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Monday, May 16 2022

Toxic Shame Revision

One of the first Newsletters I wrote for this blog was about toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 Toxic Shame – 3 July 2017).  This is because the effect it has on the formation of our sense of self will influence the behaviour choices of children who suffer early childhood abuse and neglect.  We have addressed the more quantifiable damage can occur when being raised in such a cruel and negligent environment, not the least of which is the permanent brain damage described in our previous Newsletter.  Not to discard how much these injuries directly effects the day-to-day decision making but the emotional quality of shame permeates every decision these children make.


It is worth revisiting how a person’s sense of self, their belief structure is formed by examining the diagram below:

It is obvious that our sense of self, our beliefs are a result of our experience when these were being formed, they are just the memories of events of that time.  The key for the formation of self is always about survival.  The need to connect with others is critical and so any rejection by our community is a threat.  The fact that shame is often defined as a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation is a message that what we have done threatens our membership of the group.  So, even though shame is a negative emotion, its origins play a part in our survival as a species.


Because we all make mistakes there are times when our behaviour is spurned.  This is the experience of shame.  It is because we are doing something that does not contribute to the wellbeing of others, what we have done is not acceptable!  This emotional feedback is healthy; hence the term healthy shame and that feedback protects us from behaviours that repel others.  It should also remind us that we are not perfect and should not be so quick to judge others.  There is an axiom I like ‘If we never experience shame we are either divine or totally corrupt’.


The key difference between healthy and toxic shame is in the former, the individual feels embarrassed because they made a mistake.  In the case of toxic shame the kids don’t recognise that they have made a mistake they believe they are the cause of that mistake.  This faulty belief underpins their sense of self and they bring that sense to every situation they encounter including their schoolwork.  


As with all the development of our sense of self, it occurs in childhood.  Toxic shame is put onto these children by others, usually significant others.  They are constantly told they are stupid, useless, are ignored or punished and of course, those who suffer abuse and neglect inevitably develop a sense of toxic shame.


To summarise, these kids experience:

  • Feelings that are not based on reality, they think they are mistakes instead of recognizing they have made a mistake.
  • False messages that create this false sense of self.  They are blamed for things that were out of their control.
  • A reality that is based on another’s opinion, children have to learn how to form an opinion and until they do they believe the outlook of the adults.
  • A chronic, permanent state of rejection from their peers.
  • An exaggeration of their faults, they are quick to take the blame when things go wrong.


The result is these children bring to any situation, as outlined in the first diagram, a sense of self, a set of beliefs that will inevitably:

  • Discount their positives - They don’t listen to compliments, they only hear criticisms
  • Magnify their flaws - They look for confirmation about their faulty beliefs because maybe that’s all they have heard
  • Judge themselves against perfection - If they make a mistake they are a mistake
  • Translate criticism for what they do into what they are - When they do something wrong it’s because they are wrong
  • They read shame into other’s minds - they know that you know they are bad


The result of these faulty beliefs leads to their conviction that:

  • To be good they must be perfect
  • They don’t deserve anything
  • They should never let anyone get to know them, they want to keep their ‘faults’ a secret
  • You shouldn’t have feelings
  • Don’t grow, it’s safe where you are


Their emotional interpretation of their worth is also affected.  They feel:

  • A fake
  • Contemptible
  • Inadequate
  • Inferior
  • Flawed
  • Dirty
  • Damaged


Finally their overwhelmingly, destructive self-talk is something like:

  • ‘You don’t count’
  • ‘You don’t deserve to do what you want to do.
  • ‘What you want isn’t important.  What others want is more important.’
  • ‘Don’t make trouble.  Don’t rock the boat.’
  • ‘It doesn’t really matter.  It’s not important anyway.’
  •  ‘You can’t have what you want, so just go along.’
  •  ‘Just do what’s expected of you.’
  •  ‘Who do you think you are?’
  •  ‘You should’…...’You shouldn’t’……..

There are countless ways these children discount their own worth.


With all the damages described above it is no wonder children with toxic shame develop the following personality types:

  • Guilt Spreaders
    • The shame equation is that one mistake confirms that I am bad
    • I made a mistake therefore I am one.  One small act condemns me to be totally wrong
  • Overly Responsible
    • I am responsible if anything goes wrong. It’s my fault.
  • Obsessive Moralisers
    • I must always ‘measure up’.  Things are either good or bad.  These students feel immoral if they just have a good time.
  • Compulsive Comparers
    • These students feel they can never compare to successful people
    • When they see others succeed they feel they have failed
  • Approval Addicts
    • I can only feel like I’m improving if others approve of my actions
  • Never Deserving
    • I cannot enjoy the gifts of life because I did not earn them


Toxic shame is an insidious emotion that influences all aspects of an abused child’s approach to life.  It will strongly influence whether they choose to actively participate in their community and nourish their sense of success or give up because they expect to fail.  In every case they can’t accept that they are entitled to survive and thrive in the world.  This faulty belief is what all effective teachers challenge everyday in their classrooms through, powerful, positive relationships, structured authentic consequences and well-defined expectation.  The use of this approach will eventually allow these children to understand that behaviour has authentic consequences regardless of who they think they are!

Posted by: AT 07:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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