Shame: Why does it come from Trauma?

PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) unlocks an entire array of negative emotions, including fear, anger, anxiety, and sadness. These emotions are entirely justified for anyone who has had a traumatising experience, and over time they will likely begin to fade as the survivor heals. But there is one emotion that tends to creep in over time after the traumatic event, that significantly hinders the recovery process. This intensifying emotion is shame.

Shame from Trauma or PTSD

Trauma that provokes PTSD is well known to cause deeply rooted feelings of shame that foster over time. This is a severe detrimental emotional tie and a strong risk factor for those who have PTSD from a past adverse experience. Though shame takes some time to build and is not always there right from the beginning of the trauma, it does cultivate a distress and shame cycle that inhibits people from being able to live a stable, healthy life.

Understanding Shame

Shame is a very, uniquely destructive emotion that anyone can face in their life. What makes shame such a segregated feeling is that it tends to exist overwhelmingly without any real purpose, unlike guilt, which will be covered momentarily. When someone has shame, they are hurting themselves internally, blaming themselves for the events that caused their PTSD and the transgressions committed against themselves.

Overall, it damages a person’s self-image in such a way that no other emotion can. It makes them feel deeply flawed as a human, worthless, and in many cases, unlovable. When ignored, this debilitating emotion can destroy external relationships as well, leaving the survivor disoriented on the role they play in society. In short, shame may be a categorised emotion, but it serves no real purpose other than making people feel terrible about themselves.

Guilt and Shame are Not the Same Emotion

 Briefly touched upon above, guilt and shame, though often intertwined in conversation, are not the same emotion. Shame is an internal, self-conscious emotion, whereas guilt is when you are reflecting on a past action or behaviour, and preserve it as a negative reaction on your part. For example, if you promised someone that you would give them a ride to work, but fail to do so (even on accident), you may feel guilty for that neglectful behaviour towards someone you care about.  For a quick reference on separating the two emotions:

  • Shame = negative self-judgement and viewing yourself as worthless.

  • Guilt = You evaluate an action or behaviour you did as unfavourable, but as a person, you still feel valued internally.

In summary, guilt and shame are both emotions that are not welcomed, but guilt can entice you to make amends for your actions, allowing you to feel better about yourself in the long run. So, it can be helpful. Shame, on the other hand, does not provide that shed of light or path at all. It is self-punishment and serves no real purpose for developing post traumatic growth.

The Relationship Between Shame and PTSD

No one is immune to feeling shame when it comes to experiencing a trauma. But there are certain types that are notorious for the slow rise of this emotion, such as sexual violence, intimate partner abuse, and childhood abuse. The reason why these are prime is because they each feature extremely dehumanising and humiliating by nature, which is the perfect recipe for shame to form. This can become a catalyst for the person with PTSD to partake in self-destructive behaviours, self-blame, self-neglect, perfectionism, and can quite often link to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

The most challenging part about shame is that once it has formulated, it can be very hard to break out of. So, for those who are in recovery for their PTSD, the existence of the perpetuating cycle of despair is a leading hurdle to reach healthier coping mechanisms. In fact, many people tend to be so shame-bound that they retreat from the world around them, not allowing resources to help them get back to a much better mindset to see their self-worth. Though it might feel like a dead-end path, it is possible to recover from shame, learning how to restructure your way of thinking and your thought process so you can find yourself reaching your PTSD recovery goals. 

How to Remediate or Reduce Shame

With the assistance and support of a psychologist, pharmacological therapies, and specialised interventions, you can overcome PTSD. Remember, PTSD is anxiety disorder, and even though fear and pain can be limiting, with the right help it can be overcome. The aspect of sham within this may appear a bit more complicated, as there really is no anti-shame pill on the market that you can take. The best way to combat self-loathing and the complex nature of shame is compassion.

Compassion As A Tool

Self-compassion has been researched and evident in reducing the effects of shame. When leveraged, it can be a powerful antidote in halting self-criticism, which is a top characteristic for those who have intense shame. The reason is because compassion allows people with PTSD to increase their trust, connectedness, and calmness within themselves through the release of oxytocin. With the help of a psychologist and counselling, they can help someone with PTSD and shame develop strategies to encompass self-compassion to drive kindness, love, and empathy towards themselves.

 

Distraction To Help

Another fundamental way you can reduce shame includes distracting yourself from those negative thoughts so you can reconstruct mindful control of your emotions. You can train your mind to stop shameful feelings from lurking and wreaking havoc in your mind and form new, healthier ones instead on your recovery journey from PTSD. You can make a rule for yourself, such as when you feel a shame rising, you immediately turn on your favourite music, go for a walk, or call a close friend. Do what you need to do to distract yourself and your mind from entering that darkened place.

Knowing Your Triggers

Shame often emerges when you are at your most vulnerable state, and for those with PTSD, it could very well be the same triggers that cause you to relive your painful past. This is because insecurities are a prime component for people to default to shame. Take some time to know what your shame triggers are so you can either learn to avoid them or be prepared with healthier ways of thinking when they do come about. Again, you do not have to do this on your own. With the help of a professional psychologist, you can work together to uncover those triggers and understand how to deal with them without shame involved.

Conclusion

 Shame is undoubtedly one of the most corrosive, universal human emotions. It can make people think that they are failures, that they don’t belong, or that the trauma they face was their fault. None of this is true, but that little voice inside your head can be very convincing and hard to ignore. Luckily, there are ways that you can learn to build a defence against it; you just need to be ready and in a place where you can start to untangle the roots of your shame, where it stems from and realising that it has no purpose in your life.

As a final note, always remember that shame was not developed in a day, and it will not dissolve in a day. Sometimes years can go by before shame ever emerges from a traumatic event in your life, and that is perfectly normal. But normal does not mean it is welcomed. With the right resources on your side and adopting healthy mindfulness and compassion focused strategies, you will be able to beat that harmful emotion and break the underlying barrier that stops you from recovering from trauma.

 

Quest Psychology Services are specialists in Trauma Therapy within Salford, Manchester. To discuss getting help for you or a loved one call us on 07932737335

11 thoughts on “Shame: Why does it come from Trauma?

  1. Gary Denese says:

    John Bradshaw would disagree with your statement “In short, shame may be a categorised emotion, but it serves no real purpose other than making people feel terrible about themselves.” In “Healing the Shame that Binds You” he distinguishes between toxic shame (which what your article is about) and healthy shame, stating
    “Our healthy shame is essential as the foundation of our spirituality. By reminding us of our essential limitations, our healthy shame lets us know that we are not God. Our healthy shame points us in the direction of some larger meaning. Our healthy shame is the psychological ground of our humility.”

    • Bertha Celeste says:

      Unfortunately, that depends entirely on someone believing in a religious framework. Specifically, Bradshaw was Roman Catholic, a religion which is founded on persistent guilt. It isn’t going to be a helpful view for Atheists or Muslims or Buddhists. Moreover, it isn’t going to help any child who was abused in a religious setting, since those children were *already* raised to be taught that they are worthless and need to stop attempting to put themselves before God, their priests, parents, or anyone else. Indeed almost every abused child, and survivor of sexual and intimate partner violence, has been conditioned to believe that their own healthy boundaries are unhealthy, selfish, and immoral. Abuse survivors are conditioned to believe that they should be MORE humble, MORE self-sacrificing, and love / forgive / accept abuse and abusers unconditionally. This pressure is the very thing that allows their abusers to retain control: survivors try to *give up* increasing amounts of personal power because their abuser is telling them that it is their own selfishness, greed and ego that is causing their pain, not the actions of the abusive parent / priest / anyone else. I was a Catholic for part of my childhood and being faced with a judgemental, hyper-critical, patriarchal God seemed like an eerie projection of a judgemental, hyper-critical, patriarchal parent. It isn’t a positive life experience to feel like every breath you take or thought you think is somehow failing to live up to the expectations of a perpetually dissatisfied God figure, just as it isn’t healthy to believe you’re a constant disappointment to your parents. There is no such thing as healthy shame and shame is not a part of healthy spirituality.

  2. Bertha Celeste says:

    I appreciate this article but it’s always frustrating when the advice for dealing with toxic shame is self-compassion. How though? “Just love yourself more” is about as helpful as telling a crying baby to “just grow up.” It can’t, it’s a baby. For the same reason, a survivor battling toxic shame can’t just love themselves. Self-compassion is as remote to a shame-filled abuse survivor as mature adulthood is to a baby, and it might be the end goal but it won’t help anyone get there. A crying baby doesn’t need to grow up, it needs to be fed, changed, held, rocked to sleep. Just as a traumatised person doesn’t need to magically love themselves, they need to be soothed in the moment. A baby can’t do that and nor can someone who is tangled up with severe and crushing C-PTSD, and who can’t even leave the house because of their own shame. How exactly is someone supposed to feel compassion for themselves when they’re experiencing such extreme hurt? Honestly, what is step one? There isn’t one — just as there is no step one for a baby to reach the goal of warming her own milk or changing her own diaper. It isn’t specific, achievable or realistic, it’s just one more thing for survivors to feel guilty about. “If only I could love myself more! Why can’t I be self-compassionate? What’s wrong with me? It’s all my fault!”

    • GregW says:

      Hi Bertha, Thank you for your comment, I really enjoyed reading your perspective as I think it’s a very good and appropriate challenge. From my perspective to teach that I would be helping someone work though exercises from compassion focused therapy to start to learn and physically embody that compassion towards themselves and start to manage and hopefully change the critical inner voice. The compassionate mind workbook by Chris Irons has some great exercises for this.

  3. Pingback: The Role of Shame in PTSD and 5 Things you can do to Heal -

  4. Pamela Ratcliffe says:

    Great debate,
    Deep shame is an horrendous place for anyone to find themselves. It makes no sense to the sufferer and does great harm to developing any kind of self love.
    Once self love and self understanding has been achieved, which can be long and painful I believe a Spirituality can be acquired and will be unique to this particular individual, and one would wish this person peace and contentment onwards. And upwards x Pam R.

  5. Jeffrey B. Pension says:

    I have allowed shame, toxic shame, guilt and, constant critical inventory. The most unfortunate piece to my predicament my father way my greatest perpetrator was my father. He is still alive and he and I run neck and neck for being the greatest perpetrators!

    I am so sick of being sick and tired of myself! It’s sad, I was born with the predisposition of alcoholism and drank very hard to 12 years. I realized and it was brought to my attention by many people in many ways. I finally realized that I was going to live a very short life if I didn’t quit immediately and, I did! AA was the temporary answer but wasn’t the real answer. Cognitive reconstruction was and I am 32 years sober living one day at a time and always open to cognitive change. I went back to school and graduated with honors at the age of 50 from Villanova University! I am now 62 and ready to knock the back end of this Toxic Shame based PTSD! I am sick and tired of myself and being properly nurtured! Please forward me anything that may pertain to both Toxic Shame and PTSD!
    Many thanks and much gratitude!
    M

  6. jo says:

    I really enjoyed reading all these comments. I’m 76 and have recently, but finally — and thankfully– bumped into the wide wide world of debilitating shame. I have been in therapy for most of my adult life. I had so much therapy, I became a therapist. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I was coming at my shame from every possible direction. Art Therapy, Play Therapy, Family Systems Therapy, Music and MovementTherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Compassionate Meditation, Creative Journalling, Writing as Spiritual Practice, Poetry as Spiritual Practice, Haiku as Spiritual Practice, and hefty membership and regular commitment to four heavy-duty12-Step recovery programs — AA, Alanon, ACOA, and Codependents Anonymous. Toss in the Bible and about a zillion dollars of books, CD’s, online podcasts from depth psychologists, spiritual gurus, Kristen Neff, and Brene Brown until the sound of her voice made me want to scream. At times I have relied on medication, massage therapy, Rolfing, Hakomi, acupuncture, cranial sacrum therapy, aroma therapy and healing touch. i spent another zillion dollars on psychological and spiritual retreats, and don’t ask me about all the school counselling sessions and programs I needed to be a decent parent; and sex therapy sessions for a husband who suffered from premature ejaculation for 28 years. Frankly, everything I do is therapy. If just one of those things lifts me out of my shame for half an hour, it’s worth whatever money or effort I put into it. About twenty years ago I attended 4 days of professional development on Stress and Post-Traumatic Stress.. I can’t remember what that instructor did, or how he did it, but after four days, when walked away from that training course, it felt as if a packsack of rocks had been lifted off my shoulders. . My shame was gone. G.O.N.E., and I felt light as a feather, delighted, and the closest thing to happy I’d ever been. I couldn’t help wondering, ‘What would it be like to live your whole life without burden of shame?’ It took three or four days before the old negative, critical grip and grind closed in again on my mind, and I’m determined to identify so I can repeat it in my life now. // I’m not finished writing about this yet because this journey has not been a complete dark shadow of failure. There have been many things and people who have helped lift and carry me along, but I have stopped believing that I can ‘heal’ from my shame or be cured of it. what I do believe and know is that there have been many things and people who have helped me lift and carry this burden and allowed for moments and hours and sometimes days of lightness and lack of fear. At 76 years old, I wonder why such a smart, savvy, and creative woman as myself doesn’t own a home, has no husband or loving relationship, nothing left of a career, not much identity, and who left her adult children and grandchildren behind to move to a different place and live alone. I’m writing this because it helps to write about it. For some reason, this website makes me feel like I have many mutual companions.
    Ano

    • Grace says:

      Jo, your heartfelt share has been comforting to read as a complex ptsd survivor, struggling to shed toxic shame that has been laden on me by the perpetrators (narcissistic father, aunt, her husband who abused me, ex husband). I too want to leave this shame so badly that talking of past, even childhood of my adult children with them, brings up distress, instead of joy. Then I feel shame if not feeling good.
      We didn’t deserve for the joy to be sucked out of us with traumas that have put shame as driving force, including avoiding situations at work that I feel I don’t know enough, fear humiliation and then don’t stay present to speak my thoughts with confidence.
      I do think of being away from all and wonder if isolation really is only way to cope. Would that be right to wish away my presence in those lives, who do care to have me there, even if for their own reasons.
      I hope we all get our answers that give us comfort.

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