Expert Blogs | Mental Health
Letting Go of Shame About Childhood Sexual Abuse
struggling woman

“I just feel like I should have stopped it.” I had heard words like these many times from survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). This time they were spoken by Lori, who had come to me for treatment of posttraumatic stress. Lori had had a friend with an older brother, and he and his friends had subjected Lori to unwelcome sexual touch for about a year when she was in elementary school. Now as an adult nearly 40 years later, she blamed herself for what she’d been through.

Lori’s upsetting childhood experience sadly is not at all uncommon, and the pain of CSA can linger for decades.

Struggling With Shame

One of the most common reactions to childhood sexual abuse is shame. Feelings of shame go beyond simply thinking we did something wrong to believing that in some way we are wrong. These feelings are closely tied to the stories our minds tell us, unfairly, about our traumatic experience.

“I should have stopped it.” Like Lori, many survivors of CSA think they should have been able to prevent the abuse or that she should have done more to stop it. Some may blame themselves for not doing more to resist the sexual advances or for not foreseeing the danger.

“I’m defective.” Many forms of trauma can leave us with a feeling of being “tainted,” which may be especially intense after sexual abuse. CSA survivors have described feeling somehow marked by the experience, and even seeing it as a personal moral failing. They may also worry that others will think badly of them if they find out about their history of abuse.

“I should be over it by now.” It’s also common to feel ashamed about how the trauma still affects us in adulthood. Survivors may criticize themselves for continuing to struggle with trust and intimacy (sexual or nonsexual), or for being triggered in situations that objectively are safe. Heightened fear reactions can also make it feel like we’re not in control of our own minds and bodies, which can lead to self-criticism about our coping abilities.

Unfortunately these beliefs are often aggravated by the responses of others, who may suggest that the person should have done more to prevent it, or that they’re “making too big of a deal about it.” These invalidating responses “can be particularly psychologically damaging,” according to Jessica Bodie, PhD, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist at the University of Pennsylvania. Dismissing a child’s experience can lead them to question their own perception and to be self-critical about being upset by the abuse.

Letting Go of Shame

Healing from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse can be a long road, and it’s paved with self-compassion. Everything we offer ourselves as we heal is in the context of loving ourselves just as we are.

Reach out for the support you need. Consider seeking out a therapist who’s skilled in treating survivors of CSA, who can offer a compassionate ear and effective tools. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies offers resources for survivors of trauma, including a therapist search function. You can also visit the website of the National Center for PTSD, which offers an overview of the evidence-based treatments available, such as cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

Many of the best-tested treatments are based on mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). They offer simple techniques you can practice with a therapist and on your own. Here are three mindfulness-centered CBT approaches you can start using right away:  

Abiding in the Moment. Mindfulness practices can be a powerful part of the healing process. You don’t have to sit for a long time in silent meditation. Just spend a few minutes taking slow, conscious breaths. In through the nose and out through the mouth is especially calming to the nervous system. Try breathing in gently for a count of three and out for a count of six. As you connect with your breath, notice that your thoughts aren’t you; they’re mental events that come and go without defining who you are. Connect with yourself as the observer of your internal experience, untouched by any story that the mind tells us. 

Connecting with the body can also ground us in the present and help to restore a sense of safety. Sexual abuse often alienates us from our physical selves because the body wasn’t a safe place to be. But as we gently return to the body, we can reconnect with our physical selves and nurture a loving relationship with our whole being. You can start by sitting or lying down with eyes open or closed -- whatever is comfortable for you. Bring awareness to the sensations of the breath as it moves the body. Feel your feet where they’re resting. Notice any sensations in your hands. Welcome the awareness of the breath traveling throughout the entire body.

Managing Our Thoughts. We can also examine our assumptions about the abuse. Start by noticing the stories your mind is telling you, which usually aren’t true reflections of what happened and of what it means. We can challenge the idea that the abuse left us fundamentally damaged; being targeted in that way can’t change the truth of your identity. We can also counter our assumption that we should have stopped it. We often minimize the strong pressure we felt at the time -- when the abuse was happening, we literally didn’t think we could say “no.”

Survivors of abuse often think, "I should have reported it" or "I should have told more people,” says Bodie. “But when we look back, we find that there’s probably a reason that wasn’t feasible, or wasn’t successful.” The reason often has to do with the relative powerlessness of children compared to the perpetrator and authority figures. “Often what we see is that fears of punishment, blame, retaliation, or not being believed override the urge to disclose,” Bodie says.

It can be helpful in this context to remind yourself of what kids are like at the age of your abuse -- how their minds work, how the world looks from their perspective, and how hard it can be to navigate the world as a child. Everyone and everything seem much bigger when you’re only 4 feet tall. It’s not fair to judge our child selves based on our adult knowledge and experience.  

We can also question the belief that we should be over it by now. Traumatic memories by their very nature can continue to haunt us for years, even decades. Ongoing fears of trauma-related sights, sounds, or smells are intended to keep us safe from future threats, Bodie says. “Our brains are designed to keep the human species alive,” she says. “They’re designed to protect us.” Intense emotional memories of childhood abuse is part of that protective mechanism.

Treating Ourselves Kindly. When we’re ashamed of who we are, we tend to struggle to be kind to ourselves. But when we treat ourselves well, we show ourselves that we’re worth taking care of. There are many ways to love ourselves. We can plan activities that we enjoy doing and say “no” to things that bring us down. We can focus our time on people who bring out the best in us and avoid as much as possible those who drain our energy. Self-respect can be an effective antidote to shame.

One of the kindest things we can do for ourselves is to talk to a trusted friend or therapist about our trauma. We often want to avoid memories of what happened for obvious reasons; it hurts to pull up the pain of the past. But healing is found through facing those events. As we share our story, the memories lose their sting. Re-examining the events can also help us to question some of our assumptions, like that we should have done more to prevent it. Often we’ll find that it’s easier to “let ourselves off the hook” as we revisit the narrative of what happened and remind ourselves of why we couldn’t prevent it. If we prefer not to share it with someone else, writing down our memories can also be a very effective way to make peace with them.

As you continue to recover from your childhood abuse, embrace who you are at every step along the way. We don’t have to wait until we’re in a better place to let go of shame. Offer yourself the loving compassion you need not because you’re deficient in any way, but because you’re already whole -- and you’re worth taking care of.


Photo Credit: wundervisuals/E+ via Getty Images

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Clinical psychologist

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. His books include The CBT Deck and A Mindful Year (co-written with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh); he hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, featuring conversations on living more fully.

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