by John Bradshaw
In an emotionally revealing way, Bradshaw shows us how
toxic shame is the core problem in our compulsions,
co-dependencies, addictions, and the drive to superachieve,
resulting in the breakdown in the family system and our
inability to go forward with our lives
Excerpts from the Book
"Healing the Shame that Binds You", by John Bradshaw":
Shame and Guilt
Toxic shame needs to be sharply distinguished from guilt
(guilt can be healthy or toxic). Healthy guilt is the
emotional core of our conscience. It is emotion which
results from behaving in a manner contrary to our beliefs
and values. Guilt presupposes internalized rules and
develops later than shame. According to Erikson, the third
stage of psychosocial development is the polar balance
between initiative and guilt. This stage begins after age
three. Guilt is developmentally more mature than shame.
Guilt does not reflect directly upon one's identity or
diminish one's sense of personal worth. It flows from an
integrated set of values.
(note to self, save the table that's supposed to go here and make a graphic
out of it so I can post it here... blogger won't do tables)
"SHAME AS THE SOURCE OF SPIRITUALITY"
Abraham Maslow, the pioneering Third Force Psychologist,
"The spiritual life is...part of the human essence. It is a
defining characteristic of human nature....without which
human nature is not full human nature"
From--"The Farther Reaches of Human Nature"
"What is spirituality? I believe it has to do with our
lifestyle. I believe that life is ever unfolding and
growing. So spirituality is about expansion and growth. It
is about love, truth, goodness, beauty, giving and caring.
Spirituality is about wholeness and completion.
Spirituality is our ultimate human need. It pushes us to
transcend ourselves, and to become grounded in the ultimate
source of reality. Most call that source God.
Our healthy shame is essential as the ground of our
spirituality. By signaling us of our essential limitations,
our healthy shame lets us know that we are not God. Our
healthy shame points us in the direction of some larger
meaning. It lets us know that there is something or someone
greater than ourselves. Our healthy shame is the
psychological ground of our humility."
ame is the psychological ground of our humility."
SHAME AS TOXIC
Scott Peck describes both neuroses and character disorders
as disorders of responsibility, Peck writes;
"The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person
with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in
conflict with the world, they automatically assume that
they are at fault. When those with character disorders are
in conflict with the world, they automatically assume the
world is at fault."
From his book--"The Road Less Traveled"
"All of us have a smattering of neurotic and character
disordered personality traits. The major problem in all of
our lives is to decide and clarify our responsibilities. To
truly be committed to a life of honesty, love and
discipline, we must be willing to commit ourselves to
reality. This commitment, according to Peck, 'requires the
willingness and the capacity to suffer continual
self-examination.' Such an ability requires a good
relationship with oneself. This is precisely what no
shame-based person has. In fact a toxically shamed person
has an adversarial relationship with him/herself. Toxic
shame--the shame that binds us--is the basis for both
neurotic and character disordered syndromes of behavior."
NEUROTIC SYNDROMES OF SHAME
"What is the shame that binds you? How did it get set up in
your life? What happens to healthy shame in the process?
Toxic shame, the shame that binds you, is experienced as
the all pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a
human being. Toxic shame is no longer an emotion that
signals our limits, it is a state of being, a core
identity. Toxic shame gives you a sense of worthlessness, a
sense of failing and falling short as a human being. Toxic
shame is a rupture of the self with the self.
It is like internal bleeding. Exposure to oneself lies at
the heart of toxic shame. A shame based person will guard
against exposing his inner self to others, but more
significantly, he will guard against exposing himself to
Toxic shame is so excruciating because it is the painful
exposure of the believed failure of self to the self.
[selves to selves too we believe] In toxic shame the self
becomes an object that can't be trusted, one experiences
oneself [selves] as untrustworthy. Toxic shame is
experienced as inner torment, a sickness of the soul. If
I'm an object that can't be trusted, then I'm not in me.
Toxic shame is paradoxical and self-generating. There is
shame about shame. People will readily admit guilt, hurt or
fear before they will admit shame. Toxic shame is the
feeling of being isolated and alone in a complete sense. A
shame-based person is haunted by a sense of absence and
"SHAME AS AN IDENTITY --INTERNALIZATION OF SHAME"
"Any human emotion can become internalized. When
internalized, an emotions stops functioning in the manner
of an emotion and becomes a characterological style. You
probably know of someone who could be labeled 'an angry
person', or someone you'd call a 'sad sack'. In both cases
the emotion has become the core of the person's character,
her identity. The person doesn't have anger or melancholy,
she is angry and melancholy.
In the case of shame, internalization involves at least
1)Identification with unreliable and shame based models
2)The trauma of abandonment, and the binding of feelings,
needs and drives with shame
3)The interconnection of memory imprints which forms collages
Internalization is a gradual process and happens over a
period of time. Every human being has to contend with
certain aspects of this process. Internalization takes
place when all three processes are consistently
IDENTIFICATION WITH SHAME BASED MODELS
"Identification is one of our normal human processes. We
always have the need to identify. Identification gives one
a sense of security. By belonging to something larger than
ourselves, we feel security and protection of the larger
The need to identify with someone, to feel a part of
something, to belong somewhere, is one of our most basic
needs. With the exception of self-preservation, no other
striving is as compelling as this need, which begins with
our caregivers or significant others and extends to family,
peer group, culture, nation and world. It is seen in lesser
forms in our allegiance to a political party or our rooting
for a sports team.
This need to belong explains the loyal and often fanatic
adherence people display to a group...their group.
When children have shame based parents, they identify with
them. This is the first step in the child's internalizing
ABANDONMENT: THE LEGACY OF BROKEN MUTUALITY
Shame is internalized when one is abandoned.
Abandonmentis the precise term to describe how one loses one's
authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically.
Children cannot know who they are without reflective
mirrors. Mirroring is done by one's primary caretakers and
is crucial in the first years of life. Abandonment includes
the loss of mirroring. Parent who are shut down emotionally
(all shame based parents) cannot mirror and affirm their
Since the earliest period of our life was preverbal,
everything depended on emotional interaction. Without
someone to reflect our emotions, we had no way of knowing
who we were. Mirroring remains important all our lives.
Think of the frustrating experience which most of us have
had, of talking to someone who is not looking at us. While
you are speaking, they are fidgeting around or reading
something. Our identity demands a significant other whose
eyes se us pretty much as we see ourselves.
In fact, Erik Erikson defines identity as interpersonal. He
'The sense of ego identity is the accrued confidence that
the inner sameness and continuity...are matched by the
sameness and continuity of one's meaning for others.'
From --"Childhood and Society"
Besides lack of mirroring, abandonment includes the following:
Neglect of developmental dependency needs
Abuse of any kind
Enmeshment into the covert or overt needs of the parents or
the family system needs"
FEELING NEED AND DRIVE SHAME BINDS
"The shame binding of feelings, needs and natural
instinctual drives, is a key factor in changing healthy
shame into toxic shame. To be *shame-bound* means that
whenever you feel any feeling, and need or any drive, you
immediately feel ashamed. The dynamic core of your human
life is grounded in your feelings, your needs and your
drives. When these are bound by shame, your are shamed to
THE INTERCONNECTION OF MEMORY IMPRINTS WHICH FORM COLLAGES OF SHAME
"As shaming experiences accrue and are defended against,
the images created by those experiences are recorded in a
person's memory bank. Because the victim has no time or
support to grieve the pain of the broken mutuality, his
emotions are repressed and the grief is unresolved. The
verbal (auditory) imprints remain in the memory as do the
visual images of the shaming scenes. As each new shaming
experience takes place, a new verbal imprint and visual
image attach to the already existing ones forming collages
of shaming memories.
Children also record their parent's actions at their worst.
When Mom and Dad, stepparent or whoever the caretaker, are
most out of control, they are the most threatening to the
child's survival. The child's survival alarm registers
these behaviors the most deeply. Any subsequent shame
experience which even vaguely resembles that past trauma
can easily trigger the words and scenes of said trauma.
What are then recorded are the new experience and the old.
Over time an accumulation of shame scenes are attached
together. Each new scene potentiates the old, sort of like
a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger
as it picks up snow. As the years go on, very little is
needed to trigger these collages of shame memories. A word,
a similar facial expression or scene, can set it off.
Sometimes an external stimulus is not even necessary. Just
going back to an old memory can trigger an enormously
painful experience. Shame as an emotion has now become
frozen and embedded into the core of the person's identity.
Shame is deeply internalized."
SHAME AS SELF-ALIENATION AND ISOLATION
"When one suffers from alienation, it means that one experiences
parts of one's self as alien to one's self.
For example, if you were never allowed to express anger in
your family, your anger becomes an alienated part of
yourself. You experience toxic shame when you feel angry.
This part of you must be disowned or severed. There is no
way to get rid of your emotional power of anger. Anger is
the self- preserving and self-protecting energy. Without
this energy you become a doormat and a people-pleaser. As
your feelings, needs and drives are bound by toxic shame,
more and more of you is alienated.
Finally, when shame has been completely internalized,
nothing about you is okay. You feel flawed and inferior;
you have a sense of being a failure. There is no way you
can share your inner self because you are an object of
contempt to yourself. When you are contemptible to
yourself, you are no longer in you. To feel shame is to
feel seen in an exposed and diminished way. When you're an
object to yourself, you turn your eyes inward, watching and
scrutinizing every minute detail of behavior. This internal
critical observation is excruciating. It generates a
tormenting self-consciousness which Kaufman describes as,
'creating a binding and paralyzing effect upon the self.'
This paralyzing internal monitoring causes withdrawal,
passivity and inaction.
The severed parts of self are projected in relationships.
They are often the basis of hatred and prejudice. The
severed parts of the self may be experienced as a split
personality or even multiple personalities. This happens
often with victims who have been through physical and
To be severed and alienated within oneself also creates a
sense of unreality. One may have an all-pervasive sense of
never quite belonging, of being on the outside looking in.
The condition of inner alienation and isolation is also
pervaded by a low grade chronic depression. This has to do
with the sadness of losing one's authentic self. Perhaps
the deepest and most devastating aspect of neurotic shame
is the rejection of the self by the self."
SHAME AS FALSE SELF
"Because the exposure of self to self lies at the heart of
neurotic shame, escape from the self is necessary. The
escape from self is accomplished by creating a false self.
The false self is always more or less than human. The false
self may be a perfectionist or a slob, a family hero or a
family scapegoat. As the false self is formed, the
authentic self goes into hiding. Years later the layers of
defense and pretense are so intense that one loses all
awareness of who one really is.
It is crucial to see that the false self may be as polar
opposite as a superachieving perfectionist or an addict in
an alley. Both are driven to cover up their deep sense of
self- rupture, the hole in their soul. They may cover up in
ways that look polar opposite, but each is still driven by
neurotic shame. In fact, the most paradoxical aspect of
neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the
superachieved and the underachieved, the Star and the
Scapegoat, the 'Righteous' and the wretched, the powerful
and the pathetic."
SHAME AS CO-DEPENDENCY
"Much has been written about co-dependency. All agree that
it is about the loss of selfhood. Co-dependency is an
condition wherein one has no inner life. Happiness is on
the outside. Good feelings and self-validation lie on the
outside. They can never be generated from within. [until
one begins to recover] Pia Mellody's definition of
co-dependency is a 'state of dis-ease whereby the authentic
self is unknown or kept hidden, so that a sense of
self...of mattering... of esteem and connectedness to
others is distorted, creating pain and distorted
relationships.' There is no significant difference in that
definition and the way I have described internalized shame.
It is my belief that internalized shame is the essence of
SHAME AS BORDERLINE PERSONALITY
"Kaufman sees many of the categories of emotional illness
which are defined as DSM III as rooted in neurotic shame.
It seems obvious that some of these types of disorders are
related to symptoms of shame. These include: dependent
personality, clinical depression, schizoid phenomena and
borderline personality. My own belief is that toxic shame
is a unifying concept for what is often a maze of
psychological definitions and distinctions. While I realize
that there is clinical and psychotheraputic value in the
kinds of detailed etiological distinctions offered by
accurate and precise conceptualizing. I also think some of
it is counterproductive.
My own study of James Masterson's work on borderline
personalities, as well as my experience with watching his
working films, convinces me that there is minimal
difference in the treatment of some toxically shame-based
people and his treatment of the Borderline Personality. I'm
convinced that Masterson's Borderline Personality is a
syndrome of neurotic shame. It is described as follows:
2)Difficulty identifying and expressing one's own individuated
thoughts, wishes and feelings and autonomously regulating
3)Difficulty with self-assertion
Borderline Adolescent to Functioning Adult: The Test of Time
SHAME AS HOPELESSNESS --THE SQUIRREL CAGE
"Toxic shame has the quality of being irremedial. If I am
flawed, defective and a mistake, then there is nothing that
can be done about me. Such a belief leads to impotence. How
can I change who I am? Toxic shame also has the quality of
circularity. Shame begets shame."
"Once internalized, toxic shame is functionally autonomous,
which means that it can be triggered internally without any
attending stimulus. One can imagine a situation and feel
deep shame. One can be alone and trigger a shaming spiral
through internal self- talk. The more one experiences
shame, the more one is ashamed and the beat goes on.
It is this dead-end quality of shame that makes it so
hopeless. The possibility for repair seems foreclosed if
one is essentially flawed as a human being. Add to that the
self-generating quality of shame, and one can see the
devastating, soul-murdering power of neurotic shame.
The reader can begin to see how dramatic it was for me to
discover the dynamics of shame. By being aware of the
dynamics of shame, by naming it, we gain some power over
"The excruciating loneliness fostered by toxic shame is
dehumanizing. As a person isolates more and more, he loses
the benefit of human feedback. He loses the mirroring eyes
of others. Erik Erikson has demonstrated clearly that
identity formation is always a social process. He defines
identity as 'an inner sense of sameness and continuity
which is matched by the mirroring eyes of at least one
significant other'. Remember, it was the contaminated
mirroring by our significant relationships that fostered
our toxic shame.
In order to be healed we must come out of isolation and
hiding. This means finding a group of significant others
that we are willing to trust. This is tough for shame-based
Shame becomes toxic shame because of premature exposure. We
are exposed either unexpectedly or before we are ready to
be exposed. We feel helpless and powerless. No wonder then
that we fear the scrutinizing eyes of others. However the
only way out of toxic shame is to embrace the shame...we
must come out of hiding."
The Prisoner In The Dark Cave
There once was a man who was sentenced to die. He was
blindfolded and put in a pitch dark cave. The cave was 100
yards by 100 yards. He was told that there was a way out of
the cave, and if he could find it, he was a free man.
After a rock was secured at the entrance of the cave, the
prisoner was allowed to take his blindfold off and roam
freely in the darkness. He was to be fed only bread and
water for the first 30 days and nothing thereafter. The
bread and water were lowered from a small hole in the roof
at the south end of the cave. The ceiling was about 18 feet
high. The opening was about one foot in diameter. The
prisoner could see a faint light up above, but no light
came into the cave.
As the prisoner roamed and crawled around the cave, he
bumped into rocks. Some were rather large. He thought that
if he could build a mound of rocks and dirt that was high
enough, he could reach the opening and enlarge it enough to
crawl through and escape. Since he was 5'9", and his reach
was two feet, the mound had to be at least 10 feet high.
So the prisoner spent his waking hours picking up rocks and
digging up dirt. At the end of two weeks, he had built a
mound of about six feet. He thought that if he could
duplicate that in the next two weeks, he could make it
before his food ran out. But as he had already used most of
the rocks in the cave, he had to dig harder and harder. He
had to do the digging with his bare hands. After a month
had passed, the mound was nine and half feet high and he
could almost reach the opening if he jumped. He was almost
exhausted and extremely weak.
One day just as he thought he could touch the opening, he
fell. He was simply too weak to get up, and in two days he
died. His captors came to get his body. They rolled away
the huge rock that covered the entrance. As the light
flooded into the cave, it illuminated an opening in the
wall of the cave about three feet in circumference.
The opening was the opening to a tunnel which led to the
other side of the mountain. This was the passage to freedom
the prisoner had been told about. It was in the south wall
directly under the opening in the ceiling. All the prisoner
would have had to do was crawl about 200 feet and he would
have found freedom. He had so completely focused on the
opening of light that it never occurred to him to look for
freedom in the darkness. Liberation was there all the time
right next to the mound he was building, but it was in the
From the book: Healing the Shame That Binds You
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if you are in crisis or require mental health services
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