December 5, 2023 Dec 05, 2023 13 min read
Feeling guilty or ashamed in the wake of sexual trauma is extremely common for survivors. In fact, a 2019 study found that as high as 75% of female sexual assault survivors may deal with some form of shame as a result of their experiences.
If you’re struggling with guilt or shame as a survivor, this article will help you understand what these feelings are, why they come up, and what you can do to move through them.
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First, it’s important to recognize that while they’re related, guilt and shame are not the same thing.
The emotion of guilt is characterized by a feeling of being at fault. If you feel guilty, this means part of you feels like you are to blame for what happened or that you could have done something differently to prevent the bad thing from happening.
Shame, on the other hand, is characterized by a feeling of being bad at a deep, core level. In short, guilt says, “I’ve done bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.”
Struggling with guilt after sexual trauma might sound like:
“It was all my fault”
“I must have been asking for it”
“I shouldn’t have worn that item of clothing”
“I shouldn’t have been drinking”
“I should have known better than to go out with that person”
“Because this was my fault, I shouldn’t tell anyone about it or report it to the authorities”
Shame tends to be less specific than guilt and may sound like:
“What’s wrong with me?”
“I’m broken/dirty/disgusting/unlovable because this happened to me”
“I can’t talk to anyone about this because they’ll think I’m a bad/disgusting person”
“If people knew this happened to me, they wouldn’t want me around”
Now that we’ve established what guilt and shame are, let’s examine some of the reasons why survivors often struggle with these difficult emotions.
The main reason so many survivors feel guilt and shame is both simple and unsettling. Pervasive cultural attitudes teach us that victims are to blame for sexual assault and abuse. When a victim of violence or abuse of any kind is portrayed as the guilty party, this is known as “victim blaming,” and it’s extremely common in cultures all over the world.
Despite being a common experience for sexual assault survivors, victim blaming is not prominent in conversations about other violent crimes. For example, homicide victims aren’t typically described as having “asked for it.” Whether it’s in the movies and TV shows we watch, the music we listen to, or even the comments we overhear from friends, family, and coworkers, many of us are surrounded by the belief that if someone is wearing something “too revealing,” drinking “too much,” walking around in the “wrong place,” or simply being outside at the “wrong time,” that person must be to blame for any violence or abuse they experience.
Of course, these ideas are false. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re everywhere. Because of the pervasiveness of these myths and attitudes, many of us may start to believe that victims are actually responsible for their own abuse. As a result, we end up feeling guilty or ashamed when and if we become the victims of violence or abuse in our own lives.
Another reason guilt or shame might show up after a sexually traumatic experience is that these emotions are linked to our survival.
Through research into the nature and function of guilt and shame, psychologists have consistently observed that shame tends to motivate withdrawal-oriented behaviors while guilt tends to motivate repair-oriented behaviors. In other words, people who experience shame are more likely to become avoidant, isolated, and withdrawn, while people who experience guilt may search for ways to remedy their situation. Both of these can be seen as survival mechanisms through which the brain and body attempt to keep the survivor safe after a dangerous experience.
When something bad or dangerous happens to us, our brains do whatever they can to ensure that thing doesn’t happen again. Feeling guilty or imagining ways we could have prevented what happened is a way for our brains to say, “We’re in control, and if we can alter our behavior/clothing/social circle/habits/etc., then we can keep ourselves safe from future harm.”
The function of shame works a little differently. Feeling ashamed in the wake of sexual trauma motivates us to withdraw and hide away. This can easily be interpreted as a way for someone to seek safety. Of course, self-isolation doesn’t lead to positive outcomes in the long run, but it makes sense in the short term as part of the body’s “flight” response. If you struggle with feelings of shame, consider whether these feelings might be trying, in a strange way, to protect you from risk.
Unfortunately, it’s simply not true that sexual assault victims can do anything to entirely prevent the risk of experiencing assault or abuse. Sexual predators target people of all ages and demographics, and guilt and shame are ultimately not useful emotions for sexual trauma survivors, even if they might make sense from a psychological standpoint.
Understanding guilt and shame is important, but it doesn’t help much with alleviating these feelings. To begin the process of working through these complicated emotions, try a few of the ideas on this list.
In the sexual trauma recovery process, few things compare to the effectiveness of professional therapy. Working with a trained therapist or counsellor who understands the experiences and needs of sexual trauma survivors is an excellent way to support yourself as you navigate guilt and shame.
Although many therapists charge a fee for their services, you may be able to find mental health services for free or reduced cost depending on where you live. Many areas, including most parts of Canada, offer free mental health services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. These services can be found through crisis centres, advocacy organizations, and other social service agencies. To find free survivor-based counselling services in Canada, use the Go Thrive Go search tool and search for “Counselling” or “Support Groups.”
To search for a therapist in the US or Canada, try using this search tool provided by Psychology Today.
One of the most effective ways to move through guilt and shame as a trauma survivor is to have compassion for yourself. Try regarding yourself the same way you would a loved one. Imagine if someone you deeply care about was going through what you’re going through. What would you say to them? How would you show them care and support?
Chances are, you wouldn’t tell a close friend or loved one they’re to blame for having been assaulted or abused. You would probably remind them that it’s not their fault and that they deserve to rest, go slow, grieve, and do whatever else they need to do to recover. Do your best to show yourself the same level of compassion, patience, and sensitivity that you would show to someone else.
World-renowned shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown famously said, “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.”
But shame wants to be ignored. It wants us to shove it away and not look at it directly, because it’s in the shadows that shame thrives.
That’s why facing shame head on is one of the best ways to overcome it. Facing shame directly might look like acknowledging and taking stock of all the ways shame affects us. It might even involve speaking about our shame with a trusted friend or partner.
What does our shame story sound like?
What does shame feel like in our bodies?
How does shame affect our lives and relationships?
What do the ashamed parts of us need?
How can we find ways to challenge our shame narrative?
By getting to know the parts of ourselves that feel ashamed, we can begin to show meaningful compassion to those parts. This begins the process of dissolving our feelings of shame.
Simple yet effective, practicing affirmations as often as possible can shift distressing thoughts and feelings over time. Regardless of the specific thoughts you have, countering them with positive affirmations can be helpful.
Below are a few examples of how affirmations can sound in response to unwanted thoughts and feelings.
“It’s all my fault that I was assaulted/abused.”
“What happened to me was not my fault. I have nothing to feel guilty about.”
“I’m bad because of what happened to me, so I should keep it to myself and not tell anyone.”
“What happened to me was not my fault, and I am still a whole and worthy person. I deserve support and care from others as I recover.”
“If only I hadn’t done x, y, or z, this never would have happened.”
“I had no way of knowing or controlling what was going to happen to me. It’s not my fault, and I have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of.”
No matter which affirming phrases feel the best for you, speak or journal them to yourself as often as you need. You might try saying your affirmations to yourself in the mirror in the morning or before bed, keeping them in mind while exercising or stretching, or simply thinking through them whenever you experience guilt or shame.
While affirmations are not a one-step solution to overcoming guilt and shame, they can go a long way in supporting your sense of self-worth and self-compassion as you navigate your healing journey.
Journaling as a healing practice can take many different forms. While journaling might feel unfamiliar or even awkward at first for those who aren’t used to it, journaling regularly can help integrate healthier thought patterns and increase our sense of self-worth and value.
Here are some ideas for how you can use journaling as a healing practice to overcome guilt and shame:
Establishing a regular journaling practice for your thoughts and feelings, especially when combined with positive affirmations and compassionate reminders, can greatly aid the healing process after trauma.
Ensuring you spend time with people who believe and support you, and who do not blame you for what happened, is an essential aspect of aiding your healing process. If anyone around you says or implies you’re at fault for what happened, this can harm your self-esteem and make it more difficult to move through guilt and shame.
In general, being around people who know what you’re going through and can offer compassionate support as needed will help you move through feelings of guilt and shame more effectively.
Since so much of our lives is spent online, make sure you’re consuming affirming content that steers clear of victim-blaming tropes. Browse through your list of followed accounts on social media and remove any that might trigger feelings of guilt or shame. Instead, seek out accounts aimed at empowering survivors.
If you’d like to take this a step further, you could also try seeking out books, articles, or podcasts created by and for survivors. Engaging with this type of content not only helps survivors remember and believe that they are not at fault for what happened to them – it also helps victims feel less alone and more empowered.
No matter how many coping methods you try, overcoming feelings of guilt and shame can be a long journey. Try not to lose heart if months or even years have passed and you’re still struggling with these difficult feelings. Continue practicing the strategies on this list and reminding yourself “it wasn’t my fault” however many times you need to hear it.
It’s also worth noting that feelings come in waves. You might feel like you’ve moved on from these feelings one day, and then the next they could hit you all over again. This is 100% normal. Just like you would help support a friend or loved one struggling with difficult emotions over the long term, you can provide yourself with that same compassionate support no matter how long you need it.
Shame and guilt are extremely common feelings experienced by many survivors of sexual trauma. If you’re dealing with these complex emotions, there are many things you can do to help yourself move through them. No matter which approach you choose, remember that healing is not a linear process, and you are valid and worthy no matter where you are in your journey.
Some researchers estimate that as high as 75% of sexual assault survivors struggle with guilt and shame. There are both cultural and scientific reasons for this, including the prevalence of “victim blaming” and the way trauma impacts the body and brain. Survivors who struggle with guilt and shame as a result of sexual assault or abuse should consider seeking out support from a therapist or counsellor. Other methods include journaling, practicing affirmations, spending time with supportive people, and seeking out affirming content aimed at sexual trauma survivors. Most importantly, survivors should remember that overcoming guilt and shame can feel like a long and slow process. Stay consistent, have patience, and maintain self-compassion.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.
November 28, 20239 min read