A review of ‘Healing the Shame that Binds You’ by John Bradshaw

Written by Amanda Melheim.

It’s easy to say “It wasn’t your fault,” but figuring out how to love ourselves after abuse isn’t easy. We can’t just turn off the negative feelings. Being told, “Why do you feel bad? You’re a great person!” just makes us go into hiding.

Self-love after abuse is blocked by toxic shame.

In polls, 20% of Americans admitted to feeling shame in the past year, 66% of Americans report feeling ashamed because of their bodies, and women report twice as much shame as men.

Those are just the people who are willing and able to talk about shame. One of the biggest parts of shame is that it’s difficult to talk about.

In Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw breaks the silence around shame.

Bradshaw reached into the dark place I was in, confronted my fears about myself, and told me that not only is there hope, there are proven, concrete steps to healing shame and learning to love myself.


What Is Toxic Shame?

When Bradshaw talks about toxic shame/internalized shame/neurotic shame (all interchangeable in his book), he means when shame gets stuck to our identities.

To have shame as an identity is to believe that one’s being is flawed, that one is defective as a human being.

This isn’t the same as acknowledging having flaws. This is the feeling that we’re all flaws. That if we’re a chocolate truffle, our filling is defectiveness. This goes way beyond the Christian idea of original sin. It’s saying there’s nothing else in there: no spark of goodness, God, or worth, whatever you want to call it.

The condition of having toxic shame rule someone’s life is what Bradshaw calls the condition of being shame-bound.

To be shame-bound means that whenever you feel any feeling, need, or drive, you immediately feel ashamed.

This is no way to live. No one wants to feel this way. I reached a point where I wanted out at any cost that didn’t involve dying. But some people are convinced death is the only way out, and they take that way out through suicide, either actively or passively. Me being here isn’t virtue, believe me. I was too angry at my family to die. They made me feel like they wanted me to die, so staying alive was an act of defiance.

But that left me with a big problem to solve: my toxic shame.


A Scary Idea: Facing the Pain

In the case of shame, the more we avoid it, the worse it gets.

What I spent my whole life doing and am only now changing is hiding the shame. I couldn’t bear to talk about what my family thought of me. What if they were right? What if the whole world agreed with them and everything is always my fault? What if the worst things they ever accused me of are true?

But as I’ve started sharing my stories in therapy, with my best friend, and here on Medium, I’ve discovered my family was lying. The world doesn’t think it’s all my fault all the time.

To heal our toxic shame we must come out of hiding. As long as our shame is hidden, there is nothing we can do about it. In order to change our toxic shame we must embrace it.

Embracing our toxic shame doesn’t mean saying that the people who hurt us are right about us. Embracing it means that we examine the abuse we suffered honestly, sit with the truth of what happened, and give the toxic shame space instead of constantly trying to shove it down.

Embracing our toxic shame involves pain. Pain is what we try to avoid. In fact, most of our neurotic behavior is due to the avoidance of legitimate pain. We try to find an easier way. This is perfectly reasonable.

The pain is excruciating. I am not going to lie to you. Last week I started work on another segment of my toxic shame and CPTSD in therapy and barfing out the rage, pain, self-loathing, panic, and complete misery made it difficult for me to eat, sleep, or focus on anything. But the waves are subsiding, as they always will, and I’m able to get back on my feet.


Having A Safe Person

We can’t recover from shame on our own. Part of giving up the pretense is accepting we need help from others. It’s common to surround ourselves with people who shame us because we’re used to being shamed. But we’ve got to move toward someone safe, even if it means doing something like joining AA or another group therapy situation.

In order to be healed we must come out of isolation and hiding. This means finding a person, or ideally a group of significant others, whom we are willing to trust. This is tough for shame-based people.

I was lucky enough to meet my best friend and not be so confused that I didn’t realize hanging out with them felt good, and bad things didn’t happen when I was with them.

The only way we can find out we were wrong about ourselves is to risk exposing ourselves to someone else’s scrutiny. When we trust someone else and experience their love and acceptance, we begin to change our beliefs about ourselves. We learn that we are not bad; we learn that we are lovable and acceptable.

My best friend loves me, and I love them. In addition, I have a good therapist who actually cares, and I made a new friend in graduate school. Little by little, I’m finding people who are safe and building a circle of people it’s okay to be me around. And I’m offering the same thing for them. It’s not one-sided.


Telling the Stories

First of all, this means surrendering the denial. What happened to me really happened. I have to sit with it and remember — without exploding my CPTSD symptoms, which is why I’m in therapy. I’m learning to manage my symptoms so that I can tell my stories.

We must give up our delusional false selves and ego defenses to find the vital and precious core of ourselves.

To find ourselves, we have to retrace the steps of our lives. There, in our memories, by being honest about what happened and how it felt, we’ll find our child self or selves.

It involves making contact with the hurt and lonely Inner Child who was abandoned long ago…In order to reconnect with the wounded and hurt child, we have to go back and reexperience the emotions that were blocked.

This doesn’t mean having a PTSD flashback. It means recovering our sense of our emotions: hurt, angry, sad, betrayed, scared, and so on. Our childhood wasn’t idyllic. It wasn’t happy. It was troubled and turbulent.

Our lost childhood must be grieved. Our compulsivities are the result of old blocked feelings (our unresolved grief) being acted out over and over again.

Telling the stories belonging to our child selves enables us to honor them and help ourselves grieve.

Children need their pain validated.

We were all children once. Our unvalidated feelings simply sit there, waiting for us to acknowledge and validate them.

And when we tell our stories, not only do we validate our feelings, we give our safe people the opportunity to validate them as well.


Claiming the “Bad” Parts

“Bad” is highly contextual. It means whatever parts of you someone else tried to destroy. You ended up turned against yourself. When you couldn’t destroy the part of you that got attacked, you hid it.

These disowned parts appear most commonly in our dreams and our projections. This is especially true of our sexuality and natural instincts. Jung called these disowned aspects of ourselves our shadow side. Without integrating our shadow, we cannot be whole.

Projections means us throwing our characteristics we don’t like onto other people, or being angry at people who unconsciously remind us of parts of ourselves we’re denying or angry at for getting us in trouble.

My older brother has a learning disability and so do I, but mine is dyslexia and dyscalculia while his is something different. Once I figured out strategies of making letters and numbers “stay put,” I raced along in school, while my older brother continued to struggle. Every time I did something “smart,” our mother punished me, claiming I was trying to make my older brother feel bad. Standing out for being “smart” turned into a source of toxic shame for me.

Being confronted that I did or said something intelligent, even if it was supposed to be a compliment, embarrassed me, made me angry, or made me run away.

I grew up to hate “know-it-alls” and “intellectuals”. At the same time, watching people struggle with things I could actually secretly do easily, but didn’t feel allowed to do, caused rage.

Wanting to take charge and be competent caused shame. So I isolated even more from other people, who never learned that I could have helped them, and it never occurred to me back then that what I wanted to do was technically just to help out.

Another part of me that my mother hated was my loud, outgoing nature. She did everything she could to nip that in the bud. When telling stories to me about myself as a three-year-old, she complained that I would walk up to strangers and chat them up. She hates strangers, so it embarrassed and angered her. Frequently at home she would kick me out of the house and make me go outside if I raised my voice about anything, even in play. Just me laughing could enrage her that I was being loud.

By the time I met my best friend, I spoke so quietly that my best friend could barely hear me — and I falsely claimed that I was an introvert who hated loud places and loud people. I’d taken on my mother’s identity.

Part of healing is to embrace these shadows and recognize that other people in the world don’t consider these parts of me bad. I still flinch back or have panicky moments, but I’ve had experiences more and more frequently as I heal that show me my real self is good. I get to talk analytically with friends about things, get to be loud and have fun and laugh without fear of being shamed, and if I see a solution to a problem that someone else doesn’t, after a moment of self-doubting hesitation, I am able to speak up and at least ask them if my observation is helpful. At the very least, they’ll explain why it’s not helpful, which moves the conversation along to a solution, and at most, I’ve gotten exuberant thanks. No one has snapped at me to butt out or stop “showing off”. The rest of the world is not like my dysfunctional family.


Answering the Inner Critic

An inner voice will show up to try to push us back into shame-based silence and hiding. Often it will use what our caregivers said to us — but can also use what siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers, coaches, pastors, and others said.

An inner, self-critical dialogue goes on in all shame-based people.

We want to hide, but saying these automatic thoughts of the inner critic out loud is the only way. Externalizing means our accusers can’t hide from us.

It’s crucial to take time with the voices. I recommend you get in a relaxed state when it’s quiet. Really let yourself listen to what you’re saying to yourself. Write it down, say it out loud. Be spontaneous about the expression of the voices. Once you start saying it out loud, you may be surprised at the automatic outpouring.

This robs the thoughts of their private power.

Once you’ve expressed the voice, you can start answering the voice. You challenge both the content and the dictates of the voice.

The point isn’t an endless argument, though. It’s to think through whatever it is.

For instance, if my inner critic shows up to tell me that I’m bothering my best friend by talking to them about a movie I’ve watched, and demands that I shut up, I can simply interrupt myself to ask politely, “Am I bothering you? We could talk about something else.” I am neither allowing my inner critic to shame me nor ignoring them. I am checking in with my best friend about the conversation. Whatever they say goes. They’re the person my inner critic is supposedly trying to protect from my awfulness.

And 99% of the time, my best friend says, “Actually, this is really interesting!” The other 1% of the time, my best friend says, “I’m sorry but I’m distracted because something else is on my mind. I do want to hear about the movie, but I can’t concentrate.”

It’s never about me and the inner critic is never right.

Bradshaw recommends keeping a journal of what the cruel inner voices say. We’ll often learn about things that happened to us we otherwise no longer remember. Once we access the words and face our inner accusers we can work it back into our healing process.


Conclusion: Love Is A Choice

We don’t have control over everything, but that doesn’t mean we have no choices at all.

Toxic shame’s greatest enemy is the statement “I love myself.”

Getting to that statement sincerely is what takes time and effort and a willingness to face the pain and where it comes from.

Scott Peck has defined love “as the will to extend myself for the sake of nurturing my own and another’s spiritual growth.” This definition sees love as an act of the will. This means that love is a decision. I can choose to love myself, no matter what the past has been and no matter how I feel about myself.

I’d generalize my approach as extending myself the right to self-growth and protecting my right to self-growth, even from myself, and to always argue that I am worth helping. This means choosing to forgive myself for my mistakes, no matter what I think my mistakes are or how unforgivable I feel they are. Forgiveness means giving myself the tools to move forward and do better next time.

To forgive myself for existing is the most powerful ability I have. Many days I get frustrated because I didn’t want to exist. I didn’t ask to be born. I think it’s rotten that my mother had me, because she didn’t want me, so I was immediately an unwanted product. But I forgive me. I forgive me for being here and needing things and wanting things.

It’s difficult to wrap my mind around still, but to say, “I love myself,” also means to love…well…my self. My being. It’s no one thing or another.

There is so much wisdom in this book, and so many practical exercises for finding parts of ourselves, remembering memories we’ve forgotten, and sorting out our feelings, that I simply have to close out by recommending that you get Healing the Shame that Binds You. I hope it helps you on your journey as much as it’s helping me.

If you haven’t read my review of Bradshaw On: The Family, which discusses dysfunctional families, you may be interested in checking it out.

Amanda Melheim authored this article and generously provided Smiley Blue with permission to publish it.