Letting Go of Shame After Sexual Abuse
This week we are talking about shame as it relates to sexual abuse.
Shame might just be the most overwhelming emotion felt as a victim, but it is also one that doesn’t belong. If you were attacked, it wasn’t your fault, and you should never give in to feelings of shame.
Definition: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
I think that definition insinuates that we feel shame when our own behavior is wrong.
As a victim of abuse, choice is stripped away, and behavior becomes manipulated and forced. So the shame that victims are feeling comes from two places: shame on behalf of the attacker, and shame born of incorrectly assigning blame.
The really terrible thing about sexual abuse is that it is intimate, it is invasive, and it injures a very personal, private, core part of a person.
If you’ve been abused, you may find that it can be difficult to distinguish your feelings about yourself and your attacker.
I want to illustrate my point here with two scenarios.
Let’s say one man, we’ll call him Jerry, walks up to another man, Paul, and punches him in the face. Paul did nothing to provoke the attack, Jerry just chose to come up and punch Paul.
Paul is going to feel some pain. That is to be expected. But he won’t feel shame, because the attack was not a result of his own behavior.
With this kind of situation it’s easy to identify the attacker and the victim.
But for some reason, in a scenario where a man (or a woman) forces sexual action upon a woman (or a man, or a child), the roles are perceived in a murkier fashion.
We all kind of figure that sex requires two willing participants, so the victim must have been more involved in the attack than Paul was when Jerry punched him. But, that just isn’t true.
What does this mean?
As a victim, when you falsely accept any part of the blame, it will be impossible to overcome feelings of shame, because shame is assuaged by forgiveness, and you can’t be forgiven for something that wasn’t even your fault in the first place. That’s why correctly assigning blame is so important.
The other part of it, feeling shame on behalf of the attacker, comes when there was already an existing closeness with the attacker. I think it’s especially applicable when it was a family member or a friend. We don’t want to feel poorly about the people we love, so what normally might be anger or outrage becomes shame.
Letting Go of Shame
So where does that leave you, as a victim? If you’re stuck carrying this shame, what can you do with it?
For me, one of the biggest hurdles was being able to talk about what had happened, or even the fact that it had happened.
I carried so much shame, that I was sure if I told someone I’d been sexually abused, they would see me as dirty and ugly and worthless.
When I finally worked my way up to talking about it and telling people about it, I found the exact opposite was true.
No one ever treated me badly when they found out I’d been sexually abused. If anything their love grew, and they wanted to make sure I knew how loved I was.
In many cases my openness caused others to be open with me. In some cases those others had also been sexually abused. And, yes, it’s sad to learn that others are suffering, especially from something so awful. But it did create a sort of camaraderie and it helped to ease some of the loneliness.
When you’ve carried around shame for so long, you start to embody it. You make decisions based on the shame you feel.
I look back at my life, and it’s hard to find any part of it that was untouched or unaffected by my emotions around what happened to me.
The angry music I listened to, the friends I made who also listened to angry music, the way I dove into my academics so I could get through school as quickly as possible.
How scared I was to date, and as a result can count on one hand the number of dates I went on in high school.
The way I always felt judged as stand-off-ish or shy because I had a hard time opening up to people.
The responsibility I felt to never mess up, and to never disappoint my parents or make their lives harder.
The unwanted panic attacks and bouts of depression that continue to interrupt my life.
Also, the love I grew for storytelling, through books and television, and the way everything can be embodied by a written character, and how words can touch the lives of millions.
The meaningful relationships I had that saved me from myself, that only happened because like attracts like and pain recognizes pain.
The desire that grew within me to always serve, and to do my best to be kind because I understood that it really does make a difference.
I would likely be a very different person if I was never abused. I don’t know who I would be, but I also don’t have to wonder about it, because it doesn’t matter. I’ve been through a lot to become who I am today. Just because my story isn’t all pretty doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be proud of myself for exactly who I have managed to become. It took a lot to get to a point where I can say that I like myself. But I did it.
Family Dynamic and Shame
There are plenty of things that people try to sweep under the rug and hide from the public and from posterity. Sexual abuse is definitely one of them.
It’s just not the kind of thing you want people to know.
Navigating the subject can be difficult, especially for family members who don’t know what to make of the whole situation.
I believe though, that there is a way to maintain privacy without invoking shame. Making things like this a secret only makes it harder to work through complicated feelings.
The victim especially worries that talking about things will somehow ruin the family.
It’s not fair and it’s not healthy.
Of course, it is not necessary to broadcast the information to the whole world. It can be a private matter, but it does need to be talked about and addressed.
Beyond the Victim
The situation affects more than just the victim. Family is left wondering if they could have done something to prevent it. They feel terrible and lost. They don’t know how to help or how to cope themselves.
In the first post of this series, I referenced a statistic that explained how most sexual crimes are committed by someone the victim knew.
So, if a family member attacks another family member, how do think the rest of the family is left feeling?
The popular solution to these kinds of situations is often to ignore and avoid and deny. This needs to stop, because it is so damaging.
I like to think that people can change, but change will never happen in a state of shame.
Part of me thinks that maybe if there was more awareness around this issue, the shame wouldn’t be so intense. However, this feeling goes so much deeper than just a social shame or embarrassment. The only way to really overcome it is through forgiveness, which is why I felt the topic was so important to cover in this article (CLICK HERE).
If you’re struggling, I hope you know that you are loved, and you are valued. You are powerful, and you can overcome this.
Stop holding onto shame. You can overcome it.