What Toxic Shame Feels Like: 9 People Share Their Experiences


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“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” ~Carl Rogers

My heart races as I raise my hand, eager to contribute yet terrified of the attention it brings. When the teacher picks me, the entire classroom turns toward me, putting me in the spotlight. I feel exposed. Shame floods over me like hot lava, twisting my stomach into knots and flushing my face with heat. I try desperately to stop it, but the throbbing intensity only grows. 

I mutter words I can barely comprehend, feeling like a stranger in my own skin.

In that moment of shame, I was an embarrassment to myself and all I wanted to do was vanish. This forty-year-old memory is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.

Growing up in a status-oriented, conflicted home where love and connection were both unpredictable and scarce, I learned early on that I wasn’t safe to be myself in this world. I learned that to get my needs met, I had to change myself. That love and connection were unpredictable, and that I couldn’t just relax and be myself; I had to hustle for it.

So, when the eyes of the classroom turned toward me, I couldn’t just be myself and answer the question. My programming told me that being myself equals abandonment and leads to rejection and pain. So I hustled to do things “right” to control the situation and avoid the pain of being exposed.

But here’s the thing:

When we’re disconnected from our authentic selves, we’re like a house on a shaky foundation—insecure, weak, and ready to fall into a mess at any moment.  And we feel that instability deep within. It’s precisely because of this disconnection that we’re overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, stumbling like fools through unfamiliar territory.

These moments of shame were a regular part of my childhood. And it wasn’t limited to the classroom.

When my piano teacher made eye contact, I instinctively looked away, wanting to vanish into the bench.

When police cars passed me on the street, I’d quickly hide behind parked cars, fearing arrest for finding change under a school vending machine.

I couldn’t explain these feelings; all I knew was the desperate need to escape that painful exposure.

The constant anticipation of shame, never knowing when I would be engulfed in excruciating humiliation and loneliness, consumed me. It felt like a full-time job, and I fought against it with everything I had, desperate to regain control over the unpredictable.

At school, I excelled, earning straight-A grades; at home, I became the perfect peacemaker, striving to manage the chaos of conflict. Eventually, I turned inward, seeking solace in a world consumed by counting calories, restricting food intake, and obsessing over numbers on the scale—a world where I exerted absolute control.

Anorexia, perfectionism, and peacekeeping became my shields against shame for years. Despite the hospitalizations and brushes with death, they seemed like a safer refuge compared to confronting the raw agony of shame head-on, even if it wasn’t a conscious choice.

There came a turning point in my journey. After years of battling anorexia, perfectionism, and the relentless pursuit of control, I hit a moment of truth. I realized the shields I’d built to protect myself were suffocating me, trapping me in a cycle of self-destruction.

I then faced my inner turmoil head-on. With my boyfriend’s (now husband’s) support, I dove deep into studying everything I could about shame, healing, and self-discovery, eventually finding the most success with my own mix of radical acceptance, mindfulness, and somatic emotional release.

Slowly, I started tearing down the walls I’d built, opting for vulnerability and authenticity instead. It wasn’t easy, and was full of setbacks, but it was a journey that enabled me to reclaim my true self from shame’s grip.

Looking back, I wish I had known that shame is a fundamental part of the human experience—a challenging emotion that is especially prevalent among shame-sensitive individuals and those of us who’ve endured childhood trauma. Perhaps then, I wouldn’t have overlaid my shame with harsh self-judgment, letting those moments of shame carve themselves so deeply into my self-image.

Instead, I might have understood that shame, while incredibly tough, is a universal emotion, particularly prevalent among those of us who’ve faced childhood traumas.

As a culture, we need to grow in our collective understanding of shame. It’s high time we engage in open conversations about shame, fostering empathy and support for those struggling with it.

That’s why I reached out to my newsletter subscribers and asked those who are living with shame to describe how it feels for them. Nine people shared their experiences. I hope through reading their quotes, it will help you deepen your own understanding of shame, and perhaps help you feel less alone. Here’s what they shared.

1. Im constantly trying to hide how messed up I am.

Shame feels like a constant pressure to not just do well but to go all out, trying to hide how messed up I am. I’m always worried that if someone sticks around or sees the cracks in my armor, they’ll never really love the true me. It’s like climbing this impossible mountain, always striving for perfection just to deserve love.” —Shelly P., 36

2. I feel like I dont belong with normal” people.

I feel like I don’t belong with others. I cringe when I hear myself talking.  I read too much into facial expressions and the look in people’s eyes, and it’s a constant reminder that I’m different from everybody else. It’s as if I’m from another species and I don’t belong with ‘normal’ people. I get this overwhelming feeling of being an alien, of being wrong, of being off, of having no right and place to belong. I have the urge to disappear. I want to curl into a ball, be smaller, and evaporate.” —Jen R., 24

3. Its discrediting any success I have.

I discredit any success I have as being expected. I view it more asGreat! You did what a normal person should be able to do’ or Wow, am I that far gone in life that I’m celebrating bottom of the barrel normal behavior??’” —Kalisha C., 49

4. It feels like every setback is deserved, even expected.

It’s a never-ending feeling of unworthiness, being unwanted, and an overall feeling that I’m utterly disgusting in every conceivable way. It’s feeling like I don’t deserve happiness; that every setback is deserved, even expected, because I’m so terrible. It’s not being able to look in the mirror without cringing, and every photo I see of myself is a reminder of my disappointment and failure.” —Angela H., 52

5. It’s like Im at war with myself.

There’s always something that needs to be changed, improved. If I’m shy, something is wrong with my shyness. If I speak up, I sound stupid. If my opinion isn’t popular, my opinion must be wrong. Everything about me is invalidated. It feels like I live in a self-imposed prison of self-hatred.” —Michele L., 50

6. I’m always curating myself.

It feels like wanting to hide, to be unseen, unheard, and nonexistent to others. I’m always very cautious about what bit of information about myself I share, and with whom. When people get to know me, they’re often surprised by what I’m really like and they tell me how they had a different image of me in their minds.  It’s like how I show up doesn’t match who I really am.” —Tina R., 28

7. I cant make eye contact.

It’s very physical for me: My skin feels hot and tingly, especially on my chest, my face, upper back, and the backs of my upper arms. I hunch forward, my head and eyes lower, and I feel frozen. I can’t make eye contact. My mind goes blank, and I struggle to think properly. And I often get angry and start blaming others. I get resentful and bitter. I hate everyone and I hate myself. It’s awful.” —John T., 32

8. I’m always anticipating more shame.

Shame feels like being sucked into a black hole. It feels like everyone’s looking at me and judging me because I’m so pathetic. It’s so painful that I’ll do anything to avoid it. Anticipating shame and trying to avoid it causes me a huge amount of anxiety.” —Brianna F., 47

9. And it feels like it will never go away.

I’ve done so much work on myself, had so many years of therapy, but it still feels like shame is untouchable, like nothing will ever make it go away  People tell me it’s possible to overcome chronic shame, but I’m not so sure. No matter how hard I try, every day still feels like a struggle. I feel like I’m broken, and nothing can fix me.” —Julia G., 32

Can You Relate?

If you’re nodding along with those quotes, rest assured you’re not alone in your journey to heal from shame. It’s entirely possible to heal, though it takes time and dedicated effort. Surround yourself with people, books, or therapists who understand shame from a positive perspective—those who can guide you with empathy and insight.

It’s crucial to work with professionals who are at peace with their own relationship with shame. Therapists or friends who approach it with fear or condemnation may unintentionally perpetuate the cycle of self-loathing and judgment you’re striving to overcome. Seek out those who offer a non-judgmental space for exploration and healing.

By engaging with shame compassionately and curiously, you open the door to profound transformation. Embracing shame as a teacher rather than an enemy reveals its hidden wisdom and leads to genuine self-acceptance and empowerment.

After years of battling shame, I found my way out of the suffocating darkness not by burying or suppressing it, but by turning toward it. Educating myself about shame, I learned that it isn’t merely a byproduct of trauma; it’s a misunderstood yet inherently normal emotion with its own intrinsic value. This new understanding shifted my perspective from fighting against shame to approaching it with curiosity.

I discovered that, despite its weight, shame holds invaluable power because it can teach us how to love ourselves—even in the darkest of times. When we experience ourselves as inherently flawed, it’s the perfect training ground for cultivating compassion and true self-love. And by caring for ourselves during the hardest moments, we’re reminded that even in our most vulnerable states, we are deserving of love and acceptance.

Just as we cannot understand light without darkness, we learn to love ourselves through moments of feeling utterly inadequate. These moments, though excruciating, serve as catalysts for profound personal growth and transformation.

Today, when I raise my hand to speak up in a public forum, I expect to feel a bit awkward and shy, and my face may even blush a little. But it doesn’t stop me from speaking up because I am no longer at war with shame. I know it’s just part of being the exquisitely sensitive human that I am. And I’m okay with that.

*These quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Image generated by AI.

About Jenn Lawlor

Jenn Lawlor is a scientist, shame expert, and certified healing coach with more than thirty-three years of experience in personal growth and transformation. Learn how she takes her clients through a process of deep transformation in her free training How to Find Inner Freedom & Authentic Joy.

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