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Disability and Traumatic Shame: A Way Out

Man in wheelchair at gate

Many who live with disabilities are burdened by a chronic sense of shame that can be as difficult to live with as the actual disability. Shame is not the same as guilt. Shame is persistent and represents how we feel about ourselves (“I am a shame and disgrace”) rather than how we feel about something we did or did not do (“I feel guilty and embarrassed”).

The term “ashamed” is often used interchangeably with “humiliated.” Shame may be the result of humiliation, but not humility. Humiliation entails stripping a person of his or her sense or worth—of wounding the person’s very being. Humility is more a sense of meekness or equality with others. Dr. Brené Brown has been researching shame and vulnerability for a few years, asking people how they experience shame. Many say it makes them feel small and vulnerable; it includes an almost physical sensation of being kicked in the gut; it takes them to place that feels wounded; and they want to disappear.

How does this happen? How do we begin to feel wounded? Small? Vulnerable? Shamed? Humiliated? It is usually a response to something that happens to us—that is done to us. We are somehow victimized, humiliated, or traumatized by the actions of a person or people who inflict injury upon our sense of self—our very being.

This wounding may be intentional or inadvertent: The shame of a child whose first-grade teacher refused to allow her to go to the bathroom, resulting in an accident in her clothes in front of the whole class. The man who can’t read well enough to complete a job application being verbally harangued by an uncaring receptionist in front of an office full of people. A person in a wheelchair who is “holding up the line” for an elevator when a busy executive is in a hurry. The family with an older autistic child boarding an airplane in advance while others accuse them of making excuses to avoid waiting.

Regardless of the source, this pervasive sense of shame can result in a lifetime of fear, avoidance, and anxiety when faced with issues that trigger similar feelings. The triggers may be subtle and seemingly unconnected, but that feeling of being diminished remains.

For the first-grader who was humiliated by the refusal of her teacher to allow her to go to the bathroom, triggers may transfer to a dislike for authority figures, issues with toileting, or avoidance of school.

The man with difficulty reading who was humiliated by the lack of awareness or disregard of the receptionist may avoid looking for work, find that he is defensive with people working in offices, or resist going to the doctor if it requires filling out forms.

A person in a wheelchair who was humiliated due to holding up the elevator and inconveniencing the busy executive may avoid leaving home, resist taking the safety precautions necessary in a busy location, or feel “less than” people in white-collar jobs.

The family of the child with autism may avoid traveling by plane, become defensive when in need of special treatment, or limit interactions with people waiting in line.

I recommend that those who have feelings of shame learn more about the causes and triggers by getting professional help to address these feelings. Two types of therapy—EFT (emotional freedom technique, aka tapping) and EMDR (eye-movement desensitization reprocessing)—may reduce or eliminate shame reactions.

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© Copyright 2013 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, therapist in Denver, Colorado. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Leona March 18th, 2013 at 9:47 AM #1

    A good clarification for the meanings of these words that are often interchanged incorrectly.

  • Ned March 18th, 2013 at 9:49 AM #2

    this article is a good reminder of how we need to treat other people with respect sometimes people can be so rude to each other. like the other day i was trying to reach some fruit in the grocery store (i am in a wheelchair) and this man reached right over me to get his own fruit but didn’t even offer to help me. i mean come on really? a little kindness and consideration goes a long way i would like to see everyone try it okay.

  • Macy March 18th, 2013 at 9:52 AM #3

    I understand this article fully and support everything in it. But, are nondisabled people not entitled to having a bad day every once in awhile? Is it possible that some people who are disabled or their care givers are overly sensitive to people being rude to them? No, I am not asking for rude people to be given a free pass.

    But, I am saying that maybe somebody who is normally nice was having a really bad day and let a rude act slip. Maybe that person’s wife just left him, maybe his son was in a car wreck the day before, or maybe a close friend just died. People without disabilities deal with tramas as well and often need a measure of grace themselves.

  • Arial K March 18th, 2013 at 9:54 AM #4

    My daddy was in a wheelchair when he was younger and it always so tough on him he definitely felt ashamed when kids made fun of him.

    people need to teach their kids to be nice to other kids even the ones who are different and don’t look or act like them. god loves everybody and we should too.

    kids please make sure you are kind to others it looks bad on you and your family when you make fun of other kids remember that.

  • Pauly March 18th, 2013 at 9:56 AM #5

    People, remember your actions speak louder than words! It doesn’t matter how many church services you go to or how many checks you write to charities, it matters how you treat everyone day to day.

  • Danny A March 18th, 2013 at 3:53 PM #6

    I would just like to comment that I think the reason that many of us who are disabled feel this way is because we are made to feel this way. it is like if people can’t overtly see what your disability is then they think that you are trying to scam your way out of working for a living. If they knew the stuff I have to deal with on the inside, the things you can’t see, then they would know that I am not faking it.

  • dell March 19th, 2013 at 3:46 AM #7

    I would hate to think that I let something that happened to me as a first grader influence me still today, yet I know that for many this is their own reality.

  • Bennet March 19th, 2013 at 11:17 AM #8

    @ dell, what you may not realize is that sometimes these wounds that are incurred when you are the youngest and most impressionable are the ones that often hurt the most.
    They make an impression on you for life, leading you to see that how others see you is what you really are instead of who you really may be.
    Think back to some of the schoolyard taunts that you may have heard as your younger self. Didn’t those hurt? Didn’t those at least shape how you saw yourself for that day?
    You sound like you were lucky enough to be able to shrug that off but for many of us it is not that easy. If we were not given the resources for how to stay strong, we let those things wear us down and eventually this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

  • Layla March 20th, 2013 at 1:00 PM #9

    shame does bite each of us at some point of time, no doubt. but the effect it has over you is only as much as you allow it to.

    not trying to blame people in general but the more you let it hurt and affect you the more it will! that’s just the way it is!we cannot expect everybody to be nice, that’s just not possible. but what we can do is teach ourselves to be less affected by such events and/or comments and to move on and move ahead.

  • LuAnn Pierce, LCSW March 23rd, 2013 at 9:51 AM #10

    Just a couple of comments – everyone is subjected to traumatic shame, and non-disabled people have their own to deal with.

    In the article, I am referring to something that happens to a person that is internalized as traumatic. Most of these are buried in our psyches, and we are often unaware of the depth of the trauma until it is triggered.

    The vast majority of insults and hurts we do ‘shake off’ – only those that strike when (or where) we are most vulnerable create trauma. Some people are more resilient than others – there is much research about what makes people resilient.

    These are simply examples of things that have happened to people that I have known that caused lasting trauma. If one is fortunate enough to make it to adulthood without trauma, that is wonderful.

    Are people to be excused for having a bad day, or being hurtful? Forgiven, yes – we are all human. Is it acceptable to treat people badly…I don’t think so, but being human I know that we do at times. It is how we handle it when it happens that matters, in my opinion. Making amends is important, and learning to cope with our stress in ways that doesn’t harm others is ideal.

  • Laurie April 13th, 2013 at 11:44 PM #11

    So sorry Ned. People are in their own little worlds…..oblivious, I think. I am very short and have been amazed at the number of times a tall person reaches above me while I am trying to reach the same item they are…and waltzes off with it before I even have a chance to ask for their help! Crazy!

  • Rick July 7th, 2013 at 9:58 PM #12

    Is it shame or just another bad judgment? I have experienced more shame since being placed on disability. I have always been introverted and growing up small I learned to brush off not being big enough. Maybe we accept our condition too well. I think it is society at least here in the US. We are all suppose to be somebody important and at the same time we know everyone doesn’t get the good life. So shame comes into mind to remind you who you are. In my case I bone up and exercise as much as possible. It clears my mind. After spending most of my life alone I learned to value my work ethic. For this reason shame is a night time thing, a good reason to ride my bike a little farther. Shame is the evil that kept me alone or is it a scape goat word for a complex existence? I always thought I had to remain alone. Being good enough is something other people experience. Since my accident it just reinforced those inner feelings. I avoid gatherings these days and I am much happier. Some of them will always think I am the free loading scum of the planet, so why go there. Sometimes I feel like I have been beaten with a steel pipe but I can take it. Perhaps my thoughts can help somebody. Somebody who wants to give up. My advice, stay busy and try to find a purpose in life even if you don’t like yourself sometimes. Tomorrow is another day. Maybe we just judge ourselves to harshly from our up bringing. Regardless there is always something we can do within our limitations. I have a list and a garage full of projects even if I am slow as a snail. Put the scumbag inside you to work and forget about everything else. Maybe that worthless piece of crap isn’t so bad after all.

  • Rick July 16th, 2013 at 4:48 AM #13

    I just wanted to add a vision of reflection. I am writing now during the morning which for me offers a different mindset. I am not a expert but in my personal case I tend to reflect more negatively during the evening. In reality I am lucky and fortunate I had good doctors. It does make a difference to have a positive attitude and to be free of substance abuse. Even in a worst case scenario a kind heart will always shine through. It is easy to blame ourselves for everything. The hard part is being productive in a positive sense. There is always somebody worse off. I still think there are too many assholes in this country. It is like a plague.

  • Mick Staley July 30th, 2013 at 5:54 AM #14

    Apathy is something I don’t like for my kids. That’s why I teach them every day about helping others.

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