What I Mean When I Use the Word Shame

I’m just about ready to deliver a draft of my book on defenses to the other members of my writer’s group; as part of the final revisions, I’ve been attempting to clarify my ideas about shame as they’re so central to the work I do; the text below is adapted from a chapter about defenses against shame and reflects my efforts to sharpen these ideas.

Although I can’t print her name, I’d like express my thanks and acknowledge my debt for all the help I received from one of my long-term clients, a gifted therapist herself and a women who cares as passionately about this subject as I do. She pointed out some holes and inconsistencies in prior posts and helped me clarify what we both believe to be crucial ideas. Thanks, S.

Of all the painful emotions humans must bear, a core sense of shame is the most excruciating, the most difficult to bear. My views on shame and its origins likely differ from how you normally think about it; before describing the most common defenses against shame, let me clarify these views with a brief detour into neurobiology and early infantile development.

Upon birth, we human beings are intensely vulnerable and reliant upon our mothers and fathers to help us grow. The course of our development depends upon how they respond to our physical and emotional needs, and we enter this world with a set of in-built expectations for what those responses ought to be. Winnicott referred to this genetic inheritance as a “blueprint for normality.” When our parents respond appropriately, in keeping with that blueprint, it feels natural, right and good, instilling us with a sense of safety in our world and of our own intrinsic beauty. This experience forms the core of self-esteem.

But in situations where the parents’ responses diverge dramatically from that blueprint – say, when their behavior is emotionally abusive or traumatic – the baby instead senses that something is very wrong and feels unsafe in its world. On a deep intuitive level, it knows that its own development has gone awry. Instead of instilling a sense of intrinsic beauty, an abusive or traumatic environment leaves the infant with a sense of internal defect and ugliness.

I refer to this core sense of intrinsic defect as basic shame. At heart, the experience of basic shame, often unconscious, feels like inner ugliness, the conviction that if others were truly to “see” us, they’d recoil in scorn or disgust.

At first glance, it might seem as if I’m using the word shame in a totally idiosyncratic way, but this usage actually reflects one of the secondary meanings of the word: disappointed expectations.

It’s a shame the rain spoiled our picnic.

When anticipating the day ahead, we have an idea in mind, a vision of the pleasure we will take in the planned picnic; when the reality fails to match that expectation, shame is the result. In the case of the developing infant, basic shame arises when the in-built expectation for a nurturing environment meets the reality of parents whose behavior is abusive or traumatic.

Recent studies by Allan Schore and other experts in neurobiology have traced the effects of parental responses to their infant on the development of its brain, especially those parts involved in feelings and social functioning. In comparing brain scans of two-year-olds who grew up in emotionally deficient environments – that is, with parents who consistently failed to respond according to the infant’s in-built expectations – with those who grew up in optimal environments, the former displayed far fewer neurons, with fewer interconnections between them.

In other words, when the environment diverges widely from the blueprint for normality and fails to provide the emotional responses the infant needs, its brain develops abnormally, analogous to the way that a deficiency of Vitamin D (rickets) during childhood may impede normal bone development. After two years, those abnormal brain developments become lasting; you can never fully make up for inadequate parenting during this critical period. Again as with rickets, where failure to rectify that Vitamin D deficiency will lead to permanent skeletal damage, the brains of babies whose parents consistently let them down emotionally will reflect that damage for life.

Basic shame is the (often unconscious) awareness of this internal damage, felt at the deepest level of our being.

In order to develop normally after birth, then, we need parents who will tend to our needs, help us learn to manage our emotions in the context of a loving, joyful relationship and make us feel safe in the world. These are the conditions we need in order to thrive, emotionally and neurologically. When our parents fail, we’re unable to develop as we normally would; growing up, we know on an intuitive, deeply felt level that our development has gone awry, instilling a core sense that something is wrong with us.

We don’t need a perfect environment upon birth, only one that is “good enough,” in Winnicott’s terms. As we move along the spectrum of possibilities away from “good enough” toward more limited, traumatic and abusive environments, those defects increasingly impact and damage our development. The sense of basic shame will also intensify along that spectrum: the more deficient the early experience, the more pervasive will be the sense of damage and thus of basic shame. These feelings will be carried by the person throughout his or her life.

Even if early environment isn’t abusive or highly traumatic, we may develop pockets of shame when our parents let us down in important ways. Maybe boundaries between mother and child are confused, and the parent has difficulty bearing separation. A mother may become so mired in anxiety or depression that it limits her ability to meet her baby’s needs, etc. In these cases – somewhere in between “good enough” and highly deficient – the damage may be less severe and so will our feelings of shame or internal ugliness; our defenses against that experience won’t dominate our character so pervasively.

In my experience, a great many people have these pockets of shame.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Will you be writing more about this or going to put it in the book, and hopefully it will be out for us to read. IT IS hard for me to know whether my mother did attend to me , i know she abandoned me many times before the age of 2 , but did return. I cannot remember back then , but she finally abandoned both my sister and I , disappeared , left us with our dad, when I was age 5. I never saw her again until I WAS in my late 20’s. I ONLY met her once then and had no desire to ever meet her again. she did not even have any interest if we had been taken well cared for. She just kept talking and bad mouthing my father. I WOUld have liked to ask her why she did what she did, but I realized that she would probably never tell me the truth. So it is all a blur to me. IN THERapy i did discuss the issue of abandonment. I learned how that can damage someone.

    1. My next book is focused entirely on the subject of shame, its origins and how genuine growth occurs in the face of such damage. It sounds to me as if your experience likely left you with the kind of shame I’m discussing.

    2. Hi Joseph,

      You mention- “the brains of babies whose parents consistently let them down emotionally will reflect that damage for life.”
      With the new findings of neuroplasticity- The brain is able to make new positive connections- wouldn’t this be true for changing the damage that was left with parents letting an infant/child down emotionally?

      Wouldn’t shame be able to be turned around to a postitive self image where shame is no longer the competing feeling that wins?

      1. Neuroplasticity doesn’t mean you can make a damaged brain just like the brain of a person who came through unscathed; it just means growth is nonetheless possible. There are limits.

        1. I’m thinking of a friend who has an infant foster child. There must be ways of undoing the neurological damage that was being done. What are they? Love? Acceptance? Long-term fostering? How can a government agency even think of short-term fostering before giving the child to a permanent carer? I’m living in New Zealand at present, and I can say there is a lot of fostering, and also a lot of damage being done by so-called carers.

          1. I’m not sure if the neurological damage can ever be entirely undone. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it better. And I agree about fostering. The question is — what are the alternatives to fostering? Is permanent care readily available?

            1. Fostering is the only type of care available apart from adoption, or “permanent care” here in NZ. The next step for my friends is to receive permanent care. Twenty years ago my cousins were able to adopt. Permanent care is basically the same thing, only with strings attached, I suppose. However, if a child has high medical needs etc, once she or he is in permanent care, they carers no longer receive the extra money necessary to access those services. Gosh, just talking about it makes me wonder why the gov’t hasn’t figured out that putting children in permanent care would save them money. Unfortunately, it’s the children who get hurt, and even the child protection agencies are violating their (the children’s) basic rights because they can’t make the real parents/carers do the right thing. Or at least stop doing the wrong thing. thanks for your web-site, by the way. I’m finding it very informative.

              1. The problem of adoption is the same in the UK. No money is forthcoming that way so people often opt to foster, leading often to a sense of lack of permanence or continuity – or more than a sense. I know a little boy who was adopted at four from a care home, though, and he barely spoke. He just silently got through his day in an orderly, obedient, miserable fashion. Six months on he was timid but quite changed – four years on he is a different boy, giggling, laughing, being a bit naughty – happy, in other words. It is sight to see.

    3. Sonjia — I have experienced something similar; my mom had a real bad illness when I was young, and seemed to not be able to address my needs very well for a while. As far as I know, I have suffered attachment disorder as a result. For me, dealing with this has meant recognizing my desire not to be abandoned, and instead of always feeling how much I want other people to pay attention to me, I have made the decision to enjoy my own company as much as possible and not NEED so much acceptance and love. 🙂 I can enjoy whatever input the other person is able and willing to make, and not push so hard for acceptance and love.

  2. So the obvious question then becomes :What can the clinician or the patient do about this situation ? Is it possible to ever completely heal ? Is the brain doomed to be disordered forever? This is the breeding ground for all personality disorders , would you not agree? As a clinician myself , I try to always carry hope . But it does seem that one can never truly recover from this type of childhood trauma, even after years of therapy . For example , a narcissist will always need to be looking to fill that emptiness , and experience everything in life as being about them and their lack of a sense of self . It does seem that only a small amount of improvement is ever possible . Your thoughts ?

    1. Hi Penny,

      I like to think in terms of critical periods. Just because you don’t learn a foreign language during that period of time when your brain is geared to mastering language doesn’t mean you can’t learn to speak it; you’ll never have the fluency and natural accent of a native speaker, but it’s something of value. If you have an early experience of failed attachment during the first two years of life, that doesn’t mean you can never grow. And in order to grow, you need something that approximates the experience you missed: an attachment relationship in the context of long-term psychotherapy. This takes years, costs a lot of money and has its limits, but from my experience, it can make a huge and lasting difference.

  3. A very well composed piece of writing, IMO. The concepts flow well from one graph to the next and they are chunked out very effectively. It has an almost journalistic feel to it; succinct and to the point but with depth. I look forward to reading more.

    I don’t know if you would call my parents “emotionally abusive,” but they were often alternately ambivalent, disinterested, disengaged, tacitly rejecting or otherwise not connected with me and my sisters. In this way, we were most certainly not taught to “manage our emotions in the context of a loving, joyful relationship.” Not by a long shot.

    Quick example from later years. When I was about 15 and struggling with intense feelings for a girl I really liked, I tried to discuss it with my dad. He walked by me and said over his shoulder, “just don’t make me a grandfather” and walked away.

    1. I would think this type of parenting would definitely lead to those “pockets” of shame I mention. I wonder if that fits with your experience.

      1. Yes, I think the pockets would apply to me. It seems like shame can come from an endless variety of family dynamics.

        Sometime I hope you can write a post specifically on the dynamics between fathers and sons. It seems like an important early relationship that is often overshadowed by the mother/child one. Having been rejected by my dad, I can say that it has severely impacted my entire existence and colored my view of pretty much everything.

        1. I will definitely put that on my list. I was ignored by my own father, which had a major impact on my self-esteem and sense of manhood.

  4. Hi Joseph
    I have heard you going on about shame numerous times and this is the first time I have read your article and considered it as a sense of loss or something missing from ones life rather than a sense of self hatred for what one has done or how one has behaved. Also now matter what is said – I believe growth and significant healing can and does occur to enable a significantly happy and peaceful life to be achieved if one puts in sufficient effort.

    1. Don’t get me wrong — I believe that significant growth is possible; I just don’t believe you can change so much that you become just like someone who had truly loving and capable parents.

  5. You speak of early trauma — could this also include adoption? Separation from my mother at birth? It seems to me that this “primal wound” is enough to scar the soul — I certainly have a bottomless well of low self-esteem that on the surface seemingly has no reason to exist. And shame has been my constant companion. I have been in therapy for two years, have sought out and been rejected by my birth mother and am still struggling with all the issues related to self-worth. It often feels like there is no way to heal from this.

    1. I can think of few experiences more likely to instill a sense of basic shame than being given away by your mother. Whatever her actual intentions, I don’t see how you wouldn’t “hear” that act on some level as: “You’re not worth it.”

      1. So what issues may a person have that besides the adoption, they experienced the following: when your adoptive parents got you at 2-3 weeks old (after being in foster care) they had a skinny underweight baby that slept through the night. And that for the next 2.5 years you were in day care while your mother worked full time. And afterwards between the sexual abuse of an uncle, and later health issues of the mother between the ages of 7-10.

        Would it make sense about having abandonment issues, insecurity and a people pleaser giver type personality.?

    2. But, you know, I’d say better to live a life with your needs taken care of by someone who wants you than to be maltreated all your life by that scumbag. You have an endless font of love inside that was given to you by your adoptive parents. Thank GOD that you were cared for by someone who really wanted you!!!

  6. While I have heard much about attachment and normal, healthy parenting during the first few years of life, I also wonder about adolescence and the effect of a lack of nurturing supportive roles in a teenager’s life, and the way that this also effects shame. For myself, a healthy and ideal first 6 years of life turned into neglectful period during the years of 8-18 during a time of multiple traumas and abuse. Even with a basis of a good developmental environment, does a period of harmful experiences deplete its lifelong impact?

    1. I think you’re right, that later trauma would also have a devastating effect, but I have a feeling it would be easier to recover from than the earliest types of trauma.

    2. Dear Lydia,
      Perhaps you are no longer out there reading– I have only just discovered Dr Burgo’s excellent forum. But if you are… this was my mother’s story: to have been a beloved child in her first 6 yrs, followed by a disruption, when she became aware that her parents’ marriage was in trouble (due to adultery), then tragically her beloved father died after illness, nursed by her mother until death. Sadly her mother’s remarriage resulted in her being verbally & sexually abused for a period of at least 10 yrs.

      Her life was not easy after this, but she was able eventually to build a family (I am her eldest), & we all (her 4 kids) have foud relative happiness. And she herself was able to rather quickly disentangle herself from a faulty first marriage, had a long 2nd marriage (marred by difficulties, but not altogether bad), & had much happiness in a third relationship, in her middle years. As Dr Burgo says, there is hope when the first few years have been good ones. My mom is now in her 80’s & has had a rich life; I credit her resilience to a very loving father & mother– they had their issues, but she was the apple of their eye & she knew it.

  7. Shame as an early rejection does make a lot of sense to me intuitively.
    I’m also interested how ‘basic shame’ connects to the conventional definition of it. As an example of later, I could mention Steve McQueen’s Shame and, to some extent, patient David from your posts. Childhood abuse/trauma is no doubt involved in both cases, but, unlike basic shame, the feeling itself is warranted. ‘Recoil in scorn or disgust’ is an understandable reaction upon ‘seeing’ Michael Fassbender’s character in the real life. Shame here is not a direct product of damaged self-esteem.

    From this angle, it seems that two concepts have a common root, but are independent. Is it the way you intended it?

    1. Yes. As my attention shifts away from the current book on defenses and back to the one on shame, I’m seeing that there are at least four different but related types of shame I will need to distinguish and relate to one another. What I call basic shame; toxic shame as John Bradshaw defined it; a kind of innate shame that has to do with bodily functions, where we feel the need to shield them from exposure; and societal shame, where certain values are imposed upon us, for better or worse (maybe the non-toxic version of what Bradshaw describes). My thinking isn’t clear on this yet so I’m unprepared to say more.

  8. This might sound like a nit picky little thing but referring over and over to an infant as “it” seems dehumanizing, particularly in light of the subject matter. It is common for writers to pick a gender and call it out, to avoid the ” his/her” “she/he” issue. I think it is important to model the nurturing we hope all people feel when around babies.

    1. I understand why it strikes you that way. Using “it” for infants is accepted practice in professional writing and I find it much less cumbersome than trying to balance the use of gender pronouns so you don’t offend the feminists. Personally, I would rather use the pronoun “he” in all cases but this can get you into trouble.

      1. Perhaps there is a way to step side the issue by using “the baby’s” or “the infant’s” feelings, wants, needs, whatever…

        Just a thought. I work in the infant mental health world and we really don’t use “it” anymore.

      2. I am one of “the feminists,” and I found your remark regarding the use of pronouns in reference to infants condescending. Being a writer acquainted with the power of language, as well as a professional acquainted with the power that subtle messages can have on the unconscious mind, I would think that you would be more sensitive to the use of gender inclusive language. Please don’t use gender inclusive language because you want to avoid trouble with “the feminists.” Use gender inclusive language because you believe in the primary goal of feminism, which is, as I understand it, to fight for equality and fair treatment for ALL human beings. I would hope also hope that the role that gender inclusive language serves to promote that equality would be pretty plain (again, let’s think back to the power of language and the power of subtle messages on the unconscious mind.) If you don’t believe in striving for equality for all, or don’t think that gender inclusive language serves that function, them by all means you should use the language that you prefer and be game enough to defend yourself.

  9. I really do believe your analysis to be true, it makes good intellectual sense and from personal experience. But I agonize about causing shame in my own children now, and don’t have good self-esteem about my parenting because I feel a harsh word, or a disregard etc will scar them for life. I was severely abused, but I still see abuse on a sliding scale so I feel very aware that even quite small slights or mistreatments will hurt my children, it makes me doubt my ability to parent.

    1. I understand your concerns, but the fact that you’re worried makes a big difference. Yes, harshness and shaming messages can profoundly affect our children as they develop, but communicating your concern and your love for them in felt ways can mitigate the effect. They may grow up with some conscience issues but they probably won’t be saddled with the kind of basic shame I describe.

  10. Hi – Re shame. I recently had to end a relationship with my boyfriend who is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I am a ‘co-dependant’ type. I am struggling with deep-seated feelings of shame (hot flushes all over and crying alot) My ex tells me he ‘hates me’ since I asked him to leave my home (he was financially dependant on me, despite a year of my efforts to ‘help him onto his feet). He became physically abusive and has insulted me very vituperatively in the few contacts we have had since then. At the last contact he told me he wishes me dead for ‘failing him in every way possible’.

    Trying to understand things, I keep remembering times when my mother would leave me to cry alot and be scornful of my crying (aged 5 to 9) after physically punishing me (slaps to the head and face with insults) after any imagined ‘transgression’. I remember the phrase ‘Shut up you little shit or I’ll give you something to cry about’. Can you help me to ‘join the dots’ here. I sense these things are all related to a core shame, and I’m trying to find a ‘way through the maze’.

    1. It’s difficult to believe that a mother who abuses her 5-year-old child in this way would have been much more tolerant toward that child as an infant. While she may not have slapped you then, she no doubt felt resentful and rejecting of your painful cries, your extreme neediness, etc. I feel fairly confident that the failed attachment relationship I’m discussing would have given rise to basic shame. Yours is a case where toxic shame of the kind described by John Bradshaw is later superimposed or added to the basic shame that develops during the first two years of life. I’m sorry.

      It also sounds as if you developed that kind of hyper-empathy that children of severely narcissistic mothers often display, where you become highly sensitive to the needs of others in order to survive. Then you wind up getting involved with another narcissist (your former boyfriend) who exploits this tendency. I hope you’re getting some kind of intensive psychotherapy because you sound as if you’re confused and in a lot of pain.

      1. “It’s difficult to believe that a mother who abuses her 5-year-old child in this way would have been much more tolerant toward that child as an infant.”
        For what it’s worth, I can imagine it fairly easily. There is a world of difference between a totally dependent, virtually immobile non-verbal creature and a walking/running, talking, “speaking-truth-to-power” personality. And especially if the infant was first-born, followed by siblings—lots of things change then.

  11. Hello Dr. Burgo,

    I want to ask you about the symptoms of what is called “social phobia” and the feeling of shame itself, How they relate to your concept of shame? What should I do when I want to go somewhere but experience anxiety because I may “do it bad” socially or maybe I will see some people I know?

    Thanks for everything.

    1. It may be because you are afraid of being “visible” when you go into public, that the damage and inner ugliness will be exposed if you’re not very careful.

  12. Can I ask very respectfully if you would consider yourself as someone with this basic shame issue? and also how many people would have it in this society (%) in your opinion.


    1. Yes, it is an issue I struggle with, but nothing like what I used to feel. Now I find that facing my shame is entirely compatible with genuine self-esteem, as long as I remain real about my limitations.

  13. Thank you for your comments. I am having some therapy which has been helpful. I have long brought ‘distance’ to bear in my relationship with my Mother. We see each other once or twice a year and it is quite ‘boundaried’ and manageable now. I was a rebellious teen and got away from a smothering relationship aged 16 (i.e as fast as I could). Now I am drawn to needy men to rescue – but determined to break the pattern this time! I now have responsible job (Child Protection!) – I think the ‘nasty’ narcissistic boyfriend may express somethings I can’t. He was very volcanically angry at times, very rude, total sense of entitlement (he is an artist!), very talented. I secretly admired it. I admit that in my ‘shadow side’ I often wish I could be really nasty and rude to people who have hurt my feelings- and ‘act out’ like a child and be accepted all the same (little Eva tantruming! LOL). When I was young I would have ‘acted out’ – riding fast motorcycles and crashing them, or shouting when angry, or throwing things around. I don’t have the outlet for anger anymore as I don’t believe in violent behaviour – it’s not compatible with my job for a start. Do you have any more thoughts on how to deal with this anger/shame dynamic. Thank you for your time.

    1. That’s a long topic. I’m currently writing a book about shame and how to deal with it. Stay tuned.

  14. The lead statement in your post refers to behaviors of the person struggling with shame. It’s been my experience, through multiple cases of evident results, that repeated practice (by the client) with verbal connecting exercises can help. Since internal shame proves to be an obstruction of trust and in turn, a challenge to utilizing behaviors reflecting interest in others, this is a target for goal-work.

  15. Hi Dr. Burgo,

    I wrote something about shame a couple of years ago…

    In the basement
    Living there for years-
    She is part of the foundation
    Do I have to break down the very walls
    To rid myself of her?
    She is insidious
    I automatically feed her
    Leaving a rancid plate
    At the bottom of the steps
    I don’t even know I am doing it
    It seems so normal
    I haven’t seen her face for years
    I imagine her down there
    Rocking back and forth
    Weaving her stories and lies
    Bent over her old creaky loom
    Stupid, Stupid, Stupid…
    Hate, Hate, Hate…
    And I just accept her rent
    And allow her to stay
    And drink her poison
    Who do I think I am?
    To be in this much distress?
    Who the hell do I think I am?
    The worst tangled web of all
    I am ashamed
    Of being ashamed

    I looked at this again, I haven’t read it for awhile. It’s interesting to me how I described the shame as part of the foundation of my personality as you describe above…to me it is normal. I feel so vulnerable responding to these posts but compelled to anyway (I sometimes feel a very deep sense of shame after I send them). However… I have a question. I am in therapy and it seems to be stuck and in a very painful place. I go in to sessions incredibly anxious and leave and feel excruciatingly alone and feel emotional turmoil for at least a couple of days. I have been stuck here awhile (it seems like the whole 3 years I have been in therapy) and am really thinking this is not a good fit. I also know I am attached to my therapist. I believe him to be competent and compassionate but I can’t seem to get myself out of this painful place. I know it is impossible for you to really comment not knowing the full situation but do you have any guidelines that could be helpful? How do I know if this is a normal part of the process or some sort of toxicity that I(we?) can never resolve? I know I am idealizing my therapist and going through the pain (shame) of the loss of that ideal but I am so confused and have no where to turn for objective opinions. I appreciate any feedback you may have.

    1. First of all, that’s a wonderful poem. Shame as the foundation of the personality is exactly the way I think about it.

      As for your therapist, I think the real question is whether he addresses this shame you speak of, makes you feel that he understands it and can help you get closer to the reality of the damage.

      1. This is a bit late Joe but thanks for the complement on my poem and my therapy is in a sort of suspended state right now but I actually think I am working through some things.

    2. I am good with words. I am comfortable with words. I am a mess with.. well.. everything else. However, when I try to put my depressive, angry, self loathing feelings into words I go blank.

      Thank you for this site which may have saved my life today . Thank you for the bravery of those who share their stories, like you. Your poem puts into words what i can’t.

      1. Dear Hayley,
        Thank you for your beautiful response to the poem and thank you for validating the fact that human beings can help each other even in these odd awkward ways… like blog sites. I just happened to notice your response and it touched me that I touched someone else and didn’t even know it. The truth is powerful when spoken with kindness. This is one of the reasons this is such a great blog site, because it tries to tell the truth with kindness and clarity.

        1. KT,
          Incredibly profound poem. Your descriptive prose paints a picture of shame so well I can small the dampness and earthiness of the cellar. Shame is so like that, a part of the psyche that we try to hide away and yet so rooted in what we are that it can never be removed. The best part of your poem for me was I used visualization to picture removing my house from its foundation. I literally sat and watched at the construction workers cut the frame away from the bricks, loaded the gigantic home onto an enormous flatbed truck and hauled away my most redemptive parts. I’m moving it to the beach! Funny, once the house was removed I saw how massive the best part of me was and the gaping hole of the basement was only a hollow footprint, small in comparison. I plan on revisiting this footprint often to fill it with flowers of happy memories, one pot at a time. Your poem totally reframed shame for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

          1. Dear Melissa, I was just browsing the site again and noticed your recent response. Thank you so much for allowing my writing touch you. It means a lot to me. I really thought your response was poetic and it brings up questions in me about what we should do with that foundation. I love the idea of moving to the beach!! I may go for a mountaintop! However, I must say I am glad that you revisited the basement in your vision to also reform that. Sometimes I think of writing a new poem about inviting Shame up for tea. I think I may learn a lot from her. She may need some fresh food too!

  16. I so appreciate your insight and your comments. Not to harp, but I would like to ask a follow up question about this shame that is so completely ingrained. As the result of adoption and second rejection,I do not often deal well with my emotions, and have recoursed to self injury. Do you believe this is common with those who deal with this initial trauma, and how would you work with this? Thank you again..

    1. Yes, I do think it is common. The only way I know how to deal with this is to establish a strong and emotional working relationship with my client where we revisit all these emotional issues in a healthier way. I know that’s brief and inadequate, but the long answer would take me all day!

  17. Your writing no doubt connects to many of your readers. I am so impressed with the insight others gain and are then able to express in their responses. I so dislike the word “shame”. I do have the intense fear that someone may “see” me and protect against that constantly. What I am actually protecting is a mystery and confusing. To search out help brings just as much fear. Failed attempts compound the process. Thus my fantasy of an experienced guide to lead me to the right therapist.

    1. As much as you dislike it, it sounds as if shame is the right word for what you feel. I’m not sure about your last two sentences … what do you mean?

      1. Dr. J. B.,
        I apologize for my vague comments. I have been referred to a therapist several times when the inner chaos was out of control.
        One told me “you’re doing the best you can” and released me, one wanted to be a friend and invited me to their house, one just kept asking “why do you keep cutting yourself when others will shake their heads”, use a rubberband instead and one became sick and went away. He referred me to another – it is early, he is so different. Therefore fear, unsure of what equals a good therapist.
        I do not trust myself to know what is right. Thank you for asking.

        1. You have had a lot of bad luck with therapists. Given the state of the profession, it’s very hard to find good help.

  18. “But in situations where the parents’ responses diverge dramatically from [our set of in-built expectations] – say, when their behavior is emotionally abusive or traumatic – the baby instead senses that something is very wrong and feels unsafe in its world.”

    You nailed it! Abuse leads to shame.

  19. I know shame pretty well. I would have to say it is the worst emotion to have to put up with and it’s extremely fragile/vulnerable. I don’t know if I was already a shame-filled child prior to socialization or not (it’s very hard to remember that long ago) but when I was a child I can remember feeling so utterly ashamed around other people that I blocked out the bulk of my days. If someone were to do the unthinkable and word spread around the town that you were the one, well, that’s what it felt like and still does now, just not quite as intense but it’s still there. Shame feels like you’re inside outward, whereas guilt for example, is usually outward and points the finger at others. Close enough doc?
    One question if it’s obtainable – what other flight or fight emotions usually accompany shame? Does it just depend on the particular person?

    1. Yes, I think it depends on the person. Another emotion is rage. Sometimes the unbearable agony of deep shame can be warded off with massive rage directed at other people. It’s an extreme version of the blaming defense.

  20. “It also sounds as if you developed that kind of hyper-empathy that children of severely narcissistic mothers often display, where you become highly sensitive to the needs of others in order to survive.”

    Dr. Burgo, do you think this is the kind of childhood many therapists have had?
    Sometimes my therapist is so empathic it feels to me that it must spring from unhealthy origins.
    It just doesn’t seem ‘normal’ to be THAT empathic.
    Of course, I benefit, but sometimes I think, “Jeez. What happened to you?”

    1. Yes, I think many therapists come from such a background. But that doesn’t necessarily make it unhealthy. I suppose it would depend on how self-aware she is and whether she makes sure to care of her own needs in her “outside” life.

  21. I’m sceptical about a lot of what is implied by the therapeutic world view articulated in some of the [always interesting and eloquent] blog posts on this website. It seems to me that ‘therapy’ can only really be a viable enterprise if there’s some normative view of mental health lying at the end of it. We overcome, or come to understand, our shame and defence mechanisms, and then what? We become ‘well-adjusted’? What does this mean? Moreover, whose definition of well-adjusted is this?

    I have had quite a lot of therapy over the years. I believe that, on a fundamental characterological level, I am largely unchanged from the person I was when I began therapy – except now, I have an added component to my neurosis; that is, a habit of anxiously monitoring myself to see if I live up to some abstract notion of what it means to be ‘mentally healthy’.

    I like Freud’s initial dictum – that the therapist must simply show the patient their neurosis, but give up on any idea of ‘cure’. But it seems to me that therapy is no longer about this – it truly is about ‘altering’ one’s ‘interior life’, a process of ‘inner-becoming’. Probably because it would be far harder to sell, and therefore less lucrative for its practitioners, if it presented itself according to Freud’s original, more modest protocols.

    I would argue that this notion of ‘inner-change’ in pursuit of some abstract notion of ‘mental health’ becomes another stick for the neurotic to beat themselves with. In a way, as Darian Leader suggests, it might even be more valuable to embrace one’s own ‘madness’. The world is mad. Life itself is inherently meaningless, characterised by grief, loss and distress. What is this project of therapy that promises to ‘make us happy’ through self-exploration? Any ideology that makes promises of this kind is best understood as a religion. Therapy, then, is a religion. And, like all religions, it exists primarily to serves the economic interests of its clergy.

    1. I don’t believe in a cure or becoming happy but I know from experience that profound inner change is possible. Freud believed that the role of psychoanalysis was to turn neurotic suffering into ordinary human unhappiness. I believe that really good therapy helps people to cope in more adaptive ways with the inevitable pain that comes with being human … although I agree with you that a lot of therapy becomes something like religion.

  22. What specifically do you think it is in psychotherapy that helps people cope better with life? Are there skills that people learn, is it a shift in perspective, or what? I’m curious to know what the actual mechanism is that therapy makes use of to improve someone’s quality of life. Are there certain signs that you as, as a therapist, take to be indicative of a patient who is ‘cured’, and what is it in the therapeutic process that brings this about, in your view?

    1. I don’t think I can answer all your questions, but here’s a beginning. I believe in the unconscious mind; that means I view my job as telling clients things they don’t know about themselves, usually about split-off and repressed emotions that are quite painful to bear, such as shame, hatred, jealousy, envy, etc. Over time — meaning that I bring them up and point them out over and over and over again — clients learn to accept and bear these feelings. Developing the true mental/emotional capacity to bear with pain often takes years. At the same time, as I discussed in my earlier posts about attachment theory, the development of an authentic emotional bond between client and therapist, with real feelings of respect and regard, lead to a different kind of healing. Especially the third post in that series talks about this feature of the work.

  23. I am a daughter of a very narcissistic mother and that has left me being over empathic and often experiencing a core of shame. And yes, I am also a therapist. I have a somewhat narcissistic partner, who, when feels ashamed himself, tries to transfer this feeling over to me by making a denigrating remark. He knows me very well so he knows how to ashame and humiliate me. E.g. if I deny him sex (wich he wants every day), he will find fault with me all day after. I find this very difficult to cope with, because it makes me close up emotionally and withdraw from him. It becomes very hard for me to be able to feel my love for him let alone to express this love. (and to make love to him)
    I find your comments on narcissistic mothers and (basic) shame very insightful. Also for people who are not educated in psychology. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Sigrid. When you grow up overly empathic, as you say, it’s so easy to get caught in the kind of relationship you describe. And I notice you mention a lot about your love for him, closing up and not being able to express it, but no mention of his love for you.

  24. Oh, he says he loves me. But I think he is projecting his inner world on me. When he is in a good mood and happy he calls it ‘ love’. If he doesn’t it is because I did something wrong.But most of the time he is kind and considered to me.

  25. While shame represents a primitive wound which is generated very early in development, before the existence of a moral system, guilt develops in relation to a learned sense of what is acceptable behavior. From this we can extrapolate that shame although related to the self corresponds to basic impulses like hunger, need, sexuality and identity. For this reason the bond that develops between parents and children becomes critical in the development of healthy self-esteem and the sense that one is able to get needs met and what one wants from the world.

  26. “You can never fully make up for inadequate parenting during this critical period.”
    Dr. Burgo: I would like to let you know that the above sentence is so correct. However, God, the almighty, can make up for any inadequate parenting. And He is able to do it in such a way that he over compensates for what the parents didn’t do. This is not blind faith but real experience. Thanks for the blog.

  27. I have some comments about using the word “shame” to describe the issue(s) you are talking about.

    Of course it’s a convenient word, already used for some time by other writers, but the way it’s defined and used by you and others fails, in my opinion, to distinguish structure and dynamics.

    You and other writers often use “shame” to talk about personality structure: feeling different, defective, unwanted and unlikable/unlovable, which is the way individuals affected are aware of the damage caused by attachment issues or abuse in childhood. It results in low self-esteem, low confidence and insecurity in relations, attachment and intimacy with others. This is still part of structure. A word describing this should be usable in a phrase such as “this person is (word)” when describing the way a person is in general. For example, “insecure” could be used in this context, but not “ashamed” or “shameful”.

    Maybe “basic shame” should be translated to something like “structural (or fundamental) insecurity” or “oversensitivity to rejection” when talking about structure. My words are not too satisfying either. It would require more thinking, maybe to end up crafting a neologism.

    To me “shame” is more about a dynamic, a normally transient emotion. The problems arise when one has an unusual fear of experiencing such an intense and painful emotion (related to rejection) in interpersonal or social relations, and builds inappropriate defenses around that. In this context “shame” is the right word.

    “You are extremely sensitive to feelings of shame” (or fearing/defending against) sounds better to describe the issue than “you have basic shame”.

    I think the distinction is important because, as you write on this blog, there is no way to fix or improve much the structure. There is no mechanism to unlearn (forget) the kind of painful experience that led to damage, though it may wear off a bit with time. But in many cases there are ways to learn how to tone down the overreaction caused by such structural damage without generating too much suffering elsewhere.

    1. I know what you mean and I struggle with these same questions. The kind of shame I discuss is certainly “structural,” as you say, and I’ve thought about alternatives. Structural shame, core shame, foundational shame (suggested by another psychologist). I settled on “basic” because it’s at the base of who you are. It’s basic to who you are. I’m not entirely satisfied, but there it is.

      I disagree, though, that “there is no way to fix or improve much on the structure” and I don’t think it’s about unlearning. It’s about forging a new relationship — the psychotherapeutic one — that to some extent mitigates what was missing. Studies in neuroplasticity show that the brain is continually evolving. The psychotherapy relationship can’t erase the damage but it can make a very real difference. The goal is also to take unbearable shame and make it tolerable so that it can be integrated rather than defended against.

      1. I have trouble too with the use of “basic shame” and really understand “structural insecurity” better.

        I may be daft but I still have trouble understanding the leap to shame. An infant feels internally defective and “ugly” after his mother doesn’t care for him adequately (I get that), but then will end up feeling shame. Why not insecurity, pain, frustration?

        If a sense of safety = beauty in yourself = You are an ok person…we don’t equate it with pride (opposite of shame) and if we did, that would be a leap that would need to be explained psychoanalytically…

        Lack of safety = you’re ugly = not OK . How does it spill into shame? How can we equate disappointed expectations and insecurity of the child with shame later in life? It’s that leap I have trouble with…because to me the baby can’t feel in a primary way that he’s responsible for not receiving proper care… is that what we’re postulating? That the child unconsciously feels shame because if he didn’t get good care, he’s “defective”, it’s his fault?

  28. It’s not so much “basic” (I think that one is good enough) than “shame” I have issues with. You make a really excellent job of defining and explaining the concept behind, but to me naming it “shame” is disappointing because as a symbol it’s too narrow and a bit off the concept in question.

    Actually as far as I can recall I’ve always been somewhat aware of this “shame”, and I described it early in my current therapy in words that were pretty close to yours. Fortunately my therapist doesn’t try to put a name on this though he knows perfectly what we are talking about (it took me a while to trust him about that). If he told me about any kind of “shame” I would have dismissed it, saying that my feelings went well beyond that. The only way I accept “shame” now is as an infortunate technical term, a compromise because there isn’t a better word for the concept ­- yet.

    “forging a new relationship” in a psychotherapeutic context… it’s indeed at the core of psychodynamic therapies, but I think some people (e.g. in the extremes of narcissists or avoidants) will never be able to get close enough to a therapist to make it work the way you describe. For me, a therapist remains a professional (who pays or whether he is paid at all is not even the issue, it’s an occupation) and so the attachment will always lack a specific sort of authenticity and its value (strength) will always be limited, just because of the origin of the relationship. And it’s not just reasoning, it goes real deep. I can’t yet put into words what I think is at stake.

    I’m not as optimistic as you about “fixing the structure”: only time and avoiding further damage (reinforcement) allow these scars to heal to some extent, which is why (I guess) “it takes time”, just like mourning. As a therapist you can help a client to stop interfering with natural healing, or help the client to take the damage into account in his life decisions, but I don’t believe there is much you can directly do about such scars.

    I agree with your part about “mitigating” though. Indeed it makes a real difference, it may even indirectly help the healing, but it doesn’t directly change the original source (and intensity) of pain. To me it’s about learning how not to amplify the pain, maybe even how to mute it, but this takes place in a different part of the brain and requires more attention. Which is why it gets more difficult when tired/stressed etc.

    Still, in my case I (now) believe about actual improvements (rather than workarounds), maybe even growing back some of those missing neurons. It probably involves, among others, a degree of mutual care, emotional and physical intimacy that can’t exist in the context of a therapeutic relationship.

  29. Without the last paragraph this would have all been lost for me. Its the last paragraph about pockets of shame and ‘good enough’ that make it real and applicable to most of us (for me).

    I had such trouble accepting my mother was not perfect and was in fact abusive (in her way) and actually a narcissist when I became old enough and strong enough to start my own therapy. I had hints in my early 20’s when my dad made me go because he thought I had PTSD from a car accident and he wanted to prove it for insurance reasons (yes, this made me pretty mad then as I knew it wasn’t true). I went anyway and I was suprised to find how much time the therapist wanted to spend on my mother, and how contradictory he was to her, and how he validated my feelings (this really made my parents mad).

    Anyway, I believe my mother simply cannot relate to children once they hit puberty, and a relationship only happens if she doesn’t feel threatened in any way after that. Reading your narcissist mother post helped me understand better why my sister and mom get along so well. My mom can look down on her in a way or at least she is in no way envious of her.

    I think I had very good early years. I felt loved, cared for and was in fact very attached to my mother (and was most likely her narcissistic supply). However I have seen my mom with small animals and babies and she does really inspire that that trust and love so I believe she probably was very good with me too. The only problem was really the lack of boundaries (I slept in my mom’s bed way past the point it should have been acceptable).

    At any rate, my mom didn’t become outright hostile toward me until I was in my late teens early 20’s, to finally total abandonment of the relationship no matter how hard I try now. It started to go awry the closer I got to puberty.

    I often get annoyed that people seem to limit child abuse to early childhood. I know my teens weren’t ideal, but I still felt unconditionally loved by my mom if not emotionally neglected and without guidance from her. The worst injury came in my early 20’s and I spent my 20’s and early 30’s dealing with this rejection which seemed unfathomable to me as a younger person. I would have never believed it possible as I loved my family very much and never felt that could happen. Of course the rest of my family loyal to my mom went along with her. I’ve kept a good (though for that time strained, since he coudln’t stop it) relationship with my dad and have rekindled a relationship with my oldest brother who abandonned the whole family as he was so overwhelmed by my family in general, he moved when I was in my early teens.

    The only thing my siblings and I have in common now is that every one of us has been pitting against each other in efforts to ‘rescue’ my mother either from one of us or from my dad.

    sorry I keep writing much more than for the topic, your posts are valuable to me now as I try to work through this all after a recent breakup. It’s all ringing bells for me and it helps.

    I’d like to see more literature on this type of abuse, it’s not outright and can start AFTER childhood.

    My dad has told me in so many words my mom didn’t have the capacity to be a mother to teens and young adults. Because she didn’t have a mother to do that for her. But that she was a great mom to us as young children because she could identify better with small children (and was driven to give us happy childhoods compared to hers which was horrific and physically and mentall abusive)

    1. I think what you’re describing is a mother who can be empathic and caring toward her children as long as she doesn’t feel them to be separate from her, as if she “owns” them. Once you began to separate and have other important relationships, she turned on you and even felt envious of you for having something she didn’t. If you’ve read some of the other comments, you know that this conflict of the siblings against one another is common with such mothers. I wonder if your mom fuels this conflict.

  30. This concept, at least expressed as here, is new to me, so I have a question. When I was in kindergarten, I was in a rather traumatic accident, which resulted in surgery, a hospital stay, and facial scars, on my cheeks and nose and a slightly mis-formed lip–none of which are very noticeable today (I’m now in my late middle-forties), though they are all still visible, but when I was a child, they were very, very obvious, and more so when blushing or under physical exertion. The result of these scars was that I became (what I have lately learned) avoidant. I’m not going to pretend that I know if how I react to life crosses any lines into a disorder, but I have come to realize in the past couple months, that it has dramatically impacted my relationship with my wife, with possible side effects with my children. It doesn’t help that we are ex-pats, living in a foreign culture, with language and cultural isolation that has served to reinforce/exaggerate my avoidant traits. My question is, does my experience have a possible side effect in creating what I think you called a “pocket” of shame? or is it possible to be more or maybe less of an issue in such a case as mine? Have you had much dealing with people with disfigurement, and avoidant coping mechanisms? Thanks.

    1. Yes, I think that your experience could very well have left you with some lasting sense of shame. With regard to the “avoidant” behavior you refer to, I suspect you’re avoiding experiences likely to stir up shame. I have worked with one person who has some mild physical disfigurement, not readily noticeable to others people, but it definitely connects to an underlying sense of shame.

  31. Although I was not a perfect parent, I was madly in love with each of my babies! I breast fed and stayed home for several years with each of them. They were so loved. I really don’t see how two of my daughters could have ended up haunted by shame and self hatred based on their early months and years.

    Their Dad has his own demons but was not abusive and loved them very much. Could his self hatred had an impact?

    Painfully puzzled and want to see them love themselves.

    1. I’d have to know a lot more before I could answer. There’s not enough information for me to understand what happened.

  32. Wow, wow, wow thank you for such an eloquent account of this topic. I found my way here, in a roundabout way, via Brene Brown. Great find! Anyway…

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on shame and premature birth. My son was born 2 months premature and although we visited him in the NICU everyday, it is undeniable to me that our separation had lasting, emotional effects. At age 3, he still has a scar on his finger, the source of which we never found out. I don’t know what happened to him at night while we were away. I’ve had a hard time finding or getting much support regarding the long term emotional effects of early separation. With rising rates of premature birth, it seems like this is an area ripe for research. Sadly, it seems that few (lay) people think that babies can be affected that deeply.

    1. I would think that premature birth would definitely have an effect, though hard to say whether it would be about shame or around attachment issues. I have close friends, excellent parents, with a son who was born 6 weeks prematurely; I can see the affects both in terms of shame AND attachment 18 years later.

  33. Such a late comment is likely to be overlooked, but I’ll dfeel better making it, anyway.

    My therapist has just introduced the idea of “shame” into our sessions. I have to admit that many of the ideas resonate with me. I have nearly always felt a sort of inferiority to those around me, and although a long-time, fully-grown man, I still feel inadequate in the presence of any type of authority, even cashiers. I somehow feel that they are my betters, my superiors, and have a knowledge that I can never have. This has opened my eyes to a lot of things, and my mother’s coldness may well be causal.

    But, something naturally repels me by naming all of this “shame”. It really sounds like something else. I don’t know what. Maybe I just need to get used to the somewhat new definition. But I thank you and the others working in this area for bringing to my awareness an idea that has a strong ring of truth for me, which other ideas have not had.

  34. Hey, Joe

    Very nice to have come across you in the Twittershpere. Refreshing to find another PhD who will start a note with “Hey” as well. My doctorate is in criminal justice, but about half my work has been done in treatment settings. I left academics back in Sept due to a number of factors. Not sure if I’ll go back.

    Anyway, on to what I wanted to comment about. You’ve written a tremendous piece here and I’ll definitely be buying the book when it comes out. I think you’re exactly right in talking about attachment and its early importance. In my own development, I’m still thinking a lot about the concept of shame. I’m finding it to be really difficult to think about something that is so buried in the subconscious, but I can definitely see the residue it leaves.

    Your statement about early attachment forming the basis for self-esteem is what really caught my eye from a theoretical standpoint. I’ll admit it isn’t a concept I think highly of. It doesn’t seem to match up well with other concepts (self-efficacy is actually a much better concept, but still misses the point somewhat). And, it is one of those odd ones that in theory would be curvilinear in that either too little or too much would be considered bad things. So, that’s my starting point: not a fan of the self-esteem idea.

    I do think, tho, that one way of conceptualizing self-esteem is feelings about the self and how one relates to and interacts with the outside world. As theorists and social scientists, I think we get lazy and just say self-esteem instead of talking about a larger, more precise concept (which probably has several dimensions). In attachment theory, this makes sense: positive early attachment leads to feelings of security, inner stability, a sense of positive expectations about the world, and feeling positive about one’s place in the world.

    When attachment theorists talk about the outcomes of a positive attachment, I think this is pretty close to what they are referring to, not self-esteem ideas. Self esteem is generally thought of as feeling good and confident about yourself and your abilities. Where I’m going, then, is that I see the outcomes of positive early attachment more in line with the preceding paragraph rather than self-esteem. It is possible that if we more precisely define self esteem and construct better measures of it, self esteem could fit into these ideas of attachment. It would be odd, tho, to try to fit a curvilinear concept into a factor model that relies on linearity. From a math standpoint, I’m not sure how we’d do that.

    Going back to where we started, I really like what you’re doing and how you’re thinking about shame and attachment. Very nice work. Scott

    1. Thanks, Scott. I take to heart what you say about the fuzziness of “self-esteem” as a concept. Even though I understand the importance of attachment, I’ve always struggled with the word because it seems so mechanical and emotion-free. Right now, I’m trying to get my head around affect theory and finding quite a lot of value in Tomkins and Nathanson. What interests me is how we feel about ourselves in the world. Do I feel shame about who I am or do I feel proud and self-confident? Am I ugly or beautiful? I try to stay away from theoretical terminology and get as close as I can to how people actually feel.

  35. For those wondering about wheher “shame” can be imposed by parental figures later than in the first few years– sure. When one’s parent has a narcissistic or borderline-personality disorder, “shaming” incidents suddenly set in when one is about 8-ish, i.e., as soon as the child starts feeling like an individual: a devastating time to be “shamed” by one’s parent (yet so common among my friends, growing up). You get the message that “you” are not OK. And for those (like me) whose parent experienced shame at a later age– say, 10 or 11– the typical age for a girl to be victimized sexually by a parent– that is when you, as the daughter, suddenly find yourself “shamed” by your mother– or suddenly neglected, or otherwise treated as though you as a person does not exist, or are innately bad in some way.

    1. What you’re describing is “toxic shame.” John Bradshaw coined the phrase and wrote about it in his book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” It’s different from the kind of shame I discuss.

      1. Ah, I am beginning to understand the distinction better. I re-read your article & this time the entire comment thread. The comment by Scott, speaking of basic shame in the context of attachment theory helped. I have known 2 people in life well enough to perceive this sort of basic shame. One was a young woman whose parents literally abandoned her & her brother from time to time (for example, leaving them at a rest stop far from home during a ‘family trip’). She had little conscious awareness of what must have been basic shame, but often had to be hospitalized for sudden bouts with extreme pain, hyperventilation– a host of physical symptoms which seemed to bubble up from the psyche. The other was a teen who was rescued by social services in infancy from alcoholic parents who would leave him alone in a cold crib when they went on binges. At fourteen, he was surreptitiously hurting small animals.

        My grandfather is probably another example, tho I don’t know how he got that way. He displayed all the symptoms of borderline personality disorder and narcissism; he must have suffered from basic shame. What concerns me is how this gets translated down the generations. Fortunately he was a stepfather (no infant was warped by him), but my mother was exposed to him starting at age 8, just after a confusing few years where her mother kicked her [real] father out for adultery, then took him back in because he fell fatally ill. No question mom had a good & solid attachment to her mother which helped withstand this triple whammy (abandonment by, then return & death of dad/’new dad’ alternately charming & abusive; manipulative; secret sexual predation).

        Our upbringing was a strange puzzle which me & my sibs still try to put together, as mom only got full memory of this spotty history at 70y.o. We viewed my mother as a terrific, strong person– a loving & devoted parent with some inexplicable behaviors that caused much hurt but couldn’t possibly be her fault (dad got blamed). Here we are, middle-aged, reluctantly facing the behaviors as hurtful, bad parenting, left to try to piece together what we may have done to our own kids as a result.

        Up until now, journaling & therapy has brought me to this image, in trying to explain to myself how my mother accepted and confirmed each of us, yet also neglected and denied parts of us. I picture the newborn as a wooden bucket at a well, with love dripping or gushing in from various sources as he grows. When he becomes a parent, all the love he has to give is whatever water is in that bucket.

        The concept of basic shame, & pockets of it, adds a new & helpful tool to my kit.

  36. Good post but i think you seem so sure that the brain damage and the feelings of shame will be carried through life. I do not believe that is necessarily so although it might be the case for most.

    I recoil at these definite pronouncements that could leave someone with my background with a sense of futility and hopelessness. I am overcoming these feelingsof deep shame by changing my neural pathways.

    We need to more careful with our language in my view.

  37. Dear Dr. Burgo,

    How and when does this basic shame manifest?

    I’ll give you an example to illuminate. Suppose there is a person who was consciously aware of shame growing up, but grew out of it (by becoming more social and extrovert)… Or so they thought. As they’ve grown older, perhaps in their 20s or 30s, they’ve begun to feel ashamed of themselves, especially at times when they are vulnerable. Not an ordinary shame, but a very deep, debilitating shame that reaches into the depths of the heart. It is almost irrational, but perhaps they may wake up and just feel ashamed, without anything immediately causing it, and around no one else. They may withdraw inward increasingly, as they cannot deal with this shame. It is like a shame that one even exists, let alone a shame of others or circumstances.

    Is this typical in people who experience this basic shame? Does it manifest in their 20s if somehow it was suppressed earlier?

    1. Yes, that is typical of the kind of shame I write about. It sounds to me as if the person you describe had developed some narcissistic defenses against shame that eventually broke down later in life. It happens.

  38. Oh, the damage done.
    Surely the child rearing structures of
    Western culture make it almost impossible
    To create the optimal environment.
    Isolated nuclear families / TV nannies
    Teaching parents of crying babies to leave
    Them alone to cry and self sooth(sic?)
    Babies put in separate rooms from birth
    (Can’t have the marital room violated)
    A group living structure , allows for
    The child to be tended to by many adults. In
    Some cultures, someone is always holding the baby.
    The task .. And it’s a big one.. Of rearing
    Our young in western capitalism, is more and more
    Like factory production.
    Capitalism has appropriated the feminist
    Idea for women to have the choice of work..
    When women stayed home, the culture
    Was geared to the one person breadwinner..
    House prices etc… But try now to reAlly
    Choose to be a live at home mum(Australian for mom)
    Not possible for the majority of families.
    So mother and father work, baby goes off
    To child care centre , fitting in to the time
    Needs of the working parent…
    Of course, one has to work with how
    It is… I just feel understanding how the actual structure
    Creates, for most people( the Brad Pitts of the world, can afford
    To be great dads. Many other hands help ) a very difficult
    Situation, in which to give optimum care….

  39. I might be a bit late to the party, but let me ask a question of personal significance.

    How do you deal with the realization that the damage to your core functioning is permanent and irreversible? How do you go on from there, and not succumb to a sense of futility? Perhaps the incremental improvements possible are not enough to motivate you in the face of a fundamental deficiency.

    And how do you maintain (or should you even) intimate relationships from that place? Isn’t it a bit cruel to involve people who may end up feeling thwarted and frustrated when their best intentions and most generous treatments fail to effect any change in you of the sort they may have been hoping for? As a person with major depression, I find myself probing the moral dimension of being with other people at all. The risk of passing the condition onto kids by genetic or behavioral channels is eminently troubling.

    1. You might also want to consider whether this line of thinking is an effort to protect yourself from vulnerability and potential exposure to even more shame.

  40. With a bit of a dose of self pity and responsibility avoidance on top.

    “Easy way out” that could be very deeply regretted at a later stage in life.

    That sounds eminently plausible.

  41. I’ve read a lot of your posts which contain many references to shame. It’s a concept i’ve found hard to really fathom and get a good sense of. Perhaps this post has got me the closest to understanding it- i get that harbouring a deep sense of unwantedness and worthlessness is shame. I identify i have a lot of the shame defences you mention- i’m quite narcissistic and highly egocentric, always blame , can’t empathise at all and am all consumed with my own intense emotions, hurts and feelings all of the time and the slightest frustration triggers off a murderous rage that i can’t control and is scarily fierce and destructive – so i can only assume this is covering underlying shame- but i find it hard to access this.

    I definitely had the poor parenting you describe in every aspect and more. I really was unwanted and unloved by both my parents and became a burdensome nuisance and was always in the way. My highly volatile and narcissistic mother denied all my needs to the point i don’t feel or recognise any- just confusion and torment- repeatedly told me i was her biggest mistake and even tried to have me adopted a few times but said nobody would have me. She used to throw knives and furniture at me, spit on me in disgust , kick me and pinch me by digging her nails in and twisting at the same time. I felt ashamed just to exist. On top of this i was bullied at school, the best periods were when i was just ostracised and sniggered at. As a child i spent all my breaks hiding locked in a toilet, i would run away from home and school but with nowhere to run too and all i ever wanted was to die, and then i beat myself up for being too cowardly to jump under a train.

    My dad was just as bad- cold, rejecting, distant and indifferent who went off and remarried when i was young and kept re-enforcing to me that i wasn’t welcome there and i was my own problem. In fact he was directly unprotective, encouraging me to take risks and do inappropriate things just to keep me away from him and to ensure i never came to him for help. He didn’t care for my wellbeing or interests one bit- anything to keep me away from him and his new family. I never knew what i could do to elicit any kind of response or concern in him- in fact i often contemplated suicide simply as a means of putting guilt on his hands. But the very thing that stopped me was that even then he’d have no guilt, no reaction and just blame me. So i’d be dead – for nothing.

    Forward wind 40 yrs and i’ve had a pattern of intense stormy relationships and a handful of jobs that all ended in hugely disastrous highly charged abrupt failures alike. I’ve lived a chronically isolated life, no contact with either parent for 20 yrs and my life is meaningless, empty, colourless and distressful. I want a different live but am trapped. I have professional qualifications, personal ambition and energy but am so limited in what i can hold down.

    I suppose what i getting at is answering my own questions- i wasn’t sure if i had ‘shame’ as such and as you talk about but now i suppose i must have. But what am i to do? where to go? and how to gain a chance of some kind of fulfilling life with company, pleasure and meaning? I was in psychotherapy for a while (18mths) with a guy i grew very attached to but he suddenly left and i was distraught and left in pieces. I’m very very reluctant to start seeing someone else now. What would you recommend? Is there any hope? I think looking back i did keep things from my therapist- i wanted him to like me and be a charming attractive person to him so i put a thick gloss on everything and held back the true crap. He hurt me a lot though in the end and let me down big time.

    Sorry, to go on, i’m still trying very hard to work things out, piece things together and gain some kind of clarity. Can you help me at all Dr Burgo?

  42. Just to add- my outline is of course just a bare outline. I had a severe eating disorder for 10 yrs as a teenager and a couple of times was on the edge of death from anorexia- the doctors said there was nothing more they could do for me and called my ‘parents’ to be by my bedside in case i didn’t make it through to the morning. I’m over it now but food still dominates my life. In the end, my mum kicked me out and i’ve never seen or heard from her since , my dad wasn’t interested and i walked the streets and bounced around hostels and bed sits and manual jobs that provided accommodation. I was hugely vulnerable, emotionally all over the place and too often taken advantage of and left me with even more deep emotional scars.
    You also mention in your post about defences against shame that one is contempt. Beneath my superficial porcelain mask that i’ve fabricated and perfected over the years- i look and sound an angel- you don;t need to scratch deep to reveal deep bitterness, aggression and contempt lurking ready to lash out at the slightest trigger and most inopportune moments that can kill. This is what has caught people out- that ‘angel’ they recruited or fell for quite literally turns into a murderous monster from hell- hence the disastrous calamities that each job or relationship terminates in. The police have even had to be called at times. I feel so bitter and painful that everyone else is and has been so attended to all their lives and this bitterness fuels my rages and bubbles over to poison even the most innocuous and benign interactions.
    And why did my psychotherapist dump me just when i needed him most and leave me with all these painful feelings and hurts that i can’t deal with?

    1. I don’t know why your therapist dropped you so abruptly, and I understand your reluctance to see someone new, but that is what you need. The level of shame you’re describing — and yes, it is core shame of an excruciating kind — means you need to develop a relationship with someone capable of taking you on and tolerating your emotional chaos, someone who will make you feel you’re worth all the effort involved. Not that many people can do so because it’s a major challenge. Take hope and try again, but choose your new therapist carefully.

  43. Hi Dr. Burgo,

    I discovered your blog tonight and wanted to share my appreciation.

    It is refreshing to finally hear a therapist say you don’t ever really heal from this stuff. You adapt, but don’t heal. After 30 years with a number of therapists and methods, mindfulness, etc., it feels relieving to have someone acknowledge the cold hard truth–early developmental trauma damages for good. It doesn’t even have to be the harrowing kind of trauma to damage. My trauma is more generic–maternal neglect, paternal abandonment.

    The consequences from shame at your foundation are frightening. I cannot consistently support myself, and I choose inappropriate partners. I don’t appear to be the kind of person I thought this would happen to. I have a lot going for me. I’m educated, skilled, attractive, and skilled inter-personally. I’ve put a lot of hard work and financial investment into healing, and I even had quite a bit of success early in my life. But all of that hasn’t saved me from the damage.

    At 18 I entered therapy immediately when began having eating disorders and depression. I did fairly well in my career until I hit 35 and the economy tanked. I was self-employed and unable to promote myself (I mostly did okay when people came to me asking for my help; although sometimes the shame was so great, I couldn’t return a phone call, reply to an email, or mail an invoice). For 15 years of self-employment, shame kept me from putting up a website and actually building on my success. When business dried up, I lived off of credit cards and went to therapy twice a week to try to survive. A small inheritance saved me from the debt I accumulated. I eventually took a job, and then another, which relieved me of self-promotion shame, but the jobs were poor fits, exhausted me, and eventually became too unbearable to stay in.

    I married a kind sensitive man who turned out to have Jekyll-Hyde behavior. Whenever I share a concern or a feeling of hurt about something he did, he responds with anger, rage, blame (a symptom of his developmental early trauma). Because of my trauma, when he explodes, I shake, rock, and freeze. He asks me to stay because he’s committed to work on his problem. But after eight years of therapy, his problem remains and seems unlikely to change. I’m slowly facing the reality that I will have to leave to save my emotional self even though it will wreck havoc with my financial life.

    I’m currently working part-time in a creative job that gives me the opportunity to socialize and move my body, which feels so much more humanizing than days I spent sitting in front of a computer in my “people-oriented” knowledge worker jobs. But I’m being paid minimum wage, which is unsustainable in the area I live in.

    Therapy was not a complete bust. Somatic therapy helped me heal from debilitating depression and from constantly entertaining suicidal thoughts. I am more resilient, but the shame response is intractable. I thought I was resilient enough to try self employment again, but when I get close to self-promotion, I freeze and experience the familiar debilitating shame.

    I hope my story helps anyone who is listening. The only thing worse than not being able to heal is thinking you’re at fault for not being able to heal. I wish more therapists were honest about this reality. At the same time, I feel for therapists. It’s really hard work. To keep themselves going, I think they want to believe they can help–which they do–but they don’t acknowledge the limits of therapy. There’s always something else to try or another professional to be referred to.

    Thank you, Dr. Burgo, for your humility, honesty, and courage.

    1. Thanks for sharing your account, MK. The kind of shame you describe really can be debilitating. I hope you keep trying and that you can find a therapist who will help mitigate the effects of your shame. I truly believe it can get a lot better!

  44. Hi there, Dr Burgo.
    Do you think that in the future we may find a way to repair the brain damage caused by this early shame? First of all, could you tell me specifically what brain parts are affected by this, and how they are affected? My guess is that you may be talking about the limbic system (more so the amygdala).
    Another question: How does one heal shame? I have heard that exposing yourself, and thoughts/feelings related to the experienced shame (a kind of behavioral approach) to people one trusts helps a lot. I have gotten the impressions (please correct me if I am wrong) from this article that shame cannot be healed, but rather we must learn functional ways to cope with it. Is there any way you know people can or have been able to heal the pain, be free from it?

    1. Allan Schore’s work goes into detail on the type of brain damage that occurs when attachment relationships fail.

      I believe that damage occurs in the context of relationships and that healing occurs in the context of relationships, too. Although I don’t think you can completely erase core shame, I do believe that loving attachment relationships (particularly psychotherapy) can go along way to promote growth and healing. Mine is not a despairing view.

  45. Hi Joseph,

    I’ve found your post very touching, as I am struggling in therapy with shame issues, in my case, due to the “major” disappointment I was to my parents at child due to the deficit attention disorder I had (which was not diagnosed by the 80s) which led to my scholar failure.
    After seven years of therapy, I’ve finally realized I have a covert narcissistic mother and a overt narcissistic father (talking about narcissist family…), of course, due to their projections on me, my “human imperfections” made my childhood very difficult, I was often offended and verbally abused (never be beaten, one good thing I think).

    Talking about “shame”, when I was 10, my mom exits the school parents meeting, and after receiving the news that “I was the worst student in the class”, he started to cry out loud in the middle of the street (shame for herself – as a narcisistic mother-) and I remember feeling guilty of her feelings and saying “mommy I will get better at school you will see”.

    To make matters worse, the school (when I was 11) said to my mother that the only solution to my low grades in school was to “leave him be”, that is, I was to take care of all my grades by myself with NO supervision whatsoever! This year was a very tough year for me, and the next year worse, after two years like this, I was moved to another school, where at least, the teachers looked over me.

    When I was 13, suddenly I discovered that I could make impersonations and make my friends laugh, suddenly I was not a “shame” any more, at least during my acts, I was indeed a “star”. Was not long after my mother saw me like the “hope of the family” to relief their own sense of shame (their were narcissists after all).

    To make a long story short, I am 41 years old, and since 13/14 I am “working hard” to be a “famous” comedian (a regular comedian is not enough off course), it is true that due to the therapy, I left the comedian circuit (I’ve acted for real public from 2009-2012) as I do not have any more my “will” to make comedy as before, the grandiose fantasies that I had (thinking that I for sure would be famous) are long gone.

    Today I see myself as a mediocre comedian, good enough to make my friends/family laugh (after so many time doing this, you cannot not learn it…), but not good enough to produce professional material, as I discovered, making laugh people that you never saw, is possible, I did it, but it is VERY hard (if you do not have the amount of talent needed), at the end of the day, it is a struggle, and it is no surprise I’ve left the comedy.

    It is true also, that due to my “star” experience at so early age, the comedy is the only talent that I put a lot of pressure and this makes very difficult to cope, not only creating material, but also performing, I am a narcissist my self (no surprise here), and for me, to see others comedians that were SO MUCH better than me (with less experience even) was very hard for my narcissistic injuries.

    This year I started to play the spanish guitar, and I love it, I also like the job I have, as a project manager in an IT company, as both “careers” does not mean a thing to my parents, they never put a pressure on me on them, and of course, neither I, so I can enjoy being “normal” there.

    But, and here comes my problem now, I still feel the void, and when I see some famous comedy that I admire, I feel jealous and thinking, why not me? What happened to that boy that was the class clown year after year? that was “special”?

    I have a conflict, one side of me, says “let go of comedy and be happy”, but other side of me says “you cannot abandon an activity in which you fought so hard during all your life now, it is a shame to have talent and giving up”.

    Therefore looks like “shame” has a lot to do with it. it is like my only hope to get over shame is to become a successful comedian (when the reality states that only 1% get to be famous).

    As I put my solution to the “shame” problem on something that does not depend on me, I feel frustrated and sad.

    About your book, I’ve just searched for the book about shame you mentioned in 2012, but I cannot find it. Did you finally wrote it?

    Thank you again for your post,

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *