I've been thinking a lot about shame these last few months...
As survivors of sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, and so many other traumas, we feel shame, ashamed, and shameful. But, is this shame really ours to bear?
First, let's look at guilt... Guilt is felt when we have done something wrong. Feeling sorry for our actions, guilt is typically combined with feelings of regret or remorse, which motivates us to make amends and reform our behavior. Guilt, with its ability to help us learn from our mistakes, can be a very constructive emotion.
Shame, in contrast, is felt when we believe a part of our self is intrinsically bad. Shame makes us feel frustrated, humiliated, and unworthy. Instead of feeling sorry for our actions, we feel sorry for who we are. Shame, often times, has us believe there is nothing we can do to relieve or resolve the shame.
Babies are not born innately feeling guilt or shame. These emotions are learned responses from those around them - family, peer groups, religion, culture, society. Depending on the person and the people around her/him, the same action may cause one person to feel guilt and another to feel shame. Or, in some rare instances, they may feel neither because it is not their responsibility to feel either.
Shame for survivors of rape, sexual abuse, and even domestic violence comes from the societal belief of being sullied, dirty, broken, used goods. We are seen and treated as less than, as if there is something intrinsically wrong with us. Wrongly held accountable for the perpetration of violence by another, we carry the shame because it is expected of us.
Embodying this shame keeps us from taking action, from demanding justice. It keeps us feeling small, bad, and unworthy. But, we do not become bad and unlovable people because something bad happened to us.
In truth, the shame is not ours to bear...
Let us find the strength in our courage to survive to return the shame to those it actually belongs to. With this action, we give the signal that it is safe for our pride, self-respect, and self-esteem to return to us, to rise from the buried depths we hid it in.
Maybe then, we can create a world where perpetrators are held accountable. Where guilt is assigned to the person who commits the crime? Where survivors acknowledge their innocence and are supported in knowing that a bad thing happened to them, but it is not their identity or their life.