Healing Toxic Shame

By Jon Terrell. M.A.

shamed woman

Most of us experience toxic shame, at least from time to time. It’s a painful feeling, so painful that we are highly motivated to avoid, deny or deflect it. It takes some work, but we can heal our shame.

What Is Shame?

It’s a feeling that is closely related to embarrassment, humiliation,  and guilt. When we feel ashamed, we feel worthless, unimportant, not worthy. Toxic shame, described below, is particularly painful.

Brene Brown, a "researcher-storyteller", defines shame as "fear of disconnection." Shame tells us we are not worthy, not good enough or talented enough. (See the link at the page bottom for a brief presentation she made.)

Shame is usually in relation to others. We want to hide from others, hide ourselves, not be seen, not be present - like the woman in the photo above. Shame keeps us from being and feeling alive, awake, and in our bodies.

We even try to hide our shame from ourselves - we avoid it, push it way, project it on others, and suppress it - we are ashamed of our shame.

How Does Shame Make Us Feel? What Does It Look Like?

People who are experiencing shame can look and feel small, shrinking. Our heads may be bowed, our eyes downcast, we won’t make eye contact…we look away, we hide, and we cower. The expression “hang your head in shame” captures some of the physicality of it.

With intense shame we get hot in the face…we blush, which only makes the shame feel worse as we are exposed even more. We're embarrassed on top of ashamed!

Shame And Guilt - What’s The Difference?

Shame is inside us, and we feel wrong, less than, and unworthy. It’s a problem with our self, our sense of “I”.

But guilt is something that happens to us. We feel guilty, we don't become guilty in the same way that we become ashamed. Guilt is closer to regret than something that is wrong with me. Shame feels deeper, closer into who we are.

With guilt, you often recognize that you could have done better, feeling guilty for taking that extra portion of cake, for example. It bumps up against your values. The wound is on the outside.

Shame, on the other hand, is about us. We’re bad for eating the whole cake. The wound is on the inside. Ouch!

Healthy Versus Toxic Shame

Psychologists sometimes differentiate healthy from unhealthy shame. Healthy shame is a warning sign that will, hopefully, motivate us to do better next time.

I’ll eat a smaller portion next time and save some cake for others. This shame helps us correct our behavior.

Toxic shame is not beneficial at all. Many of us are locked into toxic shame, and we don’t know how to escape. We see ourselves as the problem, as bad:

I’m dumb, stupid, clumsy
I can’t do anything right!
What’s wrong with me?
I’m so awkward, fat, ugly, short, etc.

And it’s hard to escape this feeling of shame…but read below for how we work with toxic shame in our retreats to heal shame.

Where Does Shame Come From?

We take on shame early in our lives from what we are told and what we experience about ourselves, especially in relation to our parents and siblings. Examples of situations that can cause shame:

  • Parents who are overly critical of their children, who yell or physically mistreat them.
  • Children who have lost a parent.
  • Children who have not had regular experiences of being loved.
  • Children and adults who have experienced trauma or abuse.

If you have toxic shame, you probably resonated with one or more of the phrases in the previous section. Think back to where you heard these first, before you internalized them, and it could very well be from one of your parents.

Here are some other toxic shame triggers you may have heard growing up: 

You idiot
You should be ashamed of yourself
What’s wrong with you? 
Who do you think you are?
Have you no shame?
Shame on you!

Often we have shame related to our bodies: we feel as if we are dirty, or smelly, or unclean in some way. Or we are ashamed of the way our body behaves: we feel we are awkward, too short or tall. or just “ugly.”

We have shame about sex, shame about our eating habits and abilities too. All this toxic shame can be traced back to our upbringing…we may not have been told in words but learned to have a negative view of ourselves from what others did and didn’t do.

And a lot of shame gets reinforced when we go to school. Peers criticize and shun those who are different in some way. Making others feel small is a way a bully tries to be big. A lot of bullies grow up continuing this behavior as adults.

Toxic Shame and Love

When we are trapped in shame, we’ve lost ourselves and feel unworthy of being loved.

Healing toxic shame is about learning to love…starting with ourself.

In my work with adults, I help people overcome their painful shame.

At our emotional healing retreats participants let go of the barriers to giving and receiving love. This often means going, in a safe environment, back into old feelings, and the associated toxic shame, where we lost ourselves. It’s in revisiting and healing these old feelings that we transform.

We hold shame and other uncomfortable feelings in our body, so that is where we focus. This is body-oriented work.

When we avoid painful feelings, we cut ourselves off from our good feelings too!

Many adults feel numb and “out of it” because of what they’ve suppressed. When we bring our feelings into the light of day, our feelings easily  transform. We wake up to our power and our love.

As toxic shame and its associated emotions heal, people find they live in their bodies in a whole new way. Clients report feeling much more open, spacious, motivated, free and alive.

Try This Shame Healing Exercise

1. Take a minute or two to quiet your mind, center yourself, and become present in your body. You may want to take a few slow breaths, focusing on the sensations of breathing in and out, becoming more mindful of the present moment.

2. Now sit or stand in front of a mirror and look closely at your face. Let your eyes relax so you can see your whole face without tension. Look in your eyes, but continue to see your entire face. Look with loving eyes, sending love and acceptance to the person you see in front of you. Tell yourself "I love you," and any other message you would like to receive such as "You are beautiful just as you are" or "You are smart and creative." Spend at least 3-5 minutes. Stay in the present moment, out of old stories from the past.

3. Before you end the exercise, notice how you feel and see if you look different in the mirror.

Healing Toxic Shame-Our Retreats

Our approach to healing painful shame is at intensive emotional healing retreats. Toxic shame involves sadness, fear, and thoughts. But it is those deep emotions, below our thoughts, that holds shame in place. 

And we hold our emotions in our bodies. We hold fear in our nervous system, grief in our hearts, and anger in our muscles.

At our retreats, we create safety through gentle exercises, so participants feel comfortable around each other. We teach specific Skills of Loving to help us support each other and come out of hiding.

Then each person works one on one with me supported by the group's loving focus. When it is your turn, I help you shift from thinking about your issues to working through the stuck feelings holding them in place,

We offer several retreats a year, mostly in Massachusetts, but also in Florida. For more on these retreats, go to Grief and Difficult Emotions Retreat

These retreats are highly effective in breaking the root causes of shame.

If you have questions or would like to contact me, use the form below.

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Healing The Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw, copyright 1988, is an excellent book on shame.

Go From Toxic Shame to Healing Emotions

Go To Grief and Loss Retreat

Go To Breaking Free From The Old Story Retreat

Go to How To Deal With Grief

Watch Brene Brown on Shame and Vulnerability

Go to Awakenment Wellness Home

Ask Jon A Question

Please note that all fields followed by an asterisk must be filled in.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Topics Of Interest
Email Format
Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Recent Comments

"After decades of attending workshops throughout the country I feel confident in my judgement of Jon's unique and powerful approach to 'going deep'.  His work transcends intellect, theory, knowledge, and trendy spiritual approaches.

He has a 'magical' power and simple formula that takes participants beyond their tired and true (and old) stories. Don't try his workshop if you're not ready to transcend your limiting beliefs.  THANKS Jon, for giving me the gift of transformation."

Deborah Briggs, M.A.. Florida

"What you have created is nothing short of miraculous. I feel reconnected to music and poetry and my spirit. You have my deep respect and gratitude and, quite honestly, awe. I still can't believe you did this."

Susan L, Massachusetts

Read more