Article – Sexual Abuse and Mental Health:

Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse

Give It Back: Breaking The Power and Pain of Shame and Betrayal

Published on the Mental Health Site:
Mental Healthy
Autumn 2012

If you have ever spilt your coffee on a ‘hot date’ and had your possible partner plus the rest of the café staring at you – you will quite possibly be acquainted with the unwelcome feeling of shame.

Shame is a terrible and yet extremely powerful emotion. Sadly 11% of boys under 16 and 21% of girls under 16 may have strong feelings of shame about themselves because they have experienced child sexual abuse. (Pat Cawson: NSPCC 2000).

Shame Is So Damaging

Shame is the one of the biggest issues with abuse and it is often shame that can have the most devastating effect on the mental health and welfare of a victim of abuse. I know this myself because I experienced sexual abuse for many years with someone who was very close to me and consequently I suffered from feelings of desperate shame and this led to mental anguish and pain including anxiety, depression and compulsive behaviours.

Later I found out this is very common with people who have experienced abuse. Victims in essence carry the shame that does not belong to them but to the abuser. Penny Parks a counsellor and author says, ‘The aggressor projects the blame and guilt onto the child and the child accepts that projection as truth. It is like life imprisonment for a crime that someone else has committed.’ (1)

How Shame Expresses Itself

The shame can outwork itself in a person with painful behaviour patterns that impact mental health.

These can include:

  • Feeling “something is wrong with me”
  • Isolated and lonely – fearful when someone wants to have a close relationship
  • Fearful of intimacy – wanting relationship but pushing people away
  • People pleasing behaviour patterns – not aware of how to get your own needs met
  • Punishing yourself with negative and destructive self-talk
  • Physically harming yourself
  • Suffering from from Depression
  • Compulsive and obsessive behaviours – Outward actions that are due to inner feelings of shame and anxiety. (2)

So how can we be start to put the shame back on the abuser – the right person and start to be free of the shame that causes so much mental distress?

Free Yourself By Remembering The Power Dynamic

It is my experience as both a Survivor and a counsellor (working with Survivors for over 18 years) that one of the main reasons that victims carry so much shame, is that they can often look back at the situation as adults and feel they could have or should have done something differently to prevent it happening. They forget as children that they had very little power. They imagine that the choices they had as children are the same as the ones available now. Survivors also make choices because it was then in their best interest to do so at that time. They later feel (and this is often inferred by the abuser as well) that this means they somehow colluded in the abuse. This intensifies the shame and mental trauma. In order to start being free of this it is critical to understand that abuse is largely about power and intention. To help relieve shame in your own mind, it is important clarify right from start of the abuse – the intention of the child or young person and the abuser’s intention. It is vital to remember this even though there may have been exchanges. This could have been of sweets, affection or money but as a child or young person – sexual involvement or gratification was never that child’s original intention.

Some questions you might like to consider could be:

  • Critically – who had the real power in that situation?
  • Who originally initiated things?
  • What was your fundamental motive as a child when you met this person?
  • What was the abuser’s primary motive?
  • Who was leading?
  • Who was being led?
  • Did you do things just to “get it over” with?
  • If this person gave you affection did you get much attention elsewhere in your life?
  • If you accepted sweets or money did you really understand what was happening? And what the price would have to be for you?
  • If you could have told someone – who realistically would have helped you?

It is important to note even if your answers do not make you feel absolved of shame, abuse can make you feel things and act in ways alien to you, this does not make you responsible for another’s actions or change who you really are.

It is also critical to understand abuse and shame exist in an environment of secrecy and the way out of shame (that is any shame!) is to talk about it. However this is often the very action that victims of abuse fear the most. Sharing these “secrets” though, in a trustworthy supportive environment frees the burden of carrying it alone and helps put the shame back on the correct person – the abuser – and the journey of mental and emotional recovery can really begin. This sharing could be in a recovery group, a counsellor, through close friends or a combination of these.

Devastating Impact Of Betrayal

Another main issue which has a huge impact on mental health is the consequences of the betrayal of the abuser’s actions. On TV and in the media people who abuse children are often seen as strangers who don’t know the child. However research shows us this is an incorrect picture. For example, of the children counselled for sexual abuse by ChildLine in 2007/08 the vast majority were abused by someone they knew:

  • 59 per cent said they had been sexually abused by a family member
  • 29 per cent said they had been sexually abused by someone else known to them
  • 4 per cent said they had been sexually abused by a stranger

As you can imagine the closer the person is to the abuser the more traumatic it will be for the victim. The more intimate the relationship, the more the pain, the deeper the betrayal, and the more damaging it is on that child and consequently adult’s mental health.

Trust Is Broken –Relationships Suffer

One of the main sad consequences of this dreadful betrayal is that it is usually very difficult for people who have been abused as children to form deep and trusting relationships with others as adults. Relationships can also be characterized by feelings of extreme anxiety and fear. This can be known as ‘Hypervigilence’. Hypervigilance is one of the consequences of trauma and indeed one of the criteria of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder according to research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. (3)

This can lead to lifestyle of constant watchfulness, strong inability to trust and is therefore extremely emotionally draining. Each slight change in voice tone is noted and analyzed, a text can be read and re-read countless times, an email will be written and re-written numerously.

Some behaviours associated with Hypervigilence may look like:

  • An over awareness of what people see or think about us
  • Constantly concerned about others
  • Lack of objectivity – reading too much into situations
  • Over scrutiny/analysing behaviour of situations

Looking for others to betray constantly

  • Our minds tell us partial truths that we latch onto

Not being aware of what is obvious to others

It is indeed a gruelling and paralysing way to live – stressful both for the person and for their friends, partners and family. Hypervigilant people live their lives ‘on guard’ at all times and their hypervigilance pervades everything they do, say and believe about themselves and others.

Walking Away From Distrust

So how can we let go of such ingrained behavior and be able to connect with people in a more relaxed and healthy way?
Firstly, like all unhealthy behaviours, the initial step is to recognise you are doing it. Catch yourself out when you sense yourself spiraling down your own personal hypervigilant thought patterns. Even more illuminating – see how many times a day or week that you find yourself having hypervigilant or catastrophizing/suspicious thoughts.

Secondly, try to be ‘in the moment’ for a few minutes. This could be by focusing on your breathing in and out slowly. This will give your mind a couple of minutes to calm itself.

Thirdly, record your negative thoughts on a notepad or (if you are more digitally inclined!) your Smartphone Tablet etc. Over time you will notice the times when you are most likely to spiral into damaging thoughts and patterns. Thinking back do these remind you of anything from your past abuse. You may need help and support to do this perhaps talking though this with a counsellor or support group.

Fourthly, try to get into the habit of some positive self talk. Instead of thinking ‘Why is she late home again is she having an affair?’ and ruminating on it for hours. Try instead something along the lines of ‘Next time she’s going to be late I’ll ask her let me know beforehand so I can relax.’

Learning to trust is a long and painful road. We also need to be wise, not everyone is trustworthy. We need to accept that without being suspicious of all people. We can observe certain attributes about people that give us clues as to whether we can trust and take the risk of a relationship with them. A good exercise you could do is to try and consider for yourself what qualities you would be drawn to in order to start considering trusting another person.

You Can Work It Out!

Freeing yourself from shame and the damage of betrayal can be a long arduous process. Isolating yourself can be a natural response to so much pain – however loneliness can bring even more suffering. At ‘Into The Light’ we offer workshops and groups to people who have experienced abuse as well as one to one work. Time after time people who use our services say they have benefitted so much in just being in a room with other Survivors. This might not be right for you but do consider joining a self help group or community group that can provide the companions you need in your journey into recovery.

Finally – don’t give up! I can say from experience growth and healing takes huge amounts of time and effort. But, help relationships and good friends are out there – don’t give up until you get the support you deserve.


(1) Source: ‘Rescuing The Inner Child’ – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series Published 1990 page 43
(2) Source: Adapted from an ideas in ‘Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse’ – Heitritter and Vought – Bethany House Publishers – Published 1989
(3) Source: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Leaflet: Royal College of Psychiatrists: March 2010