I recently stumbled across a favorite book on my bookshelf called Healing the Shame That Binds You, by John Bradshaw. I’ve recommended this book to numerous patients and colleagues in the past to help them better understand the concept of Toxic Shame and how devastating it can be to a person’s well-being. Bradshaw comes from an addictions background and highlights how many addictions can be traced to Toxic Shame. However, the concept of Toxic Shame is relevant and applicable to many people who struggle with psychological and emotional distress, such as depression, anxiety, anger, and PTSD.

What is Toxic Shame?

A person with Toxic Shame demonstrates a deeply rooted sense of self-loathing. When I work with a patient suffering from Toxic Shame, I can usually spot it within the first hour of our meeting. She is her own worst enemy. She’s harder on herself than anyone else in the world.  She has internalized a deep sense of defectiveness and worthlessness that permeates the way she views almost every aspect of herself and how she relates to the world around her.

When I explore Toxic Shame with patients, its often helpful to refer to a concept I’ve labeled Core Irrational Beliefs (CIB’s). CIB’s permeate the core of a person’s thinking. The beliefs are irrational because they are simply not true.  For example, suppose an individual has internalized the CIB “I’m worthless.” This belief is unfounded because the value of a person simply cannot be measured the way one measures the value of a house, car, or any other material object.  Rather, all human beings have intrinsic value that cannot be measured through any objective means.  One person may struggle with trigonometry but have an uncanny ability to soothe a distressed animal.  Another person may have difficulty drawing a proportionately accurate Manhattan skyline, but has a masterful “green thumb” and is able to make any seedling grow into a healthy plant.  Generally, a person with Toxic Shame is dismissive of her strengths, instead solely focusing on her perceived deficiencies as her means of evaluating her self-worth.

The kinds of CIB’s that underly Toxic Shame are similar and related. Below are some typical examples:

  • “I’m worthless”
  • “I’m defective”
  • “I’m a loser”
  • “I’m pathetic”
  • “I’m unlovable”

… and so on.

When I work with patients on shame issues, I often ask them to imagine a close friend sitting next to them on the couch, making the same kinds of self-deprecatory statements about themselves.  I have never had a patient “agree” with her imaginary friend beating up on herself.  Most of my patients are perfectly capable of providing compassionate, thoughtful, rational and reasonable comfort to their imaginary friends.  It’s a clear example of how a person’s Toxic Shame defies any sense of logic – how can a person be “defective” at her core when she demonstrates understanding and compassion to another person with the exact same personality traits?

Where does Toxic Shame come from?

Well, from childhood. Children constantly absorb information from the world around them. They interpret the messages they receive through their child “lenses.” In most cases, the intentions of the individuals giving the messages are not to induce shame.  For example, a mother may feel she is encouraging her child to improve by criticizing her performance.  But a child may internalize a sense of shame if she experiences the criticism as too harsh, too frequent, or way out of proportion to her actual performance.  It’s important to note that this is the child’s subjective experience of the criticism.  The parent may genuinely believe that she only has her child’s best interests at heart when she provides criticism.  She knows her child is capable and competent, and the criticism is meant to push her even harder, or to protect her from “slipping” behind. But the child doesn’t know that! From the child’s subjective experience, she may internalize a belief that she is never good enough, no matter how hard she tries or no matter what she does.

I’m not suggesting that there’s never a place for a parent to criticize or push her child to do better.  However, the way in which messages are delivered over an entire childhood can affect a child’s intrinsic sense of value versus internalizing a core sense of Toxic Shame.

Parental criticism is not the only potential source of Toxic Shame.  Teasing and bullying from peers; traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse/assault; exposure to consumer-oriented messages about physical appearance, masculinity/femininity, material wealth and status; societal and cultural pressures around “fitting in.” These types of factors can all play a role in a child’s development of Toxic Shame.

Healing the Shame That Binds You is definitely worth a look. Many patients to whom I have recommended this book reported it resonated with them and helped them better understand their own Toxic Shame, and they gained perspective in their therapeutic journey.