When discussing emotions, feelings can range from joy and happiness to fear, anger, sadness and grief. But there is one emotion that holds special power: shame. Shame can be excruciatingly intense, deeply felt and often misunderstood. In the depths of its intensity, it is difficult to see the distinction between what a person may be feeling in the present moment and what happened in the past. This can leave us feeling confused and questioning whether our emotions are based on feelings of shame or if they are trauma responses.
Shame is a powerful emotion that stems from an experience of suffering and humiliation. It can be caused by external behaviors such as teasing or criticism, or from internal thoughts and beliefs about being not good enough. It is intensely painful and isolating. Shame involves comparison with other people, and often leaves a person feeling small and inadequate.
But many of the same emotions associated with shame can be symptoms of trauma. Trauma responses can often feel similar to those associated with shame, like feeling scared, isolated and ashamed. Trauma can also cause a person to feel overwhelming emotions of sadness, panic, hopelessness and despair. there can be signs of hyper-arousal such as difficulty sleeping, easily startled, increased anxiety and angry outbursts.
The difference between shame and trauma ultimately lies in the source of these intense feelings. Whilst shame often comes from experiences of judgement and humiliation, a trauma response occurs when a person is exposed to extreme or ongoing stress. However, these two experiences can become chronically intertwined; the pain of an original trauma can lead to feelings of shame which in turn deepen the wound.
In order to address either experience, it's important first to contextualize its source. Acknowledge what has happened to you so that you can start to develop more compassion for yourself and make sense of your experience in the greater context of your life. This also involves understanding how toxic shame might show up in your life e.g. in how you hide pieces of yourself or go along with things that make you feel uncomfortable because you want others to like you.
A safe environment is also key for exploring these experiences. Whether it's alone or with support from others, find ways to create a space outside the world where it is possible to access those difficult emotions with gentleness. Spend time reflecting on your reactions to unravel the story behind them such as interconnectedness, loss and resilience.
Trauma and shame have certain common features but require different approaches for healing. Exploring specific processes blares out of both will help you to create a greater understanding, as well as trust and connection within yourself. Then you will be better equipped to handle any emotional triggers – now matter how intense – in order to heal, grow and live a more full and meaningful life.