Post-traumatic Shame and Guilt



Part 1


Shame is on the face, on the front of the soul. (Stoller, 1987, p. 304)”

It is proposed in this excellent review (1) that that there are acute and prolonged states of post-traumatic shame and guilt that can be compared in their consequences across eight psychosocial dimensions: (a) self-attribution processes, (b) emotional states and capacity for affect regulation, (c) appraisal and interpretation of actions, (d) the impact of states of shame and guilt on personal identity, (e) suicidality, (f) defensive patterns, (g) proneness to psychopathology and PTSD, and (h) the dimensions of the self-structure adversely affected by states of posttraumatic shame and guilt.


The experience of posttraumatic states of shame and guilt are associated with compounded affective processes in PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders.

Reading this part of this review, I can see clear parallels with many people in recovery, including myself.

The question is whether I know many who have simply experienced the trauma that leads to post traumatic shame or whether, in some ways, addiction itself is a traumatic experience?

Obviously both these may be pertinent to many in recovery.

The post traumatic shame described here as “soul-death,” “soulmurder,” loss of ego identity, and a sense of self as “empty.” also seems to be close to the “hole in the soul” often talked about by recovering people in recovery groups.

Is addiction brutalizing and traumatically shaming, this may be a pertinent research question moving forward?


“As we discuss, posttraumatic shame and guilt have 15 dimensions that dynamically interact with each other and dysregulated affective states that include anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, terror, loss, bereavement, and humiliation. The understanding of posttraumatic shame and guilt has critically important implications for the treatment of PTSDs and self-pathologies (Wilson, 2005).

Shame is a more complex intrapsychic process than is guilt because it involves processes concerning attributes about the core dimensions of the self, identity, ego processes, and personality. In posttraumatic shame, the focus of evaluation concerns the moral virtue and goodness of the self and the need to cope with feelings of disgrace, disrepute, dishonor, loss of self-esteem, loss of virtue, and personal integrity.

Guilt, on the other hand, concerns different forms of self-recrimination about responsibility for personal actions. In the posttraumatic self (Wilson, 2005), shame and guilt can coexist depending on the critical incidents that the individual endured during trauma.

Shame and guilt possess unique psychological dimension  that differentiate them from each other.

Posttraumatic shame and guilt involve complex forms of affect and negative cognitions, especially in trauma complexes (Wilson, 2004c). Posttraumatic shame and guilt have consequences for proneness to PTSD –  ego defensiveness, psychopathology, and other aspects of psychosocial functioning.

Posttraumatic shame and guilt exist whether or not there are degrees of pretraumatic ego vulnerability, including selfpathologies and narcissistic shame (Morrison, 1990). Posttraumatic shame and guilt can be coupled with a broad range of affects (including preexisting shame and guilt) to form complex states of intrapsychic tension as part of PTSD, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, psychosis, and substance use disorders.


“Shame is on the face, on the front of the soul. (Stoller, 1987, p. 304)”

In posttraumatic shame, the trauma experience may motivate desire to avoid exposure or confrontation with memories and feelings that lead to a sense of shame.

The analyst Fenichel (1945) wrote that “I feel ashamed” means “I do not want to be seen” (p. 139).

Shame can be experienced with or without an audience present. It requires an inarticulate fear of one’s shame becoming visible and known to others (Miller, 1985). Humiliation arises, for example,…where the victim is abused, dehumanized, and made an exhibition for others. One may not blame oneself for what has happened but experiences a profound loss of dignity and power (Wilson & Drozdek, 2004).

As Broucek (1982) and Wilson (2004b) describe, experiences of extreme humiliation can lead to a sense of “soul-death,” “soulmurder,” loss of ego identity, and a sense of self as “empty.”

In its extreme forms, shame is a painful and debilitating experience. Shame is a deeply rooted sense of having violated one’s true nature, no matter how accurately or inaccurately perceived by oneself or others.

Gilbert (1997, 1998) distinguished between external and internal shame. External shame is associated with social anxiety and is related to one’s preoccupations about how others appraise and judge actions. The shamed self feels inferior, flawed, disgusting, weak, inadequate, and diminished in human nature.

Shame anxiety is fear of disgrace and being looked at by others with contempt. Depressive affect in shame is a result of feeling under the glare of the mind’s eye or the eyes of the others. Depressive shame is demoralization and a feeling that one’s true integrity has been badly damaged or lost. Various researchers suggest that core states of shame reside in a preoccupation and near obsessive concern when the real or imagined evaluation of others is present (Gramzow & Tangney, 1992).

According to Morrison (1989) ...shame is an effective response to the perception of the self as flawed, and thus inevitably involves narcissism, vulnerability, and their various manifestations” (p. 48). The most archaic defense is a kind of stupor-like, frozen state wherein one forgets parts of one’s own life history or personality.

Counterphobic forms of shamelessness develop to stave off fear, vulnerability, and humiliation. A variation on counterphobic reactions is omnipotence, in which there is an attempt to restore intrapsychic balance by developing narcissistic rage, anger, and hostility (Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, & Gramzow, 1992; Zwaal van der, 1998).”



  1. Wilson, J. P., Droždek, B., & Turkovic, S. (2006). Posttraumatic shame and guilt. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 7(2), 122-141.

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