Shame and Self-Blame After Trauma

Shame and Self-Blame One of my resolutions for 2010 is to write about learning to love yourself after trauma. In thinking about it I realized that I need to back up and talk about why self-love and compassion are so difficult for trauma survivors prior to and in the early stages of healing. I realized I needed to first say something about shame, self-hate and the tendency for survivors of abuse to blame themselves for the abuse.

self-hate

self-blame

self-esteem

self-love

What do we mean when we use these terms and how are they relevant for trauma survivors?

I have written before about how much we all need human connection  (see: Family of Choice, Connection Heals, Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices).

Our very sense of self  develops in the context of attachment to caring , “good enough” others. Trauma disrupts this attachment and results in the disruption of basic developmental tasks such as self-soothing, seeing the world as a safe place,  trusting others,  organized thinking for decision-making and avoiding exploitation. It also often leads to pervasive shame and self-blame.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman describes how the child’s development occurs within the context of relationship:

The developing child’s positive sense of self depends upon a caretaker’s benign use of power. When a parent, who is so much more powerful than a child, nevertheless shows some regard for that child’s individuality and dignity, the child feels valued and respected; she develops self-esteem. (p. 52)

In other words, a child growing up in such an environment, with their basic needs being met, learns to love themselves.

Many do not have this optimal experience. What about those who experience emotional, physical, sexual abuse or neglect? Early developmental tasks such as trust in self and others, autonomy and the ability to take initiative can be interrupted when the child’s needs are too often unmet. Trauma disrupts the  child’s development on a profound level.  Judith Herman describes how childhood trauma creates instead a “damaged self”:

Traumatic events violate the autonomy of the person at the level of bodily integrity. The body is invaded, injured, defiled.  …Shame is a response to helplessness, the violation of bodily integrity, and the indignity suffered in the eyes of another person. (p. 53)

In my experience, trauma survivors also at times describe feeling that their minds and spirits have been violated.

Abuse begets shame, the felt sense that one is innately bad. It can take the form of believing that you are defective, broken, unlovable, unworthy, stupid, ugly, worthless. In the case of trauma survivors it can also be expressed as blaming yourself for the abuse. In reality it is exactly the reverse! Abuse creates this sense of being bad.

In working with survivors of childhood abuse, it has certainly been my experience that one of the core effects of childhood trauma  is to the child’s developing sense of self.  This may be even more pronounced when the abuse is pervasive, sadistic and/or committed by primary caretakers or other trusted figures. So often survivors of childhood abuse and neglect grow into adulthood with the entrenched belief that they are to blame for what they have endured.

I want to say right now and very clearly that this is never the case. No child (yes, that includes you reading this!) is ever to blame for the abuse inflicted upon them by others. Period.

So why do so many feel this, on a gut level, with such certainty? I believe there are a number of factors and dynamics that contribute to self-blame.

1. Abuse is by its nature a humiliating, dehumanizing, experience. As described above, the natural reaction to such experiences is a feeling of shame.

2. The illusion of control: believing you are to blame can give survivors a sense of control, however illusory,  over the abuse. If you believe it happened because of something you are doing you can maintain hope for change.  If only you just figure out the right things to do/avoid doing the abuse will stop, you can imagine. It is terrifying to face the reality that you are powerless in the face of adults who were untrustworthy, out of control and abusive.

3. Many children are told directly  and repeatedly that they are to blame. This may happen during the abuse and also at the time of reaching out to others for help. This then gets internalized. Some may replay those messages over and over in their minds as adults, without even recognizing the original source. For survivors with dissociative disorders, some parts may even take on the role of internal critic, repeating and reinforcing the messages of the abusers.

4. Self-blame enables survivors to protect  abusers, thus attempting to maintain some sort of attachment with important others. This may be especially the case when the abusers were family members or significant people who had something to offer in addition to abuse at times.

5. Survivor self-blame is reinforced by our culture’s victim blaming.

So you can see there are lots of good reasons why survivors wind up blaming themselves for the abuse and carrying a long-term legacy of shame and self-loathing. Please be compassionate with yourself as you embark upon this topic! No need to blame yourself for your self-blame.

How does childhood shame and self-blame carry over into adulthood?

Why is it a problem?

Why is it so important to learn to love yourself?

And how do you get there?

These are all topics I plan to elaborate upon in coming posts. I look forward to your comments and questions. Once again, remember:

No child (yes, that includes you reading this!) is ever to blame for the abuse inflicted upon them by others. Period.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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56 Responses to Shame and Self-Blame After Trauma

  1. Tom says:

    Dr. Young, this is such a beautiful presentation. Thank you so much for your effort. Now if you (we-all that have concerns for our loved ones) could figure out a way to instill the confidence they are due, life would be more like it should be. Keep up the great work and thank you to the max for shareing your knowledge. Respectfully, Tom Porter

  2. Svasti says:

    I am not a survivor of childhood abuse. but of grown up assault instead. Yet I relate very much to what you’ve written. Especially this: …Shame is a response to helplessness, the violation of bodily integrity, and the indignity suffered in the eyes of another person.

    Oh my. That pretty much sums up a huge portion of my issues. Shame. Violation of bodily integrity. Indignity.

    Seems like no matter what kind of trauma you’ve been through, the issues are the same.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Svasti-

      Yes! As I was writing I definitely thought about how much of this applies to those who are traumatized in adulthood too. Sexual assault and domestic violence immediately come to mind as types of traumas that often induce shame, at any age.

      Thank you for reading and sharing this important comment!

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  4. Sharon S says:

    What a strong and informative post! The idea of “self” and attachment formation in regards to self is very interesting to me. Being subjected to abuse and neglect during the formative years (and sometimes later adolescents) can damage one’s sense of self.

    The result that get’s manifested later in life is a sense of shame, lack of trust, guilt, and like you said, even protecting the abuser. One of the hardest things for victims to “get” is that the abuse was NOT their fault.

    Good news is that in working with a trauma specialist (like yourself), re-creating a positive sense of self is a reality. Thanks for this post.

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  6. Kerro says:

    What a great post – thank you!

  7. Dr. Young, shame makes it difficult to believe that the abuse was not your fault especially when it happens over and over again by different abusers. This was a hard lesson for me to finally accept. I needed to be told over and over again that the abuse wasn’t my fault.

  8. katie says:

    thank you for sharing your writings on the blog carnival so more people could be aware of your website. i really love your writings and found myself reading one after another. so helpful!

    i’ve already started telling others about your page. thank you for your work.

  9. marjakathriver says:

    It took me a while to read this jam-packed, excellent post! I had to come back a second time to finish and think about it before commenting. It’s a very smart, thoughtful and insightful post. Also, very validating.

    Thank you so much for sharing it with us for THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE. I so appreciate your contributions. I’ll look forward to reading your upcoming posts on learning to love oneself and how to get there! I’m definitely still working on that one! 😉

    • Marj-

      Thank you for reading and sharing your input! I am very glad it comes across as validating.

      I hope you know how much I appreciate the contribution you make with the Carnival. It is a really significant giving back to the community.

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  16. Clara says:

    Great article. Thanx for writing.
    It’s very interesting because I went to my therapist today and I didn’t even realize how much I actually blame myself for the way my dad acted. Even though I don’t really feel ashamed, I found out more and more as I went along how much I really am. I guess I really do surpresse my emotions a lot.

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  18. Tamika says:

    This is so true! My younger sister and I were both abused and as the older sister I spent my whole life long blaming myself for not protecting her, for not stopping it, for not ‘taking’ it for her (3 abusers, 2 girls) for not fighting harder to make the adults hear what was happening to us – even after police were involved our father continued to allow the abuser near us while he was ‘around’.

    After therapy I was able to put it into perspective, I wouldn’t expect my 6 year old niece to protect her little brother without adult help – why did I expect it of myself? I asked for help in the strongest way I knew how. Now I really understood what “No child is ever to blame for the abuse inflicted upon them by others” really means.

    Thank you for writing the article. I think that your statement should be publisised alot more so that it gets through to the kids who are suffering today together with the people who aren’t ready to seek help yet.

  19. Barb says:

    I’ve been diagnosed with c ptsd and depression several years ago but do not trust either the motive of doctors involved or the process of treatment . In reaction to this I was left to linger with serious gallbladder disease despite repeated dr visits trying to explain my abdominal pain as well as one ER visit where they weren’t able to diagnose it . No ultrasound was taken at this time . An alert on my chart pertaining to non treatment for depression made everyone KNOW I was lying about the pain . One month later I demanded one be done and then I was informed as if news to me that I had a condition that ‘could kill you’ followed by a 7 month wait for surgery. The surgeon wanted me to assure him beforehand that I hadn’t suffered any serious attacks despite having suffered for 3 years with it! I have totally found it to be true that people with mental health issues will encounter the most stigma and prejudice within the medical system itself. This alone keeps me out of the dr office and away from their ‘treatment’.

    • Hi Barb-

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It is awful that you encountered poor medical treatment as a result of stigma. My hope would be that you do not generalize or let that sour you on all treatment! Certainly well trained trauma-informed therapists are not likely to judge or maltreat you; they will understand what you have been though.

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  21. Angelica says:

    Thanks for this post. As a survivor of childhood physical and emotional abuse, I’m working with a therapist to help me overcome these feelings. I never really admitted it to myself until recently that I blame myself and that I feel worthless because of what my mother did to me. I was a child, alone and with no one to turn to yet I blame myself for not being able to solve a complex problem with no solution. I’ve suffered from migraines my whole life not to mention feelings of despair. Inherently, I feel as though there is something wrong with me.

    I’ve been seeing a therapist for a couple of years. It’s taken that long to get down to the nitty gritty pain and my own repressed feelings. I have extreme trust issues and am recognising that my self blame, and guilt need to be addressed. I am hopeful that after 34 years I will one day be able to forgive myself and love myself. Maybe I’ll be happy one day.

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  25. DisturbedInsomniac says:

    This is a really well written article. It’s unreal how self-blame can resurface at any given moment. I guess because in my case, I never really confronted the issues of what I had gone through. I assumed that because I was an adult when certain things happened, it meant I was at an age where I should know better, so tough shit. A ‘you did it to yourself, moron’ type of thing. I thought I was fine when I lived overseas for a while, but shortly after returning home, I found myself back at square one, because now I’m back to lying to everyone, pretty much, biting my tongue around certain people to avoid unwanted fights, and avoiding causing my mother heartache and grief by accidentally spilling the beans. I wish I could live the ordinary awesome life I’ve fooled everyone to believe that I have. It’s too late to say anything to anyone anyways, since I waited too long, no one would believe me. I’m reluctant to even say anything, because of society’s victim-blame perception of things. “If someone got raped, they probably asked for it anyways.” Maybe I just need to move to another far away place where I don’t have to worry about it. Running away isn’t healthy, but denial tells me otherwise.

    I must sound like a hopeless wreck, my apologies.

    Awesome article, you really illustrate things brilliantly!

  26. Sarah says:

    I’m sorry if this is a silly question but I’m in the very early stages of dealing with my childhood…I’ve called it the ‘tug-of-war’ stage because I sway back and forth with ‘was/is it abuse’ to ‘how dare you think that of your parents,’ etc. Suppose I’m still very much confused or in denial! But I came across this and the shame and self-blame seems to sit with me some. Self-blame I get, but not so sure about shame….I was wondering how childhood physical and emotional abuse is connected with shame? This is probably a silly question…but there is a lot I don’t seem able to understand, maybe it would help me stop blaming myself if I could provide some sort of explanation for the way I feel instead of condemning my feelings like I always have done!

    Also just wanting to say thank you for all your hard work! Means a lot to know that you aren’t alone and that there are people who care and want to help!

    Thanks

  27. David says:

    Shame can be so paralyzing. The emotional abuse in my household turned into chronic bullying at school, which was then never addressed by my parents or the staff. I wound up blaming myself because when my parents had occasion to meet my bullies ( always on their best behavior) I’d get the typical “But they are so nice! you see? It must all be in your head.” So not only was I the main target of every kid at school, I was told that I was delusional for thinking so. My parents had the same power of magical deflection when it came to any accountability for their own behavior. I was responsible for everything, I was forever being punished for minor transgressions and imperfections. It got ingrained in me, this notion that I would never be given a reprieve for anything and that if I worked hard enough, I might possibly come out even, though it looked grim, because I was such a failure. How could I be so ungrateful and so lazy and yet be so talented? I would practice piano for three hours ( this was when I was 12) and get up from the piano feeling worthless.

    I remember my father telling me with a straight face “We can’t apologize. If we started apologizing we would never be able to stop.” Victims of abuse need to understand the profoundly warped and paradoxical double standards they are subjected to, and stop blaming themselves for being confused. Pathological scrutiny of your every gesture is not love, and your feelings of helplessness are not a ‘lack of strength’, nor is your inability to do things “laziness”. Being trapped away from the truth is what breaks everything down, only a very calm, prolonged and profound look at the truth will start to free you. Just remember, your feelings have value, you have value, away from the sick and twisted games of the abusive people around you.

  28. Alex says:

    Kathleen,

    My fiance is a survivor of many years of abuse from both her parents who hated each other and were at constant war against each other, while she was stuck in the middle. I found this article out of desperation as she has lived 20 years believing it was her fault and this has caused her great destress to the point of contemplation (and attempts) of suicide. I am going to read her this article as she needs to realize that her parents abuse was not her fault.

    She has recently admitted to me that after her father would beat her and tell her how worthless she is, he would sometimes do the same to her mother, which would then result in her mother saying “look what you made your dad do to me”. This absolutely disgusts me as she is the most amazing person I’ve ever met and like you have said, the abuse is NEVER the child’s fault.

    I was wondering, as this is one of the most useful articles I have found in 5 years of searching, could you please help me with this one: Because she thinks the abuse was her fault and that she was supposed to make her parents happy – she blames herself unconditionally for everything that they did and every moment that they are not happy. So then she will not even attempt to change her perspective because she believes it SO much that she thinks she should never deserve happiness. How do I show her that she does deserve to get better and be happy and not blame herself?

    She doesn’t believe that I love her because she feels worthless because of her parents. Please let me know what you think.

    And thank you again for this extremely helpful article.

    • Emily says:

      She really needs professional help and there probably isn’t much you can do.
      The thing I found most helpful was group therapy with people who had experienced similar circumstances to my own. If it wasn’t their fault, it could be mine.
      perhaps try to get her to imagine the same sinario she went through as though it were another child.

  29. trying to heal says:

    As another survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I want to thank you for this article. I still struggle with blaming myself to this day, decades after it happened, and am struggling with the notion that I am not worthless, used, or damaged as a person because of what happened.

  30. This is a really great article!! I never thought much about blaming myself for the abuse my parents inflicted on me (was it even abuse?). But then after 2 years of therapy it came up in a very matter-of-fact way the other day. My mom beat me because I provoked her, I wouldn’t shut up, I wouldn’t stop doing whatever bad thing I was doing. I knew she would hit me but I did that stuff anyway. So of course it was my fault! Only now I can feel the giant reservoir of guilt and shame (soooo much shame) that comes with knowing. I made my mom abuse me.

    Logically, I can see the fallacy of that. Sometimes. But the feelings…the feelings come from KNOWING I am to blame. I’m sure that my therapist and I will cover this ground again, but I can’t imagine anything that she can say or do that will convince me otherwise. She simply wasn’t there and doesn’t understand what really happened.

    How do you deal with the pain when you know you were to blame for the abuse? What magic can happen in therapy to heal this deep lake of guilt and shame that I’m holding inside?

  31. Makya says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article. I am in the process of counseling as a result of childhood emotional abuse and neglect and these words hit home for me. It’s nice to know that there is someone out there that not only understands but helps all of us get to the root of our issues so that we may overcome them.

  32. Annie says:

    Marvelous article. We can’t get enough of this type of article.

  33. Pamela says:

    Thank you I enjoyed your article, I am struggling with this issue right now my abuse started when I was eight and continued throughout my teenage years. It is very difficult to understand how it could not be my fault when I kept going back. I hope this is something you will touch on in your future articles. Thank you again.

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  35. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Sometimes I forget I have issues with traumatic shame until someone treats me badly and my PTSD gets triggered. Fortunately, the episodes are fewer and farther between now, but I had a negative experience with someone I trusted recently that has stuck with me. I wasn’t sure why it stuck with me so much, until I realized I was having a PTSD reaction to it. It wasn’t exactly that my feelings were hurt, but more like I felt like someone stepped inside my soul and started trashing the place and blaming me for it. It was all disorienting and disconcerting and made me have feelings come up from when that has happened to me in the past. I had a knee-jerk type reaction where I wanted to run away and hide and also to find ways I was to blame so I could “fix it.” Your article helped remind me what I was doing and that I am going to be okay and that I’m not to blame for any of the abuse. I’m going to bookmark this so when I am triggered again, I can hopefully learn to feel more grounded and present when things like this happen. Thank you!

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  37. Greg says:

    These are all very good points. I can personally attest to the devastating, long lasting effects of being violated as a child. I’m 47 years old and still live with a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness. I question the purpose of my life regularly and am often suicidal because I don’t believe I have any value and that nothing will ever really change.

    Thank you for writing about this important topic. I hope others in my situation can heal from what happened to them. I don’t know if I ever really will. Despite years of therapy and other types of treatment, I still feel like dying a lot of the time. Being allowed to grow a sense of worth as a child is the most important thing there is, because without it, there truly is nothing to live for.

  38. ray2k5 says:

    i know this is an old post but i’ve only just stumbled upon it now. its such an informative post and thank you for putting it up, i have been struggling for years with this issue and i’m glad to know there’s hope for me to get past it.

  39. esther t says:

    I was emotionally, verbally, physically abused all my days of youth by a family member, working thru this, including fashbacks, I repeat to myself- it’s my fault you hated me, she said it hatefully and viciously, along with much other. I have struggled with blame and shame all my life. Came to a head last Fri, ER diagnosis emotional crisis, more flashbacks of two molestations rape, and 2 more long term emotional abuse long term, one recently. I am stuck in shame and blame. The words not my fault mean little to me right now. I work hard to recover, but did not expect things to come to a head this way. Your article is the first I have read that takes me thru it all. Keep working, emotional, tears me up. Getting past it was my fault the hardest

    • Alison says:

      Esther I was very moved by your post when I read it today. I am an incest survivor and my mother knew it was happening and did nothing about it. It went on for many years from the age of about 9 until I was 17 years old and managed to stop it. I told my mother what was going on and she just wouldn’t listen. In fact she forced me to leave her presence until I stopped displaying my feelings in her presence and I was only 9. Despite that I still held on to hope that she would change and would help me but she never did. I suffer from feelings of anger and self-loathing and constant headaches. I am attending a counsellor and it is helping but I am struggling to get my feelings out into the open after years of being forced to bottle them up. Good luck Esther I hope you make it through these difficult times and are able to get on with your life. I plan to make it happen and hope you do too.

      • Anonymous says:

        Dr. Young,

        Thank you for this post, along with the other related posts, regarding low self esteem and self hate. I probably have my own issues, but this reply is regarding my wife of 25 years. Her parents were in a very bad marriage; father was abusive physically, mentally and verbally, to all five kids as well as her mother. All I have heard about mom is that she took it all those years, and suffered as well, but she also had a part in some of the verbal/physical abuse as a side effect/release from her own suffering. My wife has difficulty expressing her true feelings to me or anyone really, and has yet to make the intimate connection with me that I so desperately want, and that she has said she would love as well. She has several acquaintances, but none even she has shared anything truly secret or heartfelt.

        The more I read, the more I saw issue after issue that I see the love of my life struggle with. The “fat talk” is a 2-3 times per week conversation that she has out loud, not just with herself, along with the “I’m ugly” talk. She has shared and admittted that she does not like herself at all. She blames herself for every challenge and failure that has come up in our marriage, even though that is far from true. She plans to go out of state to be with her mother while she goes through another cancer surgery which I understand and fully support, but has also stated that because she is just not happy, she wants a divorce or at least a separation, and does not plan to come back.

        I will admit that I am not perfect, or even a great catch necessarily, but I ha been fully committed to my wife, our 3 kids, and to our relationship for 25 years. I am at a crushing moment with her because, while I am not a trained psychologist, I have eyes and ears, and I know what I see. I see all of the signs of someone who is only ‘unhappy’ because of things she had no control over as a child. The most frustrating part for me is that even though she is thirsty, and I’ve tried to bring her water, she seems too scared to drink. I wish there was some way I could show her that she is not the only one to go through this same painful scenario, she’s not ‘weak’ for admitting she’s hurting or accepting an offer of help. I’m desperate to find a way to help her see that we together can have the happiness we want and deserve, and with less effort than its taken to cover, hide and run from the pain for all these decades.

  40. milli says:

    thank you Dr.Young, your article was very simple and concise and a good boost which i could use to help my friend who has suffered the same , both as to help my knowledge and to show her she is not alone in her community. as a follow up i would like to ask , does the feeling of shame and the quest for validation in consequent future relationships which are not healthy, treated in therapy or is it something which needs follow-up therapy?

    • Thanks for reading and writing. Shame is such a common reaction and definitely a target for treatment in trauma therapy. Resolving shame may help with relationships and many people also benefit from learning and practicing effective relationship skills.

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