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A Therapist's Guide to Processing The Shame in Trauma

Relationships, Coping Skills, Trauma, Therapist Guide
5 min read

"I know I have some trauma to work through, but I haven’t been able to talk about it." 

I hear this all the time when I’m meeting with new clients. The number-one reason we don’t talk with our trusted loved ones about what happened, and what we’re going through now as a result? Shame.

The Relationship between Shame & Trauma

In my experience working with trauma survivors, shame almost always follows trauma in one way or another. Even when healing from a single traumatic event that is clearly not the survivor’s fault, shame moves in: "I’m so stupid and lazy. If I’d left early like I wanted, I never would’ve been in that intersection when the crash happened. I should’ve known better."

When we’re dealing with complex trauma (resulting from compounding or chronic traumas including all kinds of abuse, neglect, racism or oppression, poverty), there is often a fundamental shift in our worldview: "if these horrible things are happening to me, what does that say about me? There must be something wrong with me." 

This is particularly true when the traumatic events occurred during our childhood or adolescence. Kids don’t yet have the brain development or life experience to understand that caregivers and environments can be flawed, neglectful, or cruel, and they struggle to make sense of it: "If bad things are happening to me—if I’m hurting this much—I must be bad." When we internalize that “badness” at a young age, it can be really hard to see ourselves any other way.

The good news is that shame is treatable. Those healing from trauma can rebuild — or build for the first time — a sense of innate goodness. Below are a few first steps.

Steps to Healing Your Shame

Accept and Embrace Your Survival Responses

How we respond in emergency situations — our trauma responses — are instinctual survival skills. We don’t choose whether we flight, flee, freeze, or fawn when faced with traumatic events, but we often judge ourselves afterward, feeling ashamed of how we responded (or didn’t). But how you responded helped you to survive, even if that response was no response at all (as in the case of freezing, shutting down, dissociating, becoming “invisible”) or a response you don’t feel great about now (like placating, flattering, or otherwise allying yourself with an abuser). There is zero shame in doing what you needed to do to survive.

Challenge Your Thoughts

When unhelpful thoughts about yourself come in, gently challenge these thoughts with evidence. For example: I froze when the attack happened. I couldn’t help myself or anyone else. What a terrible, selfish person I am. Ask yourself, what evidence do I have that I’m a terrible, selfish person? You’ll likely use this event as evidence to support that negative thought. But is there also evidence that refutes it? I guess I can list a few specific times when I wasn’t terrible and selfish….

Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion isn’t just giving yourself a pass, or positive self-talk. Self-compassion is extending to yourself the same kindness and patience that you would extend to a loved one who is suffering. It’s about accepting and honoring your imperfect human-ness. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer’s Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook is filled with evidence-based exercises and activities to help you build self-compassion. 

Practice Compassion for Others

Self-compassion is an essential practice, but it can often feel intimidating at first for those with deep shame. A first step toward self-compassion is practicing compassion for others: extending patience, grace, generosity, and kindness to others makes it easier to do so for yourself. Doing good things for others provides us with concrete evidence that there is good inside us. There’s a reason why one of the tenets of many recovery and healing communities is “be of service.”

If you’re struggling with shame related to trauma, you’re not alone. Therapy with a trauma specialist, support groups, and/or online communities of survivors can be helpful in feeling less alone and more like yourself again.

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About the author:  Elisabeth Abbott is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in Los Angeles. Specializing in trauma and anxiety, she empowers clients to discover their resilience, find their voice, and create their most fulfilling life. Explore more of her resources by viewing her Frame profile here.