Healing Toxic Shame: How Do I Get Rid of It? (Part One)

By now, you know as much as I could pack into these articles about what toxic shame is, where you get it, and what it does to the way you feel, think and behave. Now I want to talk about how you can begin to heal. This article will reference material from earlier in the series, so I don’t suggest you begin with this one. Particularly, it will assume you read the previous one, which introduces what I call the Shaming Voice, but if you want to begin at the beginning, start here.

Healing toxic shame is the hardest self-help work there is, and so this article is quite long. In fact, it ended up being so long, I broke it into two posts. This one will be entirely about learning to externalize and fight the Shaming Voice, while the second deals with everything else required to piece back together a self broken by toxic shame.

If you mean to really take healing seriously, you’ll need John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, and/or a qualified therapist. Healing toxic shame is a serious endeavor, and this article is no substitute for having an expert at your side (in the form of a book, or a person).

Before any attempt at healing can begin, there must be a support system in place. Toxic shame is the result of having shame-based parents who lied to us about ourselves, and who were not dependable. To do toxic shame work is to face those needs and finally get them met. A support system outside the self is necessary for this. What you must do to be able to proceed with healing is transfer your dependency needs to people who can actually meet them. Though eventually, you will be an independent and healthy adult, capable of meeting all her own needs, that’s not where you are now. To get there, you must open up to others, and ask for help. You must put your trust in a non-shaming friend, spouse, support group or therapist capable of listening, giving you honest and non-shaming feedback, and unwavering support.

This level of intimacy is hard for shame-based people, but there is no way to heal without this support. Logistically, finding this person/group can be hard because many toxically shamed people seek out adult relationships with other shame-based people; perhaps your spouse and friends are not healthy enough to help you. But that’s okay. Join a support group or a 12-step group (which Bradshaw highly recommends). Begin to see a therapist you can trust. There are people out there in the world who can love and help you. Make sure, before you begin the work below, that you have at least one of them in your life.

So, once you’ve got your support system in place, how do you begin? Bradshaw says:

To heal our toxic shame we must come out of hiding. As long as our shame is hidden, there is nothing we can do about it. In order to change our toxic shame we must embrace it. There is an old therapeutic adage that states, “The only way out is through.”

Embracing our shame involves pain. Pain is what we try to avoid. In fact, most of our neurotic behavior is due to the avoidance of legitimate pain. We try to find an easier way. This is perfectly reasonable.

In the case of shame, the more we avoid it, the worse it gets. We cannot change our “internalized” shame until we “externalize” it.

“Externalization” is the big word to use when talking about healing toxic shame. Toxic shame is shame that has been “internalized”—aka, become a part of you and been buried deep in the subconscious. A major part of healing is to bring it back into the conscious—to become aware of the thinking patterns that rule your behavior and induce your painful feelings. To “externalize” your shame is to give it physical form with which you can do battle.

To do this is emotionally painful, because you are bringing latent pain (buried in the subconscious) to the surface. You are choosing to finally face feelings you’ve been trying to avoid for years and years. You must feel these feelings of pain, shame, anger and despair if we want to ever be rid of them. The only way out is through.

When you do these exercises to begin to externalize the shame processes of your subconscious, your feelings of shame will come to the surface. In the first few days of my own healing, I felt as if I was experiencing a life’s worth of negative emotion at once. I was pretty unstable for a few days as it all washed over me. But I didn’t rebury the feelings; I waited them out. They weren’t overwhelming for long. Though anger, sadness, pain and shame stayed with me on and off for months (and still sometimes surface), their intensity was manageable. If you ask me, there are really only two things necessary to succeed in healing toxic shame: knowledge, and the courage to face these feelings. Let them come to the surface and finally give them their voice; let the memories of your most shaming experiences come out as well, and finally cry over them.

This takes an incredible amount of courage, since the primary drive of shame-based people is the desire to avoid feeling their shame. Half the battle is overcoming this drive, and getting to a point where you’re open and willing to do the work to heal. But if you’re ready to feel that shame and finally get it out of you, then this post, and its sequel, will help you do that. These exercises all come from Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You or from my own experiences during my healing journey. They all aim to bring the voice of shame into the conscious mind, confront its lies, rob it of its power, and replace the beliefs that power it with positive, healthy ones.

Overreaction Diary
The first step to regaining your power is to bring the Shaming Voice into the conscious mind, where you can hold it responsible. One way to do this is to keep an overreaction diary—recording times when you blame, get angry or militant, project, get defensive, or otherwise overreact. Whenever your behavior is inappropriate to the event that triggered it, it’s likely that ego defenses are in play. These defensive reactions mark times when your shame was particularly active or close to the surface—thus helping you learn what triggers it.

Bradshaw suggests recording these overreactions in a diary at the end of each day. What experience triggered the reaction? Who was there? What was said? How did you react? When we overreact, it’s because whatever was said hit a nerve, making us feel our shame and lack of self-worth more intensely. In an example Bradshaw shares, his wife says, “I’m going to need some help from you in painting this room.” He gets defensive and launches into a tirade; something like, “I’m so busy with work; don’t count on me for help! With all the other things I do around here…” Though she didn’t say it (or even mean it), her comment gave Bradshaw’s shame an excuse to exploit his fears that he wasn’t a good husband and that he didn’t take care of his home the way he should. When his wife asked for his help, he heard it as a suggestion of his deficiency. Recording this kind of incident can help you uncover what shame-based beliefs cause you the most problems.

While I never kept a daily journal, I did write journal each time I felt particularly upset or anxious—I still do. As your shame is externalized, you will become more and more conscious of it each time it is activated—more conscious of the anxiety, sadness and anger you feel when it’s activated. Writing is a way to give these emotions recognition and voice, find out where they come from and why they were activated now, and purge them. Writing makes overwhelming feelings manageable and accessible, and ensures that your defense mechanisms will not be able to push them back down again without leaving a record.

Conversation with Yourself
Another way to begin to be aware of the Shaming Voice’s unconscious tirades is through a meditation that helps you learn to access both parts of yourself at the same time: the shaming part, and the part that’s tired of being shamed.

Picture yourself sitting in front of you. Think about details like how you’re sitting, what you’re wearing, and what your face is expressing. Now, out loud, criticize the person you see in front of you. This will likely be painful, but remember, you’re already doing it. This is a process to make the negative thoughts you already have conscious. Criticize the image of yourself sitting before you. Tell him what he should or shouldn’t do. Don’t hold back—be extensive in your critique. Really throw it all out there, and listen to the tone in your voice as you spit out these criticisms.

When I did this, I found it easier to write my thoughts down while holding the image of myself in my mind. As a writer, I found the thoughts flowed out of me more spontaneously that way. After I’d dried up (and written several pages), I read it out loud to my imaginary self. Either way is fine—just try to keep the thoughts flowing without censorship. Let it all pour out.

Now, switch places with your alter ego—and answer these criticisms. How does it make you feel, to hear these things? Pay attention to details still—like, how does your voice sound now, answering the cruel judgments of the Shaming Voice? Though you can continue imagining your image, you can also move to a mirror and answer the voice while looking at yourself in real life. This is an act of bravery, and will be incredibly hard to do at this stage in the healing process, but I recommend trying it. Saying just a few positive things about yourself while holding eye contact can do wonders to combat even pages of criticisms.

Switch back and forth between your two selves as many times as you need to, creating a dialogue. Do you begin to notice certain issues or criticisms coming up over and over? Can you pick out where any of them come from—like something you may have heard before from a parent? This exercise serves several purposes. First, it develops your ability to separate the voice of Shame from your own true feelings about yourself. And second, it makes you aware of what that shame has been saying to you all these years. Remember, these criticisms are not new. They are merely becoming externalized, and conscious, for the first time.

Having experienced the tone and feeling of this voice and realized its content bestows the ability to hear it speak in everyday life. This means that you can externalize the shaming thoughts that occur to you throughout the day; it means you can recognize a shame spiral and record it as we recorded our imaginary conversation with the self. The more of the voice you “catch on tape” like this, the less power it holds. Shame is only as powerful as your unawareness of it. In this exercise, the moment you realized what your inner critic was saying, you were able to answer; the same is true in life.

Address Shaming Beliefs
Having done the exercises above and read the example in the previous post, you can now recognize the criticisms of the Shaming Voice when it speaks. But to answer, you must know what to say back—which means you must know what makes you believe shame’s criticism in the first place. To know how to answer, you must understand the beliefs you hold that cause you to interpret “I’m going to need your help with this room” as “You’re a bad husband.”

Bradshaw’s toxic shame made him feel, “I’m a bad husband.” But how? Because he held beliefs about how good husbands should act, and feared he was not living up to these expectations. So when his wife asked for his help, the Shaming Voice said “ah-ha!” and used these beliefs to make Bradshaw feel ashamed. But the thing is, shame-based people never live up to their own expectations, because their expectations are unreasonable and impossible. The way to take away toxic shame’s power is to change these beliefs about how you “should” be or the world “should” be to more positive, healthy ones. In Bradshaw’s case, the shaming belief he held was likely, “Good husbands take care of their homes.” Perhaps that statement is true, or not—but if thinking that makes you feel ashamed, like you don’t measure up, then it’s a belief you need to get rid of.

The first step is to use the methods you’ve learned (like the Overreaction Diary) to make yourself aware of the thoughts and exchanges that trigger your shame. Then, ask yourself “why?” What belief do I hold that makes me feel like I’m not measuring up, or like I’ve done something wrong? In many cases, these will sound like reasonable beliefs and values—perhaps ones that many people hold. But all black and white judgments that don’t allow for individual variation or exceptional circumstances have the potential to be shaming. They require perfection, and create an impossible standard. These include beliefs like “Good husbands take care of their homes,” and “good wives should cook dinner.” Can you guarantee a husband who hires a painter or landscaper, or who isn’t all that on top of his lawn mowing, is a worse husband than one with perfect shrubbery? These beliefs demand perfection and a lack of individuality. They say that if you fail, just one night, to make dinner, then you’re a bad wife. They say that if you’re otherwise the best wife in the world, but can’t cook, then you’re not good enough.

There are other ways that shame distorts your thinking besides making you buy into black and white values. Shame makes you imagine that you know what others think of you based on shotty evidence and mind reading. Shame makes you take everything personally, thinking a tired husband is really tired of you. Shame makes you catastrophize, imagining that every chest pain is a heart attack. Are you picking up on the word “imagining” here? In other words, the pain and paranoia of shame clouds your ability to see the world as it really is; instead, you see everything through shame-colored lenses and believe your perceptions (perceptions projected out of shaming beliefs) to be as absolute as truths. When you meet someone new and are sure he thinks you’re boring, that’s because you believe, “I’m not an interesting person.” When your husband is tired and distant after a long day, you imagine, “He doesn’t love me anymore—because I’m not lovable.” When you think indigestion is a heart attack, it’s because you believe, “Of course I’d have a heart attack, because nothing good ever happens to me. Life won’t let me be happy.”

These are the kinds of beliefs that power the Shaming Voice. In other words, if you didn’t believe them, a tired husband or yawning friend would not make you feel ashamed. If you didn’t believe that all good wives make dinner, you wouldn’t feel guilt and shame when you order take-out. So, the first step is to learn to listen to your own shaming thoughts, and the next step is to figure out what beliefs power these thoughts—and break them down.

The best way to do this is to subject your distorted beliefs to the harsh light of logic, for shame-based thinking will not hold up under the light of logical consideration. So when you feel yourself “imagining” the worst or becoming aware of a black and white judgment, consider the facts. If you’re imagining a catastrophe, ask yourself, “What is most likely?” When you find yourself assigning the reason behind another person’s facial expression or comment, counter your bias by trying to come up with other reasons she may have acted as she did.

Though most of what I’m teaching in these posts is done only in your own head, “should” beliefs (based on black and white judgments of worth) create an opportunity to affect your thoughts using action: whatever your head tells you you “should” do, don’t. Don’t do what the Shaming Voice wants. Deliberately act against whatever you’re told you “should” do—even if you genuinely should do it. Perhaps it’s telling you you should pay bills, or that you should get some work done. For now, while you do this shame work, don’t. Do something else deliberately, telling your mind, “Just because you said that, I’m not doing it.” You can come back to it later—when your action is not prompted by shame and “should.” For now, do something you want to do, rewarding yourself for shame work well done. In doing so, you teach your mind that these manipulations are no longer effective—and you take a step towards trusting yourself. As you practice this, you’ll learn that you will, in fact, pay the bills without being prompted by shame. Trust me, if whatever you “should” do is important to you, you will get back to it—when you want to, and when you are ready to. You don’t need shame acting on you all the time like a parent telling you when to do your homework. You will do it when you’re ready. In discovering this, the self begins to trust in itself again.

Before we move on, I want to talk specifically about how to address a belief I think is really pernicious and deep-seated in shame-based people. A lot of my own early healing work dealt with it, for I found it a hard message to hammer through my brain. The belief I couldn’t shake was, “It’s not okay to make mistakes.” At the time, I journaled:

I am unforgiving, even and especially of myself. The way I live life is designed specifically to make sure that I never make a mistake. Because if I were to make a mistake, I could never forgive myself. In fact, I have made a few small mistakes in my life, and I have not forgiven myself for them.

Fear of making mistakes is fear based in perfectionism, based in the need to always be right, and based in catastrophic thinking that imagines each wrong choice will bring on the worst-case scenario. This fear is based in a need to over-control, and a desire to avoid giving the Shaming Voice more to criticize. But to make mistakes is human, and paralyzing yourself with indecision and cautiousness is not the way to avoid shame or disaster. Instead, open yourself up to learning, and increasing your awareness of reality beyond your shame-distorted perspective. Bradshaw says:

A mistake is a label you apply in retrospect. At the time you always choose the action that seems most likely to meet your needs. At the time, the benefits seem to outweigh the disadvantages…If you label your choice “bad” because it was a mistake in the light of later awareness, you end up punishing yourself for actions you couldn’t help performing. Better labels for your past mistakes would be “unwise,” “not useful,” or “ineffective.” These terms are a more accurate assessment of your judgment.

Mistakes help you learn and show you you’re human; to refuse to risk making them is to refuse to learn and refuse to forgive yourself for your essentially limited nature. Becoming “okay” with making mistakes is a big step towards healing for this reason—so much of what shame makes us believe is summed up in that simple phrase, “Making mistakes is unforgivable.”

But still, overall, mistakes aren’t something to strive for. What is the healthy way to make as few of them as possible? Increase your awareness. Bradshaw says you choose what seems like the best option at the time based on your awareness at the time, and defines awareness with McKay and Fanning’s definition: “Awareness is the degree of clarity with which you perceive and understand, consciously or unconsciously, all the factors relating to the need at hand.”

So, the thinking distortions and shaming beliefs we talked about cause mistakes by infecting your logic center with emotional bias and leading you to act on assumptions as if they were the truth. Thus, the work to break down these faulty beliefs and assumptions can do a lot to help you avoid unnecessary mistakes in the future.

The next time you encounter an important choice, ask yourself if you’ve experienced a similar situation before. Consider all the negative consequences you might expect to occur as a result of your decision, and whether what you hope to gain is worth them. What are your other options? Are there any with less negative consequences? The more logic you use to address the issue and the more questions you ask, the more aware and less biased you will be. The more you are willing to accept responsibility for past mistakes (without blaming), the more you are able to learn from them.

Forming Affirmations and “Okay” Statements
The techniques I’ve talked about so far have all helped to make your Shaming Voice, and the beliefs that power it, conscious. We’ve seen the fire that burns you, and the wood crackling under it, and now it’s time to snuff it out. It’s time to replace shaming beliefs like “I’m not interesting” and “Good husbands should take care of their homes” with positive, accurate ones—and the best way to make that mental change is by using affirmations. Affirmations are simple, positive statements of truth that counter the critical statements and limiting beliefs of toxic shame. They are, in my opinion, the single most effective tool available for its elimination.

We’ve already talked about logical consideration and the value of facts when questioning thought distortions. Affirmations are a way to verbalize this process and hammer the facts into your head. Shame says, “You’re stupid,” and you answer, “I don’t understand algebra.” This is a pure statement of fact, implying nothing about character or overarching deficiencies. Even your shame will have trouble arguing with it, because it is simply true. The generalization is broken down, and your mind begins to see that you are not flawed and defective at your core—but you do have a few flaws. The black and white thinking that tells you that you are either perfect or horrible is being broken down. You can be smart, and still not understand algebra; you can even be good at algebra, and struggle to grasp a specific concept! Labeling your actions accurately, using the words we talked about when we learned about mistakes, can help you form these statements. Saying, “spending the evening watching TV was not productive/effective/useful,” is miles away from telling yourself, “I’m lazy.”

Another way to form affirmations great at combating thought distortions is to use the word “okay.” “It’s okay to make mistakes,” “It’s okay to be flawed,” “It’s okay if that person doesn’t like me,” and “It’s okay to be messy,” are some examples. I love the word “okay” because it is so imperfect. To truly banish shame, you must accept that, as a human, sometimes you’re only “okay”—not perfect. Sometimes the world is only “okay.” But just because a quality, choice or reality isn’t perfect doesn’t mean that you should be ashamed of it. Coming to terms with this middle ground is necessary for eventual self-acceptance.

But if you ask me, the most effective affirmations are the ones that address the degrading untruths shame-based people believe about themselves by declaring the exact opposite. These are statements like:

  • I have something to offer the world.
  • I deserve the respect of others.
  • I deserve love.
  • I deserve to be happy.
  • I have value.

At the roots of toxic shame lie the beliefs that these affirmations oppose. All others spring from these. Shame-based people believe they do not deserve to be loved or happy. They are not valuable. But to believe these things about yourself is to deny yourself basic human rights. Everybody is worthy of love. Change that belief, and a root is torn out. Change the beliefs at your core, and all else will shift.

Affirmations are the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned in my life. They can be any positive statement of truth, and so they can be weaponized to combat anything the Shaming Voice throws at you. They can defy shame-based beliefs about the self: “I have value,” or they can defy shame-based distortions of reality: “It’s okay if that person doesn’t like me.” They can meet in the middle of logic and emotion: “Most of the time, I’m unselfish,” or they can be statements that you hope will soon be reality: “I love myself. I will accept myself unconditionally.”

Internalizing Positive Affirmations
Learning to form affirmations is only step one in their use. Step two is getting these positive affirmations internalized in the unconscious as securely as your shaming beliefs already are. Only by internalizing these new truths will the old ones be truly banished; your mind cannot believe two opposing truths at once.

Though there are several effective methods for internalizing these positive affirmations (which I delve into in more detail in my post, Conquer Limiting Beliefs), here, I’m just going to go over the most effective way. When it comes to beliefs as ingrained as those powered by toxic shame, I don’t think it’s useful to tippy-toe around trying less intensive strategies. This method is, as Bradshaw puts it, a “positive brainwashing technique.”

Choose an affirmation. I recommend combing through a confrontation with your Shaming Voice to pick out a criticism that comes up over and over, and form an affirmation to combat it. Start with something basic, like, “I deserve love,” “I have value,” or “I deserve happiness.” These are the ones I worked most heavily with when I first started healing; you can address the smaller things like “I deserve success,” and “I have a beautiful singing voice” later. You don’t need to use my suggestions, certainly. Just try to pick something that really lies at the core of your most painful feelings and insecurities—your deepest damage.

Once you’ve chosen an affirmation, or a few, to work with, get out a pen and paper (you can use a computer too, but I like it better by hand). Write your affirmation down, including your name in there: “I, Megan, have value.” Pay attention to how you feel as you write it. The first time, you’ll likely feel very uncomfortable and anxious (if not, probably the affirmation you chose wasn’t quite right). I could almost feel my Shame fidgeting inside me, panicking. Pay attention to this feeling, and take your time. When it dissipates slightly, write the affirmation again. Take the time to feel the feeling again, and then write it again. Write it until it is not so uncomfortable to write. Write it until it gets easy and starts to flow, and you don’t have to wait to write the next one because the negative emotional reaction is no longer coming. Write it nine to twenty times in a row.

At first, it’s likely that the affirmation will prompt shaming thoughts as your shame tries to fight back. “That’s not true,” it’ll say as you write “I have value.” Do not listen. Do not even allow it to talk. Blank out your mind if you have to; just shut this voice up. When I did these, I imagined Shame as a being of darkness filling me up. At first write, this darkness was huge and imposing. But with each repetition, its critical voice got quieter and I could feel the darkness shrinking. I didn’t stop until I felt flooded with light, with Shame’s darkness cornered in my little finger, and all I could hear after another repetition was my own voice shouting “Yeah!”

Now, switch persons. “I” becomes “you”: “You, Megan, have value.” Repeat the process above. Though it might seem odd, it’s likely your shaming thoughts and feelings will return with this simple change. Write another nine to twenty repeats—whatever it takes to squish that darkness into your little finger. Then, switch to “she/he”: “She, Megan, has value.” Writing the affirmations from all these points of view is very important because the shaming things you’ve been told throughout your life have come to you in all these forms: from what you’ve told yourself, from what you’ve been told about yourself, and from what you’ve overheard, or imagined is being said behind your back. To truly banish your shaming beliefs, you must replace every variation, so there is nowhere for them to hide.

Write these affirmations twice daily (and when you feel upset/ashamed), for at least twenty-one days. This is the time Bradshaw says it takes for these new beliefs to integrate into your unconscious. I’m not going to lie; though I wrote affirmations for months, and still do, there isn’t a single phrase that took twenty-one days to sink in for me. But I wrote them until I believed them, consciously and unconsciously, emotionally and logically, and if that had taken months, I would have done it. I know this is tedious, but do not undervalue this tool. Doing this exercise healed me of my toxic shame. Period. Now, a year later, when I whisper one of these phrases to myself, I am flooded with positive energy and I can’t help smiling. That is the effect when the work is put in and these affirmations are allowed to do their work: shame becomes self-love, and darkness becomes light.

You now know how to externalize the Shaming Voice, uncover the beliefs powering it, and answer them—even expel them from your mind. But still, this voice will speak. Like an alcoholic, you’ll always be recovering, and the risk of that darkness being activated again will always be there. So what tools can you use to make sure that a single shaming thought doesn’t lead to a shame spiral that will compromise your healing?

“Shame Siren”
Imagine a siren sounds when you pull on your ear. The siren shrieks out, “Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame, shame…” Whenever you realize you’re feeling shame, pull on your ear and set off your mental siren. What’s the value in this (besides being funny enough to stop your thoughts in their tracks)? It reminds you that shame is a feeling—one that you can control. You have now realized you were feeling shame, and acknowledged those feelings by pulling your ear. If you want, you can open your journal or your brain and figure out where these feelings come from, what prompted them, and how to respond. The siren subsides the panic that will inevitably arise with your shame by reminding you that shame is just a feeling. As Bradshaw says, “Feelings rise and fall.” There’s no need to panic; feeling feelings is part of healing, and of life. This shame feeling, like all others, will pass.

Learn to Say “Stop”
Choose a shaming thought—perhaps one that’s come up more than once near the beginning of a shame spiral. Imagine a situation in which that thought is likely to occur to you, and immerse yourself in it. Hear your shame speak, and let it have free reign. Let a shame spiral begin, and really feel it. Bradshaw says, “If you start feeling shame, that’s a good sign, because if you can voluntarily intensity the shameful feeling, you can voluntarily reduce it.”

Give yourself at least two or three minutes to let these feelings and thoughts develop. Then, startle yourself out of the shame spiral with an egg timer, recording of the word “stop,” or alarm clock you set before you began. The second this alarm sounds, wipe your mind blank—banishing the voice and all its shaming thoughts. Of course, they’ll soon reappear, and that’s okay. Keeping the mind blank takes practice. If you try this and can’t get a blank mind for even a second, try again, but this time, clear everything but a single image: I always imagine a solitary lamp floating in purple fog. Pick something that works for you—something that is as close to nothing as possible.

Repeat this exercise (prompting the shaming thought, then stopping it with a timer) until you can keep your mind blank for thirty seconds after the alarm sounds. Now, you’re going to change it up a bit: do the same exercise with an alarm or timer (not a recording), but this time, shout “stop” out loud when it goes off. Once you can blank your mind for thirty seconds after you shout, do it all again, this time saying “stop” at normal volume; once you can do that, whisper. Finally, shout it inside your head.

Now it’s time to get rid of the alarm clock. What you’ve effectively done is trained your mind to respond to a silent “stop” command. You now have the power to stop a shame spiral the moment you become aware of it.

The final step is to fill the blank thirty seconds with a positive affirmation. Anything works that makes you feel powerful and calm. This can be a statement affirming your own value and combating feelings of shame (if so, make it a “you” statement), or something that helps you see the reality of a stressful situation and keep you calm. That would be something like, “It will soon be over; nothing lasts forever. Let it flow over,” or “This is distressing, but not dangerous.” Pick whatever is most powerful for you in the moment, and use this blanking-replacement process each time you feel a shame spiral begin.

So that’s all. If you work your way through these exercises, you will have what you need to externalize your Shaming Voice, and internalize positive affirmations to break down the shame-based beliefs at your core. The next post, Part Two on healing toxic shame, deals with the aspects of healing that don’t have to do with the Shaming Voice. When shame is internalized and the self is fractured, the True Self is lost, qualities are broken off and disowned, and memories become weapons the mind uses to trigger shame over and over. All these mental processes must be dealt with as well, and Part Two will do that.

Published by

Em McDermott

I'm Em, an evolving person on a quest to feel at peace with herself. So far, that quest has led me to confront a history of childhood abuse, heal toxic shame, pursue healthy relationships, and become a writer who speaks with confidence in her own voice. I'm polyamorous, married, kinky, pansexual, and grateful to the Muses, who guide me.

32 thoughts on “Healing Toxic Shame: How Do I Get Rid of It? (Part One)”

  1. Hello ,and thank you for your blog, which I have just discovered and find extremely useful and well conceived.
    I am impressed by the extent to which you have been through all this, and by the knowledge you have been able to build from that experience.
    Have you ever written an article about the issues that arise when one is going to write about his own story, for instance on a blog like yours ?
    I am asking you this because I would need your advice, as I am willing to write about my own relationship to shame, therapy, writing and healing. I come from an abusive family but my mother was a therapist and my father a teacher, which gives a paradoxical and auto referential quality to my experience. As big as shame was in our family, so were the masks that should prove the exact contrary.
    I have long felt emprisoned by these paradoxes, but I am going out of this intellectual jail at my own pace. Because my experience seemed so often beyond understanding for the adults who surrounded me, and because it still feels much like this today, I need to write about it .
    My dilemma is that I would like to disclose many things but at the same time I feel scared by the outcome of publicity. How have you answered to this question for yourself ?
    Thanks again for your blog 😉

    A fellow (non native English speaker) writer

    1. You know, I haven’t written much about the difficulty of writing so honestly about one’s own story. I’ve written a bit, here and there, about how hard it is to force that honesty out of oneself when there’s a family background of silencing and hypocrisy. But never written much about the real-life cost to relationships, and making choices around what to say and what not to say. I’ll have to keep that subject in mind in the future!

      I think your best bet would likely be to use a pseudonym and keep the blog private from personal acquaintances and family. I didn’t do either of those things, as I had no idea when I started it what it would end up being about. But knowing up-front that you plan to write about shame and childhood abuse (and good for you–the world could use more resources on shame!), that might be something to consider. I know how hard it’s been for me to write certain articles, knowing that hitting “publish” would hurt a loved one. Then again, I think if I did it again, I’d do it the same way, because it is simply in my nature to strive for unity and radical honesty, no matter the cost.

      I feel like that isn’t helpful, but I wish you luck anyway as you write about your story!

  2. I love your posts on Toxic Shame. Before you started your inner healing was it hard for you to be around people for instance were you withdrawn and or made fun of by others?

    1. Oh yes, I was very withdrawn. Not shy, exactly–I’m not shy–but very reserved. A wallflower. But at the same time I had a habit of trying to win approval. I would start out withdrawn, sharing only a little of myself in conversation. But then as soon as I felt judgment, or even lack of understanding, I’d share more, and more, like I was trying to explain myself and earn approval. Of course, usually what happened was that as I shared, the judgment got worse and worse, because opening up more with people who’ve made you feel judged isn’t a good idea. But I never was made fun of–instead, I was the one who would make fun of others. I was harshly critical, and in response to the judgment I felt, I’d express judgment back.

  3. What happens when you have an experience that is automatically shamed and erased by this world? I don’t want to go into details but I was internalized with toxic shame at a very young age and the entire structure of this world plays into that shaming. I constantly experience others who shame me — not as an exaggeration but as outright abuse and telling me literally telling me that I am a worthless person and also judging me for my extreme reactions to those words which trigger my toxic shame. How to heal it if it is continuing to be internalized into you? What happens when you do heal it but the world hasn’t changed to accommodate your experience? To be clear, I am intersex and a person of color. This world’s messages in media and through the entire structure of the system — erase and pathologize us.

    1. It’s not fair that some people go through the torment you are describing.. One of the ways to effectively manage the abuse you have and are feeling is to connect with other people. Our the fastest and most effective way for our brains to process pain and rejection is to regulate it with someone else. Join a support group, reach out to a friend or safe person, connect on a deeper emotional level that allows space to ask for your needs of comfort, reassurance and encouragement to be offered.

      1. Thank you for a kind and helpful response. I am definitely in that type of safe space at the moment and working through it. It’s true, I do need all of those things and I am receiving them although there are still things that are triggering the same but I am working on it daily. Much love and gratitude for your informative articles! I just read this one again and am about to read the other two.

    2. Well first off, I have to acknowledge that I’m cis female and white, so I’ve never lived with the kind of society-wide, constant abuse you experience every day. But I think I can identify on a broad level with the struggle of healing toxic shame when the stimulus just keeps rolling in. It is trying to recover from PTSD while still in a warzone—impossible. But I think it’s possible to leave the warzone/world for little bits of time, in order to retreat to safe spaces in which you can do the work. I do it a lot, sometimes via reading, or time with very safe friends; there are conferences that might serve to be safe spaces for you. I think that’s basically the same thing Sam suggested.

      But honestly, a lot of the time when I’m feeling the deepest levels of unseen and unacceptable to the world, what I do is I spend time alone. Because I see me, and when it’s only me there, I can concentrate on that. Friends can be necessary as mirrors who see our beauty; their validation can help us heal years of broken, abusive feedback. Friends/other people can provide support and love when it is desperately needed. But ultimately, the only one whose validation you need is yours.

      When I was doing the bulk of my toxic shame work, I made a conscious choice to avoid contact with the most shaming sources in my life for a period of a few months, so I could do my healing. During that time, I leaned heavily on my husband: it was like replacing all the negative feedback with positive. I found that afterward—once I’d really truly healed my vision of myself—I didn’t internalize things from those shaming sources anymore. They still said them—the world will always say stupid crap—but they slid right off me. I just rolled my eyes and either called the person out in a calm way or changed the subject.

      I know for you, avoiding the shaming world may literally mean turning off all radio and TV. I know there are so few books right now that you could read and feel seen. And I don’t know if you’re an introvert like me—avoiding people and taking comfort in the silence of being alone might not be a good move for you at all. But I think the basic idea behind it all is the same: Find safe places. Safe people. Retreat from the world into those spaces, and do your healing work there. As much as possible, avoid the abuse of the world while you’re really focused on healing. And when you’re done (as much as a person can ever be done at this), people will say all the same things but they won’t internalize. The world won’t have changed, but you will have, and that makes a huge huge difference.

      Love, Meg

      1. Thank you for the empathy and compassion and for this response! I appreciate it very much. Currently I am spending a lot of time alone and it is HELPING! What is also helping is approving of myself and validating myself. I still have a lot of negative thoughts about myself and I am stuck in the past, reliving things that went wrong that caused shame but in the past two days I have begun to catch myself doing this and have managed to start replacing the re-living of shame with positive statements about myself in present tense. It has helped to get me out of the depressive rut that I have consistently been in for the past few months and it is working. It’s really like a second to second process, though as it is a reprogramming of my entire mind and self-image. I have supportive people around me but I am grappling with the fear that I will eventually do or say something that will cause them to shame me which is partially why I am keeping to myself but I do love and appreciate all of them and so far they have been examples of active love that is so inspirational to me and a motivator to keep doing the work. I also have a severe inferiority complex that makes me believe that I am not good at anything which has hindered me as well and led to depression and stagnation HOWEVER through working on the same and making some effort, I have started to be able to be a more active participant in my life and I am grateful that, too. Thank you so much for responding and for the advice which resonates.<3

  4. So, my friend sent me different links about things that might help me with my situations, which I thought were maybe just some anxiety but one way or another, I landed perfectly into toxic-shame. Even while I was reading all about it, I was crying with how much it could perfectly describe exactly how I was feeling.
    Because no matter what I did, or changed. It had no effect. Before long, I couldn’t differentiate a joke from what’s true and I would take them seriously, and overthink, always landing into the question, “Do they hate me?” Even a simple, unnoticable change in their behavior could do the the same. So I was scared. And as much I could, I isolated myself to avoid critisism and shaming, especially from my parents. I went as far as skipping meals, even all three in a day, going home as late as I can, or leaving for school as early as possible.
    I even separated myself from my friends because of the Shaming voice. It kept on going “You’re not good enough to be friends with them” because they were always honor students and praised by the teachers of different subject areas. I thought it was just maybe inferiority complex, but I just got to connect all of it. It was toxic-shame.

    So, thank you for taking your time in writing this. It helped a lot, and I’m sincere with my thanks.

    1. You are so welcome Gail, and thank you for writing your comment to tell us about your story. I really resonate when you say you wonder “do they hate me?” in response to minute behavior changes in your friends. I hope your discovery helps things get better for you.

      Love, Meg

  5. Hi Meg,

    I’m writing you with a sincere feeling of gratefulness. Thank you so much for putting all your effort into this summary of Bradshaws book an theories, thank you for finding the courage to expose your fears and shame to us.
    Prior to reading your posts, I was watching Bradshaws videos on Youtube. When he said this magic sentence “When shame is felt so repeatedly and deeply that it transforms from a feeling into a state of being” I was close to tears because I had never read a sentence before that described me so closely. The same was true for your description of how – after university – you took the first job to come along for fear of finding out you might be not as “good or perfect” as you were telling yourself. That is totally me except for I’m still in this job, because so far I couldn’t bring up the courage to apply somewhere else.
    I always labeled myself as having Avoidant Personality Disorder (AvPD), I still think so but now I know this is just a symptom, avoidance and procrastination as addiction. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad, that most of the excruciating shame I’m feeling now is about how I wasted my life in front of the TV because of these shame “protection” mechanisms.

    1. Lukas,

      Just wanted to say that you reflect my thoughts very well. When I look at my life all I see is what I’ve built in order not to involve myself in a situation where I could lose something that is truly dear to me or be devalued. In doing so I’ve built a life that I’m in no condition satisfied with. Part of me suspects that it was some kind of subconscious plan aiming to prove to myself that me and my life have no worth. And even saying this, I feel angry with myself, because I hate sounding victimized. This is probably the defence I’ve been taught by those who traumatized me so that I won’t feel having a right to blame them. Anyway, if you or somebody else would want to talk about their live stories/journeys/discoveries towards internalized feelings or just want some mutual support, here’s my email – gabriele117@yahoo.com.

      I don’t know how about others, but for me, living with internalized shame/self-hate makes me feel almost constantly alienated from society, contact me if you want to be less lonely dealing with it.

    2. Wow Lukas, our manifestations of shame do sound very similar. Right down to TV as debilitating procrastination. I’m not sure if you’d find her work helpful, but you may want to check out Hillary Rettig: http://www.hillaryrettig.com/procrastination/

      Her work is focused very tightly on reducing procrastination, and while she doesn’t talk about toxic shame directly, I personally find her ideas affirming and empowering.

      Thank you for sharing your story with me, Lukas!

      Love, Meg

  6. Thanks for this. I am going to follow this blog and read all of these as soon as I get a chance.
    It has been recently pointed out to me that I may suffer from toxic shame and imposter syndrome type behavior.
    I do suffer from depression, ADHD, and anxiety. Sometimes I feel surreal, paranoid, and like I am such a failure and unworthy of anything. This has led me at times to be suicidal and to develop unhealthy avoidant and coping behaviors. In the past I have abused drugs or acted recklessly, which then made me hate myself more.
    I am married and we have two children. I have owned a business. I am a college graduate and an experienced RN. I have recently been considering going back to school for my master’s degree in the hope it would make me “not so stupid” and/or “less worthless”.
    Of course it won’t matter. There’s nothing I could ever do to feel accomplished or valuable. Not saying I shouldn’t get a master’s. It just won’t affect my self worth….I’ll just justify it that I went to “a really easy school”, or I somehow” faked” it, because a failure like me couldn’t POSSIBLY get a graduate degree. I only got my undergraduate degrees (I have 2) because of some kind of “dumb luck” or having somehow scammed the system. Same with my license.
    I don’t know what to do, or if I can fix it, but it’s certainly a painful way to live. The other day I had broken down sobbing because I “am so much of a piece of trash and a loser, and I’ve been a failure, and wasted my whole life because I’m so stupid.” My husband wasn’t able to console me, I just wanted to die. At work, I avoid any extra talk or socialization with the other nurses and doctors because I’m afraid they will make fun of me, realize I’m stupid, or use whatever I’ve said against me. I am unable to trust or be myself around anyone. I feel at the core I am stupid and evil and it’s horrible.

    1. Wow, Michelle, I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope you get something helpful out of the rest of the series when you read it.

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that there’s nothing in the external world, no action, that could change your beliefs about yourself. But there are things that can, and hopefully the inner work I talk about in these articles will be the start. You may want to also check out my post “Conquer Limiting Beliefs”, about how to form affirmations. It sounds like you already have a great idea of what sorts of negative beliefs you hold about yourself. So that’s a great start. With that knowledge, you can form affirmations to combat them. It sounds like some good ones for you might be “I am intelligent”, “I am a good person” and “I earned my education and career”. Just repeat repeat repeat them (in writing, in your head through the day, and/or in front of the mirror) until you know they’re true.

      My thoughts will be with you Michelle. Thank you for sharing your story with me. 🙂

  7. Oh, and you might want to check out the moderately famous Vancouver-based Dr. Gabor Mate. He talks about shame.

    And Ayahuasca, too.

    1. Andy can you elaborate on the ayahuasca? I was planning on going to Peru specifically for that purpose. Have you tried it and how has it worked for shame? I’ve done some research but haven’t really seen much about ayahouasca helps with shame specifically. I’d really appreciate it if you share your experience/knowledge.

    2. Andy, can you please elaborate on the ayahuasca? I have been thinking to go to Peru specifically for that. I havent’ found much as how does it work specifically on shame though. Any insight , experience, knowledge you can share , I’d greatly appreciate it. Elle

  8. The whole Zen scene, where you’re supposed to be able to clear your mind of all thoughts entirely, and act “spontaneously”- I did that for a while. Coupla problems with it: A) It’s impossible, and 2) I actually like talking to myself. Nowadays. But, I reflected on this Zen Thing recently, and it occurred to me that you don’t have to achieve no-thought- but there you can be, with this value system that regards all thought as totally useless. Or, more vividly, as much of an object of sense-perception as your computer screen. What’s the difference between people who “hear voices” and people who “think”? To me: very little.

    Thus, giving rise to the General Sherman School of thinking: TORCH IT ALL!

    Which I did, mercilessly, for many years, before discovering that, I guess, I had cleaned most of the bugs off of my inner voice, and actually found it the most satisfying conversation to have.

    The Scorched Earth School of Thinking can give rise to very simple techniques, such as just saying the opposite. I used to say the opposite, and then flush both down the toilet, in the eternal search for the Silent Middle Way.

    Well, whatever.

    I should say, though, that I find your writing to be high-grade, copper-bottomed, and gold-plated.

    Keep up the fine blogging!

  9. Hey there. Have you ever heard of Active Imagination? A very good description can be found in the book “Inner Work” by Robert Johnson. I suspect it might be an useful tool for dealing with shame. Don’t know though, but I’m going to try it out. Anyway, your post and others confirmed that it’s really about exposing the “shameful” part. So here it is: I’m ashamed of my lack of self-discipline and for my habit of procrastination.

    1. Hey Nick.

      Actually yeah, I read Inner Work a few years ago and got a lot out of it. I don’t remember the specifics of Johnson’s techniques anymore, but I do remember that reading it ushered in a period for me of having really meaningful dreams and interpreting them. It was like my subconscious knew I was now open to hearing it through dreams, and so it started speaking to me that way very strongly. Some of those dreams were intense; they were trying to make me aware of fears and needs I had that I wasn’t conscious of. Mostly I used Active Imagination for interpreting those dreams, but I definitely think it’s a great strategy for all personal work and could absolutely be used to help in battling shame–especially since, as you say, so much of shame work is about bringing awareness of shame into the conscious.

      As for having difficulty with self-discipline and procrastinating–those things are where my shame caused the most problems for me too. I think part of the power shame has in those areas is because when we try to consciously own our struggle (by admitting a lack of self-discipline, for example), we also own the blame for that. It’s hard to not go down the shame-reinforcing road from “I struggle with self-discipline” to “I am lazy” in your head–at least it was for me. But you’re right that we have to expose ourselves honestly, good and bad, if we want to conquer hidden shame.

      What I found helpful was to recognize that ‘disciplined’ and ‘good at time management’ are actually skills, rather than innate qualities that you either have or don’t have. Definition-wise, they mean that you have skill at circumventing the stuff that rises up (internally and externally) to block your path when you’re trying to accomplish something. Shame is a very big block standing solidly in your way; having shame means that you have a more tangled snare in front of you than most people, and thus need more discipline to overcome it. Lacking self-discipline simply means that you don’t have the skills you need to overcome that particular snare yet, but you can learn them.

      I don’t know if you’ll find that mindset helpful, but I found it empowering and solution-oriented: it is a way to own your struggle with discipline without letting that ownership reinforce shame and a negative sense of self.

      I want to recommend you check out Hillary Rettig and her book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. That book is actually where I began my journey into the world of personal growth material years ago; her work is entirely focused on overcoming procrastination, and I like it because of that limited focus, because of her 100% no-shame approach, and because of the attention she pays to the internal narratives that fuel procrastination. Maybe you could get something out of it.

      Best of luck to you!


      1. Wow thank you for the long response. I’m definitely going to check that book out. Coincidentally, I already read part of her online book about activism, and was surprised about how much of it is actually about compassionate self-management.

  10. I’ve been reading the series over a week and reading this particular article allowed me to do since long overdue heart work. Thank you for your courage to do your work. It gave me the ability to do mine. Btw I bought the book as well

  11. Greate post. Keep posting such kind of info on
    your page. Im really impressed by your site.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Panic Disorder. Regards

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