Sexual violence and abuse is a violation of the body and soul, and a huge betrayal of trust. As a result, many survivors often feel a crippling sense of shame. They see themselves as defective, unacceptable, or fundamentally damaged. Shame is sometimes confused with guilt, which is a related but distinct emotion in which a specific behaviour is seen as unacceptable or wrong, as opposed to shame that denigrates the whole person. Survivors of sexual abuse are prone to shame, especially if they blame themselves, or were told by their abuser that they were responsible. A child abused by an adult is often told, or thinks, that no one will believe them, that their needs and emotions are not important, and that they are powerless to stop the hurting. The pain and shame can lead a survivor to identify their body and their sexuality as the enemy, and self-hatred is common.
A survivor of child sexual abuse might internalize the shame as they grow to adulthood, and this can be manifested in many ways, including feelings of worthlessness and paralyzing shame-based behaviours. Survivors often feel that if people really knew them they would reject them, and so they try to protect themselves by keeping others at a distance. Maintaining this false self is exhausting. Individuals with toxic shame are constantly vigilant, and often view themselves as an observer of their life rather than living their lives from the inside out.
- Shame can have harmful effects on our way of thinking and behaving. As a result, survivors can:
- Feel damaged and that something is wrong with them. Everything is filtered through this lens so innocent comments may be interpreted in critical ways.
- Fear rejection, which can result in obsessive or clingy behaviour.
- Feel isolated and alone, and afraid to let anyone get close to them.
- Be sensitive and defensive when criticized, because they feel as though their whole person is being attacked.
- Project feelings onto their partners or friends, often seeing them as angry, defensive or constantly blaming them.
- Feel like they have to please people in order to be loved and to get their needs met.
- Act overly responsible for things that happen. Individuals can continue to beat themselves up about small incidents long after the fact.
- Be extremely self-critical, and punish themselves for perceived failures.
- Be depressed, and hold feelings of anger and worthlessness.
- Be overly critical of others, including their children or partner.
- Be controlling of people and circumstances around them. In order to make sure that no one discovers who they really are, survivors with toxic shame may be constantly trying to manage everyone around them, in order to protect and maintain their fragile sense of self. This can result in perfectionism and other obsessive behaviours.
Shame can also be perpetuated and reinforced within families. This can happen in many ways including:
- Denying or minimizing the needs of family members
- Being isolated and rigid in communication
- Avoiding any discussions that are difficult
- Not permitting family members to honestly express emotions
- Being overly critical and shaming
As a result, survivors may be held responsible for the abuse, especially if it involved a family member. This may be communicated openly or indirectly, and survivors may feel that it’s their fault. This gets internalized and can become destructive.
Dealing with shame is difficult, and talking about it is often counter intuitive. Yet in order to break the bonds of silence, survivors need to begin to talk about the secrets of their abuse, and the shame and feelings associated with it. Breaking the silence is the first step for survivors in the journey to peace and freedom. By talking about the abuse with a trusted friend, family member or professional, survivors share the burden and begin to unearth the shaming messages that they’ve been carrying. Replacing the negative shame filled thoughts with more constructive thoughts enables the survivor to gain perspective.
However, to heal our crippling shame we must first come out of hiding. The only way to change our shame messaging is to face it, rather than trying to avoid it. The more we avoid it, the worse it gets.
Survivors can learn to:
- Put the blame back on the abuser
- Discover the negative messages that they’ve been carrying. Bringing the shaming voice into consciousness allows people to begin to identify it, and the triggers that lead to it. One helpful strategy is journaling about what beliefs and thoughts lead to shame-based feelings, in order to begin to break them down and neutralize them. This allows people to recognize shame feelings, and make the choice to respond in a positive and life-affirming manner, rather than being consumed by the feelings.
- Learn how to identify and share their thoughts and feelings
- Recognize the power imbalance that was in their abuse situation
- Understand and accept the lack of choices they had during their abuse, especially if it happened in childhood when they were particularly vulnerable and powerless
- Discover how to hold shame-based thinking up to logical consideration
- Learn how to be ok, rather than perfect, which allows for self-acceptance
- Re-program the negative internal messaging with more positive thoughts, including, among others: I am loveable, I deserve to be respected and loved, I have something unique to offer the world, I deserve to be happy, I am a whole person
Survivors may need to seek help to deal with their shame-based feelings, including talking with professionals or engaging trusted peers. While it can be painful, it is possible to heal and grow from our experiences of shame, learn to love ourselves, and displace negative messaging with beliefs of our inherent worth and value.
For more information & resources
Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw
Family Secrets: The Path from Shame to Healing, John Bradshaw
Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise, Jane Middleton-Moz
Shame: The Exposed Self, Michael Lewis