By Katie Bailey, MA, LPC
Often people who’ve experienced sexual abuse as a child often believe the abuse was there own fault. This self-blaming inevitably creates a sense of shame and so survivors of childhood sexual abuse see themselves as broken, worthless.
When we live life thinking we have no value, it affects our lives in all kinds of ways. When we think very little of ourselves, we don’t think what we say or feel matters, so we let people take advantage of us. We think we aren’t lovable, so we may isolate ourselves and retreat from others. When we don’t think we have worth we also underachieve at work.
Living life with shame and no sense of value leads to constant sadness, depression, anxiety and loneliness. Not only does living with shame evoke these tough emotions, we may start to exhibit thoughts of suicide, irritability, and fear of others.
Perhaps living with shame and fear plays out in your life something like this. Maybe you swing by the Starbucks on your way to your job at Merck. The barista gets your order wrong, but you are afraid to ask for a new one because you don’t want to be a bother. You take your wrong drink order in the car and head to work. You’ve been working on a team presentation for months and when it comes time to share your work, your coworker takes credit for your ideas. Again, you don’t want to bother anyone, so you let it go. A few weeks later, that coworker gets a promotion. On the weekend you go to a friend’s house to watch Carson Wentz back with the Philadelphia Eagles. You’d rather stay in bed, but you drag yourself out. You watch all the other people there looking happy and talking to one another. You sit in the corner praying no one talks to you, because talking to people makes you nervous. Unfortunately, all this does is make you feel more worthless and alone.
Eventually, you wind up in a place feeling hopeless. You believe you are damaged and worthless and the choices you make reinforce that belief. But the truth is, most survivors of childhood sexual abuse struggle with their own value and shame. It’s totally normal to have these thoughts and feelings.
It’s true that survivors of childhood sexual abuse struggle with shame and worthlessness. However, if we can learn how to pinpoint these thoughts as lies and make changes to act differently, we can learn to let go of the shame and see ourselves as we truly are, valued people. When we acknowledge the lessons we learned from our abuse history, and that those lessons are lies, it is entirely possible to live in freedom from shame and live life connected to those you love.
Keep reading for 3 tips so you can start releasing the shame today.
LIVING LIFE STUCK IN SHAME AND FEAR
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse can often stay stuck in their pain. When you stay stuck, you tolerate life, you don’t actually enjoy and live it. You are living in the dark, not bringing your true story to light, and that is a very, very heavy burden to carry with you every day. Such a heavy load causes you to be distant in your relationship, missing out on connecting with those you love. Sitting in your pain day after day, year after year also leads to despair and anxiety. Insulating yourself only feeds your fear and you live in a constant state of alert. Living stuck like this is exhausting, lonely and painful.
YOU CAN FIND FREEDOM FROM SEXUAL ABUSE SHAME AND FEAR
Although you struggle with shame, fear and loneliness from your sexual abuse history, there is hope. You absolutely have the ability to see yourself differently and let go of that shame. You have the potential to learn new skills to connect with people important to you and have truly fulfilling relationships. You can learn to let go of the fear and live with a greater feeling of peace. When you choose to reach out for help, you choose to reclaim your life and take the power back from the one who abused you. You win.
3 MIND ALTERING EFFECTS OF TRAUMA ON THE BRAIN AND HOW TO OVERCOME THEM
Trauma responses like fear, isolation, and shame are normal human responses to an abnormal, overwhelming situation. Your brain went into survival mode when you were abused, as it should have done to protect you. The problem is, your brain didn’t get the message that you are no longer in danger. The experience and all the emotions with it are like a record skipping in your mind over and over. The key to making the record stop skipping is to work with your body to let your brain know you are not in danger anymore. Stopping the record is absolutely possible, with a little help.
Take a look at these 3 effects on the brain and how you can find peace again.
1. You are lonely and distance yourself from others
When you experience a trauma, especially when the incident was repeated over and over, your brain kicks into survival mode. This means that your rational, thinking part of your brain goes offline. This is a good thing your brain does in the moment of abuse, but again, trauma makes your brain get stuck. So while someone hurt you terribly, you fear that everyone will hurt you. Your brain is skipping saying “All people will hurt me. All people will hurt me.” So you keep distance between yourself and others. It makes complete and total sense that you would react that way, but you can’t live lonely forever. You will miss out on the joys of life.
Instead, you need to learn how to identify emotionally safe people. You need to practice telling your trauma story in a safe environment and experiencing the outcome – that you are not hurt again. At Lime Tree Counseling, I create a safe space, so you can share your true story with me, and experience how it feels to let it out. I will demonstrate to you how people should respond to you, and with me, you will learn that you can take the risk to trust others again. The skills we practice in my office will help you then trust and connect with those you love.
2. You are constantly afraid
With trauma causing the brain to be in survival mode and skipping like a record on the event, your brain couldn’t process the situation rationally. This means that certain aspects of memory from the abuse will be trigger points for you. For example, certain smells, sounds or places might remind you of the event, even if you’re not fully aware, and cause your brain to scream “ALERT! ALERT!”. You may be constantly thinking danger is around the next corner. This is completely normal when your brain is stuck in survival mode.
Instead of constantly being afraid, trying grounding yourself in the present moment. Find something around you that you see, smell, touch, hear and taste. Wash your hands in really cold water. Put a peppermint in your mouth. Focus on the feeling of the carpet under your feet. My personal favorite is to put my hand over my cup of tea and feel the steam on the palm of my hand. Here at Lime Tree, I teach people grounding and mindfulness skills to help manage the stress and anxiety. All of my clients get a discount code to Headspace, the best mindfulness app around!
Additionally, I also use some EMDR therapy with my clients. EMDR is Eye Movement Desenitization Reprocessing. That’s a huge name for exercises to help your brain get unstuck. I work with clients to pinpoint those irrational thoughts that are stuck in their minds, and we do small simulations on both sides of your body to help get those thoughts moving again. Think of it like activating both the right and left side of your brain to get that record spinning the right way again, not skipping, but playing forward, letting out your life song!
3. You feel shame, like the abuse was your fault.
So now we know that childhood sexual abuse sets the brain on high alert, and it gets stuck in the fear and bad memories. Your survival brain takes over, and your rational brain goes offline. Your rational brain therefore, can’t think through objectively what happened. As a childhood sexual abuse survivor, the abuse is never, ever your fault. But your brain might have a hard time getting that truth.
Try instead to think about a situation other than yours. Even if you don’t know anyone else with an abuse history, surely you have heard of one in the news. Would you ever assign blame to that child? Of course not. So why would your situation be any different? I love helping my clients get their rational brain back online and embracing the truth that they are not at fault.
EMDR is also very helpful in this process. I work with clients to focus on the details of their abuse experience and get that rational brain back online. I also then work with clients to identify the positive beliefs they want to have about their abuse history and help them embrace those truths. For example, many of the clients I’ve worked with focus on the positive belief, “I am lovable. I did not deserve what happened to me.”
Right now, you may feel like breaking free of the loneliness, shame and fear may be impossible. I promise you, with time and effort you can stop the skipping record in your head and get a different perspective on your abuse history so you can enjoy life and connect with the people who matter to you. With help from Lime Tree Counseling, LLC, you can let your brain know it can rest now and you can find joy in your relationships again. Consider sexual abuse counseling.
Contact us today to schedule a free phone consultation or your first appointment! We are ready to help you.