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The role of shame in trauma

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Today’s topic: The role of shame in trauma  (Dr Jessica Brands, Clinic Director)

Adult survivors of childhood abuse and trauma often find shame and self-loathing is a pervasive and debilitating aspect of their struggles. Shame may be experienced as a feeling of defectiveness or unworthiness and may include bodily responses of curling up, lowering the eyes, and hunching the shoulders. For many, shame is experienced when trying to assert basic rights and needs, such as ‘saying no’ or asking for help. 

Recent research suggests that shame and submission may actually serve as a survival response to ward off threats of danger, or to defuse situations. For example, some children may have learned that it was not safe to be visible, to be successful or to have needs; and that to do so may have resulted in more aversive and distressing threats to physical and emotional safety. 

It is important for survivors to recognise how and why shame responses have developed, and to find ways to mindfully let go of these responses, now they no longer serve a survival purpose. For example, our inner dialogue with ourselves may be one way to shift shame and self-loathing. Often we tell ourselves that we are “unworthy, stupid, fat, bad, ugly, or a burden”, so much so that we believe all our criticisms. It may be important to tell ourselves instead that we are ok, are doing a good job, are good enough, and just a normal human being who is allowed to make mistakes and have their needs met. 

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