I recently wrote about our ability to cope with trauma and its effects on my other blog, The Online Therapist. In a nutshell, our capacity to cope with the impacts of a traumatic incident is contingent upon our ability to influence the result of the event. This effect dictated how our brains processed the incident and classed it as either a heightened emotional response or a threat to survival in our minds. If the latter is perceived, emotions become “frozen,” and stimuli can reawaken those survival feelings. It brings up the subject of developmental and relational trauma, both of which are bedrocks of codependency later in life.

However, what about children, who, one would say, have a slim chance of affecting the trauma occurring around them? (even though they may try hard at times) So the argument comes in as to whether these two conditions, left untreated, can cause codependency. I have seen (and experienced) the anxiety when the overwhelming feeling of abandonment is imminent or perceived. Both of these traumas would be associated with these feelings and does that drive the need to fix and enmesh, replicating childhood protection measures?

Many of the problems we face in adulthood stem from developmental trauma, and how we develop as children has a significant impact on how we view the world as adults. Developmental Trauma Disorder is a contentious diagnosis at the moment, as the newest version of the DSM rejected it as a disorder. However, its inclusion is being pushed by a Boston trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, who conducted a study of 1700 children, some of whom displayed symptoms similar to those associated with PTSD or CPTSD, which are frequently used to diagnose traumatised youngsters. Indeed, he discovered that just 25% of these adolescents exhibited apparent signs of PTSD, while the others had significantly more complex difficulties. I paraphrase Van Der Kolk:

Rather than that, these youngsters demonstrated widespread, complicated, frequently intense, and occasionally conflicting patterns of emotional and physiological dysregulation. Their moods and emotions were unpredictable—rage, aggression, deep grief, fear, withdrawal, detachment and flatness, and dissociation—and when they were unhappy, they were unable to calm themselves or express their feelings.
Van der Volk, Bessel

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is another term for developmental trauma (ACE). These are long-term family traumas such as having a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse, losing a parent through divorce, abandonment, or incarceration, witnessing domestic violence, not feeling loved or valued or feeling disconnected from the family, not having enough food or clean clothing, or not having enough food or clean clothing, as well as direct verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.


Dr. Bessel van der Kolk created the term developmental trauma disorder to characterise the impact of prolonged exposure to trauma, generally serious abuse and neglect by caregivers during the first three years of life. What he is suggesting is that the trauma that youngsters experience begins considerably earlier than previously believed. As the idea implies, it is precognitive, which accounts for the lack of recall and ability to connect it to adult difficulties. Early trauma has a detrimental effect on the developing brain, resulting in impaired emotional and physical self-regulation, low self-esteem, and a difficulty to trust others, particularly main caregivers. It may also serve as the foundation for difficulties such as codependency and toxic shame.

Chronic or toxic shame is an issue that we all face but do our best to conceal. It is the aspect of ourselves that we wish to conceal. Bringing it to light requires an examination of the very essence of who we truly believe we are. I say “believe we are” because it is not the case. It is what we have gained as a result of growing up in the company of other embarrassed individuals. It is generational and relational, in the sense that a child cannot acquire shame without the assistance of another person. That other person is nearly often a primary caregiver who carries chronic guilt and communicates it to the child through a shame-based parenting style and relationship. It is referred to as relational trauma, and when combined with developmental trauma (abnormal child growth is stunted), it ensures that the child enters adulthood unprepared to be an adult.

Shame is frequently referred to as the unsaid issue. Even skilled therapists may miss the fact that it is at the base of many of their clients’ problems. “Whenever someone enters a room and presents an issue, you can make a reasonable case for shame being the cause,” a renowned therapist once stated.
Rather than confronting our shame, we tend to conceal it through various strategies and feelings such as rage, melancholy, hopelessness, codependency, and narcissism. We compensate by projecting false selves into the world and resolving fight or flight concerns on a constant basis. All of these symptoms point to a lack of genuine human connection. Individuals who struggle with chronic shame frequently feel isolated and have difficulty grasping the concept of love. The majority honestly believe that no one loves or could possibly love them simply for being themselves. They frequently want love and connection while still suffering from the repercussions of shame, which make them protective and sensitive, misunderstood and furious.

In terms of codependency, this need for genuine connection puts people on the lookout for it at the expense of their own legitimate needs. Such a strong force must originate somewhere, and once again, we can go to infancy for this.

Shame is unpleasant on an individual level, and for the sufferer appears to be a personal failing brought about by one’s own acts and beliefs. Things happen to them and others as a result of the existence of the sufferer. Shame is a detachment from one’s Self, resulting in loneliness and feelings of unworthiness, despair, and unlovability. Thus, shame is about parents failing to meet children’s needs for connection, empathy, and emotional bonding.

In childhood, relational trauma happens when the relationship between the child and the parent or caregiver is not developed or is damaged. As the most significant relationship a child will have, it will effect all subsequent relationships, including the one with Self, and is the primary reason for the development of chronic or toxic shame. Relational trauma is frequently caused unintentionally by caregivers, but rather as a result of a sense of abandonment or enmeshment. As a result, the youngster feels unloved and unsafe at the same time. Physical abandonment (death, divorce, separation), emotional abandonment (neglect, denial of child’s need for love, boundaries, or guidance, emotional withdrawal), or emotional enmeshment (child forced to prioritise parent’s needs over own, parent overwhelms child with inappropriate emotional input such as emotional incest, parental alienation) all result in relational trauma.

Chronic shame, boundary issues, low self-esteem, mental health problems, and, most importantly, problems in relationships where clingy, needy, or aloof connection is the norm can all emerge from relational trauma. Trauma in relationships has been defined as a profound breach of human connection. When someone abuses, betrays, rejects, bullies, neglects, or otherwise mistreats another person, it can result in the victim experiencing complicated trauma. This breach has far-reaching consequences, including psychological, emotional, and behavioural consequences, as well as an exceptional difficulty building solid, healthy relationships (relational trauma could and sometimes is also interchanged with terms and descriptions such as complex PTSD, developmental trauma, and interpersonal trauma).

In terms of shame acquisition, many observers view relational trauma as more than a matter of injured pride or self-esteem. On a more fundamental level, it is classified as the dissolution of the Self by an unregulated other (caregiver carrying his or her own chronic shame or relational trauma and projecting).

When we speak of personal well-being, we are referring to an integrated Self, and healthy relationships serve as the glue that holds the Self together in its integrated wholeness. Children develop patterns of connection from infancy, based on the expectation and belief that this will be met with connection. These patterns become symptomatic of how the Self interacts with others and are necessary for maturity into adulthood and the development of good relationships. If having an integrated sense of Self is contingent on positive relationships with caregivers, it seems reasonable to suppose that if these relationships break down, the sense of Self faces annihilation. Those who have developed toxic guilt in this manner will attempt to compensate by assuming a variety of “selves.” Toxic shame causes a person to feel “blank,” “numb,” or “shattered.” Adults who have acquired toxic shame will initially present with anxiety or despair. However, we must never forget that while no parent intends to shame their child, toxic shame is acquired through an unrepaired connection with a dysregulating other. From a child’s perspective, a dysregulating other is someone they desire to connect with and should be able to trust to control their childhood feelings, yet this other person responds poorly or not at all. Shame develops when the response fails to assist the youngster in regulating his or her emotions and sensations. This is possibly because the caregiver was also surrounded by people who were growing up unregulated.

Much shame therapy is conducted left brain to left brain. A left brained person is mostly analytical and meticulous in their thinking, and they approach problems using factual reasoning and frameworks. While everyone uses both sides of their brain, those who identify as right brained are typically more creative, emotive, and intuitive. They are more likely to be imaginative and original thinkers, and are frequently drawn to disciplines that allow them to express themselves freely while also assisting others. Therapy is to resolve the problems and issues that have been revealed. It is “action.”

When a youngster is exposed to a dysregulated adult, he or she frequently dissociates from emotional connection and regulation. The right brain’s entire development is jeopardised during this phase. Effective communication and stable bonding are developed in the right brain by the caregiver’s right brain linking to the developing right brain of the kid. That is, “being” there for the child. As a result, shame treatment should be primarily a right brain interaction between a regulating therapist and the client’s healing right brain via effective communication, empathy, self-regulation on the therapist’s part, and the ability to express and recognise good non-verbal communication. Change occurs in therapy when a client is able to recognise, articulate, and manage their emotions in a safe environment. This is why therapies focused on imagination and visualisation are more effective than methods that are strictly analytical.

Right brain stimulation results in a sensation of “clear feeling,” and adult treatment must replicate what was absent when the child attempted to connect for the first time. If this is accomplished successfully, the client will begin to view the right brain as a component of “self,” rather than as an alien concept containing fear and shame. They will have a heightened awareness of their emotions and the ability to self-regulate rather than disassociate. Finally, fruitful, healthy relationships are all about using one’s right brain.

Nobody enters a relationship on the basis of logic!!

Subscribe to Dr Jenner's Blog via Email

Dr Jenner creates a wealth of resources, articles and podcasts. Please subscribe to be notified.

Join 3,036 other subscribers

Please Contribute