Healing from the Trauma of Shame Series


What would happen if instead of judging another person, we offered him or her unconditional grace?  I (SL) remember reading that in certain regions of South Africa, when someone does something wrong, he or she is taken to the center of the village and surrounded by his or her tribe for a time while they speak of all the good he or she has done.  In this tribe, individuals believe each person is good yet sometimes he or she  makes mistakes, which these people recognize as a cry for help.  They unite in this ritual to encourage the person to reconnect with his or her true nature.  The belief is that unity and affirmation have more power to change behavior than shame and punishment.

In Babylon, history suggests that anyone who became sick was forced to sit in the village square, and each citizen who walked by had to prescribe for the illness and the patient was required to carry out the prescription.  In essence, that society was the doctor, and sickness and health was in their spoken words.

Would you say you are more like the South Africans or more like the Babylonians?  Ask yourself: “When I hear that someone I know has had an affair, how do I tend to react?”  “When I hear that someone’s son or daughter is using drugs, do  I feel compassion or judgment?”  Or what about; “When I become aware that a neighbor has been accused of embezzlement, filed bankruptcy, or had their house foreclosed on, what are my first thoughts?”

What are we teaching our children (and others who are under our influence and care) when we shame them for their failures?  How will we, ourselves, receive grace in time of need, if we are not familiar with how it works?– Grace that is the unmerited, undeserved favor that has restorative power and promotes growth and healing.

When we judge others for not living up to our standards, we are imposing a shame sentence onto them.  Research suggests that as early as  two to three years of age, one is capable of experiencing shame.  Developmentally we have little capacity for processing shame at this young age.  We carry it in our body as a physiological memory.  When later triggered, this shame may cause such anxiety that we feel paralyzed by it.  We may react from a stand point of defensive pride and shame others, or simply remain feeling shamed ourselves.  Both are damaging to our felt sense of self.  As we gain insight into the shame our bodies have held onto, we can, instead, develop compassion for the child we once were.  This also enables us to give grace to others.  Shame can, then, be left in the past where it belongs.  We, then, can gain the resultant wisdom that we can call upon for freeing ourselves and others.

Try to remember  the South African tribe and the way they bring healing to the ones they cherish the next time you hear about someone you know who has done something that you yourself would be ashamed of or would be disappointed with.


Our relationship to shame is one of our most important psychological relationships to understand.  As a punishment for bad behavior shaming can make us aware of our faults, but it can also can change the very way we see ourselves, make us feel worthless, trigger self-doubt and self-criticism; and cause us to withdrawal from others, including even those closest to us.

Shaming can even corrode the very part of us that believes we are capable of change, cripple our ability to soothe ourselves, stifle our creativity, corrode our desire for intimacy and connectedness with others, and disrupt our senses of self-esteem and of agency.


Shame has many faces.  “Shame” can vary from the mildest social embarrassment to profound self-hatred and psychological disorder.  Most basically shame invokes a sense of personal inadequacy and may often be disguised in as anxiety or depression, feeling of annoyance, denial, or other forms of defensiveness, and/or inability to work or play.  Some may mask feelings of shame through use of mood altering substances.

If shame lasts long enough, it can become a core aspect of our being.  A sense of of badness cam becomes “a core belief about “who I am”. Hypersensitivity to even a simple faux pas can result, leading us to mentally return, “again and again to the painful moments that generated our feelings of shame in the attempt to eradicate the reality of the incident by magical means, i.e., to undo it.” (cf., analyst, Heinz Kohut, MD).


Clearly, while most of us have occasional self-doubts, many of our more persistent,  punitive, and critical feelings about ourselves may stem from experiences in childhood–feelings of not being important enough, or lovable enough, or not being “seen” or “heard”.  Such early experiences can leave an imprint on the way we understand and feel about ourselves, about other people, and about the world, and can persist into adulthood even if we don’t remember the early events that may have triggered them.

For example, both research and clinical evidence has found that children whose parents who are Persistently Rejecting/Neglectful tend to evidence excessively low energy and often resort to a state of despair and  emotionally withdraw.  Emotions of shame and hopelessness are often prevalent. Over time, as these children become adults, this sense of despair can become easily activated in response to even minor signs of rejection (Siegel, MD).

We may react intensely to something with no clear idea of why.  At best, we may vaguely “remember” experiences of being left alone, or remember periods of “uncomfortable silence”, or simply of a global sense of having frequently felt “bad”.  Such formative experiences, none-the-less, come to shape our later thoughts and feelings about ourselves in relation to others. This is because, as children, we do not have the mental processes to encode our very early experiences into a verbal or an autobiographical memory.  Such memories remain implicit and, therefore, cannot be later put into words but still tend to surface later when triggered.


Misattunements between parents and their children happen frequently in childhood and such occurrences are not necessarily harmful.  To the contrary they can be structure building in a positive sense, if repair or soothing is accomplished.  However, if a child is persistently criticized or is ignored, abandoned, or punished in some way for expressing basic states of need, wants, wishes, and feelings; or when such states are suppressed in the unquenchable service of meeting the needs of others, the results of such trauma can be devastating on the emotional well-being and psychological development of the child.

Shame-prone identities (Harper and Hooper) can develop and become painfully evident over time.  In such circumstances, children become impaired in their ability to understand and process their own emotionally charged states, and, because such states become “not acceptable.”  Constant fear of what others think of them, anxieties about being judged, or not being liked, reflect how such children come to judge and not like themselves.  

Low self-worth, negative self-talk and harsh self-criticism, self-limiting beliefs, and unrealistic expectations of themselves often result. Needing excessive reassurance, acceptance, and praise from others these children become reluctant to express their real feelings and needs, and feel embarrassed for even having them. They start to live in a walking, waking, trance (Stokes and Lewis, 2018,The Trauma of Shame and the Making of the self).

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