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Toxic Shame

Is it influencing your choice of partner?

The use of the term "toxic shame" was first introduced in the 1960s by Sylvan Tomkins, an American psychologist and theorist. While famous for many of his theories, perhaps his most well known is affect theory, which includes shame.

At its most basic, shame is an emotion, but it has more significant physiological ties than many other emotions. In fact, shame triggers the same sympathetic nervous response as fear, putting the individual into a state of flee, fight, or freeze.

When shame becomes internalized and pervasive in our lives, we live in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. Often this starts from early childhood, where parents are always negative and emotionally harmful to the child by making statements that the child is unloved or unwanted, is a failure, cannot do things right, is terrible, or is unattractive or unintelligent. Some people consider this "core shame," and it is not the same as shame over a given event in the way we responded.

Over time, and with these types of negative messages, the individual begins to have very deep and extensive feelings of inadequacy, but they see themselves as the reason they are unloved and unlovable. If this is not corrected and a positive message instilled in the child, this shame continues to grow and fester, creating low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and increases the risk of codependency.

Relationship Issues

For those dealing with toxic shame, the charisma of the narcissist is an attracting force. The narcissist sweeps the individual off her feet, pulling her into a fantasy world where she is lavished with the love she has longed for since childhood. The irony is that some narcissists are also dealing with toxic shame, but they have responded by shutting off all feelings and creating an alter-personality that has covered up all the same by wearing the mask of grandiosity and selfishness.

People with toxic shame may also be driven to try to find a partner in a person they see as broken and needy. The individual internalizing shame from childhood can see the alcoholic as a way to redeem themselves by helping another and becoming the healer and the caregiver. The result is a codependent relationship that neither is likely to leave.

Working From Toxic Shame

There are ways to address the issue of toxic shame. Working with a therapist is vital for many, as it provides a safe way to look at those deeply rooted negative messages and how they have impacted how you have seen yourself throughout life.

In addition, working through toxic shame requires:

  • Getting out of your own thoughts – talking to others about how you feel about yourself and not hiding away from these thoughts is seen as a critical step in addressing the problem and moving towards healing.
  • Seeing the inner child – healing not only our adult selves, but the little child looking for love and recognition is critical. This is also a step in codependency treatment, and it is an effective way to address the anxiety, depression, and perfectionism that many people with toxic shame experience.
  • Learning to love yourself – finding things about yourself that you love and affirming them is a difficult task, but also one that changes the internal dialogue from unfounded shaming to learning an appreciation for self.

Another factor and one that is essential to healing from toxic shame is to remove people involved in criticizing and shaming from your life. This may be difficult, but building new relationships with trusting, positive, and authentic people can help in this necessary step.


Darlene Lancer, J. M. (2018, October 8). What is Toxic Shame?Retrieved from PsychCentral:

Dodgson, L. (2018, March 20). Feeling Intense Shame Can Turn Some People Into Narcissists - Here's How. Retrieved from Business Insider:

Megan Bronson, P.-B. (2015). Breaking Free of the Addiction-Shame Cycle. Retrieved from Phoenix Society:…

Rosenberg, R. A. (2014, January 23). Shame Excavation: Unearthing Toxic Shame. Retrieved from HuffPost: