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.
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.