This post is part 2 of a series. You can read part 1 here.
Since shame is one of the most damaging after-effects of child sexual abuse, it is important that former victims focus on healing their shame. The following strategies, taken from my latest book, Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse, will help you with this endeavor.
Strategy 4: Connect With Your Suffering and Give Yourself Compassion
When you think about the sexual abuse that you suffered, what do you feel? Do you feel sad for the girl or boy that you were? Do you feel sad that you had to handle the trauma all by yourself? Sad that there was no one to help you? Feeling sad for the child or adolescent that you were is completely appropriate. In fact, it is necessary if you are to heal your shame. This is due to the fact that in order to heal your shame, you must have self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the antidote to shame. Therefore, it is crucial that you learn how to provide it for yourself—that you begin to view yourself from a more compassionate perspective instead of being as critical of yourself, as former victims tend to be. As it is with most poisons, the toxicity of shame needs to be neutralized by another substance if we are truly going to save the patient. Compassion is the only thing that can neutralize shame.
Self-compassion encourages you to begin to treat yourself and talk to yourself with the same kindness, caring, and compassion you would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has actually been shown to comfort and even help heal others of their ailments or problems, connecting with your own suffering will do the same for you.
You have, within your power, the ability to heal your shame through self-compassion. You can learn specific compassionate attitudes and skills that can reverse your tendency to view yourself in a blaming, condemning, and critical way.
Exercise: How to Begin to Connect With Your Suffering
You can’t truly experience self-compassion if you can’t connect with your suffering and the emotions surrounding the abuse. The following exercise may help:
Find a quiet place where you can be alone, let down your guard, and think about the abuse.
Either in your head or on paper, complete the following sentence: “When I think about the abuse I suffered, I feel ______.”
Complete this sentence several times until you have no more responses.
You may feel surprised to discover all the emotions you feel due to the abuse—sad, betrayed, afraid, angry, guilty, or ashamed.
Now for each emotion that you identified complete the following sentence, “I feel sad because ______.”
Complete each sentence several times. For example:
“I feel sad because I was just a little girl and he was a huge man and there was no one to protect me.”
“I feel sad because there was no one to comfort me afterward.”
“I feel sad because, from that day forward, I felt like a terrible person.”
Continue the same process with every feeling you uncover:
“I feel afraid because ______.”
“I feel ashamed because ______.”
“I feel angry that ______.”
Strategy 5: Give Yourself Permission to Get Angry
It is completely understandable for you to be angry at having been sexually violated as a child or adolescent. Why wouldn’t you be? It was a horrendous violation of your body, mind, and spirit. And in most cases, it was a tremendous betrayal by someone who was supposed to care about you.
Unfortunately, you couldn’t express that anger at the time because you were probably paralyzed with fear. And because of denial and confusion, you may not have been able to express that anger later on, when you realized what had happened to you. Now is the time to connect with your anger and find healthy ways to release it.
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Research has shown that it is vital to help survivors process, uncover, and express anger because anger can be used to help a client feel empowered, appropriately attribute responsibility, establish boundaries, and promote self-efficacy and power. Furthermore, it has been shown that it helps survivors to reframe their anger into an emotion they can use to help define their rights and needs and help them to use their anger for productive action and behavior.
Anger is a natural reaction to having been violated. And it is a natural reaction to being shamed and humiliated. This is why it is important to realize that you have a right to your anger even though it probably was not safe for you to express your anger or rage at the time.
Exercise: What Are You Angry About?
Create a list of all the things you are angry about concerning the sexual abuse you suffered.
Here are some examples of what clients have written:
“I’m angry because the abuse caused me to distrust people. I have a terrible time getting close to anyone, especially males.”
“I’m angry because my relationship with my mother was never the same. I stayed away from her out of fear of her finding out and because I felt ashamed.”
“I’m angry that my abuser used the fact that I was lonely to manipulate me into doing things he wanted.”
Continue writing your list until you can’t think of any other responses.
Notice how it feels to acknowledge your anger in this way. Hopefully, you feel a sense of relief. You may even feel liberated and empowered. For others, however, it may have been a more difficult exercise because they feel like they are doing something wrong to acknowledge their anger in this way.
Unfortunately, many former victims have difficulties giving themselves permission to express their righteous anger because they are afraid that if they start expressing it, they will lose control and harm someone. Those who were raised in violent households may be repulsed by any show of anger and may be so afraid of becoming like their abusive parent that they completely repress their own anger.
Becoming comfortable with your own anger is a major step toward empowerment. Turning your fear into anger will help you stand up for yourself. Turning your feelings of helplessness and hopelessness into anger will motivate you to continue to value yourself enough to say “No!” to anything or anyone that will undercut your value and worth. Turning your shame into anger will help you stop blaming yourself for the sexual abuse and put the responsibility for it squarely at the feet of your abusers. This is because when we express our anger, we connect with our power. It is similar to igniting a flame inside. If you don’t light that match, you will never see the flame. You will never feel the heat. You will never feel the power of a bonfire inside of you.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.