When it comes to therapy, one of the things I am most passionate about is exploring and overcoming shame. Shame is often easy to see or experience when you’ve been through some kind of trauma or abuse, but it is an emotion that affects all of us at some point, and is typically very little understood. Let’s look further into this topic of shame specifically when it relates to sexual trauma, in an effort to understand more.
The Oxford Dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior; a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.” While I think it offers a broad-strokes picture of shame and its causes, this definition feels incomplete. It can be comparable to that feeling of humiliation, and can certainly lead to distress, but shame goes so much deeper, touching on our identity, personhood, and value.
As the above definition suggests, shame is often used interchangeably with other emotions such as humiliation, guilt, or embarrassment. The professor, researcher, and author Brené Brown has written extensively on the topic of shame, and draws distinct lines between these emotions, insisting that there are subtle but extremely significant differences. Let’s take a minute to look at what sets these emotions apart from one another.
Guilt, Embarrassment, & Humiliation
Guilt is the emotional response most of us have when we realize we have done something wrong. It is often the appropriate conviction that you are at fault, and can move us towards reconciliation. Embarrassment is an emotion we feel when we have done something foolish and other people saw it. Typically, though, embarrassment is short-lived and is not isolating. When you trip and fall in front of a restaurant, you may be embarrassed but it (hopefully!) isn’t an isolating experience because at the end of the day you know everyone has tripped and fallen at some point. The difference with humiliation is found in the subject’s response to a certain event. Brené Brown explains this with an example of a kid in a classroom who is insulted by their teacher. Imagine the teacher looks at the kid’s classwork, notices a small mistake, and calls the kid out for being stupid. Now the child’s response will let us know whether she is feeling humiliation or shame. She may feel a little embarrassed and hurt, but if goes home and tells her parents “my teacher is so mean and she said I was stupid and it’s so unfair” – that’s likely humiliation. The kid still feels the hurt of that experience, but also feels the injustice of it. She believes the teacher is in the wrong. If, on the other hand, the child thinks something like “she’s right, I am stupid. I’m such an idiot”, that indicates that the child is feeling shame.
Actions vs. Essence of Being
Guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation all result in response to an action or event that makes a person feel like they did something ridiculous, foolish, wrong, or bad. Shame results when a person feels like he or she is ridiculous, silly, wrong, or bad. Shame is inextricably tied to our identity, to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Because it makes us feel that our very being is bad or wrong, it isolates us, often making us feel like we are the only ones or the worst ones in whatever the situation may be.
Sexual trauma is an area where shame runs rampant. Sexuality and sexual activity are topics that are generally deeply personal and private. It isn’t something we talk about freely (though we are now perhaps more than ever). Silence and secrecy are great for shame, because it makes its isolation aspect even stronger, allowing the shame to exist and even grow in intensity. The taboo nature of all things sexual create a perfect environment for shame, so even innocuous or good sexual experiences can carry a sense of shame. However, that shame can be greatly exacerbated when you add in the factors that can come with trauma, like threats, pain, guilt, betrayal, confusion.
The Inner Voices
Sexual trauma is different for everyone, so each person’s experience of it and it’s after-effects is unique. But, there are often some shared themes. Here are some shame-based lies you might recognize in yourself or in someone who has experienced a sexual trauma:
- It was my fault, I deserved it, I led him/her on.
- I am bad, dirty, gross, damaged, ruined.
- I can’t tell anyone, no one will understand.
- I’m incapable of having a normal relationship.
There are plenty more, and they are strong. So strong, in fact, that they can stifle us and keep us from looking at the pain or talking about the experience, essentially halting or stunting any chance of healing.
The good news is, there is hope for healing! You can overcome shame, but it is a daunting task and it takes time.
Bring Shame Out of the Darkness
The first step in overcoming shame is acknowledging it. Much easier said than done, because shame thrives in the dark. But once you’ve shined a light on it, you’ve already started to take away some of its power.
Care for Yourself
Another step would be self care. Check out this post or others on some helpful tips in practicing self-care, and take some steps to care for yourself before diving too deeply into shame work, as it can easily stir up a lot of strong emotions.
Utilize Your Community
Another crucial step in overcoming the shame is sharing it. Some consider this piece the hardest, especially because struggling with shame means that at least on some level you believe the lies it is feeding you. If you believe that you are dirty, that it was your fault, that you don’t deserve healing or love, that no one will understand, then of course the idea of opening up to someone is terrifying! But sharing your feelings and experiences with a safe person is a giant step that takes away a ton of shame’s power, hopefully showing you that you are not alone, that you aren’t ruined, that you do have people on your side.
If you don’t have a safe person in mind, or if you feel ready to do some more intense work around your shame and your experience, consider giving a therapist a chance. Do some research and find one that looks like a good fit for you. Partnering with a counselor is an incredible step in working towards healing and overcoming shame.