Healthy Shame And Toxic Shame: How Do We Live With It

Healthy Shame Toxic Shame We Live With It

Within each of the systems of our lives, whether it be family, education, social, professional, faith-based etc, we may find that we are both accepted and rejected, as we experience acceptance as conditional. We may have experienced total rejection within our most intimate systems, and this from a very young age. Whatever the level if rejection we feel, we all live with a sense that we are, in our whole or our parts, not truly acceptable.

These internal sensations plants the seed of shame, which is added on by the countless life experiences which we may have, which deepen and intensify our sense of shame. Each embarrassment, each failure, each moment of loneliness, where we feel that we are alone because of who we are, elaborates on our shame, and it flourishes.

This is a toxic shame, and it draws away from our being able to hold a realistic impression of ourselves. As a result, our capacity to be internally compassionate dwindles.

Related: 11 Ways Narcissists Use Shame to Control Others


How do we live with shame?

Well, one of the greatest challenges in personal therapy is to discern our defence-based responses; to recognize and come to understand those cognitive, emotional and behavioural reactions which are designed to protect us from feeling our feelings. Working with defences is the sine qua non of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

Our defences show up everywhere, and we have to come to know them. When it concerns the management of toxic shame, we often use what is called the narcissistic defence. And so, instead of holding our shame in mind in a reflective and internally accepting manner, we seal it off from our awareness by being defensiveness proud, boastful, self-righteous or judgemental.

The narcissistic defence can also have a strong manic edge. An example of this is conspicuous consumption. When we find ourselves caught up in a compulsive pattern of spending on the delicious frivolities of life, when we reflect on this, we often find that it is a mechanism for coping with shame.

Related: How Parents With Core Shame Can’t See True Essence Of Their children

Tolerating shame means tolerating feelings of self-loathing, internal embarrassment, and the belief that our shamefulness alienates us from this world. Defending against shame means denying this awareness for the sake of feeling better, but simultaneously leaves us living inauthentically, and living under conditions of immense internal pressure.

All defense creates internal pressure because at some level we always know what we don’t know. In the next blog, I will think a bit about working shame, as I believe this to be one of the key elements to living a fuller, freer, and more comfortable life.

Originally appeared on

Republished with permission.

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Healthy Shame And Toxic Shame: How Do We Live With It
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Dr. Bruce Bradfield

DR BRUCE BRADFIELD – PSYCHOTHERAPIST, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST MA, PSYCHOLOGY (RHODES); MA, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY (RHODES); Ph.D. My approach to psychotherapy is one that prioritizes human relationships as being central to emotional health. If we are able to enter, sustain, and make good use of positive relationships, our lives generally take on a fuller, healthier, and livelier character. The relationship between a psychotherapist and a patient, between me and the person I am talking with, is just such a relationship. It is a friendship that can become central to the life of the patient but always exists on the periphery. As a relationship between two people, the therapeutic relationship is all about trying to create enough of a feeling of trust, safety, and relaxation, for us to be able to have honest and open conversations about the patient’s real life. I believe in long term therapies because it is only with time and patience that we can truly get to know one another, and use the therapeutic relationship as a vehicle for development. My belief is that the goal of therapy is not to feel better but to feel more. The goal is to learn how to think in a free and creative way about the things which distress us, rather than to avoid our feelings of distress. In the long term, this is an empowering and enriching achievement, enabling us to feel joy in the good times and hope in bad times. Beyond my work as a psychotherapist, my academic research has focused on exploring the experiences of people who have been diagnosed with various forms of mental illness. This research aimed to describe the feelings that arise in people in relation to the diagnostic “label”. In addition to this, my research has focused on the intergenerational transmission of trauma, exploring the experiences of the children of mothers with histories of interpersonal trauma.View Author posts