Banishing Guilt and Shame from Childhood Abuse


Childhood. The very word conjures up images of carefree innocence, joy, optimism, and wonder. Childhood is a time of security when we’re protected and loved. Sadly, the reality for many children is in stark contrast to that idealized expectation. Instead, their young lives are tarnished by abuse, often from the very people who are expected to keep them safe and secure. Survivors of childhood abuse frequently suffer far beyond the initial abuse they endured.

As a result, abused children can experience trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and even toxic stress. Of course, each individual is unique and will process and manage trauma differently. It’s not unusual for survivors of childhood abuse to blame themselves for the abuse.

It’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around how a person could abuse a child. The human brain is amazing and complex. Our paradoxical nature demonstrates that we’re hardwired for compassion, frequently displaying selfless, compassionate acts, yet capable of engaging in unspeakable cruelness. It’s difficult to reconcile, especially for a child. When children experience childhood abuse of any kind, it can cast a long shadow of irrational shame and guilt.


Why Abused Children Can Feel Shame and Guilt

One of the lingering and most damaging effects of childhood abuse is the profound sense of guilt that often haunts survivors. People who weren’t abused loudly proclaim that the survivor is an innocent victim who is not responsible for the abuse and shouldn’t feel guilty. That’s correct. However, it’s easier said than done. The root causes of the false guilt felt by those abused are deeply rooted in our brains.

Even though abuse is never a survivor’s fault or within their control to stop it, trauma-related guilt often stems from a feeling that a survivor could have done more to prevent what happened to them, stopped it, or fought back.

Childhood trauma can chip away at a child’s stability and sense of self, undermining their self-worth and often following them into adulthood. In addition, the guilt and shame caused by childhood trauma can impact a person in multiple ways. For example, if a child is abused by someone close to them, it can condition how they form attachments later in life. It can also cause heightened anxiety and depression, even anger.


The Need to Feel Loved and Secure

Everyone has a deep, neurobiological need to be loved and feel secure. Children are vulnerable and instinctively look to their parents and caregivers to fulfill those needs. When the abuse comes from the very people who are supposed to protect them, the world doesn’t make sense. A child’s innocence and desperation to make sense of the world can cause an abused child to assume that they must be the ones who did something wrong, and therefore they deserve the harsh treatment they are receiving.


The Egocentric Nature of Children

Children are also naturally egocentric. Because they lack the maturity to see the world through a broader perspective, they believe that they control their world. So when good things happen, children think they made them happen. Conversely, when bad things happen, children think it’s their fault. An abused child’s brain then can file the abuse as something they made happen, shifting the blame from the abuser to the abused child.

If the people who care for you and sometimes protect you are also sometimes dangerous and unpredictable, then the world is inherently dangerous and unpredictable, too. Believing and accepting that you are to blame for the abuse also provides a false sense of hope and control because admitting that it’s not your fault means you can do nothing to prevent it.


Vulnerability Can Be the Birthplace of Innovation, Creativity, and Change

Best-selling author, lecturer, researcher, and University of Houston professor, Brené Brown, who studies vulnerability and how it affects almost all of our thoughts and decisions, simplifies the concepts, explaining that shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Guilt: I’m sorry. I did something bad. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

Brown describes shame as that “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” She stresses that her research has shown that embracing our vulnerability can help us overcome shame. It’s natural to worry that opening up to someone, even a professional, will expose us to criticism and destroy our self-worth.

Shame is a response to self-worth. When we open ourselves to vulnerability, we banish shame and make room for positive emotions, such as hope, love, joy, gratitude, and optimism. It’s empowering and allows us to share and grow.


The Good News

Even if, as an adult, you realize that the abuse was not your fault, the guilt and shame are challenging to navigate. Feeling guilt and shame after abuse doesn’t have a rational basis, but even people who know it’s irrational to feel shame over being abused can still experience it. There is hope. With the right help and encouragement, you can move from surviving to thriving. It’s a process, but one that is possible.

The human brain is extraordinary. Our brain cells grow and change; something scientists refer to as neuroplasticity. Every time we experience something new, a new neural pathway forms allowing our brains to adapt and learn new ways of thinking and behaving. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances daily. But it’s also possible to encourage and stimulate that function.

Treating yourself with compassion can go a long way in the healing process for survivors of childhood abuse. Self-care is an excellent way to begin and can be done at your own pace, and professional help can be a significant step in healing.

Additionally valuable is a safe, judgment-free space and the compassion of others, especially a community of peers. Finally, support groups can be a tremendous help and make an enormous difference.

For example, Louder than Silence: Ending Child Abuse and Neglect Survivor Community, launched by EndCAN through Inspire, offers a free online community of support groups. It’s a safe place where people can be authentic, anonymously discuss their experiences and ask questions, get support from other survivors, and learn from other people who have “been there.”

Banishing guilt and shame from childhood abuse is possible, but it can be a long and challenging journey. Everyone’s experience is unique, and each individual’s path to healing is different. Find information and resources to help you or someone you love and take care of yourself. You are worthy!