When you have been sexually assaulted or abused it is almost guaranteed that you will feel shame. That is easy to say, and no-one disputes it. But what IS shame? Why do the victims feel the shame in these circumstances? What does it matter? Firstly, there is a lot of confusion between shame and guilt. But they are quite different. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Shame, as a noun, means ‘a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour’ Whereas the noun guilt means the ‘fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime’ or ‘feeling of having committed wrong or failed in an obligation’. So the difference is clearly that shame is a feeling of humiliation and distress. One can be guilty but feel no shame, or one can be deeply ashamed, but in fact hold no guilt. The feeling of shame is a feeling of being worthless, unwanted, defective and inadequate. Not of having done something bad but of being something bad. Shame makes you feel that there is nothing you can do to make it any better. No way out. It feels as if you can only try to hide it or disguise it. It is the worst feeling you can have. It makes you feel that you are just not good enough to be a human. That your very being has shriveled. Just to make it worse you then feel ashamed of being ashamed. Shame shows itself by physical changes. Shames makes you want to hide your eyes, look at the floor, blush, bite your lip, or fidget. Other responses may include annoyance, defensiveness, exaggeration or denial. Because the affect of shame often interferes with our ability to think, you may experience confusion, being at a loss for words, or a completely blank mind. It is a very intense, very personal and very private form of pain. Shame is often triggered by wounding from others. In the case of sexual abuse it is a very complex relationship. The nature of sexuality is very finely balanced between being open and exposing your most intimate being and holding back and being guarded. In sexual abuse the balance is undermined. You are forcibly exposed and no longer able to be in control. Shame results from this inner wounding. Injury to the soul. Humiliation. Many people feel in someway responsible for being a rape victim. Either that you ‘invited’ it, or that you should have tried harder to stop it. You may feel that somehow you allowed it to happen. Maybe you were drunk or dressed in a particular way. It is important to understand that none of this matters. You do not need to feel ashamed, but the perpetrator will try hard to make you feel like it is your fault. Another reason that you might feel ashamed is because of the way your body responded to touch. But you need to know that you are not in control of this. Your body responds automatically. Just as a poke in the eye will make you blink and you cannot control it, being touched in a sexual manner can make your body respond in ways you cannot control either. You may even have experienced an orgasm, and this will enhance the shameful feelings you are left with, but it does not mean you wanted it to happen. It is shame that prevents many victims from ever reporting the crime. It may also be preventing you from seeking help and support. What may start off as a tiny nugget of shame grows with your inability to share the experience and off load. If nobody knows then they are unable to help you rationalise and make sense of the whole situation. If shame continues for a long time it can be self-perpetuating. It becomes toxic and affects everything you think about yourself. It distorts the truth and does not allow you to see that the shame is entirely unjustified and that you are not responsible. So, we have looked at what Shame is, and why you feel it after sexual abuse or rape. Now we need to see what we can do about it. Firstly you need to acknowledge it. That can be extremely hard and sometimes takes another person to point it out. You simply may not have recognised what you are feeling. Sometimes it will take the help of a Therapist to help you through this, but others may find their feelings of shame are blocking their access to therapy. Once you know you are feeling ashamed you need to look at the reasons why. Sort out the fact from the fiction. Your brain is very good at making up stories to make you feel worse; your inner critic if you like. The likely answers that you will come up with are You did not ask to be sexually abused or raped The perpetrator was more powerful (Physically/emotionally) than you You could not stop it You had no control over your bodily reactions IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT Once you can accept that it was in no way your fault, you can start to unravel the shame as being undeserved and unjustified. You can start to think more rationally and stop carrying the blame and shame. This sounds very simple, and actually it is. But it can be a slow process to accept this truth and to truly believe it. You may find that you need to be told it is not your fault over and over again, and the small doubt will still niggle at the back of your mind. However once you start looking at the possibility that it was not your fault then you can finally start examining the truth. Next you need to do things to redress the balance. The opposite of shame is pride. So you want to be proud of yourself. This can be through very small achievements. Simple things such as going out for a walk, or doing the washing up. Something that maybe you have been putting off. It can be quite challenging, but you have to accept that you need to make changes in order to change the way you feel. Do whatever ‘it‘ is, and give yourself a pat on the back. Better still share the experience with another and allow them to praise you too. Lap it up. Hold your head high. Look people in the eye. Stand tall. Walk tall. When you are free from the feeling of shame it is much easier to see how the faulty thinking was holding it close to you. This means when it returns, which it often does, it will be easier to recognise and challenge.