Understanding Toxic Shame

In my last post we learned how shame, fear and violence are connected. We have been discussing the fact that a violent act stems from the violent individual’s significant feelings of shame. But is shame always something that causes a strong negative reaction?

Healthy vs. toxic shame

Young Friends
Healthy shame lets us know our limitations.

There is shame that is normal and healthy and shame that is toxic. In Healing the Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw presents some points that I think are key to helping us understand shame.

Bradshaw suggests that healthy shame is a normal human emotion that lets us know we are limited, which is part of our humanity. It signals us about our limits and motivates us to meet our basic needs. By knowing our limits and finding ways to use our energy more effectively, healthy shame can give us a form of personal power.

Healthy shame does not allow us to believe we “know it all” but spurs us to make significant life changes. In knowing that we have made mistakes and are not perfect or always right, we can continue to strive to grow and discover.

Toxic shame’s flawed self

Bradshaw describes toxic shame as more than an emotion that signals human limits; rather, it creates beliefs that one’s true self is defective and flawed, creating a false sense that one is defective as a human being. If this false premise of defectiveness is believed, then he or she tends to create a false self that is not defective or flawed. Once someone creates a false-self, then he or she ceases to be an authentic human being. Another psychologist author, the late Alice Miller calls this “soul-murder.”

Chronic shame can cause someone to create a persona or false self.

Chronic toxic shame and the false self

People who have toxic shame believe that they are a failure. Self-contempt, isolation and a strong sense that they are untrustworthy are also feelings which accompany those who believe themselves failures. Sadly, when shame becomes a core belief (or a core identity), the individual will most probably shut down from human relationships.

Toxic shame has the potential to become chronic. If it does becomes chronic, Bradshaw believes that many of the psychological syndromes such as neuroses, character disorders, political violence and criminality can result.

Adding guilt to shame: healthy vs. unhealthy guilt

boy sits in a room
Guilt can also be healthy or toxic.

The issue of guilt versus shame plays into this discussion. Guilt can also be healthy or toxic.  Healthy guilt helps us form our conscience. We would not want a world with no conscience where people would be shameless and do anything they wish.

Healthy guilt reveals to us when we have violated our own values. It usually persuades us to change or make amends. It also provides a fear of punishment, which is a deterrent (a healthy outcome).

Unfortunately, if someone is shame-based, he or she feels punishment is warranted. The person can also believe that there is no possibility for repair.

Sense of hopelessness

People who are shamed-based live in hopelessness and are locked into a set of very unhealthy beliefs.

In summary, people who are shamed-based, who live in the hopelessness that they cannot fix their lives and will always be failing, are locked into a set of very unhealthy beliefs. Their sense of being trapped in failure and shame can lead to desperate acts including perpetrating violence.

Although it may relieve guilt, this feeling of entrapment in failure is why punishment that doesn’t lead to a healthy outcome intensifies shame. It is, therefore, essential to realize that we must be so careful not to place so much shame our children that they become convinced that they can never change or recover.

Our systems also need to be evaluated to see what kinds of messages we are transmit to those who are in our care. It is much too easy to judge, shame or blame, but the consequences are devastating.

It would be interesting to see what would happen in our world to the statistics on violence if we could remove shame from our families, systems and communities. I believe it would alleviate the magnitude of violence and violent crimes we see in our world.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some information taken from Preventing Violence through Anger Management, 2006, Diane Wagenhals.


  1. gary barbano

    I am toxic shame. It has converted me into a Schizophrenic. There is no sure for condition. Once toxic shame is not caught in time and converted back into healthy shame the person becomes Schizo. My life at best should be ended as soon as possible. I can offer the world nothing. And the world cannot benefit from my presence. I cannot even hold down a relationship with woman. What else am I good for. Please someone shoot me dead.

    1. Gerry Vassar

      Gary, thank you for sharing your feelings and experiences in your comment regarding our “Understanding Toxic Shame” post.

      I am sorry to hear of your distress. It is so hard to feel out of control and desperate for answers that will provide the healing one needs. However, it ise helpful not to try to go it alone. I ask you to begin looking for professional assistance. Often, finding the right professional assistance takes time, but perhaps as you take that first step in finding some help in your vicinity, it will lead you to the resources that can provide the kind of response and support that is most helpful to you. Be encouraged not to give up.

      Our blog shares information on important issues that affect people around the world to help raise awareness, and understanding. Future blog topics will include many aspects about violence. Perhaps you may find some useful information in them.

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