Toxic Shame vs. Healthy Shame

Healthy shame, that is, the feeling that arises when we acknowledge having wronged someone or having done wrong, is both normal and essential. It comes with having a conscience.

Toxic shame, however, is the pervasive feeling that who we are, rather than what we have done, is condemnable, and therefore we are unworthy, unlovable, and defective. Toxic shame sufferers have taken on the shame that rightfully belongs to another. People who suffer from toxic shame experience some degree of self-loathing, which in turn makes it difficult for them to reveal, even to their partner, their authentic self. Thus having and sustaining intimate relationships can be really challenging for them.

Toxic shame needn’t come from something as clear-cut as having an alcoholic parent or being sexually abused.There are many other family secrets, such as those related to poverty, depression, a particular religious affiliation, or even a particular ethnicity— anything that would make you feel like you had to hide this aspect of yourself from the world, lest you be judged or rejected. And what’s so important is being able to see that you aren’t responsible for these things. This toxic shame doesn’t rightfully belong to you. This shame belongs to the abusive parent or to the kids at school who bullied you for not being dressed the right way.

by Tara Fields Ph.D., M.F.T.


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