Article – It’s not me it’s you:

Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse

Sexual abuse and the legacy of shame and false responsibility

Published in The Trauma and Abuse Group Journal “Interact”
Autumn 2009

I was leaving Tescos recently with a bagful of shopping in one hand and a two year old in the other – just as I stepped out the door the buzzer went off indicating I had an unpaid item in my groceries. At first it was a bit of a joke pulling out the apples, crisps and Pooh Bear Jellies but then it got more serious. I was asked to open my handbag. People were staring in my direction and as the contents of my makeup bag (tampons and all) were strewn on the floor. I stopped laughing and began to feel another emotion – shame.

Shame is about exposure – we all feel shame at times but it is an emotion that people do not want to talk about because it is such a powerful and yet disabling feeling. Failed contestants on the “Weakest Link” TV show exit via what is known as “the walk of shame”. In his 1987 essay “Shame Steps Out of Hiding and into Sharper Focus” Daniel Goleman says “Shame goes to one’s basic sense of self.”

How Shame Enters

So why do some of us become shame based people? It is my learning that shame typically enters from an external source from significant people in our lives in our childhood:

  • Abandonment – Physical or emotional
  • Un-met Needs and Rejection – Directly or indirectly – through parents busyness/illness/pre-occupation with other problems
  • Abuse – Physical/Emotional/Sexual
  • Misnaming – Way child is treated / Name calling and Ridicule
  • (Source: Gary Hayashi “Living Waters Conference” Seminar on “Shame” – London – July 1994)

The shame then becomes internalised. This is the problem – shame then becomes the foundation of how we operate and it has very destructive effects of on both relationships and everyday life in adulthood. Sexual abuse is an issue that can shroud the victim in secrecy and shame.

Carrying The Shame

Usually victims of child sexual abuse feel very ashamed that they have been abused and feel that they are now somewhat “tarnished” by their abuse. They also often hold onto shame because they often look back at the situation and think I could/should have done something and feel somehow responsible for the abuse. In essence they carry the shame that does not belong to them but to the abuser. Penny Parks 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”.
(Source: “Rescuing The Inner Child” – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series
Published 1990 p 43)

It is my experience through working for over 15 years with women who have experienced sexual abuse that when challenging those blame and shame filled thoughts it is crucial to remember the intention of the abuser and the intention of the victim – to remind the victim who had the real power. 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 eg ill or old. 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 which many people are manipulated into feeling justifies the abusers actions.
It is also essential to think through what were your choices at that time and as you were at that stage in your childhood. People often look back at the situation and think how they would re-act today not as they were when they were at seven or sixteen. Other relational areas also need to be considered. Were there people in your life that you could trust and who met your needs? Sometimes the person who abused you may have been the only person who made you feel “special” and therefore you were extremely susceptible to them.

The Late Ray Wyre ran an organisation that worked to rehabilitate sex offenders said children should be protected “from adults who would use their power, their money, their influence and their charm to enter into a “sexual relationship” that met the adult’s needs and not the child’s.”
(The Guardian 1st April 2005). Abusers can be very outwardly “charming” and seemingly a safe haven for a vulnerable young person.

An interesting question to ask is what would you say today to a child or young person who told you they were being sexually abused?

How It Plays Out In Adulthood

The shame that is related to the abuse sadly often does not disappear when childhood ends but rather is held inside and can manifest itself in lots of different ways – mainly in relationships.

Often resulting in:
Being isolated and lonely – fearful when someone wants to have a close relationship
Fearing intimacy – wanting relationships but pushing people away
Feeling “something is wrong with me”
Defensive when criticised
Unaware of how to get your own needs met and entering into people pleasing behaviour
Punishing self with negative and destructive self-talk – or physical harm
Feeling over responsible for everyone and everything that happens
Aggressive or abusive behaviour
Suffering from depression
(Source: Adapted from ideas in “Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse” – Heitritter and Vought – Bethany House Publishers – Published 1989)

Way Out Of Shame

The very last thing we want to do when we feel ashamed about something is to reveal it to others – and yet ironically the way out of shame is to talk about it. Sharing these “secrets” in a trustworthy environment frees the burden of carrying it alone and helps put the shame back on the correct person – the abuser – and the journey of recovery can really begin. This sharing could be in a recovery group, a counsellor, through close friends or a combination of these. Bass and David put it well: “Shame exists in an environment of secrecy. When you being to freely speak the truth about your life, your sense of shame will diminish … Secrets destroy people and they destroy them unnecessarily. It’s like being reborn when you shed the secret, because you have no more fear”.
(Courage To Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura David – Cedar 1988 – page 108

“Shame Steps Out of Hiding and into Sharper Focus” Daniel Goleman – The New York Times – 15th September 1987

“Freedom From Shame” Seminar – Gary Hayashi – Living Waters Conference – London – July 1994

“Rescuing The Inner Child” – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series – Published 1990 (p 43)

“When Yes Means No” Ray Wyre – The Guardian – 1st April 2005

“Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse” – Heitritter and Vought – Bethany House Publishers – Published 1989

“Courage To Heal” by Ellen Bass and Laura David – Cedar 1988 – (page 108)