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Moving Past Shame
A therapist explains why we blame ourselves—and how to stop
Represent staff
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Psychologist Jenny Kahn Kaufmann has been working with clients for 30-plus years. She’s a member of The Fostering Connection, a New York-based group of therapists who volunteer to treat foster children for free. She talked to Represent about how young people who’ve been abused can stop blaming themselves and feeling ashamed.


Q: Why do so many victims of childhood abuse, particularly sexual abuse, feel ashamed and like it was their fault?
A: If you’ve been abused, especially when you’re young, and especially if it was sexual abuse, you feel ashamed, like there must be a reason it happened to you. You feel there’s something wrong with you, that you don’t have the boundaries that other people seem to have. It didn’t happen to your friend, it happened to you. But the truth is there’s nothing wrong with you, and it’s not your fault that you were abused.

To make matters worse, perpetrators can sometimes sense if a child’s been abused before, and they prey on them. That can really make an abused child feel like they are somehow inviting the abuse. In fact, perpetrators target children who are especially vulnerable—whether because they have been abused before and are ashamed, or for other reasons, like that they don’t have any adults in their life who are looking out for them or paying careful attention to them.

Q: How do you move from intellectually understanding that it wasn’t your fault to really believing and feeling that?
A: It’s hard work, but you have to relive what happened. And you have to do that with a person you trust. You can’t just talk about it with words; you need to feel the feelings while you tell. You have to connect the feelings to the experience. You have to feel the horror and anguish when you tell. You also have to admit to any positive feelings you might have had, like pleasure. Even if you felt some pleasure, that doesn’t mean you wanted it or that it’s your fault.

To tell like this, you need to trust the therapist or other person you tell. A lot has to happen in therapy to set the stage for the person to be able to trust enough to do that. Or if you’re telling someone who’s not a therapist, they need to have earned your trust. To tell the story without feeling it, in a detached way, won’t heal you.

Q: Why is it worth it to re-feel all that pain?
A: Holding onto the shame stops you from living fully. You withdraw to protect yourself because the world feels unsafe when you have a secret you’re trying to guard. You feel like the secret is your fault, and that this bad thing happened to you because you’re a bad person.

It is necessary to revisit the abuse to understand that the bad things that happened are not your fault.

When you trust a therapist, you start to do the intense work of therapy. Your perspective starts to change—you go from a place where you’re simply inside your own head, seeing your story in a particular way—to suddenly being able to see it from outside yourself. You escape from being trapped inside your own perspective. Once that happens the world starts to feel more inviting, and it can feel larger, as if there’s more to do, more to choose from. A good therapist can help open up the world as an exciting, interesting place to inhabit.

It doesn’t have to be a therapist. You can go through the process with a clergy person, teacher, music instructor, coach, or good friend. Make sure the person you tell is someone who takes an interest in you, mentors you, and helps you grow.

Q: Why is it such a common thing among abuse victims to blame themselves? Is that a form of assigning yourself more control or power than you really have?
A: If you feel that it’s your fault that bad things happen, then the world can still be good and fair. It’s more comforting to believe that the world is good and you’re bad than it is to accept that you are living in a chaotic world of random abuse. It’s terrifying to realize how little power you have.

Also, if the abuser is a parent, making yourself the bad one means you can keep loving and trusting that parent. As a child, you need your parent, even if they hurt you.

image by YC-Art Dept

You take all the bad on yourself and the rest of the world is fine. But that’s an illusion. Shame isn’t real. Once you’re more able to see the abuser and people beyond the abuser, the abuser’s abuser, and the larger world, shame can go out the window.

There’s actually relief that comes with understanding that the world
contains evil and chaos. It allows you to live more in the actual world, to see things as they really are. You escape the illusion.

Q: Is this supposed to be comforting, believing that the world is terrible?!
A: Knowing that the world is scary, unfair, random, and chaotic doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to live that’s meaningful. Accepting that there’s a lot of bad stuff out there is another way of saying, “I wasn’t singled out, and it’s not my fault. I can tell my story and not be silenced by it, and I can use my voice to be an agent and be effective in the world.” You can be an agent of change.

I cheer people on in the telling of their stories. The more people take risks and say things that happened, the more good feedback they get. People relate to their stories and appreciate and admire the person who speaks up. It nurtures the teller to know they’ve touched other people. That goes a long way to healing the abuse. Writers for Represent make meaning out of sharing their stories and helping others.

Q: Should you forgive your abuser? Is that the only way to find peace?
A: I’d like to get away from the “should.” If you can forgive them and if there’s reason to forgive them, it might be helpful, but it’s not required. What about the abuser? Can they apologize and atone?

There are so many steps. You get to different places at different points. Forgiveness, if it happens, is at the end of a long haul. If you push yourself to forgive before you’re ready simply because you want the pain to be over already, you’ll keep acting out your hurt and anger in different ways.You might get into a relationship with someone abusive, take drugs, get into fights.

To truly move past shame and blame and all the fallout from abuse, you need to mourn. That starts with feeling all the painful things that happened to you and having those feelings witnessed by another person. That person must be really listening and feeling it with you.

Then you can see the situation more broadly. It’s still awful it happened, but you can see the forces the perpetrator was up against as well. You mourn for yourself, you mourn for the perpetrator. If you were going to forgive, it would be then. But you don’t have to.

You need to resist the temptation to say, “It wasn’t that bad.” You need to mourn because abuse is a kind of death, the death of a childhood, of innocence. Part of the mourning is remembering the open, trusting, loving child you were before the abuse.

Once you’ve truly mourned and gained that wider perspective, you stop doubting yourself. You’re not silenced anymore by those who say nothing happened or that it was no big deal or by people trying to get you to live peaceably with the perpetrator. You can stand up to those people. You can live according to your beliefs.

The perpetrator will lose power over you if you’ve gone through feeling the pain and mourning. You know what they did, you know how bad it was, but you’ve moved on and are no longer living in fear or shame.

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(FCYU-2017-04-11)

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