How to Cope With Shame and Guilt
Guilt and shame are something that many survivors of abuse have to deal with in one form or another. Although we often use these terms interchangeably, they actually refer to two distinct things. Guilt is what you feel when you’ve done something wrong. So, if you lied to your spouse about having to work late when you instead went out with friends, you might feel guilty about that. Shame, on the other hand, is when you feel that you are wrong. If you feel shame, then you feel that you yourself are wrong, that you are not worthy, and that you are at your core, inadequate.
Guilt is a bit easier to cope with, so lets talk about that first…
Guilt is a feeling that comes when you’ve done something that you believe was wrong. It lets you know that you’ve in some way violated your values. Because of this, the easiest way to cope with it is to face it head on. If you did something that injured someone in some way, it is best to acknowledge to yourself that what you did was wrong, then go and apologize to the person you’ve harmed.
If what you did wasn’t directed towards another person, it is still best to try your best to make amends for what you did. This can take the form of making the decision to never act in that way and to become a better person or some similar action.
Since shame affects you at such a deep level, there is no easy fix for it. When you were abused, you experienced things that affected you deeply and might have included:
Being made to feel that you were to blame for the abuse.
Being made to feel that you were inferior to others.
Feeling humiliated by the actual abuse and that you were not able to stop it or control it.
Feeling guilt and shame over what happened to your family as a result of the abuse. You might have been unfairly blamed for this when in fact it was the abuser’s fault, not yours.
If you were sexually abused, you may have become aroused, which is a natural and physical reaction to stimulation. This may have been used against you as a sign that you “wanted it”. Again, remember that abuse is not your fault! It is always the abuser’s fault.
You were taught to hide your feeling to keep the secret. This taught you that you did something wrong, which could not have been further from the truth.
You were taught not to trust yourself. To doubt your feelings of what is right and wrong. To doubt your ability to judge whether someone can be trusted. To doubt what you are experiencing is real and true.
You may have been taught a perverted idea of what love is, so now you have trouble recognizing it. Yet despite this, you constantly crave being loved and perhaps engage in behaviors now to fill this need which feed your shame.
You were taught that your body is shameful. Maybe your abuser repeatedly pointed out all your flaws. Or they called you ugly hate-filled names and make fun of your looks.
Sexual behavior may have become associated with shame in you because of your history of abuse, so now you are unable to enjoy sex even when in a loving relationship.
These are just some of the ways that shame might be affecting you as a survivor.
Coping with The Shame
The first thing I’d like you to do is to learn to give yourself some grace. By this I mean that you need to learn to be kind to yourself and to be accepting of yourself. Wherever you are in your journey of healing right now, at this very instant, it is OK. Don’t feel any pressure to feel differently than you do, or to act differently or in any other way be different. You are valid and OK just the way you are right now. Wherever you are in your healing process, allow yourself to be there. This doesn’t mean that you should give up trying to be a better person or that you need to stop your healing. Rather, it’s about loving and accepting yourself today and not waiting for something to happen in your future. You don’t have to hate yourself because something awful happened to you. What happened to you IS NOT YOU. It doesn’t have to define you. I really hope this makes some kind of sense to you because I’d really like everyone reading this to understand it.
Something that you might find helpful is journaling. If you aren’t already doing this, give it a try. Journaling can be really helpful in sorting through your feelings and your experiences. It can help you to gain some perspective that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And it can also help you to make sense of some of the feelings you’re experiencing and allow you to safely vent them.
Inner Child Work
When doing inner child work, you can acknowledge the hurt and damage that was done to you as a child which can really aid in your healing. As an adult, you will be able to give your inner child those things that they did not receive when you were younger. Things like love, acceptance, safety, supportive parenting, and meeting all those unmet needs. Inner child work can help you to release pain and can help you learn to trust yourself again.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
You probably noticed a whole lot of negative talk going on in your head. This is a direct result of the abuse you experienced and one way in which that abuse continues to harm you today. When you notice that you’re having these thoughts, try to change the thought into one that is more encouraging. So, if you tell yourself that you are stupid every time you make a mistake, try changing that to “everyone makes mistakes and I’m only human. I’m going to try and learn from this so I won’t make this mistake again”.
Therapy really can help you to address these issues of shame that are left behind from your history of abuse. It can be difficult to face these issues, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re not ready for therapy right now. Just accept that about yourself and allow the possibility to remain open for therapy at a later time.
If you are ready for trauma treatment now, or would like more information, please follow the link.