attachment disorder

Impact of Trauma on Compassion


Part 2

Impact of Trauma on Compassion

“The capacity to be sensitive to suffering and the motivation to facilitate well-being are connected to a sense of belonging and secure safe relationships (Gilbert, 2009). Such social conditions create internal capacities to regulate emotion and the ability to trust in others for support, which can mitigate against the impact of any traumatic event (Schore, 2012).

Trauma and our response to it may provoke two types of social fears in addition to any fears regarding physical safety (Gilbert, 1998). The first type is externally focused on how we are perceived by others and is closely linked to lack of trust in others and paranoia (Matos, PintoGouveia, & Gilbert, 2013). External fears can contribute to posttraumatic difficulties through expectations of punishing or rejecting attitudes from other people and changes in social behavior which are linked to one’s position within the social hierarchy and sense of belonging.

Compassion and well-being are then further inhibited by threat, shame, and isolation, which allow other motivations, such as competition or cruelty, to emerge instead.

In addition to externally focused social fears, trauma can lead to a negative internal relationship with the self, dominated by shame and self-criticism. Such internally directed anxieties about the self can inhibit therapeutic progress by undermining the persons’ confidence, criticizing their efforts, cutting them off from sources of support through appraisals of worthlessness, and creating additional layers of emotional dysregulation.

Trauma and suffering have the potential to provoke personal growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). However, sometimes life’s challenges can have a negative impact on compassion as demonstrated in three levels of information processing corresponding to the triune brain: cognitive, emotional, and sensorimotor (Wilber, 1996).

Self-Critical Cognitions

A cognitive theory developed by Ehlers and Clark (2000) proposed that trauma experiences can be appraised in a self-critical manner, and this critical appraisal can become a primary organizing principle for the impact of the trauma.

In posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), previously held assumptions about the world may have been shattered. In attachment trauma, the assumptions made about the world and self are inherently problematic from the start and later, trauma simply confirms them (Allen, 2013). Such cognitions are emotionally disabling by their impact on self-worth and sense of efficacy (Tracy, Robbins, & Tangney, 2007). Meta-analysis of research using the self-compassion scale showed that critical judgements about the self were strongly associated with psychological disorder (Neff, 2003b).

Compassion-focused therapy initially evolved out of cognitive behavioral therapy as issues of social comparison, shame-based cognitions, and tone of alternative appraisals began to be understood (Gilbert, 2014). It is notable that people can feel threatened by their own self-critic, which may manifest as depressive thoughts or psychotic voices (Gilbert et al., 2001).

Self-criticism can be functional when it is safer than blaming the parent on whom you are reliant even if that person is abusive (Bowlby, 1980; Gilbert & Irons, 2005). Therefore, abuse-related dominance-submissive patterns may be played out internally in relation to the self. A nonjudgmental but assertive stance toward unwanted thoughts or memories is likely to be more helpful than internal criticism or hatred toward those aspects of self-experience.

The person can begin to find ways of engaging with those challenging parts of themselves with a calmer, kinder attitude. Destructiveness can then be contained and managed so that their origins or functions can be understood. Such attitudes reflect true wisdom (Meeks & Jeste, 2009).


Shame is the appraisal of the self as worthless and bad. It elicits hypoarousal and a motivation to hide from others, attack others or the self, and avoid internal experience and self-knowledge (Gilbert, 1998; Nathanson, 1987). Avoidance of unwanted aspects of internal experience can lead to a phobia or lack of containment of some self-states, and trauma memories may become compartmentalized away from the core self and contribute to the maintenance of PTSD or dissociative disturbance (Steele, van der Hart, & Nijenhuis, 2005). Gilbert (1998) describes “internal shame” as that which is directed from the self to the self.

“External shame” is that expected from other people.

Shame can be particularly an issue for people who have experienced early attachment trauma or abuse (Herman, 1997), and shame can have a role in PTSD as well as fear (Harman & Lee, 2010; Lee, Scragg, & Turner, 2001). As social animals, extreme social emotions caused by neglect, abuse, isolation, bullying, and others can be as psychologically damaging as a threat to life (Fonagy, 1996; Gilbert, 1998; Herman, 2011), and shame memories can act as trauma memories (Matos et al., 2013).

However, shame memories exceed being feelings and beliefs; they are held as procedural (i.e., automatic) memories of patterns of relating (Allen, 2013), which may often involve submission to negative appraisals (Gilbert et al., 2001). Such shame-based fear of compassion and difficulties in attachment style have been implicated in a range of emotional issues (e.g., Gilbert, McEwan, Matos, & Rivis, 2011).”


  1. Kennedy, A. (2014). Compassion-Focused EMDR. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 8(3), 135-146.




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