Healing the Shame Complex in Attachment Disorder and Adverse Childhood Experiences

By | 2017-08-14T17:57:18+00:00 August 10th, 2017|

Shame is one of the effects of growing up amongst relationships where there was abuse, neglect, emotional misattunement, or just general chaos. 

Shame is one of the fundamental shared qualities of children or adult children who grew up with adverse childhood experiences, those who have an insecure attachment, and those who have Attachment Disorder. 

Shame is defined as the overall feeling and belief that one is different, inadequate, unworthy, and unlovable. Rather than responding to a situation by stating, “I made a mistake,” the overwhelming feeling and response is, “I am a mistake.” 

The development of one’s sense of worth is intimately connected to the process of developing a secure bond or attachment to one’s primary caregiver during the first year of life. 

As a child continues their social, emotional, and psychological development, each stage of development requires the presence and emotional attunement of an adult. 

Without the presence and attunement of the primary caregiver, not only does it result in an insecure attachment, but also results in a shame complex with the underlying premise, “There is something wrong with me; I am not worthy of attention, love, and care.” 

Shame From Adverse Childhood Experiences and Misattunement

The development of the shame complex is a result of any child-parent dynamic where there is neglect, abuse or just emotional misattunement due. 

In the case of neglect, the unspoken message that is internalized by the child is, “There must be something wrong with me, because I am not worthy to be noticed, loved, and cared for. If only I were a better child or didn’t have any needs, I wouldn’t be such a burden to them, then they would love me and want to be around me.”

In the case of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological), the unspoken message that is internalized by the child is, “There must be something so wrong with me that I deserve to be hurt. If I were only a better person, they would love me and they wouldn’t do this to me.”

Parent-child emotional misattunement explains why so many children and adults identify with a shame complex even though some of those adults and children didn’t experience neglect or abuse in their childhood. Despite the many advantages of our Western society, parents who are busy, stressed, or frequently engage with media and technology can fail to engage adequately on an emotional level with their children. 

Thus, despite being good parents, children can internalize a shame complex due to inadequate emotional engagement of a parent with their child.

Shame as Part of Insecure Attachment

Shame is at the core of all insecure attachments and Attachment Disorder. Each insecure attachment style has their unique qualities, but shame is the one quality that is present and underneath them all.   

Shame shows up in insecure attachments and Attachment Disorder as the feeling and belief that “I am defective and inherently not lovable.” It’s important to remember that not only is this a belief pattern, but also has become wired into the nervous system so that it’s also a gut feeling and a whole body response to situations that trigger this feeling of being unlovable.

Being abandoned is the worst feeling for someone with a shame complex, because it validates their belief that they are unlovable.

For social creatures like humans, the feeling of being unlovable, alone, and abandoned is threatening to our survival. Which therefore, results in one of the most painful feelings and triggers of a natural survival response to either fight, flight, or freeze.

Thus, when one has a shame complex, they will avoid abandonment at all costs. Depending on the type of insecure attachment which has been wired into their nervous system, they will respond to the perception of potential abandonment with different survival mechanisms. 

With those who have an Anxious Insecure Attachment, the shame complex shows itself as the need to cling to others because, “By myself, I am nothing.” Their brain and nervous system are wired to act out on the belief that “If I can make you think that I can’t take care of myself, you will stay and take care of me and you won’t leave me.” 

In the Avoidant Insecure Attachment style, the shame complex presents as, “I know others will abandon me when they truly see who I am, so I will stay emotionally distant from others. I will not love them so I do not get hurt when they abandon me.”

In the Disorganized Insecure Attachment style, their survival response to potential emotional or physical abandonment is a disorganized mixture of both anxious and avoidant. 

Healing the Shame Complex

Healing the shame complex is at the core of healing from Attachment Disorder or childhood adverse experiences and trauma. 

How does a parent heal the shame complex in their child? How does one heal the shame complex at any age???

Ineffective Strategies to Healing Shame

The natural but naïve approach to healing the shame complex is to try to fix their belief system by telling them the opposite. The idea is that if they are told that they are loved, they will believe it. 

The whole concept of “building up their self-esteem” is the approach of telling them they are loved and worthy of love. However, this approach is ineffective and doesn’t follow the scientific principles of how the shame complex is wired into the brain and nervous system.

The belief system of unworthiness is wired into their brain at the limbic level, or the subconscious level. This is the level that our cognition does not control, but rather dictates our thoughts, decisions, and actions.  

Telling someone who has the shame complex wired into their limbic brain is like throwing a ball at a wall – it just bounces off. It doesn’t even get to the level where it’s needed to heal the belief system.  

In fact, the automatic thought process to being told “I love you” in someone with a shame complex is “You just don’t really know me then.”  

This is true with any general complement as well such as “You are a great person” or “you are wonderful.” These statements don’t even reach the limbic level, but are blocked at the conscious or cognitive level with the rebuttal of “you must not really know me.”

In the early period of healing, rather than boosting the self-esteem, these general complements and statements of even, “I love you,” will result in the rise of that person’s defenses, which will blocking more of their trust and secure attachment.

Their one truth with which they can trust wholeheartedly is that they are unlovable and will be emotionally or physically abandoned. “I love you” is a threat to them, because the truth they stand on is that you could never love them. To them, “I love you” also means that you’re getting too close to them emotionally, so they have to push you away before you push them away.

This results in acting out unconsciously in order to push you away. In children, this can either look like withdrawing or acting out in ways that will prove to you that you couldn’t possibly love them. They show you their worst behaviors to keep you away and show that they really aren’t “great” or lovable.

Thus, in the initial phase of healing, it is counterproductive, ineffective, and blocks the healing process to use those general kinds of statements. General statements don’t reach through to the feeling level of the brain or the nervous system where shame is programmed as the lens through which they experience life.

Effective Strategies to Heal Shame

If verbally telling a child with adverse childhood experiences and misattunement that you love and that you think they are a great kid is ineffective and makes them put up their defenses, how do we get to the level of shame that can be healed?

The general approach that is effective is to go through the backdoor, and create the feeling of belonging, competence, and worthiness without them knowing it. In this way, their defenses never come up because they don’t perceive it as a threat!

This is a very powerful approach, and one that every attachment therapeutic parent should become well experienced in so that it’s automatic.  

Thankfully, it’s also a simple approach; one that every parent can learn quickly with some practice.  

The effect approaches to building self-esteem in those with shame complexes involve the following:

  1. Give very specific complements
  2. Attach increased freedom and responsibility with their good choices

Give Very Specific Complements

Get very specific about your compliments to avoid any possibility of them creating a rebuttal in their mind about the accuracy of your observation. Here are some examples:

  1. You just tied your shoes in less than 2 minutes!  
  2. You stayed by my side while I was paying for the groceries!
  3. You just washed your hands after using the restroom
  4. Wow! You didn’t yell or hit me and just walked to your room when I said it was bedtime!

Generally, these complements should be said while pausing, looking into their eyes with love and excitement, and providing some physical touch and connection. This provides them positive reinforcement on multiple levels. By doing it this way, their brain won’t go to the rebuttal of “You just don’t know me well enough,” because you are just observing what they have just done.  

Sometimes, a child is so severe in their Attachment Disorder and in their early healing they can be triggered by even direct eye gaze, at these times and for a child in this situation, it’s best to say these specific complements while not looking at them so that they can take it in without being triggered by your gaze.

Attach Increased Freedom and Responsibility With Their Good Choices

Actions will induce feelings and changes in the emotional (limbic) part of the brain and nervous system way more than our words will ever be able to.  

In general, it’s not recommended to reward a child with Attachment Disorder for good behavior, because that is what they should be doing anyway.  

What is really good at building their self-esteem and healing their shame complex is showing them by actions that they have earned trust through their choices and behaviors.

Some examples of this would be:

  • “Buddy, I noticed that you were able to go into the kitchen earlier and not get distracted by things you might want to touch or take. I think I can trust you to go get my pillow from off my bed and bring it to me and not touch anything else. What do you think?”
  • “Because you shared your doll and spoke nicely with me when we played this morning. I think you might be strong enough to share and talk in a calm voice with your sister right now. Would you like to give it a try for 5 minutes?”
  • “When you finish your homework without arguing like you did today, it builds my trust in you and I would love to play a game with you right now before we get ready for bed!”

However, these are statements and complements that should NOT be used in trying to heal a shame complex and MUST be avoided at all cost:  

  • “You always do your homework so quickly!” (In their mind, they will think, “No, I don’t always do my homework quickly,” and it won’t build their self-esteem at all)
  • “You are such a good boy or girl” (In their mind, they just lost trust and security in you because clearly you don’t truly know them or understand them if you think that)

Remember, the principles in all the examples above are (1) be very specific about what they did that was right, great, wonderful, or makes you proud of them, and (2) connect their good choice with a natural consequence. Be very specific about what their good choice was so that they can’t argue with you in their head.  

Have you ever experienced general complements or statements as ineffective in healing the shame complex in a child or adult?  

Have you noticed your own thought pattern in response to people’s compliments or an anxiety around the idea of someone truly knowing you?  

I look forward to hearing your experiences as we learn and grow together!

Dr. Aimie

Related: Stuck Survival Responses in Attachment Trauma


Dorahy M.J., Middleton W., Seager L., McGurrin P., Williams M., Chambers R.,  “Dissociation, Shame, Complex PTSD, Child Maltreatment and Intimate Relationship Self-Concept in Dissociative Disorder, Chronic PTSD and Mixed Psychiatric Groups.”  J Affective Dis. Feb 2015; 172 (1): 195-203.

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