Shame is a widely unrecognized emotion that most remain unaware exists. Commonly confused with guilt, shame is the internalization of the idea that one is inherently bad-natured, whereas guilt refers to remorse for poor behavioral conduct.

We are all human beings with characteristics that serve us in situations and work against us in others. Shame becomes a problem when you begin to believe that you are unacceptable, permanently broken, or unloveable no matter what you do, or who you are. This belief disqualifies you from being capable of change or improvement. That is the lie. Shame can be instilled in childhood through dysfunctional family systems, or negative influences throughout adulthood from toxic people.

The truth is: you are just as worthy of love, belonging, and are as capable as everybody else.

Shame activates your nervous system. It throws your body into a fight-flight or freeze response, leading to the terrible feelings you experience. You want to get small, go anywhere else. You might want to react in rage, severe pain, or maybe you completely dissociate. When the amygdala generates the emotion [1] (the fire alarm of the brain involved in response to stimuli) the neocortex gets triggered (area linked to cognition and decision-making) to release a cascade of neurotransmitters and chemicals that alters the body’s physical state [2,3]. Based on work conducted by Pia Mellody and her theory of Developmental Immaturity, The person reacts to an emotional stimulus. He or she will experience anything from a heaviness or hot sensation washing over their body to a numb tingling. Primary reported areas are in the face, neck, or upper chest. Guilt feels similar to a punch in the gut or gnawing, churning, or nauseous sensation. It physically makes us sick. And, we don’t recognize that mind-body link.

What Does Shame Look Like?

person putting palm on face while holding prayer beads
Photo by omar alnahi

You try to disappear.

I was 32 years-old when I realized feelings are actually something your body feels. This was mind-blowing. Nobody had taught me these socio-emotional skills before.

Humans label characteristics as “good” or “bad.” For example, workaholism and perfectionism are prominent traits to use when a person is in a career. However, these are life-destroying features when that person is at home, unable to connect on an emotionally intimate level or take part in down-time, or has a family who desperately needs that emotional connection to thrive. As an avid fan of the strengths-based model, an approach developed by a team from The University of Kansas in 1997 (Dennis Saleebey, Charles Rapp, and Anne Weick), I wholly believe we use these characteristics unknowingly in reactive measures without understanding this principle, then shame ourselves when they create difficulties. All individuals have a yin-yang of characteristics. The more a person becomes emotionally intelligent, aware, and open, the more empowered that individual becomes to apply emotions rather than let emotions control them. What is driving your bus?

There are different types of shame. Healthy shame and toxic shame are contrasted by the outlook you have about yourself. Healthy shame keeps you from enacting behaviors that contrast with your values. It promotes healthy societal behaviors and leads to acts like making amends and self-correction. Healthy shame self-talk increases your motivation to do better. It builds you up. It sounds like, “You are not your behaviors,” or “You are good enough and made a mistake.” Toxic shame, on the other hand, is deeply embedded in our nervous system. It leads to more self-destructive tendencies and makes you feel more alone and isolated. Toxic shame self talk sounds like, “I will always be a loser,” or “I am never going to be good enough.”

a person in black jacket sitting on the corner beside white wooden bookshelves
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

Toxic shame tells you that you are a worthlessand a horrible person. It makes you feel like a mistake for being born. Toxic shame comes from someone sending you this lie of a message in your developmental years. It is the inherent feeling of defectiveness. It feels like you will never be equal to others. If you were an unwanted child, the product of a rape, or the “wrong sex,” then you might have been overtly told our treated differently, causing you to form this misconception of your place in the world.

Shame is traumatizing.

Trauma is an umbrella term that refers to either one large catastrophic event (big T Trauma), or an accumulation of small, chronic adverse events (little t traumas) that impacts individuals later in life. One example of a big T trauma is an injury or death-related car crash, sexual assault, mugging, or natural catastrophe. A little t trauma may range from school bullying, emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or abandonment (emotional or physical).

The 1995 ACE’s study (Adverse Childhood Events) shed light on the association between childhood trauma and lifetime health decline. The revelations from this study exemplified the dose-response link between developmental trauma on those who grew to develop severe physical and mental illness. They found individuals who reported many adverse events in childhood to have higher rates of physical and mental illnesses, endorse riskier behaviors, have higher mortality rates. Because of this study, many more are now paying attention to their own experiences growing up and how those have shaped their current lives today.

What do you imagine when someone tells you they have trauma? Maybe you expect to see physical scars, cuts, or bruises.  Physical signs of a black and blue eye, long sleeves, or burn marks are obvious. What if there were none?

What gets missed when a person considers abuse is the internal dynamics of a person who has experienced emotional or psychological maltreatment. When a victim is affected by such, the effects may be lifelong and devastating. Usually dismissed by society, the trauma inflicted does not simply disappear because another refuses to acknowledge it. One person’s reality is not another’s, as every person has their own, separate, distinct life experience by which they perceive and interpret events and attach meaning. They can become locked into another’s memory, sometimes forever. 

When growing up, caregivers instill the inner voices of children. According to Pia Mellody’s Model of Developmental Immaturity, children have inherit value, vulnerability, are imperfect, dependent, and spontaneous. Those that care for the child teach the child about reality, or who he/she is, including how much worth one has. For instance, some caregivers neglect or abandon their children physically or emotionally, letting that child know, consciously or unconsciously, that child was not worth the time and attention needed. The parent might actually leave somehow, move out of the home. The parent may be physically present but mentally focused on other aspects than parenting. Or, the child may be reminded frequently that the child is worthless regularly, such as comments made to the child about the abilities, looks, or value, directly or indirectly. All these aspects can impair the child’s sense of value, vulnerability, dependency, spontaneity, and ability to be authentic.

You can’t just “get over” trauma.

I wouldn’t be so well employed if people could magically make these painful emotions disappear. All have tried in their own way to move past it, some successfully, many not.

Based on one’s environment during the developmental period, a concept of reality is developed that becomes that child’s truth. When relational trauma occurs, that person’s reality can become distorted and develop into difficulties with relationships later in life. And again, no two realities are right, wrong, or better than another’s.

The term relational abuse is unrecognized by most. As the label infers, relational abuse is that which occurs between two individuals in an intimate relationship, such as between parent and child or within the context of romantic involvement. When this occurs, and that individual’s identity is damaged, that person cannot attach healthfully to another. Thus, there are patterns in relational development where abused girls in childhood grow to adulthood and carry on similar types of relationships (Bassuk, Dawson, & Huntington; 2006). If unrecognized, a hurt person typically grows up to continue that cycle of being victimized, or may grow to take on the role of abuser themselves. Or,  that child can grow up and stop the cycle.

There are several types of abuse aside from physical, or the abject disrespect of another’s body. Sexual, intellectual, emotional, spiritual traumas are just as damaging, if not more. Sexual trauma is that sexual and includes rape, fondling, oral sex, or between one adult forcing it upon another non-consenting adult, even between married couples. Just think of Lorena Bobbitt. It used to be an acceptable marriage for the wife to be forced to have sex. America actually had to have that debate in 1990, if you wonder how far we have come.

Intellectual trauma is an attack on another person’s thinking process. Over-control of another’s logic, without teaching of logical thinking or problem solving, is abusive as it is demeaning of the victim’s character. Shaming someone for not knowing the answer to something is one example of intellectual abuse.

Emotional trauma includes dismissal, shaming, or teaching of the improper expression of feelings to another. A parent who rages in front of a child or telling a child he/she should not feel that way dismisses that child’s reality. Telling another person that they are stupid for having emotions is shaming that person for having normal psychological responses. It also discredits their humanity.

unrecognizable religious man against shiny cross at night
Photo by Cameron Yartz

Spiritual trauma includes one being a higher power to another, demanding perfection, over-controlling, and disrespectful of a person’s reality. Outright abuse by a religious leader using brimstone and fire to strike fear as a tactic to manipulate behavior is one form of spiritual abuse. Another occurs when an offender over-controls, ignores, neglects, abandons, or indulges a child. This is offensive, as it distorts the reality by not giving the freedom of choice. Again, it discredits that person’s humanity.

Abuse can range from outright to subtle. Through neglect, abandonment, or enmeshment, abuse can happen when a parent is physically not present (if work consumes all the parent’s time), or mentally (the parent is physically present but mentally checked out). It may empower the victim on false premise, or disempower them. Passive abuse can transmit along generational lines, as parenting how a person grew up. Or, it may occur actively, on purpose.

It is usually known if a form of this has occurred. Dr. Steven Porges’s Polyvagal Theory and the work of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk intimately describe the physical tolls trauma can have on a human’s body. The Polyvagal Theory describes one’s intuition as neuroception, or the detection of safety or danger in an environment. We know on an instinctual level when trauma has occurred. However, when a person’s reality is denied, that person questions their own gut reaction.

The hidden wounds are those that cause the most damage. They are the memories that create damaging behaviors such as addiction or relationship abuse, and the most pervasive. There are no visible scars. Those healed long ago. Those distorted core beliefs that lie deep, that govern someone’s thinking, feeling, and behavioral reality, have the potential to destroy a life. Unless addressed, these psychological wounds will fester continuously.

l see it daily with the clients that I treat. It is heartbreaking, devastating, and it is repairable. People can heal. There is hope. If you have experienced any of this, you are not alone.

light sun cloud japan
Photo by Pixabay

Please reach out. There are many who also struggle. Facebook groups, 12-Step, Codependents Anonymous are just a few examples of support groups that address such areas of trauma.

Mellody, PIa. 1992. Facing love addiction : giving yourself the power to change the way you love–the love connection to codependence. 

Bassuk, E., Dawson, R. & Huntington, N. Intimate Partner Violence in Extremely Poor Women: Longitudinal Patterns and Risk Markers. J Fam Viol 21, 387–399 (2006).>

[1] LaBar, K., & Cabeza, R. (2006). Cognitive neuroscience of emotional memory. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(1), 54-64. doi: 10.1038/nrn1825

[2] Bechara, A., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2000). Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex10(3), 295-307. doi: 10.1093/cercor/10.3.295

[3] Donoso, M., Collins, A., & Koechlin, E. (2014). Foundations of human reasoning in the prefrontal cortex. Science344(6191), 1481-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1252254

%d bloggers like this: