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  • Writer's pictureMartha Witkowski

Unraveling Toxic Shame: Understanding and Healing the Roots of C-PTSD

Toxic shame. What do we even mean by that?

Simply put, we are talking about the true origin of C-PTSD and what we experience at the root level of C-PTSD. The experience of oneself after experiencing trauma and how that permeates through most other facets in that person's life. Toxic shame is experiencing oneself as inherently unworthy, flawed, or defective. We develop this inner belief from experiences in life (typically in childhood or adolescence) in which we experience ourselves as such, whether it be through abuse or neglect.

Photo Credit: Asphyxia


Healthy Shame vs Toxic Shame

It’s normal to feel bad or even feel bad about ourselves when we do things that do not align with our values. When we do things that are out of character or hurt others, it is a normal human attribute, and even a healthy one to be able to experience empathy in a way that allows us to feel badly. This shame is considered healthy shame. This healthy shame plays a role in our moral compass, and in social behavior regarding how we interact with others and the level of empathy we are able to walk around with.


Toxic shame, on the other hand, is not feeling badly about a thing that happened, or something that we did, it is feeling badly about ourselves. In other words, we view ourselves as being inherently shameful, no matter what we choose to do.


The origins of toxic shame stem from childhood. In childhood and adolescence, as we are attempting to form an opinion on ourselves, or, a self-identity, we are very susceptible to how others see us, in particular our primary caregivers. We use our primary caregivers as mirrors. What this means is if we experience our primary caregivers as viewing us as inherently shameful, we will develop that self-identity. If we view our primary caregivers as experiencing us as pure, loving individuals, we will grow to have a self-identity filled with high self-confidence.


Toxic Shame and C-PTSD

In many ways, toxic shame is a hallmark symptom of C-PTSD and it can be debilitating. When an individual experiences prolonged trauma (typically involving abuse, neglect or betrayal), it leads to internalized feelings of worthlessness. This becomes deeply imbedded in one’s self-image. This, in turn, can lead to a person feeling undeserving of love, respect, or positive experiences.


So what does this look like in real time? It can lead to social withdrawal, where individuals avoid interactions to escape judgment or rejection, thereby increasing isolation. Low self-esteem is another common symptom, compelling individuals to view themselves negatively across various aspects of life. Some may adopt perfectionism as a coping mechanism, striving to be flawless to cover perceived inadequacies and avoid criticism, which often results in significant anxiety. These are all responses to experiencing toxic shame.


Toxic shame can also lead to self-destructive behaviors. Commonly, this manifests itself as substance abuse or self-harm. Another example is overworking oneself. These are all considered coping skills in response to the experiencing toxic shame and can be very subconscious processes. In the short term, these coping skills can offer effective relief of symptoms of C-PTSD. Unfortunately, these behaviors often lead to secondary issues and will not lead to an individual having a healing experience where they able to reach their greatest potential.


What can I do about this?

Treating C-PTSD, generally speaking, takes a holistic approach that involves a combination of talk therapy, a focus on health and wellness, and somatic work. Talk therapy can help a person explore their current problems and how they may be tied to past traumas or childhood experiences that have shaped their self-image and overall experience of toxic shame.


Things like EMDR, yoga, and exercise can help with the somatic aspect of toxic shame and help to release physical manifestations of trauma. These practices can aid in reconnecting individuals with their bodies, which they might have previously associated with shame or trauma, fostering a new sense of bodily autonomy and self-respect. These new experiences help to actively challenge the inner experience of toxic shame.


In general, a focus on health/wellness, including a focus on social support and community, can help an individual actively dispel the myths that come along with toxic shame such as “I am unworthy of love or connection”. This social support is something that can start in talk therapy, with building a solid, trusting connection with a therapist. Once this connection is established, a person can start to branch out and experience connection with friends, on a community level, or even in a romantic relationship. Through first learning and practicing trust in a safe environment, relationship skills can then be transferred over into other social areas of life.


Another consideration is to include a daily routine that focuses more on health and wellness. Some examples of daily things that can help with this are :

·      Journaling for self-reflection

·      Physical exercise and/or yoga

·      Practicing daily hygiene

·      Eating nutritious foods

·      Mindfulness and meditation practice

·      Practicing daily gratitude

·      Socializing with others (without overdoing it)

·      Practicing creativity


These are just some examples. Health and wellness can take many forms.

Closing thoughts

Toxic shame can feel suffocating and can be a contributing factor to a person feeling stuck in their lives, or in their current behavior patterns. Because of the subconscious nature of these coping skills/responses to toxic shame, it can take some time before a person realizes what is actually happening. Therapy can help a person experiencing C-PTSD or toxic shame unravel the origins of some of the behaviors that got them into therapy in the first place. By better understanding oneself, we can truly start the healing process.

Don't lose hope. Working through complex trauma can feel like an uphill battle. Just remember, as you work through your triggers, you slowly begin to dispel the inner belief you tell yourself. Take each trigger as an opportunity for growth.

Photo Credit: Asphyxia.


At Root Counseling, we specialize in C-PTSD and understand the depth and intensity of experiencing toxic shame. We believe in creating a safe space where you can grow and heal. To schedule an appointment with one of our therapists, you can visit our website here. 

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