By Rachel Miller, See the Triumph Contributor
“How do you get rid of the guilt?!”
This is the question I am asked most often by those just coming out of the fog of life with an abuser or beginning their healing journey. It’s a loaded question, not one with a simple answer, but I’ll attempt to tackle it as best I can. To start let’s think about what’s behind the question in the first place. Is what so many feel after getting out really guilt? Or is it closer to shame? Truthfully, from my own experiences, it is both, but guilt is easier to talk about than shame
Guilt vs Shame
We can talk about feeling guilty for not leaving sooner, or not seeing red flags, for not leaving the first time, for not listening to people who tried to warn us, for giving this father to our children, or for going back, if we actually managed to leave a time or two. The list of things we feel guilty about might even include guilt about leaving, especially if your abuser has medical or mental health problems or your children now have to cope with the aftermath. This sense of guilt can overwhelm and paralyze at times, but what I believe is key to moving past the guilt is understanding and healing the shame that is lurking underneath.
I say this because the other common thing I hear from survivors is “I’m so embarrassed. How could I have been so stupid (or naïve or blind or forgiving, or whatever word you fill this blank with that makes you feel badly about yourself)?”
A Survivor’s Shame
See here is the problem as I see it. I think we, survivors as a group, in general, tend to confuse guilt and shame. Dr. Brené Brown, shame and vulnerability expert, in one of her TEDTalks, explains the difference between the two. She says “Shame is ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is ‘I did something bad…Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” Why I believe this gets complicated and confusing for survivors is living in situations where almost everything we do is wrong or not enough or too much, where we are constantly told we are wrong or not enough or too much, make it challenging to separate behaviors from self.
What happens then is the guilt surrounding a particular behavior, not leaving sooner, for example, becomes ”I should have been stronger,” or “I am weak,” thus becoming shame. If you grew up in household with domestic violence, particularly verbal and emotional abuse, separating self from behaviors is likely not something for which you even have a frame of reference. To complicate the whole thing further, guilt is often a control tactic used by abusers, one which we tend to then turn on ourselves after leaving. All of the “could have,” “should have” talk in our heads continues to bring up feelings of shame that we are still not and maybe never will be enough.
This is commonly expressed by saying “I feel guilty.” Guilty about what we did not do or say, or what we believe we should have done, or what we’re worried we can’t do now, but if we dig a little deeper, what we so often feel is not guilt but rather shame that says “I am not/was not/will never be enough.” Enough of what will vary, just like our stories, but the shame, feeling like we aren’t enough, holds many survivors hostage. It certainly did me, for quite some time.
Letting go of shame
So, how did I let go of the guilt, or as we now understand it, shame, you’re wondering?
Let me start by sharing another Brené Brown quote, one I wish I’d had when I began my healing journey, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgment.” Do you see why shame is such a big part of what happened to us and why it is so challenging to move past? These three words sum up such a huge part of our existence with an abuser.
Okay, but how?
I won’t lie, letting go of the shame wasn’t easy and it certainly did not happen quickly, but it was miraculous in a way. For me, this was the place where I truly stepped from surviving to thriving. It started when I stopped keeping secrets. After a bit of therapy, both individual and group, I began to be able to put words to what I had experienced and realized I was not alone. Others, though their specifics were different, had shared similar experiences and certainly similar feelings. “Me too” was extremely powerful to hear.
Understanding that keeping the secret of what I had been through only protected my abuser helped me get to a place where I no longer wanted or needed to keep the secret or stay silent any more. Breaking the silence looks different for everyone and there is no right way to tell your story. For me, I spoke out through my writing, through activism and raising awareness. For you, it might be talking to a friend or other survivors in a group setting or online. However you are able to break away from secrecy and silence is okay. You have to figure out what feels right for you, but to let go of the shame, it is imperative to move past secrecy and silence.
Judgment is an entirely different animal. It comes in so many forms, from self and others. I had to start with my own head talk. Really look at the things I was saying to myself every day. Go ahead; try keeping a journal of the negative and judgmental things you say to yourself in any given day. You’ll be surprised. I know I was. Much of what I was saying to myself echoed things he or others had said to me in the past. There were also lots of “should haves.”
Would of, could of, should of…
Those were the worst and the hardest to stop. Hindsight’s always 20/20, right? So easy to look back and tell ourselves that we should have seen what was going to happen, that the signs were all there, that there were ways we could have prevented it. There is a name for this kind of thinking, hindsight bias. This bias happens to everyone. We look back with what we know now convinced we actually knew it before. It simply isn’t true. It only seems obvious now because it already happened.
Easy for me to see and say from the place I am presently, but I acknowledge I struggled in the beginning to get hindsight bias in check. Finally being able to shift my thinking around the “should haves” allowed me to stop judging myself and better able to release the judgment of others. This shift came most prominently through a chapter in a workbook my therapist and I decided to check out. I’m not a fan of everything in Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence: A Workbook for Women but working through Chapter 10 was what finally helped me reach the place where I could fully accept that I honestly did the very best I could with where I was and what I knew at the time.
With this came the release of my shame which allowed me to be able to view my behaviors, and myself, with the compassion and understanding I was always so willing to give others. It was with this that I was able to gain a healthy attitude about guilt. Guilt, as Brené Brown points out in her talk, is not always a bad thing. It can be what helps us ensure our behaviors match our values and are in line with who we want to be in this world.
To get rid of the guilt, I had to be willing to explore my shame, all of it. I had to remove the secrecy, the silence and the judgment. I had to open wounds I would have rather have left alone, look at myself and my experiences through the lens of facts rather than only feelings and be willing to change and move forward into a different way of being present in my own life. It wasn’t easy, nor was it always fun, but it was very, very worth it.
This does not mean I never have moments of shame or guilt. They rear their heads most often these days around the things my children have to deal with because of who their father is, but I am better about placing the accountability and responsibility where they belong now because of the work I have done around shame and guilt. If you find yourself struggling similarly, if anything I’ve written resonates, I encourage to you to explore these topics either on your own or with a therapist. The potential for growth and progress when you do is life changing.