Webster's dictionary defines shame as "a painful emotion excited by a consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety; disgrace, dishonor." The Hebrew concept of disgrace includes the idea of being uncovered physically, particularly the genital area; it can also refer to having one's plans and expectations frustrated or disappointed. Both definitions apply to the effects of sexual abuse.
Any form of sexual molestation, rape or abuse transfers to the victim the disgrace of the abuser. Sexual abuse creates shame in the victim. Often when victims tell about their abuse, their listeners add to the feeling of shame because the listeners have distorted the ideas about abuse. They say things like: "Why didn't you do something?" "I knew someone had you before we got married!" "You coulda done something!" "It went on so long, you must have gotten something out of it." You need to protect yourself as much as possible from such responses. You may need to review Unit 1 which contains materials to help you educate listeners.
Shame is a natural response to feeling uncovered or exposed. During the abuse your body was probably uncovered, but there was also the uncovering of your mind. Your sense of innocence was destroyed and the trust was lost. Innocence and trust must be restored. Survivors of abuse are left with frustrated hopes and plans. Dreams for having a healthy relationship with a father, a mate, a mother, a brother, or a child have been demolished. The abuse leaves victims believing that they are insignificant, of no account, no good. As you become aware of and overcome shame messages, these messages will have less power over you.
In your journal, write the following statements three times.
I am significant.
I do count.
I am worthwhile.
This exercise may feel uncomfortable at first but eventually you will be able to feel significant, that you do count, and that you are worthwhile.
The Message of the Abuser
The deliverer of the first of these messages is the person who abused you who says, "What I want goes, and what is best for you is of no concern to me." These and all other messages that convey worthlessness are shame messages. You must begin the difficult work of identifying the shame messages from the persons who abused you and the person who aided them by ignoring or covering up their actions.
An adult female victim tells her story of abuse. "I was eight years old when the abuse stopped. I'm not sure when it started. It stopped because my mom and stepdad got a divorce. I never fought, I never did anything when he would hold me close to him. I never did anything when he touched me except freeze and hope it would be over soon. I just felt bad. From the way people looked at me, I was sure everyone knew, and it made me feel guilty and useless. It happened again later with my stepmother, when I was a teenager. She said she was putting medicine on me. I would look away, down at the floor, sighing in hopes that she would stop touching me.
"I didn't know how to stop it. I couldn't tell anyone about my stepmother; it was just too bad. I told a pastor about my stepdad. What a joke that pastor was. He said, "Don't you understand that your stepfather felt lonely and sad during the divorce and all he wanted was some affection?" Well, of course, I agreed. But after that, I felt even more shame than before. I never told anyone else, that is, until now. But I am 48 now, and there are a lot of wasted years. I wish I would have known to tell and to keep telling until I found someone who would listen and believe me."
The wisdom of God can remove the shame imposed by the abuse message. You can learn to speak God's Word about yourself, not the damaging words of the person who abused you.
Read what the apostle Paul wrote about God's message... "We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began." 1 Corinthians 2:6-7
What is the purpose God has intended for us according to this passage? God intends His secret wisdom -
To shame us
To makes us feel inadequate
For our good
Learn to believe and give thanks to God. He wants us to experience his goodness, not to expose our shame.
Psalm 139:14 says, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."
How did the psalmist say you were made?
The psalmist says that you were fearfully and wonderfully made. Do not allow us or anyone else to tell you how you feel, but you can learn to challenge your own thinking and thus change your own feelings.
As your own decision to change your thoughts about yourself, write in your journal three times: "I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
God does not intend for you to feel ashamed!
In your journal, write any shame messages that the person or persons who abused you said to you.
For each shame message write a response that declares that these messages are not true!
Suzanne, a victim of date rape, was told by her date that he could tell by the way she was dressed that "she wanted it." He said, "You knew I thought that red dress was sexy." Suzanne had heard others say that he really like her red dress. She did want to look nice for their date, but she did not wear it to seduce him. Red went well with Suzanne's dark hair. When Allen turned down a dark side street, she told him she wanted to go home. She was in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and when he stopped, she was afraid to get out of the car and afraid to stay.
The Message from Your Own Body
A second area of shame has to do with feelings about your body or body parts. Many victims see themselves as fat and ugly. Some purposely get fat or take little care of themselves in order to ward off further abuse. Some focus on a particular body part that they hate. Some are consumed with self-hatred.
In your journal, describe your feelings about your body. Do you particularly feel repulsed by or ashamed of part(s) of your body?
Twelve-year-old Kimberly tells her mother that she hates her body, all except for her breasts. She likes starting to develop, but she feels bad about it for some reason. When Kimberly was raped, her breasts had not yet developed so her abuser did not touch that part of her. Because of this, Kimberly does not feel shame toward her breasts, but she still feels confused. In many victims, sexual abuse develops a self-hate toward their body parts. Some victims have to have certain or all parts of their bodies stimulated - even by their mates.
Verbal Message from Others
A third area of shame can occur even without physical sexual abuse having taken place. Children - and adults, too - can be shamed by statements like, "You can't do anything right," "You're stupid," or "You can't be my child." Being neglected also brings about shame. For example, if no one was ever home for you or cooked a meal for you, or acted as though they didn't want you around, you probably felt insignificant or worthless."
Jesus can transform this hate toward the body or toward the mind, as Pal points out in Romans 12:2.
"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind [do not believe the message of shame, but rather God's wisdom]. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will."
This scripture helps us begin to understand that as Christ works healing, the abuse will no longer continue to haunt us.
Write a prayer, asking God to remove feelings of hatred toward your body and to replace them with realistic true feelings about yourself.
You might write something like: "Dear God, I am 40 pounds overweight. I accept that and know I need to change that. I will not feel shame about it anymore. I will stop putting myself down."
If the messages you are receiving produce shame and condemnation, it is a false message. God plans to restore you to the truth. Each memory, each thought, each negative message touched by God's restorative power overcomes the marring effects of sexual abuse. When you allow God to restore your soul from the effects of shame and guilt concerning your abuse, you can begin to embrace what God has already said: you are acceptable (Hebrews 10:14.)