Childhood trauma is extremely common, with research suggesting that around two-thirds of people experience at least one traumatic event in childhood. These experiences can have profound and long-lasting impacts on mental health and wellbeing into adulthood.
One of the most common psychological consequences of childhood trauma is a deep sense of shame. But why does trauma so often create feelings of shame?
What is childhood trauma?
Childhood trauma refers to frightening, dangerous, or violent experiences that occur before the age of 18. These events overwhelm a child’s ability to cope and make them feel helpless and terrified.
Common sources of childhood trauma include:
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Witnessing violence or abuse
- Having a serious medical procedure
- Losing a parent or caregiver
- Natural disasters, accidents, or terrorism
- Having a life-threatening illness
- Having parents with mental illness, substance abuse or criminal behavior
These experiences are subjectively traumatic based on the child’s perception, so even events that may seem minor to an adult can be very traumatic for a child. The more frightening and inescapable the event feels to the child, and the earlier it occurs in their development, the more impact it tends to have.
How childhood trauma causes shame
There are several key reasons trauma often leads to deep shame:
Links to self-worth
Children lack a clear sense of identity and rely on caregivers to shape their self-worth. When caregivers abuse, neglect or traumatize a child it sends a message that the child is worthless, damaged or unlovable.
Even witnessing violence between parents can make a child feel responsible or that they deserve maltreatment. They internalize the message: “this happened because I’m bad”.
Secrecy and stigma
Trauma thrives in secrecy. Children are often shamed into silence with the message that they will get in trouble if they disclose abuse. The need for secrecy imposes a great deal of shame.
There is also a strong stigma surrounding experiences like sexual abuse, domestic violence, mental illness and addiction. This leaves children feeling deeply shamed and different.
Loss of control and agency
Trauma, by definition, involves feeling utterly helpless, powerless and lacking control. This loss of agency and vulnerability creates a sense of humiliation.
Moreover, children lack the autonomy or resources to escape the traumatic situation, forcing them to remain trapped in their shame. Adults typically rescue children from harm, but when adults are the source of trauma, it is extremely disempowering.
Early childhood is a critical period for developing secure attachment to caregivers. When caregivers are abusive, unpredictable or emotionally unavailable it leads to anxious, avoidant or disorganized attachment.
These insecure attachment styles cause children to internalize the message that they cannot rely on others to meet their needs. They see themselves as unworthy of care, Safety and belonging.
When trauma occurs at the hands of trusted caregivers or family members, it constitutes an immense betrayal of the child’s dependency and trust. Being victimized by someone they rely upon for safety and comfort is hugely damaging to their self-worth.
Betrayal trauma in childhood tends to cause greater shame due to the violation of expectations and attachment needs.
Trauma derails healthy development across cognitive, emotional, social and physical domains. It can stunt abilities like emotional regulation, social skills, self-efficacy and resilience.
The child is left feeling permanently damaged, incompetent and emotionally defective. Failing to acquire age-appropriate skills results in a sense of self-blame and inadequacy.
How shame manifests after childhood trauma
Childhood trauma plants a seed of toxic shame that can germinate throughout life in many destructive ways:
Low self-esteem and self-worth
Shame creates a core belief that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate or unlovable. This manifests as chronically low self-esteem and negative self-image.
The deep fear of failure and sense of inherent ‘badness’ drives perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism allows a temporary escape from shame.
People pleasing and approval seeking
Shame also manifests as an excessive need for validation and pleasing others. This approval-seeking is an attempt to avoid rejection and conceal the imagined defectiveness.
Withdrawal and isolation
Out of fear of judgement, criticism or exposure, shame drives social withdrawal, isolation and interpersonal struggles.
Self-harm and self-sabotage
Deep self-loathing results in different forms of self-punishment, including self-harm, addiction, eating disorders and sabotaging relationships or opportunities.
Aggression and bullying
Toxic shame may also manifest as externalizing behaviors like aggression, bullying or abusing positions of power. This compensates for and deflects painful feelings of vulnerability.
Different types of shame
Shame has different dimensions that can manifest in various ways:
How you imagine others see you; fear of exposure, criticism and judgement.
How you see yourself; feeling inherently defective, worthless or unlovable.
Ashamed about current activities or lifestyle.
Ashamed about something from your past or childhood.
Ashamed about having experienced or been victim to trauma and abuse.
Ashamed and self-conscious about your physical appearance and attractiveness.
Childhood trauma often creates a combination of internalized, past-focused and trauma-related shame.
Different responses to shame
There are three basic styles of responding to shame:
This involves avoiding, hiding and withdrawing out of a fear of being exposed. It can lead to depression, anxiety disorders and isolation.
Turning shame inward through self-criticism, self-harm, addiction or suicidality. Trying to destroy the ‘flawed’ self.
Deflecting shame onto others through criticism, bullying, abuse, violence or belittling others. Trying to make others ‘lesser’.
These responses represent ways of defending against the intensely painful feeling of shame via escape or compensation.
How shame becomes toxic
While some shame is an healthy, adaptive emotion, toxic shame refers to an extremely painful, all-encompassing sense of badness about one’s entire self and identity.
Shame becomes toxic when it is:
- Chronic – Pervading every aspect of life
- Global – About one’s entire self, not just specific behaviors
- Irrational – Disproportionate to actual events or reality
- Debilitating – Impacts functioning across emotional, social, occupational and physical health domains
- Fuels self-punishment – Leads to ongoing self-sabotage and self-harm
This level of pathological shame is common in those who have experienced repetitive, invasive childhood trauma like abuse, neglect and household challenges.
The shame-rage cycle
Deep shame often gives way to anger and rage as a defense mechanism. This shame-rage cycle typically follows several steps:
- Shameful feelings about the self emerge
- These feelings are so painful they must be escaped
- Rage arises to discharge the shame and pain
- Expressing rage provides temporary relief
- Rage causes consequences (damage, rejection) that create more shame
This self-perpetuating cycle maintains shame while also inflicting harm on relationships.
The shame spiral
Unresolved shame can also persist in a self-reinforcing downward spiral. This occurs via:
- Early shameful experiences (e.g. abuse, insecure attachment)
- Negative self-beliefs form (I’m worthless)
- Self-conscious emotions emerge (shame, guilt)
- Maladaptive behaviors develop (addiction, aggression, withdrawal)
- More negative experiences and consequences
- Further reinforced negative beliefs
- Intensified shame and guilt
- Increased maladaptive coping
This spiral of shame creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that cements toxic shame.
Therapeutic approaches to heal shame
Given the painful fallout of shame, addressing and resolving these feelings in therapy is essential. Some helpful approaches include:
Directly grieving and emotionally processing past trauma to reduce its ongoing influence.
Challenging irrational, self-shaming thoughts and core beliefs that developed.
Cultivating self-forgiveness and self-compassion as an antidote to self-judgment.
Gradually facing feared situations to build shame resilience and emotional regulation.
Imagining past trauma with more empowering outcomes to disarm shame triggers.
Accepting unavoidable vulnerability and imperfection as part of the human experience.
Building meaningful social connection to combat isolation and experience acceptance.
A combination of these approaches tailored to the individual can unravel ingrained trauma-related shame.
In summary, childhood trauma breeds shame through links to self-worth, secrecy, betrayal, powerlessness and disrupted attachment. This early shame shapes negative self-concepts and maladaptive behaviors that pervade adult life. Toxic, trauma-based shame can be healed through processing past pain and developing self-compassion, self-acceptance and meaningful relationships.