Fundamentals of Trauma Recovery, Part 5

November 12, 2018 - 6 minutes read

Trauma and Shame

Shame is a very prevalent feeling for most trauma survivors.  Shame can be incredibly painful in any form. At its most overwhelming, shame often drives people to isolate from others; being among people who don’t understand their experiences is like salt in the wound, especially where shame is concerned.

When we reflect on the purpose of shame (as all feelings serve a purpose, propelling action or response) the survivor’s shame will make more sense.  Dissipating the shame also becomes a real possibility.

Shame is an indicator that something is amiss.  Usually, it exists to indicate a behavior or occurrence that is out of sorts, ought not to be, is shameful.  In its appropriate place, shame is felt by the person, or people, who have done wrong (and the wronged, appropriately, may feel anger at the injustice).  The shame, ideally, propels the “misbehaving” party to re-align with the morals and values of those around him. Society — in whole, and parts — can continue forward.  

The twisted truth with many trauma survivors, however, is that an offender has committed shameful acts and is not owning his shame.  His victims, in effect, absorb the shame in his stead. The result? Survivors feeling tremendous shame in and about themselves, when the shame actually belongs the the perpetrator.  

Additionally, shame may be keeping the survivor “in line” with family, friends, or community who do not understand the implications of trauma and the debilitating repercussions of shoving recovery underground.  

Dissipating Shame

All aspects of your recovery benefit greatly from a supportive network of friends and/or family.  Dissipating shame, however, is only possible in the context of caring, supportive people with whom you can share and by whom you are understood.  The entire concept of shame is tied to how others see you, who you are, what you do. In order for the shame to dissipate, you must have the lived experiences of being embraced as you are.  You must know, vis a vis important relationships, that you are OK, you are accepted, that you belong.

If you would like to attend to feelings of shame, you might consider the following exercises.  Check in with your mindful gauge; how do these fit for you, do you want to try them, or would they best be shelved for a later time, or not at all?  

  1. Assess the purpose of  your shame. In what ways has it served you?  Has it made you more alert of wrongdoing, or injustice?  Has it prevented you from hurting others? Has it helped you fit in with others whom you care about?
  2. If the shame you carry would be more appropriately placed on another, a perpetrator, think how you might symbolically give it back to him, put it where it belongs.  It could be through art, lyrics, journaling, playwriting, or verbal expression.
  3. You might benefit from sharing what you came up with in the previous two exercises with a friend.  Alternatively, you may feel ready to further dissipate shame by sharing some things you feel ashamed of with a trusted friend — who can hear you, understand you, and simultaneously respect and value you nonetheless.  If you are ready to for this, take care to choose mindfully — the person with whom you will share, and the timing of the conversation. It is important to optimize the likelihood of having a positive experience, where you are heard, understood, and validated.  Use your mindful gauge to decide who will be the first trusted confidante. Perhaps, imagine what it might be like to tell a couple people, and choose one that feels most right to you right now. When you decide to reach out, give yourself the best chance at a successful conversation by asking your friend if now is the right time, if they are available for you to share something important.  Start with small things, to build your confidence in this monumental process.

If you feel ashamed in relation to any part of your trauma, you deserve to connect with others and experience the relief that comes with dissipating shame.  If you are at a loss with whom to share, consider enlisting a qualified trauma professional. Do it with mindfulness, at whatever point in recovery fits for you.  It may be the first thing you address, it may be the last, or it may be anywhere in between.

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