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What is Shame?

Jonathan Riley

“Shame is a soul eating emotion” -Carl Gustav Jung

Because of its preverbal origins, shame can be difficult to define. Shame is a normal human emotion. In itself, shame is not bad. In fact, it is necessary to have the feeling of shame if one is to be truly human. Shame is the emotion that allows us to be human; it also informs us of our limitations. Shame keeps us in our human boundaries, letting us know we can and will make mistakes, and that we need help (Bradshaw, 2005). Healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility. It is the source of being a healthy human being.

But there is another type of shame that is destructive and harmful and that is “toxic shame”. Toxic shame is a painful, deeply negative, and always present feeling you have about yourself and your worth. At its strongest, toxic shame leaves you feeling that you are damaged and faulty beyond repair and will never be as good as those around you.

Toxic shame is often seen in people who experienced significant criticism as a child, or serious abuse; it results from prolonged and negative exposure to these experiences without sufficient healing. As a result, individuals who suffer from toxic shame tend to have lower self-esteem, greater social anxiety, addictions, and are vulnerable to depression. Toxic shame induces unconscious beliefs, such as:

  • I’m a failure.
  • I’m not important.
  • I’m unlovable.
  • I am unwanted
  • I don’t deserve to be happy.
  • I don’t deserve to be successful
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I’m a phony.
  • I’m defective.
  • I can’t do anything right.
  • I’m ugly.
  • I’m stupid.
  • I’m hopeless.

People who struggle with toxic shame become what has been called “shame-bound”—meaning that shame has become a dominant factor in the formation of their personality. When this happens, their lives become characterised by shame. They live their lives in a constant state of self-criticism and self-blame or they become exquisitely sensitive to criticism from others and defend against it at every turn. A shame-based person tries desperately to present a mask to the world that says, “I’m more than human” or “I’m less than human.” To be more than human is to never make a mistake. To be less than human is to believe that you are a mistake (Bradshaw, 2005).

Toxic shame is one of the most powerful emotions that we feel. It can cause us to sever relationships, sink into depression, fuel addictions and eating disorders, and even lead to suicide. Shame can lead to control, caretaking, and dysfunctional, nonassertive communication for many people. Shame creates many fears and anxieties that make relationships difficult, especially intimate ones. Many people sabotage themselves in work and relationships because of these fears. You aren’t assertive when shame causes you to be afraid to speak your mind, take a position, or express who you are. You blame others because you already feel so bad about yourself that you can’t take responsibility for any mistake or misunderstanding. Shame-based people are afraid to get close to others as they don’t believe they are worthy of love or will disappoint the other person. The unconscious thought might be that “I’ll leave before you leave me.”

Finally, shame is a self-conscious emotion that causes apprehension about success and failure, which can limit job performance and career options. Shame-based people don’t believe that they matter or are worthy of love, respect, success, or happiness. When toxic shame becomes all-pervasive, it paralyses spontaneity and creativity. A chronic sense of unworthiness and inferiority can result in depression, hopelessness, and despair, until you become numb, feeling disconnected from life and everyone else.

In part 2, we will examine the impacts of shame


Bradshaw, J. (2005). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Incorporated.

Carrane, L. (2016, November 03). It’s a Shame: The symptoms of shame and how to combat it. Retrieved from

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

Jacobson, S. (2015, May 11). Shame – is This Emotion Secretly Ruling Your Life? Retrieved from

Lancer, D. (2018, October 08). Shame: The Core of Addiction and Codependency. Retrieved from

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