Toxic shame, trauma and a failure of love

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Mental health problems are complicated in their nature. The cause of them and why some people suffer and yet others do not has long been studied.

Experts talk about nature and nurture, whether our genes play a part or it is because of things that happen to us. Many think it is an element of both.

That is why two siblings growing up in the same house can look to be affected in vastly different ways by such as having alcoholic parents. One of the siblings might not seem to have any sort of negative impact from it while the other becomes an addict who also suffers from anxiety and depression.

There are three theories from renowned experts that are exceptional. They are certainly useful to consider as each expert believes there is basically one aspect behind every form of mental illness they have ever seen.

This includes trauma such as post-traumatic stress disorder; anxiety disorders; depression; and addictions including to alcohol, cannabis, and sex.

Toxic shame

Shame is a normal emotion that actually serves a purpose. But counselor and author John Bradshaw (1933-2016) considered there to be two types of shame: healthy and toxic.

“Healthy shame lets us know that we are limited,” Bradshaw wrote in his bestselling recovery classic book Healing the Shame that Binds You. “Limitation is our essential nature. Grave problems result from refusing to accept our limits.

“Like all emotions, shame moves us to get our basic needs met. One of our basic needs is structure. We ensure our structure by developing a boundary system within which we safely operate.

“There is an old joke about the man who ‘got on his horse and rode off in all directions’. Without boundaries we have no limits and are easily ­confused. We go this way and that, wasting a lot of energy. We lose our way or become addicted because we don’t know when to stop; we don’t know how to say no.”

He continued to say it’s healthy shame that keeps us grounded, that we will make mistakes, that we need help. It lets us know our limits and so use our energy more efficiently.

But then there is toxic shame. Toxic is used to describe something that’s poisonous or very harmful in an insidious manner.

That’s what toxic shame is: basically where someone is carrying shame that doesn’t belong to them. It’s the most terrible burden. It is frequently so heavy it finally after years of suffering drags people right under.

Normally it has been passed on by parents, guardians or teachers. It comes from abuse in all its forms and is usually accompanied by huge amounts of relentless criticism.

The person putting their shame on a child or someone else is likely not doing this in a consciously bad way – but it is something they have discovered to ease their own feelings of shame. This leads to it frequently being handed down through the generations.

“If our primary caregivers are shame-based, they will act shameless and pass their toxic shame onto us,” said Bradshaw. “There is no way to teach self-value if one does not value oneself. Toxic shame is multigenerational.”

Toxic shame is different to guilt. Guilt is when someone thinks: “I’ve done something shameful.” Toxic shame is when someone thinks: “I am shameful.”

It is why some people might look to be successful to everyone… but they will never feel good about themselves. They will frequently develop mental health problems.

Bradshaw’s major point was that virtually all mental illness is due to toxic shame.

“To be shame-bound means that whenever you feel any feeling, need or drive, you immediately feel ashamed,” said Bradshaw. “The dynamic core of your human life is grounded in your feelings, needs and drives. When these are bound by shame, you are shamed to the core.”

Toxic shame was actually a phrase first used by psychologist Silvan Tomkins (1911-1991) in the early 1960s. He was referring to a debilitating pathology that came after being repeatedly treated as useless, rejected, humiliated and even loathed. 

When on the receiving end of this, especially in childhood, many people internalize it. Because of this most people with toxic shame will be unaware of it.

Yet it shows in every aspect of their life. Any new shame will last longer and be more intensive than with people not affected by toxic shame.

There doesn’t even need to be an external event to trigger it. The person’s own thoughts can create hideous shame feelings that can lead to depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, codependency and other mental health problems.

Voices often accompany the terrible feeling, often the voice of the person who forced the toxic shame into the sufferer. It creates terrible feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.

People will regularly think negative thoughts about themselves, and believe them, such as: “I’m unloveable” or “I’m never good enough”. If they discover such as getting drunk or stoned temporarily takes away these bad thoughts and feelings they can become addicted to alcohol or drugs.

“The more I drank to relieve my shame-based loneliness and hurt, the more I felt ashamed,” said Bradshaw. “Toxically shamed people tend to become more and more stagnant as life goes on. They live in a guarded, secretive and defensive way. They try to be more than human (perfect and controlling) or less than human (losing interest in life or stagnated in some addictive behavior).”


Dr Gabor Maté is a physician who has worked with addicts in some of the worst inner-city areas. He’s regarded as one of the world’s best experts on addiction.

Continuing Bradshaw’s theory in his book When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress Dr Maté writes: “Shame is the deepest of the ‘negative emotions’, a feeling we will do almost anything to avoid. Unfortunately, our abiding fear of shame impairs our ability to see reality.”

But in his considerable experience Maté concludes it is trauma that causes addiction and many other mental health problems. Of course shame is something that often arises with trauma, such as abuse.

When looking to help addicts Maté says the question should never be “Why the addiction?” but “Why the pain?”.

“All of the diagnoses that you deal with – depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar illness, PTSD, even psychosis, are significantly rooted in trauma,” says Dr Maté. “They are manifestations of trauma. Therefore the diagnoses don’t explain anything. The problem in the medical world is that we diagnose somebody and we think that is the explanation.

“He’s behaving that way because he is psychotic. She’s behaving that way because she has ADHD. Nobody has ADHD, nobody has psychosis – these are processes within the individual. It’s not a thing that you have. This is a process that expresses your life experience. It has meaning in every single case.” 

He has noted that almost every hardcore substance abuser he saw came from an abusive home. Their addiction and other mental health issues they may have are what he describes as “the compressed torment of generations”.

“Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, only coping mechanisms a person acquired in childhood,” says Dr Maté. “A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic.”

Failure of love

Although no stranger to controversy as he has heartfelt views on medication, Dr Peter Breggin is a psychiatrist and former consultant at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) who believes there is one major factor behind everyone’s suffering. Since he started helping people in the late 1950s he has seen one circumstance – it’s what he terms a “failure of love”.

It’s an extremely smart observation. This is because a failure of love is to varying extents what is behind both toxic shame and trauma.

“Unlike most creatures, we humans are born with an essentially fetal brain, which leaves us totally dependent upon others and which doubles in size during our first year of life,” says Dr Breggin. “This enormously rapid growth in the size and complexity insures that our brain develops outside our mother’s body as a social organ, an organ whose very structure and function is formed by the nurturing influences which surround it.

“Nurturing in the first few years of life guides the development and expression of our social nature and our power as a species to survive and to thrive; and lack of that nurturing leads to psychological and social impairments.

“Love and empathy are key to our social nature. Across the psychological, spiritual and political spectrums, many thoughtful people have concluded that love and its expression as empathy are the central principles of living a good and productive life.

“Nearly all human personal or emotional success depends upon being able to give and to accept love, and nearly all human personal failure reflects an inability to do so.”

He thinks the best way to treat someone is to help them discover where their loving engagement with life was discouraged or lost – and how to revive it or to know it for the first time. This he says would help the person see the importance of love and how they could overcome entrenched fears and doubts about giving and receiving it.

“Nearly all emotional disorders are disorders of love,” says Dr Breggin, “and we heal from these disorders to the degree that we learn to give and to accept love.”

So if it is a failure of love that causes the problems, it is a success of love that is the solution. 

Here at Tikvah Lake Recovery we will always show our guests utmost respect and kindness. We are very good listeners because we fully understand the value of it.

We treat everyone as the individual they are. That’s why as a family-run center we can offer each guest a personalized treatment program that will work best for them.

Tikvah Lake’s expert team has years of experience in helping people with every mental health problem. Contact us today to see how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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