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Letting Go Of Shame After Trauma: 13 Steps to Recover From Shame

Shame can manifest as a result of trauma, such as chronic and extreme childhood abuse.

While not everyone has experienced trauma, every person has experienced shame.

However, trauma survivors would still feel alone in their shame.

Because of their shame, trauma survivors would hide, even from themselves, resulting often in dissociation.

When you don’t realize that your feelings of shame is trauma-related, it’s easy to wrongly assume that these feelings are only and always a direct result of your defectiveness – you start to see yourself as the problem and not your feelings of shame.

This article will help you learn more about your shame and how to overcome it.

Ready? Let’s get started!

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#1. Understand The Power Of Negativity

You might find yourself stuck at times in a downward spiral of negative thing.

You can’t see anything positive. You don’t have any hope that things will get better.

You might have found yourself thinking something along these lines:

‘Things aren’t getting any better. They’re getting worse. I’m in constant pain. I can’t stop the flashbacks. I can’t stay present. I can’t see a way forwards. I can’t cope. I just… can’t… do it any more…’

You might realize that being negative isn’t going to help you move forward. But what you don’t realize is that being negative is helping you.

It’s a great way to deal with unbearable feelings – something you do unconsciously.

You have every right to be negative, given what you’ve been through and what you’re suffering now.

And negativity helps you feel safe, because then you won’t be disappointed when things go wrong.

Letting go of negativity means that you’re going to hope and that is too risky.

However, this becomes problematic when you start believing the negativity – it makes your experience even more painful.

And while negativity used to prepare you for the worst and protect you from being hurt back then, things have changed now. You’re not powerless anymore. Things are different and there is hope. You’ve learned a lot since then, you have allies – yourself and people who would help you.

So maybe it’s safe to hope a little now.

You don’t have to let go of negativity. You can use it if it helps you. Just be conscious of whether it is actually helping. And make it a conscious choice, rather than doing it as a habit.

Related: 6 Powerful Techniques To Stop Spiraling Negative Thoughts from Taking Control

#2. Acknowledge The Safety Of Self-Hatred

Self-hatred is helping you.

There’s usually a good reason for everything you do.

Hating yourself keeps you safe. If you hate yourself, then you’re ready for others hating you. You will feel safe and you won’t be taken by surprise.

It’s the way it’s always been.

You don’t want to be angry and hate the people who hurt you, but you ended up hating yourself. Because if you blame and hate yourself, you don’t have to become angry at those who hurt you and that keeps you safe.

And you don’t have to fight it. Self-hatred has been a survival strategy. You were just trying to protect yourself.

It does help in the short term, but it doesn’t improve anything in the long term – you’re just perpetuating the abuse.

And you can’t recover from the abuse, if you’re still being abused.

Self-hatred is familiar and safe. Stepping out of it can feel scary. You don’t know what life looks like without it, and the way your mind is wired after trauma makes it automatically react to new things as if they’re dangerous and set off an alarm.

So the first thing to do when the alarm goes off, is to breathe through it, and calm down your panic response. That will help you see things in a different way.

How do you stop hating yourself?

Don’t force it. Just notice it.

Begin to notice your self-talk, every time you feel that rush of self-hatred.

Don’t try to change it. Simply focus on calming down, soothing the emotion, and speaking compassionately to yourself.

Be towards yourself as you would be towards a dear friend.

Related: Self-Loathing: How to Stop Self-Hatred and Start Loving Yourself?

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#3. Stop Seeing Yourself As “Too Much”

You might find yourself worrying about people leaving you if you are “too much” to deal with. But at the same time, you know that if you don’t open up and be honest and real, they might also leave.

You think to yourself, “I have to express my needs without being needy.”

Often people feel that they are ‘too much’ because that’s how they were treated by their very first caregivers who can’t cope with emotion and closeness. They learn that when they express their emotions or their needs, they don’t get a positive response.

So they suppress their feelings and needs.

This treatment manifests itself in their attachment style and what’s called insecure-avoidant attachment.

The child gets the message that they are wrong for having feelings or needs and for wanting to be close – It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for a child to understand that it’s a problem that the parent has, rather than them.

As an adult, you approach your relationships and connections on the basis that it’s safer not to express your feelings or have needs, in case you’re rejected, like you were by your parent.

It might be true for now that you have more than most people to deal with, that you believe others won’t be able to handle it. But that doesn’t mean you are “too much”.

The trauma you survived is “too much” – there’s a difference.

Having a lot of trauma to deal with can be overwhelming for most people. They wouldn’t know how to help or how to handle it. And it’s understandable.

Different people can cope with different levels of need.

This is why therapy can be a safe place for you to open up about your trauma and express your needs. With acquaintances, you can just exchange pleasantries. With friends, once you reduce some of the pressure of trauma after therapy, they will be able to cope with it better.

In any case, you need to always keep in mind that your trauma is part of what happened to you, but your trauma isn’t you.

And if people say you are too much, you don’t have to take it personally. Maybe the trauma is “too much” for them, but that doesn’t mean that you are “too much.”

Related: Learning How to Receive: (7 Steps to Opening Up And Unlock The Power of Receiving)


Talk to a therapist anytime, anywhere

Find a therapist from Online-therapy.com’s network. Your personal therapist will be by your side – from start to finish. Guiding you to a happier you through the sections, worksheets, messaging at any time and live sessions (available as video, voice only or text chat).

Plans start at $31,96 per week + 20% off your first month.


#4. Overcome The Fear Of Facing Your Emotions

You might find yourself think, “What if I start crying and never stop!”

Feelings can be overwhelming and feelings can often be out of your control.

But no-one ever cries forever. Emotions move. They don’t stay the same.

So if you allow yourself to feel them, they might feel overwhelming for a while. But then they will pass.

Being vulnerable can also mean that other people will hurt you, especially when you’re a survivor of abuse, although, part of you does want that, because then they’ll be close to you. Because being hurt is the only way you’ve known to be loved.

But pain and real love don’t go together.

Not everyone wants to hurt everyone. When you cry or are open about your feelings, you let others know you’re upset and that gives them the opportunity to come and comfort you.

It’s not manipulative. It’s normal. It helps bonding.

Related: The Complete Guide to Understanding Your Emotions

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#5. Let Go of Denial

Survivors of childhood trauma might find it easier to cope if they simply denied that the trauma really happened to them.

Whether it happened or not, your job isn’t to declare that something is definitively, historically true.

You might remember some aspects wrong. Some memories might have gotten distorted in the process of encoding them and then recalling them. Still, it’s reasonable to rely on the overall gist – the body doesn’t lie.

People don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative identity disorder for no reason. Trauma is what causes these disorders.

You might not be able to know exactly what that trauma was, on what day, how it happened, who perpetrated it. But you can fairly confident that your emotions, your behaviors, your symptoms, your shame and self-loathing, your hyperarousal and dissociation, are not random – it’s trauma.

It’s important to recognize that avoidance is the natural response to trauma. The brain is wired to avoid something aversive. So it’s only natural for your brain to avoid the reality of your trauma by denying it.

Accepting that your trauma is true can be frightening. You’ve spent your life trying to shield yourself through denial. So it’s a big ask to move beyond that.

It’s a different way of coping – something you’ve never done before. But just because you haven’t done it before – you don’t have any evidence that you can – it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.

Why accept your trauma when you can deny it?

Because denial keeps you a prisoner. It limits you.

Denial is an exhausting strategy. You need to put a lot of effort into avoiding reality.

It’s much better and healthier to resolve the pain and the trauma and not have to expend all that energy avoiding it any more.

Moreover, denial and dissociation don’t just eradicate negative feelings. It eradicates positive ones too. It prevents you from knowing that you exist, from enjoying yourself.

And however helpful denial could have been in the past, you can’t separate your feelings completely from your body. Even if you don’t acknowledge these feelings, they’ll still come out in physical symptoms – either way, they are going to be felt.

Related: Facing Your Fears: 5 Truths About Fear And 5 Ways To Conquer Fear And Get Unstuck

#6. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help you reduce symptoms of trauma.

You’ve trained yourself, all your life, not to notice you body or pay attention to it, it’s only normal for you to find it hard to pay attention to your body and practice mindfulness.

The insula is a small region of the brain that tells it, basically, what’s going on in the body. Brain scans show that trauma survivors often have an underdeveloped insula.

In an attempt to protect you, the brain shield you from what’s going on by not receiving data and images from your body when you’re being abused or going through a traumatic event.

However, this safety comes at a cost. You eventually become disconnected from your emotions and body sensations.

The best way to connect again with yourself is through mindfulness meditation. In fact, one study shows that just after six weeks of mindfulness meditation, the insula becomes thicker.

This won’t just help you have a better sense of what’s going on inside yourself, but also increases your empathy and help you see what’s going on inside others, too.

If you still find it hard or you tend to beat yourself up when you fail, remind yourself that you’re not different from other people. What works for other people will work for you, too – it just hasn’t worked yet.

Mindfulness is a skill so keep practicing.

Practical Exercise

The following exercise will help you cultivate awareness of your body without  judgment: 

* Sit in a comfortable position and take a moment to tune into each area of your body. 

* Bring your attention to your breath. Notice any areas of tension, heaviness, or  constriction. 

* Next, Bring your attention to your feet, legs, and pelvis. Notice the sensations in  your muscles and on your skin. 

* Take a deep breath as you bring your attention into your torso. Notice any sensations  across your abdomen, lower back, chest or upper back. 

* Bring your attention to your shoulders, arms, and hands. Notice any areas of tension  or relaxation. 

* Last, bring your attention to your neck, throat, and face. Notice the general  sensations of your head. 

* Now, take a final moment to notice your body as a whole. 

* In your journal, write down your notes about your experience. 

This awareness exercise helps you deepen your curiosity about your sensations, relax  and release holding.

Learn To Bullet Journal In The Journal You Course

Related: How To Meditate? A Beginner’s Guide To Meditation

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#7. Let Go of Your Feelings of Guilt

Most trauma survivors struggle with feelings of guilt. They feel like it was all their fault and that they could have done something to prevent what happened.

Try here to imagine someone else – a dear friend, or a foster child – and imagine what you would tell them. Would you tell them that it was their fault that they were abused?

And would you also, by extension, tell them that they don’t deserve to be looked after, because they’ve caused the situation they’re in?

If you wouldn’t tell them that, why would you say it to yourself?

How could you have caused the abuse? What did you do that led to you being abused?

Think of one or two times when you were abused. And consider what you did in the lead-up to those incidents that caused them to happen.

It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t choose to be abused.

You were groomed – grooming being the transfer of responsibility from the abuser to a victim. It’s a deliberate act by the abuser.

They wanted you to feel that it was your fault, so that it wouldn’t be theirs.

Except it wasn’t your fault.

The fact that you were powerless might seem unbearable to you and so you’d rather choose to be bad and wrong than to admit that you were powerless.

But just because you were powerless back then, doesn’t mean that you’re powerless now.

What else to feel?

Anger.

Anger, when pointed in the right direction, is the energy you need not to act powerless any more.

#8. Overcome Helplessness

I can’t.

This is the freeze response. When fight and flight response don’t work, there’s freeze left.

It’s an instinctive, automatic response – an evolutionary thing, for survival.

So when you’re faced with danger, you don’t respond rationally. You respond instinctively.

When you’re in freeze, you become immobilized and stuck – you play dead.

This response becomes a belief. A habit. A way of thinking.

The freeze response helped you back then survive danger.

But the danger isn’t there anymore and without breaking the habit of freezing, you can’t do a thing. You can’t think. You can’t act.

I can’t now isn’t adaptive or helping anymore. It’s keeping you stuck. It’s a belief that used to fit that world, but it doesn’t fit this world.

Related: How To Embrace Change? (5 Things You Need to Start Doing To Become A Better Person)

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#9. Keep Yourself Safe

If coming up with a plan to keep yourself safe seems difficult, try looking at it the other way around: What would unsafe look like?

Unsafe behavior might include self-harm, driving dangerously, drinking too much, going back to where the abuse happened in a dissociated state, etc.

Oftentimes it’s not about doing what will keep us safe, but letting go of what’s preventing us from staying safe.

What if you don’t feel motivated enough to keep yourself safe? What if you don’t care if you’re not safe?

Examine your beliefs around staying safe.

Trauma survivors struggle with beliefs of not being worth keeping safe because safe feels unfamiliar.

Safe feels quite. Not being on guard and distressed might mean to you that you won’t be ready for the bad things when they happen.

In a sense it is not safe to feel safe.

But that isn’t helpful, not anymore.

Recovery from trauma requires learning to feel safe again. So it does matter when you don’t keep yourself safe, because it perpetuates the trauma and reinforces your trauma responses.

Because trauma has hyper-activated your nervous system, to prepare you for danger, an essential part of recovering from trauma is to get your nervous system to calm back down to baseline.

And while you don’t intentionally put yourself in danger, you need to remind yourself that nature abhors a vacuum and so if you don’t take charge and make a determined effort to self-soothe and manage your distress and put yourself into a safe setting, then you will default back to coping strategies from the past and unsafe-feeling parts will come in and fill the vacuum.

Your old coping strategies were your best attempts to survive. But to recover from trauma you need to develop better ways.

#10. Understand The Cost of Invulnerability

You might think that vulnerability is what makes you an easy target and gets you hurt.

Vulnerability can be very hard, but vulnerability doesn’t mean weakness.

But you weren’t abused because you were vulnerable and didn’t try to protect yourself. You were vulnerable because you were a child, and they abused you because they are abusers.

In this sense vulnerability is not an excuse for abuse and being invulnerable is no defence against abuse.

What would be the benefits of vulnerability?

Having been abused, it’s natural for you to play it safe, and assume everyone is dangerous in an attempt to protect yourself.

But that strategy comes at a cost: you’re missing out on intimacy and connection with safe people. You’re missing out on all the richness of real relationships – love, kindness, and support too.

How to avoid getting hurt?

Being wise in relationships, means you need healthy boundaries with people, especially with unsafe people.

But that’s different from being invulnerable. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

You cannot guarantee to yourself that you would always know who’s safe and who isn’t or that you won’t be hurt again.

And if you get hurt, it will never be your fault—and it never was your fault. It’s the fault of the abuser.

How to be vulnerable?

By having courage.

The courage to connect, and to risk. The courage to be yourself, and to be vulnerable.

And the courage to be compassionate towards yourself, and forgive yourself when you make a mistake.

Related: 11 Emotional Boundaries In Dating You Should Set From The First Date

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#11. Let Go of The Shame of Wanting To Be Loved

Shame is an interpersonal emotion. It’s what you feel when you’re at risk of being excluded from the group.

It’s a survival thing: the group affords the best chance of surviving. It provides protection, reproduction, and shared resources.

So when that membership is at risk, your neurobiology reacts as if your life is in danger.

How to feel less ashamed about wanting love?

First, you need to notice shame towards yourself – your membership of yourself.

You need to be belong not just to a group, but first and foremost to yourself: the sense of belonging and feeling ‘at home’ within yourself – feeling safe to be ‘you.’

Your shame has served a purpose. It kept you alive when you were abused. Because you couldn’t afford to hate the people who hurt you, or failed to love you, so you had to hate yourself.

When your needs weren’t met, you couldn’t afford to get angry, so instead you concluded that you were wrong to have needs in the first place.

Your shame helped you here by preventing an uprising, which could have led to being hurt and rejected even more. It’s a smart thing to do at the time.

But it’s not helping you now. It’s keeping you away from nourishing relationships and drives you towards relationships where you’re abused. So it doesn’t actually keep you safe at all.

What other strategy is there?

Self-compassion.

You might have used shame before to control yourself because that’s the way you were parented. But you don’t have to use it to parent yourself anymore.

You weren’t abused because you wanted to be loved. You were abused because your abuser chose to abuse you – it wasn’t your fault.

You don’t need to be ashamed of wanting to be loved.

Related: Raising low self-esteem: 18 Ways to Build High Self-Esteem

#12. Find Your Sense of Belonging

Survivors of childhood abuse, can go through adulthood feeling like they don’t fit in or belong anywhere.

This is usually a result of feelings of shame. It’s a conviction that you are intrinsically defective, that there is something wrong with you, even in a way that you cannot identify. And so you feel excluded and unwanted.

This affects the way you view everything about yourself and other people.

How do you fix it?

The first step to your feelings of not belonging is to dismantle some of your beliefs and see where they don’t fit reality or where they’re not helpful any more.

Then, you can work on you experiencing the opposite of shame in your safe relationships – belonging, being accepted and wanted, having your needs met, feeling connected.

At the same time, you’ll need to work on accepting yourself as well.

While we can’t control other people, and force them to show us that they accept us, we can still control our reactions to ourselves – we can ‘belong’ to ourselves and be part of the group—of ourselves.

In fact, unless you accept yourself, you won’t be able to experience that feeling from other people, even when they do accept you – you’re unable to receive it.

It’s also important to remind yourself that you can’t be loved or liked by everyone – it’s unrealistic, and you don’t really need to.

You need to be loved and accepted by yourself, and then by a few key people in your life. But until you accept yourself, you won’t be able to receive it from even those key people.’

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#13. Forgive

Forgiveness might sound like a good idea, because no-one wants to remain bitter.

But asking you to forgive your abuser might feel like asking you to jumpstart the process you’re in and fast-forward to the final step of trauma recovery.

But you can’t fast-forward to forgiveness. You can’t let go of something that you haven’t yet taken hold of.

You might have spent your life trying to forgive them, but unless you acknowledge what happened and feel the anger of being abused, you won’t be able to forgive.

When you try to forgive without acknowledging the trauma, you end up blaming yourself rather than them. You don’t want to feel angry or hate them, but you end up hating yourself.

Forgiveness might not change past, but it helps you not to become an abuser like them – it breaks the chain.

Forgiveness means that you don’t abuse them back. It helps you focus on fixing the damage, rather than getting even or pursue them to pay for the damage they caused.

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean you have to have a relationship with them. If anything, it’s when you forgive and let go of them that your relationship can come to an end.

But forced forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. The decision to forgive has to come from within.

Anger is an appropriate response to the trauma. While you don’t want to be angry forever, you want to be angry long enough for it to count and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Anger isn’t just a fight response and doesn’t always mean being out of control. Anger can be energy for action. And you need anger to stand up for yourself.

While the desire of revenge is a natural, the best revenge you can get is living well – recovery is your best revenge.

Conclusion

After trauma, it can be easier to stick with what’s familiar. New things, even new ways of thinking, can feel dangerous. But this sense of safety comes at a cost – it limits you.

It keeps you stuck in painful thought patterns and beliefs.

But you don’t have to be a victim of your own shame – It doesn’t have to be in charge of your life.

You don’t have to put your shame out there as something over which you have no control and accept what it says about you.

Your shame is only an opinion, and don’t have to take it to be a fact.

It’s you who get to define who you are and what to feel – you are in charge of you.

Talk to a therapist anytime, anywhere

Find a therapist from Online-therapy.com’s network. Your personal therapist will be by your side – from start to finish. Guiding you to a happier you through the sections, worksheets, messaging at any time and live sessions (available as video, voice only or text chat).

Plans start at $31,96 per week + 20% off your first month.

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How To Let Go Of Shame After Trauma?

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  • Portions of this article were adapted from the book Unshame: Healing Trauma-based Shame Through Psychotherapy, © 2019 by Carolyn Spring. All rights reserved.
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