Shame, Shame Spirals, Toxic Shame, Carried Shame
Shame is one of the more challenging issues for trauma survivors, and affects many people who have C-PTSD very deeply. Please exercise selves-care on this topic, take everything very slowly, and please bring your professional team into the loop if y'all are experiencing shame issues or identify with the issues on this page.
What is "normal" shame?
So we have normal shame — let's maybe call it "today shame" which is fully rooted in something actually happening right now, and pretty time-limited so long as it doesn't trigger additional shame issues. In essence it says, "If others find out, my belongingness may be threatened." Or, others have actually found out, and it's time to make amends or it may affect your relationships.
This shame comes with the message "Oops. I made a mistake; I better fix it." We may be embarrassed, a sibling of shame. Or humiliated. But so long as it's only about what's actually going on in the Here & Now, about this single incident not deep past and other people, then it's "normal" shame. A realistic corrective emotion about something actually happening.
Shame & Human Development
Shame is an emotional reaction developed alongside mobility and language acquisition, typically around 9 months to 3 years old. It's initially an emotional leash that helps parents to alert a child to a mistake before it is deadly, and keeps a child within a certain range of their caregivers. The emotion of shame is tied closely to our need for love & belongingness. Shame tells us that something we have done may go against the rules or violate the ethical boundaries or membership guidelines of those around us, such that we might be expelled from or punished by the community to which we belong, or by those who love & protect us. (see also Social Self-Preservation Theory)
At the earliest age or phase of shame, children start to wander farther from their caregivers, exploring their environment, and as they learn what is OK and what is not OK to do, they develop their first introspective models, before they know why something is wrong to do — "Will doing this get me in trouble?" So a child develops the ability to consider their actions during this time, and judge by past experience whether their choices will be reproached or met with disapproval.
Thus the perceived threat to belongingness adds another dimension to the equation. The child who is reproached or met with disapproval gets frightened at a core existential level (are my supports going to vanish?) — and may be afraid of complete rejection. The appropriate caregiver response to this fear is to comfort the child after correcting a mistake, letting them know that they are forgiven and still are loved or belong to the community. That what they have done is not so egregious an error that they no longer belong or are rejected. This reprimand & reconciliation is part of a child's normal development around shame and helps build a good model of acceptable vs unacceptable behaviors.
Shame & Survival Needs
"Love & Belonging" is a need on Maslow's Hierarchy right above safety & food/clothing/shelter physical needs. It's not really optional — as humans are interdependent beings and we are tribal by nature. Being in a close-knit tribe enhances our ability to survive. Children are born helpless and take a long time to become more independent, thus at minimum — instinctually speaking — need a family or clan unit to thrive. The potential of being exiled or ousted from one's group is thus a threat to survival for a young child.
Shame for children raises panic reactions New for good reasons. It's our internal alarm system for threats that may get us exiled or ousted from our family, clan or tribe.
Raw Shame & Self Isolation
If we do have a fallout with a group, and are ousted, we often have an instinct to hide and collapse in on ourselves, self-isolate, and hide away from people. In terms of the ancient survival brain, it's like we've been exiled or outcast from a group, and have to come to terms with being alone. "I'm going to huddle in my cave with my berries, and try to stay alive." Like we try to make our peace with having lost "all" our supports.
This instinct is based on times long gone. Nowadays we usually have several support groups. Family, online support, friends, distant relatives, coworkers, schoolmates, headmates, etc. And unlike ancient times where relocation alone would be arduous and dangerous, requiring trekking long distances to distant tribes and hoping they would take us in — we have other new groups we can try to belong to very easily now.
Still we may fall into this instinct, and it's good to pay attention when we're trying to isolate ourselves, when we cut contact with people we would normally interact with, when we are sullen and dejected, and go deep inside of our cave. Shame may be lurking in the background, not big roaring shame, not knee-jerk angry reactive shame, but quietly trying to survive in spite of being cut off of supports shame. Even if the loss of supports isn't true, or we have only lost a small percentage of our supports.
Ancient brain only knows 1-tribe that we're almost completely dependent on for survival. And it acts like it.
The best thing to do when tempted to sulk into one's cave (bedroom, blanket fort…) is to reach out to someone and be reassured that you still have supporters and you are not going to have to survive alone.
Toxic shame is what we're calling a verbal form of shame we usually get as messages we can't get unstuck from our mind's ear/eye.
This form of shame is one that may be used to manipulate someone — to use power/control over a person's natural shame to leverage it as a tool to gain their compliance. In this case, though, it crosses a line to manipulate people to get what one wants. Bullies use shame as a weapon against children and adults, for example.
When a young child experiences shame, the shame isn't always repaired and reconciled in a healthy way. Some adults shortcut discipline & love (some of the traits proper caregivers or parents should have) by way of power & control instead — and shame allows other people to dictate the rules of love & belonging in a way that shame becomes a stick and belonging becomes the carrot and a child is controlled by deliberate/explicit shaming cycles.
Then there's carried shame. Much more convoluted but basically when abusers treat a child wrong, they feel their own shame — and the broken boundaries between that adult abuser and the child victim means the child senses the shame and can't figure out what the child did wrong, and becomes something the child feels is inherently wrong with them, that they deserve bad behavior from others because they're inherently unworthy/bad/wrong/tainted/etc.
This acquired or carried shame (carried like a contagion from someone else passing it along) becomes lifelong feelings of insufficiency and something being "wrong with us" — being a bad person, sinful, etc.
To work on carried shame, we have to learn how children are innocent (externally) so we can internalize how children are worthy, lovable, needy, naive, and deserve love/care/attention/protection. We can fully realize and absorb that we were being hurt and the person who OUGHT to feel the shame is the abuser. There was nothing wrong with us or about us that made us deserve being treated foully by our caregivers or other adults.
Hopefully this helps us to mentally/emotionally hand it back. Truly realize we were wronged, we didn't deserve it, that all kids deserve love & care — and we don't want their garbage shame anymore.
When adult abusers cross the lines of what their tribe/society thinks is "OK" behavior towards children, they repress their own shame about their actions.
And when repressing shame, usually it's covered up by something else. Often anger, sometimes very deep denial or delusions about reality.
Children are highly attuned (via raw empathy — a lack of emotional boundaries, also their Mirror Neuron Network if you're into the more geeky neurology point of view) to their caregivers and other adults in their environment. Not only do they pick up on the shame, they actively absorb it from the caregivers. It becomes something like an introject (and for those who develop DID or are already plural) and can become its own headmate which we call the shameholder — a specific type of traumaholder who is carrying their abuser's shame.
This is where an instance of normal or today shame sets off deeper/older shame in our system.
So for example if we make a mistake (drop a glass) and it brings up shame "oops, I made a mistake someone might get mad at me if they find out" this can then bring up toxic shame (instances of being told we're clumsy or incompetent, that we can't do anything right, or that we're a slob or pig, etc.) which in turn may bring up carried shame (feeling like we're a failure, unworthy, wanting to shrink/get small/blink out of existence — which may also trigger selfharm cycles, or sui ideation, etc.).
Essentially it's a regression and emotional flashback feedback loop that activates deeper and deeper levels of shame messages — whether those messages are verbal/auditory/written — or if they're emotional shame messages accidentally gleaned from abusers who violated the social contract of how to care for a child properly.
Before we get to the discussion of pride (below) which is perhaps outdated, there's a few ways to work on dumping & eliminating these toxic & carried shame messages in our lives.
At their essence, they all involve rejecting the shame in a visceral believable way as not being ours. Even verbal toxic shame messages are a form of someone else trying to hand us more-than-ordinary amounts of shame for all the wrong reasons. Neither toxic shame nor carried shame is ours to own & hold. Though the messages got stuck in our brain or body, it really comes down to the shame itself becoming stuck-held forms of being traumatized by others. Others who never should have treated anyone that way.
Children are Fundamentally Innocent & Need Caregiving
Abusing Kids is NOT Ok
Everyone is Valid & Worthy of Attention
Shame Work Menu
You definitely don't have to do all of these things, but this is a general list of work that can be done (descriptions pending) for shameholders, shame defenders, or systems that have been affected by shame. It's not a prescription, not the only cures, these are ideas we are taking (mostly) from Bradshaw's Healing the Shame that Binds You as placeholders before we have more information.
While these are listed in a general "order of escalation", it's not a prescription and does not need to be worked through in order, and you don't need all of these ideas. People have been working on shame in myriad ways through the ages, and being perfectionistic about it may complicate shame feelings.
- Coming out of hiding
- Choosing Intentional/Safe "Family"
- Sharing Secrets
- Feeling feelings
- Dumping Shame
- Grieving Losses
- Acceptance, Welcoming, Belonging
- Self-love, self-compassion
- Reparenting inner kids
- Openly accept & talk about it
- Paying it forward
- Accepting your authenticity
Shame is an instinct or emotional reaction tells us to hide, that it's dangerous to be seen or found out. As such it's a natural instinct gained around the age a child can walk and wander, and makes a child freeze to consider their behavior and what they've done wrong. Natural shame is temporary and healed with proper attention and care from a loving caregiver.
Shame, as a trauma survivor, is an internalized injury from an ego or self-esteem attack. It can happen when a child is made to feel that they are bad, that they are not worthy of being seen. If a child blames themself for something that goes wrong, internalizes it, and is shamed, they feel as if they are not worthy of fitting into their clan, tribe, social network or society. Instinctually this creates a response that to survive (fitting in is an instinctual part of survival) they will have to hide the thing they have been shamed about. That if anyone were to find out how bad or unworthy they are, they would be exiled.
Some might say DID is built on that instinct to hide. That this self-esteem blow could be enough reason that a child can't live with themself and starts to hide the injury even from themself. Internalizing the shame, pushing parts of themself away, the child creates pockets to even hide the shame along with the shameful circumstances. Because being ousted from the support of their tribe is unacceptable. This deep moral injury creates so much conflict it becomes a survival crisis.
As adult survivors, we may develop this deep need to hide, not be seen, and not understand where it comes from. We may act, but feel we are unworthy of attention or love. Hiding can come in many forms, so sometimes it may just help to assume that we have this issue and ask "What am I hiding from?" or "What are we hiding from?" and see what answers arise from it.
The shamed insiders may come paired with protectors and defenders. They may or may not be more accessible than the shamed internal folks.
Ways to address shame include bringing the shame itself into the light. Not necessarily exposing the people, but talking about the fact that the shame is present. Interestingly, this doesn't have to trigger more shame in itself (though it can) because it's not talking about why there's shame; it's not exposing the reason for the shame. Understand that shame is a survival response. There should be no shame in protecting yourselves. Ask yourselves how your shame helps you take care of and protect yourselves.
Another step in dealing with shame is reframing the circumstances more objectively and realistically. If this happened to someone else, would you blame the victim?
Shame is a good situation for recruiting their protector to help take care of the shamed system member. Acknowledging the real blame belongs with the situation or the adults who failed to protect them, dealing with the hurt and traumatized headmate with love and compassion, and helping them to see that they are worthy, and helping them recover from their flashbacks (see Rescue Missions New and our podcast episode about Onboarding Residents).
System-wide, pride is a good foil to shame feelings or a legacy of shame. Those headmates who are able to be prideful can carry the banner of plural, multiple or DID system pride for a while until others are willing to join in. Knowing that you/y'all are valid, that you were a victim, not to blame for what happened, that it's OK to be seen, heard, and loved — are all very important parts of healing the self-esteem and coming out of hiding which are the legacy of this self-esteem injury.
Y'all don't have to go straight from shame to pride. There's plenty of middle ground — healing boundaries, reframing abuse situations and putting the blame on the people or societal structures that disempowered you, or harmed you, and fighting for yourself and others can be helpful milestones on a road between shame and pride.
Shame is a natural emotion. It's a survival instinct, it's adaptive and it's OK to feel shame. Remember that shame is healed by love and compassion, by being understanding, and by putting the responsibility where it belongs and taking responsibility when it really is our fault (but it's not our fault as a child, we mean as an adult).
Sometimes shame is at the heart of self-harm. Balancing out harmful behaviors with new loving behaviors, reaching inwards a little bit at a time to send love and comfort and compassion to the hurt inner child, just a little bit each time, may be able to help.
Going from shame to pride is not a lightswitch. It's more like healing a plant that didn't get enough water. And the answer is love. Sometimes you have to nurse a plant back to health. Dumping water on it and walking away isn't enough. It needs warmth, protection, to be turned towards the light, and cared for.
Consider setting up a re-parenting situation for headmates buried in shame. They need love and to be seen and cared for on a consistent basis over a long period of time.
If you believe a headmate is struggling with shame, and you have a professional team, please bring it up with them if you can. This is a situation where y'all could use a lot of support.
In terms of building pride gradually, the conference session on Plural Activism & Selves-Advocacy talks about going from advocating for each other inside your system and being internal activists through eventually (over time) advocating for yourselves externally and eventually becoming community activists externally — basically the whole journey of standing up for each other internally as individuals through standing up for yourselves individually or as a whole, inside & out.
Why be proud of your& system?
Here's the answer The Crisses gave to someone who was dealing with hopelessness & despair, shame, etc. regarding having DID:
Teamwork, building our own culture inside, overcoming adversity, making something vilified and stigmatized into a strength, helping others who are struggling with this highly stigmatized, overlooked, underfunded, underdiagnosed, misunderstood disorder.
Sticking it to our abusers by surviving and thriving, loving on our hurt inner kids (we did internal adoptions), watching them grow and change and heal, seeing inner folk constricted by PTSD who blossom and change (showing their full range of interests, talents, personality, etc.) as they become coconscious/come into the Here & Now, fighting for recognition and rights, fighting public stigma, creating community and support structures externally for the community, helping singular folk understand and embrace their DID loved ones, helping people understand plurality vs DID/CPTSD, solving problems, creating resources, improving lives and the world.
We do a lot more than that as a team…we brainstorm and for a while made that a business offering helping businesspeople with brainstorming sessions because we can analyze situations and ideas & run internal scenarios in ways folk who are singular & without CPTSD cannot. So given a situation we can brainstorm and break it down and have an inner team of diverse headmates roll over the issue and look at it from many angles and pour out ideas and solutions and create a strategy/plan for them to solve a problem, improve their product or service, or market their business. We can still do it, we could fall back on it as a business offering if we had to. Anyone here good at this can feel free to try it out. We think this is a major strength of plural systems once they have good internal teamwork and some onboarded rebels to poke holes in ideas, etc. and the world is underutilizing and overlooking our problem-solving talents. Keeping us oppressed is due to fear…but we digress.
We are also continually impressed by the individuals in our system…their talents and accomplishments, capacity for love and care, and contribution. We don't generally take individual credit or ask for individual recognition. But internally we are proud of each other…whether it's that some kids decided to learn watercolor painting and made some nice stuff already, or that the coders in here contributed to open source projects, or that some of us spearheaded the efforts in raising our external kids, etc. We have a lot of accomplishments to be proud of.
If we weren't us, we would be someone else entirely, and all the singular folk are taken. We don't blame ourselves for being victims …that's on our tormentors. We are proud of what we have done with ourselves from the moment we realized consciously that we are many. There were bumps and mistakes and embarrassing moments along the way…
But you know what? That's on the world. Because they didn't have a safety net and handbook or education program for us to work with. Because the experts in 1986 and even today still have their heads up their ass with this disorder. Because society didn't pay attention, it swept people like us into institutions and tried to forget we existed, etc.
So, we have been writing the manual we should have been handed, creating the classes and courses and materials that should have been there for us 36 years ago, and working on waking society up to increase awareness. And we are proud of that too.