This week, every one of us will hear it sung, “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, however, Christmas can be accompanied by heightened anxiety and shame. It’s anything but merry.
The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse are vast in that they include psychological, physiological, and social impact on the survivor’s life. They are varied in that no single list of effects impacts every survivor. But shame is a long-term effect of childhood sexual abuse that is common to all survivors. Shame is one of the imprints that results from the intrusive and insidious actions of the survivor’s perpetrator (See Here’s why your wife cannot “just get over” her childhood sexual abuse). And because some perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse are within the family system, shame can be especially evident at Christmas.
My wife, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, recently gave a classic shame reaction. I am the early riser in our home and I did not know one morning that she was already up out of bed. When she came around a corner in our house, I was startled. My startled reaction caused her to be startled too. But it is what she said that revealed a shame that was imprinted from her childhood sexual abuse. She took a step back, looked afraid and said, “Do I look bad?” Our unexpected encounter had nothing to do with good or bad. A natural response would have been, “You surprised me!”
The shame inflicted on the survivor of childhood sexual abuse imprints a sense of “I am bad.” Shame is different from guilt. Guilt prompts the awareness that “I did something bad.” Shame prompts the perception that “I am bad.”
Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist recently interviewed by Rob Moll of Christianity Today, referenced numerous expressions of shame. Here are five expressions:
- Shame is an internal response to an external occurrence.
- Shame is silent self-condemning conversation, often very subtle.
- Shame impairs normal functions and responses to life and others.
- Shame is perceived and prompted by the glances, tone of voice, and body language of others more than from the literal words of others.
- Shame is a disconnection as we turn inward and away from others.
These five expressions form a Christmas list. This Christmas list is not the normal list of things I want for Christmas, but it is a list of the normal things survivors experience at Christmas. A survivor, whose perpetrator is or was within the family system or whose family overlooked the abuse, experiences a shame during Christmas family gatherings. The internal response of shame is not because of what they have done but because of what they have been led to believe about themselves. A survivor churns with self-condemning questions of:
- Was I not worth enough for anyone to notice what was going on?
- Was it because I was so bad on the inside that I was touched as I was on the outside?
- Did no one care about me to rescue me?
- What are they doing glancing at me now?
- Why do I even have to speak?
- Can’t I just go somewhere and hide?
If your childhood sexual abuse, or the childhood sexual abuse of your spouse, occurred in the family with whom you gather this Christmas, here are some initial steps in dealing with the shame:
- Acknowledge to yourself the fracture among the family member(s).
- Identify what is going on inside of you.
- Take note of your own responses (e.g. fight, flight).
- Consider how to include momentary withdrawals in order to regroup. (e.g. If yours is a multi-day stay with family, consider staying in a nearby hotel and/or plan for some personal time-outs at a local café in order to do some self-care.
Finally, and most important, name it. Most psychologists agree that shame is tamed when it’s named.
In my next blog, I’ll look further into what survivors and their husbands can do about shame.
Moll, Rob. (2016, July/August). The Loneliness of Shame. [Interview with Curt Thompson]. Christianity Today, 60(6), pp. 62-66.