Basic Shame, Toxic Shame

In this video, I discuss the concept of basic shame and how it shows up in psychotherapy.

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[NOTE:  Shame and its toxic effects are a central theme of my website; all articles related to this topic can be found under the heading Shame/Narcissism in the category menu to the right.  This gateway post contains basic information about the roots of shame in early emotional trauma.  For a case illustration of shame and its effects upon relationships, you might want to read my post about toxic shame avoidance, using the film ‘Avatar’ as a metaphor.  To learn more about core defenses against shame — narcissism, blaming and contempt — click here.  I’ve also written about normal or everyday shame and the process of healing shame.]

When most people use the word shame, they usually mean to describe an experience that comes up because of outside influences — our parents’ disapproval or the opinion of society-at-large, for example.  If I do poorly on a test or my business fails, I might not want anyone else to know because I’m afraid they’ll think less of me.  Shame also arises when we violate our own internal values, but we’ve usually absorbed them from our families and the world around us.

Over my years of psychotherapy practice, I’ve come to understand that there’s another kind of shame, one in many ways distinct from the type described above.  I refer to it as basic shame and I’ll be using that phrase repeatedly on this site.  Here’s my basic shame definition.

When things go very wrong in childhood, for whatever reason — an alcoholic parent, bitter divorce, mental illness in those around you, a mother with bipolar or manic-depressive issues or a father with highly narcissistic behavior — it almost always damages you at your roots and deforms you psychically, just like a birth defect or physical handicap.  You may feel fundamentally afraid and insecure in the world.  You might find it impossible to love and trust other people.  You could be prone to violent emotional outbursts or struggle with an addiction yourself.  If the environment is toxic, we’re almost always damaged by it in lasting ways.  With my clients, I often talk about mental scars or psychological handicaps.  They impose limitations and have to be taken into account just as you would a physical handicap.

It is the awareness of being damaged, often an unconscious awareness, that I refer to as basic shame.  It is intrinsic and internal, though we may confuse it with the outside world:  those of us who are troubled by basic shame dread being seen and usually fear that others will look down upon us.  We feel as if we are “ugly” or “deformed”.   We may be burdened by a feeling of self-hatred throughout our lives.

This concept of basic shame is akin to John Bradshaw’s ideas about toxic shame, although he tends to focus on shaming influences that come from the environment; on child abuse and molestation, as well as invasive experiences that overwhelm the immature ego.  While I agree that these influences produce core feelings of shame, I believe that basic shame results from a much broader spectrum of experiences.  It tends to accompany all other mental disorders; it embodies the awareness that our development went amiss in childhood, and that as a result, we have grown up “deformed” or “handicapped”.

The feeling that you’re damaged and fundamentally different from other people may become so painful, so unbearable that you have to disown it:  you may project it outside (blame) or finds ways to deny it (narcissism).  I’ve come to see basic shame as a central problem for almost everyone who has ever entered my practice, and in this later post, I discuss the characteristic defenses against it.

Finding Your Own Way

One way to tap into your own shame is to think about an experience where you felt deeply embarrassed, possibly humiliated in public.  You may have felt a hot, searing sensation at the time.  What caused you to feel that way?  What shameful “fact” do you feel that this experience revealed to others? It maybe be something you didn’t feel in the moment but only later, when reviewing what happened.

My particular defense against basic shame (or one of them!) is to take refuge in the idea that I’m somehow very special.  If I’m not careful or if I’ve had too much to drink, I may on occasion wind up talking as if I’m doing something incredibly creative, or I’m especially talented:  a great cook, musician, writer, etc.  You get the picture.  Whenever I find myself talking this way, a searing sense of humiliation comes over me — shame at the egotistical way I’m talking, and shame for my underlying damage.

How do you defend against shame?  Chances are you’re either a blamer or a narcissist and if you take an honest look, you might see your defenses in action.  What about your friends and family?  It will be easier to spot their defenses than you’re own, of course.

By Joseph Burgo

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


      1. “Shame resilience” is a phrase used by Dr. Brene Brown who through more than 10 years of research and thousands of interviews has discerned ways that people can build resilience to shame. Like you Dr. Burgo, she doesn’t believe shame goes away but can be managed. She offers strategies for just that in her books and her course.

        1. I’ve watched a couple of Dr. Brown’s TED talk videos; now that you’ve drawn my attention to her work on shame, I’ll be sure to check it out. I think she’s a great speaker with some very important things to say.

    1. I use archetypes a lot in my work as a coach, too. And this blog really resonates. Thank you so much Joe.

    2. When you speak of the Narcisstic archetype are you talking about Narcissistic Personality Disorder? And also is the shame from childhood sexual abuse also called Narcissistic shame? Does being shamed by having been sexually abused and being rather resilient make me a Narcissist? I have enough problems, please don’t label me with that…

  1. Oh boy, does this one speak to me !! I may have been the blamer for a long time…stuck in my victim mode..I guess it’s either or…definitely not narcissistic .

  2. Thank you for your helpful explanation on the causes and handicaps brought on by psychological scaring. For me it is a double-edged sword; succumb to victim-hood versus spiritual regeneration. Dr. Burgo, do you believe it is possible to bring into existence a new spiritual growth that can bring lasting peace with the psyche?

    1. I’m afraid that “lasting peace” is not a state I believe is possible. I think struggle and conflict are the order of the day. I do believe, however, that it’s possible to come to know yourself well, accept who you are, and feel able to cope with the painful feelings when they come up. I believe we can feel our lives are meaningful and relish them, regardless of the pain involved.

      1. u mean like assimilate new information and then accommodate to it and then reach a new equilibrium state? but how could one be able to accommodate to the fact that one is being damaged? Its a feeling of inferior to others right there and one can never get over it.

        1. Each of us has to live with the fact that there are any number of people out there who are (a) smarter, (b) better-looking, (c) wealthier, (d) more talented or (e) emotionally healthier than we are. I don’t think that has to invalidate us as people. I think we can have an accurate perception of ourselves, recognizing our good points as well as our damage, and bearing our shame without feeling we are worthless. That feeling usually comes from perfectionism, and the kind of self-criticism I discussed in this earlier post.

          1. The inferior feeling does not come from comparing to others, it comes deep down from the inside. Just like you described, it damages one’s roots and deforms one psychically. And it sure can be covered if one moves to a brand new environment, but if one has been put in a similar situation, the deep down inferior feeling comes back again and automatically pushes one to put on one’s self-denfense system. What I am interested is is there any possibility for this mental birth trama to be healed? It for me seems go around the circle. This mental birth trama is different from daily struggle or conflict that can possibly bring meaning to one’s life. This is lose lose conflict.

  3. YES! I agree with many things said here by Joseph. My defenssive thought pattern for shame comes in many forms. The first and by far the most common is to make my self omnipotent. I can do everything! Nothing is impossible! And usually this has something to do with violence. Also, I find it interesting, that a familiar record begins to play its tune in my head if I come a cross with an issue, which I find difficult to understand. In that instance, I start blaming others, especially members of one religious group that I was involved with for some years. I blame them for brainwashing me to the core and I still keep on doing that. Even though I can, in some level, understand that it is not as if they did that on purpose – I still don’t believe that its true, but I can somehow understand it. But the shame that I feel because of all this is paralyzing. It is truly difficult to function “normally” with these sensations.

  4. I loved your reply to Li concerning “lasting peace” it is also my belief that getting to know yourself, and also accepting yourself will create inner peace, a bit like “emotional food”.
    Congrats again on your great work, its very inspering:)

    1. I like the idea of “emotional food”. On some deep level, I think the model of food/eating underlies so much of our mental and emotional life … but that’s a whole other subject! Thanks, Kathleen.

  5. If you have suggestions for dealing with basic shame, I’m all ears. One of my earliest memories is of my father leaning over my bed, changing my night diaper, and saying, “A great big girl like you, still needing to wear a diaper. I’m ashamed you’re my daughter.” I was two, and I was ashamed with him. Now my father is dead, and yet that basic sense of something be irredeemably flawed at my core is still with me. I wish it weren’t. I’ve spent years in psychotherapy and, though it has helped immensely, that shame is still there and, to tell the truth, still limiting me. I hate it.

    1. I wish I had a simple answer for that one. It’s easier to cope with and get beyond the sort of shaming messages given to you by your father, harder to deal with the basic shame that’s the residue of emotional damage. The shame becomes easier to bear and less toxic the more we can free ourselves of idealized expectations that we’re somehow going to become that person we always wanted to be. I’m worried that when you say, “I hate” the shame, you really mean you hate yourself for having limitations and difficulties, that on some level you refuse to accept what’s possible for you and demand of yourself that you become someone else. I have a friend, another therapist, who sometimes uses the analogy of popular kids/”losers” in the high school cafeteria. She’ll say to a client, “Are you willing to sit at the table with the other “losers” or do you want to be a “winner”? Do you see what I mean?

  6. This is a very subtle insight and perhaps “basic shame” is not the best label for it as it remains within the psychotherapeutic framework that has become part of the problem. Now we need to re-think “basic shame” in the terms that come after & before psychotherapy. So, for example, your personal example of “basic shame” as a result of egotistical talking would precisely NOT be an example of an intrinsic form of shame, guilt, or suffering. Rather, I would venture to say from a Jungian perspective that it is more of an example of fairly banal compensatory action of the unconscious to depotentiate the ego, and the result of an unconscious relation to this intrinsic form of guilt we are discussing.

    In terms BEFORE psychotherapy, Christianity talked of “original sin” and its unavoidable “guilt”; Buddhists talk of the the wheel of samsara and the truths of suffering; Eliade talks of the shaman’s initiatory experiences & shamanic woundings, and ancient philosophers also spoke of the recognition of “death” as an intrinsic aspect of existence, etc… To call all of this “basic shame” in psychotherapeudic fashion seems to trivialize the whole “pathologizing” (James Hillman) dimension of the soul, to disinfect it of its alchemical darkness, even as we may praise the “accessibility” of this kind of populist language.

    What if the authentic dimensions of the soul required a different kind of language that is no longer that of the newspaper, the “soul for dummies,” or the populist jargon of pop psychotherapy? Then we would truly have to move beyond this clinical model of psychotherapy to the original perceptibility of the abyss of freedom that lies behind this “basic shame.”

    1. Part of the problem, as you point out, is adapting language already in use to label a new way of looking at something. I’ve spent most of my professional life trying to rid myself of the vocabulary I learned in graduate school and getting as close to my clients’ feelings and emotions in a completely non-theoretical way, without resorting to conceptual jargon — both with my clients while in the consulting room and when I’m alone and thinking about it. People who have had horrible upbringings feel as if they are “damaged” or “broken”; these are the words *they* will use. It is excrutiatingly painful to feel that way; they don’t want others to know about their damage or how they feel about it. They don’t want that damage to be *seen* and try to hide it; when they feel as if it has nonetheless become visible, they have a searingly hot experience of humiliation, and are often terrified will that they will fall apart.

      These are the feelings I’m trying to get at when I use the possibly unfortunate term “basic shame”.

      1. That is the best description I have ever heard of this experience. Just known that it can be put into words is comforting. Thank you.

  7. For me the word shame does not describe well what this phenomenon of ‘feeling broken’ is about. I feel it more as a kind of impotence and helplessness and rather than shame, I feel despair and hopelessness…

  8. I have had about 10 years of therapy for childhood sexual abuse, I got quite a bit better, and just got stuck and my emotions shutdown, so I finally just quite therapy because I was stuck. I am 59 years old and recently had a shame event happen to me that was about sex and it open my internalize shame.

  9. I’m with Jan, feeling hopeless and despair more than shame. I just keep hoping that someone with authority will stop believing my ex-husband’s lies and confront him.

  10. I’ve dealt with shame stemming from childhood, as many others have and do. Your advice and analysis is very practical, unfettered with jargon and gets to the point quickly. I love reading your blog.

    Other works you have published?

    Many thanks,

    1. Thanks, Kheiron. I haven’t published anything like what I’m writing on this blog but I think I’m going to try to compile and expand these materials into a book. It’s the support and appreciation from readers like you that make me feel it might be a worthwhile thing to do.

  11. My goodness I am so glad I found you through twitter somehow. First, I appreciate, your opinion that there is potential to “come to know yourself well, accept who you are, and feel able to cope with the painful feelings when they come up. I believe we can feel our lives are meaningful and relish them, regardless of the pain involved.”
    Can I quote you?
    Second, your keen awareness of the searing intensity with which individuals feel shame is extremely impressive. This is the first article of yours I’ve read, but as you identified, “People who have had horrible upbringings feel as if they are “damaged” or “broken”; these are the words *they* will use. It is excrutiatingly painful to feel that way; they don’t want others to know about their damage or how they feel about it. They don’t want that damage to be *seen* and try to hide it; when they feel as if it has nonetheless become visible, they have a searingly hot experience of humiliation, and are often terrified will that they will fall apart.” I too feel have felt this.
    Having been on medication for ten years and treatment for much of that, I can now say…
    Thank you


  12. Reading all of the responses, I did not see one that I really expected. I hardly beleive that I am unique in this regard. Besides the feeling of being damaged and broken is also the feeling that (compounded by the feeling of inferiority) I am weak in not being able to deal with the problem and getting past it. Recognozing that there is an issue, understanding the underlying source is all well and good. Getting beyond it can become difficult, especially if your spiritually believe that one should be humble in life. So being overly proud about something, even if you recognize that it could help move you forward, becomes difficult if your religion and religious leaders implore humbleness.

    1. You can have a great deal of self confidence and still be humble. Actually, I tend to think that those who are considered the most humble actually exhibit the most self confidence. Jesus was certainly humble but he was also very confident in his abilities. Don’t confuse pride and arrogance with confidence.

  13. Having incorporated much lit review on shame in my dissertation, I agree with your assessment about this phenomenon, and especially with your preference for going beyond conceptualizations and getting back to the subjective experiencing of the emotion that clients struggle with.

    Thanks for adding useful illumination on this topic.

  14. Bravo! Congratulations on a very perceptive blog about a difficult but important area of therapy. I particularly liked your response to Li Smith.
    Many thanks,

    1. Jenn, I don’t think there’s anything you can do other than to avoid stimulating his or her shame and to be as accepting as possible. It’s really something the person needs to deal with alone.

      1. Research by Dr. Brene Brown in working with hundreds of woman besieged by shame shows that there is in fact something they have done to help themselves and others. Keys are to recognize and understand our shame triggers, to question our disparaging self talk, to share our shame stories with others we can trust to show empathy and to help others by listening empathetically.

        In addition, over the last 8 years I have seen many people find significant release from the overburden of shame through an approach developed by Dr. Ed Smith called Theophostic Ministry.

  15. They have to deal with it by him or herself? There is not medications or psychoterapy to treat it? Do they have cure?

    1. Psychotherapy of course! I didn’t mean completely alone; I only meant that you, as a friend or family member, can’t do much. If you read my most recent post, you’ll understand that drugs are not the answer.

  16. shame, toxic shame, perfectionist, inner rage, term used to describe inner feelings that take hold uninvitingly. It is interesting to see the root of the problem and learn how to deal with the stem of the issue. In todays economy, the possobilty of being one of the many who are laid off, and having dealt with those feeling before and not wanting to relive that horror. Each day I go to work and think there are many people out there smarter than I, who could do my job, this makes me feeling inadaquate. Not being from a top college or high IQ proves that I have something to worry about. But working with people who care less about their job than I do, frustrating.
    Dealing with this logically seems the only solution. Talking it out and organizing my thoughts and realizing how deep this issue is is scarey. I would have never guessed that shame is the root of my silent anger that rages in me as if I were some Xman mutant with special anger powers.

  17. I was walking around today and all of a sudden felt this red hot burning sensation only face and a real sinking feeling inside.. I have battled depression for over 20 years and am still only 35. I have spent the last 6 years on constant medication to treat this illness and it was only recently that I could really articulate to my counsellor how o felt about feeling “damaged”.. She rephrased and said “no lucid, you had some very damaging things happen to you and as a result of these events/losses then went on to do “damaging” things to yourself”… I’ve always felt like ” damaged goods” what a horrible expression! I have gained much insight over the last 6 years and done much soul searching.. I was very inept at being able to cope with painful feelings.. I now try my best to deal with them as and when they arise, privately and with dignity.. I googled “toxic shame” and found this amazing blog and replies. Boy, did I only think that it was just I that felt these deep rooted feelings.. Thank you all do much

    1. With regards to Norlands reply I had a tutor who was primarily Jungian and found him to loose not only himself but others with ‘jargon’. I appreciate your response Joseph and think its also important to use ‘words’ that our clients use. Your writing is understood from both a laymens perspective whilst also being valuable to psychotherapists.

    2. For those who suffer from anxiety and/or depression I recommend the CD’s from the Midwest Center for Stress. I suffered from these ailments years ago until I discovered the truth which I found from the Midwest Center for Stress-Attacking Anxiety. I know that it changed my life forever.

  18. In my experience, shame is the most crippling and disempowering of all the emotions. It targets the worth of the self and undermines one’s very right to exist. Guilt can be forgiven, but shame has no resolve by any external means. The only way to remove shame is by exposing, questioning and removing the toxic belief (a lie) which lays at the very root of shame, or by releasing the energy of trauma which causes shame. That unreleased energy, built up by the sympathetic system in preparation for the fight-or-flight response, and “frozen” when neither flight nor fight was possible, is the core contributing factor in all post-traumatic stress disorders. Apart form rage and fear, shame is the most common symptom of PTSD. If such a mechanism can severely cripple adults capable of fight or flight responses, one must wonder how trauma can affect embryos, infants and children in situations when neither fight nor flight was possible.
    Therefore we all have some degree of shame, and that might be called “basic shame”. However, it has to be seen as a fundamental “disease” of the mind, that needs to be healed.

  19. I just stumbled across this site and read the post about basic shame. My mother died a couple of years ago. Also, I have been unemployed for a long stretch. It seems that every memory has crept out of my past to haunt me. I grew up in a toxic environment and it emotionally crippled me. While I was able to function “normally” (on the surface perhaps) for years, that’s not so easy now. I have talked with counselors, but so far I have not gotten help to alleviate the incredible shame. Your description of basic shame in this post makes perfect sense to me. What can I read to understand how to cope with this better?

  20. thank for the blog,first of all i need to say that english isnt my mom languish so sorry for the errors..
    I think that this blog is very important because shame its a turture i very appretiate your writing
    The question that not leave me that what cause me to feel shame, if its internal properly or the presence of others is necesary? It very confused me because until i get answer another occursion comes and then i not sure again..
    Should i need focused only in my assesment towards myself or to account the other thoughts?
    I tend to think its absulutly about me no matter what the others think. But i saw that with different persons i feel more comfortble,here the question aroused.. Thx again josef

    1. I think shame can come up even without the presence of others. It’s as if *we* are the other, observing ourselves, and we can feel just as much shame even when alone. I do think that when other people really do see us, it tends to be even more painful. Often what happens is that we develop perfectionistic expectations for ourselves and beat ourselves up when we do something that causes us to feel shame — that makes it even worse. You probably feel more uncomfortable with people you sense as being critical by nature; those who tend to be gentle and more accepting don’t stir up our own perfectionism as much as judgmental people do.

  21. I love your blog, Dr. Burgo. Great insights.

    I think there’s another aspect to the development of the shame and blame and self loathing when it comes to children who are abused by their parents. My mother was a sexual, physical, emotional and mental abuser and I’m sure she suffered from naricissistic personality disorder. As with other abusers, she used “shame and blame” on me as a way of controling me. The sexual abuse was “my” ugly, dirty secret. I was to blame for it. But it wasn’t just that. I was “shamed” into guilt and silence for just about everything. I suppose as a narcissist who literally narrated “reality” to her children, who in turn had to believe that “reality” or pay the consequences of her rage or abandonment, it was also part of her illness: she could never be wrong, never make a mistake, never do bad for she was an ideal mother, perfect, as she’d say, so all the bad things that she did were the shame and fault of her victims. And I internalized this very much. There’s a sort of indoctrination, brainwashing that abusers use on their victims, both to control them, and for their own denial. When I was raped by a brother as a teen and turned to my parents for help, my mother called me a slut and beat me in a state of mad rage. The technique of blame and shame was learned by my brothers, who many years later, when they were trying to defraud me of my share of my parents’ estate, suggested I didn’t want to carry out a legal fight with them because all my “shame” would come out (that I was raped, that I was sexually abused, that I spoke up about it…). It was a huge turning point for me when I realized, that’s not my shame, that’s theirs. So I fought back. But not so long before that, the shame would have stopped me from doing so. So I think a big part of the shame and self loathing are actually a result of the indoctrination of abused children by abusers to control them, keep them from seeking help, etc.

    1. I totally agree and I think this type of shame is powerful and crippling. John Bradshaw has quite a lot to say about such “toxic” shame. I’m trying to introduce *another* type of shame that isn’t the result of shaming or abuse but simply *is* the result of development going awry — missing what is needed during a critical period, as Stephanie pointed out in her comment.

  22. Hi Dr Burgo,

    Great blog.

    I didn’t happen upon this blog. I Googled “Toxic Shame” and it led me here.
    I have read some of John Bradshaw’s work regarding TS. What a revelation! That such a thing even exists and has a name so to speak! Moreover, for background, I should say that it was when researching my own struggle with crippling shyness (with women specifically) that eventually led me to discover this “ailment”(?).

    I respond specifically to this last post because I think you have touched upon something important in so far as you seem to suggest perhaps that “shame” can be the result of cumulative actions or behaviours that will have been taught even subconsciously (when you say “development going awry”) over a period of time, rather than a set of conscious, deliberate actions or abuse that may have been applied to an individual.
    Certainly, having had some therapy, although this particular subject was hardly broached, it is my belief that my mysoginistic thought patterns (which I suspect are a RESULT of my internalisation of anxieties for which shame may be the root cause), have essentially been “learned” from my watching the behaviour of my parents, albeit subconsciously perhaps, for all of my childhood going into adulthood. Behaviours which they still demonstrate today. Like watching two strangers living together is the most succinct way that I can describe it. A mother desperately seeking attention from her partner, a father who seemed to tick all the boxes but was emotionally absent.

    Important to remember that children often “mimic” parental figures subconsciously.

    I wish more people understood this before embarking on having children.

    Keep up the good work.

  23. “*another* type of shame that isn’t the result of shaming or abuse but simply *is* the result of development going awry — missing what is needed during a critical period”

    I developed an aggressive brain cancer at age five. The operation was successful as far as removing it, but I lived in a rural area and my parents were very young. I do not remember much about the cancer or the surgery because I was so young, but I know I received no physical or emotional therapy afterward, and I struggled to keep up with my peers all throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Mentally I was very smart and passed all of my classes with the highest marks, but I never matched up physically or emotionally (especially in terms of the male bravado so important in teen development) and, quite honestly, never felt like I fit in anywhere.

    In many ways, I still feel as if I don’t. I have made “hiding” from the world an art form and rage and anxiety is still a major problem, especially since, 30 years later, I have experienced another bout of brain trauma to reinforce my feelings of isolation.

    There is nothing wrong with me physically or mentally, and I am a working, high-functioning member of society. This blog has been very insightful as to me. Thank you.

  24. I’m curious if it is possible to be addicted to basic shame or the intense feeling it causes. I think I tend to create situautiuons that set me up for exposure to the intense feeling and adrenaline rush that occures when I experieince intense shame. The intensity covers up the chronic feeling of emptyness, loss and disconnection.

    1. That’s very interesting. While I try to avoid the language of addiction (just because it has become so overused and applied to EVERYTHING), it does sound as if you’re using the experience of humiliation to ward off something else. At least knowing that, you have a choice — whether to follow the defensive path or face whatever you’re avoiding.

  25. Thank you for your postings; they’ve been very helpful.
    I’m curious if you consider shame-resulting-from-development-going-awry as implicated in dissociation: e.g., if a person is often accepting, but they act narcissistically at times because an accepting part is unavailable to handle the emotion.
    Which brings me to a related question on yesterday’s post: what you say about projection of unbearable emotions makes a lot of sense. What I’m wondering is how you manage handling such emotions in order to bear with your clients long enough to decode the communication and help them bear with their experiences. Thanks again.

    1. I’m not sure about the first part of your question, and the word “dissociation”. But I find that if a client is projecting into me and I can make an interpretation about it, something that helps the client to understand and accept the feeling, then I am “giving it back” and I don’t have to carry it. I think the hard part is when therapists don’t realize their clients are using them as a toilet. That can easily make you feel overwhelmed, burnt-out and depression.

  26. It’s so great to have found this site, thank you. I have read all the books under the sun to try and figure out how to help myself operate better. I have always felt insignificant, as if I didn’t exist and ‘wasn’t really there’, kind of floating around in space really. People have called me ‘spaced out’, and have found that quite amusing, which I went along with, but thought it was just me and I was odd, and flawed and not normal. But my Dad used to get angry with me for being like that as he used to say I was doing it on purpose to annoy him – he totally misjudged me when really I was just petrified of him. Now I realise that I just disconnected, it’s pretty hard to try to reconnect, but think I can see a way forward now, when it all seemed pretty bleak before

  27. I’m happy to have run across your website Dr. Burgo. After months of deep and disabling pain at some things that have happened in my marriage and family this year, I think I could be onto something finally. The idea of shame, in whatever form, settled into my heart like it had a home there and I felt a bit of relief when I discovered the word with all it’s weight. Even if there’s a mountain of work to do in my near future, I’m very happy to have found that all the floundering strings that make up “me”, are tied together at one end, in a knot called shame. I believe when you’re onto something, an potential answer, it feels right and you tend to somehow know it. I’ve researched sooooo much to try to figure out why I’ve been debilitated by the events in my family and marriage; why it’s consumed me to the point of nearly non functioning. My thoughts are scattered, I’m mentally impaired such that I dropped out of my college classes. BUT, I should note, I had one professor who made a spectacle of me and my obvious stupidity on many occasions, for the entire class to witness. I got so angry one day, I just quit. I would be inflamed at her at other times, but I could contain it until I got out of class when I would then beat myself up mentally, and her too. On the last day, I don’t know if she sensed I was SEETHING or not. I did not raise my voice, but rather, I confronted her with tears in my eyes, and then I left, never to return. I am embarassed now, not at the confrontation per se, but at the idea that the other students likely sensed my anger because I was performing tasks with more, let’s say, vigor!! In retrospect, I realize I was suspended in childhood, acting as though I was anyway. I wanted to flee the classroom on so many occasions. I stayed and toughed it out, but, that offered me little consolation. I swallowed her obvious jabs, but, I wanted to strangle her. I have had other instances where anger and the desire to flee almost overwhelm me. Usually the same type of scenario as I describe with this professor. Also, I struggled with panic attacks some 20 years ago. Now, I see this word “shame” and I wonder if it is the big ugly root of it all. It seems to me it could be. I thank you for your efforts and time writing this blog which reaches volumes of people and provides hope.

    1. Mimi, it sure sounds like shame to me. And your reactions to the humiliation meted out by your professor sound like understandable responses to shame. You might want to take a look at the post I wrote about defenses against shame.

  28. Thanks for your article and your responses, Joseph. I found your site by accident yesterday and have been reading it with enthusiasm and high interest ever since. There are quite a lot such sites on the web, but your writing style, insights, presentation skills, timely and insightful responses and tons of truly great content makes it like no other site. I am your devoted reader already.
    This particular article resonates a lot with me. As my teacher Gary van Warmerdam at teaches, I think it can also be described in terms of “feeling not good enough” (basic shame) and to compensate we develop “the image of perfection” that is what we want to be and sometimes believe we already are (I believe you allude to this in your “Your plan for a person”). Blaming others is just another protective and compensating mechanism we can use, of course.

  29. I am just discovering this aspect of myself after major childhood issues (father (npd) killed mother when I was 2, he spent one night in jail, family kept “secret” from me until 18, father marries abusive step mother, I marry malignant npd (diagnosed), divorce after 22 years, I fall apart but am blessed with great therapist, worked on other issues, now tackling the shame monster). I always knew I had a choice. I called it “bitter or better”. I chose better, but it’s been a struggle. My defense has been to curl up in a ball until I can crawl out of the cave when I could, and strive to be perfect when I was “out there”. I lost my whole sense of worth when I was left with all the false accusations that the very religious ex-spouse put out to the world to save his image and family standing. That’s been seven years ago. I dealt with the immediate problems and stayed with my therapist constantly for two years, less for the next three. Now I know I’m ready to tackle a major root of my problem….Shame. My therapist told me it would come. It was a HUGE relief to recognize it, research it and find that I could hand this monster back to the people who “made” me take it on from the beginning. I need much work, but I feel more hopeful than ever that I can reach a sense of purpose and meaning in my life if I can get this worked through. Thank you for sites like yours where a person can come and get some “instant” insight. I’m willing to do the work.

    1. You’re welcome. I have a lot of respect for people like you who come from such incredibly awful backgrounds and somehow find the way to do the work, instead of just giving up. I often wonder why that it — that some people just step up to the plate and others, often with less to struggle with, never do.

      1. I wonder that, too. Though I have plenty to work on myself. I do feel it is a choice. It IS easy to give up, but I’ve been told I am a “strong” person. Now, tell me what that means. Because from my perspective I’m anything but strong. Having shame in your life means all those things you have said, feeling broken, unlovable, misfit, unworthy, anything but “strong”. Define what is meant by “strong” and you may have a personality trait that defines who will and who won’t. I have no idea. Thanks for the reply, and again, thanks for your insight.

        1. You are strong because you have learned and fought to overcome the shame. Feeling shame is natural to imperfect human beings. It’s ok to be imperfect. When we can accept that about ourselves and take steps (even small ones) to overcome, we feel less shame.

  30. @Kimberly: you are a “strong” person because, even with everything you’ve struggled with in your life, you clearly are working through it rather than succumbing to it. You’re still alive and still looking at how you can be a healthy person in the world. Even if you sometimes feel broken and damaged by what happened, it’s obvious to me from your level of insight that you’re not broken. You’re very strong. I know people who have had far less trauma and can barely function.

    As far as shame goes: I’ve realized recently how much shame comes up for me daily, particularly around not being “good enough” – a good enough homeowner (too messy!), good enough cook, good enough friend, good-looking enough, even a good enough cat mom! Teasing is especially hard for me to take, even when it’s affectionate, because I naturally believe the teasing words are meant as a truth. I’ve found that understanding h0w shame operates for me allows me to see it, acknowledge it, and let it go, rather than get lost in it. It’s still a difficult issue for me, but I’m getting better at not letting the shame take over. Thanks for this post!

  31. I think I may be going through this, I’ve felt like there was “something wrong with me” for pretty much my entire life. I have a parent who is a rageholic and my response to this has always been to go into what I like to call “Stealth” mode.

    I know you discussed narcissism, anger, and hate as the major reactions to Toxic Shame, but is silence a possible reaction too? I have a tendency to drop out of society and usually avoid making any sort of friendships with people.

    1. I think that shame can definitely make you want to disappear, but in that case, it’s not really unconscious. The defense mechanisms I discussed show up when the person is unaware of the feeling of the shame, and the point of those defenses is to keep shame out of awareness.

  32. In my city there is a tree that was planted under a balcony. When it reached the balcony, it bended of 9o° towards the light, grew orizzontally, and then when it reached the end of the balcony, it bent of another 90° and kept growing vertically. When I feel shame, because of the traumas I suffered, that shaped my personality, I think of that tree. It may have a weird shape, but it didn’t die or fall and keeps living and giving flowers and fruits. And that is what matters.

    1. I like your analogy. As long as we remember that the tree is and always will be bent, unlike the tree that grew straight in direct sunlight.

    2. I love your analogy! Thank you so much, Valentina! I certainly can identify with your struggle and desire to make sense out of senseless shame. Blessings to you!

  33. I’ve noticed as I get older I transitioned from narcissistic defence to a more blaming style – this might be a big can of worms but I wonder whether that’s what’s behind the fabled swing in most people’s political views, from liberal to conservative, with age?

    At first it’s “the man” who won’t let us fabulous bright young things be as special and unique as we want to be, later it’s them dam’ immigrants/unemployed welfare mums/name your bugbear who are responsible for our shifting sense of unease.

    I’m making some VERY sweeping generalisations here of course, but I’d be interested to hear what you think about this?

    1. I think what you’re observing is definitely related to issues of self-esteem, even if it’s not pathological narcissism. Blaming can be a way of bolstering our sense of personal value if we feel inferior, slighted or threatened by change.

  34. I have a question Joseph! I have had many relationships that all have failed with men from my past. The one main emotion that correlates with each one of these “men” or so-called attemped relationships is “shame”. I have alot of shame about who my father is and have learned until we deal with the pain of the past we keep re-creating the pain. I am 51 years old and I think that I want a loving relationship but I keep choosing men that are either alcoholic or have something about them that I feel shameful about. I am thinking this is the Man in the Mirror (which is me) and I know water seeks its own level. Your feedback would be awesome!

  35. Yea, I really enjoy the sensibility of your writing, and find myself coming back over and over reading more and more. I have mojor depression and a lot of mental splitting where I imagine someone else in my minds eye and explain to them to see how they feel and continue this despite the fact that then I always feel not understood. I just realized yesturday its internal projection, and really me, but this work requires vigilance as I imagine it as a habit.
    I believe I have some severe type of disaassociation along with depression and narccissm due to an unresolved Oedipal Complex and fear of dependency although I crave it. I’ve had PHD therapist on and off, mostly off for years. It all came to light after rejection from a woman whom I had a severe transference on. Its a mess. Its so hard to find literature that discusses all this. Again, I love your writings.

  36. found this poem in a forum for those with Borderline Personality Disorder, and thought it might fit here:

    I came upon you when you were magical
    Before you could know I was there
    I severed your soul
    I pierced you to the core
    I brought you feelings of being flawed and defective
    I brought you feelings of distrust, ugliness, stupidity, doubt
    worthlessness, inferiority, and unworthiness
    I made you feel different
    I told you there was something wrong with you
    I soiled your Godlikeness

    I existed before conscience
    Before guilt
    Before morality
    I am the master emotion
    I am the internal voice that whispers words of condemnation
    I am the internal shudder that courses through you without any mental preparation

    I live in secrecy
    In the deep moist banks of darkness depression and despair
    Always I sneak up on you I catch you off guard I come through the back door
    Uninvited unwanted
    The first to arrive
    I was there at the beginning of time
    With Father Adam, Mother Eve
    Brother Cain
    I was at the Tower of Babel the Slaughter of the Innocents

    I come from “shameless” caretakers, abandonment, ridicule, abuse, neglect – perfectionistic systems
    I am empowered by the shocking intensity of a parent’s rage
    The cruel remarks of siblings
    The jeering humiliation of other children
    The awkward reflection in the mirrors
    The touch that feels icky and frightening
    The slap, the pinch, the jerk that ruptures trust
    I am intensified by
    A racist, sexist culture
    The righteous condemnation of religious bigots
    The fears and pressures of schooling
    The hypocrisy of politicians
    The multigenerational shame of dysfunctional family systems

    I can transform a woman person, a Jewish person, a black person, a gay person, an oriental person, a precious child into
    A *****, a ****, a #######3, a bull ****, a #######1, a *****, a selfish little *******
    I bring pain that is chronic
    A pain that will not go away
    I am the hunter that stalks you night and day
    Every day everywhere
    I have no boundaries
    You try to hide from me
    But you cannot
    Because I live inside of you
    I make you feel hopeless
    Like there is no way out

    My pain is so unbearable that you must pass me on to others through control, perfectionism, contempt, criticism, blame,
    envy, judgment, power, and rage
    My pain is so intense
    You must cover me up with addictions, rigid roles, reenactment, and unconscious ego defenses.
    My pain is so intense
    That you must numb out and no longer feel me.
    I convinced you that I am gone – that I do not exist – you experience absence and emptiness.

    I am the core of co-dependency
    I am spiritual bankruptcy
    The logic of absurdity
    The repetition compulsion
    I am crime, violence, incest, rape
    I am the voracious hole that fuels all addictions
    I am instability and lust
    I am Ahaverus the Wandering Jew, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, Dostoyevski’s underground man, Kierkegaard’s seducer, Goethe’s Faust
    I twist who you are into what you do and have
    I murder your soul and you pass me on for generations

  37. Great video, beside Avatar I think that Ironman is the ultimate display of a Narcissist. A Men and his grandiose armor that enables him to do everything. Narcissism is basically the armor of a wounded child.

  38. After reading two of your essays, I find myself intrigued with your overview of psychological dysfunction. I have long found the standard approach a bit pat. I think much of diagnosis via the DSM IV, is akin to taxonomic classification in Biology or constellations in Astronomy. They are categorical conveniences, but not actual kinds in the ontic sense. In truth, personalities are like fingerprints, sharing global similarities, but each also being unique. That being said, I have a personal question. Do you have an opinion on dealing with narcissistic dysfunction when the unconscious sense of something being wrong with the core self is factual? I suffered from childhood Tourette’s and still suffer from what I might call internal as opposed to external tics. I would not doubt if I might also be diagnosed with a comorbid disorder such as autistic spectrum as I have various autistic traits, although high functioning intellectually. I suspect that, being an odd child, my peer relationships may have contributed to developing traits of personality disorder as well. I, personally have tried to cope with this, not by any attempt to disabuse myself of my atypical neurology, but to embrace it, which has led to a higher level of happiness, although there are traits, such as explosive rage and dehumanizing of others that I would like to shake, but can’t. My compulsive neurology may make this more difficult for me as I get caught in feedback loops of fairness and revenge ideation as well as intolerance with irrational beliefs, mindsets, etc. I would appreciate your insight on this.

    1. Here is how I would think about it. Where there is an actual and quite noticeable physical dysfunction, shame is inevitable. Shame is the felt awareness that development has gone awry. In that case, a person might very well develop narcissistic defenses to ward off the shame. Does that make sense?

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