post traumatic shame

Shame is a Soul Eating Emotion

Part 2

shame quote-on-stigma-29-healthyplace


Shame is closely related to humiliation. Stoller (1987) states…”

“Humiliation is deeper, more hidden in muscle, bone and mind; often more dangerous to others (as in paranoidness), more likely to provoke retaliation…”

In the experience of shame, the individual loses his or her cherished sense of self-worth…

In the post traumatic self, shame develops from traumatic experiences that render the victim fearful, powerless, helpless, and unable to act congruently with moral values. States of post traumatic shame are often associated with critical incidents that symbolize the ultimate horror of a particular traumatic experience (Lifton, 1967).

Humiliation, Feelings of Powerlessness, Worthlessness, Inadequacy, Failure, and Smallness

…The feeling of smallness is similar to being a naive child who has been forcefully scolded by irate parents…Humiliation, then, is the sense of having been exposed and rendered childlike in stature, diminished in power, status, worth, and importance.

…being subjected to extraordinary stressors (e.g., rape, acts of interpersonal violence, witnessing killings etc) often renders the victim unable to reverse the course of aversive experiences.

As a consequence, shame, including irrational shame, can result and stimulate the incubation of PTSD. In the posttraumatic personality dynamics, shame and psychic numbing are emotional cousins in a family of PTSD symptoms. Insight into this relationship has been made by Wurmser (1987), who stated,

“The blank stare and the mask like face express the global denial of traumatically intense acute feelings (traumatic because they arouse anxiety, e.g., of castration or abandonment). “I don’t want to respond to what I have witnessed by feelings.” I believe it is such severely traumatogenic shame that underlies what is now often dubbed alexithymia. (p. 82)”

Here we have a connection between alexithymia (emotion processing deficits) and post traumatic shame!

Thus trauma provokes not only defense mechanisms but also an inability to identify and label what emotions are being experienced. This means the prefrontal cortex is not being recruited via labelled emotions and instead undifferentiated emotion states provoke the recruitment of limbic reactionary “fight or flight ” parts of the brain instead. So two processes are at work here – a reaction against trauma that leads to an emotion processing deficit which leads to a motoric reaction of “fight or flight”. This can also be explained in terms of an activation of implicit (limbic) behaviour rather than explicitly guided (prefrontal cortical) behaviour.

“The relationship between shame and psychic numbing illustrates that shame is a complex affect rather than a unidimensional emotion…In a later work, Wurmser (1994) notes, In its complexity, [shame] resembles emotions like jealous [sic], envy, and spite, love and hatred, elation and depression, and its own counterpart, pride, and then belongs to the group of compound affects— highly complex compositions of cognitive emotional structures. ”

Thus shame may provoke a interlinked structure of other emotions, increasing it;s overall affect.

Perceptions of Shame in the Eyes of Others: Condemnation and Failure

As a psychological phenomenon, shame is composed of emotions, cognitive attributes, and ego-defensive processes to protect areas of the self. Shame is an overly self-conscious sense of oneself as having been exposed in undesirable ways that conflict with ideal self-images and the bases of self-esteem… The idea of being shamed in the eyes of others…

Wurmser (1994) states, The wish inherent in the feeling of shame is, “I want to disappear as the person I have shown myself to be” . . . .

Clinically, the perception of being judged and shamed by others can be a form of externalized projections of one’s own self-condemnation and hatred.

The Desire for Escape, Isolation, Withdrawal, Self-Imposed Exile, and Alienation

If the self does not exist, neither does shame. Suicidal fantasies are manifestations of the desire to escape the pain of losing face and the feared condemnation and outright rejection by others. In the presence of unremitting states of shame, the individual may impose exile, isolation, and alienation to further protect himself or herself from the experience of public shame and humiliation.

In the posttraumatic self afflicted with PTSD, trauma complexes, or other distressing emotional consequences of trauma, can increase the strength of suicidal ideation, especially if there is no foreseeable escape from haunting, intrusive memories of trauma, severe affect dysregulation, and an overwhelming sense of being emotionally trapped in the trauma experience (Wilson, 1989). The presence of PTSD, depression, and a shameful appraisal of the worth of the self is a potentially lethal combination (Lindy & Wilson, 1994).

Self-Consciousness Over Disappointing Others…

Shame is a multifaceted phenomena in which self-consciousness associated with negative self-appraisals extends outwardly and inwardly at the same time. The feeling of having lost face is intensified through sources of attachment, affiliation, and interpersonal relationships. The experience of shame reflects a loss of global self-esteem and heightened selfconsciousness over disappointing others in kinship networks and important personal relationships (Morrison, 1989).

In the posttraumatic self, shame over what happened during the traumatic experience can be internalized through incorrect and inaccurate appraisals of responsibility (e.g., “It was my fault…)

In clinical assessment, the shameful victim reports feelings of being small or dirty, a loss of innocence, a diminished self-virtue…

In a psychoanalytic perspective, Leon Wurmser (1987) notes “Shame is a faulty defined affect, conscious or unconscious, caused by a discrepancy between expectation and realization, an inner and outer discrepancy, an inner or an outer conflict. It is the polarity, the tension, between how I want to be seen and how I am.”

The discrepancy between inner and outer forms of self-experience give rise to affect dysregulation defensive measures to quell anxiety, tension, and self-recrimination that accompany posttraumatic states of shame and guilt (Schore, 2002).

Devalued Self-Appraisal: The Loss of Moral Goodness

The experience of shame inevitably involves self-appraisal and negative affects as to personal worth and goodness (Tangney & Dearing, 2003). In states of shamefulness, the person loses his or her previously enjoyed feeling of goodness and integrity.

In posttraumatic ego states, shame is negative appraisal of the self that extends to future prospects of restoring a sense of self-esteem and  integrity to one’s value as a person.

Shame can operate unconsciously in trauma complexes and initiate self-destructive and self-defeating modalities of behavior (Wilson, 2005). The internalization of a shameful sense of personal identity sets up a wide range of possibilities by which to create self-fulfilling prophecies of personal unworthiness.

In extreme cases of PTSD, the profoundly shamed person may unconsciously recreate the conditions in his or her current life that attempt to reenact, repeat, or symbolically recapitulate what occurred during a traumatic experience…

Stated differently, internalizing shame and incorporating it into the structure of personal identity can cause a reconfiguration of the self as a whole. The persistent experience of posttraumatic shame in selfconscious states infused with anxiety may ultimately lead to the choice of a negative identity (“I am shamed, therefore I am bad and undeserving.”)

In states of posttraumatic shame, self-attribution processes involve negative cognitions of the self and personally generated attributions of loss of self-worth and self-esteem and judgments of moral failure. As part of negative self-attributional processes, the trauma survivor experiences humiliation, powerlessness, helplessness, sadness, anger, rage, and hopelessness. These powerful and deep-seated emotions are directly linked to personal appraisals of moral responsibility: “I did something bad to cause this to happen; therefore, I am a shameful and bad person.” As a consequence of these cognitive-affective processes…

The inner conflict associated with states of posttraumatic shame activates ego defense mechanisms of repression, denial, suppression, and strong avoidance behaviors. In the wake of traumatic experiences, these dysregulated states of affect, personal identity, and ego processes increase the proneness to develop psychopathology (Tangney & Dearing, 2003) and PTSD (Wilson, 2005).


“What is the relationship of shame to anger/rage, contempt, envy, vulnerability, and humiliation?  It should be noted that shame itself, can be expressed as several related feelings, humiliation, despair, remorse, apathy, embarrassment, and lowered self-esteem ….I suggest that they each express some element of shame, with variations in the object, aim or intensity of the affective experience. “(Morrison, 1989, p. 13)

The experience of shame in the post-traumatic self can be coupled with a broad range of emotional states.

Thus, compound affective states can fuse in states of posttraumatic shame.

…posttraumatic shame associated with profound humiliation, ridicule, and feelings of betrayal can lead to aggression and attacks on the perceived sources of being shamed by others. On the other hand, posttraumatic shame can lead to depressive withdrawal and isolation from others.

…the core emotional element that appears to cross cut all compound affective states embedded in the posttraumatic self is fear… the emotions of anxiety and fear (while in shame) are powerfully linked to unconscious processes and concerned with self deintegration and the specter of annihilation. Subjectively, this is manifest in diffuse anxiety states and fears of falling apart.


The words of shame reflect negative selfappraisal, loss of self-worth, and a perceived loss of status and reputation in the eyes of others…The core emotion in shame is the painful feeling of humiliation… The feeling of humiliation is likewise associated with a sense of disgrace and dishonor and the descent or fall in stature from one’s previous state of grace, goodness…. In some cases, it is the feeling of loss of soul, spirit, identity, human essence, and vitality, as if the seeds of psychic life have been sucked out of the body. In shame, feelings of self-contempt, stigma, debasement, injured pride, and tarnished hubris and a sense of having been lowered in status, prominence, importance, and standing dominate personal awareness and contribute to self-consciousness and fears of being judged by others as reprehensible or morally flawed…associated with states of posttraumatic shame include increased emotional distress: anxiety, fear, tension, apprehensive worry about others’ judgments…

The powerful emotions of posttraumatic shame  are associated with a broad range of avoidance behaviors: isolation, detachment, withdrawal, hiding, nonappearance, selfimposed exile, cancellation of appointments, surrender of responsibilities, emotional constriction, psychic numbing, emotional flatness…


The transformation of posttraumatic shame can occur with the passage of time, with psychological treatment, or by spiritual epiphany…(Wilson, 2005).

Unresolved posttraumatic shame continues to have the power to influence behaviors, to generate fuel for trauma complexes, PTSD, and self-destructive patterns of coping.

As Wurmser (1987) observed, “The careful analysis of shame requires great tact and patience. We have to respect the patient’s need to hide behind layers of silence, evasion, omission, intellectualization as dictated by such anxiety about exposure. We have to understand his need to assume a mask of hautier and arrogance . . . . We have to respect it as rooted in anxiety, not in sinful self indulgence…”

This passage by Wurmser crystallizes a basic truth that shame inevitably leads to needs to protect posttraumatic injuries to the self in all its constituent dimensions. Stated differently, shame damages the soul of the person, his or her most cherished inner sense of identity and humanity.

Damage to the sanctity of the self, especially rending it vulnerable and in danger of symbolically dying, is a primordial fear at the deepest level of the psyche (Wilson, 2004a). Hence, it is not surprising that narcissistic defenses will be instituted to protect the fragility of the self (Morrison, 1989).


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





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