Can Shame Be Toxic?

How do you work with toxic messages?

This month’s Ask a DEI Professional question is about shame. Our questioner writes:

If someone is carrying a lot of toxic shame internalized from the outside, does this inhibit the rise of authentic appropriate shame responding to the moment? I mean, does the toxic shame take the space the natural shame should occupy?

Thanks for your question! We have replies from two of our Dynamic Emotional Integration® professionals.

Jamila Ahmed answers:

Jamila Ahmed


Thank you for your question.

There’s much to untangle about shame, as this emotion is often labelled as toxic or problematic. However, shame works alongside all our other emotions.

It’s healthy to feel shame when it keeps our behavior in check based on our personal values and ethics. We need shame to step in when we’ve done something that contradicts our own morals. In this sense, there is no toxic or natural shame.

The toxic element is connected to the shaming messages we receive in response to certain situations or behaviors that may be outdated or unhealthy for us. Shame will arise in a range of scenarios, and when you sense something toxic or uncomfortable, then it may be the shaming message that needs looking into.

Working with Shame

When shame comes up, you can ask yourself if the shame message feels authentic or inauthentic to you. If it feels authentic, you’ll be able to align with the emotion, and know that something has gone against your own set of ethics and morals.

If the message feels inauthentic, you might find yourself thinking, “Actually, I don’t believe that. Why am I feeling shame?” If this is the case, you can renegotiate or burn a contract to change the shame message.

For instance, money can be a subject that brings up shame messages for many of us. As a hypothetical example, let’s say I buy myself an expensive piece of jewelry I can afford just because I like it. Shame might come up for me because I’ve learnt that spending money in this way is wasteful. I could dig deeper to see where that messaging comes from – and renegotiate it – so that next time. my shame doesn’t need to work overtime in a situation like this.

Another example might be that I don’t have excess money, and I buy myself jewelry which puts me into debt. In this case, shame might arise, but since the messages are accurate for me (be wise with my money, take care of my basic needs first, don’t go into debt), I want shame to check in on my actions. I don’t want to change the messaging around this for me.

The emotion of shame is always working to hold us to our agreements, but it is worth examining the messages in those agreements to see if they are toxic or outdated, or healthy and authentic to our personal values.

~Jamila Ahmed

Hannah Milkins answers:

Hannah Milkins

Thank you for this great question. Shame is an emotion I’ve personally had to do a lot of unraveling and learning with, so I always enjoy diving into the nuances of it.

Before I jump in and address your specific question, I thought it would be helpful to set the context with a review of shame and what its purpose is in our emotional realm.

Shame is the emotion that holds us to our ethics, values, beliefs, and agreements. It looks inward at our behavior and alerts us when we act in a way that is out of alignment with these inner agreements.

In the past Karla wrote about toxic versus healthy shame, but there’s been a move away from using this language. We realized that shame is always doing its job (holding us to our agreements), so we shouldn’t be calling the emotion itself toxic. Rather, what can be toxic versus healthy, helpful versus unhelpful, are the agreements our shame is enforcing.

It’s a subtle, but important, shift.

So when we want to understand what shame is doing, when it arises or when it doesn’t, we have to look at the underlying beliefs and agreements. This can be a tricky business because our beliefs are often a large hodge-podge of conscious, unconscious, internal, and external ideas that we’ve accumulated over a lifetime.

I have often joked that I wish I could plug my brain into a computer and get a read-out of all of my current beliefs so I could more easily work with them all. However, despite this technological lack, our emotions can be helpful indicators as to what we actually believe and live by internally.

And shame, while sometimes a very uncomfortable experience, can be our greatest ally in identifying toxic ideas; enabling us to then do the work we need to do to release and replace those beliefs.

So, to answer your question about toxic shame, I would say that there are toxic and harmful agreements that may be blocking someone from having a different and healthier response to a situation.

Toxic Beliefs

Here’s an example that I hope illustrates it more clearly:

If someone accepts the idea that, “I am not worthy of love unless I’m perfect” (whether because it was spoken directly to them or something they internally concluded from circumstances or relationships), they will see their shame come up anytime they fall short of their concept of “perfect.”

Their shame may also come up in circumstances where people express love to them freely and unconditionally, because they will feel they haven’t earned it yet. Here, I would say the core belief is causing harm and giving their shame an awful and impossible job.

Holding on to this belief would make it difficult or impossible for someone to embrace other healthier ideas such as: “Making mistakes is normal and human,” “I am worthy of love,” or “Perfection isn’t a standard anyone can achieve.”

These toxic beliefs can be very painful to work with, but as we become observant of our shame responses, we can start identifying the agreements our shame is holding us to and ultimately make conscious choices to work with, release, and re-write the agreements we truly wish to live by.

A helpful thing to remember is that your shame isn’t going to help you decide what agreements are best for you. Shame is like an impartial lawyer whose one job is to notify you when you’ve broken a contract. It’s your job to give your shame contracts that are appropriate, realistic and healthy for you.

Shame may feel like a tormenter and foe when it’s working with toxic messages and ideas, but the more you give it healthier agreements to monitor, the more your shame can start feeling like a friend and ally.

There are a few practices we recommend for working with shame. These can support you in understanding and changing the harmful contracts that need to be thrown out or renegotiated. I won’t get into them all here for the sake of time and space but one example is Burning Contracts (see the video below).

Changing Deep-Seated Beliefs

One last thing I have found helpful is understanding that some beliefs can be part of a larger architecture of beliefs. What I mean by this is that ideas are often connected, reinforced, and held in place by other beliefs.

Here’s another example to illustrate the point:

If someone believes the ideas, “I can never be wrong,” or “Admitting fault makes you weak,” or “Being perceived as weak makes you vulnerable,” and “Being vulnerable is unsafe,” they will inevitably have trouble when confronted by their own errors and find that their shame isn’t arising when they hurt or harm others.

If they decide they want to work on this, but only try to work on one of these agreements, like “I can never be wrong,” they may find themselves continually falling into the same behaviors and being unable to change. This is because there are other beliefs that they are still holding onto that reinforced this idea.

However, if this individual continues to self-reflect and identify these contracts, they may be able to uproot enough of this belief architecture and replace it so that their shame is fully freed to start operating in the way they desire.

On paper, this all makes it sound rather simple, and sometimes it can be. I’ve personally had moments where awareness and change have happened very quickly.

Other times, I’ve had large structures of beliefs that I have had to pull apart and work on over many years.

Regardless of the time table, once you understand shame’s job and equip yourself with tools, you’ll gain the opportunity to transform your relationship with shame from one of misery to one of partnership.

~Hannah Milkins

Shame’s internal questions: Whose ethics and values have been disrespected? What must be made right?

In this video, Karla talks about a wonderful way to work with toxic contracts – Burning Contracts:

We hope this is helpful!

Thanks so much for your question and for working to welcome and understand your emotions.

What’s your experience with shame? Have you been able to change any inauthentic or toxic messages?

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