Not Your Shame

When I began talking to my friends and fellow survivors about starting this website, I asked them what they thought what was most important for womxn to hear about abuse. And over and over they said:

“Shame. Talk about shame.”

It’s one of the reasons I find the whole “victim mentality” crap to be so infuriating. Most of the survivors I know (myself included!) are far too ashamed of having been abused to disclose it. If that sounds backwards, it’s because it is. What would seem logical is that abusers would be too ashamed to admit to victimizing others. And of course, they don’t often admit to it, but I think that’s less frequently due to shame. They have a more Machiavellian motive–they want to keep their masks on so they can keep hurting and exploiting people undetected.

So why would a survivor suffer so much shame that they hide their abuse experience? A few reasons: 1) Continued effects of the abuse. 2) The fear that if they disclose they’ll be abused again. 3) Patriarchy. Let’s take all these apart.

When the person you love starts to abuse you, it’s at first so confusing that you hardly know what’s going on. You go into freeze mode. The behavior seems odd, but this person has been so wonderful, so loving, they couldn’t possibly be trying to hurt you. So you give them the benefit of the doubt. You believe whatever it is they’re telling you. Whether it’s that you’re controlling, a bad cook, messy, ditzy, an underachiever, boring in bed, angry, cheap, too heavy, a terrible partner, you take it in and examine yourself. Like any person of conscience would do. If someone you love and respect gives you feedback, you consider it. Again, it’s very confusing. It doesn’t seem right, but you trust them. It’s not too difficult to control someone who loves and trusts you, only most of us would never even think to do that. Survivors tend to think abusers are like themselves, until their denial is finally shattered for good. After a while, your self-esteem gets so eroded that you begin to see yourself as your abuser sees you. Abuse-able. Not worth respect or consideration. Weak. It makes you burn with an elemental shame that wasn’t there before but feels ancient as well as eternal. After abuse, when someone thinks highly of you, you tend to wonder why. If they really knew who you were, if they knew that you could be hurt and discarded like trash, they wouldn’t see you that way anymore. You feel so unlovable.

Of course, this is all completely untrue and something survivors have to unravel to heal.

There’s also a secret fear that many survivors share that they have been branded with a V for Victim on their forehead, and that there was some quality about themselves that was the reason they were chosen for abuse. (What can complicate this is when a person grew up in an abusive home, and has a pattern of being unable to identify safe people–more on that in a future post).) Trauma survivors often ask, “why me?” The question we should be asking is not why a particular person was targeted for abuse, but why and how abusers are able to hurt the people they claim to love. So if we talk about our experience abuse, wouldn’t that just waving a white flag?

The answer to that is, unfortunately, both yes and no. Telling your story of victimization to unsafe, predatory people is definitely dangerous. So that’s why it’s important to do your healing work and let new people earn your trust rather than handing it over unearned. When you tell your story to safe people, you’ll be floored by their response. They hug you. They tell you that you’re courageous. Strong. Sometimes they share their own stories. It can be very powerful.

The final reason survivors often cloak their stories in shame is a byproduct of living in a patriarchal society. Whenever I utter the word patriarchy, someone gets defensive, so let me just say that the patriarchy negatively affects all genders. It traps us all into constraining boxes and permits only a few have total freedom. It doesn’t allow for equality and truly egalitarian relationships. To have those things, we have to become cultural rebels. To have real love, we have to rebel against what we’ve been taught. And we’ve been taught that being victimized means that we should be ashamed, are weak, or must have provoked our abuser.

So let’s transfer this stow-away shame back to where it belongs: to those who abuse those closest to them, and the systems that allow it. Let’s reclaim our birthright to love, respect, and freedom.

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