Shame—a mighty four-letter word that carries the weight of a lifetime for many, especially for those who have experienced early childhood abuse.
Intricately woven into the tapestry of trauma, shame often emerges as a silent symptom, a clandestine wound concealed beneath the surface of consciousness. But to understand its potency, we must first recognise its roots in the tender years of early childhood.
When a child experiences abuse—physical, emotional, sexual, or neglect—they often align the blame with themselves, as a survival strategy.
They are more susceptible to misconstrue the reasons behind the abuse. Rather than acknowledging the offender’s responsibility, the child internalises the blame, leading to a sense of toxic shame. “I must have provoked it,” “I am to blame,” or “I am bad”—these undercurrent thoughts echo powerfully in the child’s psyche, sewing the seeds of shame. If it’s their fault they can change their behaviour to be better behaved, achieve more, and do what is asked of them. There is some hope of control as they adapt themselves to try to elicit safety and love from their carers, to no avail. This then becomes a reinforcing cycle where the child concludes they are defective and unlovable.
The reason for such scenarios is that shame doesn’t merely reflect that the child feels they’ve done something wrong; it morphs into the belief system that they are something “wrong.” After all, it is far easier for a child to believe they are defective than to accept the unthinkable notion that their caregiver, their safe harbour, could enact such harm. It is within this tumultuous storm that the corrosive cycle of shame and abuse takes root.
Shame from childhood abuse is exceptionally insidious due to this creation of a negative self-construct. It eclipses the child’s authentic self under layers of misguided perceptions and self-blame. The inner dialogue of the child becomes muddled with a distorted lens of self-loathing and unworthiness.
The long-term consequences of shame anchoring itself to the core of a person are emotional difficulties such as: anxiety and depression, social phobia, substance use, relationship issues, and even suicidality. Moreover, if shame overshadows a person, there will be ongoing cycles of seeking validation and reassurance, thereby making them vulnerable to unhealthy relationships and contributing to a continuous loop of re-traumatisation and shame.
In essence, shame acts like chains on its victims, holding them captive to their abusive past. This time-travelling cord then allows replays of abuse in adult relationships with the inner child glimmer of hope for a different outcome.
The first step to healing is acknowledging the presence of shame.
The signposts of shame:
1. Persistent internal critic: everyone has an inner critic, but when fuelled by shame, its voice becomes unending and cruel. This critic focuses less on actions (“I did something bad”) and more on your being (“I am bad”), a defining characteristic of shame.
2. Intense fear of rejection: if you’re always worried about being disliked, unwanted, or abandoned, this could indicate underlying shame. Shame makes us feel unworthy of love and connection, resulting in constant anxiety about rejection.
3. Chronic perfectionism: while striving for excellence is admirable, compulsive perfectionism often stems from a fear of being judged or found lacking. This fear is typically rooted in feelings of shame.
4. Overcompensation through achievements: if you constantly hustle for worthiness, seeking validation through achievements, it could signal hidden shame. You might be counteracting the internal belief of being “not enough” through external validation.
5. Isolation and withdrawal: an instinctive response to shame often involves hiding or withdrawing from others. You might isolate yourself to avoid the perceived judgment or rejection that you fear might confirm your negative self-beliefs.
6. Self-sabotaging behaviours: if you find yourself consistently undermining your successes or relationships, it might be a sign that shame-fueled self-beliefs are at play. You may unconsciously believe you don’t deserve success or happiness.
7. Overwhelming guilt over past mistakes: it’s natural to regret mistakes, but if you are unable to forgive yourself and move on, constantly berating yourself for past errors, it suggests shame. Unlike guilt, which generally relates to our actions, shame makes us feel flawed at a fundamental level and we can’t let things go.
Recognising these signposts can help determine if shame is the undercurrent driving your negative self-beliefs. Once aware of shame’s presence, the potent chain of self-comparison, judgement, and belittlement can begin to be broken.
The journey to heal from shame is challenging. It requires courage to examine and confront pain, along with immense self-compassion to counter the harsh internal critic. Engaging with therapists trained in shame, resilience, or trauma recovery can be incredibly beneficial.
Unshackling the chains of shame may lead you to self-love and acceptance, reclaiming the true essence of your existence.