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How 'Toxic Shame' Roots Itself in My Complex PTSD

To be honest, the last few days have been really hard. As in, I can’t get out of bed and I don’t want to take a shower or eat because it’s too much energy. My depression has reared its ugly head once again like an unwelcome guest. As always, when my body feels slow and sluggish, my brain lights up and goes into overdrive. All the nasty, awful things that have been said to me or I think about myself are making their rounds in my head. I wake up and they’re there and they stay with me all day long. I got into a huge fight with my husband because I’m shutting down and not talking to him. I push him away. Why? Because sometimes I think I am an inherently bad person, almost a poison to the people around me and this is the very definition of toxic shame. It’s when a person doesn’t just feel badly about something they did (like lied or cheated) but they feel as though they themselves, at their core, are bad.

Toxic shame comes about when a person has an irrational feeling of worthlessness, humiliation and self-loathing that has been inflicted repeatedly during traumatic experiences. This normally occurs in childhood developmental trauma and is one of the main symptoms of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). These feelings are so strong that they can debilitate a person and cause difficulty in forming healthy relationships with others. People with toxic shame tend to be shy and often end up in unhealthy or abusive relationships. These feelings can cause emotional flashbacks when a person “doesn’t feel right.” They might feel scared or ashamed or abandoned, but aren’t sure why because they’re in a safe place now. I always think of it as an echo of my childhood feelings.

These are the thoughts that run through my head: you’re worthless, stupid, ugly, fat, no one could ever love you, you’re trash, how did you ever think you were smart enough to do that, you’re dirty, you’re disgusting. I hear these words said to me by my abusers. They are loud and insistent and are very difficult to control. Sometimes I just want to grip my head and shout at the voices to shut up! But then I think they’re right. During those times, I think I am to blame for my abuse and then I feel ashamed about it. It’s a vicious cycle that never seems to end. I freeze when I have to make a decision or go out in public because the voices telling me I’m such a horrible person become so overwhelming that I shut down.

I’ve read this symptom is the most difficult to treat because most toxic shame comes from developmental trauma which impacts the developing brain. When that small child’s brain is constantly being bombarded with confusing and negative signals, it creates pathways that become permanent thought processes. Changing those ingrained pathways seems like an almost impossible task, but I am growing tired of fighting these voices, of always having to push back. They take away the little bit of energy I have and clog my brain, slowing it down. It seems like most theories have a word for these voices. The one I like the best is from Internal Family Systems (IFS) which terms this “the Inner Critic:” the voice(s) that are always negative and causing me to question myself and my worthiness. I understand what the IFS workbook tells me logically, but it feels like these are such irrational feelings. I don’t know how to get at them. I’ve tried imagery and positive self-talk and affirmations, but my voices overrun those attempts like a giant truck running over a cup. These are hard symptoms and it’s hard work to decrease them, but it’s also worthy work. I have to remind myself I’m worthy of putting in the effort to do this work. So I do put in the effort and I will continue to do so.

Follow this journey on Surviving Complex PTSD

Getty image by Grandfailure