In the fantastic book, It Wasn’t Your Fault, Beverly Engel, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, makes perfectly clear that if you have suffered childhood abuse or neglect then you likely struggle with shame.
Victims of abuse will blame themselves for their abuse because perpetrators of abuse are typically a parent or a caregiver, making the option of blaming them almost impossible. If the person who cares for you and occasionally protects you is also dangerous and unpredictable, then the world is inherently dangerous and unpredictable.In cases of extreme abuse, the child can no longer maintain the illusion that they are to blame, leading them to a state of apathy and learned helplessness. “It doesn’t matter what I do, he will hit me either way.” However, most abusive relationships are not so black and white.
Many abusive relationships are, at times, happy and loving but there is an underlying anxiety that physical violence, emotional abuse or neglect, or sexual abuse could reoccur. This can lead to a period immediately afterward of renewed affection from the abuser to their victim, which allows the victim to rationalize their perpetrator’s behavior.
With physical abuse, “If only I hadn’t made him angry, then he wouldn’t have had to hit me.” Or with sexual abuse, “If only I hadn’t enticed him; it’s my fault.” This forces the child to bear the guilt, creating a defense mechanism that shields the perpetrator from blame. This often will create patterns of cognition that lead the victim to believe that they are fundamentally flawed, broken, or dirty.
The shame that abuse victims experience can move beyond negative thought patterns and into behaviors. Many victims of abuse, unable to direct their anger at their abuser as it would lead to more abuse and unable to hold it inside, will seek out a surrogate, usually someone smaller and weaker, that they can shame or bully. This ultimately leads to the initial victim experiencing even further shame for what they have done to others, further solidifying their belief that they are bad to the core.
Other victims will simply attempt to numb themselves from the shame that they feel by abusing drugs and alcohol, often at an early age. This strategy is minimally effective because one cannot be consistently intoxicated. When sobriety emerges, the victim will also feel further shame, labeling themselves as a “drug addict,” “lazy,” or a “low-life.” This increases the shame that they only know how to confront with further drug abuse.
By the time victims of childhood abuse become adults they may have created a variety of defense mechanisms in an attempt to shield themselves from shame, which sometimes work in the short-term but often times increase shame long-term. As mentioned previously, patterns of abusing drugs and alcohol will typically continue into adulthood.
When facing adversity, many victims of childhood abuse will find themselves regressing to childlike behavior that would lead many to scratch their heads in confusion. The big test is tomorrow but instead of studying the abuse victim will lay numbly on the couch all day watching television. The job interview is this afternoon and the abuse victim will get drunk at a bar at lunchtime. These behaviors would be what we call self-sabotaging behaviors and confronted with these actions the self-saboteur will be just as perplexed as anyone else: “Why would I do that?”
Ultimately, what seems to underlie these behaviors is the fact that many victims of childhood abuse will struggle to accept or feel worthy of anything good that comes to them. “If only they knew this about me then they would all hate me, too.”
Most people, at one time or another, will experience what is called impostor syndrome: “They are going to know that I’m fake, or that I don’t know what I’m doing.” But victims of childhood abuse are particularly prone to very strong impostor syndrome, particularly when given responsibility or when faced with the possibility of failure. This seems to be coupled with the fact that victims of childhood abuse will struggle to have a core sense of “Self,” or a core identity as to who they are, what they enjoy, or what they are capable of.
It has been shown that victims of childhood abuse can be cognitively impaired based on school performance from elementary school through college. Many victims of childhood abuse complain of being unable to focus their attention, a requirement in academic performance and in most careers.
This is an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy the comes with the experience of shame. Just as the individual suffering from depression can trap themselves in a vicious cycle that furthers their depressed mood, the shamed individual feels worthless and sabotages themselves to further prove to themselves and others how worthless they are.
The cyclical nature of behavior can be confusing. As the apostle Paul says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).
Our recent understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain fully illuminates this bizarre aspect of human behavior. Neuroplasticity is a fancy way of saying that the brain is not static but constantly changing, growing, and atrophying in a plethora of ways.
In the words of Norman Doidge in his magnificent book, The Brain That Changes Itself, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This firing of neurons strengthens the pathway, making it more likely to fire again in the future. This is what a habit is, and this is why it can be so difficult to break a habit.
To apply this point to our discussion: it has been shown that victims of childhood abuse have an overactive or even enlarged amygdala. The amygdala is one of the oldest parts of the human brain and it is most associated with some of our most primal instincts, including threat detection, and the commonly known “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex.
Because the amygdala is hyperactive in victims of childhood abuse, they are more likely to perceive a situation as threatening (even if it isn’t) or feel that they are chronically afraid or stressed for no apparent reason.
Victims of childhood abuse have been shown to have increased levels of cortisol in their system, the hormone associated with stress and fear. This is the biological component as to why victims of childhood abuse are more easily stressed and overwhelmed then the average population.
Abuse victims have also been shown to have decreased levels of oxytocin in their system, the hormone associated with developing trust and emotional bonds in relationships. This is the biological component as to why abuse victims will often struggle to develop and maintain significant relationships or friendships, which (of course) ultimately feeds their belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them or that they are unlovable.
Hopefully, by now it is becoming more and more clear as to why the predicament of shame is so binding. This leads us to the most unpleasant aspect of this entire discussion. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2013 report, nearly all perpetrators of abuse and neglect were abused and neglected as children.
A very important point here is that though nearly all abusers were abused, the majority of victims of abuse do not become abusive themselves. According to that same 2013 report, 70% of victims of childhood abuse will not go on to abuse their own children. However, 30% will.
Why? Because just as the school bully is likely attempting to momentarily soothe their own shame by taking power in a world where they are typically powerless, perpetrators of child abuse are attempting to soothe their overwhelming shame, which is a by-product of the abuse they endured as a child.
Even individuals who swear that they would never reenact what was done to them as children will be perplexed by their behavior in times of intense stress or feelings of overwhelming powerlessness.
So the perpetrator of childhood abuse feels intense feelings of shame that they received from their own abuse as a child, and they attempt to soothe their shame by abusing their partner or child, which ultimately leads to them feeling even more shame, creating a destructive cycle for them as individuals.
Their child has also now endured abuse, and, as we have discussed, the child will most likely blame themselves, creating strong feelings of shame that they will carry with them until they become adults, increasing their likelihood of abusing their own children. This is what we call “The Cycle of Abuse” and many families can seem trapped in this cycle from generation to generation.
So does this make perpetrators innocent victims themselves or guilty abusers? It seems to me that it depends. It can be a useful way to understand behavior; it can be a useful way to understand your own behavior if you bullied as a child or now have perpetrated abuse as an adult, but it does not alleviate guilt.
Just because you can understand why your perpetrator did what they did, it does not make what they did okay. Be particularly wary of this, because remember: victims of childhood abuse have already excused their perpetrator’s behavior in a variety of ways, often times turning the blame onto themselves.
This illuminates something else very important about the psychology of victims of childhood abuse: most would blame themselves mercilessly if they were to continue the cycle of abuse to their own children, while at the same time being extremely quick to excuse the abuse of their perpetrator in the same circumstances.
Abusing or neglecting a child is wrong, and it is always wrong. No “explanation” of the behavior can or should change that. Most victims of childhood abuse first and foremost need to feel anger and rage towards their perpetrator for the indignity that was done to them as a way to begin to turn the blame away from themselves.
A helpful way to begin this process is to find what Alice Miller called a compassionate witness who can listen to the victim tell the story of their abuse and then, instead of blaming them, tell them that what was done to them was wrong and cruel.
The role of the compassionate witness is to help the victim re-frame how they think about their experience and to stop justifying their perpetrator’s behavior. The victim will often say things like, “My dad beat me up pretty good when I was a kid, but I was a bad little kid, and I deserved it,” to which the compassionate witness can respond, “But you were only a child. What can a child do that would make it okay for an adult to beat them up?”
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, ESV
Follow this rabbit hole down and you will always find that the abuse never had anything to do with the behavior of the victim and everything to do with the internal state of the perpetrator at the time of the abuse.
A behavior on one day that elicits no response from the perpetrator can throw them into a wild rage the next day. A boss yelled at them and made them feel small or bad financial news can make them like a ticking time bomb, leaving the child feeling that they can never know what to expect from day to day.
Once you have firmly secured the blame for your abuse onto your perpetrator, fully felt the indignity and injustice of the actions, then you can begin to move to the next step: forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean that you should expect your perpetrator to ever seek your forgiveness, or that you definitely should seek them out and tell that you forgive them, though some will find this healing. Giving forgiveness is for you, so that you can soothe the anger and move closer to healing.If you want to heal the shame that binds you, first of all, remember: it wasn’t your fault. Find friends you trust who can be a compassionate witness to your story, read books like The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, It Wasn’t Your Fault by Beverly Engel, or Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff.
But these are supplementary to finding a therapist that you like and trust who can help guide you through the process of healing. A therapist can be a compassionate witness, and they can help you reframe destructive thought patterns.
If you are worried that you will continue the cycle of abuse or if you have continued it, a therapist can help you develop strategies to help you deal with your experience of shame. Your shame will not disappear overnight. The road to healing is long and will need frequent reminders, but life on the other side makes it worth it.
“Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.” – Isaiah 50:7
“My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the rock and strength of my heart and my portion forever.” – Psalm 73:26, Amplified Bible
“Hiding,” courtesy of Caleb Woods, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Darkness,” courtesy of Mitchell Hollander, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friendship,” courtesy of rawpixel, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Free,” courtesy of Sasha Freemind, unsplash.com, CC0 License