The Effects of Child Sexual Abuse:Shame and Child Sexual Abuse
What Is Shame?
Shame is a painful emotion that involves feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing, self-condemnation, and failure. When an individual experiences shame, they may view themselves as damaged or defective, and may feel an urge to hide their perceived defectiveness from others.1 Everyone experiences mild forms of shame to some degree, such as feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness, or awkwardness. This type of shame is a natural part of the human experience, particularly in regard to relationships and social development.2
However, when shame is experienced at a more severe level, it can lead to feelings of isolation, helplessness, low self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors. In some cases, shame can even lead to suicide ideation and self-harm.*
*If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help immediately. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline here or by calling 1-800-273-8255.
Ultimately, feeling shame can be a very distressing and isolating experience, especially for survivors of child sexual abuse. While not all survivors feel shame, many do and may feel it acutely for years or even decades. This cumulates with impacts in all areas of their life. That being said, there is hope for survivors to work through the shame they experience, no matter how permanent or pervasive it may seem.
How Is Shame Different from Guilt?
When we feel guilt, we are experiencing an emotion towards a specific event or action. In contrast, when we feel shame, we are experiencing thoughts or emotions towards our entire self—who we are, what we are deserving of, and how we affect others.3 For example, if Jada forgets her sister’s birthday, and doesn’t remember to call, text, or send a present, she might feel guilty for not remembering and for how her actions have affected her sister. She might think, “I got too distracted with work and let my sister down.” Now, if in the same situation, Jada feels shame, she might have thoughts like, “I’m a terrible sister,” “I’m an unreliable person,” or “I’m not deserving of relationships.”
Ultimately, guilt relates to how we feel about our actions while shame involves how we view our entire self. Guilt can be a helpful motivator, causing us to reflect on what we might do differently in the future. Shame, on the other hand, can be a very destructive process of thoughts and feelings that may leave us feeling defeated.
Why Do We Experience Shame?
Shame is an emotion that typically develops in childhood when the brain doesn’t yet have the ability to comprehend the full picture or understand the reasoning behind someone else’s words or actions. As children, we may experience an event, interaction, or an emotion that we don’t fully understand, so we try to come up with an explanation to make sense of it. Sometimes, these explanations can create feelings of shame.
For instance, imagine a child (let’s call her Madison) accidentally spills spaghetti sauce on her new shirt at dinner. When her dad notices, he becomes furious and starts shouting at Madison. In fact, he becomes so angry that he gets up and leaves the dinner table. That same evening, Madison overhears both parents arguing in the bedroom. Because she cannot fully comprehend the real reason behind her dad’s outburst and the intense argument that follows, Madison tries to make sense of it all by concluding that it’s her fault. She messed everything up when she spilled the spaghetti, and now her parents are fighting about what a bad kid she is. This realization instills within Madison a feeling of shame that impacts how she sees herself, her worth, and her relationship with her parents.
These types of moments are quite common in childhood and adolescence because the area of the brain known as the frontal lobe is still developing. The frontal lobe is the part of our brain that helps us analyze data, solve complex problems, and make deliberate choices. It is key to us assessing situations, events, or behaviors that are initially confusing or even hurtful.
For instance, if a coworker starts ignoring us out of the blue for seemingly no reason, we use our frontal lobe to assess the situation and find a reason. We may realize the coworker is under a lot of stress trying to meet deadlines or is struggling with the anniversary of a loved one’s death. And with this realization, we may respond to the hurtful behavior with patience and empathy.
Of course, it is quite natural for adults to still jump to conclusions that can lead to feelings of shame. For children and teens, however, the ability to analyze and comprehend complicated situations remains especially challenging, as their frontal lobe is still in development and their limbic system (the automatic part of the brain that seeks to avoid what feels bad and pursue what feels good) is in the driver’s seat.
What Is the Connection Between Shame and Child Sexual Abuse?
Shame is an especially common effect of child sexual abuse.1 A prime reason for this is because the trauma occurred in a survivor’s childhood or adolescence, when the frontal lobe was still developing.
So, when a child or teen experiences a significant trauma, like child sexual abuse, they don’t yet have the ability to understand why something so painful would happen to them. For example, they aren’t able to yet see that the person who abused them may have been struggling with emotional or behavior issues or was re-perpetrating the same trauma that was done to them. Whatever the contributing factors may be that led to the abuse, the person who perpetrated was entirely in the wrong and violated the boundaries of the child. However, given that the child’s analytical, problem-solving area of the brain is still in development, the child may not be able to recognize that they carry no responsibility for the abuse.
As the child fills in the gaps on their own to understand why someone would abuse them, they may come up with reasons like, “I did something wrong,” “I made them think I wanted this,” “I deserve this,” or “I am not worthy of love or kindness.” And while none of these thoughts reflect reality, the accompanying shame can be powerful enough to convince a survivor that they are true.
On top of these negative self-beliefs, a survivor of child sexual abuse may feel an additional layer of shame due to:1
- Social and cultural stigmas that still surround sex and sexual abuse.
- The secrecy in which the abuse takes place.
- The blame a perpetrator might place on a child to keep them silent.
- The lack of support one may receive after disclosing.
Why Do I Still Feel Shame in Adulthood?
The traumatic experiences you had as a child or teen, and the feelings of shame that accompanied them, can be significantly formative in how you develop into adulthood. This means that even after the abuse has ended and you are busy living your life as an adult, the shame caused by your trauma may be internalized, especially if you have been bearing that burden alone.
For instance, the shame-based thoughts a survivor might experience as a child to make sense of their trauma will influence their self-identify and self-worth, even as they grow older. And when some survivors reach adulthood, these shame-based thoughts may develop into negative self-beliefs that impact how they view themselves, others, and the world around them. For instance, if a child tries to understand why a loved one abused them and reaches the conclusion that “I don’t deserve to be loved,” this thought can persist into adulthood and influence the survivor’s belief on whether or not they are deserving of support and loving relationships.
Ultimately, shame can become a long-term effect of trauma, one that is difficult to overcome as it can be intensely disempowering, distressing, and defeating. That being said, it is possible to overcome shame, starting with Acknowledging its presence in your life.
How Might Shame Be Impacting My Life?
Shame can be experienced in a variety of ways. And what feels shameful to one survivor may not feel shameful to another. It’s also important to note that not all survivors of child sexual abuse experience shame. You may read the list below and not identify with any of the examples. Or, conversely, you may identify with several. Knowing what your experience with shame is and how it may be affecting you can help you better understand what’s going on internally, name it, and challenge it.
Below are examples of how survivors have identified shame impacting their lives.
Sense of Self
Shame has a strong influence on one’s sense of self.2 People who were sexually abused often see themselves as fundamentally bad even though they are not responsible for what happened. The shame from sexual abuse leads people to describe themselves as damaged, unworthy, or insignificant. They feel a sense of worthlessness and a desire to hide or disappear. And these feelings can formulate thoughts such as, “I am broken,” “I am bad,” or “There is something wrong with me.” Sometimes they can lead to self-criticism and blame, where a survivor may expect perfection from themselves while taking the blame for things they did not do. On the other hand, they may criticize others in order to obtain a higher sense of self-worth.
Sadly, the self-esteem issues brought on by shame can create a cycle: a person’s feelings of inferiority can lead to negative experiences that reinforce those feelings.
Survivors of sexual abuse often struggle with their emotional health, and shame can make that struggle more difficult. People who conceal information because of shame can experience worse psychological symptoms than the symptoms that result from abuse alone. Shame contributes to the development of many post-traumatic stress symptoms. More specifically, shame can lead to anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, and dissociation. 2 It may also lead to a survivor wanting to disconnect from their emotions altogether.
Sometimes an individual can become trapped in what is known as a “shame spiral,” in which they feel caught in the experience of shame and how they emotionally respond to that shame. Some of these emotions might include shame-based frustration, anger, fear, or rage. During these spirals, a survivor may feel as though they are not in control of their emotions, a belief that can lead to further shame.2
Shame can manifest itself through psychosomatic symptoms, which are the “the expression of emotional pain [through]… bodily symptoms.”3 Researchers have found that sexual abuse in childhood is strongly associated with physical symptoms that don’t have a clear medical explanation, and shame plays a role in many of these symptoms. Some common symptoms that survivors may experience are chronic pelvic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia in the neck, shoulders, and back. Shame has also been associated with a weakened immune system. Unfortunately, shame can make it hard to get needed help because someone with unexplained physical symptoms is unlikely to disclose sexual abuse to a doctor even though the information could potentially be relevant.3
Survivors with high levels of shame may resort to unhealthy behaviors to cope with the painful effects of their trauma. For instance, a survivor may not believe they are worthy or capable of healthier coping behaviors, such as practicing Mindfulness and self-care, seeking a therapist, finding a support group, or making needed lifestyle adjustments. Instead, they may believe they are already beyond hope, will fail at whatever they try, or don’t deserve to feel better or happier. In this mindset, survivors may default to more compulsive, emotionally driven habits such as excessive sleeping, shopping, isolating, risky sexual behavior, or substance abuse. As with the shame spiral mentioned above, survivors who engage in behaviors driven by shame-based emotions can, in turn, feel shame about their proclivity towards those behaviors.
Feelings of unworthiness may also influence a survivor’s tendency to self-neglect and/or self-sabotage. With self-neglect, a survivor may believe they do not deserve to feel okay and will intentionally neglect their physical and emotional needs. With self-sabotage, an individual may, whether consciously or subconsciously, sabotage the things that are going well in life, like a rekindled relationship or a new job.
The origin of our shame is how we internalize social interactions.2 Shame is therefore fueled by our concern of how others perceive us, and that concern can make it difficult to establish healthy and fulfilling relationships. Survivors may avoid talking about their abuse and their pain. They want to disappear, conceal distressing information, and hide from others. This concealment and lack of communication can make it difficult to connect with others. Children and adolescents who experience shame might accept or even feel like they deserve being treated poorly by peers and dating partners. These tendencies can persist into adulthood, leading to choosing partners who make them feel worthless and rejected. Such treatment can, in turn, reinforce the survivor’s shame.
Adult survivors will often isolate themselves or become overly submissive, convinced they are undeserving of setting and maintaining their own boundaries. They may believe that their needs don’t matter, only the needs of everyone else.1
Another aspect of relationships that may be impacted by shame is sexual health, or one’s relationship with sexual intimacy. Survivors often subconsciously associate sexual acts with shame. For example, research has shown that some survivors experience shame during sexual arousal even when arousal is occurring in healthy situations. The problematic relationship survivors have with sexuality can manifest itself as both a lack of interest in and avoidance of sex or engaging in impulsive, risky sexual behavior. Also, survivors often battle body shame, struggling to feel like they are physically attractive and therefore insignificant and undesirable.4
Shouldering the burden of trauma without any support is often a painful and isolating experience. And yet, the shame a survivor experiences can become a significant barrier to disclosing about their abuse, even when they would like to. In fact, a 2013 study found that 76% of participants reported shame as the most prominent reason for not disclosing their abuse and/or seeking help.2 This shame may prevent a survivor from disclosing at all, or it may prevent them from disclosing again based on the shame and lack of support they have already encountered. Again, shame is very much connected to a desire to hide a part of oneself out of fear of judgment, blame, or condemnation. The anticipation of facing further shame (whether based on prior experience or not), as well as an awareness of the social taboos and stigmas that still surround sexual abuse in our society, can both factor into a survivor’s fear or avoidance of disclosure. And even when a survivor knows that support from others is key to their healing, they may feel convinced that they are undeserving of such support or healing, and will continue to carry the weight of their trauma alone and in silence.1
Can I Reduce the Shame I’m Feeling?
Yes. No matter how long shame has been an integral part of your trauma, and no matter how pervasive it seems to be in your life right now, you can manage it. While shame may have played a role in how you currently see yourself and your place in the world, it is more than possible to reshape these views and thought patterns. Due to your brain’s incredible capacity to adapt, rewire, and form new neural pathways, you can reroute thoughts of shame and self-loathing (no matter how deeply ingrained or long-lasting) toward thoughts of self-worthiness and self-compassion.
Creating these new neural pathways is an essential part of reducing shame and its effects.2 And Saprea seeks to empower survivors of childhood sexual abuse to do so through various tools and strategies. If you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, you may find it beneficial to visit our Shame symptom page and its accompanying resources. These resources can help you interrupt your brain’s travels down familiar (but shame-based paths) by identifying harsh or unhelpful thoughts, seeking to remove self-blame, practicing self-compassion, and reframing how you may perceive certain situations. So much of the work you’ll do in healing will be focused on intentional responses and thoughts, and it will be helpful for you to understand the benefits of practicing Acknowledgement, Mindfulness, and Aspiration.
Along with creating new neural pathways, another element important to healing from shame and trauma is social support and connection.2 Whether through a therapist, a trusted loved one, a support group, or a combination of all three, we encourage you to seek out the support, validation, and sense of community that you need and deserve. A great place to get started is with our Saprea Support Groups, which are groups led by survivors for survivors. Visit here to find a group in your community or online. And if there aren’t any groups currently in your area, we provide you with the resources to start one yourself!
If you are interested in attending an educational retreat to learn more about the impacts of shame and child sexual abuse, as well as engage in a series of experiential and community building classes and activities, visit the Saprea Retreat for more information and to apply.
No matter how shame has shaped your perception of yourself and what you deserve, your needs do matter, and you do deserve to find healing and happiness, and to live your life to the fullest. And you can start taking your next steps today.