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Toxic Shame: The Emotional Equivalent to Physical Cancer

In the catalog of human emotions, there is no other emotion more destructive than toxic shame. It is the emotional equivalent to physical

Teen girl with her hand over her eyes & mom looking at her. Represents need for teen depression therapy in Houston Katy 77494
Shame Can Destroy the Relationship With Self and Others

cancer. Abnormal cells do not die but rather grow out of control, absorbing other cells, and as a result the cancer spreads. If we catch cancer early enough, the odds of beating cancer will increase. Conversely, if we do not catch the cancer early enough and it has had time to spread throughout the body, the odds of beating the cancer will decrease. For adults, regular check ups with a doctor can often help catch the cancer early whereby we can receive the treatment needed to eradicate it. In order to accurately identify the emotional cancer of toxic shame, we need to know the difference between benign shame (guilt) and malignant shame (toxic shame).

What is Guilt?

Guilt is a form of benign shame where we feel bad for something we did wrong. This feeling comes about by usually violating a personal value that the we believe in. For example, if a personal value for someone is not to steal, they pick up a $100 bill that they saw fall out of someone's pocket, and instead of returning it to the person they choose to keep it, they would feel guilt ('I did something bad'). With guilt, there are ways to manage the feeling. For example, if the person who stole the $100 bill knew the person, they could return the $100 bill to them. This helps the feeling of guilt lessen significantly or even go away. Amends and restitution are strategies to eliminate the feelings of guilt.

What is Toxic Shame?

Toxic shame is malignant by its very nature. It can come about when we violate a personal value but generally, the personal value is also tied to a social or religious value that the person holds to be true. An example of shame is as follows: For many people, using drugs violates not only a personal value, but violates a social and even religious values as well. Should a person start using drugs the propensity for them to develop shame ('I am bad' vs. 'I did something bad') is high. Should they also experience depression, anxiety or are female, the risk is even higher. Violating this personal, social and/or religious value also requires the person to lie, cheat, steal, etc. which can compound the feeling of shame.

People who experience shame tend to internalize their actions and what other people in their lives may think about them. They may even internalize what other people may think about them even if they don't know the person. An example of this is God. Very few people in the history of mankind have reportedly met God but when we violate God's law, people can often feel unworthy, unlovable, and broken which intensifies the shame.

Guilt vs. Shame

Where shame is different from guilt is in how one manages the shame. In guilt ('I did something bad'), knowing you did something wrong while knowing that you are still a good person at the core allows you to make amends for the action and the guilt fades away as result. In shame ('I am bad'), the person feels that not only was the action bad but they themselves must be bad -- deep down to their inner core. Amends can be made but if the person remains convinced that at their core they are a bad person, the shame not only lingers but starts to attach its self to other actions, no matter how large or small (the shame starts to metastasize).

How can we identify toxic shame in our teen or other loved ones? Below are 9 warning signs that are common characteristic of toxic shame:


Do you see them hiding their actions or attempting to hide their actions from others who would want to help them? Often times, this will manifest first by a 'gut feeling' you have. Pay attention to that feeling.


The mechanisms of shame are very similar to mechanisms of trauma. The 'fight, flight, or freeze' network in the brain is triggered. Long term shame can have a similar impact that trauma has on an individual.


In order to 'hide', it will take a fair amount of lying to others as well as to themselves. If the person believes that they are 'not worth loving', that is a lie but a lie that has become deeply entrenched. Depending on what the behavior is that they engage in to bring about the shame, there may be a fair amount of lying to others in order to maintain the behavior. Again, pay attention to that gut feeling.


Often times those who experience toxic shame do not want to be around others who they feel may judge them or have the potential to judge them. They will typically associate with those who may be engaged in the same or similar behavior that the person who experiences shame is engaged in.


Those who experience toxic shame are fearful of getting close to others where the other person will get to know the 'real me'. When the relationship extends over time and the other person is getting to know them on a more intimate level, the person who holds the shame may push away the other person temporarily or permanently.


It is difficult not to be lonely when shame causes you to push away those who get to close you. The behavior change that accompanies shame whether that be depression, anxiety, anger among others often pushes others away or prevents them from getting close.

Lack of Self-Esteem

Toxic shame destroys a person's self-esteem. Happiness rests on the foundation of self-esteem and with people who experience shame, it becomes more difficult to experience genuine happiness as a result.

Negative Self Talk

When at a person's core they feel unlovable, broken, damaged, unworthy, etc., the malignancy of that shame enters a viscous cycle where the shame makes one feel unworthy, they engage in self talk around being unworthy, which causes the feelings of unworthiness to grow, leading to more negative self talk, etc.

Destructive Behavior

The longer that shame is allowed to metastasize the more it will be evident in the persons behavior. Examples of destructive behavior could be drug and alcohol use, instability in interpersonal relationships, drop in grades, anger outbursts, physical outbursts, self-harm, isolation, among others.

We can Help Your Teen & Family in the Katy, Houston Area

As shame is a very common difficulty that people seek treatment for, there are many approaches to help successfully treat shame. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is among one of the top research backed approaches in treating shame. As shame can mirror trauma, EMDR is another excellent choice in treatment.

Start today your journey in healing by reaching out to Katy Teen & Family Counseling. To start today, you can follow these simple steps:

  1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling

  2. Speak with one of our teen counseling specialists

  3. Start healing the toxic shame and regain the sense of self acceptance and love

Below are some of the counseling and therapeutic specialties offered by our teen therapy experts at Katy Teen & Family Counseling:

Neurofeedback Therapy for Teen ADHD

How to Begin Teen Therapy or Family Counseling

To begin teen therapy or family counseling, simply contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling through our website or by calling 346-202-4662. Our Owner and Lead Clinician answers each phone call to help match you with the right therapist for you teen and family.

About the Author

Man in glasses, pink shirt, grey sports coat smiling. He provides neurofeedback for anxiety houston texas. He also provides neurofeedback counseling and is a depression therapist katy, tx 77494.

Jason Drake is a Licensed Clinical Worker. He is a Specialist in Teen Therapy & Family Counseling. He has provided therapy to teens and families since 2003. Through his expertise, he helps teens who struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD/ADD, and PTSD. He works with talented teen athletes who have experience mental blocks. Gifted students have unique challenges that Jason understands well. Jason uses CBT, EMDR, Neurofeedback, FFT, and Motivational Interviewing. We only work with teens and families which allows us to focus on what teens and families of today need. Resolving the struggles of today can assure a more successful tomorrow. Proudly serving Katy, Tx and Houston.

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