The Way Shame Feels and What Makes it So Toxic

Darlene Lancer LMFT
Man holding face in shamePhoto by Daniel Reche

Like the man in the picture, shame makes you want to hide. “Saving face” or “losing face” means to protect one’s honor or to suffer disgrace. It’s shame that torments us for hours or years following humiliation, rejection, or feeling defective.

No one wants to be called shameless. That’s because it’s normal to have a certain level of shame. Its origins lie in our primal need for others, to be acceptable and accepted, which provides a sense of internal safety and security. Shame encourages us to adhere to socially accepted norms, like basic manners and grooming.

What Shame Is

Shame differs from embarrassment. We feel embarrassed when our mistake could happen to anyone, like being late. It’s also distinguishable from guilt, which is about something we did that violates our ethical or moral standards. When we feel guilty, we can make amends, but shame makes us feel irredeemable, because it’s about who we are.

Like what happened to me, shame is generally associated with exposure before others, but an audience isn’t necessarily required. More often, shame is caused by how we think about ourselves. It’s silent and secret. No one need be present to evoke our private angst and self-judgment. We imagine others see what we do when we measure our experienced self against the self we want others to see.

How “Toxic” Shame Differs from Ordinary Shame

This even holds true for the things others don’t know about our private thoughts or dreams we consider selfish, stupid, or insane. A friend with a beautiful voice felt deep shame about her secret wish to sing professionally, because her father, an opera singer, constantly corrected her and made her feel inadequate. That parental shaming prevented her from developing her talent professionally. Another acquaintance wanted to be a talk show host, but considered his dream too grandiose to pursue.

We can literally interpret any aspect of ourselves – our appearance, income, status, feelings, or behavior as a reflection of our inadequacy. We might feel disgust about our body which keeps us from going swimming with friends. If we feel stupid for running out of gas, we won’t tell our boss why we’re late. We might feel undeserving and not take a vacation or ask for a raise. When we feel like a failure for not solving a problem or achieving a goal, we might give up on ourselves. Or we feel pathetic for being “too sensitive,” grieving “too long,” or undesirable when lonely, so we stifle our emotions rather than talk about them. Despite obvious beauty, we might feel unattractive, and no one can convince us otherwise.

This is toxic or internalized shame, coined by Silvan Tomkins. It lurks in the unconscious, undermines self-esteem, and creates anxiety and havoc in our lives. The magnitude of feeling different, inadequate, or inferior can be unbearable. It’s the feeling of being a bad, unworthy person. Toxic shame sabotages our relationships, our success, and our ability to enjoy life. It can be chronic and take over our identity and ability to enjoy life, chipping away at trust in ourselves and the world.

Internalized shame is an open wound from childhood that seeps into our psyche and spreads like a virus to everything we think and do. It creates false beliefs about ourselves others can’t refute and silently eats away at our spontaneity and confidence. This differs from ordinary shame in the following ways:

  1. Our own thoughts can bring on shame without the need for an external event or exposure to another person.
  2. The negative feelings last much longer.
  3. The feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity.
  4. It leads to worsening shame spirals that cause depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair.
  5. We have a negative “shame story” about ourselves originating in childhood.
  6. The shaming events and beliefs from childhood needn’t be (and usually aren’t) recalled.
  7. It creates “shame anxiety” about re-experiencing judgment, rejection, and shame.
  8. It can overtake our personality and be ever-present.
  9. Alternatively, it may remain unconscious, but make us defensive and sensitive to criticism, or anything we perceive as shaming, such as talking too long or too little, making mistakes, showing emotion, receiving too much or too little attention, trying new things, or looking foolish.
  10. It creates deep feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or somehow being unlovable.
  11. It causes low self-esteem and codependency.
  12. It can lead to other problems, such as aggression, PTSD, perfectionism, anti-social behavior, depression, eating disorders, and addiction.


Fortunately, we can heal toxic shame. That doesn’t mean we never feel it. Instead, shame takes its rightful place among our many emotions and no longer controls or overwhelms us. We can remain present and don’t lose our connectedness to others. If we still feel ashamed, we can talk about what happened and challenge our erroneous beliefs. Sharing shame diminishes it. We realize our imperfections make us human as we learn to accept ourselves with compassion.

To learn more about shame and follow a recovery plan, read my book, Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

©Darlene Lancer 2019

Nathanson, Donald L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, New York: W.W. Norton.

Tomkins, Silvan S. (1963). Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Negative Affects. New York: Springer Publishing.

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Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert author on relationships, narcissism, and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for over 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books include "Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," "Dealing with a Narcissist," and "Codependency for Dummies," plus six ebooks, webinars, and other resource materials. Her books are available on Amazon, other online booksellers and her website,, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

Los Angeles, CA

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