Sanctuary for the Abused
Thursday, December 15, 2016
Working Towards Emotional Healing: Dealing with Shame
As You Work Toward Emotional Healing
Survivors of abuse often have to deal with feelings of shame. There is an important difference between shame and guilt, and that is the key to dealing with shame effectively.
Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines shame as "the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another." And yes, it is a painful feeling, and is VERY common among survivors of abuse.
For our discussion, we'll make some simplifications. Guilt is an emotion and a legal concept that belongs to the perpetrator, the initiator of an act of abuse.
Shame is an emotion that afflicts the victim, the recipient of an act of abuse. Obviously, the perp should feel shame as well as guilt, but often feels neither, so we'll leave that out of this discussion. We'll talk about how victims can deal with shame.
Even if you have worked hard to deal with guilt, and have assigned guilt to the person who abused you, and resolved the fact that no guilt belongs to you, shame may still be making you miserable. Shame rises out of a sense of powerlessness and frustration, as well as the continual feeling of shock that something this horrible has happened to you. Both men and women deal with shame, but experts believe that in general, among abuse survivors, women tend to feel more guilt, and men tend to feel more shame. But generalizations can be dangerous, and let's just agree that both shame and guilt can make people miserable.
First, it helps to realize that the actual physical act of abuse is not as important as you think. The physical act, whatever it may have been, was done by the perp to give himself a feeling of power, and to give you a feeling of powerlessness. The act was carefully chosen by the perp, thinking like a torturer, to give you the most emotional pain. So when dealing with shame, don't think in terms of healing your physical wounds. You must think of it in emotional terms, and analyze what your emotional wounds are.
For your physical wounds, you went to a doctor or an emergency room. For your emotional wounds, you have to see a therapist. Many people resist this step, but it is no stranger than seeing a doctor for your bruises or cuts, and is every bit as important.
An aside: I've had physical wounds. A few hours after a major surgery, I was taken to get a CAT Scan. I had a large, freshly sutured incision on my stomach. The iodine solution I had to drink for the CAT Scan made me vomit, and it felt like it was ripping my incision open, and ripping my entire body apart. What's my point? I've had physical pain. Emotional pain hurts more. That's my point.
The powerlessness, the fear, the shock of the abuse is behind your feeling of shame. Even if you know the perp is guilty, that doesn't necessarily affect your feelings of shame. You need to realize that the perpetrator worked very hard to ensure that he had all of the power, and you had none. Abusers will use the element of surprise. Abusers will use an age difference, especially when adults abuse children, but also when adults abuse the elderly. Abusers will use weapons. Abusers will use threats and coercion -- "unless you have sex with me, I'll assault your younger sister"; some are much more subtle. Abusers will use economic issues, like threatening to evict the victim unless they comply.
Batterers are especially fond of economic power, and will make sure that if their battered wife leaves them, she will have no options for taking care of herself or the children. Abusers will use gender issues to cultivate fear, wherein the man is comfortable with violence and the woman is not, even though there may not be a large difference in their physical sizes.The thing to remember is that no matter what the specifics are, the perpetrator has taken enormous pains to make sure that this is not a fair fight; that all of the advantages are his, and you have none at all. It is not fair for you to feel that you "should" have been able to do something to stop it. The perpetrator made sure you couldn't. In those circumstances, almost nobody could have. The abuse happened because the perpetrator planned it carefully, and was never, never fair.
It's not because you were weak, or cowardly, or gullible, or stupid.
Let's use a poker-playing analogy. You didn't lose because you were a lousy poker player. You lost because the perp was using a marked deck that he had prepared himself. He made sure he dealt himself four aces, and he made sure he dealt you nothing of value. He cheated, from beginning to end. That card game had nothing to do with your skill at playing cards.
Some people are helped by making a two-column chart, where they write down the things that describe the perpetrator in one column, and the things that described themselves at the time in the other column. It ends up looking something like this:
AGE: Perp was in his thirties. I was six years old.
STRENGTH: Perp was an adult. I was a little boy.
STRATEGY: Perp planned a surprise attack. I was innocent and unsuspecting.
PREPARATION: Perp was a predator. Nobody had even mentioned this subject to me before in my life.
As you proceed with this chart, it will become more and more clear how unfair and lopsided the contest was. It will help you understand and feel why shame is not a fair emotion for you to have.
The Perp Was Lying
Remember, too, that the shame has been carefully implanted in you by the perpetrator.
There are two reasons for this: first, that is how he got his pleasure; by making you feel ashamed. Second, that is how he hoped to keep you from reporting the act to someone who had power over him.
No matter what the perp said to you, it was wrong. Nothing he said was true; everything he said was a lie to serve himself. It made him feel good and it made him feel safe. As long as the shame persists, it is giving him power. If you reject the shame, you are taking a major step in fighting back. If you reject the shame, you will make him feel bad, and you will make him feel unsafe. If you reject the shame, you will be taking power away from him, and empowering yourself.
Talking about abuse is never easy. But if you talk to an expert, the expert will know that there is no guilt on your head, and no shame either. The expert will know how deeply you have been wounded, and will know how completely unfair the situation was to you. The expert will admire you for having survived, and for having the courage to step forward and talk about it.
The expert will also know how you can heal from your emotional wounds, and will be happy to share that information with you.
If the abuse is ongoing, or if it happened thirty years ago, the emotional wounds are still very real. It is never too late to start working on emotional healing. Call your local women's crisis center or child abuse prevention center and ask for help. To find the center nearest you, call your county social services office for the name and phone number of the crisis centers. Or find a qualified therapist to work on these issues.
The other thing to do is to start seeing a therapist to help heal your emotional wounds. If you are hesitant about that, check out this article I wrote about what therapy can do for you.
The experts at the women's crisis center or child abuse prevention center can help you find a good therapist who specializes in helping people just like you. Right now, you are all alone with this problem. It is time to get some friends and allies on your side, to take power away from the perp and keep it for yourself, to regain a sense of strength and confidence, to eliminate the emotional pain that is grinding you down, to mobilize the power structure of your county against the criminal who abused you.
If you recognize the difference between guilt and shame, and then isolate each of them, you can work with a therapist to kill them off, one by one. If you have been abused, 100% of the guilt is on the perpetrator, and none is on you. Zero. Zip. Nada. And if you have been abused, 100% of the shame belongs on the perpetrator too. And none belongs on you.
Zero. Zip. Nada.
Not even a smidgen.