Understanding toxic/chronic shame

Understanding toxic/chronic shame

Shame, when toxic, is a paralysing global assessment of oneself as a person.

It’s not that we did something bad, but that we are something bad.

We experience intense discomfort, low self esteem, worthlessness, a desire to hide, feeling inadequate or simply less than.

Consequently, paralysing shame can close us off from accepting any form of positive regard from others or ourselves.

It can form the foundation for feeling unlovable and undeserving and for a harshly self-critical inner dialogue.

Kids learn early on that they are compared to the kids that are handsome and good looking. One of the processes of shaming is measurement. Slow learners are shamed both at school and at home for not measuring up. Children quickly learn about money and experience shame if their family is low income. We live in a culture of vicious shame; especially with the recent dominance of social media.

False identity

According to John Bradshaw, 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. To be shame-bound means that whenever you feel any feeling, need or drive, you immediately feel ashamed. The dynamic core of your human life is grounded in your feelings, needs and drives. When these are bound by shame, you are shamed to the core.

If our primary caregivers are shame-based, they will pass their toxic shame onto us. There is no way to teach self-value if one does not value oneself. Toxic shame is multigenerational. It is passed from one generation to the next. Shame is internalized when one is abandoned. Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically.

A person with internalized shame believes he is inherently flawed, inferior and defective. The agony of this chronic stage of being cannot be endured for long. At the deepest level, toxic shame triggers our basic automatic defensive cover-ups.

Freud called these automatic cover-ups our primary ego defences. Once these defences are in place they function automatically and unconsciously, sending our true and authentic selves into hiding. We develop a false identity out of this basic core. We become master impersonators. We avoid our core agony and pain and over a period of years, we avoid our avoidance.


Addiction has been defined as a pathological relationship to any mood altering substance, experience, relationship or thing that has life damaging consequences. Some of this can be attributed to genetic predisposition, but the more critical factor is internalised shame.

No feeling is more important to our sense of self than shame. When our privacy and sense of self is unduly violated because of abandonment and abuse of any kind, the feeling of shame is ruptured. We are completely vulnerable (without any covering) and cannot defend ourselves. We stop feeling shame, we become chronically ashamed. The more this happens the more we experience our identity as flawed and defective. As Shame becomes internalised we develop a shame-based identity. The majority of addicts are shame based.

Initially the rupturing of shame happens within a context involving a significant other. Abandonment, neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuses are forms of rejection and leave their victim feeling unwanted, undesirable and personally flawed.

A shame-based addict feels flawed and defective in their very being. To feel that way is to feel hopeless. This awful sense of humiliation pushes the addiction into hiding and forces them to find a false self to cover up.

Their addiction is an attempt to mood alter (block out) their “being shame”, their shame based identity.



Source of origin

In most cases, shame becomes internalised or toxic from chronic or intense experiences of shame in childhood.

DeYoung defines shame as “an experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other”.

A dysregulating other is:

A person who fails to provide an emotional connection, responsiveness and understanding of what another needs in order to be, in order to be well and whole.

If this dysregulating other is a parent when we are very young and that parent behaves in a chronic and consistently dysregulating way towards us, then we are especially likely to grow up into adults with a deep, pervasive and abiding sense of shame.

A dysregulating other is someone we ‘want to trust ‘and, indeed, ‘should be able to trust‘, but, when we turn to that person because we are in emotional distress and need to be comforted and soothed, the way the dysregulating other responds to us / fails to respond to us leaves us feeling WORSE STILL. This is because the dysregulating other is emotionally mis-attuned to / disconnected from us; the relationship is emotionally impoverished.

In turn, this can lead to us developing ‘core feelings of shame‘ as we conclude, consciously or unconsciously, that there is something wrong with our neediness and that we are somehow ‘bad’ because of the painful and troubling nature of our ongoing interactions (or lack thereof) with this dysregulating other.

However, we may not be consciously aware of the fact that such feelings of shame are directly attributable to our early relationships with our parents / important others and may, therefore, erroneously attribute these profound feelings of shame to factors that, in truth, are NOT their primary source of origin (such as our physical appearance, sexuality, perceived lack of intelligence /abilities, social status or a vast array of other factors).

What is meant by a sense of self disintegration?

DeYoung states that such emotionally impoverished interactions with parents / important others, when sustained and chronic, make us feel that our sense of self is disintegrating.

This sense of disintegration can include feeling of our ‘self’ being  ‘shattered,’ ‘incoherent’ ‘blank’, ‘fragmented‘, and, furthermore, can make us vulnerable to feelings of deep humiliation (even in response to small, objectively trivial events), under threat of ‘psychological annihilation’ or induce strong desires in us, metaphorically, to be ‘swallowed up by the ground’ or ‘disappear.’

When we are in shame, we freeze inside. We cannot see others. We cannot receive from them, or see how our actions are affecting them. But we are still part of a social network and we are still connected, even though we don’t feel it.

If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and co-dependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success. It’s difficult to let someone get close to you if you feel defective and flawed as a human being.