Healing the trauma of shame

Shame is one of the most difficult to overcome emotional reactions we can experience. “I don’t want to be seen” is a frequent message from people experiencing shame. Being seen means being exposed, and shame can cause us to project our own self-critical eyes and expect others to be as critical of us as we are ourselves, essentially shame causes us to hide and whilst this need to hide is natural, it does isolate.

When we isolate ourselves no support from other people can be achieved. The need for someone to understand what’s going for us can lead to a cycle where the awareness of our own need for support leads to deeper shame, this then leads to an even greater urge to hide, which then leads to shame at being ashamed and shame of wanting to hide.

If, like me, this is an experience you can recall you might recognise the signs that it’s happening to you. Shame is such a strong emotion that we frequently feel it in our physical selves and we can experience it as a collapse of the body as the chest caves inward, the head goes down and the eyes avert. We feel embarrassed or rejected. Over time, we begin to hear the critical punishing thoughts in our mind – “You’re so stupid! How could you be so stupid? No one will ever love you; you don’t deserve to be loved.”

There is however a way out. The opposites of shame are support and empathy. Empathic support from another person can help us hold and heal the sense of failure, rejection, and shame that catches us in the suffering of the belief that we are bad or unlovable. Core to the success of this is compassion. Compassion from another for the parts of ourselves that we feel shame towards can help us to look again at what is causing the emotions we’re experiencing and integrate them more effectively into our experience.

This is an essential first step: if we are unable to believe that others could find that part of ourselves lovable, we will unlikely be able to achieve the same result ourselves. This self-acceptance is one of the goals of processing our shame in therapy and our ability to reach this point can then lead to our reorganising our past experience and healing the trauma of shame.

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