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Experts consider shame a part of healthy human development; however, the same emotion can quickly become the most corrosive feeling humans can feel. Particularly in the context of trauma, shame can make anyone believe that they are failures, force them to blame themselves for their traumatic and embarrassing pasts, and make them feel as if they do not belong. While none of this is true, the voice inside their head is so strong and convincing that it becomes hard to ignore these feelings.
These feelings of shame, often known as toxic shame, describe chronic emotional states that make a person feel worthless, inferior, bad, and fundamentally flawed. It is ‘toxic’ because the shame is unjust and without any true reason. Fortunately, experts have not come up with different ways to learn how to defend yourself from trauma and shame while untangling the roots of these emotions.
Trauma and Shame: The Origins of Toxic Shame
Experts describe toxic shame as being deeply enrooted in trauma.  Trauma is a word that people do not think about and commonly relate to something extreme, such as sexual abuse or broken bones. While these incidents are quite traumatic, there are many other examples of trauma that such people do not acknowledge. Due to this lack of awareness, factors like childhood neglect failed to be picked up as a form of trauma and abuse.
In many cases, trauma experienced during childhood and adolescence is the cause of the shameful feelings that develop later on. Most of the time, this trauma occurs in a repeated fashion and fails to be properly processed or healed by someone. Consequently, such a person is conditioned into feeling ashamed when there is little to nothing to feel shameful about.
When it comes to toxic shame in particular, such a shame develops as the primary caregivers or other important persons in an individual’s life routinely punish or shame them, both actively and passively. Such victims start internalizing these untrue and highly hurtful behaviors and words and use them to define themselves as a person.
Common Examples of Toxic Shame PTSD Behaviors
People struggling with shame and PTSD will likely exhibit certain behaviors suggestive of this toxic relationship.  These behaviors are explained below:
A person with trauma and shame may feel loneliness and emptiness in addition to experiencing a lack of motivation. They may not feel like doing anything, fail to develop and chase active goals, and only do things to distract themselves from the underlying uncomfortable emotions.
Lack of healthy self-love
People with a traumatic past and associated shame and guilt usually have poor self-esteem and can simultaneously develop covert or overt self-loathing behaviors. These behaviors eventually lead to self-harm, inadequate social skills, lack of empathy, poor self-care, and more.
Many people struggling with toxic shame appear to be highly perfectionistic as they were exposed to unrealistic standards during childhood and shamed and punished for failing to meet them.
People with toxic shame often have unhealthy and unsteady relationships as they fail to understand what a healthy relationship looks like. Sometimes, these people are also incapable of building or maintaining relationships. Most such people settle for relationships where both partners are unhappy but too weak to find or struggle for true happiness. Many people with shame due to trauma believe that they do not deserve healthy relationships.
Some people with underlying trauma and shame develop feelings of narcissism and grandiose fantasies about becoming powerful, rich, and famous with the ability to conquer the world. Such people believe that achieving all this will help them make their painful emotions go away. Unfortunately, things do not go as they hope, even if they manage to achieve their fantasies somehow.
Susceptibility to manipulation
Because people with toxic shame are ridden with inadequacy, loneliness, and guilt, a manipulator can quickly push these emotions to control them in exchange for getting rid of the painful emotions.
Childhood Trauma and Shame: Remediating the Negative Effects
It is possible to overcome shame trauma with the support and help of mental health experts, pharmacological treatments, and specialized interventions. Remember that trauma due to PTSD is possible to control even though the relationship is a bit complicated. It is also crucial to keep in mind that the market has no anti-shame pill present that can magically make the relationship between shame and PTSD go away within days. The best way to combat these issues is by practicing a combination of the following tips.
Use compassion as a tool
Studies have proven that self-compassion is a way to minimize the effects of shame. When used properly, it serves as a solid antidote to self-criticism, a characteristic common in people with intense shame based on past trauma. Compassion also helps people with PTSD to improve their trust, calmness, and connectedness within themselves by triggering the release of a hormone called oxytocin. Using counseling and support from a psychologist, a person with trauma and shame can come up with strategies to promote self-compassion and use it to drive kindness, empathy, and love towards themselves.
Choose distraction to help
Another way to reduce shame trauma is by distracting yourself from the negative thoughts you are dwelling on so that you can better control your emotions. Consider training the mind to halt the shameful feelings from wreaking havoc in the mind and focus on forming healthier emotions to optimize the PTSD recovery journey. Experts also advise making a rule to distract yourself with something the moment you feel like the feelings of shame are rising. Some common examples of distractions may include calling a close friend, going for a walk, or turning on your favorite music.
Know the triggers
Toxic shame often emerges when a person is in their most vulnerable state. For people with PTSD, the shame may be caused by triggers that cause them to relive their traumatic experiences from the past. Insecurities serve as a primary component for an individual to default to shame. Hence, take some time to understand your shame triggers and devise different ways to manage or avoid them altogether. While some people may do it on their own, seeking professional advice is recommended for better outcomes.
What are some ways in which people avoid shame trauma?
Many people end up adopting the behaviors mentioned below to avoid shame:
- Acting tough, such as pretending that they don’t care
- Making excuses, like blaming someone else for something they did
- Lying about something to cover up
- Expressing rage or anger on others
- Minimizing their behaviors, for example, trivializing something and blaming others for exaggeration.
What causes PTSD, guilt, and shame?
Shame is a critical symptom of PTSD as it is a part of the adaptation process to traumatic circumstances. For instance, when someone continues to face abuse at the hands of someone they rely on for basic needs, they start internalizing feelings of hatred they experience as a method of coping. Consequently, such people end up blaming themselves for whatever is happening, eventually leading to shame that remains persistent for a longer time.
What does a shame and PTSD relationship look like?
People with PTSD frequently find themselves feeling intense feelings of shame that debilitate them by trapping them in a vicious cycle of despair. These uncontrollable and intense feelings of shame can serve as a major obstacle to recovery and stop people from trying to confront the traumatic incidences of the past. Consequently, such people struggle to truly heal.
Is shame always bad?
Like stress, anxiety, and depression, experts do not consider shame to be inherently bad in every situation. For instance, consider a situation where someone has done something immoral or wrong. Despite understanding that no one will know about this incident, sometimes the person may confess and attempt to make amends. The feeling that drives them to make these amends and act positively is a shame. In such circumstances, shame is a voice that tells people that they have done something wrong and they need to correct it. However, when connected with traumatic circumstances where the person experiencing it is not at fault, shame can be hurtful.
1 Saraiya T, Lopez-Castro T. Ashamed and afraid: A scoping review of the role of shame in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Journal of clinical medicine. 2016 Nov 1;5(11):94.
2 López‐Castro T, Saraiya T, Zumberg‐Smith K, Dambreville N. Association between shame and posttraumatic stress disorder: A meta‐analysis. Journal of traumatic stress. 2019 Aug;32(4):484-95.