Healing Toxic Shame

When you make a mistake and someone is disappointed in you, do you feel like a dog with its tail tucked between its legs? When dogs experience shame, their bodies automatically respond with this behavior. 

People don’t have tails to tuck, but many of us highly sensitive introverts feel shame and humiliation when we make mistakes.

When you were young, did your caregivers correct your behavior with an aggravated tone such as: “Shame on you. You should have known better! I taught you better than that!” That might have been followed by more criticism, hitting you, or icy silence. Either way, you felt the pang of not feeling securely attached. That’s what we call “toxic shame.” It damages your sense of personal identity.

Children should be corrected, but the caregivers should convey unconditional love and remain emotionally connected in a health way. Many of us did not experience that.

I had an ah ha! moment when I realized that shame isn’t so bad in itself, but when we feel rejected, that’s when shame really hurts. 

Humans were created with a basic need to feel securely attached. Most animals are like that. When we don’t experience safe attachment, we feel despair because we are cut off from our loved ones. When we’re isolated, we are at more risk for physical harm, dis-ease and emotional anguish.

The sense of estrangement hurts so much that when we’re young children, we develop coping strategies to try to avoid distress.

If you are a highly sensitive person, you felt the pain of attachment breaches much more than non-highly sensitives. If you were raised in a dysfunctional family where you didn’t feel secure emotional attachment much of the time, you probably carried unresolved wounds into adulthood. You may not even realize it.

That’s what happened with my client, Donna (a pseudonym used to protect her confidentiality). Even though Donna was a competent team leader, she suffered from low self-esteem and anxiety. Our job was to get to the root of this and heal it.


Donna (now in her 40’s) suffered her entire life with feeling scared of making mistakes. This led her to try to be perfect. She predicted the outcome of her choices so people wouldn’t be disappointed in her. Anxiety used up a lot of her energy and left her body tense and tight.

In the anecdote below, the painful memory of Donna’s mother’s repetitive shaming behavior was still impacting Donna. We both acknowledged that her mother had done the very best that she could at the time. Her mother had emotional problems of her own. 

We used Brainspotting and Internal Family dialogue in this session. I explain those processes in another article. Click here.

I love using these tools because they help the client access emotional wounds while staying in their window of tolerance. They don’t get overwhelmed. Also, clients often tap into spiritual wisdom that creates major breakthroughs. I could have imparted the same wisdom, but the client would not integrate it as deeply because it came from an outside source. 

If an untrained person were to watch a Brainspotting session that combines talking with different inner parts, they might not think that any major transformation took place. But I assure you, because the wisdom comes from deep within, it has long-term results. Sometimes in dramatic ways. Sometimes in subtle ways.

Here’s how the session with Donna began.  

Benita: Donna, what do you want to address in this session today? What’s your goal?

Donna: I want to develop self-acceptance, even if I make a mistake, especially when I feel I’m not meeting someone’s expectations. I tend to make them “right” and make myself “wrong.”

Donna’s baseline: The level of self-acceptance I feel right now is a 4 where 10 is high self-acceptance. My shoulders are tight and they are hunched over a bit. My solar plexus has a nervous fluttery feeling. I have picked two Brainspotting visual spots in my room to look at, one is my activation spot and one is my resource spot where I feel calm and grounded and I connect to my Wise Self. I’m listening to biolateral music engineered by David Grand called, “Forest Bathing.”

Donna: My Inner Critic and my people-pleasing Adapted Child (AC) are activated. I’m focusing on the activation spot first.

My Adapted Child (AC) doesn’t know how to sit with herself and let others be responsible for their issues. If they’re upset, she’s anxious, and she thinks she must have done something wrong. If she doesn’t take action to make another person feel better, she thinks she is being uncaring and not willing to help. She doesn’t want to be viewed that way by others. She wants to learn how to feel OK inside herself in situations where others are upset. 

Donna: I’m looking at the resource spot now and tuning into my Wise Self. I sense guidance about not taking responsibility for other people. 

Wise Self coaching the Adapted Child (AC): While it’s OK to want to help people, and it’s good to do so if they have asked for help, you don’t have to make “helping” your full-time job. Everyone is entitled to feel what they feel. Your old way of thinking is: “Only good feelings are good.” In truth, it is healthier for people to be honest about their emotions. That is information that can be helpful to manage interactions. 

When people get upset, you have a variety of emotions. You feel anxious, insecure, and afraid.

As a child, you couldn’t make sense of why your mom or anyone else was angry. Their anger was unpredictable. You accepted total responsibility for others’ feelings. You couldn’t tell the difference between when it was your fault and when it was not. Your mom blamed you for a lot of things. Even when you thought you were doing well, your mom or others got upset with you. That was confusing. 

The only time you felt OK and good enough was if others around you were happy, and then you could feel relief. You are learning that their behavior and your response to it were not healthy. It is not a sustainable way of being with others. 

I’ll help you learn a different way to cope. You can learn how to let other people experience the entire range of emotions, and you can determine when you need to protect yourself to stay safe.

It is OK to be around people when they feel their emotions. They need to feel what they feel. You can separate yourself from their emotions. At the same time, you can have your feelings independent of theirs. You’ve felt guilty when someone is upset, and you thought that you were not allowed to feel different than they felt. You thought you were not allowed to be a separate person.  

You can learn to observe, tune in and recognize what’s yours and not yours and still feel compassion for the other person. Don’t try to change what they are feeling. 

You can assess what’s happened when someone is upset with you. You might need to take action on that, but other times you can accept that they have a response and be OK with it. You don’t need to control so much.

Benita to Donna: What’s your level of self-acceptance now?

Donna: I’m a solid 5. I went up one point towards self-acceptance. My breathing is easier. My chest is more open. My shoulders are more open and relaxed. My solar plexus is still tense but there is no nervous energy. 

Debrief, Insights, and Summary

Donna: Part of me (my Adapted Child) didn’t want to allow others to experience their full range of emotions because I thought that upsetting situations were my fault. 

Sometimes, I don’t like what people say to me and I don’t have to. Others don’t have to like what I say or do. We can’t be expected to operate with only the positive side of the emotional spectrum. 

I need to discern when I need to do something to help a situation and when I don’t. Instead of seeing myself as less caring if I don’t jump in to help people, I need to allow others to feel how they feel. I am maturing to know when I have ownership of a problem and when I don’t. 

My inner wisdom arises outside of sessions with you these days. I have the visceral experience of the wisdom. I am integrating so much more deeply. 

Before I met you, I read many self-help books, but I never integrated the wisdom until my therapy with you. Brainspotting has been very helpful because I can feel myself changing at a deep level. I want people to have access to good mental health and to heal and grow as I have. That’s why I want to share this story with them. 

Contact Information

If you would like to help to transform limiting patterns in your life, please complete the questionnaire on the Contact Page.

Feel free to ask about how I facilitate life coaching, spiritual counseling, and retreats for Highly Sensitive Introverts.

Benita A. Esposito, MA is the author of the bestseller, The Gifted Highly Sensitive Introvert: Wisdom for Emotional Healing and Expressing Your Radiant Authentic Self available on Amazon.

As a highly sensitive person herself, Benita can easily understand you, your challenges and your beautiful gifts. Zoom videoconferences are available worldwide.

Click here to read Benita Esposito’s credentials and story.

Photo of Benita Esposito by Alysia Hargus/Alysia Hargus Photography


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