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Toxic shame: understanding and overcoming its effects

The profound impact of toxic shame

Introduction: The nature of toxic shame

Toxic shame is an intense feeling of inferiority and of not being enough. It is a paralysing and pervasive form of shame that is deeply ingrained in the self-image of those affected. It is characterised by feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy and self-loathing. Unlike healthy or adaptive shame, which motivates people to rethink their actions and make amends, toxic shame is destructive and does not lead to personal growth or other positive changes. Toxic shame also differs from normal shame in that it is not related to one situation, but has a profound and lasting impact on self-image.

Childhood trauma: mechanisms of toxic shame

In order to understand the effects of toxic shame, we need to take another brief look at the mechanisms of toxic shame. These are usually repeated experiences from childhood. (You can find out more about the causes and triggers of toxic shame in other posts on this WikiBlog).

Physical and verbal violence

Experiences of emotional neglect or abuse in the family result in profound shame. Children who grow up in families where emotional neglect or emotional abuse was the norm have experienced emotional isolation and secrecy. Toxic shame resulting from childhood trauma will therefore significantly impair the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. This shame creates a deep sense of inadequacy and self-doubt. As a result, they find it difficult to trust others, fear rejection and judgement, or even feel undeserving of love and connection. When toxic shame leads to emotional dysregulation, it also makes it difficult to communicate effectively, set boundaries and find healthy solutions to conflict. It can also lead to dissociation or the desire to end a relationship to prevent further shaming.

Unfair criticism

Constant criticism and contempt also cause deep-seated feelings of shame. Feelings of inadequacy result in constant self-criticism, negative self-talk and the persistent conviction that they are never good enough. Those affected struggle with low self-esteem and find it difficult to accept compliments or positive feedback. In relationships, they fear intimacy and vulnerability because they fear rejection if their weaknesses come to light. Difficulties with trust, over-indulgent behaviour and a tendency or propensity for abusive toxic relationships are the result. Toxic shame is also a cause of social isolation and a strong fear of being judged and criticised by others. Experienced inadequacy or fear of losing face also characterise all other social relationships.


A lack of care lays the foundation for a child’s belief that they are fundamentally flawed. If children do not receive consistent and harmonised emotional connection, affirmation and support from their primary caregivers, they develop a deep feeling of being unlovable. A child whose needs are not reliably met cannot perceive this need in any other way than with the conviction that something is wrong with them. This internalised shame lasts a lifetime and negatively colours their self-image, self-worth and ability to form healthy relationships. The unmet need for emotional connection and validation is always unconsciously associated with shame and self-blame, while those affected are convinced that they are the cause of others’ lack of love or affection.

Other mechanisms


Feelings of shame often occur when people feel vulnerable or vulnerable in certain areas of their lives. However, if this vulnerability is suppressed, confusion, fear and self-condemnation are the result.


Painful feelings of shame arise when problems seem insurmountable. The confusing helplessness and inner shame can cause feelings of self-blame and anger.

In the worst cases, all of these triggers or sources of toxic shame can lead to a constant battle with self-hatred, self-doubt and difficulties in recognising one’s own worth. They do this because they create different basic beliefs and associated behavioural and coping patterns in childhood and reactivate them later.

Schema therapy, developed by Jeffrey Young, identifies a series of basic beliefs (early maladaptive schemas FMS) and modes that develop from negative childhood experiences and cause problematic patterns of coping behaviour in adulthood. In the context of toxic shame, the following schemas and modes can be affected:

Basic beliefs in toxic shame


Those affected may believe that important attachment figures will not reliably support them or will leave them. This schema is activated by relationship trauma.

Lack of protection and security

Experiences of emotional neglect or abuse leave a deep feeling of insecurity and defencelessness.


Feelings of inadequacy or inferiority resulting from critical or devaluing childhood experiences cause this basic conviction, which makes those affected feel inferior or defective.

Social isolation/abandonment

The schema that one is isolated from the social environment and fundamentally different is reinforced by persistent experiences of shame.

Behavioural patterns for toxic shame

The vulnerable child mode

Those affected see themselves and act helpless, fearful and in need of protection, as if they were back in the childhood in which they were originally hurt.

The punishing parent mode

Inner dialogues characterised by self-criticism and self-punishment can dominate and reinforce toxic shame.

The distanced protector mode

It is characterised by emotional distancing or dissociation as avoidance strategies to protect oneself from further emotional pain.

Coping behaviour for toxic shame

The activation of these basic beliefs in the behavioural patterns leads to certain attempts at coping behaviour, which can be divided into three categories: Avoidance, overcompensation and capitulation.


Those affected avoid social situations in order to avoid rejection or criticism. The consequences are social withdrawal, avoidance of intimacy or avoidance of situations in which those affected could be judged.


Some sufferers react to their feelings of shame by trying to mask them through overcompensation. This can be perfectionism, excessive striving for recognition or aggressive behaviour to hide supposed weaknesses.


In this coping behaviour, those affected surrender to the painful feeling of shame and feel unable to change their situation. The consequences are depression, low self-esteem and passivity.

Identifying such core beliefs and modes is crucial to developing effective strategies for overcoming toxic shame and the associated patterns of coping behaviour. Also, by working on these core beliefs and patterns in therapy, sufferers can learn to develop healthier coping strategies and build a more positive self-image.

Effects of toxic shame

Psychological effects

Toxic shame can contribute to mental health problems in a number of ways:

  1. social withdrawal: People suffering from toxic shame often have an overwhelming urge to hide or withdraw from social contact. This social isolation also prevents them from accessing social support and professional help, which are crucial for coping with mental health problems.
  2. negative self-perception: Toxic shame with its negative self-perception, in which those affected see themselves as unworthy, inadequate or defective, contributes to the development or worsening of illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
  3. emotional dysregulation: People with toxic shame may have difficulty controlling their emotions. This emotional dysregulation can manifest as anger, brainfog, dissociation, sadness or helplessness and contribute to mental health problems.
  4. self-loathing and self-criticism: Toxic shame is often accompanied by intense self-hatred and self-criticism. This relentless inner critic damages self-esteem and robs any hope of change – a situation that is associated with conditions such as depression and anxiety.
  5. avoidance and coping mechanisms: Toxic shame may lead to self-harming coping mechanisms such as addiction, avoidance or self-harm due to the emotional pain it causes, which are intended to cope with shame and alleviate the unbearable emotions associated with it.


Toxic shame damages self-esteem to the point of self-hatred, intense self-doubt and a deep-seated sense of worthlessness. This destructive emotional pattern undermines any ability to experience oneself as valuable, competent and lovable. The effects of this negative self-perception are far-reaching and affect various aspects of life, including personal relationships, professional success and overall life satisfaction.

Those affected hide their light under a bushel and tend to blame themselves for mistakes or failures. They wrestle with an “inner critic” who constantly questions their decisions, actions and general sense of self. This self-criticism is relentless and leaves no room for self-compassion or acceptance of their own imperfections. The result is avoidance behaviour in which the sufferer shies away from risks and withdraws from potentially fulfilling experiences for fear of further embarrassment or rejection. The conviction of being worthless also makes it impossible to accept positive feedback or love from others. Those affected believe that they do not deserve recognition or affection and withdraw further. Loneliness in turn reinforces the feeling of worthlessness and inadequacy.


Toxic shame undermines trust and closeness and makes it difficult to build and maintain healthy relationships. At its core, toxic shame undermines self-esteem and leads to intense feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. These inner beliefs influence how those affected perceive and organise themselves and their relationships.

However, the feeling of not being good enough poisons trust and closeness in relationships. The fear of having their perceived shortcomings or mistakes exposed makes them vulnerable to rejection or criticism and leads them to withdraw emotionally or develop defensive behaviours to protect themselves. Such patterns hinder open and honest communication, which is essential for developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

In addition, toxic shame can lead people to remain in toxic relationships because they believe they deserve no better, or an unhealthy pattern (repetition compulsion) drives them into unhealthy relationships that resemble what they experienced in their family of origin. These dynamics reinforce a feeling of abysmal loneliness and isolation, even in the presence of others.

Overcoming toxic shame therefore often requires professional help to address the underlying causes and develop healthier ways of understanding oneself and shaping relationships. Therapy and self-care strengthen self-esteem and promote trust and closeness in relationships, which can ultimately become healthier and more fulfilling.


Toxic shame also has a profound effect on the sexuality and body image of those affected. The feeling of being inwardly flawed or inadequate often goes hand in hand with intense body shame, which makes sufferers feel uncomfortable and ugly in their own bodies. Body shame therefore fits into the generally negative self-image and inhibits those affected in intimate situations. They are then afraid to open up and show themselves physically for fear of rejection and judgement. The ability to perceive sexual experiences as positive and fulfilling suffers as a result. The result is avoidance behaviour that further undermines sexual satisfaction and intimacy in relationships.

In this situation, it is particularly difficult to talk about sexual needs and desires, sexual preferences or boundaries. This leads to misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships, especially when anonymous and fleeting sexual contact, casual sex, is less anxiety-provoking because there is much less concern about negative judgement. The inability to successfully manage these important aspects of a relationship can unfortunately lead to alienation and a deterioration in the emotional and physical well-being of both partners.

Dealing with toxic shame and body shame requires particular patience and a conscious effort – also on the part of the partner – to question and change one’s own beliefs and self-perceptions. This can be supported by individual therapy, self-help groups or educational work in the field of body acceptance and sex education. The aim must be to develop a healthier body image, promote self-acceptance and build a positive relationship with one’s own sexuality. By learning to accept and value one’s own body, intimacy and sexual experiences can become sources of pleasure and personal growth.

Even ageing and dying become a challenge when people are ashamed of the physical changes that come with advanced age and feel a heightened sense of shame when they become dependent on others in the last phase of life.

Mental illnesses

Toxic shame is associated with a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and self-destructive behaviours.

Toxic shame contributes to the development of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety by triggering and exacerbating negative emotions and a negative self-perception. This negative self-concept and self-criticism contribute to the development of depressive symptoms as sufferers feel hopeless and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Shame is also associated with anxiety, including excessive worry, heightened critical self-awareness and fear of being judged and criticised by others.

Low self-esteem makes people more susceptible to mental health problems. It leads to social withdrawal and isolation and prevents those affected from seeking social support and professional help. On the other hand, difficulties in regulating feelings of shame are one of the main reasons why people seek psychotherapy.

Toxic shame is therefore associated with a number of mental disorders. The link between self-beliefs and these disorders is so profound that persistent feelings of shame can permanently alter self-perception and behaviour. Here is a list of some of the mental disorders associated with toxic shame and an explanation of the link:


– Connection: feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and intense self-criticism, which in turn intensify depressive symptoms such as persistent sadness, loss of interest and lack of motivation.

Anxiety disorders

– Connection: Anxiety, especially in social situations, due to fear of rejection or judgement by others. The resulting avoidance behaviour is the central feature of anxiety disorders such as social phobias and generalised anxiety disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

– Connection: traumatic experiences in which the individual feels powerless or degraded impair the self-perception and successful processing of a trauma.

Eating disorders

– Connection: Shame about one’s own body or eating behaviour plays a central role in the development of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Body shame reinforces a negative body image and unhealthy behaviour when dealing with food and weight.

Personality disorders

– Connection: In borderline personality disorder (BPD) in particular, toxic shame damages the unstable interpersonal relationships and exacerbates the intense feeling of emptiness and fear of abandonment. In narcissistic personality disorders, toxic shame can be hidden behind the grandiose self-image and intensify the fear of exposure.

Obsessive-compulsive disorders

– Connection: In OCD, feelings of shame are both a trigger for compulsive behaviours and a consequence of these behaviours. Sufferers can try to cope with or avoid feelings of shame through their compulsions, which reinforces the cycle of compulsion.

Addictive disorders

– Connection: Toxic shame can be both a factor in the development of addictive behaviour and a consequence of addictive behaviour. Alcohol, drugs or non-substance addictions such as addictive gambling, gambling or shopping addiction serve to numb feelings of shame or social phobias, or to escape from emotional dysregulation and dissociation, which ultimately reinforces and perpetuates the addiction.

Physical health

Toxic shame can actually affect physical health as well as mental health. Firstly, shame contributes to detrimental effects on physical health through the aforementioned behaviours such as smoking, substance abuse and overeating. Secondly, the stress associated with anxiety and emotional pain also has detrimental health effects.

Cardiovascular system

Shame is a highly distressing emotion that triggers physiological stress responses in the body, including the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. Prolonged activation of the stress response has a negative effect on the cardiovascular system, leading to increased blood pressure and accelerated heart rate regardless of physical activity, ultimately increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Immune system

The dysregulation of stress hormones and immune mediators weakens the immune response. The resulting impaired defence function can make the individual more susceptible to various health problems and impair recovery after an illness.


Toxic shame can affect other body systems besides the cardiovascular and immune systems, including the brain, and thus anxiety regulation and emotional responses.

Toxic shame has been shown to impair the repair and proliferation of neurons in the frontal areas of the brain and the function of these brain areas. Prolonged shame experiences lead to activation of the primitive reactive system in the brain, resulting in increased wiring in this area. This wiring between neurons, combined with the activation of stress hormones such as CRF, ACTH, adrenaline and cortisol and the inhibition of serotonin, can lead to a decrease in neuronal cell division in certain networks and ultimately to the development of an “anxious brain” in which every stimulus, even positive ones, is associated with fear. The long-term effects of toxic shame can even include cell death and a reduction in brain volume.

Negative social experiences that can activate the primitive, reactive system in the brain and lead to immediate defensive reactions include, in particular, performance appraisals. When the negative social experience activates the primitive fear system, the individual may react impulsively and defensively without thinking about the potential value of the feedback. In such situations, slower thinking, which involves the hippocampus and cortex in the evaluation process, no longer has the opportunity to evaluate and contextualise the information before an immediate defensive reaction occurs.

General well-being

Unsurprisingly, there is also research on the long-term effects of toxic shame on general wellbeing. Prolonged or traumatic experiences of shame have a similar negative impact on wellbeing and health as stress. Toxic shame and the development of an “anxious brain” damage emotional well-being and cause anxiety, perfectionism, depression and a constant struggle for acceptance and recognition in social interactions. In addition, shame can become part of the implicit memory system. Current perceptions are distorted and become triggers for inappropriate reactions. These long-term effects of toxic shame emphasise the importance of addressing and preventing toxic shame in order to promote wellbeing and health.


  • Toxic shame has a significant impact on relationships, self-esteem and mental health. It is often an elusive topic that sufferers rarely address on their own because it can be very embarrassing to admit that you are ashamed. However, living with toxic shame has a profound impact on individuals, especially those affected by childhood trauma.
  • Toxic shame hinders the development and maintenance of healthy relationships with others. It causes feelings of deep isolation and abandonment. Pervasive shame makes it impossible to trust others and accept love and acceptance in relationships. People with toxic shame may even construct relationships, including therapy, as a defence mechanism to avoid the shame they experience elsewhere.
  • All children need empathic connection in order to learn to feel coherent and valuable. Otherwise, they develop beliefs about themselves that contribute to self-doubt, self-loathing and a pervasive sense of failure.
  • Toxic shame can lead to emotional difficulties such as stress, anxiety and depression. It destroys emotional well-being and will become a lifelong affliction. Living with shame every day can be unbearable.

It is important to recognise and address toxic shame. Therapists in particular need to be attuned to the presence of shame in therapy sessions, as it is often hidden and presented as self, rather than being truly present. Those affected may constantly struggle with feelings of shame, self-loathing and a sense of being flawed. Therapy then becomes the only opportunity to address and process toxic shame.

Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy, mentalisation-based methods and depth psychological methods help to understand the roots of shame, challenge self-destructive beliefs and develop healthier ways of perceiving oneself.

Self-care and self-compassion are key aspects of healing as they enable individuals to treat themselves with kindness and understanding. Building self-compassion, strengthening self-esteem and developing healthy coping strategies are crucial for overcoming toxic shame. They strengthen self-esteem and create the conditions for a fulfilled and authentic life.


Of course, here are the adapted exercises using the polite form of address “Sie”:

1. Letter to your inner child

This exercise is designed to help you recognise your ‘hurt child’ mode and offer them compassion and understanding.

How to:

– Write a letter to yourself at an age when you felt particularly vulnerable.

– Acknowledge the feelings and needs you had at the time and offer comfort and support as you would to a real child.

– Reassure your inner child that it now has adult support and that its needs are being taken seriously.

2. “Healthy adult” meditation anchor

The aim is to develop and strengthen the “healthy adult” mode in order to treat oneself with compassion.

How to:

– Find a quiet place and close your eyes. Breathe in and out deeply to relax.

– Imagine what your “healthy adult” mode looks like. How does it feel to be full of self-compassion and self-care?

– Visualise a situation in which your wounded inner child needs comfort or support. How would a healthy adult react to this? Practise responding in this role.

– Use a physical anchor (e.g. a hand on your heart) to reinforce this healthy adult attitude and to be able to access it at any time.

3. Self-care ritual

The aim is to establish daily self-care practices to strengthen self-compassion and nurture the inner child.

How to:

– Make a list of activities that give you pleasure and relaxation or that you find nurturing (e.g. taking a warm bath, reading a book, going for a walk in nature).

– Choose at least one activity a day that you consciously carry out as an act of self-care.

– During the activity, remind yourself that this is an expression of love and compassion for yourself, and pay attention to how this caring feels.

4. Gratitude diary

The aim is to focus on positive experiences and characteristics in order to strengthen self-esteem and weaken negative schemas.

How to:

– Record three things every day that you are grateful for. These can be big or small, from a beautiful moment to a personal strength to something that went well.

– Try to be specific and also recognise what your contribution to these positive aspects is.

– Reflect regularly on your entries to strengthen your awareness of the good in your life and in yourself.

These exercises are designed to help you understand your schemas and modes and integrate a greater level of self-care and self-compassion into your life through targeted practices.


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