Shame & Sexual Abuse: How Recovery Happens

By Mikele Rauch

For survivors of sexual abuse, trauma rearranges thoughts. For many, the lies of the perpetrator become unconscious truth for the victimized brain, a legacy of shame. Shame like this is a cannibal. It eats the self from the inside. Often there are no words for it because does not just occur above the eyebrows. This kind of toxic shame is a state that overtakes the body: an experience of being.

Shame can create incredible passivity, inordinate aggressiveness—or confusing passive-aggressive behaviors because it is the only tool one knows to control their world and their world view. . In Judith Herman’s words, “shame is an acutely self-conscious state in which the self is“split,” imagining the self in the eyes of the other; by contrast, in guilt the self is unified. In shame, the self is passive; in guilt the self is active. “

Shame creates isolation and the fear of being found out. It makes people drink too much, take drugs, watch too much television, stay too long in chat rooms and internet sites, give so much of themselves away,. Shame eats compulsively or starves to death; shame acts out sexually, or never engages with anyone in an intimate way. It might carry layers and layers of clothes or fat, or wear barely anything at all as a reaction to what has happened.

Touch can be confusing and, of course, shameful—a painful threat, or an invitation to sex. All the members of one sex can be suspect—or anybody of any sex who appears to be kind or helpful. Human contact may be in fact, shameful itself.

On the other hand, perhaps the word “no” does not apply in shame. This is especially true for caregivers, survivors who themselves are in the fields of medical or mental health, drawn to repeat the cycles of overwork, bad relationships, bad boundaries because they do not know any other way to be. Caregiving is never enough when attending to others, but not oneself. Shame creates its own grandiosity. It is the insidiously closeted narcissistic wound of overwork.

So the task of recovery is both simple and complex: to have compassion for the part of the self that is despised. One cannot wait until the fear is gone to do this. It means being afraid, and yet entertaining the possibility of living differently nevertheless. It is essential find some kindness in the process for oneself. But kindness is not the same thing as self indulgence or self pity. At its most profound, this kindness is rigorous self care: a compassionate commitment to self awareness and truth, with a sense of humor, wise vulnerability, and honesty. It means honoring the integrity of this journey with every bit of one’s imperfections and one’s inherent beauty.

 How Recovery Happens How Recovery HappensSince 1983, Mikele has worked with individuals and groups specializing in the areas of sexual, religious, ritual and physical trauma. She is a member of MaleSurvivor, the National Organization against Male Sexual Victimization and its International Retreat Team, author of Healing the Soul after Religious Abuse: the Dark Heaven of Recovery. Presently she chairs, committed to empowering women who are survivors of sexual abuse and assault to be whole, healed and connected to others.




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