Doctoral Dissertation
University of Oregon


Defended & Completed May 2013
PhD granted 2014 after clinical internship

Advisor Freyd, Jennifer J.

Dissertation Abstract

Betrayal trauma theory posits that victims of abuse perpetrated by someone close are more likely to dissociate from awareness of the abuse in order to protect the needed relationship. Shame may likewise protect the relationship by turning the victim’s attention inward, thereby increasing the likelihood that the abusive environment will be overlooked. In this dissertation, the associations between shame, dissociation, and betrayal trauma were examined in two experimental studies. A third study examined the consequences of chronic shame. Aims were to determine whether shame and dissociation have a unique link with high betrayal traumas (HiBT), to understand the nature of the relationship between shame and dissociation, and to investigate the consequences of chronic shame.

In study 1, 124 female trauma survivors were randomly assigned to a high or low betrayal threat condition. Greater exposure to HiBT but not low betrayal traumas (LoBT) predicted increased shame and dissociation following high betrayal threat. Greater exposure to LoBT but not HiBT predicted increased fear following non-betrayal threat. Compared to non-dissociators, dissociators from threat endorsed more negative psychological consequences.

In study 2, 127 female trauma survivors completed a dissociation induction and battery of questionnaires. The bypassed shame theory, which proposes that dissociation serves to disconnect from the pain of shame, was examined. Results partially supported bypassed shame theory. Although feelings of shame led to a larger dissociation response to the induction, dissociation did not interrupt shame but rather led to even higher shame. Implications are discussed for a possible contributing role of shame to betrayal blindness.

In study 3, 247 trauma survivors completed online questionnaires addressing chronic shame hypotheses. Regression results revealed that all forms of chronic shame, especially trauma-focused shame, predicted negative health consequences. Correlation results revealed that HiBT was associated with more types of negative outcomes compared to LoBT and that HiBT but not LoBT was associated with chronic shame. 

Taken together, results indicate that, like dissociation, shame may be both an adaptive and detrimental response following betrayal trauma and that emotional and cognitive responses other than fear warrant attention in trauma research and practice.

See full dissertation (pdf)

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