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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

Healing from CPTSD: Confronting Shame & Embracing Self-Compassion

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) is a debilitating condition that arises from prolonged exposure to traumatic events, typically experienced in childhood, like neglect, emotional abandonment, and abuse. CPTSD is often characterized by feelings of helplessness, betrayal, and loss of safety.

A central component to the experience of CPTSD is the insidious presence of shame, a deeply rooted emotion that can exacerbate the already overwhelming symptoms that come with CPTSD.

We're going to explore the intricate relationship between CPTSD and shame, and uncover a few strategies for overcoming this barrier to healing.

Understanding Shame in CPTSD

When we're looking at shame in the context of CPTSD, it operates as a pervasive sense of unworthiness and inadequacy, stemming from internalized beliefs about one's inherent defectiveness. Unlike guilt, which focuses on actions and behaviors, shame attacks the core of the self, causing people to view themselves as fundamentally flawed and unlovable. For those wrestling with CPTSD, shame becomes intertwined with their identity, reinforcing feelings of powerlessness and perpetuating cycles of self-blame.

Traumatic experiences, specifically those that occur in childhood or over an extended period of time, can create profound shame in survivors. Whether stemming from neglect, abuse, or abandonment, the emotional wounds inflicted by trauma often lurk in the shadows, fueling a toxic cycle of belittlement towards oneself. Shame can also hinder people from seeking help or disclosing their struggles, further isolating them in their suffering.

In CPTSD, shame can show up in a variety of ways:

  • Negative Self-Perception: People living with complex trauma often harbor deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, viewing themselves through a lens tainted by shame. They may internalize negative messages received during traumatic experiences.

  • Self-Blame: Shame frequently manifests as self-blame, where people hold themselves accountable for the trauma they experienced or its aftermath. They may believe they somehow deserved the abuse or neglect, perpetuating feelings of unworthiness and guilt.

  • Perfectionism: Many individuals with CPTSD develop perfectionistic tendencies as a means of avoiding criticism or rejection. They set impossibly high standards for themselves, fearing that any perceived failure will confirm their inherent inadequacy and invite further shame.

  • Avoidance & Isolation: Shame often drives people with CPTSD to withdraw from social interactions and avoid seeking support. They may fear judgement or rejection from others, believing themselves to be unworthy of love and connection. This isolation can exacerbate feelings of shame and deepen the sense of alienation and loneliness.

  • Maladaptive Coping Behaviors: Shame can lead to the adoption of maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, self-harm, or compulsive behaviors. This is because people with CPTSD attempt to numb or escape their overwhelming feelings of distress and shame.

  • Relationship Difficulties: Shame can profoundly impact relationships, making it challenging for people with CPTSD to establish and maintain healthy connections with others. They may struggle to trust or open up to others, fearing vulnerability and potential rejection.

  • Physical Symptoms: The immense emotional distress caused by shame can manifest in physical symptoms, such as chronic pain, headaches, or gastrointestinal issues. These somatic symptoms serve as a tangible reminder of the internal turmoil experienced by people with CPTSD.

  • Self-Destructive Thoughts & Behaviors: In extreme cases, shame can contribute to self-destructive thoughts and behaviors, including suicidal ideation. People may feel overwhelmed by their shame and see no way out of their pain and suffering.

  • Impaired Self-Regulation: Shame can impair self-regulation abilities, making it challenging for people to manage their emotions and impulses effectively. They may experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, or anger, further exacerbating their sense of inadequacy and shame.

  • Hypervigilance & Self-Censorship: People with CPTSD are typically hypervigilant in social situations, constantly monitoring themselves and others for signs of disapproval or judgment. This hypervigilance can lead to self-censorship, where people suppress their thoughts and emotions due to fear of rejection or humiliation.

Shame's Impact on Healing

Shame acts as a formidable barrier to healing for people with CPTSD, sabotaging efforts to engage in self-care, therapy, and meaningful relationships. It fosters a sense of disconnection from others, perpetuating feelings of loneliness and unworthiness. When we engage in shame-driven behaviors, such as self-sabotage or numbing through substance abuse, it serves as a maladaptive coping mechanisms that only exacerbates the underlying trauma.

Addressing shame in therapy is an important component to facilitating healing in people with CPTSD. However, the very nature of shame often leads survivors to avoid confronting it directly, fearing judgment or rejection from others. Because of that, it's important that therapists create a safe and empathetic space where clients feel validated in their experiences and supported in their journey towards self-compassion.

Strategies for Overcoming Shame

  1. Cultivate Self-Compassion: This one can't be stated enough! Central to overcoming shame is the practice of self-compassion. This involves treating yourself with understanding and kindness, recognizing that suffering is a part of the human experience. By cultivating self-compassion, people with CPTSD start to challenge the harsh self-criticism ingrained by shame and foster a sense of acceptance and warmth towards themselves.

  2. Embrace Vulnerability: The antidote to shame is vulnerability because it requires you to courageously confront your own imperfections and share them authentically with safe people. In therapy, it's important for therapists to encourage clients to share their experiences of shame in a safe and supportive environment because it can foster connection and healing. By acknowledging their vulnerabilities, people with CPTSD can reclaim their power and autonomy.

  3. Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and grounding exercises, can help people with CPTSD cultivate present-moment awareness and detachment from shame-induced thoughts and emotions. By learning to observe their inner experiences without judgement, survivors can develop greater resilience in the face of shame triggers.

  4. Seek Support in Safe Relationships: Healing from CPTSD and shame is not a journey that can be done alone. We can't heal in isolation. Building a support network of friends, family members, and mental health professionals, all who are emotionally safe, can provide invaluable validation and encouragement. Support groups specifically created for trauma survivors can also offer a sense of belonging and solidarity in the healing process.

Final Thoughts

Confronting shame is an essential aspect of healing from CPTSD because it allows people to reclaim their sense of worth and dignity. By embracing self-compassion, practicing vulnerability and mindfulness, and seeking support in relationships that offer emotional safety, survivors can gradually dismantle the pervasive influence of shame in their lives, as well as cultivate resilience and create meaningful connections with others. Ultimately, the path to healing from CPTSD and shame is a path of courage, self-discovery, and compassion.


At Root Counseling, we work with clients experience symptoms of shame by fostering a safe and empathetic space for their feelings, thoughts, and experiences to be validated. To schedule a session with one of our therapists, you can visit us here.

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