Dealing With the Toxic Shame that Contributes to Addiction?

Play Podcast of the Article:
Please follow and like us:
submit to reddit
Dealing with toxic shame that contributes to addiction By: Rick Fannin
Dealing With the Toxic Shame that Contributes to Addiction? 2

Dealing With the Toxic Shame that Contributes to Addiction?


  • What's the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?
  • How Does Shame Become Toxic?
  • The Dangers of Toxic Shame
  • How to Recover From Toxic Shame
  • How Toxic Shame can Lead to Toxic Codependency
  • How Toxic Shame Contributes to Addiction
  • Healing From Toxic Shame

The use of the term "toxic shame" was first introduced in the 1960s by Sylvan Tomkins, an American psychologist, and theorist. While famous for many of his theories, perhaps his most well-known is affect theory, which includes shame.

At its most basic, shame is an emotion, but it has more significant physiological ties than many other emotions. In fact, shame triggers the same sympathetic nervous response as fear, putting the individual into a state of flight, fight, or freeze.

When shame becomes internalized and pervasive in our lives, we live in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. Often this starts from early childhood, where parents are always negative and emotionally harmful to the child by making statements that the child is unloved or unwanted, is a failure, cannot do things right, is terrible, or is unattractive or unintelligent. Some people consider this "core shame," and it is not the same as shame over a given event in the way we responded.

Over time, and with these types of negative messages, the individual begins to have very deep and extensive feelings of inadequacy, but they see themselves as the reason they are unloved and unlovable. If this is not corrected and a positive message instilled in the child, this shame continues to grow and fester, creating low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and increases the risk of codependency.

Toxic shame is a feeling that you're worthless. It happens when other people treat you poorly and you turn that treatment into a belief about yourself. You're most vulnerable to this type of poor treatment during childhood or as a teen. When you feel toxic shame, you see yourself as useless or, at best, not as good as others, and these underlying core beliefs contributes to negative thinking patterns, negative emotions, and dysfunctional behaviors like abusing drugs or alcohol.

What's the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

These two emotions are often confused with one another. You feel guilt when you know that you did something wrong. It can be a helpful emotion when maintaining relationships. Guilt can keep you on track when you've drifted from your moral standards.

But you feel shame when you believe you're not enough, usually because parents or peers keep telling you so. Your confidence suffers from this deep-seated emotion that affects the way you see yourself.

Guilt tells you, "That thing you did was wrong." Shame tells you, "Because you did that thing, you're a bad person."

How Does Shame Become Toxic?

You probably have felt and will continue to feel shame at various times in your life. Shame can last a few hours or even a few days.

Toxic shame, though, comes from constantly being told you're not enough. It results in negative self-talk that stays with you.

Toxic shame can start in the way you were given feedback for specific incidents as a child, usually by a parent. For example, if you wet the bed, your parent might have reacted in one of two ways:‌

They reassured you that it was all right and cleaned up without making a fuss.

They lashed out at you and said things like, "Why do you always do this? What's wrong with you?"

The second reaction would probably have led you to believe that there was something wrong with you. Your feeling of shame can turn into toxic shame when the second scene keeps repeating. Other repeated phrases that can cause toxic shame, depending on the incident, are:

  • "Why are you doing it like that? You're wrong."
  • "What were you thinking?"
  • "You'll never be as good as them."

If you were  told these things often enough, you might start to say to yourself, for example, "I'm not worthy of love." And holding onto feelings of unworthiness can be very damaging to your mental and physical health.

The Dangers of Toxic Shame

Shame is behind these two common symptoms:

  • Withdrawal and Social Isolation. You might want to curl up in a ball and disappear when you feel shame. Shame makes us feel like we're not good enough, and all we want to do is hide away.
  • Anger. Because you feel emotional pain, you become angry to try to aim your pain away from yourself.

Toxic shame has also been linked to substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm.   These unhealthy coping mechanisms can serve as an escape from your emotional pain or inability to face yourself. ‌

You may also become a perfectionist or have unrealistic expectations in your attempt to avoid being shamed again.

How Toxic Shame can Lead to Toxic Codependency

The adverse effects of toxic shame listed above can also lead to other codependence behaviors in those struggling with addiction. This is because feelings of toxic shame for those who experience it during active addiction don't go away. And, because these feelings don't go away, it can lead to the development of other harmful behaviors.

Obviously, experiencing constant shame can lead to other issues like anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. People with toxic shame may also be driven to try to find a partner in a person they see as broken and needy. The individual internalizing shame from childhood can see the alcoholic as a way to redeem themselves by helping another and becoming the healer and the caregiver. The result is a codependent relationship that neither is likely to leave.  Many of these relationships end up highly toxic and place a risk of relapse for the person in recovery.

Individuals with codependent behaviors may identify themselves as:

  • People pleasing and the inability to set healthy boundaries with others.
  • Perfectionist thoughts and actions.
  • Exacerbating intimate relationships with the need for reassurance and displaying avoidance behaviors.
  • Not being able to speak their mind, which can result in manipulation from others.
  • Not being able to maintain healthy relationships for fear that they are unlovable.

How Toxic Shame Contributes to Addiction

Many people who struggle with substance abuse problems and addiction have experienced trauma or long-term patterns of dysfunction in their lives. Trauma and difficulties in the environment while growing up can cause some people to use drugs and alcohol to cope with their emotions. These two things can also cause toxic shame, which feeds an addiction.

Individuals with a deep and ongoing shame of themselves are, by nature, isolated with deep and closely held feelings of being unworthy and unlovable. This, in turn, is linked to depression, and the use of alcohol and drugs is often initially a form of self-medication.

Additionally, the use of alcohol and drugs creates different feelings of shame. They also lower self-esteem and contribute to the constant cycle of seeing yourself as inferior or unable to cope. Significant and influential intervention can only stop this downward spiral.

People who feel unworthy of being helped or even asking for help rarely seek professional services on their own, but they will often seek help for addiction when prompted by family and friends.

Toxic shame contributes to addiction because it causes people to develop skewed images that further motivate them to seek comfort in substances. Toxic shame can:

  • Cause individuals to develop low self-esteem
  • Make people feel the need to hide their emotions or aspects of their personality because they are ashamed of them, which disconnects people from their family and friends
  • Cause people to attempt to drown out negative self-talk with substances
  • Exacerbate depression and anxiety

These things can cause someone to turn to drugs and alcohol or make an already-existing addiction worse.

Healing From Toxic Shame

It's possible to overcome toxic shame and change the way you think.  Self-compassion is key to the process.  It would help if you also had self-awareness, mindfulness, and patience. Working with a therapist is vital for many to overcome the toxic shame that contributes to addictive behaviors.  Counseling is a safe way to look at those deeply rooted negative messages and how they have impacted how you have seen yourself throughout life.  A Recovery Coach is another type of helping professional that has lived experience of overcoming addiction and the associated toxic shame.

Try these tips to overcome toxic shame.

  • Getting out of your thoughts – talking to others about how you feel about yourself and not hiding away from these thoughts is seen as a critical step in addressing the problem and moving towards healing.
  • Face the root of your shame. It's essential to understand and examine your feelings. Find the cause of your shame to move forward.
  • Become aware of how you talk to yourself. Try to observe your own thoughts but not react to them.
  • Have compassion for yourself. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. Even if it seems like your mistakes were huge, accept that you're only human. Learn from the past, but don't get stuck in it.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness and meditation can work wonders as you learn to observe your thoughts. Feeling shame forces you to react, so it can be very powerful to notice your thoughts and question them.
  • Recognize when you're feeling shame. Mindfulness can help alert you to when you're feeling shame. If you are, mention it to a friend or partner. Shame thrives in dark places, so shine a light on it and watch its power fade away.
  • ‌Seek support. A support network can give you an outlet to talk things out when necessary and boost your sense of belonging.
  • Seeing the inner child – healing not only our adult selves but the little child looking for love and recognition is critical. This is also a step in codependency treatment, and it is an effective way to address the anxiety, depression, and perfectionism that many people with toxic shame experience.
  • Self-care and learning to love yourself – finding things about yourself that you love and affirming them is a difficult task, but also one that changes the internal dialogue from unfounded shaming to learning to have self-appreciation.

Another factor and one that is essential to healing from toxic shame are to remove toxic people involved in criticizing and shaming from your life. This may be difficult, but building new relationships with trusting, positive, and authentic people can help in this necessary step.

Therapy that can Help Heal from Toxic Shame that Contributes to Addiction

Therapy is an essential part of replacing toxic shame with a positive self-image, and it's also a vital part of recovering from alcoholism or addiction. For many people, the environment found in a small, high-quality treatment facility is ideal for working through emotions honestly.
Some types of treatment that can help to address toxic shame can include:

  • Individual Therapy: These one-on-one therapy sessions with an addiction specialist can help individuals in recovery dealing with toxic shame in several ways. First and foremost, it requires individuals to dive deep into their own personal experiences to identify the reason for their toxic shame. Then, it helps to re-evaluate these feelings so that individuals can develop a new self-belief.
  • Group Therapy: These types of therapy sessions allow individuals to understand other people's experiences with toxic shame and what they did to confront it in their own lives. This provides motivation and the belief that viewing yourself differently is not only possible but provides realistic hope. Furthermore, this peer setting provides accountability so that individuals are always pushed to discover new healing methods to establish lasting healing from these toxic thoughts.
  • Holistic Therapy: Finally, holistic therapy sessions are a great way to combat feelings of shame in treatment as they allow for inner guidance and healing. Holistic therapy allows for mindfulness, which is experiencing the here and now. This helps individuals to realize that their shame is in the past and that it's best to move on from these feelings to experience new feelings brought about by present efforts to gain healing and recovery.

A Faith-Based Recovery coach can also be very helpful in overcoming toxic shame.  Much like a counselor, a recovery coach has specific training in addiction and recovery, but unlike a counselor, a recovery coach has lived experience with addiction and recovery.  These individuals know firsthand the shame experienced and can provide you with very valuable insight on strategies to help you achieve your goal of being free of this toxic shame.

Dodgson, L. (2018, March 20). Feeling Intense Shame Can Turn Some People Into Narcissists - Here's How. Retrieved from Business Insider:

Megan Bronson, P.-B. (2015). Breaking Free of the Addiction-Shame Cycle. Retrieved from Phoenix Society:…

Rosenberg, R. A. (2014, January 23). Shame Excavation: Unearthing Toxic Shame. Retrieved from HuffPost:

Please follow and like us:
submit to reddit