Please note… I have modified this article. I realised that I hadn’t been clear enough about the fact that emotions are trustworthy when they are experienced by the healthy self, but not so when they are used as a survival strategy.
For those who are unfamiliar with Franz Ruppert’s Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Theory, you might want to read this blog – Introduction to Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Theory – first so that you understand something of the psychological splitting that takes place as a means of surviving a trauma, and the different parts of the self that are the result.
Shame is always present when we make trauma the central focus of therapy, and so, more often than not, is guilt. In fact shame is a constant, close companion to trauma, and guilt is the companion of shame.
Like trauma, shame and guilt are rarely talked about properly, or acknowledged. We avoid talking about our trauma, shame and guilt, because we are ashamed of them, and frightened of the emotions connected with them. We push the whole package of traumatisation with its accompanying shame and guilt out of our consciousness, splitting it off, because trauma is terrifying and shame is shameful… and so these difficult topics are so often avoided in our conversation, our therapy and our attempts at healing.
In this article I am going to try and look at emotions generally and their connection with trauma, what authentic shame is and how it becomes distorted, used and abused in families, relationships and society. I am going to explore its links to trauma, and its relationship with guilt.
This is a work in progress. I do not pretend to know all about shame, but this is a start of a much needed conversation about shame and trauma, and comments and other ideas are very welcome in the comments section below.
The first thing to say is that emotions experienced in a healthy, non-split, integrated psyche, and as part of our natural experiencing, are neither positive nor negative; they are a physiological feedback system that tells us how we are in relation to a particular current situation. They are collections of sensations in the body and the brain that together we give a name, such as anger, love, joy, hate, disgust, rage, fear, lust, grief, terror, shame, guilt, and so on. Next time you feel an emotion take a moment to check out exactly what the sensations are in your body, what the physical manifestation of this emotion actually is. So for example, shame usually makes us feel hot, our face may redden, we may sweat and feel like our body is contracting; we may feel like we are sinking into a hole or want to hide; we may use words like ‘excruciating’ or ‘unbearable’, but see if you can explore what the actual physical sensations are.
Within the ‘healthy part’ of ourselves, emotions are healthy and necessary; they provide us with information, often more accurate information about how we are in a given situation than our thinking mind does. For the healthy psyche, emotions do not lie, whereas our mind can make up all sorts of stories and interpretations about things… Emotions are our physiological reaction to things, providing us with necessary information and, sometimes necessary physical tension relief, as when we express the emotion. Our problems with emotions are usually because we have been taught not to trust them, to deny them, to rise above them, that they are foolish, and to give our emotions more authority than our intellect is dangerous. (When I was a child and got emotional my mother used to say that I was being hysterical… and I would feel ashamed, not even really knowing what ‘hysterical’ meant.)
Disgust for example is a strong indicator that something is not good for us to ingest, or that an action or activity is unpleasant, revolting, even dangerous or poisonous. Disgust is often accompanied by nausea and sometimes even vomiting. A common description of disgust is an experience of something ‘turning my stomach’. As hunter gatherers, disgust was probably the primary emotion for discriminating what food was safe and what wasn’t. Think about a time you have experienced disgust, and see if you can recall the physiological experience of it.
We have tended to label some emotions as ‘positive’ because we like them and they make us feel good, emotions like love, joy, happiness, tenderness and so on; and we have named others ‘negative’ because they are not so pleasant to experience. We do not like to feel fear, but fear warns us that something is potentially dangerous. Fear is a primary survival emotion and its function is to keep us safe; it perhaps causes us to run away or take cover. We may have learned to suppress our anger, and call that a ‘negative’ emotion, but anger is about defending and protecting ourselves; it’s about setting boundaries and saying “NO” to what is not good for us. And of course love is for bonding… for connection and relationship, again originally for safety and protection; lust ensures procreation and the perpetuation of the species.
Once we understand the basic function of emotions, to keep us safe, protect us from what is dangerous, ensure good bonding and relationship, ensure that what we eat is safe and healthy, to ensure procreation and the future of the species, then it is not a difficult thing to realise that all creatures have emotions… mammals, having a limbic brain, have a broader and more defined range of emotions than reptiles which only have the older, more primitive brain and the more primitive responses (startle, fight, lust).
Emotions and trauma
When we have a high stress experience, or if we cannot resolve this high stress situation and are forced into trauma, our psyche and body have strong emotional reactions. Trauma in itself is emotional… and the trauma splitting is the splitting off of the emotional reaction and charge, because survival in that moment becomes the priority, and the expression of the emotions is too terrifying and takes too much valuable energy which must be directed to our survival… keeping the vital organs going.
Remember that emotions are psycho-physical sensations that form a tension, and impulses to express in order to relieve this tension… this is what gets split off and frozen in time if the event is traumatic. (This brings into question what, exactly, an experience of re-traumatisation, the triggering of one’s split off trauma, actually is, because in a sense these emotional reactions have not in fact ever been experienced, having been split off before the full experience. This is for another blogpost.)
Emotions and trauma survival
So trauma emotions are real; they are high impact, high energy tensions of the psyche and the body that are held in suspension, the knowledge of which is split off from our conscious mind as a way of surviving.
And from here we develop a myriad of ways in which to keep this experience out of consciousness, what we call the strategies of the trauma survival self. We put a lot of unconscious physical and psychic energy and effort into keeping this dense packet of emotions split off in its suspended state, energy and effort we could be putting into living satisfying and happy lives.
And one form of trauma survival strategy is using a form of emotions and emotional expression as a way of keeping us from these real, underlying terrifying feelings. These we call ‘survival emotions’.
So emotions can be manipulated to serve as an avoidance of the deeper, more authentic feelings. ‘Survival emotions’ do not resolve in a satisfying way because they are not authentic emotional expressions. Survival emotions may be expressed, and may seem to the uninformed to be valid emotional expressions, but an interesting question to ask yourself, if you can, is: “what is underneath this emotional expression I am involved in right now?” and see what answer you come up with. Authentic emotional expression involves the whole body and does not usually last for very long, whereas survival emotional expression often is only in the upper part of the body, does not involve the whole body, and does not seem to resolve itself in a satisfactory way; rather it tends to take quite a while to finish, and leaves one feeling unsatisfied, exhausted, wasted and dull. Authentic emotions are enlivening, making us feel energised, in contact and vital. Survival emotions sap the life out of us, making us feel tired, dispirited and flat.
Shame and Guilt
So let’s look at the healthy function of shame and guilt. The following is from my book Becoming Your True Self:
“Shame and guilt in their healthy forms have a morally moderating and protective function. If you have done something that contravenes your own healthy sense of ethics you may feel ashamed, and if your actions have caused pain or harm to another you may feel guilt.” (Broughton, 2014)
So this gives us a definition of healthy shame and healthy guilt, their function as a means of moderating our relational existence in our life, of dealing with relationship difficulties. Of course we are talking here of the shame we feel when we are functioning from our healthy self and dealing with a present day situation. In such situations we are usually easily able to identify why we feel ashamed and what we are guilty of, and can then rectify the situation.
But for many of us our feelings of shame and guilt are much more complex and confusing. There are two forms of experience of shame that we are probably all familiar with:
- shame that appears suddenly out of nowhere, hits us without warning and confuses us because we don’t really know what it is related to. We lose our ground and often feel shocked at the powerful feelings we have.
- An all pervasive and persistent feeling of shame and guilt, again that is confusing because it doesn’t seem to be logical and we don’t know what, exactly, we are ashamed of.
The first is a kind of re-traumatisation, where we are suddenly precipitated into a devastating experience of shame by something that has happened or been said to us. This moment may have an authentic shameful component to it, ie something real has happened that we feel ashamed about, but the degree to which we are incapacitated projects us into a helpless, vulnerable, usually very young state. If we have a history in our family where shame and humiliation was used as a means of control, then the present experience will re-trigger all those childhood experiences of having been humiliated by our parent/s, siblings, peers, teachers etc. However, I would point out here that our vulnerability to shame by our siblings, peers and teachers originates with a primary shaming parent-child situation. If the parent-child environment had not been shaming, the child is more likely to have a strong enough healthy self to manage the later incidents, which would be less likely to invoke shame.
I think there are two aspects to this: one is that the emotional impact of the authentic shame triggers our split-off trauma, which combines into a devastating experience of helplessness; the second is that it also triggers our shameful feelings to do with our vulnerability and helplessness, ie the shame of our trauma.
The second form of shame usually is because the context in which we arrived as a pre-birth and post-birth baby is suffused with shame. The mother may have a shaming traumatised background, and so may the father, and as a baby we are already entangled with our parents’ deep sense of shame which cannot be owned. The thing about shame is that it is never owned, talked about or named, but the atmosphere is there in every action and interaction in the family. More often than not this may be a family that falls into the category of a traumatised bonded system, where the predominant dynamics of engagement are perpetrator/victim dynamics, which are based on shame and shaming.
Trauma and shame
Trauma breeds shame, and persistent and intentional shaming can breed trauma.
Babies are not born ashamed; a baby doesn’t know shame unless they are entangled with their mother’s shame or the child is shamed himself by his mother. Apart from being entangled with the mother’s shame, there a many ways in which a baby can experience shame, the most fundamental of which is to do with the ‘trauma of love’ and the ‘trauma of identity’.
Trauma of love and shame
A trauma of love is the trauma of the baby not being able to get a loving connection with his mother, primarily due to the fact of the mother having been traumatised herself, and so having a tendency to dissociate, particularly in emotional situations. A primary survival need of the pre-birth and post birth baby is an emotional connection with his or her mother. This gives the child an orientation, a place, a sense of being, a connection with the world through the mother, an experience of safety and security, of love and respect for who he actually is. Our sense of self is formed and strengthened through this initial contact with our mother – if she can do it – and our ability to develop a healthy separateness and autonomy into adulthood depends on this loving connection.
If the mother cannot tolerate an emotional connection with her child, or if she doesn’t feel love for her child for whatever reason (and there are many), then the child’s experience is of being adrift, without security and safety, and he will literally fear for his survival. This then is the ‘trauma of love’.
Along with this unbearable experience of not having a good, loving connection with the mother comes a proliferation of shame experiences:
- shame of being insufficient for the mother
- shame of feeling not wanted, or being ‘wrong’ in some way
- shame of not being able to make the mother be what he needs her to be
- shame of not being able to take care of the mother and her emotional pain
- shame of being disgusting, evil, a perpetrator, a parasite or whatever other attitude the mother has towards her child
- shame of losing one’s Self
- shame of having had to split
- shame of having had to compromise oneself
- shame of having failed to maintain oneself
- shame of being vulnerable and incapable
- shame of one’s helplessness and weakness
- the shame of ‘being wrong’ from the ‘trauma of love’ diversifies into lack of confidence and a vulnerability to shaming at work, at home, with friends, and with one’s children.
- the experience of being ashamed contributes to one’s inability to put oneself forward, tending instead to shyness and withdrawing.
- in order to protect oneself from one’s own experience of the trauma of shame, the tendency to shame others as a means of control… becoming the shaming perpetrator, shaming others as a survival strategy
- added to the above item is the shame of being a perpetrator…
- … and the shame of being a victim
- the shame of not being able to manage one’s life
- the shame of needing help
- the shame of not being able to establish a healthy partnership
- the shame of not being a good mother (there are heavy societal pressures here)
- the shame of being ill, sick, unhealthy, psychologically unwell, physically fragile
- the shame of being traumatised
- the shame of one’s helplessness
- the shame of one’s vulnerability and ‘weakness’
- the shame of being a traumatised mother, who therefore has traumatised her own children
- the shame of being a psychotherapist of considerable experience who realises she is still traumatised
- the shame of not being able to heal oneself
- the shame of insufficiency
- the shame of one’s family and topics in the family that are prohibited from being discussed
- shame about one’s survival strategies (addictions, compulsions, angry outbursts, self-harming)
And guilt? All of these shames are intertwined with guilt about not having been able to achieve that which we are ashamed of. Perhaps there is no shame without a sense of guilt.
It is easy to see that trauma, by its very nature and need for avoidance, is shameful, and our survival of trauma is also percolated with shame. This explains so well why these topics are not freely and willingly addressed, and why psychotherapy and other modes of healing so often unconsciously avoid them; how does the therapist manage their own trauma and shame?
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