Shame: Healthy Shame Versus Toxic Shame

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Photo by Caleb Woods

There is healthy shame and there is toxic shame. I have known mostly toxic shame throughout my life, gleaned from dysfunctional parenting and religion…

but I have ever so gradually learned that healthy shame is possible to achieve.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.

Brene Brown, PhD.

from her book: I Thought It Was Just Me: (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” (

Healthy Shame

All toddlers experience a healthy amount of shame if their parents set boundaries for them. I have never met a toddler who liked the word no; however, providing limits for young children enables them to develop important developmental and socialisation skills. Not to mention keeping them safe.

It also helps parents to maintain sanity.

I find it fascinating that shame is so embedded in the human race. Even infants and toddlers, when told no, display signs of shame, (feelings of “I am bad.”)

 Shame deactivates the sympathetic (nervous) system and activates the parasympathetic system. The infant becomes quiet and may try to hide.  A healthy parent or caregiver recognises this and reconnects immediately; the parent repairs the relationship, comforts and soothes the infant, and either shows them how to do the activity appropriately, or redirects the infant’s behaviours to another activity.

The child experiences small amounts of shame that are manageable within a safe and secure parent-child relationship.  This is the easiest time to teach the infant:

  • “Its not you, it’s the behaviour”
  • “Its not our relationship, it’s me teaching you”

Attunement is the interactive process between a parent and young child.

Sadly, many parents or caregivers are not attuned to their children and the shame voices begin to grow within the child.

 Shame Thinking

Shame thinking originates from deep roots in our childhood, family, culture, or religion.

As children we tend to blame ourselves for things that
happen around us, because we are limited in our capacity to think about others being responsible. In a five-year old’s mind if something bad happened, then she or he must have deserved it, therefore the universe makes sense. It is not until around age 12 that we gain the cognitive capacity to see how others’ actions and behaviors are more
complex with varying degrees of culpability.

Therefore, it’s easy to see how children can take on shame without a parent being aware that it has happened! Children are naturally egocentric.

In addition, unhealthy religious institutions often resort to shaming in order to keep their flock obedient to creeds, doctrines, leadership, etc. It can be a slow, insidious process, but effective, nevertheless.

We are all susceptible to shame. It began in the Garden of Eden.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

Brene Brown, PhD

Photo by Tabitha Turner

Toxic Shame Hides

Nothing silences us more effectively than shame.

Brene Brown, PhD

Toxic shame is painful to experience. In fact, the feeling is so distressing that we often find ways to avoid it. Unfortunately, shame is more destructive and powerful when it hides. Being aware of our defense mechanisms and bringing shame out into the open is the first step toward healing.

Here are some things to watch for:

  • Being defensive 
    • We can avoid taking responsibility for our behavior when we can transfer blame to another. If we equate responsibility with blame, then we run from it.
  • Perfectionism
    • Shame drives perfectionism. If we’re perfect, no one can criticize or shame us. However, the energy to attain the impossible goal of being perfect is exhausting. Furthermore, attempting to be someone we’re not disconnects us from the person God created us to be, flaws included.
    • Researcher Dr. Brene Brown said, Perfectionism is self-destructive and addictive
  • Apologizing
    • People who are overly apologetic and compliant are often prompted by deeply rooted shame. There is an assumption that others are right and they are wrong. In hopes of preventing criticism, a shaming attack, or conflict, we’re quick to apologize.
    • On the other hand, a deep, unconscious shame can have the opposite effect. This person can be so ruled by hidden shame that she can’t allow herself to be exposed to the possibility of ever being wrong. Admitting a mistake or being wrong is unthinkable. Human vulnerability is considered weak and shameful.
  • Procrastination
    • Shame often drives procrastination. Underlying the consideration of projects, especially new ventures, is the possibility that they might not turn out as we planned. Consequently, we might be criticized or be shamed. If we don’t attempt it, we won’t  fail. We won’t face the shame of failure.
    • We may live a safer life, albeit a smaller life.

Healing For Shame

When we are shamed repeatedly, we are taught to think that our feelings are wrong and our experiences are delusive. Whether this happens as a child or as an adult, the result is the same: if there is no one compassionate and perceptive enough to acknowledge the validity of our stories on a repeat basis, then we, too, are challenged to see them as true. We learn to distrust ourselves; we learn to deny our own truth, even to ourselves. Transforming this mindset requires a witness with a willingness to look and listen in a most powerful way—by seeing, feeling and believing.

Shame causes us to hide.Photo by Ivan Aleksic

It’s important to recognize when someone is shaming you. For example, the following statements are shaming:

  • You’re stupid!
  • You’re so fat!
  • What an idiot; I can’t believe you said that!
  • You’ll never be as good as _____.

If or when you hear things like this, don’t accept them as the truth about yourself. In fact, challenge shaming behavior.

In addition, be aware if you are the one who shames you the most! Open your ears to hear shaming words and discover who they are coming from.

Don’t be a shamer, yourself.

It’s good to understand the origin of the toxic shame. Are you with someone who often shames you? Do you perpetuate it by staying?

Learn to have compassion for yourself. This will take time. It will likely require a therapist if the shame is deeply rooted, but the freedom gained is like a huge weight lifted from you.

Work toward accepting that you are human and have flaws.

Forgive yourself for past mistakes.

Jesus Experienced Shame

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 
2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV
The Bible declares that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2, they were naked and not ashamed. Pivotally, they chose to eat from the Tree of Life, the single thing God instructed them not to eat. They chose their own unsound wisdom over God’s proven, loving wisdom.
Immediately, they attempted to hide from God. Adam and Eve felt shame for the first time.
On the cross, Jesus experienced the humiliation of our shame. The very weight of shame that was introduced in the Garden by Adam and Eve was laid on Him.
And He despised it.
But Jesus suffered it so it would not be necessary for us to live under the bondage of shame any longer.
Dr. Brown’s research on shame is brilliant. I recommend her books and her Tedtalk*.
on shame. John Bradshaw wrote a seminal work on shame in 2005, Healing the Shame that Binds You, ( I recommend that, as well.

Pure Joy, by Ben White

However, my personal experience has taught me one thing.
Jesus alone can completely free us from the chains of shame. God gives us a new identity. His mercy and grace bring joy.

Photo by Eye for Ebony

Chain Breaker, by Zack Williams
Brene Brown “Listening to Shame”
Brene Brown “The Power of Vulnerability”


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