Navigating the Nexus of Shame and Trauma: A Journey Towards Recovery and Resilience
As my daughter’s twelfth birthday approaches, it triggers a nostalgic journey back to my own preteen milestone. A memory that remains vivid amid the countless other celebrations captured in video clips. On that momentous occasion, I gathered a lively crew of friends and embarked on a whimsical adventure to a water wonderland, complete with exhilarating water slides. We crammed into a rented minibus, hearts brimming with enthusiasm and laughter.
However, it’s not the laughter I recall most; it’s the inexplicable impulse that led me to craft signs for the minibus windows, proudly proclaiming my ascent into teenagehood, even though I was still firmly rooted in my preteen years. My mother swiftly corrected this imaginative leap of mine, casting a shadow of embarrassment that, like many shameful moments, lingers in the depths of memory.
Yet, as I reflect, I recognise that my embarrassment is a pinprick into the experience of shame. I know for some, shame is a profound and enduring emotion tied to far weightier events. Speaking openly about this memory today, I acknowledge that, no matter how well-intentioned the guidance of adults may be, the lenses through which we view the world ultimately shape the narratives etched in our minds. Unfortunately, shame sticks, and we feel it regardless of how much love others shower on us.
As I continue with this article on shame and trauma, it’s important to remember that if you’re experiencing feelings of shame or symptoms of trauma, your feelings are valid. Regardless of any self-blame you might wrestle with, or the reassurances from adults who attempted to negate their behaviours with declarations or love – or even more confusingly actually performed typical loving acts at other times.
The Psychobiology of Shame
In a beautiful piece of writing by Judith Lewis Herman, she says, “I would point out that while we are starting to understand something about the psychobiology of fear, we know almost nothing about the psychobiology of shame, an equally powerful, contagious, and potentially toxic emotion.” Herman continues that shame is a human emotion, and we therefore cannot study it in rats as we do with shared animal emotions.
Shame is a fundamental story in the Abrahamic religious traditions, particularly in Christianity and Judaism. According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Adam and Eve were the first human beings created by God, and were initially innocent and without shame while living in the Garden of Eden. However, they disobeyed God’s command by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they were explicitly told not to eat from. After eating the forbidden fruit, their eyes opened, and they became aware of their nakedness. This newfound awareness of their own vulnerability and imperfections led to profound feelings of shame. In response to their shame, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves to hide their nakedness from each other and from God. This act of covering themselves with leaves symbolises their realisation of sin, guilt, and the consequences of disobedience.
As a Trauma Response
This feeling of shame and guilt, often a trauma response, is a conscious self-awareness that separates us from animals and creates a sense of trying to be good, whether we’re religious or not. It emerges as a distinctly human response when faced with rejection, humiliation, or defeat. A fact illuminating its clear connection to trauma. We experience shame powerfully, but it’s a feeling, not thoughts. Trauma overwhelms your ability to cope, leading to feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror.
Shame arises from the deep sense of humiliation or embarrassment, often related to a traumatic event, when it leads to behaviours or responses that you feel ashamed of. Such as not being able to protect yourself or others during the traumatic event, or struggling with post-traumatic symptoms. Additionally, shame frequently involves self-blame, when you hold yourself responsible for what happened or for your reactions. This self-blame can exacerbate feelings of shame and complicate the process of healing from trauma.
Both shame and trauma erode self-esteem and self-worth. Trauma leaves you feeling damaged or broken, while shame leads to a deep-seated belief that you have fundamental flaws or are unworthy. Sometimes these feelings act as a barrier to seeking help and support, because you feel too embarrassed or undeserving. Herman believes shame dissipates with the restoration of relational connection, when people look each other in the eyes and laugh together. She proposes that relational psychotherapies, both individual and group, have a powerful effect on the treatment of people who have been exploited and humiliated by those they love.
Recovering from Shame and Trauma
Shame can deeply embed itself within us, no matter how seemingly trivial the trigger may be. While my youthful attempt at proclaiming my teenage status through minibus signs may appear insignificant, it’s a reminder that shame is a universal and complex emotion. It doesn’t discriminate between the weight of the events that elicit it; it simply takes root and lingers.
Shame and trauma are profound and often intertwined emotions that shape our self-perception, eroding self-esteem and self-worth, and act as barriers to help and support. Shame is a complex emotion distinct to humans and intimately linked to trauma. Often rooted in feelings of humiliation, self-blame, and responsibility for experiences. Yet, there is hope, whether through individual or group therapy, there is a path to restoration and recovery. It’s important to foster understanding, empathy, and the healing power of connection to help yourself and others embark on a journey towards recovery, self-acceptance, and resilience in the face of these difficult emotions.
Herman, Judith Lewis. 2008. “Craft and Science in the Treatment of Traumatized People.”
Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 9 (3) (July): 293–300. doi:10.1080/15299730802138966