The Secret Danger of Toxic Shame

Irene Rollins

by Irene Rollins

Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.



Seven years ago, I checked into rehab.

I felt like I had ruined everything my husband and I had worked so hard for, and I was drowning in shame. I was on the brink of losing my marriage and my children if I didn’t get help. My husband’s ultimatum to go to rehab was the push I needed. How did a pastor, mom, wife, end up in rehab for alcohol addiction? What would happen if anyone found out and this became public? I was petrified I had let my family and church down.

I was leading a thriving church alongside my husband, Jimmy. I had three beautiful children and a stable home: it seemed like the perfect life I had prayed for. I believed that “good” people didn’t have problems, and certainly didn’t have addictions. Facing up to my addiction brought a tsunami of shame.

What Shame Does to our Brain

All human beings experience the emotion of shame at some point in their lives. When we experience shame, it sends a signal to the brain—as all emotions do—to do something about a problem or circumstance we are facing. It activates our fight, flight, or freeze response. Guilt tells us we did something bad. But shame told me I was bad; unforgivable, fundamentally flawed, and broken beyond repair. My shame pushed me into anxiety, depression, perfectionism, hiding, pretending, and performing… all of which led to my medicating with alcohol.

I was diagnosed with toxic shame in rehab. Who knew that shame could become toxic and lead to mental health issues? Not me! I wasn’t aware that toxic shame could lead to abusing alcohol. For others it may be using food, overspending, overworking, or other unhealthy ways to numb the pain, and then the shame-cycle is perpetuated by the addiction. Our nervous systems were not meant to stay in this protective response, and our systems go into overload.

Mental health and addiction were taboo topics in my family and church circles. I missed the warning signs of pain that had not been dealt with: stuffing and numbing with alcohol and perfectionism, hiding my anxiety and depression, and unhealthy coping with alcohol. And it almost took me out.

Warning Signs of Toxic Shame for Leaders

Anyone can be susceptible to our shame becoming toxic if we are not aware of its impact and how to process it in a healthy way.

As leaders, this awareness is especially important. The more emotionally healthy and self-aware we are, the better we care for ourselves, our marriages, and our families. We can’t serve others well unless we take care of our own emotional health.

Our churches have people suffering with mental health problems and addiction. Pastors and leaders struggle too: we are human after all. Unaddressed mental health and addiction struggles—whether they are hidden or in public view—are a real and dangerous threat to our communities.

Many leaders, who may have already been close to their tipping point prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, have found themselves completely overwhelmed. They are living outside of their normal ability to tolerate stress, leading many to destructive and devastating behaviors as they grapple desperately for ways to cope. When we deny the brokenness of our own humanity and partner that with the dangerous lie that we are supposed to be immune to struggles, dysfunction, and addictions; we are headed toward danger.

From Hypocrisy to Healing

The Bible is filled with people who made terrible choices and discovered a saving, redeeming, delivering God! People don’t need us to be saviors or superheroes: they need examples of leaders walking in integrity and humility. We can create a culture where we proclaim that “no one is good but God alone”, and we embrace rather than shame people for being human. We can teach our congregations that our failures don’t define us; rather, we depend daily on the grace and mercy of God. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

But, we must get well so we can lead others well. With faithful spiritual self-examination, trauma-informed therapy and a commitment to reciprocal relationships, we can offload the junk and shame that has been weighing us down. Then, we can show others how to get real and get free through the power of Jesus Christ. Jesus was hard on religious leaders who pretended to be perfect and demanded others do the same (Matthew 23:4, 25). Pretending we don’t have issues is hypocrisy. Instead, God calls us to humility.

What if we began to own our brokenness? The path toward freedom from shame begins with the step of admitting our need for help. We can become shame resilient if we recognize shame and its impact on us, then speak up and reach out for help. God dug me out of the deepest shame pit, and he can do the same for you.




Irene Rollins is passionate about the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of all people. After almost twenty-five years in full-time ministry, Irene and her husband Jimmy shifted their ministry focus to found TWO = ONE with a mission to help build stronger marriages, families and communities. Irene is a certified Emotional Intelligence Coach, and the author of Reframe Your Shame.