Trauma & Shame: The Struggle is Real


How does toxic shame start? How does it become internalitzed and pervasive?

My clients find me because they are looking for help with their childhood trauma, and many don’t realized the depth of the toxic, pervasive shame that goes hand in hand with that. While I’ve written more in-depth articles on shame before, (see article Unshaming Shame) as it’s a huge part of what we show the world, and how we view ourselves, I haven’t done a bite-size article. This topic is vast and we seem to underestimate the power of this mysterious primary emotion, time and again.

When we are born, we have the cognition of shame. This is where it differs from guilt, as guilt is a secondary emotion, not a primary. In childhood, it takes one triggering event to bring the healthy emotion of shame to the center. Shame is meant to protect us, to keep us safe.


When you were little, maybe toddler age, you perhaps reached for something that the adult with you deemed was unsafe, such as the hot stove. This adult grabbed your hand back and said, “No! Don’t touch that!” Pretty standard for kiddos, yeah? In that moment though, shame rose up. You heard the tone of voice, saw the facial expression and body language, and the panic. Shame jumped up and said “Oh no, protection time!” You most likely started to cry and hopefully were comforted. Shame keeps us small and silent, to mitigate risk and keep us out of trouble where we could get hurt.

That sounds like a pretty great mechanism inside our bodies and minds, doesn’t it? Like a safety valve that gets flipped to try keep us alive. Amazing.

Now, that doesn’t speak to how it “feels,” because it’s so darn uncomfortable. Shame feels like we did something wrong and people outside of us are going to see and it’s bad bad bad, if they do. We can feel exposed and like we did something wrong.