Trauma, personality, and responsibility
20-something miseries, megan sorts through her own emotional nonsense, mental health

I Have a “Shame-Based Personality.” Here’s What That Means.

My husband is standing at the sink, drying dishes, while I sit in one of our hand-me-down recliners, scrolling through social media as we mindlessly discuss my incessant need to be liked.

“Hey, my parents made it clear that their opinions always mattered more than mine, and I was just a kid. You can’t blame me for believing them,” I say, half joking, half enraged, and half deeply sad.

“Yeah,” I hear him say, “but you aren’t a kid anymore. You’re in your 20s. Now it’s your fault.”

My heart shatters.

That’s one of my biggest fears, that my flaws exist not because of some mental illness or any actual, real struggle, but because that’s just who I am. I am just a fundamentally bad person. My flaws are my fault, and my self-awareness only makes me even worse because I know all about my flaws, meaning I have a responsibility to fix them.

I don’t think my husband was saying that I’m a bad person. I think he was trying to convey a common bit of wisdom: our trauma is not our fault, but our lives after trauma are our responsibility.

But what does that mean? What exactly are we responsible for? Our actions? Our feelings? Our personalities? And speaking of personality, how is our responsibility affected when our personalities were shaped and molded by trauma?

My trauma was growing up in an environment that consistently led me to feel ashamed about who I was as a person, even as a child. It wasn’t intentional, and despite being traumatized by my upbringing, I also know I was (and still am) very dearly loved. But that love didn’t stop the constant shame from leaving its mark on my life and my personhood. I developed a “shame-based personality.” This isn’t an official mental illness or personality disorder, but it is painful and affects pretty much every aspect of my life. Having a shame-based personality means that, at my core, I truly believe that I am a bad, unlovable person.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to fix the issues that result from having a shame-based personality, like short but intense periods of depression, constant indecision, an overactive fight/flight/freeze response, and more. But all of that work is kind of like pruning a dying plant without addressing its withering roots. It’s not until recently that I started to get at the reason behind all of my problems: growing up shrouded in shame, and the scars that has left on my personality.

And now that I’m in my 20s and no longer in the environment that reinforced these messages, those scars are my fault. Not just my responsibility, but my fault. It’s not just my emotions or actions that are problematic, but my entire self-conception and relationship with the world around me. Because I’m out of that environment and I know better now, it’s my fault that I still feel inferior and ashamed and broken. I am not responsible for the trauma that made me feel this way, but I am responsible for outgrowing these issues, and if I fail to do so, I’m letting my past hold me back.

Maybe now you can see how I came to the conclusion that I am simply a bad person. If I have a responsibility to fundamentally change myself in order to be better, then doesn’t that make who I am now bad? And if I fail to make those changes, doesn’t that make me even worse?

I’m not sure what my responsibility is. I understand that I’m responsible for my life, that I can’t just blame my trauma for all of my shortcomings or failures, but I also refuse to let shame rule my adulthood the way it ruled my childhood. My personality has been shaped by shame, and even though I don’t love how it has made me defensive and lonely and filled with rage, I also refuse to accept blame for those things. They are not my fault, even if I am aware of them. They are the byproduct of pain.

But even if they aren’t my fault, even if I’m not to blame, do I still have a responsibility to heal my scars, to become less defensive and lonely and angry? Maybe it’s not so much a responsibility to others, but rather a responsibility to myself. I have the right to have flaws just like anyone else, regardless of where they came from, but the thing is, I don’t want to be like this forever. I want my scars to heal and my real, good personality to emerge. The personality that would have formed if I hadn’t spent most of my life drowning in shame. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen though. I think wounds can heal, and scars can fade, but if they’re deep enough, they are there forever. And mine run deep.

My personality is what it is, to a certain degree, and the idea of finally healing and becoming the “real” me is another byproduct of the trauma of shame. I am ashamed of who I am. All I want is to become the “real” me, the “good” me, because the person I am now isn’t good enough.

It should be possible to want to improve myself without being ashamed of who I am, right? There’s a middle ground in there somewhere, I just know it. But as usual, I can’t seem to find my footing there. I’m just hopping back and forth between “I’m the worst pile of human garbage worthy of a thousand deaths” and “I’m completely fine the way I am and fuck you for suggesting otherwise.”

I know these thoughts are scattered and contradictory and inconclusive, but by simply allowing my feelings to take up space in the form of this article is a huge step for anyone whose personality has been shaped by shame. Shame is the great silencer, and when who you are has always been defined by that silence, any time you speak your mind, no matter how jumbled, it is a victory. This is my voice, my heart, choosing to exist in defiance of my shame, and encouraging you to do the same.

11 thoughts on “I Have a “Shame-Based Personality.” Here’s What That Means.”

  1. This actually reminds me a lot of a couple of concepts from dialectical behaviour therapy. One is that people are trying the best they can, but it’s still possible to learn new skills to be able to do better. The other is that even though we may not have caused many of our problems, it’s still up to us to fix them, so it’s better to focus on solutions than blame.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Also, trauma is not our fault. Period. And one thing I really struggle to understand in therapy is how my therapist says responsibility does not equal blame”. Can’t say I understand it. One thing that I’ve learned tho, is paradoxically, only when we accept where we are, can we then begin deep changes. Not easy for sure, not easy at all.

    I used to argue with my therapist that I didn’t want to be self compassionate, and also I didn’t know HOW to be self compassionate. Turns out that can be learned too, the building blocks, and that self compassion can be fostered when we receive compassion from others too! We heal in relationship, and self compassion makes a cleaner, stronger, better lasting fuel than self-hatred.

    It’s a journey! Pleased we’ve ashley as a mutual – happy to connect!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhhh, self-compassion is a huge thing I’m starting to work on in therapy too! I just started with a new therapist (insurance changes are a b*tch) and she’s amazing. I understand self-compassion in theory, but in practice…yikes. I’m sure I’ll get there, but right now it feels wrong. Which is sad really, that showing myself love feels like I’m lying to myself about how awful I am or something. Arg, we’ll get there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’ll get there, and what you wrote about “showing myself love feels like I’m lying to myself about how awful I am” is definitely a belief from trauma. I know you said you weren’t abused, but it doesn’t have to be outright bad abuse to have an effect.

        I’d suggest Beverly Engel’s “It wasn’t your fault” because it really breaks down the pre-requistes of self compassion, without which we struggle to HAVE self compassion.

        I wrote a little about shame and the pre-requistes of self compassion here, but the book goes into it in great detail 🙂 https://wordsthoughtsdreams.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/new-years-resolution-keep-loving-you-and-your-younger-self/

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      2. Thank you so much for saying “It doesn’t have to be outright abuse to have an effect.” That’s such an incredibly kind sentiment and it really means a lot to me ❤ I will absolutely check out Engel's book! I'm always looking for new resources. I loved that blog post, thank you so much for sharing that with me ❤

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  3. Okay I’m typing a lot **blush** I’ve a personality disorder based on shame – avoidant personality disorder. I would say I was a very lonely, angry, suspicious, defensive person. Trauma therapy has really transformed my life even though I still struggle a lot. Maybe your true self, perhaps like mine, might have to be created, formed from the ashes… no pre-shame personality…maybe it’s about learning about ourselves with curiosity and non judgment (I am my worst critic too) with people who don’t judge us, who love and accept us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s totally okay, I’m so glad to hear your thoughts on this post. It meant a lot to me to write, and it’s nice to know it had an impact on somebody ❤ I've done some research on AvPD, I know it can be incredibly hard to cope with, but I absolutely love the imagery of what you said, about forming a our own self out of the ashes. Like a phoenix ❤

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