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Why shame is the new trauma

October 14, 2015
by Julia Brown, Associate Editor
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The most effective trauma resolution and addiction recovery work may not last if shame isn’t addressed during treatment, according to Katie Thompson LPC, NCC, CEDS. In fact, bypassing shame can often fuel an addiction, she says. For a patient to make any strides, shame must be identified as a root cause.

What is shame? 
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. While individuals might experience a healthy type of shame that can be motivating, there are several types that experts regard as unhealthy.

  • Toxic shame, which is connected to trauma, is a belief that the whole self is fundamentally flawed and defective to the point where the self becomes an object of contempt.
  • A shame spiral is a recycling of toxic shame that’s difficult to escape and often accompanied by a victim mentality.
  • Shame webs, on the other hand, are layered, conflicting and competing social expectations (who, what, how one should be). Entanglement in a shame web can result in fear, blame and disconnection.
  • The most common shame categories are appearance and body image, money and work, motherhood/fatherhood, family, parenting, and mental and physical health (including addiction and surviving trauma), and the development and internalization of it must be understood.  

Additionally, when those with addiction experience shame, Thompson says, the addiction only reinforces the belief. Neglecting the shame experience and using, for example, only dialectical behavioral therapy can make an addiction stronger and drive clients toward symptom swapping, Thompson says.

Patients need to be taught to recognize shame when it’s experienced and move through it in a constructive way.

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