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5 ways to address the awful feeling of shame that follows childhood trauma

Updated: May 16

What kinds of feelings do people experience after trauma?

For obvious reasons, there are many feelings or emotions that one may experience following trauma. Feelings of sadness, embarrassment, anger, and confusion are common. Many individuals who experience trauma appear to live with shame, even when it is no fault of themselves. According to an article published by the National Institute of Health 2014, shame may produce hostile interpersonal responses from angry withdrawal to humiliated fury.

What is shame?

Shame is a negative emotion that arises when one is seen and judged by others (whether they are present, possible, or imagined) (Dolezal & Lyon, 2017). The Webster’s dictionary Define shame as an unpleasant self-conscious emotion typically associated with a negative evaluation of the self, withdrawal motivations, and feelings of distress, exposure, mistrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness. According to the American Psychological Association, shame is a very complicated feeling. “While basic emotions such as anger, surprise, or fear tend to happen automatically, at times without much cognitive processing, but shame is more complex in that is self-conscious emotions. They require self-reflection and self-evaluation.” In an article entitled “Expressed Emotion, Shame, and Non-Suicidal Self-Injury,” the authors emphasized that shame is an overwhelming and debilitating emotion, negatively scrutinizing the self and seeing it defective. Shame promotes negative self-beliefs and fosters worthlessness, humiliation, and powerlessness leading people to want to “sink into the floor or disappear.” Individuals who experience feelings of shame at times believe their internal self is unchangeable (Hack & Martin, 2018). Despite shame being an overbearing emotion, it is under-acknowledged, underresearched, and undertheorized in health and medicine (Dolezal & Lyon, 2017).

How is shame related to other emotions?

Fear is known to have the most dominant effect associated with trauma (Taylor, 2015). Research indicates since shame is frequently considered a painful and discomforting emotion, it may fail to be addressed in the therapeutic setting by both client and therapist. In research that examined the influence of shame, it suggests that shame is often poorly recognized sequel to trauma, occurring as a result of the meaning the individual places on the traumatic experience and subsequent interpersonal and environmental events (2015).

Webb (2010) and Nathanson (1992) identified the four most common emotions associated with shame. They are fear, anger, distress, and disgust. Individuals tend to display these emotions through aggression (attacking others), depression (attack on self), addiction (hiding from self), and isolation (hiding from others).

Which form of trauma is shame mostly associated with?

All who experience trauma can feel shame. It is not exclusive to one form of trauma. At the same time, not all who experience trauma will feel shame. It can be different for everyone. However, shame is prevalent among individuals who experienced childhood abuse. A study conducted by Kim et al. (2019) examined the role that shame plays with family conflict among individuals who experienced childhood abuse. This study’s finding indicates that childhood sexual abuse was related to interpersonal conflicts indirectly through the emotion of shame. More specifically, research shows for individuals with sexual abuse histories, there is a positive correlation between shame and interpersonal difficulties. The researchers remind us that childhood sexual abuse can produce profound feelings of shame. A history of childhood sexual abuse is associated with higher self-blame rates, self-depreciation, and self-consciousness, which leads to shame.

How does living with shame impact your life?

How someone lives with shame is based on their culture, support, belief, health, etc. For example, in Western culture is considered a virtually invisible, ubiquitous part of everyday life by Scheff (2014); associated with feelings of weakness, vulnerability, and the likelihood of rejection (Lansky, 2003); and hidden, because it is shameful in itself (Kaufman, 2004). Within Western culture, shame is considered a signal of risk to social bonds. It may signal that the others might disapprove of one’s actions or self, culminating in rejection. Additionally, shame can provoke the belief that one may lose status, standing in a social group or one’s job, or letting one’s family or the team down (Taylor, 2015).

In Eastern cultures, the feeling of shame takes over the mind when they consider the negative view their circumstances, experience, or action may impact their family’s name, community, or society (You, 1997). The individual can be very frightened by the thoughts their family, community, and society may have about their experience. With just that thought allow, some did not know “how to live with themselves.” Thus, the enormity of shame increases when they imagine how it impacts others.

Eastern societies put a high value on the harmonious integration of group members. Shame is more profoundly associated with the fear that one’s inadequacies will result in the loss of union with or expulsion from the group (You, 1997). You (1997) concludes, in Western culture, internal shame arises when one feels they have not lived up to their expectation, while the Eastern cultures, internal shame comes when a person has not lived up to the community’s rule or expectation.

Even after someone experienced childhood trauma, with no fault of their own, they may feel an overwhelming sense of shame because of their belief about themselves and others (whether they are present, possible, or imagined) regarding the event.

What is the difference between shame and guilt?

When you feel shame, you feel that you have done something wrong. When you feel guilty, you judge yourself based on something you’ve done wrong.

By definition, guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. Shame is a painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another. According to Dr. Burgo (2013), shame may result from the awareness of guilt but is not the same thing as guilt. It’s a painful feeling about how we appear to others (and ourselves) and doesn’t necessarily depend on our having done anything.

To help our readers understand more, what’s the difference between embarrassment and shame?

There’s a significant difference between shame and embarrassment. Many people intuitively think there’s a connection, that embarrassment is a weaker form of shame, but that is not the case (Tangney & et al., 1996). Shame is much more intense and likely to be associated with moral transgressions. Tangney & et al. (1996) specified that while most people feel shame in others’ company, feeling alone with shame is common. Embarrassment, on the other hand, tends to stem from social slip-ups, and we rarely experience it outside a social context.

What are five ways an individual can address their shame to live a life of joy and peace?

Here are five ways to address the shame:

1 – See how living with the shame is paralyzing you (stomach knot, digestion issues, sleep disturbance, lack of concentration, etc.) Be aware of how shame is physically impacting your lives.

2 – Identify the root cause of your shame. Is it something done to you or something you’ve done that is causing you shame? If it’s something done to you, learn how to promote awareness to help yourself and others.

3 – Find reasons to forgive self and others. Forgiveness is a necessary step when addressing shame brought on by self and others. When it’s appropriate, ask for forgiveness if you’ve done something wrong.

4 – Replace shame with love. The greatest and best replacement for shame is the feeling of love for others and self. Shame creates havoc in self, families, and society. However, love repairs the damage.

5 – Do your homework - Study what the Bible says about shame and love. You will see how God wants to remove your shame with His love.

“Fear not; you will no longer live in shame. Don’t be afraid; there is no more disgrace for you. You will no longer remember the shame of your youth and the sorrows of widowhood” Isaiah 54:4.

For more information email: talk@mindcare.us or call: 678-632-5152.

References:

Burgo, J. (2013, May 30). The Difference Between Guilt and Shame. Retrieved October 26, 2020,

from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shame/201305/the-difference-between-guilt-and-shame

Hack, J., & Martin, G. (2018). Expressed Emotion, Shame, and Non-Suicidal Self-Injury.

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(5), 890. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15050890

Kaufman, G. (2004). The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based

Syndromes, Second Edition (2nd ed.). Springer Publishing Company.

Kim, J., Talbot, N. L., & Cicchetti, D. (2009). Childhood abuse and current interpersonal conflict:

The role of shame. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33(6), 362–371.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.10.003

Lansky, M. R. (2003). The “Incompatible Idea” Revisited: The Oft-Invisible Ego-Ideal and Shame

Dynamics. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 63(4), 365–376. https://doi.org/10.1023/b:tajp.0000004741.67949.3f

Scheff, T. (2014). The Ubiquity of Hidden Shame in Modernity. Cultural Sociology, 8(2), 129–

141. https://doi.org/10.1177/1749975513507244

Tangney, J. P., Miller, R. S., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and

embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1256–1269. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.6.1256

Taylor, T. F. (2015). The influence of shame on posttrauma disorders: have we failed to see the

obvious? European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 6(1), 28847. https://doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v6.28847

You, Y. G. (1997). Shame and Guilt Mechanisms in East Asian Culture. Journal of Pastoral Care,

51(1), 57–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/002234099705100107

Weir, K. (2012, November). A complex emotion. Monitor on Psychology, 43(10).

http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/11/emotion



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