Core issues of abuse: shame

Shame Is Projected

For some people the mere discussion of shame is in itself shameful. If you talk about shame in your own life it is likely to bring up lots of undealt with shame in other people’s lives, and so people usually will not want to discuss shame on any level. Yet, all of us have lived with the bitter feelings of shame at one time or another. Sexual abuse is so shameful however, because tragically the person who should feel the shame of it – the abuser – usually never owns it and the victim then carries it. Penny Parks says in her book “Rescuing The Inner Child”: “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”
(Source: “Rescuing The Inner Child” – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series: Published 1990 p 43)

How Shame Enters

Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised.

Shame usually enters in childhood through:

  • Abandonment – Physical or emotional
  • Rejection and Unmet Needs – This could be directly or indirectly through parent’s illness / busyness / pre-occupation with other problems
  • Misnaming – Way child is treated / Name calling and Ridicule
  • Abuse – Physical / Emotional / Sexual

(Source: Gary Hayashi Seminar on “Shame”: London: July 1994)

Why We Carry The Shame

Victims of sexual abuse often look back at the situation and think I could/should have done something. However, it is very important to remember the original intention of the abuser and your intention. This is true even if the abuse took place over a long period of time and even if there were “exchanges” ie money, affection, sweets between you and the abuser.

It is also very important to remember the power balance. Who had the power in the situation? If the person that abused you was in a position of authority and trust ie parent, teacher, friend of the family they had the real power even if they appeared to be very weak characters.

You also need to remember what choices you realistically had. What were your choices at that time and as you were at that stage in your childhood? What would you say today to a child or young person who told you today they were being abused?

Sexual abuse victims may well have experienced not just the shame of the abuse, but the feelings of abandonment, rejection and misnaming alongside and as part of the sexual abuse.

Shame Is Long Term

For sexual abuse victims shame has formed a foundation in our lives in two respects:

  • The shame of the abuse because it is a taboo subject.
  • The shame of abuse because it is an assault on our dignity and personality.

The shame that is related to the abuse does not disappear when childhood ends but rather is held inside and can manifest itself in lots of different ways – from feelings of worthlessness and being unable to have proper relationships – to obsessive patterns of shame based behaviour.

Life is very ardous when you feel a lot of shame and it can make you avoid situations where you feel you may be emotionally exposed or embarrassed. Relationships can become very difficult as we can seek to protect ourselves from exposure and therefore keep people at a distance.

Shame Behaviours

There can be harmful effects on our behaviours and thought patterns because of the shame of abuse:

  • Shame can makes us feel that “there is something wrong with me” and everything we do feels coloured by a shame filter. Our circumstances and what we hear can be interpreted as shameful even if they are not intended to be
  • Shame can make our fear of rejection very strong
  • Shame can make us isolated and lonely – frightened when someone wants to be close to us
  • Shame can make us very defensive when criticised and unable to receive any constructive criticism
  • Shame can make us enter into people pleasing behaviours – with no idea how to get our real needs met
  • Shame can make us over responsible for things that happen
  • Shame can make us very self punishing – often through negative self talk
  • Shame can make us feel very angry through having to work so hard not to be exposed
  • Shame can make us depressed through having to hold all the feelings and anger inside
Contaminated Shame

The shame can become internalised and then become what is known as “Contaminated Shame” where everything around you and everyone becomes interpreted as shameful – you start to descend into what often becomes extreme self-consciousness.

We may attempt to overcome this shame and self-consciousness by:

• Perfectionism – so we are never exposed
• Defiance – where anger hides the shame
• Responsibility and obsessive behaviour patterns – routines that help us to stop feeling shame

Shame Based Families

It is important to understand how families reinforce the shame of abuse.

Shame based families:

  • Deny or minimise the needs of the individual
  • Are insulated, isolated and rigid in the way they communicate
  • Rules are formed around not having feelings or needs
  • Anything which touches on shame is not allowed – families are designed to protect shame e.g. Don’t upset your mother by talking about things that she finds difficult

Victims are often held responsible for abuse whether this is communicated overtly or not and feel everything is their fault. They feel they have betrayed themselves and others and this can turn inwards and become very destructive.

Way Out Of Shame

The very last thing we want to do when we feel ashamed about something is to expose it to others and yet ironically the way out of shame is to talk about it. The starting point to be released from the shame of abuse is breaking the silence about the “secrets” of the abuse. Sharing these “secrets” in a trustworthy environment frees the burden of carrying it alone. It also helps to identify the shaming messages that the abuse bought on whether these were verbalised or not.

It is also important to receive new messages and feedback to put in messages of confidence and affirmation in place of negative shame filled thoughts.

We need to have a support system and a safe place in order to share those shameful secrets. This could be a recovery group, a counsellor, through close friends or a combination of these.

To recover from shame you almost always have to talk about what you feel most ashamed about – it nearly impossible to from shame on your own.

Things to think about:
  • Do you feel to blame for the abuse?
  • How could you lay the blame firmly back on the abuser?
  • Do you think other children are to blame if they are abused?
  • What are the negative messages you give yourself?
  • Are you hyper vigilant when you are around people?
  • Do you work hard not to let people into how you are really feeling?
  • Who could you trust to talk through some of these shame issues?