Understanding Post-Trauma Guilt and Shame

Link to "Victim Guilt following Experiences of Sexualized Trauma" by Zoe Lodrick
Link to “Victim Guilt following Experiences of Sexualized Trauma” by Zoe Lodrick

Trauma will manifest itself in different ways for different people. Since no two abusive situations are identical, no two survivors are identical, each will react and learn to cope differently, in a way that makes the most sense to them. A child’s reaction to abuse may be very different from an adult’s response. A man’s coping strategies might not work for a woman and vice versa.

Many previous posts have dealt with various effects of abuse. These include (but are not limited to): self injury, substance abuse, impairment of childhood development, eating disorders, heart health, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and depression. An effect of abuse may also be something as “simple” as feeling unable to trust people or not wanting to watch a certain television program.

Most of these manifest themselves in a detrimental way (i.e. drug addiction or suicidal thoughts); that does not mean they are abnormal! Your mind and body have been designed to naturally set up a defense against further hurt and/or a coping mechanism for avoiding or overcoming the present hurt. It’s good that your mind and body are trying to combat the trauma which occurred; just as the body is designed to heal a cut or kill an infection, so it is designed to combat unseen pain. Unfortunately, Neosporin won’t take care of emotional pain. What’s imperative is finding the support and proactive coping mechanisms which will be most helpful (and healthy).

Whatever type of abuse a person has experienced (physical, sexual, mental, verbal, or emotional), psychological trauma is almost guaranteed to be a factor in the recovery process. To be violated – whether through physical or verbal assault – is a deeply personal, painful experience.

Self-promoting guilt and shame often accompany a traumatic event. Several previous posts have addressed rape culture and the rape myths society promotes. Those myths could reek havoc on the mind of a man or woman soon after an assault or rape.

Link to PCAR: "Common Victim Behaviors of Survivors of Sexual Abuse"
Link to PCAR: “Common Victim Behaviors of Survivors of Sexual Abuse”

For example, a woman may begin to feel guilty about what she wore that day. She will lay some of the blame upon herself. Even though a person’s dress does not cause (or repel) rape, she will likely have a difficult time separating her actions from the actions of her rapists. Consider: if this woman is already struggling with guilt she (either consciously or subconsciously) has inflicted upon herself, how incredibly discouraging and detrimental it will be for the people closest to her to reinforce the lie with comments like, “…but what were you wearing?

Similarly, a man who has been assaulted may blame himself for engaging his attacker in conversation prior to the violence. Thoughts of guilt such as “If only I hadn’t…” will influence whether or not the man is able to report the event, how much information he feels comfortable giving, and how that information will be presented. Naturally, if he feels guilty for something he did prior to the attack, he will be hesitant to mention it to an investigator or close friend. In his mind, it puts him in a bad light and, possibly, shows that he deserved the violation.

That’s a lie of rape culture; that an action or inaction by the victim prior to or during the attack makes them partially or wholly responsible for what was done to them. It’s one of the most common forms of victim blaming. Victim blaming re-victimizes the person who was attacked. No one can prevent rape except those who carry out the crime. One may protect against rape but it is impossible to fully prevent it – that’s the responsibility of the rapist.

“…rape apology is any argument that boils down to the myth that rapists can be provoked into raping by what the victim does or does not do. Such apologies feed off the old myth that rapists have no control over the sexual temptation they experience in response to the victim, therefore the victim could have avoided awakening the irresistible rape temptation by behaving differently. It’s classic victim-blaming. Most people who make such arguments are not consciously intending to defend rapists. They are simply repeating arguments they have heard before and haven’t fully examined.” –Feminism 101 Blog FAQ

Understanding the psychological stress after trauma and how it will influence a victim’s actions, thoughts, and conversations is important both for those who have been assaulted or raped and for the people called upon to assist survivors in either the legal or healing processes.

Link to Resources for Secondary Victims of Sexual Abuse
Link to Resources for Secondary Victims of Sexual Abuse
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