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Healing From Shame: Releasing the Burdens of Relational Trauma

by | Feb 12, 2024

In childhood, our relationships with our caregivers imprint upon us our sense of self-worth and our value in the world. When those relationships are fractured from abuse or loss, or we are told that our needs and emotions don’t matter—that we are a problem, the odd one out, or are only worthy of love when we fit a specific mold—those messages become the internal voices that guide us as we grow into adulthood. Whether these were told to us explicitly, or implicitly understood, this attachment rupture, this relational trauma, affects us for years to come.

Relational trauma, the childhood wound

Relational trauma is the outcome of mistreatment in childhood. Abuse, neglect, abandonment, excessive criticism, withholding affection, being ignored or disregarded, or demands to conform can all add to a child’s relational trauma. Feeling safe as a child depends on being considered acceptable to our caregivers, and when it is clear that acceptance and love is not available, a child will internalize that messaging and assume they are the ones at fault. It is easier for a child—and later for an adult with relational trauma—to assume there is something wrong with them, versus recognizing that the caregivers a child depended on were not equipped or successful in meeting their needs. 

In later life, relational trauma can manifest as mental health struggles and also in how we relate to others. We may repeat the same emotional patterns we experienced as children, pushing us toward people-pleasing or emotional volatility. PTSD, cPTSD, depression, and anxiety are also often an issue for those who experience relational trauma, as well as physical symptoms like chronic pain, digestive issues, and migraines. 

Relational trauma and shame: a heavy burden

One of the major manifestations of relational trauma is shame. The shame of relational trauma, when you boil it down, stems from a personal sense of worthlessness, disconnection from others and a driving need to feel safe by being considered acceptable to others. Shame can become especially troubling when there is a demand of secrecy around the abuse suffered in childhood, as secrecy feeds shame. A pervasive feeling of being the “bad” or “wrong” part of an interaction with others is deeply damaging to your ability to understand your actual self-worth. 

Shame can show up in your life as:

  • Feeling worthless or undeserving of any kindness or good things
  • Pushing others away to avoid the disappointment of them leaving you later
  • Sticking with relationships that you know aren’t working or healthy, because you feel there’s nothing else possible
  • Substance use, reckless behaviors, self-harm, or eating disorders to try to soothe the hurt of shame
  • Rage and emotional or physical violence from overwhelm of the feelings of shame
  • Keeping secrets about who you are or what has happened in your life
  • Having a hard time relating to others, especially when they’re having a hard time; shame makes the reminders of your own hard times overwhelming

If any of these feel familiar, please know, shame and relational trauma are not permanent. Healing from shame is possible. It may feel like these emotions are an inherent part of you, or an actual assessment of your worth. Shame from relational trauma has nothing to do with what you deserve in life or who you are, it is a way you learned to cope that has developed over time. But healthier ways of coping is possible, and freedom from shame is something you absolutely, unreservedly deserve.

Healing from shame with compassion

When you start to understand that your low self-worth and troubling behaviors stem from relational trauma, that alone can bring about more shame. It is important, as you embark on this journey of untangling shame from your life, that you extend whole-hearted, complete compassion toward yourself, to offer yourself balance and healing. 

Self-compassion combats shame

When you look at yourself as a whole human being, with faults, strengths, and an inherent value all your own, you are developing a sense of self-compassion. Self-compassion is a practice that asks you to look on your struggles the way you would a friend going through the same thing.

It may seem overwhelming to start a practice of self-compassion; how can you turn your entire way of approaching yourself on its head? How will you begin to believe in yourself, when you’ve spent your life struggling with shame? Mindfulness can help you bring pause to the incessant inner critic, so you can unwind those unhelpful narratives, and approach your thoughts without judgment.

Mindfulness and healing from shame

When practicing mindfulness, you’re working on looking at yourself as you are, in the moment. Noticing your thoughts is a good starting point. Instead of trying to twist away from your thoughts, simply notice them, without considering them good, or bad. Relating to your thoughts as just thoughts, instead of compelling absolute truths, can let you start deciding what you do, and do not, want to listen to. 

Healing from shame with connection

Connecting with others, when they feel threatening to your fragile sense of self may seem counter-intuitive. But sharing yourself with others, including sharing your experiences of shame, can make all the difference in your healing.

Coregulation and compassion for healing from shame

Being with others, such as being in therapy with a trusted clinician, can give you space to coregulate your nervous system. When we are around others that we trust, we can start to relax. Our nervous system responds to their cues of comfort and welcome, and working with a therapist can be a very safe way to start practicing feeling safe around other people. 

Engaging with community connects you to others, fostering a deeper understanding of yourself through shared experiences. Seek opportunities to spend time with diverse groups of people and practice offering them acceptance and kindness. As you extend compassion to others, take note of how they reflect aspects of yourself or situations you can relate to. By expanding the acceptance you give to others, you also nurture self-acceptance. Recognizing similarities between yourself and others establishes connections that foster love and a sense of security in your life.

Sharing your story takes power back from shame

Alongside that connection comes sharing and openness. When you’re working on mindfulness, you can also start to notice how often you feel shame. Consider, when feeling shame, whether you can share that experience with your therapist, or expand your vulnerability to friends around you. Recognizing your emotion as shame, instead of a truth about your worth, lets you see where shame has twisted your understanding of yourself. Sharing it takes back power from shame. Shame thrives on secrecy, and being accepted and supported in sharing shame helps you see that shame is not the truth.

When you connect to others, and work to improve your connection to yourself outside of shame with a frame of compassion and acceptance, you offer yourself the safety and self-worth you needed when you were young. You are worth the effort of healing from shame, and there are people in this world, like the therapists at Holistic Wellness Practice, who are more than happy to help you along the way.

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About Gleyce | View Profile

Gleyce Almeida-Farrell is a psychotherapist and the founder of Holistic Wellness Practice in Alpharetta, GA. She specializes in helping adults manage stress and overcome symptoms of anxiety utilizing a holistic and integrative approach to mental wellness.

We offer in-person and virtual services – contact us today to learn more!

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