How Shame Takes Hold in Survivors

Shame is one of, if not the most intensely painful emotion. The feeling that you’re flawed for your actions, or simply for being you, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging takes hold of your body and mind, denying your basic nature which is fundamentally good.

When shamed, you can feel like you don’t belong and you’re not safe. For this reason, shame is often linked to fear. Whereas fear focuses on the source of threat, as in someone or something’s not safe, shame feels personal, such as not feeling seen, recognized, respected, rejected, abandoned, defective, chronically unloved, unlovable, or without value.

Given survivors had choice robbed from them when they were victimized, in other words, nothing they did or didn’t do justifies what was done to them, and they didn’t have a way out or they would have taken it – given this, why is shame so prevalent? 

Perpetrators, especially those who molest children, use shame as a weapon to silence their victims. This can range from telling the victim it’s their special secret; accusing the victim of wanting or asking for it; telling the victim they’re unworthy, unwanted, or dirty; and gaslighting. 

If, at any age, a relationship of dominance and subordination played out, usually including manipulation and gaslighting, feelings of humiliation, degradation, and shame are often part of the survivor’s experience.

Your Body Did Not Betray You

One of the most frequent reasons survivors struggle with shame relates to how their body responded when they were assaulted. Many feel as though their body betrayed them. 

Those born with male gender assigned to them are socialized to be strong, to not be victims. Boys and men who have been sexually assaulted have the burden of overcoming the expectation that they’re supposed to be able to protect themselves. To not do so can wrongly draw into question their masculinity. 

All survivors can feel betrayed by their body for rendering them powerless to scream, flee, or fight. They may physically have wanted to do one or all of these things but found themselves unable to. 

This is because most survivors dissociated and/or froze, physiologically they were likely unable to speak or take any action. Truth is, it wasn’t their choice. Their autonomic nervous system immediately determined and then did what it needed to do (fight, flight, freeze…) to keep them alive. 

It’s important to support survivors in understanding that these responses are physiological and were beyond their control. There’s nothing shameful about your body doing what it was designed to do in order to survive!

Shame and Blame

Often, survivors feel shame simply because it happened to them, as though they’re somehow responsible or tainted as a result. Whether due to the paralyzing shock of betrayal and fear, being overtaken with violence, or because they could not legally (due to age, substance use, or being drugged), the reality is they did not give consent! There are no exceptions.

And then there’s the what if’s or why’s, “Why did you ____?“ or “Why didn’t you____?”, great ways to shame victims that usually stem from a lack of awareness or ignorance about trauma and rape culture. 

Tragically, many survivors further harm themselves with this same type of internal dialogue in an unconscious attempt to gain control. The inner belief goes something like this, “If it was my fault, I can just not ____, and it won’t happen again.”

One of the biggest factors of shame taking hold is how a survivor is met when they reported the assault to a partner, friend, family member, law enforcement, medical or other healing professional. Receiving a greater proportion of negative reactions when disclosing assault is the strongest predictor of revictimization. 

In addition, silencing and judgments from one’s self or others cause a form of revictimization known as secondary victimization.

Who’s Shame Is It Anyway?

Shame doesn’t belong to the victim; it belongs to the one who committed the shameful and despicable act. They’re the one who deserves to carry the burden and pain of shame. 

When asked her intention in writing Know My Name, survivor Chanel Miller shared, “To be free from that shame that was never ours to carry in the first place, and to say by the end, ‘I’m going to put this down now, it’s your turn to carry it, it’s not mine anymore’” (OWN 2019).

While writing to purge the shame can be profound, nothing helps heal shame more than self-compassion. 

If you’re a survivor, I invite you to gently place your hands on your heart center or give yourself a hug. Now, think of some especially kind and affirming words you would offer another, and then gift them to yourself. See if you can take them in, even a little, just 1%. 

Know that with practice, any constricted muscles around your heart will gradually soften to receive your, and by extension, others love and support. 

Warmly,

Erika

P.S.

To learn more about why your body reacted the way it did, and how you can have some agency over how it’s reacting now, check out the Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook. The Healing Sexual Trauma Guided Journal will be available March 2025.

P.P.S.

My next post will speak more in depth to some of the other ways survivors feel betrayed by their body. 

©HealingSexualTrauma.com

About the author
Erika Shershun, MA, LMFT
Erika Shershun, MA, LMFT, is an author, a licensed therapist in private practice in California, and a survivor of sexual assault. Erika’s passion for preventing others from spending extra years and resources searching for relief from disruptive and painful trauma symptoms lead her to specialize in working with survivors and those suffering from PTSD.