Healthy and Toxic Shame: A Brief Introduction

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Emotions are the product of evolution. They evolved to help us navigate challenges and opportunities. However, although emotions are generally healthy and life-giving, they can become distorted and harmful. This is true of all emotions, including shame. Shame has one form that is beneficial and valuable and another that is damaging and toxic.

Shame is the emotion which warns us that our own behaviour is problematic and may result in the loss of valued relationships. Shame evolved to be painful in order to capture our attention and motivate us to change our behaviour. Shame has been crucially important: humans struggle to survive when excluded from cooperative and caring relationships.

People are likely to lose relationships for a variety of reasons, including attacking members of their community, cheating, stealing, or lying. The pain embedded in shame helps to prevent people from behaving in these ways. Because of this, psychologists classify shame as a ‘moral’ emotion, and to describe someone as ‘shameless’ is to say they lack morals.

‘Toxic shame’ (as many call it) is a distorted form of this moral emotion. 

Toxic shame is a mistaken inner conviction that there is something irredeemably and enduringly inadequate about us and that as a result, we are inherently unworthy of cooperative and caring relationships.

One way to visualise the differences between healthy and toxic shame is to consider the familiar emotion of fear.

Fear is healthy and valuable when:

  1. It arises as a warning in the face of genuine danger.
  2. We heed its warning and act to avert that danger.
  3. It dissipates once we reach safety. 

Fear becomes harmful and toxic when:

  1. It repeatedly arises in the absence of genuine danger.
  2. It restricts our life or drives us to act in ways that create danger. 
  3. It becomes an enduring state of being (i.e., anxiety).

Similarly, shame is healthy and valuable when:

  1. It arises to warn us that our behaviour is problematic.
  2. We heed its warning and change our behaviour.
  3. It dissipates once our behaviour is no longer problematic. 

Shame becomes harmful and toxic when:

  1. It repeatedly arises in the absence of anything genuinely problematic in our behaviour.
  2. It restricts our ability to form supportive relationships or drives us to act in ways which endanger existing relationships.
  3. It becomes an enduring state of being. 

Healthy and toxic shame frequently co-exist, but toxic shame (especially when unrecognised) generally gains the upper hand. Once this happens, the distorted shame tragically compels us to behave in ways that harm our relationships with both others and with ourselves. Self-fulfilling spirals of suffering ensue.

(c) Daniela F. Sieff, 2023


Daniela F. Sieff, PhD. 

Daniela is a scholar, author, and speaker who explores emotional suffering, healing, and well-being. Learn about Daniela and her work at:

This reflection stems from a book Daniela is currently writing. 

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