Compassion and Shame

Compassion and Shame: When Your Best Interventions Seem to Backfire

Little Lisa is sometimes crazed with fury and hatred and often directs this toward her foster mom, Susan.

Susan has been learning a lot about shame and connection so she understands that Lisa is lashing out at her because she fears being hurt and being rejected. She recognizes that her behavior is an expression of her underlying needs and fears and therefore, Susan now knows she needs to respond to Lisa’s anger and rejection with compassion and express an understanding for her fears.

So, for instance, when Lisa wanted to eat cookies before dinner, Susan knew that the best response would be something like “Hey honey, I know you really feel like having some cookies right now but we are just about to eat supper.”

Then, when Lisa invariably blew up Susan knew to further add: “I imagine it feels really hard when I say no because it’s like I don’t care about you, and what you want. But I do care for you a lot in fact, all the time. We are just having supper soon, that’s all”.

And at times that worked great. Lisa calmed down and the evening went well. But, at other times especially if it had been a tough day for Lisa, Susan’s compassion seemed to make things worse. Lisa’s rage would intensify and Susan would be at a loss as to what to do.

Dr. Peter Levine (an internationally known trauma specialist) talks about a similar phenomena around teaching traumatized people relaxation skills.

For some people, learning how to relax their bodies works really well, whereas others become highly agitated when being asked to relax. For those folks, keeping their bodies tense and alert was key to staying alive in a world that had been very threatening. They still believed the world was that unsafe and thus, they couldn’t possibly relax.

It can be the same with compassion.

Some children (and adults) have been hurt very badly particularly around compassion. Perhaps the abuser acted kindly right before the abuse which is common in sexual abuse. Or perhaps the child was punished or hurt more if he/she acted in a kind and sensitive way towards others.

For these children, compassion itself is a trigger.

So, what do we do?

First, we need to create space within ourselves to acknowledge such depth of harm. Maybe we can connect to a similar experience in our life where someone used kindness as a trick or punished us for our goodness.  We need to let ourselves feel the strong feelings that come with that awareness: possibly deep sadness and righteous anger.

The reason why this needs to be the first step is that if we haven’t created room for this deep hurt then we will not remain open to the child’s experience and shut out their great need in order to protect ourselves.

Second, we need to find a way to name this for the child in our care. In response to Lisa getting even angrier when Susan is compassionate, she might say something like “Hey, I notice that sometimes when I am kind to you, you get super mad. I wonder if that’s because in the past, kindness was a trick. Maybe you worry that  I’m going to hurt you too?”  Lisa may  seem to reject that suggestion or she may erupt in tears.

No matter how the child responds, showing her that you understand a little bit about how harsh her world has been will be invaluable in her recovery.

Here are further resources about how to help traumatized children with their big feelings:

The Invisible Suitcase: Behavioural Challenges of Traumatized Children

Emotional Regulation Coaching– A Model of EFT

Healthy Strategies for Responding to Children’s Challenging Emotions



About the author

Elina is a registered clinical counsellor involved in private practice.  She is a Certified Trauma Specialist with extensive training in effective therapies to resolve trauma and during her career, she has worked as an out-patient therapist in non-profit agencies, supervised a trauma treatment team in an Aboriginal organization, and worked for the provincial government in front line clinical and supervisory positions. 

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