Shame: An Adaptive Response to Trauma

 “Shame is the warm feeling that warm feeling washing over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough” -Brené Brown

The physical experience of shame includes hot flushing, the strong urge to hide and put your head down, and difficulty speaking.  Shame brings on self-critical thoughts such as “who do you think you are?” and “how could you do such a thing?” There’s a desire to sink into the floor or crawl in a hole and die.  Although shame can be an incredibly excruciating experience, it is an adaptive response to experiencing trauma, especially chronic and interpersonal trauma.

As a concept, trauma consists of a wide range of events including (but not limited to) abuse, neglect, discrimination, traumatic invalidation, sudden loss, intense violence, medical trauma, community trauma, intimate partner violence, or witnessing any of these.

Our bodies have developed ingenious ways of handling traumatic experiences. We have chemicals and structures in our bodies which allow us to adapt to these situations so we can get through them.  Shame, as an adaptive response to trauma, encourages us to think less of ourselves (“I’m such a screw up”) and attribute our mistakes to who we are as people (“Of course I forgot to do that, that just shows how stupid I am.”) Dr. Desirae Allen gives a great overview of shame, the difference between shame and guilt, and how to manage it in her blog.

How could shame possibly be beneficial to surviving trauma? 

Because shame keeps us small to avoid being rejected, shame can help a person avoid making their abuser angry.  Essentially, shame teaches us to be seen and not heard.  A person without shame in an abusive situation might express their needs or desires which can evoke the rage of their abuser.

Shame also gives us a reason about why trauma is happening so we don’t have to wonder anymore.  Humans are terrified of uncertainty, so people in traumatic situations will often blame themselves.  They recognize that believing that we are the cause of the seemingly unpredictable trauma can answer the question “why is this happening to me?”

Similarly, shame provides a sense of control over trauma.  If the traumatized person shames and blames themselves, they can create reasons (or their abuser might provide reasons) for why the trauma is happening.  “I’m not a good kid.” “I’m so selfish.” “I didn’t do my chores fast enough.” All of these self-criticisms help the victim because they can hold out hope that if they become a good kid, less selfish, or faster at their chores, they will be able to prevent trauma in the future.  Without shame, they would be left with the terrifying and accurate belief that they cannot predict or control trauma.  

As with other trauma responses such as anger or fear, shame can become maladaptive if it’s no longer needed.  Because shame can be the root of self-loathing, perfectionism, anger, and many other difficulties, we need to find ways to observe our shame mindfully and relate to it with compassionate boundaries.