by Teresa Joyce, NAASCA representative in the United Kingdom
Shame is such a painful experience. It’s a mix of regret, self-hate, and the feeling of dishonour, accompanied by the powerful gut-wrenching urge to simply disappear. You try to bury your head in the sand and away from those prying eyes, which almost feel as if they are a reflection bearing right into your very soul. Anger is a very common emotion for people reacting to that feeling of shame, which at times has the power to ignite self-blame, which is not helped by the expressions of condemnation or disappointment in another's eye: “shame on you.” The feeling of shame can come from a belief that we are flawed, inadequate, or unimportant, and at some point in our lives, most of us will be absorbed within that false belief. Shame is an unpleasant self-conscious emotion typically associated with a negative evaluation of one's self, which in turn causes withdrawal feelings of distress, exposure, and worthlessness.
If we were to turn to the internet for guidance, there is even a syndrome naming this impostor, which in truth holds all of the above, creating the whole: a shame attack. Some would even say that the reason for this is relentless self-monitoring and self-condemnation, which can mean we are not within our ability at that time to absorb or expose the truth. But it’s far more complicated than that. To engage with shame, far more than anyone would have you believe. What I am talking about above can enter into any one of our lives within the stress that life can at times put on us, with little more than just living within life's interaction daily. For most, it can be addressed and worked through, which in turn will allow forward movement within that life. But for adult child abuse survivors it can be a completely different story or life journey. When that journey has been imposed upon a child through child abuse, the direction that life took was not of their making, just as shame is not theirs in which to bear.
The unjust shame of child abuse never really leaves simply because it’s within the past, becuase it’s an integral part of whom they may have become. Child abuse takes so much away from the life of that adult survivor. Unfairly, shame has been and will always be an emotion which at times will be felt. It’s a long journey in which they take whilst untangling that web of lies to reveal the truth, and to put that shame firmly where it belongs. Even at the end of that journey the memory of shame can be unearthed, or revisited, by the slightest feeling felt towards being or doing wrong. How can it not be felt when their past still plays such an integral part in their present? In time, that emotion can be somewhat controlled as they break away from within that prism, their memories can be adjusted within an element of truth for the first time. That said, the pain of this now exposed hard truth will also bring its own set of until now hidden emotions.
Even after this adjustment, it would be foolhardy to think that they are now free from that prison of self-questioning at times. We should never underestimate the strength it will take to face that fierce battle within the shame of child abuse, it’s a battle that all would choose to walk away from. But for that survivor, the only choice given is to stay within the grip of shame or to walk that road towards the truth and recovery. But neither road stretched out in front of them will avoid the pain that either journey will inflict upon them, the choice between shame or pain is never going to be a comfortable one. Ultimately, the cards are always going to seem as if they are stacked against them. Ironically, a choice can now be seen, where within child abuse one was never offered, but it’s far from an easy choice to make. Freedom of choice is huge and can sometimes seem as if taken for granted because for the most it’s a given thing, but for a child abuse recovering adult? Well, that choice is a risky venture when that choice is a fork in the road, and they just don’t know where the road will end or the distance in which they will travel.
Living within the feelings of shame creates a lonely and demoralizing experience which can be paralysing for that adult searching for recovery from child abuse. It can reflect upon that survivor's relationships, their friendships. Also, trusting is often extremely difficult. It makes its way into all areas of their lives. It can have the effect of making them feel vulnerable, unable to express themselves, never truly believing that any empathy will be found. Shame should never be likened or compared with guilt or a wrongful doing. For a child abuse recovering adult, shame or guilt should never be in the equation that’s held by another. But we would then, of course, have to believe that child abusers can feel that guilt, and at least for myself, that's a difficult emotional belief in which I truly find hard to digest. In truth, it matters not when the journey towards recovery is chosen because it’s a release found from within. Quite simply, the concentration of the mind is no longer geared towards that abuser. In this place, any residual power an abuser may still hold is relinquished, with that movement the balance of that power is shifted.
When shame has been so wrongfully carried through life, it’s very difficult to dismiss. There may even be times where self-justification of that shame may be wrongly looked towards. I’m sure it’s needless for me to say here that none of the above, centred around self-shame and blame, is either accurate or indeed truthful, but it takes time to roll back the mind towards those painful years. In truth, trying to make any real sense of that which has no sense is a tall order, but deeply required if we are to have any real chance to look beneath that cloak and the real travesty of child abuse. It’s only then, that we may be able to grasp just how high that mountain is to climb away from that shame or blame for an adult child abuse survivor. I find myself reflecting on a proverb. I guess it’s just the subject matter.
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
But within the horrors of child abuse, the proverb above simply has no dignity or place in which to sit. Within, child abuse sexual shame should never be felt. That shame was inflicted, that shame was enforced, within a baptism of fire, when that child was openly unaided. But with enlightened hope, every adult child abuse survivor can today have access to that aid, when the strength is found in which to encounter and demolish that shame. Holding on to that crippling emotion within childhood and throughout adulthood only attests to the strength of that soul, and in time that strength will exert all in which is required to take back that life. That life which, until now, has been overshadowed beneath the shame will now raise itself from within the fire with the mastery of the phoenix.
I believe, without question and in time, they too will ask of it.