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ORIGINATE FROM? I believe that toxic shame as Bradshaw defines it results from (well-intended or not well intended) authority figures like parents, teachers, older siblings or the church that do not allow the child to express and reframe shaming experiences. If a child is allowed to express shame (because they believe that the way they perceive, think, feel, imagine or desire is wrong) and they are helped to re- frame the experience (e.g. a parent apologising for losing their temper and shouting at them or a teacher explaining that the child had misun- derstood them and that they did not mean to suggest that the way the child thought was wrong) then the child has the opportunity to learn from the event and release the shame, and life goes on.

If however, during and after shameful experiences children are not assured and allowed to release and reframe the situation then they are likely to internalise those feel- ings where it often turns into toxic shame and severe self-limiting beliefs of the I’m bad variety.

[Side note: I do not subscribe to theories that suggest we can shame someone or make someone angry, or sad; I find it more empowering to believe that people simply experience certain emotions when others act in a certain way. When Person A does something, Person B may experience the event as funny, Person C may feel severe shame and Person D may feel sad; it does seem accurate to me to suggest then that Person A made the other parties laugh, feel ashamed or sad respectively. I choose therefore to stay clear from blaming and victim language and in this case would argue that Person B interpreted the event as funny, Person C as shaming and person D as sad.]

Bradshaw lists seven dysfunctional family rules and a host of other causes of shame with numerous practical, real life examples. The one that stands for to me is one he labels the denial of five freedoms: suggesting that the way children perceive, think, feel, desire or im- agine is wrong will almost certainly lead to them taking on shame; if this is perpetuated over time it is likely to turn into toxic shame and they will almost inevitably start believing that they are bad.

Children who are abandoned or abused usually start believing that they somehow caused and/ or deserved the abuse and that they do not deserve anything other than the abuse or abandonment; the painful memories also often becomes their only connection with their abuser and unconsciously they may not want to let it go because it would be disloyal to the abuser and/or they’d rather have some connection than no connec- tion with the perpetrator.

Unless they resolve this dynamic they will very likely carry this into adulthood and continue to re-enact the same program.


Cliff Barry, the founder of Shadow- Work© ( says that we are hotwired to love our parents; we really have no choice! So the only way we can make sense of our own abuse or neglect as children is by justifying our parent’s actions in some way and blaming ourselves.


Clients don’t usually come to us saying “I’d like to work on shame”. Instead they ask us to help them with the symptoms of shame with- out necessarily attributing those symptoms to shame as the cause. These symptoms could literally be anything, ranging from being depressed, being unable to get ahead in their careers or nail biting.

Let’s take a look at some common road signs (or flags) that may point towards shame; remember that these presenting ‘issues’ may also be caused by something other than shame (although I’m beginning to think that the vast majority of presenting problems can be boiled down to shame, preventing self- acceptance).

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