Shame - the legacy of childhood trauma

It’s so hard to describe what deep shame feels like. It feels so painful to even talk about the feelings of shame that words dry up; the body feels hot and sweaty, or icy cold; some people have a desperate impulse to hide, to not be seen or looked at - even to not exist.

A profound sense of shame can put people into a frozen state. They can’t think, can’t talk, the brain feels numb and switched off. What we are describing here is one of the most painful emotions that has a significant effect on the body and the brain; yet there is barely a person alive who does not know these awful feelings.

Surprisingly, shame can have a creative purpose. Guilt, like the twin sister to shame, can act as a social regulator. The feelings warn us not to behave that way again because of the social consequences to ourselves, and to others.

Shame is a legacy of childhood trauma. Where there is emotional trauma, like a shadow shame will follow. When a child hears, “you’re stupid”, “you’re useless”, “It’s all your fault”; when a child is hit and abused, shouted at, criticised, ignored and deliberately humiliated, and if they have no safe person to go to for comfort and reassurance, they bury the shame deep inside, and begin to believe what the grown-ups say. They talk to themselves the same way. It’s a distressing yet effective way of surviving emotionally, an exhausting survival strategy, which can last a life time unless it is gently healed.

There are four ways that people avoid the shame they feel;

Attack the self:

Repeat to oneself what was said all those years ago; “I’m worthless, useless/stupid/don’t deserve to succeed”. “It’s all my fault. I’m bad through and through/ugly/un-loveable...”

Avoid own inner experience:

Become ‘the joker’ in the pub or office. Be flippant; make a joke out of hardship. Claim to be bored (but feel anxious inside). Change the subject often, keep the attention on others. There is little awareness of inner feelings whether good or bad, so they tend to show little outward appropriate emotion.

Attack others:

Blame, shame and criticise others. Find ways to humiliate others. It makes the person feel bigger and stronger, more dominating and controlling – the opposite of what the hurt child felt.

Withdraw inside, and from company:

They want to keep themselves to themselves. Avoid social situations where they can’t ‘hide in the crowd’. Inside, they keep rehearsing just how bad and incompetent they are. How worthless, useless, stupid. And so the silent, painful litany continues.    

And yet, these people feel angry and anxious because they are ashamed of isolating themselves! They hate the loneliness that they themselves create but are so locked into shame that they can’t move out of it. It’s like being stuck in quicksand; you desperately don’t want to be there, but you can’t get yourself out of it. Struggling just makes things worse.

So what can help? When that first wave of shame breaks – pause and count 5 before you release the criticism against yourself or someone else. Ask ‘the joker’ to wait a few seconds. Breathe, look around, move your feet and hands. If you possibly can, tell someone you trust about the feelings.

Shame develops in damaging relationships. Healing of shame grows in a safe, non judging relationship. Talking to a respectful and skilled counsellor can start the journey of moving out of the quicksand of shame, to find the solid ground of self acceptance, and self confidence. Maybe for the first time ever!

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend

Written by a listed counsellor/therapist

Show comments

Find a counsellor or psychotherapist dealing with anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals.

Real Stories

More stories

Related Articles

More articles