Guilt, Shame and Self-blame Self Help Guide
Guilt/ Shame/ Self-blame
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may feel guilty about abuse because they enjoyed some aspect of the abuse or feel they got something out of it. Abusers may use threats but often they might offer what children want or need in order to form a relationship with them and keep them involved in the abuse. For instance, a child who is neglected at home may be given much wanted attention by the abuser and this makes the child keen to spend more time with them. Later, this makes it difficult for the child to tell anyone about the abuse because the child believes they have encouraged the abuse by seeking our attention. This is part of the abusers plan.
You may have got something you wanted from your relationship from your abuser such as attention, gifts or cuddles. Receiving these things or seeking our the abuser for these things does not mean you wanted to be abused – it means the abuser was deliberately offering you things you wanted so you would be available for them to abuse.
Abused by more than one person
When you have been abused by more than one abuser it is easy to think that you were the common factor and that somehow you drew the abusers to yourself or feel it must have been something about you or that you did that caused the abuse to happen.
It is not unusual for survivors to have been abused by more than one person. Unfortunately, when someone is abused by someone, it makes them vulnerable to further abuse.
For example, if you were in a situation which made it easy for abusers to get access to you. This can happen when, for example, a family takes in lodgers or uses different babysitters or if the child is care. The danger of abuse is also increased if children have no one to protect them, for example, if a child has abusive or neglectful parents, no parents or parents who are regularly absent or ill.
Sexual abuse often results in people feeling powerless and unable to protect themselves. It is easy for an abuser to control another person who has already learnt to do as they are told and remain silent.
Some people feel so helpless and have been abused so often that they begin to accept abuse as inevitable and as a ‘normal’ situation which has to tolerated.
Adult survivors may also be more vulnerable to further abuse because they feel powerless and unable to defend themselves, they think abuse is ‘normal’, that they deserve to be abused and they may have had little experience of non-abusive relationships.
Sometimes abusers abuse just one child in a family, isolating the child from the rest of the family by making them feel different or special. Abusers might tell the child that they chose them because they were special, because they loved them, because they were bad or were being punished. They find ways of making their victims feel responsible for the abuse in order to manipulate them into keeping silent.
Imagine the abuser wearing a great big overcoat. The pockets on this overcoat are full with the abusers responsibility, guilt and shame about the abuse.
The abuser does not want to feel responsible, guilty or shameful about the abuse because if they do, they will no longer be able to justify their behaviour and will feel ashamed enough to stop the abuse.
Abusers do not want to stop what they are doing so they take off their overcoat and place in onto their victim.
The survivor is then left carrying a huge, heavy overcoat, with pockets filled with shame , guilt and responsibility.
This ensures the victim’s silence about the abuse, as they believe that this coat is theirs and that the guilt, the shame and the responsibility for the abuse lies with them.
BUT… The coat was never yours in the first place – It was not your guilt and shame and responsibility that you have been carrying –
What would it feel like to shrug off that coat?
When you believe you were to blame for the abuse, you can at least feel that you had some control over what was happening. Realising you did not cause the abuse and could not stop it can relieve feelings of guilt but it can also be very frightening to realise you had no control over the situation and were powerless to stop it. Feeling powerless can make it difficult to let go of feelings of self blame.
As a child you were under the power of your abuser. You may have learnt to initiate the abuse or seek out the abuser so you could at least feel you had some control over what was happening. This may have helped you survive the abuse instead of feeling totally powerless.
As an adult you still feel to blame for the abuse because you feel you should have been able to stop it or because you sought your abuser out. It may be difficult to give up feeling responsible because you are afraid you will then feel totally powerless. To overcome this, you need to accept that as a child you were totally powerless and therefore not responsible for the abuse, but that you are now powerless now. Your power is growing as you release the guilt that has been holding you back and as you break free from the effects of the abuse.
Relationships with an abuser
Sometimes survivors of abuse do not want to place the responsibility for the abuse onto their abuser (s) because they do not want to damage their relationship with them or change their view of them.
Children are dependent on their family or care givers for their emotional and physical well-being and usually want to maintain a relationship with them, even if they are their abusers. Adult survivors may feel loyal to their abusers, especially if they are family members and would feel like they were betraying them if they blamed them for the abuse. However, it is abusers who betray the trust of children in their care and they are responsible for their actions.
All children want to be loved their parents and other people close to them. Being abused by a parent or someone you love can create a huge inner conflict. Sometimes children find it easier to believe that the abuse was their fault rather than face up to the fact that people who are supposed to love you could deliberately harm them for their own desires. Survivors may believe that they somehow caused the abuser to abuse them and by taking on the responsibility for the abuse, the survivor can continue to see the abuser as a loving, caring person.
Sexual abuse is always the responsibility of the abuser – you were not to blame.
Once you begin to realise you are not to blame for the abuse, you may start to feel very angry. Some survivors fear their feelings or rage and hatred are so powerful they might not be able to contain them.
Angry feelings can be very frightening and overwhelming and it is no wonder that some survivors retreat back into blaming themselves for the abuse. Blaming yourself can be easier and more comfortable than dealing with feelings of murderous rage.
• If you stop blaming yourself for the abuse, who or what might you feel angry with?
• What do you fear might happen if you experienced anger?
See our section on Anger for tips to help handle it safely.
So…you still feel guilty and to blame…
It is easier to change the way you think, than changing the way you feel. So although you may now understand that you couldn’t stop the abuse and that is was not your fault, you may still feel that it was your fault.
It often takes time for changes in your feelings to catch up with changes in the way you think.
Remind yourself every day that the abusers are responsible for the abuse.
Try saying this mantra to yourself on a daily basis
“It doesn’t matter what I did or didn’t do. I was sexually abused because an abuser had access to me. I am not to blame for the abuse.“