Tuesday, December 06, 2005

betrayal bonds: trauma shame

trauma shame: This aspect of betrayal bonds was huge for me. "when the victim feels defective, or even worse, at fault, there is traumatic shame. . . . Trauma can also leave a feeling of being defective or flawed. . . . People who become shame-based have core beliefs that they are unlovable, that if people knew what they were really like they would leave." Reading this was like a light going off. I still struggle with feeling defective. The last worst abusers in my life basically convinced me I was "a damaged self" that deserved being just discarded. I responded to these feelings by folding in on myself, sort of imploding. I got lost in compulsive use of internet porn to kill the pain and suicidal thinking. The porn (and the compulsive masturbation that went with it) made the shame worse, as in principle I think it is violent toward its subjects.

In the non-traumatic reltionship I had managed to get in, I was sure that if my partner found out about the Internet porn she would leave. She did find out...I finally told her when I thought I was going crazy. It really hurt her, but she immediately saw the connection with trauma that I couldn't and basically stayed with me, even as my mental health went completely to hell. That was a real lesson...she could see things in me that I could not and thought I was worth sticking around for. I figured I had better start to see some of those things in myself too, and I am slowly learning. Releasing myself from the shame and secrecy also undid the hold the compulsive acting out had on me. I started to deal with what had actually happened instead of my shame-distorted views of a whole series of traumatic events that stretched back to childhood.

Trauma shame tends to make some people overcompensate with unrealistic goals followed by more shame at failure in a classic binge/purge cycle. For people with ptsd, all experiences are tend to be processed by the brain as extremes, all black or white, with no grey. The loss of "the ability to operate in a balanced way...further adds to shameful feelings." Shame based people also have a tendency to re-create childhood traumas in adulthood. This was certainly my pattern anyway.

Trauma shame can result in obsessive self-hatred, worse than feeling unlovable or depressed, which can lead to self-destructive, even suicidal thinking and behavior. I made an attempt, but failed, and ended up in a loony bin for three weeks. Never got near addressing any of the causal issues and left basically promising myself not to make another attempt -- I had had my chance -- but still feeling suicidal. I felt suicidal for the next nine years, obsessively self hating and managing to stuff all my feelings, and the memory of traumatic events until everything just fell apart.

In the paragraph that follows, my comments are in parentheses, the rest is quoted from Carnes. Some signs of shame, according to Carnes, are: "feeling ashamed because you believe trauma experiences were your fault; loneliness and estrangement from others because of trauma experiences; self mutilating behaviors such as cutting or burning (when things were at their worst for me, I would literally rip chunks of flesh out of my stomach, the backs of my hands, and other places, I still have problems with self harm sometimess but not as bad); self destructive behaviors, enduring physical or emotional pain that most people would not accept, avoiding mistakes at any cost; feeling that you should be punished for the trauma event and being unable to forgive yourself (I experienced this as the result of cult abuse, where they ripped apart my life and then blamed me for it); feeling bad when something good happens (good things happening still make me anxious); having suicidal thoughts, threats, and attempts; possessing no ability to experience normal emotions such as sadness, anger, love and happiness (one thing I learned was not to trust anything. I couldn't feel anything but a ripping feeling in my stomach and a lump in my throat for a long time, then rage as I realized what had really happened. Slowly I've gotten some of my emotions back, but I have difficulty trusting happiness or anything good, even today -- its just asnother setup, I think); having a deep fear of depending on people (my partner said I tested her all the time, trying to figure out if she was dependable); feeling unworthy, unlovable, immoral, or sinful because of trauma experiences; perceiving others always as better, happier, and more competent (I saw this as a problem with envy. My abusers got off scot free with ripping up my life, and even seemed to benefit from it and it drove me mad for a while); having a dim outlook on the future; avoiding experiences that feel good, have no risk and that are self-nurturing. "

I would have never made the connection between trauma and shame without help, including Carnes' book. I had basically repressed memories of the traumatic events and just thought I was a crazy, no good mixed up, broken person, even as my life on the outside appeared to be very successful. Learning the connection between trauma and shame was a real life-saver for me, making sense of something that seemed utterly senseless to me.

Another thing I learned along the way is that there is a healthy role for shame. When someone does something bad, shame is an appropriate response. What happens in trauma bond situations is -- and let me just shift to first person here -- I took on my abusers' shame. They are the ones that should have felt shame, but in a trauma bond situation, perpetrators shuck it off onto their victims, compunding the abuse. Learning that this shame was somebody's, but not mine, was healing.

  • A little more on trauma shame is here.

All the quotations and information not otherwise attributed above comes from Patrick J. Carnes, The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships (Deerfield Beach, Fla.: Health Communications Inc., 1997), 21-24.


  1. Learning that this shame was somebody's, but not mine, was healing.

    Sometimes other people put emotions such as shame into you and it is diffcult to resist.

    It is OK to be ashamed of something you have done but unhelpful to be ashamed of something that was done to you. Shame like this can be a mask for either grief or anger or both. Sometimes, people (including me) will shy away from strong negative emotions such as grief or anger by masking it with another 'less' negative emotions.

    Making things 'all my fault' is also a way of having to deal with the fact that sometimes people do nasty brutal evil things and it is their fault not mine. Accepting this fact means changing how you view the world. We all like to believe that 'other people are basically nice'.

    To deal with Shame like this which was put upon you would require something like CBT. This basically means talking about whether feeling shame is the right emotion. Maybe something along the lines of 'If x happenned to y and it wasn't their fault then should they be ashamed? What might they be feeling? and so on

    I'm very conscious that you have been through a lot and I don't want to make matters worse.

  2. Really,

    Oce again, you sparked another post instead of a comment.

  3. Thank goodness for this website, another life saver!
    I don't think I have experienced pseudo seizures but my flashbacks made me knock on a church door as they felt like some sort of demonic possession, someTHING trying to kill me from the inside, so bewildering I did not expect a doctor to understand. i called the flashbacks 'daymares' as they were seamless continuations of the nightmares. They didn't let up for several days 24/7 but subsided eventually with CBT. The main feature of these flashbacks were an overwhelming, crippling sense of (toxic) shame.
    I have since had long term problems with panic attacks aggravated by my domestic situation. I only now know, 20 yrs later, that all those symptoms are part of PTSD, which would have been useful to know ages ago. If you can name it you have some power over it. I know labelling is controversial these days, but remember, you are not labelling yourself, but the condition. It's just like saying your not abnormal because you have cancer, but you do have abnormal cells. I do not agree with the idea that PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. If that were true, half the population would have the condition. PTSD is essentially a malfunction of your fight or flight mechanism, often complicated by emotional connotations (guilt, shame..)