Transforming Shame and Disgust in Therapeutic Relationships

Muddy waterShame and disgust are often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Complex trauma survivors tend to experience a strong sense of failure, rejection, and shame believing they are bad, unlovable and helpless. An inner critic that discounts any sign of healing continuously produces feeling of fear and unworthiness self-sabotaging any hope for a better future.

Linda Graham says:

Shame begins to be toxic when the innate yearning to connect and belong, and the inborn need to be seen, to be big, to be masterful, are not met positively. This state becomes engrained when these yearnings are ignored, dismissed, rejected, when we are shamed, criticized, judged, humiliated for those longings on a regular basis.

Our yearnings are paired with pain, literally heart ache or heart break. Toxic shame curls the once hopeful – now wounded – children inside up into a ball of pain and hurt, hiding in defensive, isolating caves, protecting themselves as best they can against further rejection and humiliation.

We experience this shame as a collapse of the body as the chest caves inward, the head goes down and the eyes avert. We feel embarrassed or rejected. Over time, we begin to hear [the inner critic saying]: “You’re so stupid! How could you be so stupid? No one will ever love you; you don’t deserve to be loved.”

Disgust introjected from the other can be seen as the root categorical emotion of the compound emotion of shame. We may manifest this disgust outwardly as the shaming- blaming part is then projected onto others as a defense or manifest it inwardly as we turn on the self.

That critical voice inside is now functioning as our own psyche’s best effort to protect ourselves from further shame. “If I, the inner critic or judge, can keep you in hiding so you don’t do anything else stupid to evoke an attack by ‘them’, you won’t be hurt again. I will do my job and do it quickly before anything bad can happen so ‘they’ won’t do it worse.”

Because of the recursive nature of the shame/defense against shame cycle, these coping mechanisms are reinforced, strengthening those synaptic connections until they become pathogenic, meaning a rigidity in the neural circuitry that blocks learning from any new input. Even with accomplishments, even with blessings, these implicit neural nets remain dissociated from the integrating flow of the brain, locking the person into the eternally present past of the original shaming events. Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance calls this loop the “trance of unworthiness.”

The journey of healing complex trauma can occur in the presence of a therapist that provides a safe and supportive container for memories and feeling to gently come into consciousness. By rebuilding inner-strength individuals are able to experience difficult emotions in the present moment and slowly integrated them into their life. Genuine acceptance, insight and inner freedom are the essence of true healing.


Brach, T. (2003). Radical Acceptance. New York: Bantam.

Graham, L. (2010). The Power of Mindful Empathy to Heal Toxic Shame. The Wise Brain Bulletin, 4(1), 1-8.

© 2014 Maria Stella, PhD. All Rights Reserved.

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