The Role of Shame in the Adult Child Syndrome

The Role of Shame in the Adult Child Syndrome


Shame, inherent in every human being, is an emotional experience which combines feelings, thoughts, judgments, and values, potentially inhibiting a person’s behavior both at the time he engages in it and in future situations.

“Nature built… shame… into the fabric of our brains, minds, and family life as suppressors of our self-assertion and aggression, especially in our closer affiliations,” advises Dr. Peter R. Breggin in “Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions” (Prometheus Books, 2014, p. 21).

“Guilt, shame, and anxiety are part of our genetic heritage or legacy,” he continues (ibid, p. 30). “We are able to feel them because the potential for feeling them is innate in our brains and bodies. Our brains are primed to react with them, and our bodies are made to feel them.”

But for adult children, whose development was arrested because of alcohol-, abuse-, and dysfunction-caused home-or-origin instability, shame may have eclipsed the boundary of its purpose. It can result from criticism for what they have done. Yet, when it becomes overloaded, it leads them to believe that it is what they are.


Shame is more than just a feeling. It is also a physiological sensation that connects that emotion with the peripheral nervous system, manifesting itself by means of dilated blood vessels in the cheeks and sometimes also in the face, neck, and shoulders. Its resultant increase in blood flow produces a blush and warm or sometimes even hot sensation.

“Shame lights up the face with a blush for the entire world to see,” according to Breggin (ibid, p. 30). “(It) also adversely affects the ability to stand tall or look someone in the eye.”

Childhood abuse and neglect can overload a person to the point of saturation, prompting him to feel small, insignificant, and powerless in relation to others and wonder what his purpose, if any, is in the world.

None of this indicates a positive side to this emotional and physiological manifestation. Yet it has one.


Healthy shame is generated when a person realizes he has done something wrong, crossed boundaries, or exceeded certain behavioral criteria within social or emotional contexts, such as unintentionally teasing someone until he realizes that he has hurt him. It can thus be both a restraining and later correcting response, since the initially created feeling will most likely “wait in the wings” to reappear the next time the person contemplates similar actions.

Early shame, evoked by parents or primary caregivers attempting to correct and teach behaviors with such instructions as “We don’t talk like that to our elders” or “We behave in restaurants,” provides a foundation upon which the person is likely to rest for the duration of his life, seldom consciously recalling the incidents.

“Healthy shame keeps us grounded… ,” according to John Bradshaw in “Healing the Shame that Binds” You (Health Communications, 1988, p. 8). “It is the emotional energy that signals us that we are not God-that we will make mistakes–that we need help. Healthy shame gives us permission to be human.”

Since anything taken to extremes no longer serves a person, however, healthy shame can ultimately lead to its other, or toxic, counterpart.


After significant exposure to shame-producing direction and correction, particularly during early development by a parent or primary caregiver, it can become a personal identity-that is, it is no longer associated with what a person does or feels, but what he eventually believes that he is.

“All human powers, affects, and drives have the potential to encompass our personalities,” emphasizes Bradshaw (ibid, p. 21). “Instead of the momentary feeling of being limited, (of) making a mistake, (of feeling) little, or being less attractive or talented then someone else, a person can come to believe that his whole self is fundamentally flawed and defective.”

Instead of alerting the person of his limitations, it becomes a pervasive state of being, a core identity. Flooding him with feelings of failure and inadequacy, it results from a rupture of the self from the self, and is hence a shatter of rejected parts until there are more of them than the valuable ones.

Self-generating, it becomes the object of its own contempt.

“When shame is toxic,” Bradshaw advises (ibid, p. 5), “it is an excruciatingly internal experience of unexpected exposure. It is a deep cut felt primarily from the inside. It divides us from ourselves and from others. When our feeling of shame become toxic… , we disown ourselves.”

It often has the “you caught me” feeling, as if someone removes his mask, sees beyond his act, discovers his deep, dark secret, and exposes him for what he believes he intrinsically is-a fraud, an imposter, an actor who convinced others that he was somehow worthy and equal to them. He seldom believes that he is and often resorts to great lengths to convince others otherwise.

“Feelings of shame are usually attached to what someone else has said or done to us, or how we perceive our standing in relationship to someone else or to people in general,” according to Breggin (op. cit., p. 78). “The whole process feels external. We believe that other people find us unworthy and we may begin to feel they are right.”


The seed of toxic shame is planted by shame-based parents or primary caregivers. Transferred to their own offspring like germs invisibly passed from one to the other through the air and subconsciously adopted by means of the barrage of instructions, corrections, and putdowns, it becomes a child-transplanted image until the child himself feels annihilated.

“When a child is born to… shame-based parents, the deck is stacked from the beginning,” advises Bradshaw (op. cit., p. 46). “The job of parents is to model. Modeling includes how to be a man or a woman; how to relate inherently to another person; how to acknowledge and express emotions… how to communicate. Shame-based parents cannot do any of these. They simply don’t know how.”

Flowing from their own deficits, they are unable to meet their child’s needs, which actually clash with their own. This lack can lead to spiritual bankruptcy.

Although not necessarily intentional, since caregivers cannot give what they do not have, their inability to do so can be considered a form of abandonment of the child, leaving him without a parent-established sense of identity.

Shame drives behavior, prompting the eventual adult to ease or stifle his pain through addictions, compulsions, and potential self-harm.

This transfer can be considered a three-step process.

1). The child vainly attempts to attach to a shame-based parent, affording him less of an opportunity to establish an identity.

2). Parental abandonment, which can itself be traumatic, severs the vitally needed interpersonal nurturing and mirroring connection, resulting in the binding of feelings and needs with shame.

3). These deficits produce interconnected memory imprints.


Toxic shame is one of the major manifestations of the adult child syndrome.

Although adult children physically mature and adopt age-appropriate capabilities and behaviors, an undeveloped, inadequately nurtured and sometimes traumatized child, whose needs were not fully met, lurks behind the visual fa├žade.

“Being shamed by our parents or a relative represents the.loss of being able to feel whole as a person,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006). “Shame tramples a child’s natural love and trust and replaces it with malignant self-doubt. With shame, we lose our ability to trust ourselves or others. We feel inherently faulty as a child.”

So intense can the feeling become, that it can serve as an invisible, but very powerful barrier between one person and another.

“Feeling ashamed makes us feel excluded from our own family or group,” emphasizes Breggin (op. cit., p. 163). “When severe enough, (it) makes us feel that we are excluded from humanity-that we are fundamentally deficient, and the difference amounts to an irredeemable flaw.”

The more a person feels exposed for what he misbelieves about himself, the more he hides from others.

“The more pain you cause people, (and) the more you shame and insult them,” according to Dr. Gabor Mate, “the worse they’ll feel about themselves. The more suffering you impose, the more you strengthen their need to escape.”

“Being abandoned through the neglect of our developmental dependency needs is (a) major factor in becoming an adult child,” according to Bradshaw (op. cit., p. 84). “We grow up. We look like adults. We walk and talk like adults, but beneath the surface is a little child who feels empty and needy-a child whose needs are insatiable because he has a child’s needs in an adult body.”

Interconnected and then progressively intensified, images of shame take the person from feeling shame to being shame.

“Shame is no longer one feeling among many,” Bradshaw continues (ibid, p. 86), “but comes to constitute the core of oneself. Internalized shame creates a frozen state of being. (It) is no longer an emotional signal that comes and goes. It is a deep, abiding, all-pervasive sense of being defective as a person. This core of defectiveness forms the foundation around which other feelings of the self will be experienced.”

Toxic shame, formed before a child possesses any ego boundaries to protect himself, results in the unexpected exposure of the vulnerable aspects of himself. Both captive and powerless, he experiences early shaming events in a context in which he has no choice.

Beside himself, he unknowingly commences the process of rejecting parts of himself, as they are “shamed away” by parents, resulting in the pervasive feeling of exposure and emptiness. A secondary byproduct is what Freud termed “ego defenses”-that is, the child covers, camouflages, and sends his true self into hiding. Ashamed of who he is, he ironically adopts a false self, which is what he is not.

The process entails four progressively deeper defenses.

1). Denial

2). Numbing

3). Dissociating

4). Projecting-that is, the person’s disowned parts are attributed to and projected onto others for expression, release, and relief.

Yet none of this is irrational.

“When (guilt, shame, and anxiety) become overwhelming or disabling, it is a result of normal functional responses to childhood neglect, abuse, or trauma, or to adult traumas, such as war, incarceration, domestic abuse, and rape,” according to Breggin (op. cit., p. 253). “These are the responses of a normal person with a normal brain to unusual stress.”


Families are, in essence, systems, which are greater than the sum of their parts, but they very much rely on those parts to maintain their functionality and homeostasis. When one or more are deficient, others often must extend beyond their traditional roles to ensure their continued balance.

Shame-based adult children mascaraed as adults, but will only be emotionally and supportingly available in partial ways, since they operate from their own deficiencies.

When two adult children meet and fall in love, the child in each looks to the other to fill his or her needs, which were never filled in childhood, resulting in an incomplete person who subconsciously looks toward (his or her) partner or spouse to replace (him or her). Neither, of course, could or should fill such a role.

Attempting to restore the uneven balance, the offspring themselves are usually forced to assume almost-scripted roles, such as mascot, hero, scapegoat, lost child, and even surrogate spouse, plugging holes so that the system will ostensibly shine through the overachiever and ensure the inappropriately-attributed blame from the deficient parent to the scapegoat.

Like a series of silent checks-and-balances, rules also facilitate the perpetuation of the broken, dysfunctional whole. Controlled feelings, actions, and behaviors, like an act, camouflage the collective shame, creating a disciplined, idealized image to others who fail to suspect the “necessary deceit.”

Perfectionism is another strategy. Entailing sometimes humanly unachievable, parentally imposed standards, it strives to create the same flawless image.

If both of these methods fail, blame is used to explain and exonerate.

Adherence to these strategies is maintained by the single, silently-directed rule of “don’t talk, don’t’ trust, and don’t feel,” ensuring that all family members deny the reality and perpetuate the fraud. In essence, they agree not to see and thus cannot change they refuse to acknowledge.

Alice Miller summarized the toxic rules that guarantee shame-based families in her book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (Google Books, 1980), as “Adults are masters of the dependent child. They determine in God-like fashion what is right and what is wrong. The child is held responsible for the parents’ anger. The parents must always be shielded. (And) the child’s life-affirming feelings pose a threat to the autocratic adult.”


Shame-based people are egocentric. Focusing on the pain of emotional shatter, they misinterpret and distort in ways that those who are more secure most likely would not. Turned down for an invitation to have coffee or lunch with someone, for instance, they may think, That’s because I’m not worthy of your time, while a healthier person may think, Oh, well, he/she must be busy. We’ll get together another time.

Such people resort, mostly to themselves, to several inaccurate, exaggerated, and even irrational emotional thought processes.

1). Catastrophizing: Employing the “mountain out of a molehill” process, the person takes a small, single thought, observation, action, or emotion and rides it to its catastrophic destination. A cough, for example, may be perceived as the beginning of emphysema, along with such beliefs that the person will no longer be able to work, will lose his health insurance, and be forced to live on the street in the dead of winter. If the disease dose not kill him, the cold certainly will, he concludes.

2). Mind reading: Mind reading, of the non-psychic type, entails attributing a person’s poor self-feelings to the expressions, gestures, and looks of others. A constantly yawning student sitting in front of his teacher may think, I know the teacher thinks I have no interest in what he’s saying and that I consider him a boring instructor. But the reality is that I didn’t’ get much sleep last night.

3). Overgeneralization: In this case, a single fact, act, or incident is overgeneralized and amplified. Such a person may say, “I wrote the first page of my book last night. When I reread it, I didn’t like the way it sounded. I spelled so many words wrong and my grammar was atrocious. All people who can’t spell are failures as writers.”

4). Dichotomous thinking: Almost bipolar in nature, this pattern entails a pendulum that swings between extremes and reflects the person’s belief system. “With the book I just finished I’ll either win the Pulitzer Prize or the garbage prize for the worst thing anyone has ever read,” he say claim.

5). False control: “Control is a major cover-up for toxic shame,” according to Bradshaw (op. cit., p. 216). “Control is a product of grandiosity and distorts thinking in two ways: you (either) see yourself as helpless and extremely controlled or as omnipotent and responsible for everyone around you… (In the latter case,), you carry the world on your shoulders and feel guilty when it doesn’t work out.” It certainly echoes one of the adult child behavioral characteristics-namely, “we have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and prefer to be concerned with others rather than with ourselves” or the Bryant McGill slogan of “You are only responsible for the effort, not the outcome.”

6). Filtering: Because of a person’s shame, misbeliefs, and low sense of self-esteem, he selects and filters comments and circumstances through his distortions. If, for example, he is told that he did a beautiful job of cutting his neighbor’s lawn and trimming his shrubs, but that the holly bush could have been cut a little lower, he may focus only on the negative and conclude, I’m a failure as a gardener!

Shame causes a person to fall into the hole in his soul and view situations from the pit of his wound.

These pathologies can be remedied by means of a three-part process.

1). Determine and examine the distortion.

2). Identify, if at all possible, the brain area from which they emanate: the brain stem, the midbrain, or the cerebral cortex.

3). Restructure the neuropathways. Instead of continually repeating “I’ll never amount to anything,” determine, “That’s what my mother used to say thousands of times when I was growing up.”


Shame-based parents, needless to say, create shame-based children and, eventually, shame-based adult children, who circulate throughout life as their critical inner voices circulate in their heads.

Foundational studies for this dynamic were undertaken by Robert Firestone, a clinical psychologist born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1930, who sought to identify the origins of them. While observing therapists who received critical or negative feedback from their clients, he learned that they became angry and defensive, not necessarily because they believed that these claims were true, but because they tripped the circuit of what they believed about themselves. Reacting, they emotionally responded to their own self-criticism, which attests to the validity of another of the adult child behavioral characteristics-namely, “Personal criticism we take as a threat.”

“Appraisals and evaluations from others, when they validate a person’s distorted view of himself, tend to arouse an obsessive thought process,” he concluded.

“Since we are already tortured by our own critical thoughts and self-attacks,” wrote Bradshaw (ibid, p. 204), “we feel very threatened whenever others attack us the same way.”

Instances of vulnerability and exposure are catalysts to activation of the critical inner voice, sparking shame spirals, which, once launched, assume powers of their own. In their extreme, they can be very limiting, causing the person to focus on a single collection of automatic thoughts while excluding any positive ones.

Major critical thought types include the self-putdowns, the catastrophizing about what fate may deal, and remorse and regret.

This self-abasing strategy can be minimized and ultimately reversed by means of the following process.

1). Be cognizant of your internal dialogue. Like a neuron-linked circuit, it runs in a loop and usually begins right after its previous play ends.

2). Determine the times, circumstances, emotional and physical states, vulnerabilities, and triggers that initiate it.

3). Trace, if at all possible, its origins, which will most likely be parental putdowns and shames.

4). Determine its core or deeper meaning.


Shame, like all other adult child issues, requires identification, understanding, and uprooting, usually through personal therapy and twelve-step fellowships, during which it should be emphasized that it is an emotional response that can reach saturation and virtually become an identity when it reaches toxic proportions.

“Remind yourself as often as necessary that feeling guilty, ashamed, or anxious have nothing whatsoever to do with our real value… ,” advises Breggin (op. cit., p. 162). “None of us deserves these (self-defeating) emotions… We must not allow them to ruin our lives and the lives of others who need and love us.”

Because a shame-based person has necessarily rejected parts of himself, it requires significant reintegrative work, which Bradshaw emphasizes.

“Part of the work of self-acceptance involves the integration of our shame-based feelings, needs, and wants,” he states (op. cit., p. 189). “Most shame-based people feel ashamed when they need help, when they feel angry, sad, fearful, or joyous… These essential parts have been split off.”

Twelve-step programs, because they entail surrender to a Higher Power who lifts and dissolves the squelched, unresolved emotions of a person’s past, are integral to the healing of shame in the present.

“Steps leading up to Step Ten can express the toxic shame and abandonment we endured as children and teens,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook advises (op. cit., p. 115). “The shame gives us a negative orientation to the outward and inner world. In our mind, we developed deeply grooved, self-shaming messages that lived on after we left our homes.”

Elements of a shame reduction program include regaining sufficient trust to interrelate with at least one other, non-shame-based person, so that he can be mirrored by him; externalizing and processing his childhood shame; recognizing his rejected or split-off parts; reaccepting and integrating them in a nonjudgmental manner; identifying and reversing his critical inner voices; becoming aware of the triggers that spark shame and its more powerful shame spirals; accepting his imperfect, impermanent human state; realizing, because of it, that he will still make mistakes, but that he is not a mistake; and creating self-acceptance and inner peace through prayer and meditation.

“The rewards of facing and overcoming shame are enormous,” concludes Breggin (op. cit., pp 172-173). “Triumphing over and transcending shame reactions can open the door to a life in which we choose the kinds of social relationships we desire and the social risks we want to take toward becoming more creative, social, and self-determined. Overcoming shame allows us to regain aspects of ourselves thwarted or suppressed during childhood or adolescence. It allows us to reshape our identities into the emotionally free people we have always wanted to be.”

Workshop Sources:

“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.

Bradshaw, John. “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1988.

Breggin, Peter R. “Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions.” Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2014.

Waldvogel, Robert G. “How Can Adult Children Differentiate Guilt from Shame?” EzineArticles. May 7, 2019.