Updated: Nov 14
When we experience a traumatic event, shame and guilt are common survival skills we rely on. Like the flight, fight, freeze and appease response, these coping skills that are often meant for our survival, can leave us paralyzed.
Logically, it’s easy to say, “of course, that wasn’t your fault.” But most survivors of trauma know just how hard it is to believe.
Today we’ll explore a few questions relating to guilt and trauma, like “Why is it that survivors of traumatic experiences often turn to self-blame as a survival response?” And: “how can we employ non-judgmental compassion and courage to promote healing?”
The source of shame: guilt as a survival response
Although we often think of shame and guilt as a response to our own actions, most often, these emotions are triggered long before we’ve done anything wrong.
In the collaborative online course between Dr. Gabor Maté and Dr. Richard Schwartz, Embracing All of You: Compassionate Inquiry Meets Internal Family Systems, Maté discusses how you can push a 9-month-old baby into a shame state simply by breaking eye contact. (See video below about the Still Face Experiment)
He further explains how shame arises when someone important to you breaks contact, and you perceive that loss of contact as your fault.
This loss of contact is the source of shame—not the fact that we’ve done something wrong. We merely perceive that we’ve done something wrong.
When our brains perceive danger, our bodies respond. When we’re in “fight or flight” mode, our conscious minds are no longer in control. This is why self-blame, shame, and guilt are common after a traumatic experience, even when the victim is clearly not to blame.
Overcoming shame through healing
The good news is that trauma survivors can heal.
Shame is an emotion that precedes negative actions. However, positive actions can work to eliminate feelings of guilt.
Caring for others negates feelings of panic and shame because these two parts of the nervous system work inversely. When you take care of others, feelings of shame lift.
If you’re someone who struggles with guilt, you might find a pattern arising in your life where you become self-sacrificial when caring for others. This extreme level of care for others requires self-neglect, which does not promote healing.
So, balance is required.
Accessing compassion for others in addition to self-compassion actively changes our physiology and allows healing to take place, physically and mentally.
Conscious soothing and mindful coping
It’s a common experience to look at coping mechanisms as either “healthy” or “unhealthy.” If you go for a run when you’re stressed, that’s a healthy coping skill. If you binge eat, smoke cigarettes, or go shopping, those are unhealthy coping skills.
But there is a better measure for the usefulness of our coping mechanisms. Are they conscious or mindless?
Consider the above scenario of caring for others. When you do it consciously, you can set boundaries. Mindlessly, you neglect your own needs.
Dr. Mate urges people to “do it consciously and make it a choice” when self-soothing, whether that coping mechanism is smoking, eating or exercising.
Why? Mindless soothing does not work.
However, if you say to yourself, “I need to soothe myself, and here’s how I’m going to do it,” your coping strategies are more likely to work.
Non-judgmental compassion and courage
The road to healing from trauma is a long one, and while the path may sometimes fall under sunny skies, it’s also prone to storms.
The best way to promote healing, especially when feelings of guilt and shame are involved due to trauma responses, is through non-judgment, compassion, and courage.
When we’re able to adjust our attitude towards ourselves and the world by cultivating these values, we enable our bodies and minds to begin the healing process.