Sexual abuse can be a very traumatic and painful experience. Shame and guilt are emotions that most commonly result from any form of sexual abuse. Loss of self respect, low self-esteem, intense sense of betrayal, powerlessness, rage and anger at self and abuser, depression and sadness are some of the other emotions that overwhelm victims and survivors of sexual abuse. Some or most of these emotions plague the survivors at different stages in their lives and recovery process. I am a survivor of adolescent sexual abuse and have experienced some or all of these emotions during the immediate aftermath of the abuse as well as on the long journey to heal. This article mainly focuses on my experiences in coping with the guilt, shame and betrayal of trust that I felt in the aftermath of the abuse.
Target of Abuse
I was a young, immature kid when my paternal uncle coerced me into having an affair with him. There was no force used, none was deemed necessary. I was in awe of him and literally idolized him. He was everything I wanted to be–smart, intelligent, well educated and well read. He was in essence my mentor and role model. I trusted him implicitly and this trust was the foundation for the “affair” that ensued. He had great power over me and I was a kid who unconditionally loved, adored and admired him.
I was sixteen years old and had been taught to keep my distance from men and boys. I did that dutifully but no one had cautioned me about predators in the family. My paternal uncle was a father-figure to me. He is 17 years older than me and we shared a very close relationship. I never felt threatened by him and so took a lot of liberties to be totally myself with him. I could discuss anything under the sun with him and not feel embarrassed. When he professed that he was madly in love with me, I was speechless. There was never any force necessary to go along with having an affair because I was infatuated with him. He declared his love for me in the most romantic ways and proposed marriage to me innumerable times. I could not resist his overtures and went along with whatever he proposed. He kissed me intimately in a very sexual manner and he slept next to me many nights. I neither protested nor resisted any of this. He spent every waking second that he could get with me.
Feelings at the time
Though difficult to acknowledge, I must admit that even though I was stunned, I was also secretly pleased. I felt special and flattered to be the object of his attention. I saw the tender and gentle side of a man for the first time. He did not hurt me physically neither did he upset me in any manner. We formed a “mutual admiration society” and talked endlessly about our love and admiration for each other. He was very suave and manipulated my thoughts and feelings through his sweet talking.
All through these sets of incidents, there was not the slightest force used against me. I was simply coerced into doing everything. I had a very hard time even accepting that what happened to me was sexual abuse. I could not associate abuse with anything that was not violent in nature. It took a lot of convincing for me to finally accept that what happened to me did constitute sexual abuse.
Guilt and Shame
Guilt is defined as the state of having committed an offence. It is related to actions, of doing something wrong or socially unacceptable. It is the inner voice or conscience admitting wrong doing. I have carried the burden of guilt for almost twenty years. I have felt guilty for having committed incest, for not having done something to stop the abuse, and for not having protested or resisted.
Shame is defined as a painful emotion arising from inadequacy or feeling of guilt. Shame is more related to oneself than acts. Shame is about feeling dirty about oneself or blaming oneself for some fault or inadequacy. Shame is related to how people will perceive your actions. Shame is oftentimes a sister of guilt and arises from feelings of guilt.
The feelings of guilt and shame often occur hand in hand and have to be processed in order to be extricated from the system. The following table is modeled on an exercise from the “courage to heal” workbook that I came across on “Unlocking The Silence” website. This has helped me to understand why I should not feel guilty or ashamed. It is certainly very helpful to write down all the reasons why one feels guilty or ashamed about the abuse and then for each reason write down a rebuttal as to why one should not feel that way. This will help put things in perspective and alleviate some of the guilt and shame. It may need to be done repeatedly anytime one is plagued by guilt or shame.
|It was really my fault because||It wasn’t really my fault because|
|1) I was responsible for the abuse||I was too young to share the responsibility. He was entirely to blame for this since he was the mature adult in the relationship|
|2) I did not resist his overtures||I had no means to resist them. I was young and my hormones were raging.|
|3) I did not walk away from situation||Being immature I did not have the power to walk away from the situation|
|4) I did not do anything and led him on by succumbing to his advances||I was totally in his control. I had no power or means to resist.|
|5) I remained silent and did not tell anyone||Felt so guilty and ashamed that I choked over my own feelings. Self blame was too overpowering and could not breathe a word to others.|
|6) I Broke the trust that my parents had in me||I did not do anything wrong. This whole situation was imposed by a trusted adult.|
|7) I behaved in a dirty manner to attract him||I did not initiate anything. he perpetrated all this upon me. Being the adult, he had the responsibility to behave in a manner befitting an uncle.|
|8) I took the liberty of being totally myself||I had no reason to feel guilty being myself because I did not do anything wrong. I was doing what seemed right–trusting my paternal uncle as I should have.|
|9) I feel ashamed and dirty about the acts that were inflicted upon me||It was beyond my control. I did not commit these acts–someone else did. So, the blame and shame are his, not mine.|
|10) I found parts of the abuse pleasurable and desirable. I responded to his overtures, sometimes passionately||I was a teenager and my hormones took over. I was doing what my body was made to do. This was a physiological reaction, not something I had control over.|
|11) I allowed perpetrator to sleep next to me||I did not have a choice. It was power play and I had no power.|
|12) I feel ashamed about my own character, morality and incestuous nature of the abuse||The incest was inflicted upon me–I did not initiate or ask for it.|
|13) I feel ashamed that I cannot talk openly about the abuse. Always entails a dirty feeling in the pit of my stomach about how people will react to it.||There is no reason to feel this way since the shame is his and not mine. People are insensitive sometimes and feel uncomfortable talking about such issues but that should not evoke shame. To discuss such delicate matters, one has to choose to talk to people who will be understanding and accepting.|
|14) I Had romantic feelings toward a father-figure||This fits into the domain of physiological reactions. The body and mind are designed to derive pleasure from certain stimuli and I was merely reponding to his overtures.|
|15) Somewhere deep down in my heart I believe that I did know what was happening was wrong. Yet, I did not take any action to prevent it from happening.||Whether I was aware of the morality of the issue is besides the point because being the younger person, I was always at a disadvantage due to the imbalance in the power equation. I simply did not have the power to prevent it from happening.|
|16) In all honesty, I did make it conducive for this to recur by finding time alone with him.||I was young and infatuated with him. It was his responsibility to ensure that he behaved appropriately even if opportunities were provided where we found ourselves alone.|
The sense of guilt and shame were deeply embedded in my psyche and I was struggling to find counter-arguments for each of these issues. The perpetrator abused me in full cognizance of his mind, body and spirit. By virtue of being older, he was more experienced and mature. He should have known right from wrong. I was wronged and my trust was betrayed. I was carrying forward the perpetrator’s guilt and shame, not mine. The perpetrator took advantage of my vulnerability and weakness. Even though no force was used, it still was sexual abuse because the perpetrator was abusing his powers and he had no right to subject me to that kind of humiliation. A part of growing up is to be infatuated and wade through the stages of sexual awareness. I was responding to that stage in my life and it was a perfectly normal reaction to exhibit. It was entirely his responsibility and choice to behave as did. What he did is a reflection upon his character and not mine. Being the adult in the relationship, it was his responsibility to behave in a decent manner befitting the relationship that we shared. Even if I were provocative, it was entirely upon him to guide me along the right path.
Betrayal of trust
The betrayal of trust had the most devastating impact on my life. I trusted him unconditionally and to me he was a father-figure. There was never any reason to feel threatened by him because it was unthinkable to me that my paternal uncle would entertain any sexual thoughts about me. I felt very comfortable in his company and took the liberty of being myself, with no holding back. I did not have any dirty thoughts about him and loved him in my own innocent way. However, he completely broke my trust and with that I lost my sense of trusting others. Life was not the same anymore and it created immense confusion in my mind. I was unsure about who could be trusted and it also resulted in losing trust in myself. I blamed myself for the abuse and that led me to believe that I had behaved in some depraved fashion to have triggered the entire situation. I found that I could not trust myself with any man. I lost all self-confidence in my relationships with men and never felt comfortable in their company. I started isolating myself from members of the opposite sex and even carrying on a decent conversation was a tremendous effort. This was mainly true in case of older male relatives. I was constantly suspicious of their intentions and whether they were looking to have a good time. This led to creating imaginary walls around me and I completely shut myself off from closeness to family members.
I still find it hard to forge close relationships with people. I cannot bring myself to freely hug and be physically affectionate with my young teenage nephews. I am not sure if this is because I cannot trust myself with them or because I remember what happened with me. I have a very narrow view of such relationships and always prefer to keep everyone at arm’s length. I must admit that I am afraid to get close to youngsters in their teens and I definitely don’t want to be anyone’s role model. I know that I will never abuse anyone or take advantage of anyone’s vulnerability but despite that I prefer to keep my distance from kids in general. I am not able to give unconditional love because I do not believe in unconditional love. My trust was shattered and its impact is still resounding in my other relationships.
In conclusion, I must say that after enrolling in therapy, I have come a long way now and have resolved most of the guilt and shame related issues. It has not been an easy process and took a lot of convincing but I have finally been able to come to terms with my abuse. I have been able to understand that I have no reason to feel guilty or ashamed regarding what happened to me. I have been able to destroy the shadow of abuse that hovered around me for a long time and I feel free. I am still working on trust related issues and time will diminish the effect of the abuse in this aspect of my life. There is a lot of love in life and I am willing to open my arms to loving and giving. There will be times when the abuse will come back to haunt me but I believe that I have the courage and strength to deal with it and move on with my life. This is the message that I wish to convey to the reader: there is life after abuse and guilt/shame related issues can be resolved, trust can be won back and your life can be free from the shadow of abuse.