Shame in Complex PTSD-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Freedom from Shame

Acute Traumatic Stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Childhood traumas can range from having faced extreme violence and neglect to having reckoned with feelings of not belonging, being unwanted, or feeling chronically misunderstood. You may have grown up in an environment where your curiosity and enthusiasm were constantly devalued. Perhaps you were brought up in a family where your parents had unresolved traumas of their own, which impaired their ability to attend to your emotional needs. Or, you may have faced vicious sexual or physical attacks. In all such situations, it is common to develop defenses around your most vulnerable feelings.

When childhood trauma continues over time and remains unresolved a form of post-traumatic stress can result called Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). This has significant consequences on mental and emotional health. It is understandable to experience feelings of helplessness and shame in complex PTSD.

“In order to heal, most people with C-PTSD must confront hopeless thoughts, painful emotions, and intolerable sensations. Navigating this territory requires careful guidance. It is all too common to get stuck in avoidance patterns, fall in a pit of despair, or become imprisoned by the negative thoughts. You can find freedom from shame and helplessness. This process requires gentleness, acceptance, and persistence.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Learned Helplessness

Freedom from Shame Dr. Arielle Schwartz

When there is no way to stop abuse, end a situation of domestic violence, or convince a parent to stop drinking, a child feels powerless. Persistent childhood trauma is characterized by a state of “learned helplessness.” This term was initially introduced to describe how animals that were repeatedly exposed to an unavoidable shock would make no attempt to escape, even when given an opportunity to exit. Psychologist and researcher from the University of Pennsylvania Dr. Martin Seligman later extended an understanding of learned helplessness to people who feel and behave in a helpless manner when they have no control over a threatening situation.

When you have been raised by untrustworthy caregivers, it is common to generalize your experience—you may feel as though no one can be trusted or that the world is completely dangerous. As you heal from C-PTSD, it’s important to recognize that you are safe now and have choices now. You are no longer stuck in the powerlessness of your past.

Recognizing Shame

Complex PTSD and Dissociation

Shame is characterized by the belief, “I am bad.” This emotion is based upon a distorted sense of yourself as being unworthy, damaged, or a failure. Why is shame so pervasive? Young children are completely dependent upon caregivers for a sense of safety and connection in the world. If you had an abusive caregiver, you faced a critical conflict: your biological drive to seek closeness from the very source of the terror you were trying to escape. Adults who were abused or neglected as children will often blame themselves. This can lead to persistent feelings of guilt and shame. EMDR therapist and author Dr. Jim Knipe proposes that this self-blame is a direct link to childhood logic—children will develop a fantasy that they are bad kids relying upon good parents to avoid confronting the terrifying reality that they are good kids relying upon bad parents.

When parents are frightening, abusive, or unavailable, children can feel confused about who is at fault. When children witness something bad, they feel bad. Inaccurate and judgmental thoughts such as the following ones perpetuate shame in complex PTSD:

  • “There must be something wrong with me!”
  • “I’m so stupid.”
  • “I can’t seem to do anything right.”
  • “I’m an emotional wreck.”
  • “I’m just lazy.”

Furthermore, shame is often hidden underneath perfectionism. As a child, you may have internalized the belief that you had to act perfect because your parents couldn’t handle your authentic feelings. Or perhaps you believed acting “good” would stop the bad things from happening. In either situation, you may have had to hide your true feelings to avoid rocking the boat. Perfectionism is maintained by critical self-talk that attempts to push down painful feelings. When the inner critic berates you for being lazy, stupid, or useless, you are again confronted with shame.

Finding Freedom

Resilience Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Once you are aware of the messages you are telling yourself, you can do something about them and you can begin to turn toward your pain with self-compassion. Let’s take a closer look at four practices that can free you from shame:

  • Explore your use of language: Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight, points out the difference between saying “I am bad” and “I feel bad.” The first statement reflects identification with a painful emotion, whereas the second statement allows for recognition of a feeling without being consumed by it.
  • Avoid “shoulds”: “Shoulds” are one way of pushing perfectionism or perceived expectations on yourself and rejecting your authentic presence. You might say, “I should be over this by now,” “I shouldn’t make mistakes,” or “I should be strong.” When you say or think the word “should,” I invite you to step back and instead focus on self-acceptance.
  • Imagine shame is a bully: Seeing shame as a bully can give you some space from the emotions and allow you to talk back! How do you feel when the shame bully puts you down? What do you want to shame to know?
  • Experience the body’s sensations of shame: Often the most difficult part of healing shame is tolerating the related felt sense in your body. Words can hardly describe the often intolerable “yuck” that often accompanies shame. You might experience an encompassing sinking feeling or a vague sensation as though you did something wrong. However, over time as you increase your capacity to feel your body, you can develop greater choice about how to move and breathe. There is tremendous power in reclaiming your body from shame. Perhaps you find a posture that feels strong and capable, or maybe you place your hands over your heart in a gesture of loving kindness.

I invite you to explore how shame shows up in your life. What thoughts or sensations accompany shame for you? What helps you overcome or heal from shame? In closing, I want to remind you that healing shame in complex PTSD most often requires working with a compassionate therapist; one who can help you navigate the pitfalls and help you find freedom from shame.

Want to learn more about healing complex PTSD?


Connect to this post? This was an excerpt from my book, The Complex PTSD Workbook, now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out and increase your toolbox for healing. Whether you are a client or a therapist this book will offer a guided approach to trauma recovery.

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.


Shame in Complex PTSD-Dr. Arielle Schwartz — 6 Comments

  1. This post is so timely for me, thank you! I’ve been working with very active C-PTSD for the past few years and now that I’m feeling better I’m struggling to get back to my life. Your post really speaks to where I am in this moment and reminds me that I’m not done healing yet. And that I can still be gentle with myself. Yay! Thank you!

    I’ll check out your book, for sure. Congratulations!

    • Kate,
      Thanks for writing in. I apologize it took me some time to reply. I’m so glad you found the post helpful and I’d love to hear your feedback on the book too. Warmest wishes to you in your healing.

  2. I ran across your book as a suggestion on Amazon. I sent the link to my therapist asking him if felt it would be helpful, I don’t want to work at cross purposes, and he said he read the reviews and your blog. He suggested that I get the book and he will likely buy one as well. He also suggested I check your blog. This post alone hits so close to home that it’s reassuring even though I feel like I’m at the head of the trail on my journey rather than walking not for a lifetime.

    • David,
      Your comment is very meaningful for me to receive. Thank you for the feedback and I look forward to hearing your response to the book as well. You are not alone and I wish you the very best on your healing journey.

      • “You are not broken, in need of fixing. Rather, you are deeply hurt, in need of care.”

        I can’t tell you how much this one thought, from the introduction, resonates through me. It gives me hope.

        Thank you so much.

  3. Hi, I have just been diagnosed with Cptsd after many years of struggling with depression and crippling anxiety. Reading your page was so interesting, it describes me completely. I hope that I can start to recover now that I know what it is and that there is a way to tackle this thing.

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