Childhood Trauma and Shame

Shame can act as a signal of interpersonal danger; it is a damage limitation strategy for children who have endured the trauma of growing up in a dangerous home.

Feelings of shame and self-loathing can continue well into adulthood and after the threat has passed. These feelings can be extremely painful, can cause high levels of internal conflict, and can make it difficult to ask for help or make use of any help that is offered, because people with these feelings may think that they don’t deserve to feel better. Shame and self-loathing can therefore significantly interfere with people’s progress in therapy.

childhood trauma and shame

Recent research into the biological purpose of shame has generated several effective therapies to assist people to overcome shame and self-loathing. Understanding shame and learning ways of dealing with it can mean that you can resolve feelings of shame and self-loathing, and re-engage in a healthier, happier life.

Why Do We Feel Shame?

Shame is not observed in babies; it first emerges in toddlers. Toddlers are active, curious and impulsive, and they are not yet good at controlling their own impulses. Shame is linked to the stress response, and allows parents to generate stress rapidly in toddlers so that parents can instantly apply the brake to dangerous behaviour. Shame shuts down whatever emotions and behaviours are ongoing when shame is applied (Schore, 2003 a and b).

Imagine a toddler who discovers a candle, is fascinated by the bright, shiny light, and approaches it. A parent who yells out “stop right there!” is able to shut down the toddler’s curiosity, and the toddler will freeze while the dangerous candle is removed. Imagine a toddler who is jealous of a new sibling, and goes over to hit the newborn. Again, a parent who intervenes with a swift and loud use of the toddler’s name will shut down the jealousy, and the toddler will freeze, saving the newborn from a potentially harmful interaction.

Shame Repair: Using shame in this way is protective if the parent then soothes the stressed toddler, and repairs the shame with praise, hugs, kisses, clarification or reassurance (Tronick, 1989; 1998). This is the origin of toddlers developing the ability to regulate their own behaviour, and can help to build emotional resilience in them as they grow into children.

Shame is a Survival Response

You may have heard of the fight or flight response, a built-in physiological response to threats that helps us to survive by either fighting off the threat, or running away from it if fighting it is unwise. The fight or flight response shuts down bodily functions like digestion and abstract thinking that may use up valuable energy that is more needed for survival.

The brain is instead focused on preparing the body to fight or flee. Psychologists who work with trauma describe a fight-fight-freeze response, in which there is a third option if fighting or fleeing isn’t working; at this point, your body may make you freeze, go limp, and seem dead. This may make the source of the threat focus on things that are still moving, take you for dead, and leave you alone.

Shame operates in a similar way to the fight-fight-freeze response- it’s a last resort survival strategy. It allows you to submit to the threat so that you can survive when submission is the only way you might make it out alive (Fisher, 2010).

Shame as a Source of Safety in a Dangerous Childhood

Shame can act as a signal of interpersonal danger and helps us to submit to a critical or dangerous person (Herman, 2011). When we feel shame, we avert our gaze, bow our heads and collapse our spines. We become compliant, we avoid behaviour that might draw attention to ourselves, and we obey the people who have power over us.

Importantly, shame is a damage limitation strategy for a child in a dangerous home (Gilbert and Andrews, 1998). For children, getting help can be more dangerous than not getting help. Dangerous parents may punish their children for asking for help, or children may be removed from their parents and put in care homes, which is a frightening prospect to most children. Blaming themselves for their difficulties can give children a measure of control in an unpredictable and frightening environment.

What happens to children in neglectful and abusive homes who believe and demand that their parents meet their needs? What happens to the children of abusive parents who blame their parents out loud for their misfortunes? It is safer and wiser for children to accept that their needs won’t be met, to submit, and to blame themselves for their problems. Shame helps them to feel less pain, to call less attention to themselves, and to survive until they are old enough to escape the difficult environment.

How Does Shame Become a Problem?

If shame is over-used, by either the parent or the child, the child is torn between the need for emotional connection with caregivers and fear of shame or ridicule. If there is a lack of shame repair from caregivers, through praise, hugs, kisses, clarification or reassurance, then self-blaming and self-shaming may become the preferred strategy of the child to suppress feelings of need or difficult emotions.

Because a child’s positive and negative emotions may both lead to parental anger – children tend to make a bit of noise when they are happy – a child may learn to cut off all their emotions by using shame (Fisher, 2010). Shame can be triggered by criticism and failures, but can also be stimulated by success, being seen, assertiveness, self-care and feeling proud or happy (Fisher, 2011). Children may develop perfectionism as a way of ensuring safety against parental risk; if the child behaves and appears perfect, the parents may criticise or harm them less (Fisher, 2011).

How Can You Recover from Excessive Shame?

Recovering from shame and self-loathing is possible. There are many steps you can follow to assist yourself to manage your feelings of shame and self-blame. Choosing supportive, validating and healthy personal relationships can help to bolster your confidence, and provide you with the security you need to explore and understand where your feelings of shame came from.

If you are struggling with excessive shame, therapy with someone with expertise with trauma and shame may help you.

  • Develop Empathy for Your Survival Strategy as a Child – Understanding how you developed excessive shame, and how it helped you to cope with difficulties with authority figures and caregivers in the past may help you to understand why you overuse shame to manage your emotions in the present. The part of you that uses the old habit of shaming yourself to keep you safe may be willing to try a more supportive strategy to help you to manage your emotions; perhaps it could adopt some shame repair strategies: warmth, praise, hugs, kisses, clarification or reassurance. Changing the way your internal shamer communicates may help you to reduce your feelings of shame.
  • Combatting Shame By Using Your Body Differently – Taking opposite action to the physical signs of shame and submission can help you to feel less shame and enjoy more self-confidence. Lengthening your spine and grounding through your feet both challenge shame. For example, if you notice yourself:
    • Flushing — try: Taking a deep breath or sighing;
    • Averting your head or looking away — try: Orienting: looking at specific objects around you, getting up and having a close look at something interesting;
    • Closing your eyes and wanting to be “invisible” — try: asking the other person to close their eyes;
    • Collapsing your spine — try: lengthening your spine;
    • Blaming and judging yourself — try: placing a hand on your heart and sending some warmth to yourself.

If you are struggling with shame and self-loathing, I welcome you to make an appointment with me so together we can help you find a healthier, happier life.

Dr Catherine Hynes Clinical PsychologistAuthor: Dr Catherine Hynes, BA Hons (Philosophy & Neuroscience), MA (Cognitive Neuroscience), PhD (Clinical Psychology & Clinical Neuropsychology).

Dr Catherine Hynes has a PhD in clinical psychology and neuropsychology from the University of Queensland. She uses evidence-based therapies, and works with her clients in a warm and supportive way to help them decide what therapy and what strategies are most suitable to their personal tastes and circumstances.

To make an appointment, you can book Dr Catherine Hynes online, or freecall Vision Psychology on 1800 877 924 today.

*The information on this topic page was prepared after attending a workshop by Janina Fisher in Brisbane in December, 2014 (Fisher, 2014). For more information, visit


  • Gilbert, P & Andrews, B (1998) Shame: interpersonal behaviour, psychopathology and culture. Oxford University Press: New York.
  • Fisher, J (2010) Psychoeducational aids for the treatment of psychological trauma. Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Kendell Press.
  • Fisher, J (2011) Sensorimotor approaches to trauma treatment. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 12,171-177.
  • Fisher, J. (2014). Overcoming Shame and Self-Loathing: 2 Day Seminar, Brisbane, Dec 1st and 2nd, 2014. Brisbane: Delphi Training and Consulting.
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