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5 Signs You’re Living With ‘Toxic Shame’

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Toxic shame is the deep-seated belief that you don’t belong, that there is something wrong not with how you act or look, but something fundamentally wrong with who you are. And the worst part is that this shame tells us that we’re the only ones who feel this way, when really, toxic shame is a hugely common problem.

Not sure if what you’re experiencing is toxic shame? Check out these five signs of toxic shame.

1. Indecision

To be fair, indecision could be a sign of many things: overwhelm, burnout, executive dysfunction, and so much more, but indecision related to shame has a very particular flavor. Essentially, people with toxic shame have a hard time making decisions because they don’t trust themselves.

People living with shame were told by parents or romantic partners or even teachers that they were wrong. Not because of one choice they made, but because of who they were. And if who you are is wrong, then all the things that feel right to you are also wrong. This makes it nearly impossible to make a decision and feel good about it.

People who feel ashamed of who they are struggle to make decisions because they don’t see themselves as an authority on anything, including themselves. They don’t trust that what they want is the right thing to want, so they defer to others and allow other people to make decisions for them, from small things like where to go out to eat, to big things like which career to pursue.

2. Difficulty Expressing Anger

This sign of toxic shame can go one of two ways: people struggle to hold in their anger, or people struggle to let their anger out.

If you have a hard time reining in your anger, if you find yourself yelling more often than you would like, if you tend to be defensive any time someone criticizes you, even if it’s a valid point — you could be struggling with toxic shame. The same is true for people like me who are the opposite, people who swallow their anger so hard, they can’t even admit to themselves that they’re angry. For these people, anger often morphs into self-loathing.

Regardless of your presentation, difficulty expressing anger in a healthy way is one of the most problematic signs of toxic shame because anger is a basic human emotion that we all feel, and it’s hard to get through life when you don’t know how to express it.

3. Low Self-Worth

People with toxic shame also tend to struggle with their sense of self-worth. Personally, I define self-worth as the knowledge that you are a decent person worthy of love, whereas other similar terms like self-esteem or confidence are defined more by outer things, like appearance or social skills.

It’s possible for someone to have perfectly good self-esteem and terrible self-worth at the same time. I know, because that’s how I am. If I don’t think about it too hard, I like myself fine. I seem perfectly acceptable. But if I ask myself, “Do I believe I am lovable?” oftentimes the answer is “no.” This is due to negative core beliefs about who I am as a person. Negative core beliefs come in all shapes and sizes, from “I’m hard to love,” to “I don’t deserve love,” and so much more, but the underlying message is nearly always this: “Something is wrong with me, and because of that, I am unlovable.”

4. No Clear Sense of Identity

Do you feel like you know who you are? Can you describe yourself easily to others? Or do you panic when someone says the dreaded words, “So tell me a little bit about yourself?” Are you obsessed with taking personality quizzes, hoping to find some definition that fits?

People with toxic shame really struggle with identity. This is because they are so afraid to like, do or be the “wrong” thing in some capacity, that they end up avoiding almost everything until they don’t have any traits to hold onto to describe themselves. Again, toxic shame is all about feeling like there’s something wrong with who you are, so naturally, you spend an enormous amount of energy trying to be someone else, and as a result, you lose your sense of inherent identity.

5. Feeling Different From Others, or “Not Normal”

Finally, people with toxic shame, because they feel they are inherently broken or less-than, typically feel like they’re also inherently different from others. Like other people are good enough, the only person who isn’t is them. They aren’t “normal.”

This leads to a comparison game where you are constantly using others as a measuring stick for “normal” and always coming up short, which can worsen the self-worth issues. You might have felt like the weird kid growing up, and now you feel like an imposter adult, someone who looks like a grown-up but doesn’t actually know what they’re doing at all.

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Healing Unscripted.

Photo by Marco Testi on Unsplash

Originally published: May 24, 2021
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