People who suffer from toxic, chronic shame are affected by it in many areas of their life. Sometimes people aren’t even consciously aware of how it impacts them. Some simply say something like, “I just feel really bad about myself all the time.”
I often receive comments, messages, and emails saying, “I just read your article and it’s spot on—that’s exactly how I feel, I just didn’t know how to put it into words! Thank you so much!” That’s how difficult it can be to verbalize what’s going on when you constantly feel ashamed. Not only that, it is often accompanied by other unpleasant feelings, like toxic guilt, self-doubt, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, or loneliness.
Here are some of the more common issues people who have chronic shame struggle with.
Self-blame and false responsibility
False responsibility and toxic guilt are two things that often go hand in hand with chronic shame. Such a person tends to blame themselves for the things that they are not responsible for. As a result, they also feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
And when you feel that you are responsible for others, it’s very hard to say no and set firmer boundaries. Therefore, you tend to accept too many responsibilities and obligations. You are also overly agreeable and credulous. This is a big problem because such a person is prone to being manipulated by people with dark personality traits: narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths, abusers, grifters, and other predatory types.
You can read more about false responsibility in my previous article titled How Toxic Guilt and False Responsibility Keep You in Dysfunction.
Moreover, people who suffer from toxic shame often feel empty and don’t feel genuine, long-term happiness.
Those who are far on the narcissistic and otherwise dark spectrum cope with that lack by pathologically comparing themselves with others and trying to undermine them in order to feel superior. They seek power and control over others, social status, fame, notoriety, and so on. Anything to prove to themselves that they are not as worthless and disgusting as they feel inside.
Others self-erase, self-sacrifice, and people-please in order to feel valuable and needed, even if it is at the cost of their own well-being. As a child, they learned that the purpose of their existence is to meet other people’s needs. So they simply feel existential emptiness if there is nobody there to take care of.
Self-harm and poor self-care
Many who live with chronic, toxic shame have difficulties with self-care. It’s hard to take good care of yourself if nobody really cared about you when you were growing up. That’s why people who have been neglected in their formative years struggle with this aspect so much.
Some even actively harm themselves. In my brief guide to self-harm I wrote:
If a child is not allowed to feel certain emotions, like anger, they learn to deal with it in destructive and self-destructive ways, which often involves self-harm and poor self-care. These are “more acceptable” ways of releasing it.
Shame is an emotion that makes us want to shun others. It is often illustrated by a person covering their face or trying to hide. Subsequently, a person who feels chronic shame wants to avoid others most of the time.
This stems from painful social experiences of the past, usually from childhood, where people were dangerous and brought a lot of hurt and misery. These experiences causes the individual to learn that people, or social interactions in general are, more often than not, associated with emotional or even physical pain, unpleasantness, or threat.
On a behavioral level, it results in avoidance, awkwardness, shyness, sometimes to the degree where the person is terrified to make a phone call or they may completely isolate themselves in their safe space.
Interestingly, people with strong narcissistic tendencies and other dark personality traits tend to cope with their feelings of chronic shame and worthlessness by being more extroverted. They seek attention and act like a petulant, entitled, irresponsible, and reality-denying child. Their behavior is often called anti-social, in the sense that it is harmful to others and oneself (not to be confused with nonsocial or unsociable, which simply means that the person doesn’t like social interactions).
Because toxic shame stems from painful, traumatic childhood experiences where others mistreated you, you may have developed trust issues. Having trust issues results in poor boundaries, and by extension, in unhealthy relationships and a chronic feeling of loneliness.
Some people feel like a burden and don’t want to bother others. For them, it’s very difficult to ask for help or express their preferences.
Some are too aggressive and narcissistic, which immediately puts healthier people off. Moreover, a narcissistic person is either unwilling or unable to see that they can’t build or sustain close, healthy relationships. For them, the problem is always somebody else. As a result, they can’t even address the issue because they are in denial about the source of the problem, and are therefore stuck in their loneliness.
Some are too needy and want for others to take care of them and do things for them. They have internalized a belief that they are overly incompetent and helpless, and are overly dependent on others, which, sadly, pushes away those who want an equal, mature relationship.
Summary and Final Words
Toxic shame is a complex and complicated issue. It corrodes the person from the inside and can affect all areas of their life. A lot of people are not even conscious that this is what they are feeling. And out of those who are, many can’t clearly verbalize it and understand it.
Toxic, chronic shame, as most psychological problems, is rooted in an adverse, traumatic upbringing, where the person was mistreated and learned that they are bad, deserving of punishment, unworthy of good things, inherently defective, and so on.
The effects of such an upbringing can be devastating and long-lasting. Some of the more common problems someone who experienced these things struggles with are self-blame and false responsibility, a constant sense of emptiness and lack of fulfillment, poor self-care, self-erasure, and self-harm, social anxiety and other interpersonal issues, chronic loneliness, trust issues, and unhealthy boundaries, and poor, toxic relationships.
Toxic shame is, indeed, possible to overcome or at least manage, but it requires a lot of self-work. It can also help tremendously to have a professional helper with whom you can build a therapeutic relationship and a few caring people, because problems that stem from being mistreated are more easily resolved in a nurturing social environment.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.