Shame can be defined as an experience of falling short of social expectations and a sense of being devalued for it. We have all had experiences of shame in many of its varieties in the course of our lives, and for many individuals, such experiences of shame can be managed, and eventually “gotten” over.
Much of what we do with others and by ourselves will invoke comments from our “internal audience”, that is, the thoughts and self-directed messages that can be either critical or kind in nature, similar to those that have possibly once been uttered by someone significant to us – i.e. parent, sibling or a schoolyard friend.
If we've had generally self-affirming messages given to us by others throughout our development, chances are that our self-esteem is grounded in reality and generally healthy. With good basic self-esteem we will experience shame and yet be able to modulate it to some useful end; possibly by acknowledging it and remaining connected to others.
The term toxic shame identifies the type of shame that has a crippling, paralysing effect, profoundly affecting a person's sense of well-being and belonging in the world. Toxic shame can develop when we are given consistently critical and negative messages about who we are (as opposed to what we do), by people close or otherwise significant to us. It can also often develop following experiences of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or of any type of bullying. It is often a basis for very low self-esteem.
The effects of toxic shame can be be seen in self- and other-directed violence, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, overeating and a number of other self-defeating behaviours. It will have a significant effect on how we handle our personal, social and professional lives.
Moreover, as toxic shame affects our identity, one finds it difficult to disengage from one's harsh “internal critic”. What makes it difficult for a person to realise they are experiencing toxic shame, is that this internal judge speaks in their own voice, and often relentlessly so, picking on almost everything one does, thinks or says – and there is often an unconsciously driven belief system that supports it. Sometimes an individual experiencing toxic shame will feel that they do not belong, not only with other people, but as part of greater existence.
Psychotherapy focusing on toxic shame and related issues can help you discover the beliefs that maintain and perpetuate this destructive emotional dynamic, and furthermore assist you in reframing your life's experience to help with developing a more meaningful, realistic relationship with your own self as a basis for genuine healing and change.