Toxic shame is one of the most detrimental epidemics in a world filled with childhood trauma. But it isn’t easy to see. It is often heavily defended by our dissociation, anger and futility. It is hidden under our defenses like anxiety, depression and addiction. Even when we are in touch with it, we aren’t aware of exactly what it is because we don’t know what it looks like. We just know that it feels awful and our first instinct is to run from it. It is more confusing because the mind works so hard to cover it up. We intellectually understand that child abuse is not the victim’s fault. We assume there is nothing to heal since we already know it wasn’t our fault. But we are missing the shame that lives in the unconscious beliefs. And unfortunately, those are the most powerful when it comes to our life’s manifestations. So let’s talk about what we might be holding under the surface of our conscious mind because we can’t heal it if we can’t see it.
You were not supposed to handle things like an adult when you were 8, 13 or 16. Abusers have a tendency to parentify us. They will ask us to do impossible, age-inappropriate tasks and shame us when we inevitably cannot. So we begin to see ourselves as not good enough, stupid or incompetent. In reality, we were never supposed to be able to do that task. Many parentified survivors feel paralyzed to take any risks or try anything new. We don’t think we have what it takes to succeed and we don’t want to be shamed if we fail. But when we can uncover this hidden traumatic shame, it can help us let go of these fears.
Your body did not betray you when it responded to sexual abuse. I will use some intense language here because I don’t like saying this lightly. We often hold shame about the way the body responded to sexual abuse. But in reality, it was not wrong. When the body experienced any kind of arousal during rape or sexual abuse, it is protecting us from damage. It is doing what it needs to do. It is not an indication that we are enjoying rape. Abusers will tell us this to shame us, but it is never true. If the body gets pregnant, that is also not a betrayal or our fault. The rapist is responsible for getting their victim pregnant. That’s it. There is no gray area here. If the body miscarries from the tremendous stress we are under or from physical abuse, this is also not the body’s fault. This is a natural response to traumatic stress and abuse. When we see these beliefs and stop blaming the body, our relationship with self shifts dramatically.
The behaviors you have picked up to keep yourself alive are not an indicator that something is wrong with you. We often find ourselves taking actions that we are not proud of. This could be in the form of addictions, isolating behaviors and abusive actions. While we can never excuse behaviors that hurt others, we must acknowledge that they were an understandable result of what we went through. If we are swimming in regret, we won’t heal. We need to take responsibility. But then we need to give ourselves some compassion and let ourselves heal. That is the only way to ensure the cycle stops with us.
You were not old enough to stop your abuse or the abuse of any other children around you. We often believe there was a time when we should have been able to stop it but didn’t. We blame ourselves because abuse happened to us or others. But the responsibility for the abuse lies with the adults. As children, we did not have the resources to stop what was happening. We need to take that responsibility off our young shoulders. It was not possible for us to stop anything.
If you did not stop abuse in your teens after spending an entire childhood dissociating from it, you were not the problem. If we didn’t stop abuse when we were older, it does not mean we liked it, wanted it or were too weak to stop it. It means we were primed for it. We were prepped for it. Our abusers knew exactly how to set up our defenses so we would immediately dissociate when we were older. We were taught that “no” was unacceptable and that there was no help available. We learned helplessness so we defaulted to the only thing left. We only had one option in childhood and that included the later years.
So how do we stop the shame that is holding us back in our adult lives? First, we have to see it. It helps to search for the beliefs I have listed above. It can also help to watch the mind chatter for signs of regret. If we are obsessing over past experiences, what we could have said, or actions we could have taken, there is shame beneath the surface driving our thoughts. If we feel angry and we are suddenly swimming in regret, we are using shame to hold ourselves back from our healing. When that happens, take the second step and write from the shame itself. Write from the self-loathing beliefs that spin beneath the surface and drive everything. As you honor your inner parts who feel shame and let them express, you will come to holistically understand the truth. You are not to blame for what has happened to you in any way. And you never were.