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Understanding Shame and Self-Blame After Sexual Assault

Survivors of sexual abuse can often struggle with internalised shame and blame themselves for the trauma, an unhealthy coping mechanism that can hamper healing and recovery.

Internalising trauma

Sexual assault can be one of the most traumatic moments we ever experience. It involves serious, intentionally inflicted trauma, invades our most intimate boundaries and can destabilise our sense of self and our trust in others.

Sexual assault has a range of consequences for us that can extend beyond physical injury,” says Alyssa Lalor, program director at Sydney’s South Pacific Private, a mental health and addiction treatment centre which specialises in trauma. “We may experience high levels of anxiety, fear, depression – and often immense amounts of shame and self-blame.”

Feelings of shame and self-blame can have long-lasting impacts because they distort our self perception and stop us reaching out for help. “Shame is the intrinsic belief that ‘there is something inherently wrong with me, I am wrong’, which means this toxic shame impacts our sense of self and self-esteem,” says Lalor.

In some cases, we may relive the experience with our self-blame centered on a perceived failure to act differently in the moment to stop the assault eg. “Why didn’t I fight harder?”, “Why did I let him do that?”. In other cases, we may focus our blame on a perceived, inherent character flaw about ourselves eg. “Why am I so naive?” “It’s because I’m weak and pathetic.” 

Why Survivors Blame Themselves

There can be a range of complex reasons why survivors may blame themselves.

In some cases, the perpetrator may articulate a reason for the abuse or attempt to justify the assault by blaming the victim, a pattern which risks becoming deeply internalised, especially if the abuse starts at a young age. If the abuser is a caregiver or someone we rely upon, blaming ourselves may also avoid us having to directly confront the reality that someone who is supposed to care for us is harming us instead. 

Self-blame may also arise from an attempt to find a reason for what may otherwise be a random, chaotic event – or from an attempt to answer the question “why me?” After experiencing a deeply disempowering, traumatic experience, blaming ourselves can also become an unhealthy coping mechanism – a way of telling ourselves that we’re in control, and always were in control. 

Sometimes, we may blame elements of our own masculinity, femininity or sexual identity, or a broader community that we’re a part of. In cases of assault where a survivor is also coming to terms with their sexuality, there can be a real risk of their perceptions of sexual identity becoming entangled with feelings of trauma, shame and distrust.

How to stop blaming yourself

All forms of shame and self-blame can be extremely damaging, Lalor says, because they stop us from reaching out for help and may make us believe we’re not worthy of recovery and happiness. “Silencing ourselves leaves us in a state of toxic shame, making reaching out in some cases near impossible,” she says. “Shame makes us want to hide, sharing shame allows us to connect.”

Speaking with a well-matched therapist or being a part of group conversations with fellow survivors can be a powerful part of the healing process, Lalor says. As much as we may want minimise an incident or pretend an assault never happened, sharing our experience in a supportive environment can often be the first step toward healing. “When shame is shared and we come out of the darkness, it no longer has power to control, and we are no longer hidden,” she says.  

For those of us with loved ones who have experienced an assault, it’s especially important to be aware that damaging feelings of shame can be reinforced by others. 

Cultural attitudes which blame victims for being inebriated or dressing a certain way can contribute to self-blame, as can responses from friends and family which include questions starting with “why didn’t you…” or comments like “I would have…”

“When someone tells you something significant about a traumatic experience, what they don’t need is advice-giving,” says South Pacific Senior Psychotherapist Di Young. “They need you to listen and empathise, they need unconditional support and love.”

Reaching our for help

With support and guidance, we can eventually acknowledge that the shame and blame shouldn’t be held by us; it belongs to the perpetrator. Another person has committed an act without our consent and they hold the ultimate responsibility, not us. 

Professional support is often an important part of the recovery process. Not only can it help us understand where our self-blame is coming from, but it can also help reduce the impact of shame and help us learn how to break free from unhelpful coping mechanisms. 

If we can’t find a way toward healing and empowerment, survivors run the risk of depression, anxiety, negative self-perception, social withdrawal, addiction and PTSD. With the right support, however, we can regain control, move toward healing and build resilience when encountering triggers. 

“You don’t have to deal with this alone, professional help and support groups are available,” Lalor says. “Eventually, we can move to a place of personal power and desire to take our control back and part of that is often in reporting and seeking justice. We move from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’.”

Sydney’s South Pacific Private offers comprehensive, holistic treatment programs for trauma, addiction, depression and anxiety. To schedule an assessment or discuss treatment options, call now on 1800 063 332.

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