Our childhood experiences can continue to impact our lives into adulthood, and one of the most common but challenging impacts of childhood trauma is shame. When you start to believe that you’re a bad person or that you deserve the bad things that happen to you, you may struggle to maintain a happy and healthy life. Understanding how your childhood toxic shame affects your life as an adult is a key step in unpacking your trauma and healing from your negative experiences.
Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame
While guilt and shame are often thought of as the same concept, there are key differences between the two. You can feel guilty about something you did without experiencing a lasting sense of shame, and you can feel shame without being guilty. When it comes to childhood trauma, shame is often one of the most complicated and painful emotions that persists into adulthood.
Guilt is the feeling that you did something wrong, so it’s usually a reflection of your outward actions. You might feel guilty about something you said or did and the impact it had on others, and you may feel like you need to take steps to absolve yourself of the guilt and earn forgiveness. Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that something is inherently wrong with you as a person. This emotion is much harder to overcome because it’s a deeply rooted belief about who you are.
Sources of Childhood Shame
Our identities and understanding of the world around us start forming at the very beginning of our lifetimes. You may have known in your early childhood that you were unconditionally loved, accepted, and valued and that your presence is a gift to those around you. Unfortunately, though, some children are made to believe the opposite. If you had a traumatic, chaotic, or unstable childhood, you may have adopted the belief that something is wrong with you or that your needs don’t matter.
Childhood trauma can take on a wide variety of forms. In many cases, kids who experience childhood neglect believe that they’re not worthy of love or support. Children who experience abuse at the hands of their parents or other adults may believe that they deserve the treatment. Similarly, kids who experience bullying often blame themselves and develop a lasting sense of shame.
The abuse, neglect, or mistreatment you experienced in childhood is not your fault. Children are never to blame for their trauma, and you do not deserve to feel shame over your negative experiences. However, kids often blame themselves because their worldview is still so limited. It’s incredibly confusing and difficult for children to understand why the trusted adults in their lives have failed them, so they come to the conclusion that something must be wrong with them. Then, this toxic shame follows them into adulthood and influences many of their major life decisions.
How Childhood Shame Affects Your Identity
Shame can dramatically influence your sense of self. When you grew up feeling like you’re less important or less worthy, you might struggle with low self-esteem as an adult. Even if you recognize that your childhood trauma was not your fault, the shame lingers on. You can’t shake the feeling that you’re bad, broken, or unwanted. Your shame may prevent you from pursuing opportunities that would make your life better because you don’t believe that health and happiness are accessible to you.
Many people with shame from childhood struggle with feelings of chronic emptiness or isolation. Because you believe that something’s wrong with you, you might not fully engage with your life. You may avoid connecting with others because you don’t want them to see your shame or discover your trauma. As a result, you feel like you’re just going through the motions of your life without finding true meaning and purpose.
Childhood Shame and Mental Health
Not only does shame affect your overall quality of life, but it can also cause or contribute to specific mental health conditions. Depression is a very common consequence of shame because your motivation to participate in your life becomes so low. Additionally, depression can worsen your feelings of shame, trapping you in a vicious cycle.
Childhood shame is also linked to personality disorders. For example, borderline personality disorder can result from childhood abuse and trauma. When you don’t receive consistent support and safety from your caregivers as a child, you may start to believe that no one will ever love you. Your relationships in adulthood can be chaotic and unstable because you struggle to trust others.
In some cases, shame from childhood leads to narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic behavior is often a coping mechanism for intense shame or low self-esteem. You may compensate for your internal sense of shame by displaying an inflated ego or by fantasizing about success, power, and perfection.
Childhood Shame and Toxic Relationships
Another devastating consequence of shame is a pattern of toxic relationships. When you’re ruled by your childhood shame, you may not believe that you’re worthy of healthy, stable connections. Instead, you seek out the chaotic and toxic relationships that remind you of your traumatic childhood experiences. Although you know that these relationships are harmful, you can’t help but feel drawn to people or situations that allow you to replay your trauma.
Overcoming Your Childhood Shame
Shame is a complicated and painful emotion that can leave lasting wounds. However, it is possible to unlearn your childhood shame with the help of a counselor. Processing your childhood trauma is absolutely essential for living a happy and healthy life, and therapy provides you with the skills and resources you need.
Many people don’t even realize the extent to which their shame affects their lives. When your shame has become a core part of your identity, you may not know what your life looks like without it. Your counselor can help you explore the root cause of your shame and identify how it has influenced your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. As you unpack your shame, you can start to let it go.
The Beverly Hills Therapy Group provides counseling for individuals with childhood trauma and shame. If you’re ready to work through your shame, you can reach out to us today to schedule a meeting with a therapist in Los Angeles.