Skip to main content

How Childhood Shame Shapes Adult Identity

Jonathan Riley

“Giving and receiving unconditional love is the most effective and powerful way to personal wholeness and happiness” ― John Bradshaw

The feeling of shame comes from the belief that “I am basically flawed, inadequate, wrong, bad, unimportant, undeserving or not good enough.” At some early point in our lives, most of us absorbed this false belief that causes the feeling of shame. As a result of not feeling seen, loved, valued and understood, we developed the belief that we were not being loved because there was something wrong with us. While some children were told outright that they were stupid, bad or undeserving; other children concluded that there was something wrong with them by the way they were treated.

Most people experience shame in their childhood whether it was from being teased or bullied on the playground, being always the last one selected to be on a team, not knowing the answers in class, or from being rejected by a girl or boy we liked. Engel (2013) believes that although anyone can suffer from lingering shame, it is those abused in childhood who tend to carry the most shame. These shaming experiences can stay with us for a lifetime.

We learn to be ashamed of ourselves because someone of significance in our lives put us to shame. Macgregor & Grille (2002) argue that shaming messages are more powerful when they come from those we are closest to, from people we love, admire or look up to. That is why parents’ use of shaming can have devastating effects on children. Moreover, shaming messages from teachers, older siblings and peers can also injure a child’s self-image. Since children are more vulnerable and impressionable than adults, shaming messages received in childhood are significantly more difficult to erase.

Some common beliefs a person suffering from toxic shame may have include: I am unlovable; I don’t matter; everything is my fault; I can’t do anything right; I don’t deserve good things; I was a bad child; I deserve to be treated the way others treat me; I’m a bad person; my needs and wants are not important; I’m too fat; I’m too skinny; nobody likes me; I can’t be myself around others; I have to hide my true emotions and thoughts; I’m never good enough.

Researchers are increasingly finding connections between early childhood shaming and conditions such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. In his book, The Psychology of Shame, Gershen Kaufman goes further to assert a link between shaming and addictive disorders, eating disorders, phobias and sexual dysfunction.

Consequently, these mental states result in unhealthy behaviour, including acting out, hurting others, feeling responsible for others, self-erasing, having toxic relationships, poor self-care, poor boundaries, being overly sensitive to other people’s perception of them, and being susceptible to manipulation and exploitation. Toxic shame is closely related to other emotional states and beliefs, including low self-esteem, self-loathing, chronic guilt, unresolved anger, and never feeling good enough. All these painful, unprocessed emotions actually belong in the context of their childhood environment where they initially originated. Most people want to forget about their past suffering and put it behind them. However, by doing so, we do not heal the feelings that accompany suffering—the pain, fear, anger, and especially, the shame.

In conclusion, there is increasing evidence that serious problems can occur when shame gets deeply woven into a person’s self-image and sense of self-worth. Shame is a powerful emotion that has the potential to shape a child’s life in significant ways. The shame a person carries can be an obstacle to reaching their full potential and achieving success in life. If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It results in low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success.

In part 5, we will look at the impact of body shame


Darius Cikanavicius, A. (2018, September 02). A Brief Guide to Unprocessed Childhood Toxic Shame. Retrieved from

Engel, B. (2013, July 14). How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood. Retrieved from

Lancer, D. (2015, March 01). Chronic Experiences Of Childhood Shame Usually Cause Toxic Shame: How Do I Date. Retrieved from

Macgregor, B., & Grille, R. (2002). “Good” Children – at What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame. Retrieved from

Paul, M. (2011, December 06). Why We Feel Shame and How To Conquer It. Retrieved from

Salters-Pedneault, K. (2020, November 27). Why Your Whole Self Feels Ashamed But Only Part of You Feels Guilty. Retrieved from