A Place for Shame in Betrayal Trauma Theory?

by Melissa Platt, MS, University of Oregon
Copyright © 2012, Melissa Platt

According to Jennifer Freyd’s betrayal trauma theory victims of traumatic events involving betrayal by a close other are more likely to forget the abuse compared to victims of events perpetrated by strangers. They are also more likely to dissociate from awareness of the abuse. That is, they may disconnect from their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors related to the abusive events. Not knowing about the abuse can help the victim to maintain a relationship with the perpetrator. Whereas victims of trauma perpetrated by a stranger may be motivated to either fight back or run away, these responses are less helpful in the case of betrayal trauma, in which the perpetrator is providing food, shelter, and/or emotional connection to the victim.

It is also possible that feeling ashamed of oneself plays a protective function in close relationships characterized by abuse. For example, if a parent emotionally, physically, or sexually assaults a child, the child may feel ashamed of herself instead of feeling angry at or afraid of the abuser. Researchers such as Dacher Keltner have found that whereas anger often results in fighting and fear often results in fleeing, shame tends to result in submitting and appeasing. Thus, the expression of shame has the potential to elicit a caregiving response from the perpetrator which could ultimately keep the victim as safe as possible within an unsafe situation. In a study of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, Jessica Tracy and David Matsumoto found that the slumped posture and downward gaze associated with shame occur cross-culturally. A variety of factors influence the tendency to respond to a stressor with the bodily expression and/or internal experience of shame. For example, Jennifer Freyd and I have found that for some survivors, the presence of an all-or-nothing thinking style (e.g., “If I am not perfect, I am worthless”) may contribute to the tendency to readily experience shame.

Although we propose that proneness to shame is useful for survival during ongoing abuse, it has harmful consequences in its chronic form. Bernice Andrews has linked long-term chronic shame to depression, Jennie Leskala and colleagues have linked shame to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Michelle Covert and colleagues have linked shame with difficulties in interpersonal problem solving, and Martin Dorahy has linked shame with interpersonal disconnection, to name a few. Research by Sally Dickerson and colleagues has also found chronic shame to be associated with physical health risks including increased risk of earlier mortality. According to research by Ananda Amstadter and Laura Vernon, chronic shame may be particularly relevant for survivors of interpersonal trauma in that shame increases over time following interpersonal trauma, but decreases over time following non-interpersonal trauma. Accumulating shame following interpersonal trauma may be related to both the betrayal element of interpersonal trauma, and what Judith Herman has referred to as “feeling traps” that occur when the survivor feels ashamed of feeling ashamed.

Ashwin Budden highlights that emotions other than fear have been thought to play only peripheral roles in PTSD onset and maintenance since it appeared in the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Budden proposes that rather than fear, traumatic shame involving acute subjugation and domination orchestrates many aspects of posttraumatic symptom development. Research by investigators including Donald Robinaugh and Richard McNally supports a central role of shame in PTSD. In fact, whereas the current version of the DSM (DSM-IV-TR) defines a traumatic event as one involving actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others, recent work by Marcela Matos and José Pinto-Gouveia has indicated that experiences of being shamed or ridiculed can lead to the same symptoms of PTSD. Recent developments in the understanding of shame have informed the forthcoming revision of the DSM (DSM-5), which is due for publication in 2013. In the proposed revision, altered beliefs about the self and increased feelings of shame are offered as examples of symptoms that could support the criterion of negative alterations in cognitions and mood. Prior to the proposed fifth edition, shame was never mentioned in the DSM PTSD criteria.

It is possible that shame and dissociation are two separate methods of protecting a relationship with a perpetrator who is depended-upon, or it is possible that shame and dissociation work together to facilitate survival. The most broadly accepted theory attempting to explain the relationship between shame and dissociation posits that dissociation is a method of defending against the overwhelming pain of shame. This theory has been adopted by shame scholars Donald Nathansan and Michael Lewis. Jennifer Freyd and I are currently investigating this theory and testing an alternative theory that dissociation does not interrupt shame in betrayal trauma survivors, but instead either increases shame or does not affect it at all. If shame indeed is a method of protecting the relationship with the perpetrator, it would not be adaptive for dissociation to interrupt shame. We are also in the process of experimentally testing whether dissociation and shame are more strongly related to interpersonal threat compared to non-interpersonal threat. Finally, we are assessing the roles of betrayal trauma and chronic shame in PTSD, dissociation, relational health, psychotic symptoms, and physical health. 

For Further Information

American Psychiatric Association. (1980). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychiatric Association. (2012). DSM-5 Development. Retrieved from http://www.dsm5.org
Amstadter, A.B. & Vernon, L.L. (2008). Emotional reactions during and after trauma: A comparison of trauma types. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 16, 391-408.
Andrews, B. (1995). Bodily shame as a mediator between abusive experiences and depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 104, 277-285.
Budden, A. (2009). The role of shame in posttraumatic stress disorder: A proposal for a socio-emotional model for DSM-V. Social Science and Medicine, 69, 1032-1039.
Covert, M.V., Tangney, J.P., Maddux, J.E., & Heleno, N.M. (2003). Shame-proneness, guilt-proneness, and interpersonal problem solving: A social cognitive analysis. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 22(1), 1-12.
Dickerson, S. S., Gruenewald, T. L., & Kemeny, M. E. (2009). Psychobiological responses to social self threat: Functional or detrimental? Self and Identity, 8, 270-285.
Dorahy, M. (2010). The impact of dissociation, shame, and guilt on interpersonal relationships in chronically traumatized individuals: A pilot study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23, 653-656.
Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freyd, J.J. & Birrell, P.J. (2013) Blind to Betrayal.  Wiley.

Herman, J. (2007). Shattered shame states and their repair. From the John Bowlby Memorial Lecture. Saturday March 10, 2007. Department of Psychiatry, Harvard University Medical School.
Keltner, D. (1995). Signs of appeasement: evidence for the distinct displays of appeasement, amusement, and shame. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 441-454.
Keltner, D., Young, R.C., & Buswell, B.N (1997). Appeasement in human emotion, social practice, and personality. Aggressive Behavior 23, 359-374.
Leskala, J., Dieperink, M., & Thuras, P. (2002). Shame and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 15, 223-226.
Lewis, M. (1995). Shame: the exposed self. New York: The Free Press.
Matos, M. & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2010). Shame as a traumatic memory. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 17, 299-312.

Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Platt, M. & Freyd, J.J. (2012) Trauma and Negative Underlying Assumptions in Feelings of Shame: An Exploratory Study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 4, 370-378.

Robinaugh, D.J., & McNally, R.J. (2010). Autobiographical memory for shame or guilt provoking events: Association with psychological symptoms. Behavior Research and Therapy, 48, 646-652.

Tracy, J.L & Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 105, 11655-11660.