Do you know the difference between healthy guilt and toxic shame? They can look a lot alike but are really completely different. This is a common issue and many of you have asked me to address it, so here it is. Let’s start by making a distinction between the two and break down some behaviors that could indicate that you may be experiencing a little – or perhaps a lot – of toxic shame.

What is healthy guilt?

Healthy guilt is when we feel bad because we believe we have done something wrong. If healthy guilt could say something it would say “I think I did something wrong.” Toxic shame is a different story. Toxic shame feels like you ARE something wrong. So toxic shame would say “am wrong…I am incorrect…I am monumentally broken.”

Guilt is talking about a behavior you feel remorse about – something you did or perhaps a wrong choice you made or a mean thing that you said to someone. These are things that we all sometimes do – because we’re human beings. Toxic shame is a deeper feeling of something being really wrong with you – something that you want to hide. Toxic shame doesn’t differentiate between what you did and who you are. It can often be very difficult to recognize the difference between these two things.

We don‘t want to vilify ‘appropriate’ shame because if you do something wrong, there is an appropriate amount of shame that will drive the desire or behavior to fix it. This is what drives you to deliver a heartfelt apology and to take responsibility for our actions. But where this gets confusing is when we start to hear that inner mean voice that I’ve discussed in previous videos.

Sometimes that inner mean voice is really your conscience saying “Hey – that wasn’t cool…you did something that was not correct.” But sometimes, when you have an inner mean voice that is always putting you down and making you feel crappy about yourself, THAT is toxic shame pretending to be your conscience.

Below is a list of symptoms that indicate toxic shame. See how many resonate with you:

(For your convenience, you can download the workbook which contains a complete list of all of these questions.)

  • Self-Destructive Behavior: This can include but is not limited to excessive drinking, overeating, drug use, acting out sexually, and gambling.
  • The Inner Mean Critic: Excessive negative self-talk and the compare and despair syndrome.
  • Hiding: This includes hiding what is going on in your life for fear of judgment or concealing another person’s bad behavior towards you
  • Lying: Being dishonest about how you really feel or what you really want due to lack of worthiness. Or going along with the crowd to avoid conflict or revealing something that you think someone else will disapprove of.
  • Fear: Profound fear of rejection that can block you from having intimate relationships.
  • Loneliness: Toxic shame can compel you to protect yourself from others. If you feel who you are is bad or unacceptable, you may push people away or end relationships before they get too intimate. This can also cause a sense of chronic loneliness, even when you are with other people because no one actually knows you.
  • Childhood Trauma: If you experienced any form of abuse as a child, it can plant the seeds for toxic shame in your adult life. Parents who were shaming or rejecting can reinforce feelings of shame well into adulthood.

Toxic shame has the potential to get in the way of your happiness because it means that even when you’re alone, you’re not happy. You don’t need anyone else to make you feel bad because it becomes a habitual, inside job. If this topic is resonating with you, please don’t blame yourself, there are reasons and experiences that set the stage long ago and now is the time to move onto the healing process.

Below are a few actions you can take to start the process of freeing yourself from toxic shame:

Mindful Practice

A daily meditation practice creates space for you to respond instead of react. Carrying toxic shame can make you overly sensitive to judgment and rejection, meaning you may see and feel it from everyone, even if that is not what’s happening. Moving into a more mindfulness place allows you to take a deep breath, calm your mind, and check your perspective so you can respond from your current situation, not react from an unresolved past injury.

Pay Attention

Monitor your thoughts for any self-shaming language you may have internalized from shaming parents or caregivers. This awareness can help you make the distinction between thoughts that were planted by someone else at an earlier time and your own. Being aware of what is really happening with these thoughts creates a choice to stop the cycle of self-shaming.

Flip the Script

The purpose of monitoring habitual, shaming thoughts is to create the opportunity to flip the inner script to one of compassion allowing you to work on being as kind to yourself as you are to others. If you make a mistake, try to use compassionate (instead of shaming) language and reassure yourself that it’s OK to be human.

You are not broken – but you have to want to change it, and the real deal is that even if it was other people who planted those seeds at this point in your journey – it’s your job to figure out how to heal. This kind of toxic shame is created over decades and takes time and intention to transform.

Healing is a journey that is worth your effort. @terri_cole (Click to Tweet!)

You can view my video about this and download the workbook HERE.

I hope that you’ve found this episode helpful and if you did, please share it on your social media platforms and with the people in your life who you think it may help.

And as always, take care of you.

Terri Cole is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. Sign up for Terri’s weekly Newsletter, check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.