Separating guilt from shame is hard for incest survivors


We have intense emotions stemming from horrific experiences. Shame, guilt, loss, betrayal, fear and confusion just to name a few.  One of my skills in overcoming incest has been to learn how to identify what I feel, change how I feel and manage most of my  intense feelings.

 My sense of shame was  unrelenting.  The shame I felt was just like being dirty. I felt dirty a lot.  Even though I didn’t know it was the shame talking. Trying to free myself of the feeling ended up as taking  baths.  A lot of baths. Trying to keep everything I wore or came into contact with scrupulously clean.  Now is different for me. Sorta.

 To a lesser degree it still  permeates my thoughts about myself and others. Now I see it less as being dirty, but broader as seeing  myself as flawed, damaged beyond repair and being a failure who is  unable to succeed.  Not deserving of the space I take up, my only real  worth is being in what I can do for others, making sure I am  being superficial and never rocking the emotional  boats of other people.

Guilt is as a general feeling of remorse from wrongdoing or actions taken.  So, when I steal something, I should feel guilty. But I didn’t experience guilt this way, I felt guilty that my Mom became pregnant and my biological Dad didn’t want us. I felt guilty that Mom (according to my step father) wouldn’t have sex with him, so I had to do it instead.  I felt guilty that I didn’t want my stepfather  to hurt my step- siblings, but  did let him hurt me instead.   Often times I wished he would die. Then  felt guilty when I went to church and they said to love and honor my parents. I would have to  ignore what he did so I could survive. God would have to be addressed later.

Now when I do something I consider wrong and hurt someone, I can admit it.  Make amends for it if possible. I don’t have to sacrifice myself to resolve the issue. There is relief in knowing it can be done and over with.  It’s like actions and behaviors I do are defining  my guilt.

 Because of misunderstanding these differences between shame and guilt. I equated the wrong done to me ( the sexual abuse I experienced in my home), as being on the same level as any mistake or wrong action I would make.  It would take me  forever to recognize or admit I had done something wrong or made a mistake. Inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings was horrible to me, because I was blind to the differences. Now, I realize they can be different in my world and I can identify the differences. 

I have been able to identify how many different  ways shame has impacted my life. I have repeatedly prevented any forward movement in my career because of this unrecognized shame.  I don’t counsel because I don’t want to tell people I had been incested, but I wanted to work within this area to help others who are struggling with  the same issues. Some I have been able to overcome. Others not.

It’s always one small step forward at a time to make overcoming my history an integrated part of becoming an emotionally mature person.


2 thoughts on “Separating guilt from shame is hard for incest survivors

  1. Guilt is the knowledge of doing something you know is wrong. Mom says “don’t lick the frosting on your sisters B-day cake!” You did, and Its your little secret that you went behind moms back and did what you were told not too. OR like going into a store where your trusted and frequently shop, and then steal a pack of gum. You feel so bad, usually you’ll avoid going in there again.

    Shame is doing something that you know is very wrong, something you’ve been forced into doing. and then usually withdraws from others.

    Liked by 1 person

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