1. Recognize and name self-beliefs

   – The first step is to identify the relevant schemas such as “defectiveness/shame”. Therapists help to recognize and name the specific thoughts and feelings associated with toxic shame.

2. Downsize the inner critic

   – Many people with toxic shame have a toxic ‘inner critic’. It is important to recognize the voice of the inner critic, even if it directs its unfair criticism at others, and to shut it down immediately. Here is a step-by-step guide:

2.1. Detection and notation

   – Start by recalling situations in which your inner critic was particularly loud. Make a note of what your inner critic says. Pay attention to recurring negative statements or themes.

2.2. Characterization of the inner critic

   – Try to give your inner critic a shape. What does it look like? Does it have a certain voice or personality? This helps you to see it as a separate part of yourself and not as your entire identity.

2.3. No discussion

   – No debates with your inner critic – don’t start a dialogue with him, don’t ask why he says these nasty things. Don’t try to understand him or what the intentions or fears behind his statements might be. Just shut him up.

2.4. Challenge

   – Instead, take a quiet minute to refute all the statements made by your inner critic, preferably in writing first. Question his or her assertions. Compile facts and positive aspects of your personality.

2.5. Develop of a supportive voice

   – Develop a supportive, compassionate voice, such as that of a “healthy adult”, a close friend or a compassionate mentor. Use this voice to show yourself compassion and understanding.

2.6. Regular reflection

   – Carry out this exercise regularly, but always after you have snapped at your inner critic during the day. Rebuking the critic and regular reflection will help to reduce the power of the inner critic.

2.7. visualization of success

   – Visualize yourself in situations in which you feel confident and free from the criticism of your inner critic. This strengthens your self-esteem and helps to establish positive mental images.

3. “Empty chair”

   – In schema therapy, chair dialogue is often used to externalize different aspects of the self (e.g. the “inner child” and the “healthy adult”). This helps to visualize and work on inner conflicts.

4. Emotional aftercare

   – This technique aims to address unfulfilled emotional needs from childhood in the here and now. Give your “inner child” the compassion, acceptance and security it has been denied in the past.

5. Diary

   – Keeping a diary in which feelings, thoughts and triggering events are recorded can help to recognize patterns of toxic shame and self-doubt and deal with them more consciously.

6. Mindfulness exercises

   – Mindfulness-based exercises help you to adopt a non-judgemental attitude towards your own thoughts and feelings. They promote the ability to stay in the present moment (grounding) to avoid being overwhelmed by negative thought spirals.

7. Self-compassion

   – Exercises to promote self-compassion are particularly important to break down the harsh self-judgements associated with toxic shame. These can be techniques such as meditation or writing a compassionate letter to yourself.

Remember, it is not about destroying or getting rid of your inner critic. It is part of yourself, a superego gone mad, so to speak. In the long term, it should become what it is supposed to be: a healthy conscience as a guideline and yardstick for your actions. In this way, you can overcome toxic shame and self-doubt if you develop a more in-depth understanding of yourself and learn to treat yourself with acceptance and compassion.

7 Conclusion and further resources

Summary of the core aspects

Self-doubt and toxic shame are complex, often deeply rooted emotional states that are essentially characterized by early life experiences. Self-doubt manifests itself in recurring thoughts of insecurity and self-criticism, while toxic shame is characterized by a deep sense of inadequacy and worthlessness. Both significantly affect self-image and quality of life and lead to anxiety, depression and problems in relationships. Overcoming them requires a deep understanding of the underlying causes and the development of new, healthier ways of thinking and behaving.

Contact points for professional support

– Psychotherapists: Therapy, particularly approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy or schema therapy, can be individually tailored to effectively address self-doubt and toxic shame.

– Self-help groups: They offer community and support from people experiencing similar challenges.

– Hotlines and counselling centres: For immediate support, psychological hotlines or local counselling centres can be contacted.

Overcoming self-doubt and toxic shame is a lengthy process that requires courage and perseverance. The right resources and professional support therefore make a decisive contribution to successfully travelling this path.

Recommended reading and resources

– “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown shows ways to accept yourself and overcome toxic shame.

– “Feeling Good: Overcoming Depression, Gaining Self-Esteem” by David D. Burns offers techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy to combat negative thoughts and self-doubt.

– “Self-Compassion” by Kristin Neff is a guide to developing self-compassion to reduce self-criticism.

– Mobile apps such as “Waking UP” offer meditation and mindfulness exercises that can be helpful in overcoming self-doubt and toxic shame.

8. References:

Botton, Alain de. 2019. The School of Life: An Emotional Education. London: School of Life.

Sack, Martin. 2010. Schonende Traumatherapie: ressourcenorientierte Behandlung von Traumafolgestörungen. Stuttgart: Schattauer Verlag.


Walker, Pete. 2013. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

Walker, Pete. 2015. The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness Out of Blame. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

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