For nearly two decades, I feared my mind and the memories of abuse it held. Every choice I made — where I lived, the people I spent time with, the work I did — was in part to help me forget. When I finally dared to look at what I spent years running from, I was somewhat surprised the initial focus of my treatment was fear of physical harm. I always knew it was shame I was trying to escape.
Perhaps because I avoided confronting the abuse for so long, and regarded my history as a secret, my shame had spread beyond the incidences of abuse and became how I perceived myself: inherently flawed and powerless to change. Shame felt so much bigger than self-contempt and low self-worth. My entire body felt exhausted by the burden. As if proof, in my early twenties my hair was already showing gray.
The current trend in trauma psychology is to emphasize how the body is triggered to defend against further injury. Although this portrayal of posttraumatic stress is accurate, it is often incomplete, especially for survivors of sexual abuse. La Bash and Papa (2014) observed that trauma-related fear is not necessarily “associated with physical harm, but instead can be related to threats of social judgment, stigma, or ostracism.”1 According to their research, 75% of women felt shame following sexual assault.2
In response to trauma, fear of shame is similar to fear of physical harm. Both cause withdrawal and avoidance of reminders of the trauma. Both contribute to posttraumatic stress and increase the likelihood of developing PTSD. And for many of us, both fear of shame and fear of danger are consequences of sexual abuse.
Recovering from trauma-related shame is complicated by the necessity of shame for sociality. In our predominantly hierarchical societies, shame is an emotional tool for leveraging power and social conformity. When we feel shame, we are more likely to submit to group norms or someone more powerful, if doing so alleviates the fear of being ostracized, which is the core fear associated with shame. Shame motivates observing group norms that support social cohesion. When people are not conditioned to feel shame, they are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior.3
But shame has physiological and social costs. Shame occurs with the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and cortisol, suggesting the body experiences shame as evidence of threat.4 There is both pain and mental confusion associated with shame, which usually dissuades against challenging the source. The body instead exhibits a submissive display, usually a downward gaze and slumped posture. In this state of retreat and despondency, social bonds are maintained through fear of loss rather than desire for connection. Chronic, trauma-related shame is unhealthy, and contributes to both psychological and social fragmentation.
Shame involves hiding one’s true self and feelings, much like a chameleon camouflages itself to remain safe. Yet unlike the solitary chameleon threatened by a predator, shame in humans is an adaptation to dependency on the group for survival. We have evolved to tolerate conditions of social inequality, if not oppression, rather than risk abandonment.5 We would rather chance losing our sense of self than sever important social bonds. This is particularly true for those who experienced betrayal trauma and were abused by a caregiver or someone close.
Evidence suggests women are prone to feel shame more than men, which is thought to reflect women’s lower status.6 Similarly, feeling shame in response to sexual abuse is in part related to how such violations contribute to women’s social devaluation.
For centuries, a young woman or girl’s worth has been tied to her prospects as a bride, if not her family’s financial well-being, a practice that continues around the world. When virginity is a precondition for marriage, women are especially vulnerable to patriarchal valuations according to archetypal distinctions between Madonna and whore that have been used to categorize women according to their sexual histories. This ongoing practice of evaluating a girl or young woman according to her sexual history contributes to the devaluation of those sexually abused.
Since at least 2100 B.C.E, when the first city-nations of Sumerian civilization codified laws for the treatment of women, those identified as whores suffered all kinds of degradations. Wives, at least, had some legal protection — as long as they remained sexually loyal to their husbands and thus ‘pure.’ Every civilization since then has had norms or laws that devalue women because of their sexual histories, regardless if those experiences were the result of sexual abuse or a woman’s choice.
Granted, sexual mores are shifting in many parts of the world, such as in the West. Here serial monogamy is increasingly the norm, and sexual relations before marriage are commonplace. Nevertheless, for those sexually abused, the idea that sex can be a barometer of a woman’s worth still influences self-concepts, if not contributes to feelings of shame. (It is no coincidence that if a man wants to devalue a woman, he can call her a whore.)
Women who have been sexual abused have experienced far worse than shame, including abandonment, further sexual assault, forced sex work, mutilation, and murder. These reactions to sexual abuse have been so pervasive that the definition of sexual abuse as a categorical experience (one which includes molestation, sexual assault, rape, sexual coercion, and harassment) is incomplete when it does not include the potential for lowered status, if not outright scapegoating, that often co-occur with sexual trauma.
Many of us still deal on our own with the impact sexual abuse has on our minds and bodies, rather than risk judgment or worse. Too many of us still live in communities (or relationships) where we intuit, or are explicitly told, that sexual abuse is not something spoken of, and best forgotten.
The fear of being ‘found out’ contributes to self-imposed isolation, committing acts of inner aggression when feeling shame, or protectively lashing out at others who are perceived as shaming. Some become too appeasing, afraid of rejection, which puts them at greater risk for revictimization, especially if they don’t believe they are worth defending. Trauma-related shame is also linked to suicidality, addictions, self-harm, depression, and physical health problems.
Similar to betrayal blindness, shame also contributes to amnesia of sexual trauma, and “acts to block from awareness the reality of the perpetrator’s culpability,” which also makes it more likely a woman will look for reasons to blame herself rather than her abuser or society.7
Perhaps trauma-related shame is the greater obstacle to recovery than fear of external threats. Trauma-related shame is definitely more difficult to resolve than trauma-related fear of harm, particularly given society’s dependence on shame for enforcing norms. I have found resolving fear of revictimization associated with my history of abuse has been a relatively straightforward, albeit time-consuming process, whereas trauma-related shame has been more recalcitrant to change.
When I experience fear of harm, I can assess if there is an external threat and determine if my emotional response is irrational (and use exercises to get back in the window of tolerance). Fear of shame is more subtle. Communication between people is often ambiguous and social norms are mostly implicit. It’s not as easy to determine when shame is unwarranted.
Shame also serves my desire for being part of community. It helps me attune to unspoken expectations. The threat of shame, at least at low levels, supports my desire for connection and belonging.
I consider recovery from traumatic shame to be more about developing healthy habits than reaching a point of transformation. Below I’ve listed several ways to identify and work with shame to bring it into a ‘window of tolerance’ of sorts, where shame is more likely to contribute to belonging rather than the painful fear of being ostracized.
Work With The Body
Researchers examining the universal expression of emotions found that feelings of shame tend to localize in the chest, throat, and head, particularly around the eyes. In contrast, the arms significantly lack energy when shame is felt.8 Arms likely become weak because we don’t physically anticipate support or compassion when ashamed.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy teaches ways of being embodied that alter emotions. By using simple techniques, we can begin to change the way shame is held in the body. Instead of withdrawing from social connection, we become more receptive to it. These shifts can also lessen feelings of shame, if not relieve them.
When you notice feelings of shame, or notice your body is slumped and your eyes downcast, take a minute to:
• Slowly and mindfully straighten your spine and notice how that feels.
• With your spine extended, take a few slow breaths. Nothing too deep, just relaxed breathing.
• Gently let your arms swing by your sides.
• Slowly turn your head from left to right, observing your surroundings.
Make these movements as often and whenever you like.
Know Your Shame
Trauma-related shame can feel global, as if everything about yourself is shameful. This makes it difficult to identify how and when you shame yourself. One way to know your shame is to look at moments when you feel either envy or contempt for someone else.
Most of the time, we envy in others what we feel we lack in ourselves. We feel contempt of another’s traits or behaviors when we cannot accept similar qualities in ourselves. If you notice feeling envy, this is an indication that you may be judging yourself as lacking. If you feel contempt, it could be a signal there is something about yourself you cannot accept.
When feeling contempt, return your awareness to yourself. Remind yourself that you deserve to accept and love all of yourself (that’s right — warts and all). When feeling envy, shift your focus and energy back to nurturing your talents and making the best of your circumstances.
Create Time For Self-Expression
Neuroscientists have identified two opposing functions in the frontal lobe of the brain: self-monitoring and self-expression.9 When self-monitoring, we judge our thoughts, feelings, choices, and actions. In contrast, when self-expressing, we creatively and spontaneously respond to novel stimuli. When we feel shame, we tend to self-monitor excessively and have difficulty accessing restorative and enlivening states of self-expression.
Perhaps the reason art therapy supports recovery from trauma is because it increases self-expression while reducing self-monitoring. I encourage you to take part in any creative activity you can enjoy without concern for final outcomes. Treat it as practice for turning off the self-monitoring function. We all should take time for creative play at least once a week, and make it a lifelong ritual. Such moments have the potential to become some of the most fulfilling (and shame free) of our lives.
Activities to consider: Try at least one of the above methods for changing your experience with shame. If one doesn’t work for you, give another a try. See if you can start a habit of shifting out of shame and into states of self-acceptance, if not self-expression.
1 Bash, Heidi La, & Papa, Anthony. (2014). Shame and PTSD Symptoms. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(2), p. 164.
2 Ibid., p. 160.
3 See Turner, Jonathan H. (2000). On the Origins of Human Emotions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
4 Platt, Melissa G., & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2015). Betray my trust, shame on me: Shame, dissociation, fear, and betrayal trauma. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7(4), 398-404.
5 See Boehm, Christopher. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
6 Platt & Freyd, 2015.
7 Bernstein, Rosemary E., & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2014). Trauma at home: How betrayal trauma and attachment theories understand the human response to abuse by an attachment figure. Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 8(March 2014), p.21.
8 Nummenmaa, Lauri, Glerean, Enrico, Hari, Riitta, & Hietanen, Jari K. (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. PNAS, 111(2), 646-651.
9 Kaufman, Sarah L., Orenstein, Jayne, Hashemi, Sarah, Hart, Elizabeth, & Tan, Shelly. (2018, June 7). Art in an instant: The secrets of improvisation, The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/lifestyle/science-behind-improv-performance/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.75b2c5dd7577
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).