3 Strategies to Help Heal the Shame of Child Sexual Abuse
Most survivors of childhood sexual abuse suffer from shame.
Posted January 17, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Many psychotherapists agree that shame is one of the most damaging aspects of child sexual abuse.
- Shame creates an internalized core belief that one is worthless, unlovable or bad.
- Shame also prevents former victims from reaching out to others and from seeking help.
Many psychotherapists agree that shame is among the most damaging aspects of child sexual abuse, if not the most damaging. The humiliation a child feels when they are violated in this way can be absolutely devastating, creating wounds that can last a lifetime.
Although research shows that depression is the most common long-term effect among survivors of CSA, this depression tends to originate with shame. Survivors tend to have difficulty externalizing the abuse, which causes them to blame themselves. This self-blame leads to feelings of worthlessness, a clear by-product of shame. Furthermore, years of negative self-thoughts cause survivors to have feelings of worthlessness and to avoid others because they believe they have nothing to offer.
Most important, the shame of child sexual abuse creates an internalized core belief that one is worthless, unlovable, or bad. Changing this core belief is one of the most difficult tasks a former victim can encounter.
Taken from my new book, Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse, I provide three effective strategies for healing the negative effects of abuse-related shame and strategies to help overcome the shame that keeps you from reaching out to others or from seeking help.
My proprietary shame-reduction program is based not only on my extensive experience working with CSA victims for 40 years but on sound research.
Strategy 1: Face the Truth
It can be extremely difficult to allow yourself to face the truth about the sexual abuse that you experienced. First of all, it is almost impossible to admit to yourself that someone you love (your father, your brother, your grandfather) or someone you deeply respect (your teacher, your coach, your minister, or priest) could treat you in such an unloving, selfish and cruel way. You probably want to preserve the good feelings you have toward this person, and admitting that they sexually abused you will most certainly rob you of these feelings. It is far easier to block out the abuse entirely, make excuses for their behavior, or use the most common tactic of all—blame yourself.
It can also be difficult to trust your memories of CSA. They are often vague and may seem unbelievable, causing you to doubt yourself and be fearful of making a false accusation.
Exercise: The Truth Book
I recommend that you start a journal in which you write down only what you are sure of. Start each entry with: “The truth is….” For example, you might write about how you feel afraid or uncomfortable every time you are around your grandfather or you get triggered every time you watch a movie about childhood sexual abuse. It’s easy to discount these reactions, but if you write them down and then read them later on, they all may make it clear that something did indeed happen.
Strategy 2: Stop Blaming Yourself
You must come to understand that no matter what the circumstances, you did nothing wrong. You didn’t instigate the abuse, you didn’t tantalize your abuser, and you didn’t consent to the abuse. As a child, you could not make a free choice. A free choice is made when you understand the consequences of your actions and when you are not coerced, bribed, intimidated, or threatened into satisfying someone else. You were only a child and therefore incapable of making such a decision. Even if you were a teenager when the abuse occurred, you could not give consent. As we now understand, teenagers’ brains are not developed fully enough for them to be able to make free, conscious choices.
Another issue that may add to your tendency to blame yourself for the abuse is the question of receiving pleasure. Children are not equipped to deal with the complicated emotions surrounding sexuality. To make matters more confusing, although there is often emotional and physical pain involved with child sexual abuse, there can be pleasure as well.
Victims have often reported experiencing some physical pleasure, even with the most violent and sadistic types of sexual abuse. But experiencing physical pleasure does not signify consent. Our bodies are created to respond to physical touch—no matter who is doing the touching. And many victims of abuse were so deprived of affection that they spontaneously accepted any physical attention, no matter what the source.
Strategy 3: Acknowledge your Pain and Grieve Your Losses
For those of you who have managed to admit the truth to yourself, there is one more step you need to take in terms of admitting what happened to you. You need to allow yourself to acknowledge how much you have suffered because of the sexual abuse. The trauma you endured caused you great pain, great fear, and great harm. You need to acknowledge this to yourself, identify this pain, fear, and harm, and allow yourself to express your pent-up emotions because of them.
What happened to you was horrible. It was something no human being should have to suffer. But ignoring your pain, trying to put it behind you, or pretending that it wasn’t as terrible as it actually was will not help the situation. Denying your shame and other emotions attached to the abuse simply doesn’t work. Trying to avoid being shamed again by becoming a perfectionist or building a defensive wall between you and others doesn’t work. Isolating yourself and avoiding others does not work. Projecting your shame onto others doesn’t work.
What does work is to address your pain and other emotions head-on. This involves allowing yourself to feel your emotions surrounding the abuse and providing yourself with compassion for your suffering.
The truth is, we can’t heal what we don’t feel. You need to admit to yourself how truly devastating being sexually abused was for you. Instead of dismissing your wounds in order to appear strong, begin to identify and attend to your wounds the way you would a physical wound. If you had a large cut on your body, you wouldn’t just ignore it, hoping it would just go away. You would know that you needed to cleanse the wound and put medicine on it to help it to heal.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Engel, Beverly. (2022). Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse. New York, Prometheus.