Shame and Trauma

shame and trauma

Experiencing a traumatic event can awaken a wide variety of distressing emotions. One of the most challenging emotions that may arise is shame, which many people struggle with as an after-effect of trauma.

The Link Between Shame and Trauma

Research has found that many people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) struggle with shame.[1] Certain types of trauma have been associated with greater feelings of shame, including sexual violence, childhood abuse or neglect, and intimate partner violence. These are types of ongoing trauma that do not fully heal and leave people with a persistent sense of powerlessness.

There are numerous shame reactions that people can experience, including: [2]

  • Avoiding any form of attention
  • Trying to hide their true self
  • Feeling as though others are taking advantage of them
  • Feeling like an outsider
  • Negative body language such as slumped shoulders and looking down when interacting with other people

People can internalise shame from many different sources, including parents and caregivers. They may have been mocked and belittled for their actions or behaviours, been made fun of in front of others, or been told that they are useless or that something is wrong with them for unintentional actions.

Some professionals argue for the classification of PTSD as a shame disorder as well as an anxiety disorder. The feeling of shame can prevent some people with PTSD from seeking the treatment they need, as they may be under the impression that they do not deserve it.

Those feeling ashamed because of their trauma may cope in several different ways:

  • Withdrawal – people who are ashamed of themselves feel worthless and unlovable. They may withdraw from their friends and family because of these thoughts or as a form of self-punishment.
  • Anger – people struggling with shame may lash out at other people to cover up their own emotional pain. This anger may make them feel even more ashamed of themselves.
  • Sadness and fear – also called safety behaviours, people may cry and apologise to avoid any potential conflict and manage their feelings of shame.
  • Harmful behaviours – shame can cause emotional pain, which people struggle to cope with. Therefore, they may turn to unhealthy, harmful coping mechanisms, such as substance misuse or self-harm.

These unhealthy coping mechanisms can intensify symptoms of PTSD as they can interfere with how people process their emotions.

Shame and Mental Health

Trauma and the shame that it brings can also exacerbate or encourage mental health conditions such as:

  • Depression – shame can lead to persistent sadness and hopelessness as people feel inadequate.
  • Social anxiety – people struggling with shame may feel anxious about interacting with others as they worry about what others will think of them and shirk attention.
  • Low self-esteem – shame can cause people to lack confidence and compare themselves unfavourably to other people.
  • Substance use disorders – people may turn to substances such as drugs or alcohol to cope with the negative emotions that shame brings.

Shame may also fuel perfectionism in many people. As they feel inherently inadequate or worthless, they try to counteract their emotions by being as perfect as possible, whether at work or in their relationships.

Shame vs. Guilt

Shame is closely linked to guilt, but there is a difference between the two. People feel ashamed when they judge themselves in a negative light, seeing themselves as worthless or inadequate. On the other hand, guilt is an action or behaviour evaluated as negative. This could be snapping at a loved one or failing to remember an important date.

Shame and guilt can influence behaviour in different ways. Guilt may be a more positive motivator, causing people to take steps to amend their actions or apologise to those that they hurt.

In contrast, shame is not as helpful. When people feel ashamed of themselves, they often turn to self-punishment, isolating themselves from their loved ones or engaging in self-harm. Although shame can sometimes be fleeting, it can quickly become toxic when people feel ashamed all the time and lead to unhealthy self-talk. Shame can also intensify feelings of guilt, and people can feel unjustly responsible for things that are not related to them.

Reducing Shame

It is possible to reduce and cope with feelings of shame for those dealing with trauma or PTSD:

  • Opposite action – when feelings of shame become particularly intense, take an opposite action to what you are feeling. For example, if shame tells you that you are worthless and nobody cares about you, reach out to a loved one instead. This counteracts shame and can boost resilience to help you to cope.[3]
  • Reframe negative thoughts – when a negative thought caused by shame pops into your head, try to reframe it. For example, when you feel ashamed for not completing a certain task, reframe your thoughts and make a list of everything you have accomplished that day instead. Through reframing your thoughts, you can also explore where the thought may have come from and see the evidence against it.
  • Practice self-compassion – everyone is human, and everyone makes mistakes. You are worthy of love regardless of your mistakes and history! Try to boost your own self-compassion by journaling about your emotions, writing daily positive affirmations, or practising mindful meditation every day. Meditation can be especially beneficial as it can increase awareness of shameful beliefs that appear and help you let these thoughts pass without emotional distress.
  • Seek professional help – intense internalised shame is incredibly difficult to deal with alone, especially if trauma is a driving factor behind it. Seeking professional help can reduce feelings of shame and treat the root cause of trauma.

You deserve to heal from toxic, internalised shame and trauma. It is important to remember that you are not alone and that people care about you, no matter what your feelings of shame say.

Conclusion

Shame and trauma are closely linked, and one can play off the other. Ongoing traumas such as childhood abuse and domestic violence are likely to increase feelings of shame, persisting for many years.

Although people may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to cope with complicated feelings of shame, there are many positive coping methods, such as practising self-compassion and taking opposite actions to counter negative emotions. However, professional intervention is advisable, as shame and trauma can leave deep wounds challenging to heal alone.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with shame or trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

Sources:

[1] Bannister J, Colvonen P, Angkaw A, Norman S. Differential relationships of guilt and shame on posttraumatic stress disorder among veterans. Psychol Trauma. 2019;11(1):35-42. doi:10.1037/tra0000392

[2] Breggin P. Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions. New York: Prometheus; 2014.

[3] Renna M, Quintero J, Fresco D, Mennin D. Emotion Regulation Therapy: A Mechanism-Targeted Treatment for Disorders of Distress. Front Psychol. 2017;8:98. doi:10.3389%2Ffpsyg.2017.00098

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