Why Toxic Shame Is Not “Normal” Shame – And Why It Matters
Have you heard the story about training baby elephants? If you tie an elephant to a large stake, it learns it can only walk a short distance. The interesting thing is that when the elephant grows up it still believes the stake is holding it in place. The adult elephant could easily pull out the stake but it never tries.
This is called “learned helplessness.” The elephant believes this is how the world works, so it doesn’t try to challenge it. And it’s very similar to toxic shame.
If someone has toxic shame, they eventually don’t question it. It’s just part of their world. Their reality.
In more concrete terms, toxic shame becomes embedded in the subconscious where it drives behaviour. This is why toxic shame can have such a big impact on your life – and may be one of the causes of social anxiety.
But before we go any further, I need to clear something up…
What’s the difference between shame and toxic shame?
There’s actually a big difference. Shame is a normal human emotion. It’s not a nice feeling – everyone knows that. But it has a number of benefits during developmental stages.
When you’re growing up, shame is a signal that you’ve done something wrong. It helps you learn society’s acceptable boundaries and guides you to be moral. It also stops you repeating the same mistakes.
So far, so good. But shame becomes a problem when it becomes chronic.
Chronic shame isn’t linked to something you’ve done wrong
Instead, it’s a deeply held belief that you are in some way not good enough. That you’re unworthy of love, flawed or just plain “bad.” This is the essence of toxic shame.
It’s not difficult to see why this can cause major issues. But what’s less obvious is why some people develop toxic shame and others don’t.
The answer is usually related to upbringing.
Everyone experiences embarrassment or shame when growing up. It’s a natural part of human development. Shame can be triggered by anyone including parents, religious systems, school friends, bullies, teachers or even strangers.
This shame usually lasts for a short time. It teaches us a lesson and then disappears. But for some people it persists. This is usually due to a combination of two reasons:
- The child is naturally highly sensitive to shame.
- The child isn’t given the emotional support to overcome shame.
The result? If the child consistently feels ashamed then it becomes part of the subconscious. It makes them feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is toxic shame.
It’s important to point out that people usually don’t cause toxic shame on purpose. This is especially true for parents. They might be caring, loving parents in every way – but the way they handle shameful incidents can still have a lasting negative effect.
Does toxic shame cause social anxiety?
This is the big question! Some people believe toxic shame is the root of all social anxiety. I haven’t seen proof of this – and I think there are a number of potential causes that don’t involve shame.
I do think toxic shame can contribute to anxiety though. So it’s important to understand its role.
The most obvious link is that shame causes us to hide.
And by hiding, I mean both physically and mentally. Physically you might avoid situations with the potential for embarrassment (which eventually becomes almost ANY social situation). Mentally, you don’t want people to know what you think or feel because you think it’s “wrong” or “bad.”
This stops you from giving your opinion and prevents you from being yourself. It makes you extremely self-conscious.
And most importantly, it turns every social interaction into a test. “Am I worthy of these people? Will they notice that I’m a fundamentally flawed person?”
It’s no surprise that these repetitive thoughts can make social events unenjoyable. But feeling inadequate isn’t the only way toxic shame can affect you.
The symptoms of toxic shame can be subtle
In many cases, the most damaging symptom is a vague feeling of unease. You can’t quite put your finger on it and sometimes you don’t even notice it. But it’s always there.
This feeling doesn’t care if you’re outwardly successful…
It doesn’t care if you have a great career…loving family…wonderful friends…
It will still make you feel not good enough. Like you’re a failure.
So until it’s resolved, it’s very difficult to be truly happy. But the symptoms of toxic shame don’t stop there. Others can include:
- Blushing or sweating – which can lead to even stronger feelings of unworthiness.
- Difficulty holding eye contact.
- Thinking you have more dark secrets than “normal” people – and worrying that people will uncover them.
- An inability to think of something to say, often because you don’t think the other person would be interested.
- Reliving embarrassing memories months or even years after they happen.
As you’ve probably noticed, these symptoms closely mirror social anxiety. They may not be the same condition – but they are certainly linked.
However, what makes toxic shame so destructive is that most people don’t even realise it’s there.
Like the elephant’s tether, toxic shame is rarely challenged
But toxic shame is NOT you. It has become part of your subconscious – but it’s not who you are. No-one is born with toxic shame, it’s something you’ve learned.
And if it’s been learned it can be unlearned.
That’s the main thing I want you to take from this article. Toxic shame is a problem. It can make social anxiety worse – or even cause it in some cases.
But unlike the elephant, you have the power to question your assumptions. And this is the first step to overcoming toxic shame.
If you have chronic shame I really hope this helps you. Keep an eye out for a follow-up article with information on how to overcome this problem.