Healing The Shame Of Sexual Trauma
“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.”
Anais Nin (attributed)
If you were a victim of childhood sexual abuse, you know about shame. You have likely been plagued by it all your life without identifying it as shame. You may feel shame because you blame yourself for the abuse itself, or because you felt such humiliation at having been abused. While those who were sexually abused tend to suffer from the most shame, those who suffered from physical, verbal, or emotional abuse blame themselves as well. In the case of child sexual abuse, no matter how many times victims have heard the words “it’s not your fault,” the chances are high that they still blame themselves in some way – for being submissive, for not telling anybody and having the abuse continue, for feeling even the littlest pleasure.
Victims of sexual abuse are typically changed by the experience, not only because they were traumatized, but because they feel a loss of innocence and dignity and they carry forward a heavy burden of shame. Facing the problems that shame has created in a victim’s life can be daunting. The victim may be overwhelmed with the problem of how to heal the shame caused by the childhood abuse or rape. The good news is that there is a way to heal from shame in order to cultivate the ability to see the world through different eyes – eyes not clouded by the perception that you are “less than”, inadequate, damaged, worthless, or unlovable.
The Healing Power of Compassion
Like poison, toxic shame needs to be neutralized by another substance – an antidote – if the victim is to be saved. Compassion is the only thing that can counteract the isolating, stigmatizing, debilitating poison of shame. According to author, Alice Miller, what victims of childhood abuse and rape need most is a “compassionate witness” to validate their experiences and support them through their pain. Research on the subject of compassion has revealed that the kindness, support, encouragement, and compassion of others have a huge impact on how the brain, bodies, and general sense of well-being develop. Love and kindness, especially in early life, even affect how some of our genes are expressed.
Sexual abuse and rape victims often cope with these false yet powerful beliefs by trying to ignore them or convince themselves otherwise by puffing themselves up, overachieving, or becoming perfectionistic. These strategies take huge amounts of energy, and they are not effective. Rather, actively approaching, recognizing, validating, and understanding shame is the way to overcome it. Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience“
While many people suffer from shame, not everyone suffers from what is referred to as debilitating shame. Debilitating shame is shame that is so all consuming that it negatively affects every aspect of a person’s life—his perceptions of himself, his relationship with others, her ability to be intimate with a romantic partner, her ability to raise children in a healthy manner, his ability to risk and achieve success in his career, and her overall physical and emotional health.
Shame is Not a Singular Experience
Just as the source of shame can be all forms of abuse or neglect, shame is not just one feeling but many. It is a cluster of feelings and experiences.
- Feelings of being humiliated. Sexual trauma is always humiliating to the victim, but some types are more humiliating than others. Certainly, sexual abuse almost always has an element of humiliation to it, since it is a violation of very private body parts and since there is a knowing on the child’s part that incest and/or sex between a child and an adult is taboo.
- Feelings of impotence. When children realize there is nothing they can do to stop the abuse, they feel powerless, helpless. This can also lead to frequently feeling unsafe, even long after the abuse has stopped.
- Feelings of being exposed. Abuse and the accompanying feelings of vulnerability and helplessness cause the children to feel self-conscious and exposed—seen in a painfully diminished way. The fact that they could not stop the abuse makes them feel weak and exposed both to themselves and to anyone present.
- Feelings of being defective or less-than. Most victims of abuse report feeling defective, damaged, or corrupted following the experience of being abused.
- Feelings of alienation and isolation. What follows the trauma of sexual violence is the feeling of suddenly being different, less-than, damaged, or cast out. And while victims may long to talk to someone about their inner pain, they often feel immobilized, trapped, and alone in their shame.
- Feelings of self-blame. Victims almost always blame themselves for being abused and being shamed. This is particularly true when abuse happens or begins in childhood.
- Feelings of rage. Rage almost always follows having been shamed. It serves a much-needed self-protective function of both insulating the self against further exposure and actively keeping others away.
Exercise: Becoming Compassionate Toward Yourself
- Think about the most compassionate person you have known—someone kind, understanding, and supportive of you. It may have been a teacher, a friend, a friend’s parent, a relative. Think about how this person conveyed his or her compassion toward you and how you felt in this person’s presence. Notice the feelings and sensations that come up with this memory. If you can’t think of someone in your life that has been compassionate toward you, think of a compassionate public figure, or even a fictional character from a book, film, or television.
- Now imagine that you have the ability to become as compassionate toward yourself as this person has been toward you (or you imagine this person would be toward you). How would you treat yourself if you were feeling overwhelmed with sadness or shame? What kinds of words would you use to talk to yourself?
This is the goal of self-compassion: to treat yourself the same way the most compassionate person you know would treat you—to talk to yourself in the same loving, kind, supportive ways this compassionate person would talk to you.
The Benefits of Practicing Self-Compassion
By learning to practice self-compassion you will also be able to begin doing the following:
- Truly acknowledge the pain you suffered and in so doing, begin to heal
- Take in compassion from others
- Reconnect with yourself, including reconnecting with your emotions
- Gain an understanding as to why you have acted out in negative and/or unhealthy ways
- Stop blaming yourself for your victimization
- Forgive yourself for the ways you attempted to cope with the sexual assault
- Learn to be deeply kind toward yourself
- Create a nurturing inner voice to replace your critical inner voice
- Reconnect with others and become less isolated
Adapted from Psychology Today: The Compassion Chronicles by Beverly Engel L.M.F.T