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  • Sarah Dresser

The Difference Between Healthy and Toxic Shame and How to Heal from Toxic Shame


Woman covering face with hands, feeling shame

Shame, like every emotion, serves a function. In centuries gone by, shame served to maintain harmony in the tribe to improve the chances of survival for all. Nowadays, shame still serves a purpose and, although uncomfortable in the moment, it helps maintain inclusion and cohesion within a community, reminding us of the acceptable behaviour and values upheld by the group.


What's a Normal Level of Shame and a Normal Reaction?

With healthy shame, a memory may make us blush but it doesn't fill us with self-loathing, or ongoing self-blame. Healthy shame passes in time and may even be a catalyst for personal growth.

Children holding hands social cohesion and inclusion

Toxic Shame Response

Toxic shame, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It is an invisible cage that stunts all growth and cripples self-esteem, something that stays with the person long after the shame-inducing event(s) pass.


Toxic shame feels like a permanent stain on character.


In essence, healthy shame reminds us that we did something "wrong" or "bad", separating the person from the act. Toxic shame creates a feeling that we are bad.

Over time, this feeling of toxic shame may even lead to self-harming or other coping mechanisms, or addictions (behavioural or substance-based) to numb overwhelming emotions. But we can't escape ourselves.


Toxic shame impacts

The Link Between Toxic Shame and Low Self-Esteem

With toxic shame, there is an ongoing sense that there is some part of us that is not loveable or even acceptable.


The shadow self looms larger as the person suffering from toxic shame believes that they can only be loved if they ignore, banish, or suppress that part of themselves.


The person may push away others who somehow reflect back those parts of self that are suppressed.


Or the opposite may happen. In order to atone for "sins" and also to avoid self-reflection, another coping mechanism may be to repeatedly "rescue" others who mirror a similar history or emotional state.


Both rejection and rescuing behaviours have one thing in common: a lack of self-compassion.


Shame Can Be Both Individual and Collective

We think of shame as being an individual and isolated issue. Shame may feel individual and personal (and very lonely), but collective shame also exists.


Toxic shame not only fractures the sense of self, but can also turn one person against another. One consequence of toxic shame may be that what is denied or despised in self may then be projected onto someone else who then becomes an object of exclusion or even hate.


Toxic shame can also be misused as a weapon that has consequences for an entire community whether that be at a family, race or country level.

Toxic shame divides, men fighting

Question for You: if You Don't Congratulate Yourself Constantly, Should You Remain in Self-Blame or Shame Forever?

I want to ask you: is it truly fair to punish yourself forever for one event or even a period of time that is believed to be the root of shame? If you do not congratulate yourself constantly for one good thing you do, then logic dictates that you should not berate and shame yourself either.

You Cannot Reason with Strong Emotions

But, as with all strong emotions, you cannot reason your way out of an emotional response.

Woman with head in hands, looking tired

In a battle between emotions and reason or logic, emotions will always win out because they are generated from the part of the brain that is always the first to respond (up to 1 second faster than the conscious part of the brain) and is also the larger, more powerful part of the brain.


Our subconscious is at least 80% of our total brain (some estimate 95%).


Imagine 5 logical speakers quietly trying to negotiate with 95 emotional speakers shouting, effectively drowning out the 5 quiet speakers of reason. That gives you a simplified image that resembles the power of your subconscious and the futility of the conscious mind to negotiate with an overwhelming emotion.


So how can you heal and repair your sense of self and break out of the bars of the invisible prison that comes with toxic shame?

Healing Starts in the Subconscious Mind-Body

To truly heal, we can't reason our way out of an emotional block, especially one that wishes to remain hidden, like shame. We have to talk in the language of the subconscious: in imagery, emotions and sensations.


There are also other techniques within hypnotherapy beyond guided imagery that provide an indirect way to heal the emotions attached to the memory.


Techniques that transform and heal emotions from memories can also be applied to heal any conditioned emotional response, including phobias.


I hope everyone reading this now knows that it is not necessary to revisit traumatic memories in order to heal. There are techniques in hypnotherapy that allow for healing without the risk of re-traumatizing the client.

Healing trauma does not require revisiting memories

You Are Not Alone; You Are Supported

If you need it, I hope you benefit from this session below to heal toxic shame. It has been one of the most popular sessions I've done this year which speaks to how much shame is actually so present among us. The reality is that all of us experience shame, toxic or healthy. You are not alone. And I hope you know that you are supported.


Here to help if I can, Sarah



Thanks for Reading

My name is Sarah and I am the creator and narrator of Unlock Your Life. I have worked as a Clinical Hypnotherapist for over 8 years. I'm passionate about creating a safe space online where everyone can explore all that they feel and find support, compassion and healing without having to pay for one-on-one private therapy sessions.

Sarah Dresser, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Coach

Inspired by my previous years studying models of Sustainable Communities, I am determined to provide low-cost and no-cost support for all.


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You can find over 200 sessions to support your health in mind, body and spirit here on my Youtube channel.

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