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Shame is characterized by the belief, “I am bad.” This emotion is based upon a distorted sense of yourself as being unworthy, damaged, or a failure. Why is shame so pervasive? Young children are completely dependent upon caregivers for a sense of safety and connection in the world. If you had an abusive caregiver, you faced a critical conflict: your biological drive to seek closeness from the very source of the terror you were trying to escape. Adults who were abused or neglected as children will often blame themselves. This can lead to persistent feelings of guilt and shame. EMDR therapist and author Dr. Jim Knipe proposes that this self-blame is a direct link to childhood logic—children will develop a fantasy that they are bad kids relying upon good parents to avoid confronting the terrifying reality that they are good kids relying upon bad parents.
When parents are frightening, abusive, or unavailable, children can feel confused about who is at fault. When children witness something bad, they feel bad. Inaccurate and judgmental thoughts such as the following ones perpetuate shame in complex PTSD:
“There must be something wrong with me!”
“I’m so stupid.”
“I can’t seem to do anything right.”
“I’m an emotional wreck.”
“I’m just lazy.”
Furthermore, shame is often hidden underneath perfectionism. As a child, you may have internalized the belief that you had to act perfect because your parents couldn’t handle your authentic feelings. Or perhaps you believed acting “good” would stop the bad things from happening. In either situation, you may have had to hide your true feelings to avoid rocking the boat. Perfectionism is maintained by critical self-talk that attempts to push down painful feelings. When the inner critic berates you for being lazy, stupid, or useless, you are again confronted with shame.
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