We all know that some of the most difficult things in life to deal with can be our own emotions. Whether it’s coping with anxiety, depression, sadness, anger, fear, or countless other emotions, facing our feelings can be an overwhelming task. Typically the time we need to face our emotions and manage them the most, are the times we least want to. The only way to overcome our discomfort is to work through it. Emotional avoidance may work in the short-term, but in the long-term, our discomfort will still be there. When working to recover from a traumatic experience, there are three emotions that can be particularly challenging, shame, guilt, and self-blame. Over the course of the next three months, this blog will be a three part series that focuses on each of these emotions. The first blog will focus on the role of shame in the trauma recovery process.
Shame can be an immense roadblock when overcoming trauma because it can cause a person to remain stuck in a place of suffering, impairing your ability to move forward. Shame encourages emotions associated with the original trauma to live on. Pain, if you think about it, can easily be perpetuated by shame. Secondarily, shame dissolves any self-esteem or self-confidence, making a person feel worthless, flawed, and damaged. However, shame can also appear to work in the opposite sense, meaning that to everyone else it can produce good qualities. People trying to work through significant amounts of shame can become perfectionists, overly concerned with their physical appearance, or extremely hard workers in a variety of areas. To most others, these traits can seem helpful and propel an individual to doing good things. For those experiencing this shame, these behaviors are a way to distract that can feel overwhelming and injurious. Often this is because these goals are typically impossible to achieve.
Often, people who survive a traumatic experience are unsure as to where the shame originally came from. As humans, we like to believe that we are largely in control of and capable enough to address what happens to us in our lives. When a traumatic event happens to us that causes a negative or harmful outcome, shame can develop as a way to cope with what we believe we did wrong and how we can do better next time to prevent similar future events. The problem with this thought process is that we have no control in a traumatic situation and there was likely nothing we could have done differently to change the outcome. Shame allows us to live in this twilight zone were we believe we could change the course of our history by altering a few small details of an event. The word ‘should’ becomes a very powerful one and encourages us to believe that we can protect ourselves in the future, never feeling that powerless again. However, the reality is that there is nothing that can change our past. Having more compassion and understanding for ourselves and the traumatic situation we experienced can be a realistic and honest way to heal from shame. Therapy can be a very productive place to begin developing this level of compassion and understanding. Following a trauma, the challenge to step outside of your own emotional experience and recognize that there are other ways to cope can seem overwhelming. Therapy is a safe place to allow an objective person to begin to offer that compassion and understanding.
Authored by: Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD