Child sexual abuse survivors often spend years suffering from shame. Shame can set in quickly after abuse happens, especially if the people around the survivor are unwilling to discuss what has happened. But shame can be a barrier to reclaiming hope and healing. John Bradshaw explains that when you internalize shame, you feel like “nothing about you is okay. You feel flawed and inferior; you have the sense of being a failure. There is no way you can share your inner self because you are an object of contempt to yourself.”1 If you’ve felt this way before, you are not alone. Have confidence that you don’t have to feel like this forever. Overcoming shame can be challenging, but it is possible. Here are some ways to start:
Be open and honest.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding sexual abuse often leaves people silent about their experiences, and shame thrives in secrecy and silence. When people don’t talk about what has happened to them, they carry the burden of pain alone, and they might even start to feel responsible for the abuse. Bradshaw says, “To heal our toxic shame we must come out of hiding. As long as our shame is hidden, there is nothing we can do about it.”1
Accept feeling vulnerable.
One of the biggest obstacles to being open and honest is often a resistance to feeling vulnerable. It’s easy to understand why we don’t want to feel vulnerable: it’s scary. If you open up to someone about past experiences and current emotions, you don’t have control over their reactions. Giving up control is hard. Also, being vulnerable involves admitting that we’re struggling, and that can make us feel weak. But shame researcher Brené Brown points out that a willingness to be vulnerable is courageous. Brown believes that “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”
Build connections with others.
The more you feel like people love and accept you—the honest and genuine you—the less shame you will experience. And all of these things work together. As you’re open and honest, as you’re vulnerable, connections with others will naturally form. Then your connections will make it easier to be honest and vulnerable. Don’t let shame make you feel like you’re not worthy of having intimate connections with people. Brown has observed that feeling unworthy of connection can stop people from trying. You are worthy of experiencing deep human connections.
Be compassionate with yourself. Remember that your sexual abuse was not your fault, and remember that healing is a journey that takes time. We’re often too hard on ourselves, and “self-criticism is closely associated with feelings of shame.”2 As you work on opening up to others and forming connections, make sure you select people you trust, people who care about you, people who want to help you on your healing journey. You are enough, you are worthy of love and acceptance, and you deserve to live a life free from shame.
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