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Relational Trauma & Shame: Attachment Wounds In Adulthood

By: Dr. Nadine Macaluso

9 min read

attachment issues
Understand Relational Trauma and Shame as Dr. Nadine Macaluso, our featured Guest Blogger, does a deep dive into what it is, how it can develop, how it affects your relationship with your loved ones, and how you can heal it to undergo personal growth!

This week we are featuring Dr. Nadine Macaluso as Mooditude’s very first Guest Blog Contributor! Through her tumultuous marriage to the infamous Wolf of Wall Street, Dr. Nadine endured eleven years of relational trauma and has now gone from surviving to thriving as a Psychologist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in attachment trauma, shame, and Dark Tetrad personalities. She is here to share her expertise and knowledge with the Mooditude community through her written work on Relational Trauma. Now, let’s continue with the blog through the eyes of Dr. Nadine herself…

Dark Night of the Soul

I went to therapy for the first time at twenty-three, six months after marrying my ex-husband Jordan Belfort, also known as the infamous Wolf of Wall Street. I knew I was in crisis. During treatment, my therapist emotionally supported me in ways that friends and family simply couldn’t. I am grateful that her support kept me alive. Yet, in all our time working together, she never explained why my abusive relationship with Jordan felt like home and why even though we clicked so well, our relational dynamic was sick.

Fast forward twenty-five years, two degrees, a messy 22-year marriage, and over a decade as a therapist, I now understand exactly why I was drawn to an abusive partner in the first place. Choosing to marry Jordan and my reactions to him were shaped by my childhood attachment trauma and shame.

Attachment Injuries Breed Internalized Shame

Relationships and shame are intimately intertwined, and both are central to the human experience. Shame is caused by relational trauma, also known as attachment trauma or Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). Complex trauma can be understood as experiences of repeated traumatic events of an interpersonal nature, involving primary caregivers and occurring during childhood development, from infancy to adolescence. It should be noted that relational distress between siblings and peers at school also affects the child’s developing brain and body and can lead to attachment injuries.

Complex PTSD is deeply ingrained in attachment theory, which describes the bonding process and experiences between an infant/child and their parent. Human beings are social creatures, so bonding and care from adults are essential to all of us from infancy forward to develop a felt sense of self. The precious human infant is an incredibly vulnerable and dependent creature. Infants lack the capacity to eat, sleep, change positions, and regulate their emotional and physical states without round-the-clock help from their caretakers. Early attachment is not a single event. It results from hundreds of physical and emotional experiences: being held, rocked, fed soothed, and experiencing the loving gaze of our parents.

Our most vital relationships may become emotionally ruptured through prolonged experiences of various forms of childhood maltreatment, emotional neglect, sexual abuse or harassment, rape, bullying, witnessing domestic violence, narcissistic abuse, abandonment, racism, rejection, role reversal, traumatic loss, and other forms of attachment interferences.

When as vulnerable children, we do not get our mind-body needs met during developmental milestones, we feel emotionally abandoned, rejected, or betrayed by our parents. Relational experiences of emotional maltreatment feel traumatically overwhelming to us as children – we do not possess the ability to understand or internally resolve this level of pain within ourselves yet. Unresolved emotional and relational experiences with our primary caretakers cause us to feel unworthy of love and insecure in our relationships with others and ourselves. We cannot feel safe and secure with our parents if we deem them “bad” so we blame ourselves to protect our attachment bond. Over time, this chronic self-blame morphs into shame beginning after the age of two.

Bonding-Deficits Affect Your Developing Self-Image

Complex PTSD causes the child to abandon their authentic needs and feelings so that they can continue to bond with their parent. The parents’ chronic lack of attunement to the child’s inner world of emotions, and neglect of their needs ultimately develops into internalized shame. Shame is also caused by childhood experiences of humiliation, social threats, abuse, and bullying – at home or elsewhere.

Shame is the feeling that you are bad, broken, or unworthy of love. It leads to a fear of being seen. And since relationships are central to the human experience and require being seen, thus shame is also central to the human experience as it keeps us from wanting to be seen. We find ourselves in a bind. As adults, shame manifests in feelings of loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression. When as adults, we ruminate about our personal defects, focus on our inadequacies, believe we are not worthy of love, or do not believe that we can impact our own future, we are actually experiencing shame. Shame is a circuit breaker for joy, pleasure, connection, and vitality – the very things that people have lost when they enter my office for therapy.

How Shame Creates a Negative Self-image in Childhood

The nature of Complex PTSD is that caregivers are unable to support our core emotional, psychological, and physical developmental needs. Nurturing deficits are caused by a lack of validation from our parents or a lack of feeling heard, seen, and understood. When as children, we feel overwhelming emotional pain in response to our authentic emotions being denied, dismissed, and shamed, the emotional overwhelm is traumatic because our developing nervous system and stress response are not equipped yet to manage our pain. The level and amount of emotional maltreatment or neglect we experience as children manifest in whether we develop a negative or positive sense of self.

Many parents cannot tolerate negative emotions from their child, especially sadness and anger – mainly because they cannot tolerate these emotions within themselves. As vulnerable children, we split off our feelings of sadness and anger in two ways: acting-in or acting-out. We act-in by repressing or denying emotions, withdrawing, disengaging, dissociating, regressing, or self-blaming. We act-out by hitting, lying, stealing, bullying, or developing oppositional defiant disorder. These behaviors are defenses or survival strategies used to help us manage the chronic overwhelming emotional pain of being shamed, neglected, or rejected. Remember, as children, we must blame ourselves for attachment failures in order to survive. So we make ourselves bad, and our parents good.

Self-blame and turning anger against ourselves is an unconscious process that cultivates shame – “I am bad,” “I deserve this,” or “It is my fault.” This shame-riddled identity persists into adulthood, manifesting itself unconsciously in adult relationships. As helpless children, we also project our internalized “badness” onto the environment. (i.e., the Boogey monster under the bed). With shame and blame woven into our self-image, a negative self-image emerges.

How Shame Informs the Internal Relationship with your Adult Self

By the time you reach adulthood, you have developed an internal relationship with yourself and others, based on how you were treated as a child. Shame is often at the root of your identity – who you take yourself to be, whether you hold a negative or positive internal self-image, whether you feel self-worth, self-love, or self-hatred. The internal image you have creates your relationship with yourself. Experiences of shame become interconnected; it is no longer a feeling; rather, it lies at the core of your identity and manifests as survival skills/defenses, behaviors, default emotions, and thoughts.

As an adult, shame leads you to self-abandon by not expressing your authentic thoughts, feelings, and needs. When your uniqueness was devalued as a child, you internalized that your differences or unique qualities were wrong. Your sexuality, emotions, and needs can be bound in shame. Perfectionism, power, control, accommodation, and people-pleasing are pride-based ways to compensate for shame. Avoidance is a shame-based behavioral pattern. The internalized pain of shame is at the root of addiction and compulsive behaviors we use as coping mechanisms.

The catch is that dysfunctional coping strategies fuel a shame spiral – you feel shame about having compulsions or addictions that soothe your pain, and then you turn to these things to ease the shame you feel. This cycle turbo-fuels more shame. When shame is severe, it is intensely experienced as heaviness in the chest.

Feeling Broken, Defective or Unworthy? Blame Shame

Acting-in and acting-out don’t stop in childhood. As an adult, when shame feels overwhelming, you also resort to acting-in or acting-out (see Shame Compass). Situations in which you are seen or heard by others or feel vulnerable can cause overwhelming fear because it is so far outside the norm you’re used to (since you did not receive this as a child), so you withdraw or freeze.

Shame can cause you to feel misunderstood and can manifest as social anxiety (acting-in). Repeated experiences of humiliation or embarrassment as a child may lead you to become hypervigilant towards people or situations that feel threatening, manifesting as anxiety or panic attacks (acting-in). When shame is not resolved, it leads to feelings of learned helplessness. Helplessness is an internalized belief that nothing you can do can make up for your shame – this causes anxiety. Helplessness and anxiety cause avoidance, which causes more anxiety (acting-in). Anxiety is often a sign that your authentic emotions are trying to bubble up to the surface, particularly from suppressing anger or assertion.

You may compensate for your feelings of shame by striving for perfectionism or power. If you lose your pride-based compensation for shame, you are left feeling vulnerable and thus will likely experience anxiety. Continually ruminating on your defects and being self-critical causes you to feel depressed (acting-in). When you engage in comparison because of your perfectionism, you may end up feeling depressed (acting-in).

Five Ways Shame Interferes with Close Relationships

The following are just a few examples of how childhood-rooted shame can interfere in your close relationships now as an adult.

1. Abandonment

Shame fuels fear of abandonment in relationships. You may often feel like you are the victim of other people’s behaviors, responses, and judgments. This is especially the case if an older adult ignored or belittled your pain or did not help you soothe it. When you engage in perfectionism as a way of compensating for shame, you may self-abandon when in love.

2. Serial-Dependency

Becoming love-dependent can be shame-fueled due to your attachment system being starved of positive relational experiences as a child. You may develop an affinity for serial dependence on another. Serial dependency is an overdependence on relationships for our identity, safety, and self-worth. Shame may cause you to cling to others out of a feeling that you are unworthy of love and fear being abandoned.

3. Self-Criticism

Repeated experiences of shame create an increased tendency for self-criticism. This can cause you to avoid interpersonal relationships out of a fear of being criticized or disapproved by others. This is especially the case if you experienced chronic emotional maltreatment. Emotional abuse causes an automatic assumption that people will reject or criticize you – this leads you to hold a negative view of others.

4. Disappearing

Shame may also cause you to go the other direction and create a desire to be small or want to disappear from others (actin-in/withdrawing). Whenever someone becomes significant to you – whenever another person’s care, respect, or value matters to you – the possibility for shame emerges. So, you engage in behaviors that end the discomfort of shame by cutting off connection or becoming small.

5. Dominating

Shame might lead you to become dominating, controlling, and antagonistic to feel powerful or protect yourself from feeling vulnerable in your intimate relationships. You might also blame others as a way to transfer shame from internal to external, or you may go into a self-protective rage.  You might also cover shame by aiming to outdo/outperform others or by being vigilant about having the edge over others (act-out/fight).

Healing Your Shame Wound is Possible!

For personal growth to happen, you must have the courage to both accept yourself as you are and be open to change. Doing so will allow you to generate self-love and self-validation. With a self-affirming identity, you become empowered to own all of your imperfections and differences, ultimately creating a secure, positive sense of self.

Healing involves an integrative course of connecting to your core self so that you can build a secure-positive self-image, learning to calibrate your emotions so that you don’t act-in or act-out, and working to cultivate healthy relationships. If you have found this blog to be helpful in illuminating the way you’re wired and wish to heal your attachment trauma and shame, I have designed a FREE therapy journal and healing course on this topic. Click here to be notified once it’s released later this year. Together, we help you to go from a surviving-child consciousness to thriving-adult consciousness!


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Dr. Nadine Macaluso

Dr. Nadine has a private practice located in New York where she is currently offering services through Teletherapy. When she’s not working with patients or writing about trauma, she spends her time reading, researching, listening to podcasts, going for walks and connecting with her loved ones. Interested in scheduling an appointment with her? Then check out her links: Website ▪︎ Instagram ▪︎ LinkedIn

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