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Dealing With Shame

From Douglas Larsen

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.


Emotional Wound

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 powerlessnes, 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." 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 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.

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