Healing Shame and Self Criticism

Whenever we begin to heal trauma and dissociation, shame always shows up.

Shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with us as a person, (different from guilt which is about our behaviour). Shame is a complex emotion, because it contains a feeling of being defective, and has with it a desire for concealment. 

Rarely do we identify shame directly. Instead we use code words such as:

  • Inadequate

  • Weak

  • Stupid

  • Boring

  • Disgusting

  • Repugnant

  • Toxic

  • Loathsome

  • Unworthy

  • Unentitled

  • Exposed

  • Transparent

  • Naked

  • Burden

  • Bother

Shame is typically pre-verbal, non-verbal, and automatic.

Common Immediate Responses to Shame: 

  • Numb
  • Blank
  • Empty
  • Can’t speak
  • Withdrawal/Flight
  • Dissociation
  • Attack- self or others
  • Rationalizing
  • Grandiosity
  • Collapse/Submit

Shame-Based Behaviours

  • Negative attitudes about self are treated as a fact
  • Have to be right all the time, defensive
  • Choice of words expresses disrespect or extreme harshness toward self
  • Hiding from exposure
  • With exposure, blushing or pale, quiet, small, not wanting to be seen, wanting to run away
  • People may describe it as “embarrassment”
  • Self-conscious and apologetic
  • Loss of eye contact and looking away (there are cultural exceptions)

What Activates Shame? 

  • Commencing in a new situation eg therapy
  • Being asked to do something suddenly
  • Being asked to do something beyond your capacity, eg a young child being expected to take care of adults
  • Being vulnerable or open when others are not
  • Sarcasm, attack, criticism, contempt
  • Being ignored, neglected, invisible, treated as insignificant
  • Powerlessness/not valued by others
  • Betrayal, abandonment or rejection
  • Attack or threat to your dignity or personhood
  • Becoming aware of social/cultural differences eg our family is poor
  • Comparisons to others eg everyone is married with children, but I’m still living with my parents
  • Receiving the message we are “too much” or “not enough”
  • Cold distant or humiliating response from others
  • Overreaction by others for trivial incidents eg spilt milk causes parental rage when young, makes us confused and we think there is something wrong with us
  • Growing up in an environment of shamed or shaming adults
  • We can also be shamed for not belonging, being different, for wanting or not wanting something. 

Healing Shame 

The good news is that due to neuroplasticity, we don’t have to live with intense shame forever. But how do we do this? Simply telling a person not to have shame may be a form of pushing the person away, which may intensify their shame, or accidentally produce “shame about shame”. This is something trauma therapists are hopefully becoming more aware of!

Since shame makes us want to hide away and isolates us from others, the antidote to shame is relational- warm acceptance and connection to others. By building relationships where the shame can be named and held, not as something toxic, but as something worthy of Mindful compassion and acceptance, we begin to change our relationship to shame and it loses its hold on us.

Shame can eventually become “just another emotion”, not “a fact” about who we are. When we get to this place, transformation and deep healing will follow.