Trigger Warning: The following contains content that may be disturbing to some audiences because of its discussion of sexual abuse.
Overcoming Shame Despite a History of Trauma
Experiencing shame is a debilitating exercise. It’s even more difficult if we feel a great reason to blame ourselves.
A past tarnished with sexual abuse has brought me shame in many areas of life. These things, more often than not, have nothing to do with sex. In fact, this article will most definitely not touch on the very personal sexual consequences of abuse but instead explore the “other” stuff — the things that I don’t think most people would link to abuse unless they themselves have experienced it.
The root cause of most of the shame that I feel in life is from my molestation, and this affects such intricacies as my ability to make eye contact with others and even changes the way in which I eat food. Being groomed by a controlling and manipulative person taught me that most of the things that I do are the incorrect way of doing them but also that the things that I do right are perfect.
Some simple examples of things that I learned I did “wrong” or were fundamentally incorrect:
- The way in which my lips naturally purse on my resting face is odd. There is visibly a showing of teeth, and it is strange. I need to close my mouth.
- My posture is offensively sloppy and by showing a lack of confidence in my body I lose a great deal of value.
- Expressing emotion loudly in ways such as crying or cussing is slovenly.
- Failure to perform sexual tasks when asked is an insult and affirms a lack of loyalty and devotion to a person.
These examples of things about me that disgusted my abuser were sought to be corrected through the enforcement of punishments. I was extremely and intimately close to my abuser as my best friend and confidante throughout most of my childhood, so their enforcement of punishment hurt me like a dagger to the heart. I was explicitly told that I was odd. I was given the “silent treatment”. They would avoid seeing me unless I did whatever they said and made sure I visibly held their words and their standards above all of the ideals that my impressionable mind had. The only time I was faced with direct anger from them was when I outright refused sexual favors and/or danced around the act by poorly lying about not feeling well.
To this day, I still feel shame whenever I slouch or feel that I’m chewing too loudly because of the ridiculous emphasis that was placed on any less-than favorable idiosyncrasy that I had. Being punished by my abuser didn’t feel good, but as a child I thought that it was worth it because of all of the rewards I often felt when I was doing things “right”. These included:
- Getting to experience things that were for adults that my parents denied me (i.e. watching R-rated movies or access to knowledge of material that was over the average child’s head)
- Being praised and adored by the senior age group of the abuser’s friends that I looked up to (rich kids that were high-school/college aged versus being middle-class and enrolled in elementary school/middle school)
- Being told that I was exceptional (i.e. beautiful, talented, intelligent, “beyond my years”, etc.)
To this day, this makes me feel ashamed about qualities that I know are truly good. Whenever someone compliments the way that I look, I feel attacked. If someone with the intention of complimenting me says that I am mature for my age, it makes me very worried about how they are going to try to use me and I feel more like a steak dinner than a person.
The fact that my abuser seemed to feel so hot-and-cold about me made me feel very hot-and-cold about myself. Additionally, I aborted “childish” things at a very young age (and was made quite a place at the table) with someone who was five years older and, unlike me, a highly confident individual who was exceptionally artistically gifted and had many friends.
I could probably fill a whole book with the ways in which my childhood trauma has shaped me as a person. The culmination of my abuse is probably the most painful part of it all: admitting to my friends and family what happened to me as a child when asked why I’d severed communication with and expressed resentment of my abuser who, again, was very near and dear to me for most of my life.
The way that I saw things as an 18 year old was that I had two choices: I could continue my life having to see this person at every family function and regularly be subjected to hearing their name, or I could tell my family what happened and simultaneously make sure that the same thing didn’t happen to my sisters and cousins. Telling my family at 18 wouldn’t be as effective as telling them when I was 10, but I thought that I would at least be potentially protecting the other young women in my family from the suppressed shame and anger that I experienced daily. I thought that it would put me at ease.
There were lots of mixed reactions from family members. Some of them really did not seem to care — I believe this because they kept communicating with my abuser as though it were perfectly normal for him to have molested me. My parents were extremely hell-bent on convincing me to take legal action, but that didn’t feel right. Some members of my family didn’t say anything to me at all but also took careful precautions to never dare mention my abuser and to mean-mug anyone who brought him up at a family function. The more religious individuals in my family urged me to uphold principles of forgiveness above all else and to make amends with my anger.
Having to decide from a pool of options like this was very shameful for me. Other than the shame of admitting that I was thoroughly groomed, I felt disgusted by the thought of being considered as “broken” or as a “victim”. I told my family about what happened precisely so that I could stop being a victim. Being groomed made me look like a willing participant in a horrible disservice to myself.
It wasn’t until recently that I was able to begin overcoming this shame. I find that every single relationship that I was in from 16–21 years of age mimicked my relationship with my abuser, but now that I find myself with a wonderful person, I feel the strongest and most assuring sense of healing. Being in a healthy relationship and clearing my life of any situations or behaviors parallel to my abuse has been paramount in the process of recovery. There is also the power of therapy, which I’ve spoken about quite a bit in one of my previous articles. I’ve begun to see the consequences of my past and squash out my bad behavior related to old coping mechanisms. I limit contact with people, places, and things that “trigger” me in any way. I have realized that although I do not have complete control over my mind, I can exercise a great deal of control in my recovery.
Life is certainly more difficult as an adult when you have an “inner child” behind the wheel. When your inner child navigates adult situations, the response to every situation is flight rather than fight. Sometimes I find myself acting very immaturely and far below my years when I am intimidated or phased with the problems that everyday, adult life presents. No matter how difficult the past may seem, adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse can, without question, thrive and lead meaningful lives. The path to overcoming the pain of the past is not an easy one and seems to be (at least for myself) an ongoing journey.
We must remember that we have resources and that our minds and bodies are our own. We do not belong to anyone or owe anyone anything because of what happened to us. Most importantly, we must remember that the worst is behind us. We are the captains of our own ships now, even if the little voice in the back of our head can sometimes be that of a child’s. We can seek help through the power of trusting others and trusting ourselves — by forgiving ourselves. Overcoming shame, sadness, and fear after a history of trauma is no small feat, but it has the potential to be a part of every victimized child’s life.
I hope that reading this can be cathartic for you or for someone that you love.