PTSD Spirituality: PTSD and the Dynamics of Shame & Grace

PTSD creates shame in those who are afflicted with this terrible soul wound.  Even when we have nothing to be ashamed about, PTSD seeks to make us feel and act ashamed. These unnecessary feelings of shame are part of PTSD’s ploy to further cripple us and kill us. (Let me thank Rev. Beth at the Bady Partnership for her timely reflection on PTSD-Shame.  Seems we have both been thinking about this topic.) 

Even When Blameless, Shame Sneaks In

Each of the four possible causes of PTSD-inducing trauma can produce shame.  It seems that regardless of how we contracted PTSD, we feel shame.  Even when there is no logical reason to feel shame, we still feel shame.  Paradoxically, even these subsequent feelings of shame can induce further shame in us and a vicious cycle can be initiated.

Sometimes we may actually do shameful things.  Perpetrator PTSD, depending upon the reason for the violence, can legitimately confer shame upon the perpetrator.  And, other times, not.  Your mileage may vary.

Our Vulnerability Can Shame Us

We will often feel shame when we experience helplessness, hopelessness, or absolute vulnerability.

Being at the mercy of someone who is unlikely to show mercy is frightening.

Living at the whim of someone without mercy will only increase our sense of vulnerability.

Remembering Can Be Healing or the Cause of Further Devastation

At times we will remember our past trauma or, more recently, our current PTSD symptoms.  If those thoughts are intrusive, where we cannot shut them down, they are likely to harm us and make us more symptomatic.  If we are able to bring forth a memory and write about it, or talk about it to someone we trust, or even offer the memory as a prayer to God, we have a better chance of reducing our PTSD symptoms.

If the trauma and PTSD symptom memories are intrusive and controlling, we will likely experience shame.  If the memories are something we bring forward and examine ourselves, we will likely experience a degree of healing.

Thinking back on the event can generate new fear and fresh shame.  Those two prongs, fear and shame, can then generate even more fear and shame and cripple us.

PTSD cripples us by making us isolate ourselves. 

That isolation will damage relationships.  Ultimately, if we get isolated enough, destroy and flee meaningful relationships, we will end up dead.  When that happens, PTSD laughs.

One of the reasons we seek isolation is to decrease the opportunity of other people to dehumanize us, mock our vulnerabilities, and increase our misplaced sense of shame. 

There remain plenty of “Toxic People” who will dance on our vulnerabilities and judge us.  PTSD survivors don’t need that extra grief and will remove themselves from all relationships if only to avoid one or two toxic people.  By excluding the relationships they feel as if they have minimized the possibility of further shaming – they feel less vulnerable.

Yet, even people who are innocent and know they are not at fault will still often be overwhelmed with shame.

Vulnerability Can Dehumanize Us

We are made to feel vulnerable and afraid from any number of circumstances.  Not all of them must be physically violent, they just need to be dehumanizing and denigrating of our self-worth and dignity.

Shame at not being worthy of the shame: We feel it should not hurt us as much as it does, yet it corrodes our sense of well-being and self-worth.

Unemployment shame: Many of us get – and give – a sense of honor and human-worth to the various types of employment.  People’s individual worth is often measured by their jobs.  In a recession, unemployment wipes out 10,000 people at a time, and their sense of vulnerability and fear will go through the roof (PTSD From Our Jobs?).

Injury and Illness shame: Whether it’s a car wreck, a bicycle accident, a virus, or cancer, we often feel our vulnerability when we feel our bodies have let us down.  We feel even more fear when we realize that an illness can cause a bankruptcy.

There is also

Shame at being sexually abused.

Shame at being sexually assaulted.

Shame that we have been dishonored.

I remember some of the times while I was in the Army that I felt shame.

– Shame at being medevacced

– Shame at being physically ill

– Shame at being ridiculed for hospitalization

– Shame at having to ask for morphine when my left knee was reconstructed.  The duty nurse liked to tease whether or not I would receive any.

– Shame at being …I’ll stop there.

Suffice there are many things that I feel some degree of shame about.  My PTSD attempts to amplify it and force me into bad coping behaviors.  If my PTSD forces me to feel shame, I will have less peace.

One of the paradoxes here is that intellectually I know I should not feel shame for most or all of this.  Yet, my gut tells me to be shamed, parts of American culture tells me to be ashamed, the PTSD tells me to be ashamed.  If I listen to the PTSD then I will isolate myself, stop writing, stop praying, and start walking down a very dark path.

Becoming Burdens for Others

Parts of our shame come from the realization that we need grace, which is to say that we need to be helped by others.  We seek individualistic self-reliance and then feel shamed when we cannot be as self-reliant as our ideals would have us be. We may think that it is personally shameful when we are not self-reliant, then we are a burden…untrue, but many feel this.

Many Christians are only too happy to help others.  We usually feel good when we do so. 

Yet! Many Christians will feel ashamed to allow others to help them. 

We often forget that mercy goes both ways.  Not only is it religiously right to offer mercy, it is also proper to accept mercy.  To refuse mercy is a symptom of spiritual pride.

We may feel shame because our vulnerable humanity causes a burden to others.  And, if we do feel that sort of a shame, then we must learn that a shame-based conclusion on our part is a mistake.

In Christian terms:

Jesus came to heal the sick, not the healthy.  The shame-aspect of the PTSD soul wound is one of the aspects which needs God’s grace to fully heal.

Burdening Our Buddies

If someone in the military is injured or wounded, they often feel shame.  Part of their shame stems from putting an additional burden on their buddies.  First, we feel as if our buddies are burdened with carrying us out of harm’s way.  And, Second, we feel we burden our buddies by causing others an obligation to take on our own mission-responsibilities.

The military culture breeds a sense of self-sacrifice that is great if you need to give more effort because a buddy is out of the picture.   But, that same military culture makes you feel shameful (and sometimes even cowardly) if you are the one everyone else is compensating for as they make even  greater efforts to compensate for your absence.

The paradox is that we willingly rise to the need of self-sacrificing ourselves for others.  Yet, we are rendered shamed in our own minds if we have to accept someone else’s self-sacrifice on our behalf.

Vulnerability Allows for Grace

Vulnerability can make us feel afraid and shameful.  It is also the conduit to a life renewed through grace.  All are affected by sin and are damaged by their own sins and/or sins perpetrated upon them.

These effects of sin make grace necessary.  To honestly realize we need grace is to admit we are not solely self-reliant.  The fear that there are things we cannot overcome, is filled-in by God’s love, that is to say, God’s grace. 

As Jesus says in the Gospel, “Fear Not, Only Believe.”  In our vulnerability, shame and fear run rampant.  In our knowledge and experience of grace, love and belief heal the void.

Love and grace will not grow back the missing bones, or undo the sexual assault, or undo the military medevac: those traumatic events have happened.  We cannot turn back time.  Each of these traumas can create a sense of unease, incompleteness, vulnerability and shame.  But the grace of God allows us to decrease our vulnerability to shame.

At the risk of getting all “Catholic” and “Theological”:

We can only become complete and invulnerable through divine grace.  Only grace can completely erase our mundane shames.

What Are We Really Getting At Here?

Our shame prevents us from being at peace.  Only with grace can we be vulnerable and feel at peace.  When we rely only ourselves we have no grace, so we get no peace.

The PTSD soul wound wants us to drown in shame so we cannot swim in peace.

If PTSD can heighten our feelings of vulnerability and shame, then we will be alienated and not at peace.

Moving Forward A Day, A Moment, At A Time

We are still wounded in whatever it was that gave us PTSD. Fear and shame will from time to time raise their heads and attempt to pull us down to be fed upon. 

If we can realize that grace fills the void, we will lessen the fear’s influence upon us.  The less we fear, the more we can embrace our own self-worth as God made us in Genesis, chapter 1: “In the Image and Likeness of God.”

Like a returning fever in a malaria survivor, there will be times that we feel shame more often than usual.  We know intellectually that we need not be ashamed.  We need to know that times like this are meant for prayer, art, writing, and talking with someone we trust.

Through healthy nourishment of the Four Right Relationships (God, the Creation, Other People, and Our Own Selves) we will experience less shame and more peace. 

It is important to be willing to explore ourselves by art/writing/music/prayer, we fill in the potholes of fear and shame that our PTSD-induced vulnerabilities have caused.  As we fill in those potholes, we discover that we have journeyed a bit further to healing and sanctification.  And, that means less shame, more peace.

[Btw: This essay almost did not get written, let alone posted on the website.  Two thirds of it was written about 10-11 days ago.  At that time thinking about some of my personal past, PTSD symptoms, crashed relationships, enabled my own PTSD shame to beat me up quite a bit.  I came back to the essay today and tried to make it read better and knit in the theological hope that is there for all of us.  I had to follow some of my own PTSD healing suggestions in the interim.  I do believe what I wrote about grace – I need it as much as anyone.

There are times that writing essays for this website is analogous to being a herpetologist extracting snake venom in order to make a vaccine or antidote.  The herpetologist still has to be careful he does not get bit by the snake!  Sometimes, writing these essays feels like getting snake bit.  The anti-venom is grace.  The result of grace is less shame and more peace.]

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

Comments

  1. I agree with this post so much, particularly the last two of your sentences. This is similar to how I feel when i write a blog post or attend to the page. UGH!

    I both of you above have nailed it when it comes to societal shame.

    I lived a facade for 46 years. It was ILLNESS and the break up of a very, very sick relationship that brought me to my knees. I could no longer deny that I was living a literaly lie in hiding my PTSD. I also believe I was labeled as bipolar and borderline personality disorder because of my emotional reactions to my abuser, and shortly after the relationship ended. I do not have the reactions I did anymore while in the relationship, BUT, I have new issues to deal with now.

    I can only tell you that the MOST important thing to me right now is my authenticity and dignity. If this means I remain at home and have relationships with others that are fulfilling, yet SAFE, authentic and full of mutual dignity and respect, I’m OK with that. To the poster above that feels they are living a facade.

    I so understand what you’re going through. I would like to share with you that mind/body are connected and the energy and stress required to keep up the facade can physically kill you. The constant hyper vigilance in fear of discovery as well as flight/fright in dealing with my as yet undiscovered triggers, made me very ill in the end. That kind of stress can and will take a toll on you physically. I hope you will be able to find a way to become authentic in being who you are, with what you have, without shame someday. God Bless.

    • Hello, The more we can understand our PTSD, triggers, and symptoms, the more likely we are to become aware of our own inherent self-worth and dignity. Given that PTSD tries to destroy all of our healthy relationships and then isolate us, we can stand a better opportunity to heal when we do not abandon our dignity to PTSD. It is real work to live through the victimization inflicted by PTSD and also strive to maintain the façade of normalcy. This can help us keep our jobs, or parts of them, but that façade can also damage us if it causes us undue concern or if the PTSD convinces us that we are hypocrites with no essential value or dignity.
      Living with the aftermath of trauma is a lifelong journey. We learn more about ourselves, our PTSD, and healing as we go. Lifelong self-care is essential to prevent the isolation and destruction that PTSD inflicts. Eventually, we discover we can help others because of what we have learned – and are still learning – on the journey. This realization does not make the pain go away, but it can make the pain easier to bear. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. John F. says:

    Would like to add something else here as food for thought.

    There are many of us who have PTSD but are able, often by sheer will alone, to hold down some semblance of a “Normal” life. Yet it often takes a a fatiguing effort to maintain this facde. And those who do this live in much fear and shame.
    Fear because in many cases, being found out as having PTSD can be a career killer, both in the military and civilian world. It can also destroy one’s social life
    as well, especially if one is a professional. And shame at being forced to live what is, in many ways, an illusion. We have to conceal the truth about ourselves often for pure survival’s sake.

    Is it any wonder than, that people are so hesitant about admitting thier disability?

    • You are right on the money with this. When I’ve recovered from this current week I hope to address your insights more fully, probably with an essay. But, these dynamics, combined with how the culture views wounds to the soul, influence are ability to be productive, honest, and shamme-free…which also then influences are ability to heal. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  3. Thank you, Dr. Z, for your honest evaluation of shame and the gift of grace that can help us overcome it. Thank you for posting and being able to revisit after your initial writing.

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