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Shame Therapy: Dealing with Toxic Shame Through Therapy

Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, Psy.D.

Shame is the feeling that an individual is, at their core, a bad person. While some people experience shame for no reason, others experience feelings of shame after making amends for a perceived mistake.

Feelings of shame can affect anyone at any stage of life—from adolescence through adulthood. If left ignored, shame can contribute to a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Sometimes, shame can be so paralyzing that individuals find it difficult to function at work or school and form close relationships with others.

If you’re experiencing shame, you’re not alone. Therapy can help you understand why you feel ashamed, navigate your mental health concerns, and break free from shame.

therapy for shame

What is toxic shame?

Toxic shame is a chronic form of shame that leads to negative emotions and behaviors that harm oneself or others. Over time, chronic internalized shame can make ordinary shame feel more intense, leading to anxiety and secrecy. “Toxic shame limits the development of self-esteem and causes anxiety and depression, and limits our ability to be connected in relationships,” according to John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame that Binds You.

Individuals who experience shame may feel like they are unworthy of love. Meanwhile, others will avoid connecting with others out of fear that others will eventually realize they’re a bad person. Toxic shame can cause a wide range of relationship problems, including:

  • Difficulty forming or sustaining close relationships
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Entering abusive relationships or acting abusively toward others
  • Challenges being honest with friends and family members

Sometimes, people who experience shame will engage in harmful behaviors such as cutting, restrictive eating, or binge-eating. According to Bradshaw, “shame is the motivator behind our toxic behaviors.” Some people may attempt to cope with unhealthy shame or seek validation through:

According to recent research, unhealthy shame is often linked to suicidal thoughts. Toxic shame can take a significant toll on your mental health, leading to low self-esteem, sadness, and other mental health concerns. Unfortunately, due to the social stigma surrounding mental illness, many people with internal shame fail to seek help.

Therapy for Toxic Shame

In many cases, the experience of shame arises after a traumatic event. An individual might fear that they deserved to experience trauma, feel ashamed of emotional abuse or neglect, or experience guilt about surviving a life-threatening experience. When toxic shame is related to trauma, it’s important to seek trauma-informed care to address the root cause of shame. Some therapeutic interventions for toxic shame include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people identify negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and replace them with better ways of thinking.
  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PE) gradually exposes an individual to larger doses of triggers linked to trauma to reduce the feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety.
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) helps individuals navigate their trauma and understand how trauma affects their emotions and behaviors.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) uses specific eye movements to help an individual navigate their trauma.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy goes beyond treating the symptoms of shame to help people understand the root causes of their shame. 

Some other types of talk therapy that may help with internal shame, especially shame that is not related to trauma, include:

  • Compassionate mind training (CMP) helps individuals who are self-critical express their vulnerability and practice self-compassion.
  • Emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT) fosters compassion and empathy among couples to help with shame that interferes with trust and closeness.

How To Seek Help for Toxic Shame

The first step in seeking help for shame involves identifying negative emotions. Some people aren’t conscious of their shame, while others worry that seeking help will leave them vulnerable to the judgment of others. Because shame exacerbates feelings of disgust, low self-esteem, and loneliness, some people irrationally fear that their psychologist will eventually discover that their shame is deserved.

No matter what type of shame you’re experiencing, these are self-defeating thoughts. Shame is highly treatable, and it’s important to remember that your shame serves no purpose. There’s no such thing as “healthy shame,” and shame only causes harm to yourself and others.

To break free from your shame, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a licensed therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the experienced mental health professionals on the WithTherapy platform will help you identify your shame, address the root causes behind it, and learn how to live a productive, shame-free life.

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