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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

The Agonies of Shame

One of the worst symptoms of childhood trauma is a feeling of shame, by which is meant: a pervasive impression that one is a terrible person, a primitive, basic abhorrence at oneself, a sense of all-encompassing embarrassment about who one is, what one wants, and what one has done. Shame is one of the most heinous forms of psychological torment.

The origins of shame almost always lie in childhood. We suffer from shame because — somewhere in the past — someone else shamed us. What does it take to shame a child? Painfully little. Few people will even realise one is doing it, least of all one’s victim (unless and until they get a lot of the right help). All you need to do to pulverise a person with shame is to treat their small selves with constant contempt, to belittle their efforts to do anything well, to berate them powerfully for anything they do wrong, to make them feel bad about their body, to neglect and ignore them or to openly prefer someone else to them.

Photo by Jonas Liübartas on Unsplash

Shamed people tend not to believe that someone else did them an injury, that would be winging and moaning; they are just aggressively persuaded of their own primordial dreadfulness. They are the last people in the world to blame anyone other than themselves. Shame is so baked into their psyche, they will long ago have ceased to be able to reflect on their self-conception objectively.

Whenever something goes wrong, the shamed person will simply at once feel hugely, overwhelmingly responsible. There is no limit to the degree of self-flagellation that is unleashed by an upset at work, in a friendship, in the family. They don’t calmly think, ‘There is a hiccup here and I will try to resolve it.’ They think: ‘I am the worst person who ever lived. Everything I do is wrong. I messed up yet again and this is proof of my absurdity and evil.’

Shamed people have no handle on their own benevolence or right to make a slip. The thought of being kind to themselves is repulsive. They may be uncommonly sweet to other people; to themselves, they are vicious beyond measure. There is an inner task master that doesn’t let up. Their minds are filled with excruciating voices: ‘There you go again, little idiot. I know what a silly person you are…’ If we saw a stranger talking like this to someone else, we’d be tempted to call in the authorities.

Shamed people understandably veer towards underconfidence. When it comes to letting someone else know that they like them, the shamed person has minimal strength to make a move. Their attempts to build a business, or write a book or cement a friendship are always on the verge of collapse, for the verdict of their own ‘awfulness’ is forever about to be triggered. Any obstacle they reach, anything that goes wrong, swiftly becomes material which their inner torturer uses to remind them of the futility of their efforts. And then — of course — they cannot feel remotely sorry for themselves, for that would be to show a numbskull a degree of forgiveness they obviously cannot deserve.

It takes a very tough and very loving person to be able to get through to the shamed person and to tell them in a clear and capable voice what they have always needed to hear: ‘You are not a bad person, indeed you are a very good one; you just had a very, very bad childhood.’

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