How Toxic Shame Sabotages Your Relationships and What to Do About It

Man looking directly at you in earnest

As a full-time relationship coach, I can say for sure that the greatest obstacle to helping people learn, heal, grow, and cultivate loving relationships with themselves and others is toxic shame. Hands down.

This soul-eating emotion (as the founder of analytic psychology Carl Jung described it) tries to persuade you that you are less than human or that you should somehow be more than human, that you don’t deserve to have needs, or that you should be above having them at all. It’s fascinating how the same emotional wound can polarize people into either self-loathing or grandiosity, both under and overachievement alike.

These “one-down” and “one-up” positions tend to turn other people into your higher power or convince you to be your own object of worship, which makes it difficult to form secure bonds with equal partners. You may notice a correlation to anxious and avoidant attachment styles here. It’s also my belief that every self-destructive addiction is shame in a getaway car and that perfectionism is shame in a prom dress.

And although I’m painting a binary picture here, you can easily observe how various stress responses can take deep feelings of inadequacy for a spin. The fight response to shame could be type-A, demanding, narcissistic, or belligerent; flight responses often look obsessive-compulsive like workaholic, addictive, driven behaviors (active forms of dissociation); the freeze response to shame is more along the lines of shrinking, isolating, and paralysis (immobilized dissociation); and fawning is the self-abandoning, other-focused stress response that shows up as people-pleasing, codependency, and pathological pleasantness (see Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker for more on 4F survival strategies). 

All these and so many more dysfunctional behaviors can be understood through the lens of fear, avoidance, symptoms, or reactions to shame. What this means is that shame is usually an underlying condition or contributing cause to all of our relationship troubles. So if you desire healthy connection to yourself and others, understanding and healing from toxic shame are paramount.

The Sufi poet Rumi once wrote, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

Shame is exactly such a barrier.

Healthy Shame vs. Toxic Shame

For reference, I’ll share the definition of shame from author, speaker, and grounded theory shame researcher Brené Brown. “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” Brown goes on to explain that connection is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives and, therefore, that shame is rooted in a fear of disconnection.

Shame is a universal human experience, even though people seldom discuss it. They may call it depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Some label it anger, defensiveness, or malice. But very few people call it what it is… because people are ashamed of having shame. 

Isn’t that ironic?

Now, to be sure, there is such a thing as healthy shame. After all, it’s a naturally occurring emotion. For millennia, humans have depended on each other for survival, thus being a flagrant asshole has been evolutionarily unfavorable. As the Latin proverb goes, “One man is no man.” So I believe a reasonable modicum of shame has helped enforce social norms and keep people from getting voted off the island, so to speak.

But also, some say shame is the very foundation of all self-improvement because it’s an assessment of one’s identity. Therefore, people who experience zero shame might be considered sociopaths. So let’s not leap to any “good vibes only” conclusions and throw the baby out with the bathwater. As John Bradshaw writes in his phenomenal book Healing the Shame that Binds You, “Healthy shame is permission to be human.”

However, for the purpose of this writing, I will not be using the word shame to refer to self-appraisal as a means of personal growth. I’ll be talking about blame unfairly turned inward as a maladaptive coping mechanism that persists into adulthood and sabotages our ability to relate healthily with others.

Origins of Shame

Growing up as the youngest of three boys in a dysfunctional home, I learned real quick that shit rolls downhill. All the trauma, shame, abuse, neglect, addiction, and chaos was unwittingly inflicted on me by people in my family who just didn’t know any better. And how was I supposed to know it wasn’t all my fault? 

I’ll spare you the details of my sob story, but I believe any child who feels physically, verbally, or emotionally abused or abandoned understands self-loathing on a visceral level.

Shahida Arabi is often quoted as saying, “A child that is being abused by its parents doesn’t stop loving its parents; it stops loving itself.” This neatly describes but does not explain the inevitable consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Allow me to clarify.

Basic attachment needs require that children feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure in order to develop appropriately. Therefore, when parents fall short and kids have to assume either 1) My caregivers are incompetent, or 2) There’s something wrong with me, they will always choose the safer option. And self-condemnation is much safer when utterly dependent on your parents for survival. It’s also a better choice because children are powerless over inept parenting, while they ostensibly have some control over their perceived shortcomings.

So parental misattunements, unmet needs, abuse, neglect, abandonment, enmeshment, and any form of childhood trauma inevitably produces toxic shame and negative identity statements.

I’m lazy, clumsy, unlovable, stupid. Too fat, too skinny, too shy. I’m not good enough, important, or worthy. I don’t matter.

Even if you never say such things out loud, shame gets wired into the nervous system, and it feels personal, pervasive, and permanent. This can be illustrated by the understanding that guilt is a feeling that you made a mistake, while shame is the feeling that you are a mistake. The former is about behavior, but the latter targets your very identity; one constructive and the other crippling.

And because shame penetrates the very core of your being in a way no other emotion does, it can manifest in innumerable ways. Many people develop a shame-based operational belief system – a set of unspoken assumptions about their inherent unworthiness apparent in their consistent behaviors and attitudes. Think chronic under-earning, self-sabotage, broken picker syndrome, perpetual victimhood, etc. These are a few typical symptoms of toxic shame.

Scientist and author of The Biology of Belief Bruce Lipton says, “Your life is a printout of your subconscious mind.” So if you’re not sure whether or not you suffer from unprocessed shame, just take a look around. All the evidence you need is right there. If you’re ashamed in any area of your life, I’d bet the farm that shame was already there before you gathered evidence to support it. 

That’s the greatest trick toxic shame ever pulled off – convincing us that it was an effect rather than a cause.

Shame in Relationships

So what does shame look like in relationships? Well, to be honest, shame could be driving nearly any dysfunctional behavior. But here are a few patterns that are often (but not always) compelled by shame:

  • Aiming low, settling for less, or simply taking what you can get
  • Creating a story in your head about how they don’t really like you
  • Ignoring red flags, your instincts, and warnings from friends and family
  • Doing things solely for approval or validation, pretending to be someone you’re not
  • Self-abandonment, losing yourself in the relationship, doing way too much for your partner
  • Having little to no wants, needs, or boundaries – being overly nice, compliant, and flexible
  • Avoiding commitment because you don’t feel capable or worthy of being in a relationship
  • Rejecting others before they reject you, including relationship-sabotaging behaviors
  • Various vulnerability avoidance tactics (aloofness, busyness, self-medicating, etc.)
  • Withholding feelings and concerns to avoid arguments, conflict, or confrontation
  • Feeling like you have to earn your keep, prove your worth, or win your partner
  • Shaming, controlling, or domineering behavior to keep the focus off of you
  • Placing your partner on a pedestal or blaming yourself for everything
  • Being overly defensive, contemptuous, hurtful, or even abusive
  • Staying in harmful or unsatisfying relationships way too long

This list is by no means exhaustive (though it’s certainly exhaust-ing), but I hope it gives you a general sense of how corrosive shame is to human connection as well as just how pervasive the problem is. Rare will be the person reading this book who cannot relate to any of the above behaviors.

Another doozy from the previously mentioned John Bradshaw book is, “Shame-based people find other shame-based people and get married.” When I read that line, I was like, Daaanng – shots fired!

But think about it. If I’m carrying deep shame, I’ll be uncomfortable as all hell around people who love themselves. Shame already has me feeling terminally unique, why would I marry someone whose relative emotional health makes me look like a loser? No, sir. I’ll team up with someone who understands self-loathing, and maybe we can help keep each other from hating ourselves. Or at the very least, we can blame one another for our problems and feel alone together.

As you can see, shame not only drives the way we show up in relationships, it also exerts an enormous influence on who we get into relationships with. Truly, every shred of work you put into shame reduction will both directly and indirectly improve your relationships. And because the quality of your life depends squarely on the quality of your relationships, I can think of no greater means of personal transformation than investing time, energy, and resources into the healing of toxic shame.

Identifying Shame

If you can’t identify the problem, it’s not likely you’ll be able to solve it either. So before I outline the healing journey, let’s start with shame-spotting. What are some of the most common signs and symptoms of unprocessed shame in addition to the ones already noted above?

Self-deprecating humor, negative self-talk, self-abandonment, self-neglect, and self-pity are all low-hanging fruits of toxic shame. Another one of the more obvious indicators of shame is constant judgment and comparison of yourself and others. Better than. Less than. Glorification and condemnation. Keeping score. Always imagining competition and hierarchies. 

Remember, shame doesn’t want you (or anyone) to simply be a garden-variety human. We all have to be gods and goblins, winners and losers. Shame can’t operate on a level playing field with compassion for yourself and your fellow human beings. There’s nothing there for it to sink its fangs into. Like sensationalized news outlets that thrive on outrage, divisiveness, and clickbait, shame’s very existence depends on convincing you that something is terribly wrong. This is why it operates in such close connection with the ego, whose primary function is to be chronically dissatisfied.

On a more granular level, we can identify many forms of both internal and external criticism that are based in toxic shame. All-or-none, rigid, black-and-white thinking. Micromanaging, worrying, ruminating, projecting. Excessive apologizing or use of the word “should.” Workaholism, busyness, over-functioning, and over-productivity. Sarcasm and name-calling. Resentment and gossip. Negative focus, catastrophizing, and time urgency. Debilitating performance anxiety. 

All these and many more can be seen as shame-avoidance strategies. Truth be told, shame is nowhere near as obvious or destructive as the things we do to evade it (more on inner-critic attacks in Pete Walker’s book on Complex PTSD).

A longstanding inability to set boundaries, protect yourself, ask for help, or state your needs is often a strong marker for underlying shame. Similarly, feeling like a burden and not wanting to bother anyone usually points to a deeply held belief that the world would be better off if you didn’t exist.

And perhaps the most inconspicuous symptom of toxic shame is feeling stuck – in your job, relationship, home, personal growth, or whatever. Shame is a glass ceiling on the life of many an unsuspecting person. Whenever I get a client who’s done a hundred years of therapy and read every self-help book but still feels trapped in some awful situation, I always know right away that they’re carrying unprocessed shame. It’s got veto power over everything and cannot fail to keep people stuck indefinitely until they finally take out that trash.

Again, shame takes many forms, from perfection to dereliction and everything in between. Its coverups are infinite, so you’ll have to do your own honest investigation. And for people who obstinately deny the possibility that they’re ashamed in any way, this is definitive proof of shame deeply ingrained and fully integrated. The most malignant and tenacious forms of shame live in the hearts of those who refuse to acknowledge its existence.

The Foundation of Healing

Because shame is a byproduct of relational trauma (which can only be healed relationally), it absolutely thrives in secrecy, silence, and isolation. Therefore, the most vital necessity of the healing process is deeply and authentically connecting with others who can receive, respect, and validate your experience on a personal level. This could begin with a healing community (therapy group, twelve-step fellowship, church congregation, meditation circle, etc.), a trauma-informed coach or therapist, or at the very least a close friend or mentor.

Relationships in which you feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure are the only places where you can heal toxic shame. Without such connections, perpetual floundering in survival mode is virtually inevitable. And while cultivating these characteristics in a romantic partnership is wonderful, your significant other cannot also be your therapist or the sole source of acceptance and positive regard in your life. This will place them in a terribly precarious split role in which they can do neither effectively.

As survivors of relational trauma, shame-based people are necessarily folks who learned on some level that connection is dangerous and that who they are is not enough. Consequently, many of them reserve their vulnerability exclusively for romantic relationships in order to minimize the emotional risks of being themselves. They tend to put all their eggs in one basket and otherwise hide behind various facades of performance, perfectionism, stoicism, and the like. This increases their sense of loneliness and isolation in the world and puts an unsustainable amount of pressure on one relationship to provide the nurturing environment that can only come from authentic belonging.

In other words, the most perfectly loving partner will never be able to permanently remove your shame, and holding onto that healing fantasy can do nothing but disempower you and destroy your relationship. Let’s smash that immature and verifiably unhelpful belief right now.

Love does not “heal all wounds,” love is not “all you need,” and love will not “conquer it all.” A bunch of filthy hippies on acid came up with those lines in the 60s to peddle bumper stickers and free love. Yes, a fiery new love interest will undoubtedly help you forget how much you hate yourself for a couple of months, but that toxicity will always resurface eventually. Guaranteed. So please acknowledge the undeniably alluring and effective self-medicating properties of romantic pursuit. But make no mistake, romance alone can only provide temporary relief from shame, not healing.

To be perfectly clear, the most important step in shame recovery is cultivating safe, loving, authentic, vulnerable connections with people you will never have sex with. The more, the merrier.

Protecting Your Healing Self

Another key aspect of surrounding yourself with people who will love you until you learn to love yourself is removing toxic people from your life. Neglecting this essential step is like trying to heal your wounds inside a burning building. It will likely create even more discord and undermine your healing efforts.

To ensure that you don’t take two steps forward and three steps back, I recommend the following exercise. It’s a fantastic tool that anyone can use at any stage of their personal development.

Write a list of all the people you associate with regularly (daily, monthly, yearly) – friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers, baristas, doctors, therapists, hair stylists, etc. Next to each name, indicate if your interactions with them are generally positive, negative, or neutral by these metrics:

Positive – I mostly feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure in their presence. It’s often joyful, refreshing, or rejuvenating to connect. I’m happy to see them and gladly make time in my schedule for it. They are supportive, encouraging, and understanding. This relationship enriches my life.

Negative – I sometimes (or frequently) feel anxious, uncomfortable, resentful, or upset before, during, or after my interactions with this person. They drain my energy, hijack my time, expect me to solve their problems, or bring me down with their complaining, gossip, sarcasm, self-centeredness, and other inconsiderate tendencies. Sometimes I avoid them, and other times I engage with them out of guilt or obligation. I’d probably be relieved to hear that they moved to Antarctica.

Neutral – This person does not appear to add or subtract much from my life except the time I spend chatting with them. They’re ok, I guess. Not particularly inspirational or wonderful but also not awful to be around. Maybe it’s my mechanic or someone who provides a service I need but could go elsewhere for. I’m relatively indifferent about our relationship. Not really on my emotional radar for good or for ill.

Be sure to assess people as they actually are in your life  today,  not as the great friend they were twenty years ago. When you have honestly completed this inventory, commit to intentionally spending more time with the positive people and less with the neutral and negative folks. This can be accomplished by withdrawing from unhelpful relationships, replacing them, or setting explicit boundaries (see Nedra Tawwab’s book Set Boundaries, Find Peace for practical training in the crucial skill of establishing healthy boundaries).

Remember, shame is based on a fear of disconnection, so shame reduction requires a secure foundation of healthy connection and belonging. Obviously, this is more easily acquired in the company of kind, mature, uplifting people than with those who radiate dysfunction and toxicity. At some point, you may have to choose between being around unsafe people or flying solo. And if your nervous system cannot tell the difference between being alone and being abandoned, this may be an extremely challenging dilemma. But I hope you will learn to choose solitude over those who do not support your healing journey.

Next, I encourage you to repeat this exercise with places, things, and activities in your life. Your home, your workplace, the food you eat, and the clothes you wear. Substance and media consumption. Habits and routines. All these things contribute to your emotional health, for better or for worse. If you clean up your personal relationships but are still self-medicating and hanging out in seedy spots, your progress may be greatly hindered.

Understanding Your Story

Adolescent psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and child trauma expert Bruce Perry co-authored a book with Oprah Winfrey entitled What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. The title is indicative of the fundamental shift in thinking that will take you from zero to one in the conquest of shame. “What’s wrong with me?” is the uncertainty that secretly burns in the mind of every ashamed person. But there is no right answer to this because it’s based on the faulty assumption that there is, in fact, something wrong with you. It’s a trick question!

The truth is there’s nothing wrong with you. Even on your worst day, you’re still just human like everyone else – perfectly flawed. And no matter what dysfunctional or self-destructive behaviors you can only rationalize by believing you’re defective, I promise they make perfect sense in the context of your childhood. If you have shame, it’s because something happened to you (abuse, neglect, abandonment), or perhaps something didn’t happen to you (love, care, nurturing), and you adapted to survive the experience of living with unmet needs. 

Arguably all bad habits are simply maladaptive coping strategies. They’re compulsive in nature because, as Dr. Vincent Felitti once observed, “It’s hard to get enough of something that almost works.”

To put it another way, our most persistent adult problems were once childhood solutions, but they are no longer serving us. And in order to replace them, we have to construct a coherent narrative of our lives that fills in all the holes that were sidestepped by shame.

Remember, shame itself is a coping mechanism – a Faustian bargain of sorts where helpless children trade their self-worth for the illusion of safety. Shame provides the easiest, most concise, and convenient explanation for everything bad that has ever happened to you. It’s the natural conclusion every child reaches when left alone with their pain. 

You’ll have to do a thorough and uncomfortable crime scene investigation on your biography if you want to deconstruct the house of lies that shame has built around your life. You have to understand why you became the way you did. What was missing in your childhood? You cannot reparent yourself, resolve developmental trauma, or oust shame if you have no idea where your parents and caregivers fell short. In the absence of known causes, you will continue to carry the burden of blame.

There is an abundance of great literature to support this exploration. But the quickest way to get from “My childhood was fine, I just hate myself because I’m intrinsically terrible” to a story that makes a little more sense is to work with a therapist or experienced professional. No matter how good or bad you think you had it, an outsider’s perspective is indispensable to understanding your origins.

Many people resist or struggle with this step in the recovery process because of lingering denial, dissociation, stigma, family loyalty, cognitive dissonance, pride, ego, shame, and all manner of psychological roadblocks. Dismantling the version of history that you created to shield you from the most unpalatable truths of your existence is decidedly not enjoyable or easy – certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s also why skilled assistance is advisable. Yet, discovering and facing your truth, no matter how difficult, is absolutely essential.

Please know that this is usually the gnarliest part of the healing journey. It demands a tremendous amount of courage, grit, and perseverance, and requires support and guidance on all sides. You may have to do lots of grieving, angering, crying, feeling, talking, journaling, and heavy emotional lifting. It could literally take years, so please be patient with yourself.

But it’s totally worth it.

Learning to Love Yourself

The quality of your self-care is the bar a potential partner has to clear in order for being with them to suck less than being alone. If you treat yourself like trash, any schmuck can do better. This is how unmet childhood needs become trauma, becomes shame, becomes lack of self-care, becomes wanting to be saved, becomes dating awful people. So when clients come to me with a “broken picker,” I walk them back to the first domino that toppled and show them how reparenting themselves contributes to healing trauma and shame, improving their self-care, and ultimately improving the quality of person they attract into their lives.

If you want other people to treat you better, you have to treat you better.

Because your self-love is the thermostat that people in your life will either rise or fall to meet, it is of the utmost importance. And just like with shame, people confuse cause and effect. They think success, achievement, admiration, and greatness will allow them to finally love themselves. But self-love is not the finish line – it’s the starting point.

Shame is notorious for making self-love a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow we never find. It tells us that we should be better than this by now, that we shouldn’t be making mistakes or feeling this way, and that we should be doing more, faster, better, easier. “Should” is the trusty steed shame often rides in on to trample our dignity and snatch our self-acceptance. Eliminate this word from your vocabulary. It’s weaponized speculation. Don’t “should” on anyone else, and for yourself, replace it with “want to” when necessary. For example, instead of “I should love myself,” say, “I want to love myself.” This simple shift in language changes everything.

People say you can’t love anyone until you love yourself first. Dr. Bruce Perry tells the rest of the story: “The truth is you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.” Again, this is why stripping off your armor in a safe, supportive community and allowing them to love you is such an important part of learning to love yourself. Trying to create self-love from scratch while surrounded by jerks is a losing battle. But also, making zero attempts to love yourself in good company is equally likely to lead you back to self-flagellation. You must build this love both internally and externally if you expect to have positive results.

In addition to healthy connections, strong boundaries, and understanding your story, learning to get your needs satisfied in appropriate ways is central to reparenting yourself. Shame, after all, started as a response to unmet needs. So becoming the empathic caregiver you once needed is how you can rescue that abandoned inner child, become your own missing link, and move beyond the development arrests that fuel toxic shame. 

Humans have a complex array of social and emotional needs, which many people are completely oblivious to, and they drive our thoughts, feelings, and actions. So understanding what these needs are and how you can fulfill them, both by yourself and with others, is fundamental to living an empowered life. This is more or less the basis of Nonviolent Communication, the brainchild of psychologist Marshall Rosenberg who once said, “If we’re disconnected from our needs, we’re not really alive!” Whether you study his work, ask a therapist, or do your own research, your maturity, healing, and freedom hinge on your competence in providing for your needs.

There are many strategies for developing positive self-love, self-care, self-worth, self-talk, self-image, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-confidence, self-discipline, and self-protection. Seek, and ye shall find. You must establish a fierce allegiance with yourself and commit wholeheartedly to making that the most nurturing and supportive relationship in your life. Treat yourself like someone you’re responsible for taking care of. If you haven’t a clue how to do this, the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff might be a good place to start.

And when in doubt, ask the question, What would I do right now if I loved myself?

Rewriting Your Story

Shame is a tenacious little gremlin that often tails us well into our healing journey to offer unsolicited reminders of how permanently inferior or karmically damaged we are. Just as shame gathers evidence in the present moment to justify its own wretched existence, it also stockpiles data from the past to flog us with if we ever try to leave the stable it keeps us in.

I did my fair share of hurt-people-hurt-peopling in the days of my youth. I self-medicated in a plethora of unsavory ways and punctuated my adolescence with regrettable acts of reprehensible conduct. And as I began my healing journey, learning about acceptance, forgiveness, humility, and self-love, I would inevitably make eye contact with the face in the mirror and think, Yeah, but I know what you did. That knowing glance would, time and time again, negate any effort or progress I was making. Shame had become the proverbial shadow I couldn’t outrun. 

Eventually I learned, as Pia Mellody suggests, that I had to hug my demons to keep them from biting me in the ass.

For me, this meant I had to take radical responsibility for all of my darkness. I wrote out an extensive inventory of the harm I had caused and the things I was deeply ashamed of. They say you’re only as sick as your secrets, so it was crucial for me to share all my dirt with at least one other person. But I also found relief in sharing elements of my shameful past with many others who could validate my experiences and share some of their own. 

Without this degree of humility, courage, and vulnerability, I never would’ve discovered that the things I most feared would estrange me from human connection were, in reality, the very aspects of authentic living that are required for true intimacy. As it turns out, you can’t harbor a dehumanizing sense of self and also expect to have healthy human relationships.

Shifting deep-seated, corrosive beliefs like I’m terrible, I’m a failure, or I can’t be trusted to simply I am human is one powerful way to rewrite the unflattering story of yourself you’ve believed for far too long. Another way to rewrite this story is to make restitution for the harms you once caused.

For example, I shoplifted untold quantities of merchandise from nearly every store I entered as a teenager. Being a liar and a thief was apparently an objective part of my identity that wouldn’t just go away if I ignored it long enough. So one day, I strolled up to the customer service counter at Sears and tried handing them a fistful of cash. When I said I wanted to pay for all the stuff I had stolen over the years, they were impressed but informed me there was no protocol for receiving such a payment. They couldn’t just take my money and stuff it in the drawer. Undeterred, I purchased a gift card for that amount and donated it to a local church that did community outreach. 

I was young and broke at the time, but I continued to save my money so I could slowly but surely repeat the process at Macy’s, Best Buy, T.J. Maxx, and all the other businesses I had ripped off. Eventually, the lady in the church office asked, “Who are you, and why are you doing this?” I replied, “My name’s Adam, and I just wanna be a better human.”

Systematically, over time, I approached almost every victim of my poor life choices, looked them in the eyes, apologized for my harmful behavior, and asked for an opportunity to make things right. On the other side of every one of these experiences, I was no longer the despicable weasel who committed the offense but an upstanding man of integrity who was willing to clean up the mess. 

You build self-respect by doing respectable things.

I must emphasize that if you’re going to step out into the world and make this type of reparation, I strongly urge you to do it under the guidance of someone experienced. You won’t want to create still more harm with any unboundaried, manipulative, codependent, or self-serving behaviors. Trust me. A botched attempt can lead to even more shame. This process, like every part of the healing journey, can only suffer by trying to figure it out all by yourself.

The Long Road Ahead

Those recovering from substance or process addictions will have to cross swords with shame at some point in order to heal. Same goes for people recovering from depression, child abuse, abandonment, sexual assault, domestic violence, codependency, insecure attachment, etc. Every trauma and its respective trauma response induces shame to some degree. Therefore, all recovery journeys must necessarily address the issue of shame.

And if you suffer from toxic shame, you’ve likely been carrying that junk around since you were very young. As a lifelong companion, shame often weaves itself into our identities and exerts a strong influence over the ways we think, feel, perceive, and act. Indeed, it often occupies the very seat of our consciousness, making it remarkably difficult to even identify, let alone remedy. That being so, healing from shame is no overnight matter. But it definitely can be done.

Points to remember:

  • Shame is a maladaptive coping mechanism from an adverse childhood experience
  • Secrecy, silence, isolation, and self-reliance are breeding grounds for toxic shame
  • As a fear of disconnection, shame contributes to most relational problems
  • Judgment, comparison, and criticism are shame’s faithful calling cards
  • Shame is the single greatest obstacle to all personal growth
  • No one chooses shame, but healing must be a choice

Key elements of healing:

  • Identify the various manifestations of shame in your life and relationships
  • Cultivate supportive, non-romantic connections with safe, healthy, mature, people
  • Set boundaries around or completely eliminate toxic people, places, and things
  • Discover the childhood sources of your shame and grieve those losses
  • Learn how to love yourself, receive love, and get your needs satisfied
  • Own the things you’re ashamed of by telling others and making amends

This is all easier said than done, obviously, and your journey will definitely be unique. The way you approach each of the steps I have outlined is completely up to you. But the good news is that you don’t have to do any of it perfectly. As a matter of fact, trying to do it perfectly literally is shame. So cut that out. Also, you won’t have to do this work alone because, again, it’s impossible to do in isolation. Attempting to do so means that shame is still driving your bus. Please consider finding a good therapist to work with.

If you’re not ready to heal from shame, this article may simply be a collection of words, and that’s totally fine. But if you have the energy and emotional bandwidth to take up the epic work of transforming your self-perception and reclaiming your birthright of love and belonging, I hope these words have lit a fire under your ass and handed you the map.

Remember, your new life is going to cost you your old life. Be willing to make that sacrifice.

I taught a 3-hour live seminar guiding participants through the essential steps of shame recovery contained within this article. Access the replay and resources here.


That was a helluva article. Thanks!

That was a helluva article. Thanks!

That was a helluva article. Thanks!

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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

2 thoughts on “How Toxic Shame Sabotages Your Relationships and What to Do About It

  1. Holy hell man. I am still not sure if I have good human words to share regarding all the thoughts swirling in my head. I simultaneously feel like I’ve been smacked w a bat. Let me collect myself.

    Last week, I heard you for the first time in an 2021 Adult Child podcast.I loved your insight on shame and thought- man, he should expound on that. Well… YEP. I am a recovering Adult Child who is working an ACA program and has made progress. Also doing EMDR in therapy. My HP has declared its time to make more progress and this work is some SHIT. My romantic relationship ended, I set boundaries at work, and am now leaving my toxic job. I am trying to make moves to have more recovery/ mature relationships in my life… and to have a girl squad. You name it… and it’s shifting.
    I am grateful, overwhelmed, but grateful.

    This article, means so much to me. These concepts of shame are not new to me. Of course my sponsor says go to meetings. What I wish I’d heard was you can’t learn to be loved and accepted without putting yourself in a safe place with others who love and accept you. In other words, healthy community kills your shame. I have been trying to self cultivate as a survival skill.

    I was in a 14 month relationship that ended when bc of his “doubts” and unwillingness to look at himself, he walked away. The grief it triggered was unreal. It lead me here to this article. Shame led us there. I did not realize how much shame he carries that he’s unwilling to look at until today. The shame of picking another human who doesn’t want to recover was heavy. My picker is still broken, but me picking me no longer is.
    Thank you for the practicality, the book references, and the simple steps. I’ll be coming back to this article a lot, and reading pieces of it the next time I lead a meeting.

    1. Life is a loooong journey, my friend. Thank you for your kind words and for having the courage to heal. Nobody’s perfect, obviously, but I like to think there are people who are trying and people who are not. And I like being on this team. Godspeed on your healing journey. You are a gift to this world, whether you know it or not 🙏🏼❤️😊.

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