Coping With Shame and Guilt


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Chronically traumatised individuals almost always experience a devastating sense of shame about who they are writes Suzette Boon in Coping with Trauma Related Dissociation, in addition to being ashamed of what has happened to them. In addition, people with a dissociative disorder basically feel ashamed of parts of themselves and perhaps even of the fact that they have a dissociative problem. Because interpersonal trauma affects the sense of identity and self so profoundly, your very essence and existence can feel shameful to you.

Many experts consider guilt as a particular type of shame that is focused on being ashamed of one’s actions (behaviours), even though it may feel different than shame. Some describe guilt as about what you do, involving a fear of punishment or retribution, whereas shame is about who you are. In any case, guilt about our behaviour can easily lead to shame about ourselves in a broader way. Both emotions involve awareness and evaluation (judgment) of ourselves and of how others may perceive us and both emotions are nearly universal in trauma survivors.

Understanding Shame and Guilt

Shame is one of the innate emotions that all of us experience and yet it can be one of the most destructive emotions for traumatised individuals. Shame involves a sense of failure, incompetence, and defeat.

When children grow up in loving families, they are praised for each developmental step, helping them achieve a healthy sense of pride But for children who grow up in neglectful, critical, or abusive homes, these achievements may be ignored, disapproved, ridiculed, or even punished. these children feel shame that may become pervasive and destructive over time.

Feelings of shame and guilt can be induced or reinforced by other people. Man perpetrators tell a child the abuse is his or her fault. Such messages have a major effect when the relationship is one of unequal power and authority (for example, a parent blaming a child). Sometimes a perpetrator threatens terrible punishments if a child tells, so his or her sense of guilt and shame, coupled with fear, becomes almost consuming and certain religious or cultural beliefs may also induce a chronic sense of shame and guilt.

Shame has intense physical manifestations: head down, eyes lowered and averted, flushing, changes in breathing, confusion or inability to think, and a sense of collapse or freezing. in this condition people seem only able to recall examples that prove how bad or worthless they are; the test that they fail, the deadline they missed, how ridiculous they must have sounded in a conversation with someone, how people must sense or know how dirty and disgusting they are on the inside. They have intense flashbacks of shameful moments, relived over and over. When people feel this overwhelming kind of shame, they want to be invisible or even die and they find it horrifying that anyone might get to know who they really are. In fact, they do not even want to know themselves.

Shame and guilt in small and time-limited doses serve useful purposes, helping us conform to the norms of our social and cultural groups, supporting the development of conscience and morality, promoting good behaviour and even influencing our identity. A little appropriate shame or guilt might prod us to try harder to accomplish a reasonable task well or be a better friend, parent, or coworker.

But the kind of shame and guilt we are discussing goes far beyond those bounds. It is a chronic, pervasive and sustained experience unworthy of love or life. These unresolved emotions can be paralysing and they can profoundly affect your self-esteem and your relationships with others. Shame is often directed towards our body, an extension of how you see yourself as a person: how unattractive or ugly you must seem to others, how ungainly or clumsy, how weak or useless.

When you feel chronic shame, you believe that no amount of punished or corrective actions would be sufficient and you are unable to forgive yourself or have any empathy for the terrible suffering shame brings to you. It is as though chronically ashamed people have received a life sentence of shame with no hope of parole, even when they are unsure of exactly why they are bad. In fact, some people will say there is no particular reason they are bad and unworthy: The ere fac that they exist and take up space on the earth is shameful enough. They believe they are not worthy of living and do not deserve anything good. In such cases, shame is an emotion of hiding: The last thing an ashamed person wants is to be open, vulnerable, and seen by others. This, it is an emotion that often is not addressed sufficiently in therapy, even though it is a major impediment to healing.

As noted earlier, when people feel ashamed, they are reacting to perceived failure or inadequacy. Thus, they always view themselves from the perspective of others. In other words, shame is always based on predictions that others will view them as bad, incompetent, or stupid Shame does not require the actual presence of another person, but merely an inner imagining of how another person might judge and find them incompetent or bad. Often people are unaware of this inner prediction of being judged but only of a profound sense of worthlessness, unfocused fear, and sometimes of paranoia.

Extreme and pervasive shame and guilt no longer serve as helpful signals that help guide your behaviour and the development of our morals and ethics, but rather have become a way of being, a core identity that brings misery to nearly every aspect of a person’s life. And quite naturally, people will try to avoid the extreme suffering of shame.

Understanding Guilt

As with shame, it is important for you to distinguish between adaptive guilt and guilt that is pervasive and unreasonable. In the case of adaptive guilt, you have done something that society or your own conscience judges as wrong, that is, you have a “guilty conscience.” This kind of guilt is remedied when you recognise and take responsibility for your behaviour and change it going forward. Guilt often implies that you had a choice about your actions. Yet traumatised individuals have not done anything wrong to cause abuse and were in no position to make choices about what happened to them or what they did as children and even when they have engaged in unacceptable behaviour and did have a choice, they seem unable to eventually learn from it and let it go. Thus, feelings of guilt are often unrealistic or inappropriate in people who were abused as children. Even though they may believe the abuse was their fault, they have no idea of what could have been different, just that traumatising events would not have occurred if only that had been different in some undefined way. This appraisal is not based on realistic facts or on what would be expected from other people in the same situation. It does, however, provide the helpless child with an internal sense of control to believe that “I could have it, if only I fought harder, or ran faster, or stood up to him”


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