• jess

Getting Educational: Shame and Complex Trauma

First, a personal spiel. Then, the research.

Something has been on my mind - and in my gut lately. While staying with my mom for the past two months I've been reintroduced to a particular creeping sensation... one that is difficult to name or describe. But it's been challenging me day in and day out, nonetheless.

A reminder that I'm a fucking 30 year old staying with my mom right now... really for no particular reason. I have a home back in Atlanta. I'm paying rent for not being there. I came to Illinois for some errands, expecting it to be a week, and just... haven't left.

I work online, I haven't spent time with my mom in about 20 years, and Georgia is a fucking shitshow with the COVID outbreaks and civil unrest... so what's the rush? On top of that, she's got a farm full of horses and I have money-making opportunities here. PLUS, now I'm fostering a special puppy who's keeping me tied to the area until I decide if we're adopting or sending him along to another forever family.

Sounds pretty cool up here, right? Eh, yeah... there have been some good times. It has been therapeutic at the times when I haven't been consumed with heartbreak for my missing boo or workaholism for anxiety avoidance.

Still, there are some ongoing challenges with being at my mom's house. Those old family dynamics never really fade. I'm sure you fucking get that. We get along and relate to each other better than ever before at this point, but motherfuckers, there are still weirdsie feelings at times. There's tension. There are old patterns that drive both of us up the wall. There are topics that we still can't address. It makes me wonder if these ancient obstacles will ever be worn down, or if my brain will ever stop jumping from point A to point "I FUCKING HATE YOU MOM" like I'm fucking 15 years old again.

Sometimes this one particular tension is bubbling under the surface and sometimes it comes rearing up like a swarm of bats out of hell - generally, when my mom says something that rubs me the wrong way in a critical sense. When she's being negative towards me or mentioning something that I'm doing wrong or just suggesting that I do something differently, a strong inner feeling of discomfort and sharp, pointy sensations screams into the picture and smears all the paint we've carefully laid down. All personal progress out the window. Sense of inner peace, gone.

The result? To shut down or to lash out. My mom referred to it as "the wrath of Jess" yesterday, and I'm not proud, but I'm not saying she's wrong. When she gets critical, I get mean. I can't really take things in stride or shake off her comments. I immediately go into defense mode and start pointing out all the ways she's not being so great herself. I feel the desire to run off and hide, lick my wounds, and wallow. "fuck this, I'm out." My brain stops working and the burning in my chest takes over.

What is that? What's the sensation that my mom, in particular, is so adept at inspiring. The same feeling that comes up when I have a perceived failure at work or let down my loved ones? The sensation that felt rooted inside my body for years in my 20's; endlessly torturing me day in and day out as I lay away sleepless at night? The aching, painful, gut-wrenching and twisting feeling that stuck with me for every moment of the day? The emotion that feels so familiar, yet... somehow has never really been named?

Actually, through one of my conversations with another Motherfucker, my NZ queen bitch Ria, I realized what it was. And then I started researching.

Today I'm talking about SHAME. What the fuck IS that? What inspires it? How does it intermingle with Trauma? How does our culture make it such a hidden universal experience? And why is it so linked with my motherfucking mom?

And guys, proud to say I'm doing this podcast differently than before.

I'll be honest... I've held off on getting too educational/nerdy on this blog for my own personal reasons.

1) I'm not a counselor or trauma expert.

2) Writing was a way to deal with my own inner musings and discoveries in trauma recovery. Wasn't really trying to make more work for myself.

3) I got really fucking sick of writing dry, research-based articles after 6 years in cellular biology.

It was nice to write from purely experiential and emotional standpoints, rather than cramming facts from other studies into peer-reviewed manuscripts, what can I say? I really didn't miss sitting down with a highly-regarded journal article and taking 5 days to get through 5 pages of reading.

But alas, the time has come.

I'm headed back to school in two weeks (holy shit!) so I guess I'd better put my "real writing" pants back on. Also, it helps that I have access to libraries of scientific research articles again with my institutional email address... so... fuck it, let's get back in the saddle. Yeehaw.

Let's talk 'bout shame and complex trauma... Factually, not experientially. Note: some of my old vernacular and comments have slipped through for my own entertainment.

What is Shame?

Shame is one of the hallmarks of C-PTSD that we all experience but rarely talk about. I believe it’s much easier to address the symptoms of complex trauma such as flashbacks, isolation, and anxiety due to our deeper understanding and identification of these issues.

Shame, on the other hand, remains more elusive. It’s not an emotion that most of us are taught to conscientiously experience or identify… but we are inherently programmed to avoid the negative sensation when it comes creeping up.

Of course, like all emotions, it’s only possible to suppress the energy for so long before it takes a stronger hold. The feeling eventually makes its presence known in more deleterious ways than the initial event or subsequent response.

What the difference? Guilt vs Shame.

What’s the difference between guilt and shame? It’s difficult to differentiate for many of us. In essence, guilt is related to an event, whereas shame is related to judgment of the human.

Following an unfortunate occurrence, one might feel guilty for the way that they responded in the moment. In contrast, one might feel shame for their inherent inability to handle the situation or a broad judgement of their entire personality and worth. Guilt is connected with assessing a human’s behavior, but shame is linked to the judgement of oneself.

i.e. The difference between beating the shit out of yourself for the words you spoke to a family member in a heated moment… versus beating the shit out of yourself for being a burden to your family member. The first example is guilt, the second is shame.

Shame is born from personal relations

Interestingly, in most cases, shame emerges when it’s felt to be a risk to social connections. Shame is part of a group of emotions known as self-conscious emotions, which are created by a self-evaluating process. AKA that motherfucking inner critic sees what’s going on, interprets your circumstances, and judges yourself harshly.

With this shame response, your sense of self is determined by your assumed capability to meet internal and external expectations… and especially those expectations linked to social behaviors. Of course, relationships are usually highly important and concurrently difficult for trauma sufferers. Their expectations for themselves and others may be unrealistic and based in false core beliefs from early experiences.

Shame is an important part of every social interaction - although few of us realize it blatantly. Embarrassment, a less weighty form of shame, is another universal motive that influences interpersonal behaviors.

This is especially relevant to Complex Trauma because as social animals, we try to interpret the minds of others by developing a sense of self and sense of identity. This is accomplished through interpersonal interactions, generally early in life as we begin to explore and understand social hierarchies and norms.

Some call this concept the “looking-glass self.” As you can imagine, this looking-glass interpretation is difficult to construct with accuracy in an abusive family dynamic where the child is beginning to form their initial sense of self.

Shame is often described as a physiological jolt, which is concomitant or closely-followed by a sense of unimportance, vulnerability, and worthlessness. It can also include an inhibition of the neurological areas responsible for the normal ability to think or speak, as well as an inherent urge to hide and avoid similar situations in the future. It has been described as “acutely disturbing and painful,” to an extent that is likely unparalleled by any other negative emotion.

Because complex trauma, by definition, includes interpersonal trauma originating from the sufferer’s closest social support and intimate family connections, it’s extremely prevalent for C-PTSD sufferers to have experienced heightened shame responses.

Our anti-shame culture causes further shame

With the exception of those with a few key personality disorders, shame is universal in the human experience. Despite this fact, the emotion is generally kept hidden. It is regarded as an unattractive and unrelatable emotion, especially in Western societies.

Particularly, in the U.S. we have a shame-based culture. We are groomed to see ourselves as separate beings, responsible for ourselves to compete for success, to be self-sufficient, and to fit into accepted norms. In an individualistic culture such as this, where the achievement of personal success and highly independent living is critical, the discussion of shame is quieted due to the idealistic focus on projecting high self-esteem. There is inherent reluctance to acknowledge any form of interdependence or self-doubt.

The existence of cultural shaming for having shame, itself, may cause the emotion to develop into a range of mental health issues. It’s no shock that because individuals are struggling with mental health problems, they are generally less likely to be productive and self-sufficient. Their personal doubts for failing to meet societal expectations may become a significant source of additional shame, which further discourages disclosure and pursual for help.

Shame serves to alienate, devalue, and demoralize individuals with prior mental health and socioeconomic disabilities based on their unacceptable marginalized status. It’s no surprise that mental illness sufferers become isolated and often continue to degrade mentally with increased severity of their ongoing disorders.

The coping strategies for shame

As previously stated, human thought and speech formation are inhibited when experiencing shame. Thus, awareness of shame is believed to lead to awareness and regulation of other emotions.

Shame vehemently attacks the internal sense of self-worth, so it is common to rely on coping strategies used to minimize, deny, project, and displace shame as a way to avoid the painful emotion. For example, it is preferential to label oneself as “stupid” rather than acknowledging they are “ashamed.” Again, a throwback to our inner critics.

There are four distinct strategies that we commonly employ to quiet shame: withdrawal, attack of self, avoidance, and attack of others.

When we believe that the message behind our shame response is truthful or valid, we often choose to withdraw and/or self-attack. Withdrawal is an attempt at avoiding the shame-inducing situation from happening again by staying unheard. Self-attack is a mechanism to influence ourselves to make changes, as our personalities or beings have been deemed unacceptable.

If the message behind our shame response is interpreted as unjust or unfair, we might avoid shame by shutting off the emotion altogether. On the other hand, some may choose the more aggressive coping strategy of becoming verbally or physically aggressive as a way to “turn the table” on other humans before they are shamed again.

The first two strategies, withdrawal and self-attack, are often connected to isolation and depression. Substance abuse may be more likely in individuals who turn to avoidance. Lastly, the coping strategy of attacking others to quell one's own shame causes other forms of social deviance. Think of serial killers, bar-fighters, and abusers. Or, to be less dramatic, hypocritical assholes with a deep sense of indignation.

Shame and C-PTSD

It probably goes without saying at this point; there are obvious foundational, coping, and life-altering correlations between C-PTSD and Shame. It should be no surprise that Shame is one of the hallmarks of Complex Trauma.

Since Complex Trauma usually happens within a highly intimate and relational set of circumstances, sufferers are likely to be personally connected by blood or otherwise dependent on the perpetrator. Sudden violation of personal trust, sense of control, and bodily integrity is often earth-shattering to the survivor, which, in the early stages of self-identity formation, easily leads to self-blaming.

Individuals who experience early life trauma often report high levels of Shame. They are more likely to engage in highly critical thinking, and are less likely to engage in positive, self-assured thought patterns. Humans who experienced complex trauma often report that their self-integrity and ability to easily relate to others in healthy and “normal” ways were drastically impaired.

As we all know, rather than being a source of support and comfort, Complex Trauma sufferers’ closest associates, friends, and family can often be a source of further mental distress and additional shame. They often report relational complaints and a highly damaged sense of self as ultimate reasons for entering mental health treatment. These issues regularly include self-criticism, isolation, and relational aggression or instability.

Research suggests that shame is associated with the onset, maintenance, and deepening of posttraumatic stress symptoms. Denying or avoiding this negative feeling often results in additional mental distress over time.

Shame and PTSD treatment

Although it is recognized as a hallmark of trauma, shame is often overlooked in trauma treatment. This may be due to the limitations of psychological models to identify and grade shame, personal reluctance to discuss shameful topics, and difficulty in defining this hidden trauma symptom.

However, shame and post-traumatic stress symptoms have been shown to be associated with activity in similar brain regions. Specifically targeting shame in treatment may be critical at the neurobiological junction. This neurological pattern parallels what professionals know clinically about shame as a core emotion often related to traumatic experiences and its many associated meanings.

The beginning of many C-PTSD recovery journeys is marked by the decision to disclose traumatic experiences to their trusted ones. This is complicated because shame is both a deterrent to disclosing a traumatic experience and a motivator for disclosure to relieve the personal tension.

Unfortunately, shame, itself, may hinder individuals from seeking treatment or honestly discussing their mental distress with loved ones. Specifically, it is known that the fear of being perceived as “damaged” often motivates people not to disclose their shame-inducing experiences. Shame is often especially intense for male trauma survivors, who may develop a deep sense of inferiority and intense fear of being discovered. This can lead to a lifetime of nondisclosure and isolation as an avoidant coping technique.

Unfortunately, avoiding shame is likely to result in additional internal distress and onset of subsequent symptoms or mental disorders.

How can we relieve the Shame?

If shame furthers trauma-related symptoms, treatment needs to begin to address shame for such symptoms to decrease. Shame needs to be a central intervention target.

Unfortunately, fearing negative perception and the risk of losing key relationships, many survivors may see counseling as one of the few situations where they can safely discuss their deep sense of pain. However, the inherent nature of counseling can be overwhelmingly shame-inducing. Diving deep into past and present experiences of the trauma sufferer can be triggering for ongoing shame responses. This is especially true if the events have never been openly discussed before.

Acceptance and supportive responses from members of survivors’ support systems may result in decreased levels of shame. This is why it’s critical to find the right counselor and external support system during PTSD recovery.

A lack of judgement and inhibition of negative response is critical in creating a safe environment where the sufferer can begin to address the memories and symptoms of PTSD. They may benefit significantly from feedback that includes an outside narration of the original event(s) with alternative framing, which specifically removes the self-imparted internal judgements from the trauma survivor.

With disclosure, acceptance, reframing, and time, C-PTSD sufferers may begin to reduce their personal shame response and start to form a more favorable self-evaluation. Their sense of self and personal identity may begin to heal, with more realistic expectations for themselves and others. In layman’s terms, they may escape the cycle of self-brutalization and inner criticism that inhibits their ability to see themselves clearly and engage in normal social engagements.

Shut down the shame, treat the underlying trauma.

Alright dudes, that's my 'spiel on shame. It was honestly helpful for me to get into the literature and do a little digging on this topic - I truly didn't understand the full meaning or relevance of shame until I got a bit nerdy with the open access library search.

I have to admit, since reading and writing about this, I'm seeing things more clearly with my mom. When our interactions inspire this shame spiral, it's useful to be able to identify it. "Oh, that's what this terrible sensation is. That's why I'm being a huge dick in response. That's why my brain and tongue stop working when we're in the moment."

Also... "Oh, that's the feeling that ruled my childhood and adolescence. That's the emotion and relational system that ruled our household. That's how my parents chose to... well... parent. That was my response to all the early rejection I felt in our home and at school. That's how I learned to be a quiet, fawning, introvert with a nasty inner critic."

It all makes so much sense in hindsight, and with the words of clinical psychologists echoing in my head.

I'm not saying that I've stopped being a total douchewad when I've felt challenged or put down by my maternal interactions... but at least I can name the feeling, recognize that it's an old artifact from my early failures in being socialized, reason through it, and let it go faster than before. I never want it to become a pervasive way to torture myself again. And I never want it to stop me from disclosing my experiences to other people... who might be going through their own silent shaming.

If you wanna read the literature review that I dove deeply into, it's called "An Ecological Approach to Understanding Pervasive and Hidden Shame in ComplexTrauma." No, motherfuckers, I'm not going to cite it correctly. I've done it too many times in my past scientist life managing our citation library for every manuscript. Fucking deal with it, pretentious buttholes.

If you're interested in more of this research-approach writing and reading... good news, I think that's where my future is headed as I start school again.

If you have topics you'd like me to look into, drop me a line anytime! Let me know what mysterious experience YOU'RE curious about. And don't let shame stop you from reaching out.