The Merriam Webster dictionary defines shame as, a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety. Dr. Brené Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. As a woman who lived in Egypt all my life, shame is that one thing that if people discovered about me, they would not love me, they will not respect me, they will want nothing to do with me. Shame is that thing that can cause society to shun me or to stigmatize me. Coming from Egypt- a shame-based culture- I understand all about shame. We even have a proverb saying, “Pray for health and that your secret will never be exposed”. But shame is not an experience that is unique to Egyptians; it is a universal experience. There is no human being who can claim never experiencing shame in one form or another. Shame is the roommate of fear, the fear of being exposed, and the fear of becoming vulnerable. Yet, today I am not writing about any kind of shame, I want to expose the shame that no one wants to talk about: the shame connected with sexual abuse. Working with sexual abuse survivors since 2009, I have seen the shame that becomes an identity and a worldview. I have watched shame lead survivors to alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, self-mutilation, anxiety and suicide. For this very reason, we need to be vigilant and discover signs of shame in our kids. Let us not be shamers (I know this word doesn’t exist in the dictionary, but I just made it up ☺) of our children. So how does shame play out in our children’s lives?
- I am bad, unworthy of love, unfit. Whatever treatment I get is okay because, after all, it’s just me: Many children and adults find it impossible to report their sexual abuse experience to their parents, counselors or therapist because they feel that somehow it was their fault that the abuse happened. This increases the guilt and shame the survivor feels and leads to a sense of self-loathing. The victim feels he/she is not worthy of love and that they deserve whatever abuse they are facing as if it is ok. One of my patients once told me, “I am a person who was created to be abused. I am not created from the same tribe as Adam and Eve. I am created from the clay of abuse.” Children blame themselves for everything. If something traumatic happens in the family like a divorce, sickness or even sexual abuse the child feels that somehow it was their fault. They think, “Maybe if I had been more obedient mum and dad would not have divorced.” Every child needs to feel loved, accepted and worthy. This is a basic need for children.
- Shame Walls the heart from receiving love. The abuser tells the child that he/she is doing this because he/she loves the victim. The abuser tells the victim how special he/she is. Love becomes confused with sex and sex becomes the sole venue for love. And yet, love become precarious, love become dangerous because it is connected in the victim’s mind with abuse, shame, and guilt. Because the violation is so profound, the self-protection is also profound. Shame gives a signal to the child’s mind that the world is not to be trusted.
- Shame happens when we judge ourselves in an unfit way The shame of sexual abuse is not about the sex, but about the self-judgment. After abuse occurs, the survivor assumes that he/she has become unfit for love, that somehow he/she have become unworthy, unlovable which is a lie from the pit of hell. Abuse is never the victim’s fault; it was never because of anything the victim did or did not do. No one- and I mean no one- deserves abuse.
- Shame happens whenever our needs as a child are not met, or we are shamed for having the feelings Everybody feels shame regardless of their age, their gender, their ethnicity, their religion. When we do not meet our children’s basic needs of food, security, safety, love, acceptance, worthiness those very unmet needs become the perfect atmosphere for shame. The message the child learns is that having needs is shameful. The message the kid learns is that he/she does not have the right to have feelings or needs. The child falls into the spiral of having needs or feelings which are not met, assuming that it is somehow shameful to have feelings or needs and feeling disgrace for having needs.
- Shame occurs when abuse destroys self-esteem Our children were not created to be perfect beings. What a burden this puts on them and on us as parents and caregivers. We project our shame and fears on our children imparting to them the message that they are only lovable when they are perfect, when they score the highest grades or when they make the football team. Instead of breathing purpose and worth into our children, we promote shame, that impression of never being good enough.
- Shame happens when the abuser’s shame/mindset is internalized by the victim If the abuser takes time in grooming the child for abuse, the child’s body may react to the stimulation, increasing the feeling of guilt and shame. He or she thinks I am indeed a bad person! I deserve all that is happening to me! Or, Is there something about me that will make people not want to connect with me? The child is less able to interact with society and starts suffering self-hate. Abuse is the violation of a child’s sexuality
- Shame occurs when the abuser disowns guilt and blames the victim The predator tells the victim that it was his/her fault that he/she abused them. The abuser blames the victim for dressing a certain way, for talking a certain way, for laughing. The abuser places the blame on the victim and as a child who was told to obey adults and to believe adults the child presumes that the responsibility for the abuse rests on the child.
- Shame happens when the child experiences a profound sense of helplessness When anyone is violated, the first feeling response is raw fear and terror. The child is helpless and out of control. The child feels powerless. And if -like most of us would do, the child freezes and does not scream, this increases the sense of shame. This sense of powerlessness and helplessness might lead the child later in life to be a very controlling adolescent or to show control by suffering anorexia or bulimia.
- Shame happens when the child assumes responsibility for false guilt for the abuse The poisonous plays a significant role in the tragedy of sexual abuse by promoting a kind of ownership of children. The secrecy, the silence, and the self-judgment make shame so exponential in the victim’s life that it becomes almost palpable. How much are your children worth? Do love them, show them they’re worth no matter what and in spite of everything they say, do or achieve. Spend enough time with them. When my boys asked me why I loved them, I would always have the same response, “I love you because you are my son.”