Shame is one of the biggest barriers to treating anyone who’s suffered abuse or been the victim of a crime. This isn’t the kind of shame that is like having something stuck in your teeth at the dinner table. Rather, it’s an “I can’t think straight”, face hot, lips feel like they are burning off kind of shame that has many effects on trauma survivors. Survivors have to deal with more than just knowing that someone has treated them badly. Survivor shame causes an over complicated, confusing mix of everything from trying to figure out why the abuser acted as they did, having people not believe you when you do open up, feeling betrayed by everyone else as well as the abuser, being so confused you can’t drive down the street without becoming lost, and being psychically injured every time you either relive the experience in your mind or someone makes a related comment.

Therapists need to be extremely mindful of shame when working with someone suffering from abuse. If they trigger the shame with a “Why didn’t you…?” comment, it’s likely the person will feel unsafe and unable to continue the therapy process, leaving the session to mentally go over and over what was said  – re-traumatizing themselves. When someone is still involved in an abuse situation, what they need most is to continue therapy or some kind of support group that helps them find their way out of this all-encompassing confusion (and situation). They need help!

Research says that living in shame for long periods of time actually produces brain changes, even brain damage.  Self-esteem is low, ego strength is low, and a sense of self is lost.  The person may ignore things they would ordinarily address.  They may cry or feel extremely weak at times when they have always felt strong.

The good news is – it’s never actually lost, it’s held in trust for you…. once you find your way back to emotional safety, your mind, body and spirit recover.  But we’ve got to get there first!


Effects of shame on victims:


  1. Warps the mind to color it like the abuser
  2. Massive confusion
  3. Extreme self-blame
  4. Defensiveness and disproportionate sensitivity
  5. Feelings of needing to hide the abuse story
  6. Paranoia (checking locks, wanting to move, thinking everyone is against you)
  7. Panic attacks
  8. Feelings of paralysis
  9. Psychosis in some cases (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)
  10. Trying to figure out what they can do to stop the abuser’s behavior


I saw a sign in a movie recently that showcased a domestic violence women’s shelter (Good movie:  Private Violence). It said (paraphrasing) “No disrespect here. Please speak kindly to all ”. They understood the role of shame in helping abuse survivors heal. No disrespect tolerated here. Speak kindly. This may be the only way you can help anyone get away from people that are hurting them.

In another book I read, they said shame measures as the lowest vibration frequency, lower than both anger and sadness. Shame is literally the lowest vibration in the universe.   Shame causes people to feel extreme paralysis. They won’t call for help when they need it, it clouds their thinking making everything feel impossible (even if they could normally figure out what to do, with shame in the game, now they can’t), even tiny “simple” tasks and daily living become confusing and difficult. So to ask a woman or a man or a child who’s being abused, “Why didn’t you tell someone” or “Why didn’t you just leave?” is insensitive and not taking into account the role shame plays. (And we haven’t even begun to talk about valid fear that’s also involved in these cases).

In DBT, shame is known as the emotion that is evolutionarily designed to “keep us from being kicked out of our social group”. We have to mold into our families in order to stay safe and be fed by them. It’s different from guilt. Guilt is about us feeling like we’ve violated our own values. Shame, conversely, is an extreme fear of violating other people’s values and having a traumatic thing happen as a result.

So while it may be important to directly confront someone who is in the middle of an abuse situation, it must be done with extreme care after rapport and trust have been established. We need to heal shame not trigger it.