One of the complications of Complex PTSD is often overwhelming feelings of inexplicable and overwhelming shame. It is crippling and the slightest event (one often not even connected with us !) can trigger shame. Given the way we react to shame, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the roots of the word derived from an older Proto-Indo-European word meaning “to cover.” To feel ashamed brings up associations of wanting to hide our faces behind our hands, desperate desiring to run away, or even hoping the earth will swallow us up. At the heart of feeling ashamed is a feeling that we are exposed — either to others or to ourselves. No other feeling is more disturbing or destructive to the self.
After a major mistake, it’s natural to feel ashamed. Instead, you need to understand the feeling and find a way to let it go. But what if it’s not even a mistake and you are still feeling ashamed?
Down the Rabbit Hole
People who pathologically feel shame tend to internalise and over-personalise everything that happens to them. They cannot see things in perspective. When something goes wrong, they say to themselves, “I’m to blame for what happened. It’s entirely my fault.” Not only do they demean themselves, but they also feel helpless, and don’t think that there’s anything they can do to change the situation. The internal critic in their heads continually judges and criticises them, telling them that they are inadequate, inferior, or worthless.
This can have a profound effect on our psychological well-being. Excessive feelings of shame are at the heart of much psychopathology. It is concealed behind guilt; it lurks behind anger; it can be disguised as despair and depression. As people rarely talk about shame experiences, shame is a difficult emotion to detect, especially as it comes in so many disguises.
Generally speaking, in coping with shame we can observe two general strategies: attacking the self or attacking others. Initially during a shame experience, hostility is directed inward, toward the self (“I’m worthless,” “I’ve never been any good”). Some people, like myself a victim of child abuse, go through periods of as far as withdrawing from the real world. But in an attempt to feel better about what is experienced as shameful, some people lash out and blame others, showing reactions of avoidance, defensiveness, and denial. Others try to compensate for feelings of shame or unworthiness by attempting to be exceptionally giving; by pleasing others, they hope to improve their feelings of self-worth. Although these various scripts can temporarily help the person feel less ashamed, ultimately they can make matters worse. Without addressing the source of shame, a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop is enacted, through which shame chisels into the core of who the person is.
The Origins of Shame
Given the pervasiveness of this emotion across ages and cultures, what’s the adaptive purpose of shame? From an evolutionary point of view, we could hypothesise that shame has evolved under conditions where survival depended on people abiding by certain norms. They needed to band together to effectively operate as a group to better deal with the terrifying forces of nature. In Paleolithic times, shame would have been the way to establish a group’s pecking order to create the best way of cooperation. It would be an effective mechanism to establish clear dominance-submission rankings. Interestingly, these derivatives of early animalistic behaviour patterns can still be observed today when we tend to take a compliant posture out of shame, when we subject ourselves to the power and judgment of others.
From a psychological developmental point of view, shame can be seen as a complex emotional response that humans acquire during early child rearing, when children are completely dependent on the bond with their caregivers. It is a very basic emotion: Children seek to live up to their parent’s expectations, and failing to do so, experience shame. Toddlers exhibit early feelings of embarrassment that can turn into full-blown shame within their first three years of life. If not protected by their care-givers in the case of child abuse or child sexual abuse where grooming has taken place and the ‘blame’ for the abuse if put onto the child the shame is hardwired into the child’s brain.
Shame can ultimately serve a purpose if it means that, for example, a toddler feels ashamed after being scolded for running into traffic. Because toddlers’ brains aren’t sophisticated enough to understand that traffic is dangerous, the feeling of shame is enough to keep them from endangering themselves again. But shame is also a horrible feeling. Children who are continually criticised, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, sexually abused or in other ways mistreated quickly get the message that they are inadequate, inferior, or unworthy. These shameful experiences damage the roots from which self-esteem grows. Such dysfunctional parenting styles can make children shame-bound. This kind of shame is very difficult to overcome. The formative wounds of childhood — scars from being teased, bullied, or ostracised by parents, peers, and others — can become fixed in our identity.
Dealing with Shame
The more powerful our experience of shame, the more we feel compelled to hide those aspects from others, and even from ourselves. The first step is thus to bring to light whatever is seen as shameful. After all, a wound that’s never exposed will never heal. If the wound is deep enough, you may need to ask a counsellor or therapist for help. Being able to discover the origins of shame-like experiences will set the stage of having greater control over your life as you become attuned to what triggers these shame reactions.
A second step is to cultivate self-compassion — to embrace who you are and treat yourself in the same respectful, empathetic way you’d treat others. For example, if one of my friends just once when I was having a panic attack of which I am deeply ashamed had admitted that they to experience them it would have made a huge difference. When you’re feeling shame, ask yourself: Would I talk to a friend the way I’m talking to myself right now? This question can help you recognise when a negative thought spiral is getting the upper hand, and can challenge your shame-based thinking.
Engaging in these corrective emotional experiences (as they are known in psychology) can help you improve your sense of self-esteem, increase your feelings of worthiness and belonging, foster greater self-acceptance, and reduce unhealthy reactions to shame, such as withdrawal and counterattack.
Shame is part of the human experience. Keeping your feelings of shame in perspective can relieve you of a harmful tendency to self-blame, and, eventually, make peace with your shadow side. Knowing that you are good enough, worthwhile, and deserving of love and acceptance is essential for building resilience and living your most authentic life.
There are eight steps that my Therapist has negotiated with me for dealing with shame. Here are the strategies for overcoming shame and restoring self-esteem:
1. Revisit your childhood.
As painful as this might be, it’s important to have a realistic understanding that shame is not your fault. You are an adult now, with adult judgement and perspective. Look at the small, innocent child you were and how incapable you were of understanding and processing the expectations and hurtful behaviours of your parents, even benign behaviors that were “well-intentioned.”
You so desperately needed their approval and unconditional love, and if that wasn’t forthcoming, you grew to feel unworthy of anyone’s acceptance and love. You were NOT at fault. Remind yourself of this whenever you feel your shame triggered.
Try to find the original source of your shame. Describe or journal about the experience, and review it from an adult perspective. How does this perspective help you reframe the experience and understand it was not your fault?
2. Recognize your triggers.
Start to notice what triggers your feelings of shame. This may be difficult at first as we often bury our feelings under layers of coping behaviours. So start with the behaviours, the way you react to the pain, and then ask yourself what just happened to make you react.
Did someone say something to make you feel vulnerable? Were you rejected in some way that reminded you of childhood rejection? Were you caught in looping thoughts about an event that feels shameful? Once you know what trips you up and mires you in feelings of shame, you can begin to manage the triggers and learn healthier responses.
3. Practice self-compassion.
When you feel shamed, it’s hard to be kind and loving toward yourself. But you can practice self-compassion even before you really feel it. Talk to yourself and treat yourself with the same kindness and love you show a good friend or a beloved child. Pretend you are a cherished and valuable person until you begin to change your thoughts and feelings.
4. Challenge your thoughts.
As I mentioned before, looping negative thoughts are often a trigger for shameful feelings. When you mentally revisit conversations or situations where you felt shamed or if your thoughts are a series of self-criticisms, you are only strengthening your shame. Your job is to weaken the grasp shame has over you, and you can do that by challenging your thoughts.
Shame-based thinking is often based on dire predictions, doubt in your ability to cope, selective focus on negative aspects of events or the behaviour of other people, and rigid ideas about how people should behave.
Rather than believing everything your mind tells you, find evidence to the contrary. Part of you knows you aren’t a bad, unworthy person and that your thoughts aren’t the truth or the entire truth. When your shamed-based thoughts try to control your mind, don’t allow it. Put up a mental fight by reframing your thoughts and focusing on the positive.
5. Don’t double-layer shame.
No one likes feeling shame and the weak, unworthy feelings shame fosters. When we live with shame, we add to our pain by feeling shame about our shame. We are embarrassed that we aren’t the confident, positive, happy people we want to be.
Give yourself permission to accept that you feel shame when you feel it. Don’t layer on more pain by kicking yourself for your feelings. We all experience vulnerability and shame at times, and by accepting that you can stop struggling against shame you can begin to heal the root cause of it.
6. Avoid shame reinforcers.
Are there still people in your life who reinforce your shame? It might be your parents who continue to say and do things to control, belittle, or hurt you. Sometimes our shame leads us to be in relationships with people who repeat the dynamics we experienced in childhood. Our spouses or partners and even some friends might unconsciously or consciously reinforce our feelings of shame.
You have a choice to be in relationships that are emotionally healthy. You can avoid immature, dysfunctional people and choose to surround yourself with supportive, understanding, and loving people instead. If you are married to someone who triggers your shame, go to counseling together so your partner can better understand your history of shame and you can create boundaries to protect yourself.
It is painful to let go of relationships, even if they are harmful, but if someone in your life is using your shame to manipulate or hurt you, then you must say goodbye if you want to escape the cycle of shame.
7. Accept love and kindness.
The feelings of unworthiness attached to shame make it very difficult to accept love and kindness from others. In fact, you might even distrust people who are kind to you because they can’t discern that you are really “bad” and unworthy. You feel like a charlatan accepting goodness from others.
I’m sure you can see the dysfunction in this reaction to loving behaviour from others, but you must teach yourself a new way of responding. When someone is kind to you, don’t diminish their act by rejecting their kindness. Practice accepting it openly and with gratitude. Accept compliments without deflecting or diminishing them. Allow yourself to trust the good judgement of the person who sees the good in you.
This will take conscious, concerted practice, but over time it will feel more natural and pleasurable to relish kindness and appreciation from others.
8. Practice forgiveness.
You may not really need forgiveness for anything, but it probably feels like you do. You want absolution for all of the “badness” that shrouds you. You want all of the shameful feelings to be washed away so you can finally feel good about yourself and enjoy your life.
The only person who can really offer that absolution is you. You are guard holding the key to your own internal prison. Whatever failings you might perceive in yourself, why not just give yourself a pass? Every person on the planet is flawed and has made mistakes. We all want and deserve forgiveness. This is part of the human condition that will never change.
Can you accept that being flawed is acceptable? Can you forgive yourself for that? You can. It’s OK. You are OK. Put your shame in a little box and place it on a mental shelf in a locked closet. You know it’s there, and if you must revisit it from time to time, then do so. But otherwise, leave it on the shelf so you can live your life and like yourself. There is no rule requiring you to examine it and stir it up every hour of the day.
Shame is a soul-crushing emotion. No matter what you think you have done to deserve it, no amount of shame will make you feel better. It will only create more shame