toxic shame

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A GUIDE TO OVERCOMING TOXIC SHAME

Because toxic shame typically develops in childhood, you end up carrying inaccurate beliefs about yourself (and the world) into adulthood.

If you’ve read No More Mr. Nice Guy by Dr. Robert Glover – and perhaps a number of other men’s self-improvement books – then you’ve certainly run across the term toxic shame.

Toxic shame is a serious issue for many men – particularly Nice Guys.  It creates anxiety and suffering. It causes men to hide themselves while keeping others at arm’s length. It is also a primary cause of inaction. It leads men to do nothing in situations where they think they might fail – especially when it comes dating and relationships.

The term “toxic shame” was introduced in the 1960s by American psychologist and theorist, Sylvan Tomkins. Generally, toxic shame develops in childhood and then stays with you as you grow older. It is toxic because it tends to negatively affect almost every level of human existence, from your emotional states and self-image to your outlook on life.

At a fundamental level, toxic shame is the internalized belief that you are bad, unlovable, inferior, defective, or worthless. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this phenomenon. We’ll also discuss some practical tips you can use to start overcoming your toxic shame.

HOW TOXIC SHAME DEVELOPS

At one time, you were a helpless, powerless, immature, and narcissistic little being. In other words, you were a child. And you inaccurately interpreted the things that were done to you.

You developed defense mechanisms to make yourself feel better in times of distress – when you felt bad or scared, or when you had any physical pain. You were also trying to prevent these negative experiences from happening again in the future.

You were trying to manage your anxiety around abuse, neglect, abandonment, criticism, smothering, and family dysfunction of all kinds.

Let’s say, for example, that when you were a child, your father became angry and slapped you. You were certain you did something to cause your father’s anger. You tried to figure out what it was so you could either quit doing it or start doing it differently. Then, surely, your father would quit hitting you.

Unfortunately, because you were a powerless and narcissistic child, you couldn’t see that you were not the cause of your father’s behavior. The root cause was really your father’s inability to control his impulses. But you couldn’t fight back. You couldn’t express yourself. So, your only alternatives were to try to behave more perfectly or retreat in an attempt to go unnoticed.

Here’s another example:

Let’s say your mother was depressed and needy, perhaps because she was in a bad relationship or because she was single and overwhelmed. So, she hooked up an emotional hose to you and turned to you for emotional sustenance. She may have even turned to you for social connection.

No matter how hard you tried to be there for your mother – to never be a moment’s problem – it never worked. She remained depressed and needy. You tried harder. But it still never worked. Subsequently, you developed the belief that you’re unlovable. That you’re worthless. That you just can’t do anything right.

These examples illustrate the core of toxic shame.

THE HARMFUL EFFECTS OF TOXIC SHAME

Because toxic shame typically develops in childhood, you end up carrying inaccurate beliefs about yourself (and the world) into adulthood.

As a child, you weren’t capable of learning from your mistakes or poor choices, nor were you capable of quickly moving on from them. You also weren’t capable of understanding that you weren’t the root cause of everything bad that happened to you.

The toxic shame you developed in childhood becomes part of you. And, unfortunately, it can damage your self-image, deplete your confidence, and perpetuate your negative self-talk.

Toxic shame prevents you from having a positive view of yourself. If you grew up believing that you’re unlovable, defective, bad, or worthless (even at an unconscious level), you’ll struggle to develop a healthy sense of self-worth in adulthood.

Here are some other harmful effects of toxic shame:

EMOTIONAL DISTRESS
Because toxic shame is often coupled with negative self-talk, it can lead to a variety of crippling emotional states, like: anger, self-loathing, fear, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, toxic shame often causes perfectionism.

AVOIDANCE AND ISOLATION
Those who have negative views of themselves because of toxic shame usually often avoid and withdraw from other people. Friendships, romantic partnerships, and other intimate relationships tend to exacerbate feelings of anxiety.

DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIORS
Given that toxic shame can lead to emotional distress, many people find unhealthy ways to cope with their internal suffering. Some turn to drugs and alcohol, while some engage in self-harm. Of course, these behaviors don’t provide any lasting relief.

DYSFUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Toxic shame can make it especially difficult to open up to others and maintain healthy intimate relationships. Because those with toxic shame have an inaccurate belief that they are flawed or defective in some way, they hold back parts of themselves and keep people at arm’s length.

Those with toxic shame fear that if anyone finds out who they really are, they will leave. As a result, people with toxic shame rarely let their guard down and express themselves, even with their closest and most trusted loved ones.

In romantic relationships, people with toxic shame often have a hard time accepting criticism from a partner, no matter how well-intended. This can lead to a breakdown in communication and, ultimately, a great deal of relationship conflict.

TOXIC SHAME & PERFECTIONISM

Toxic shame and perfectionism tend to go hand-in-hand. And, much like shame, perfectionism can cause unnecessary anxiety and suffering.

As we’ve already discussed, toxic shame typically develops in childhood. Subsequently, so does perfectionism.  Essentially, children believe that they need to be perfect to avoid negative experiences.  This, of course, is a false belief. But it can stick around well into adulthood.

In adulthood, people with toxic shame see negative experiences as proof that something is wrong with them.  So they try to be perfect, believing that as long as they are perfect, everyone will like them. But, because of their belief that they have to be perfect or appear perfect, they aren’t very honest or transparent.

Perfectionism is often characterized by:

  • Setting unreasonable standards
  • Considering anything less than absolute perfection unacceptable
  • Getting depressed when faced with any amount of disappointment
  • Obsessing over the possibility of failure of disapproval
  • Becoming defensive or combative when criticized
  • Believing that mistakes are a sign of unworthiness

EXERCISE: If you did not care what other people think of you, how would you live your life differently? Write down some examples of situations in which you have tried to hide your perceived flaws or mistakes. How effective were you in keeping these things hidden? How would you be different if you knew the people who care about you would never leave you or stop loving you, no matter what?

NICE GUYS & TOXIC SHAME

Nice Guys in particular seem to suffer from a great deal of toxic shame, and it governs nearly everything they do.

As previously mentioned, toxic shame typically develops in childhood and it is characterized by the core belief that one is unlovable, bad, or defective in some way. Every child develops defense mechanisms to (1) help him manage the immediate pain caused by whatever he’s experienced, and (2) prevent future events that will cause similar pain.

Out of this comes what Dr. Glover calls covert contracts.

Nice Guys are generally guided by three covert contracts:

  • If I am a good guy, then everyone will love me and like me (and people I desire will desire me).
  • If I meet other people’s needs without them having to ask, then they will meet my needs.
  • If I do everything right, then I will have a smooth, problem-free life.

These covert contracts exist at an unconscious level, and they simply don’t work. But, Nice Guys are convinced they should.

Nice Guys are constantly trying to manage their anxiety by trying to do everything right so nobody ever gets mad at them, criticizes them, or leaves them.

This is a false and unworkable paradigm.

As a result, Nice Guys hide because they know they can’t actually be perfect. They hide by:

  • Avoiding or withdrawing from people
  • Holding things back about themselves
  • Trying to impress people
  • Lying, distorting the truth, and leaving out important details
  • Trying to distract people from their perceived flaws

Interestingly, when men begin to work on their Nice Guy issues, they often adopt a revised covert contract: If I recover from the Nice Guy Syndrome and work on my issues, then people will like and love me and meet my needs, and I’ll have a smooth, problem-free life.

Life doesn’t work like this.

There will always be people who don’t like you and won’t meet your needs. And life will never be smooth and problem-free. Accepting these facts can help liberate you from your toxic shame.

EXERCISE: Are you a classic Nice Guy? Look over the list of some of the ways that Nice Guys try to maintain a smooth and problem-free life. Write down examples of how you use these strategies to control your world. Make note how each of these behaviors keeps you feeling like a powerless victim. 

  • Doing it right
  • Playing it safe
  • Trying not to rock the boat
  • Caretaking and people-pleasing
  • Withholding information
  • Controlling and manipulating
  • Repressing your feelings
  • Avoiding difficult situations

TOXIC SHAME IN DATING & RELATIONSHIPS

For men – especially Nice Guys – toxic shame tends to manifest quite prominently when it comes to interacting with women.

  • Nice Guys are often hyper-sensitive to their own perceived flaws (pimples, receding hairline, growing waistline, etc.) As a result, they try desperately to hide these things.
  • Nice Guys frequently look around and see other men who appear to be more perfect than them – men who seem to have more money, look to be in better shape, etc. Nice Guys believe these men are better, which leads the Nice Guy to develop an even more debilitating sense of inadequacy.
  • Nice Guys assume that women can see right through them and can tell how defective they are. They think women have X-ray vision.

When it comes to dating and relationships, toxic shame usually causes men to give up and do nothing. Of course, this just perpetuates their belief that they can’t connect with women and women aren’t attracted to them.

Additionally, if a woman does show interest, many men won’t even notice that the woman is doing so. It simply doesn’t match the core beliefs they have about themselves and the world.

Due to their toxic shame – and perhaps a history of not being successful with women – many men often resort to what Dr. Glover calls Nice Guy Seduction.

Nice Guy Seduction is characterized by:

  • Being overly nice or accommodating
  • Listening to a woman’s problems
  • Doing a woman’s errands
  • Buying a woman gifts
  • Hiding their sexual agenda
  • Trying to look perfect

EXERCISE: If you were not concerned with getting the approval of women, how would your relationships with them be different?

HOW TO OVERCOME YOUR TOXIC SHAME

Becoming an Integrated Man is fundamentally about releasing toxic shame. It’s about learning to soothe anxiety, learning to accept yourself just as you are, challenging yourself to grow, and accepting the love of others as we let them get to know us.

Let’s look at a variety of things you can do to overcome your toxic shame:

  • Find safe people to whom you can reveal yourself. This can’t be overstated. You simply can’t do this work alone. The men who stay the most stuck are the ones who keep trying to work on their issues all by themselves. But you can’t release toxic shame by yourself. You need people. Nice Guys in particular have an overwhelming fear of being found out. Becoming Integrated is all about being found out. Work with a coach, join a men’s group, attend a 12-step program. Then, reveal yourself. Only share with people who are non-judgmental and accepting of you. If it scares you to reveal yourself to safe people that’s all the more reason to do it.
  • Journal. Journaling allows you to be completely open and honest with yourself. Write down your fears, your secrets, your desires. Bring them up into consciousness. Then, reveal these things to others. Keep writing and keep sharing until your shame disappears.
  • Be a non-judgmental observer of self.  Learn to observe yourself – what you think, what you feel, what you’ve done in the past. Observe these things without judgement. Don’t be critical of it. Just observe and say “Hmm, that’s interesting.” Lovingly remind yourself that you’re not a bad person. You are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings, you are not your behavior. You are a lovable, imperfect human being.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others.  Comparison kills. Stop comparing yourself to others for good or for bad. The men who are the least happy and have the hardest time changing tend to habitually compare themselves to others. Their perceived imperfection has become their identity. When you start comparing yourself to others, catch yourself and let it go without judgment.
  • Become an observer of your judgments.  Do you judge yourself? Probably. But, what about other people? Do you draw a conclusion about someone as soon as they walk in the room? Observe your judgments about yourself and other people. Your judgments can tell you a lot about yourself.
  • Go to a hospital.  Specifically, visit the newborn nursery and observe the babies. Then ask yourself: “Are any of these babies messed up or unlovable?” Remind yourself that you were once an innocent little baby. Every belief you have about yourself is the result of your inaccurate interpretation of life events that occurred when you were a child. You were born perfectly imperfect just like everybody else.
  • Practice self-compassion. Ask yourself: If my best friend had the same characteristics or exhibited the same behaviors, would I be as judgmental of him as I am of myself?
  • Laugh. And lighten up. We all have flaws, we all have judgements, we all make mistakes, we all have neuroses. Be playful about your shortcomings. Exaggerate them. Let’s not take ourselves to seriously.
  • Put yourself into situations where you’ll feel vulnerable. Many men completely avoid this. Don’t be one of those men. Go do some things that you can’t do perfectly. Attend a speed-dating event. Enroll in dance lessons. Pick up a new hobby. Take a class.
  • Never defend yourself. Every time you get defensive, you are trying to take the spotlight off of a projected imperfection in yourself   Defending yourself makes you feel and appear weak. It also causes you to keep your walls and hide your flaws. If you do feel attacked, separate it from your identify. If the person has a legitimate issue, take ownership and responsibility. Just say, “You’re right, I apologize.” If the person is way off track, just let them know where they are off track. If they are critical, just let them know you feel criticized.
  • Don’t hang out with negative people. Surround yourself with loving, supportive, positive people. Negative people feed your shame. Cut them out of your life. Make no exceptions.
  • Get feedback from your friends. Ask your friends what they believe are your best qualities. Ask them what they like about you. When they share the information, let it in. Expand it and feel it and let it wash over you. Observe your brain trying to deny it. Then, ask your friends if there’s something you can work on in yourself.
  • When you’re struggling, break it down. Again, try not to be judgmental of yourself. When you’re putting off or avoiding something, ask yourself what it means. Consider using The One Pull-up Method. Pull-ups are hard. Break it down. Just do one. If you do one, chances are you’ll do more. But start with ONE. Our minds tend to get overwhelmed which causes us to do nothing. Let go of having to do it all or do it perfectly. Just do the next task. Just do something.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT TOXIC SHAME

How do I learn to comfortably reveal myself?

First, find safe people – a best friend, therapist, 12-step group, men’s group, etc. Use the stair step method. Reveal yourself a little bit, and check. Like you’re going up stairs. See what they do with the information. Share and check how others react to what you’re sharing. Do they use it against you? Criticize you? If you find them trustworthy, keep sharing. If they aren’t, stop. Share and check. Share and check.

As you learn to be intimate with safe people who won’t judge you, reject you, or criticize you, you’ll build the courage to reveal yourself to people who you fear might reject you, like women. Use the stair-step method with women. Reveal yourself. Check. How does she react? Does she criticize you? Use it against you?  As you reveal yourself, you’ll get to find out a woman’s nature. Is she safe, reciprocal, trusting?

Challenge yourself to get out and do something about the things that you’ve shared. Good male friends are the foundation of healthy relationships with females. Work through your bullshit with guys.


Does being transparent in relationships include revealing self-limiting beliefs or doubts to our partner? Shouldn’t we try and maintain a level of confidence with our partners?

You can be honest, real, and transparent without turning your partner into an emotional tampon. You can be honest with a woman without burdening her. As you get to know a woman, you get to decide what to reveal, how much to reveal, and when. You can go slow. You can do this without lying or deceiving. But, if it leads to a committed relationship, over time, she should ultimately know everything about you: your wants, your fears, your desires, your passions, your resentments, your opinions, your insecurities, your dreams. As you slowly and judiciously reveal yourself to a woman, you are building trust. Honesty and transparency are essential for women to trust a man and open up to him.

But, remember that you are learning to trust as well. You’re learning to trust that a woman can see you as an imperfect person – warts and all – and still love and desire you. Intimacy involves two people who are in the process of knowing themselves and being known by the other.

Most women can handle an uncomfortable truth but can not handle being lied to.

Transparency, by the way, is not the same thing as hashing something out over and over again. A woman wants to know you, but doesn’t want to be your therapist. They don’t want you to whine about the same crap over and over without taking action. If you don’t take action, the woman will lose trust and attraction. You’ll kill all the polarity between you.

No matter how much I read, learn, absorb, and put into practice, I still can’t imagine a normal, healthy, attractive woman would want me. I just don’t think I’m worthy. How do I overcome this?

There’s an episode of Seinfeld during which George Costanza tries doing the opposite of what he’d been doing and experiences great success. Why not be like George and do the opposite of what you have been doing? Test your assumption that you’re not desirable. Don’t wait until you feel more perfect before you start approaching women to whom you’re attracted. You’re cheating women by not giving them the chance to meet you. And you’re cheating yourself by dating down.

We can look around and notice other men who we perceive to be better than us. We assume that women see these same guys and compare us to them in the same way we compare ourselves to them. But most of us don’t realize that women generally have lower self-esteem than we do. Many women get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and find something about themselves to criticize. Then they try and cover up. Don’t assume that a woman who looks good actually feels good about herself.

Women don’t tend to value the things in men that we perceive they do. Women react to how you make them feel. Most women are attracted to men who make them feel good.

We also assume that women make rational relationship choices. They don’t. They make choices based on their emotions. They don’t use their prefrontal cortex when evaluating men. How many women have you seen with terrible men?

Women love potential in a man. Show them yours.

Letting go of toxic shame, having no insecurities and never taking anything personally sounds amazing. It also sounds unattainable. And I can’t just will it to happen. How do you get to a place of such supreme confidence?  And, when you get to that place, is there still room for emotion? Am I supposed to become a sociopath who is totally self-absorbed?

Questions like these are a perfect example of how many men – particularly Nice Guys – tend to overanalyze, overthink, make every issue black and white, and take everything to the extreme.

Women are biologically attracted to men who appear confident – men who are comfortable in their own body, who take action, who can soothe their own anxiety, who show up with a plan. You don’t actually have to feel confident to appear confident.  If you approach a woman trying to get rejected, you’ll appear confident even if you’re scared shitless inside. Either way, it’s bold behavior.

No man feels confident every second of every day. We all have insecurities. It’s human.

Women aren’t looking for perfect.  Don’t be void of emotion. Again, you’re human. Be human. And have a sense of humor about your humanity.

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