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Shame and blame

Shame is a common symptom of trauma. It is often entwined with guilt and self-blame. It’s hard to release and can feel paralysing – unlike sadness or anger, shame can become trapped in the body.

What is shame?

What is guilt?

Shame can create the need for invisibility to protect the self and a desperate need to be seen to validate one’s existence.

There is no direct channel to release shame. Sadness can be released by crying, anger can be released by physical action. Shame can lead survivors to become more vulnerable to dissociative states to numb feelings.

But you can talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love – challenge the self-blame and shame that you feel, allow yourself to feel it, acknowledge it, and then try to challenge those thoughts – experiencing sexual violence is nothing to be ashamed of.

Why do some survivors experience shame?

“I didn’t stop the abuse”

Many survivors blame themselves for not fighting back or for not fighting back ‘enough’. We often assume that we will be prepared for any kind of physical assault. In our daily lives, however, not many of us are trained or prepared to fight off a physical attack, often from someone larger and/or stronger, especially while experiencing the extreme threat of sexual violence. In reality our bodies often react before we have a chance to make a conscious choice about this. For example, many survivors freeze in response to the trauma of sexual violence. This is normal and is the body’s way of protecting itself.

“I was aroused during the abuse”

Your body responding to sexual touch does not mean that you wanted to be attacked or abused. This is a normal response on behalf of your body. Again, this can be your body’s way of attempting to prevent you from being hurt.

arousal does not mean consent

Illustration credit: https://www.instagram.com/liberaljane/

“I went back to the abuser”

There are many reasons that a survivor might do this. Survivors may go back to the abuser due to having been manipulated or exploited by them. They may be trying to make the abuse more planned or predictable and therefore ‘safe’ as a survival strategy. They may have strong bonds to the abuser due to the cycles of abuse. They may have strong feelings towards the perpetrator for other reasons – love, family relationships, friendship. We all have a need for human connection and this is normal. The abuser is the one who makes the continued choice to abuse.

you don't have to justify why you stayed

Illustration credit: https://www.instagram.com/frizzkidart/

Shame attacks the very core of our being and threatens to destroy our self-identity through self-loathing. Survivors often describe intense feelings of self-hatred, a lack of dignity or honour, and state that they feel like ‘damaged goods’ or that they are so flawed that others will be repulsed by them. Ultimately many survivors feel as though they have no right to exist. This will increase survivors’ neediness and dependency on others to value them and support their self-esteem, which further reinforces a sense of shame.

The extreme self-consciousness associated with shame can also manifest in ordinary social situations. This explains why many survivors feel extremely uncomfortable eating or drinking in the presence of others, or fear drawing attention to themselves in public which can lead to social phobia. As the survivor’s default setting is that they are defective and a failure, they must therefore hide from others at all costs. This sense of failure prevents them from achieving a basic standard of acceptance, and reduces expectations of themselves or their lives.

Self-blame can sometimes serve a purpose, as it can be used as a way of reducing feelings of helplessness. It can help us feel a sense of control over a situation in which we had our control taken from us. The worksheet below asks you to think about why you blame yourself, or feel shame about what happened, and offers challenges to those ways of thinking. This is also something you can speak to one of our workers about if you decide to get some support.

it's okay

Illustration credit: https://www.instagram.com/liberaljane/

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Find out more

For more information, you can visit the Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis website.

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