Why Shame Is Triggered Just When You Start To Feel Good

How to keep shame from intruding on your life after trauma

Posted Jul 08, 2014

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, your brain carries you back to a time in your history that evokes great shame and feels painfully unresolved. The images that flash through your mind cause a visceral reaction. Inside, you now feel destabilized, which pollutes the positive experience you were just having.

For this article, trauma is any experience that has deeply and negatively impacted you, altered your worldview, your sense of safety, left you feeling lost, sad, hopeless, fragmented, unstable and distrustful. Because you are a person who has been traumatized, you have found ways to endure and survive your trauma. Some of the responses that help you endure may be healthier than others; however, all your responses are meant to be self-protective even when they don't appear to be. One of these may be flashbacks in moments of relative stability that momentarily bring you to your knees. Here are some reasons why this phenomenon occurs:

1. You are trying to protect yourself from being re-traumatized by reminding yourself to stay vigilant. You have formed the belief that when you let your guard down, bad things happen.

2. Even though there is distance between you and the trauma you endured, you still experience yourself as fragmented, scattered, not unified in your body. There are parts of you that remind you that you don't deserve to feel safe, so you bring yourself back to shame because that fragmented, shameful feeling is much more familiar terrain. Flashbacks in moments of relative peace may be your brain’s attempt to take you down a notch.

3. Trauma can leave you feeling as if you’re transparent, as if others can read your mind. Feeling good can feel like you’re pretending–like you are a fraud when you try to be anything other than “forever scarred”. You feel as if you don’t deserve to feel good. And others can see that you are underserving. The flashback to shame reminds you that you are not allowed to feel like a healthy part of the experiences going on around you, nor do you know how to conduct yourself in those more positive moments.

Why does this happen?

Trauma can and often does blindside you. Even if you have somehow prepared for it, you can never fully prepare for it. Therefore, you learned to control your expectations of yourself and of the world so that you would not be crushed again by disappointment. Seeing the world as more promising now than it used to be creates the possibility that things might be okay. But that feels precarious, and dangerous–hopefulness that things have gotten better leaves you feeling vulnerable and open to further shame. Before someone or something takes away your positive feelings and hopes, you will take them away, yourself. Arguably, it will be less painful if you are in control and take yourself down before someone else does it for you.

As frustrating as it is to undermine your potential comfort in your own skin in a new situation, the process is meant to protect you. It is meant to insulate you from hopeful feelings that are so precarious that they seem destined to lead to ways that evoke further pain. However, you now recognize that this self-protective tendency occurred under duress, when you were trapped in shame, isolation, even desperation to make sense of chaos. From where you now stand, you can see that this method of self-protection may have become automatic, but that does not make it effective.

What to do about it?

After identifying the exact scenario described above, a patient asked me, “When these thoughts come out in circumstances that set me back, what can I do? How do I understand them? What do I say to them?” First and foremost, just saying aloud what the awful flashback is, despite the shame that it causes, will begin to dilute its power. After all, part of what evokes shame is that it was an experience that feels unresolved, and is shrouded in secrecy and torment. Discussing it aloud can help you resolve it now, since your current self has distance and wisdom that the past self did not. By bringing them out, these shame-inducing images and self-defeating thoughts will become less able to intrude on you at times when you notice that you are feeling more solid in your own skin. In talking to a trusted other, you can begin to demystify the intruding images you have been using as weapons against yourself.

Furthermore, understand that these slices of your life that you look back at with mortification and disgust had a purpose and an explanation at the time. Chances are you either had no control of these situations, or you what you had at your disposal then to attempt to manage your anger, neglect and uncertainty. You may have done things that you regret because you could not make sense of the anger or self-loathing you felt, and you used the outlets available to you at the time. There may have been actions you participated in, in your history that you don't condone now. Do not lose sight of the limited outlets you had at the time to cry for help and express your pain and anger. What evokes shame is typically parts of the past that feel alien to you, because they don't reflect who you are now.

Most importantly, you are now developing an understanding of what is happening when you get triggered into a place of shame from a place of relative stability. You can identify when this phenomenon takes place and dilute its power on the spot, just because you are able to comprehend what happened and why. It can help you restabilize your insides, and rejoin the present on your own terms.

Of course these ways of understanding shameful flashbacks just when things start to get good may not make all the shameful actions acceptable, but understand that they happened in a different time, in a different context, and do not have to reflect the person you are now. Ultimately, the more you know about how you got here, the more it starts to decrease these feelings of shame that keep you trapped when you are ready to move forward. Knowledge is power, and self-knowledge is the ultimate power.