How Shame Traps Us (By: Nisrine Maktabi)

How Shame Traps Us (By: Nisrine Maktabi)

Imagine a child being shamed for spilling milk:

What do you see? Shoulders up by the ears, head down, hands closed in fists, hunched over, frozen. What do they feel? A burning inside, a longing to be held and affirmed, a feeling of failure. This is the complicated but natural survival response called trauma, created right before your eyes.

Trauma is a fight-or-flight instinct that is designed to protect us. It can present as tension in the muscles, a desire to fight, an instinct to freeze or to fawn -- to idealize the perpetrator, or to people-please. If someone is put into a traumatic situation repeatedly, this can cause PTSD, otherwise known as relational trauma.

When PTSD is present, the true self goes into hiding. A carefully constructed persona (created by shame and the instinct for survival) becomes a layer of rigid asphalt trying to protect you from further pain. This hides your true, gentle beauty.

As babies, humans are the most vulnerable creatures. We need adults to be very gentle and attentive to us, both physically and emotionally. Their influence teaches us how to behave and regulate, and in turn allows us to become independent and learn healthy boundaries. We need our guardians to be adults, so we can grow into adults ourselves.

Sometimes the fears and trauma of the parent get passed down to the child, creating generational trauma. In this case, the child is so connected to the parent that they can’t see a difference between themselves and their parent. This severance needs to happen through great care and gentleness. When trauma is involved, this separation becomes harder, and the "persona" self of the child tries to keep the parents happy, at their own expense. Here, the codependent relationship is created.

This is the function of shame -- the feeling created when one's inner child launches into survival mode. In this case, the child prioritizes the feelings of their caregiver over themselves by freezing, hiding & tip-toeing to stay safe and connected.

Shame has the power to keep us in abusive environments, especially in situations that trigger our childhood traumas. These situations can force us to revisit shame by way of physical sensations, emotions, or intrusive thoughts. The ashamed part of us doesn’t know that we have grown out of that traumatic situation, and are no longer dependent and helpless. 

In therapy, we work together to rescue your inner child that may be scared and isolated: visualize your inner child and sit next to them. See them, feel them, let them speak to you in images and sensations. Let them show you all of their unfulfilled longings. Validate them and tell them that you are safe now. Let them see how you have grown, and bring them into the present.

Nisrine Maktabi, Msc. RP.