Sexual abuse produces strong feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Whether you are a victim of child sexual abuse or a victim of rape, you may have received messages like, "You are not worth as much as I am. My needs are more important than yours." At the time of the abuse, you the victim, are helpless. You cannot do anything to stop what is happening to you. Even though you cannot stop the abuse, you feel responsible because it is happening to you, not to someone else. The experience powerfully reinforces any feelings of inadequacy you already have fixed in your mind.
Gloria, a beautiful young woman, describes how she uses guilt to help her get things done with two small children and an ambitious husband. Clearly the cost of this kind of motivation is destructively high.
"I have a lot to do without much help at home. So whenever I get behind on things and feel depressed, I deliberately think about my abuse. I begin to feel sick and useless about myself. Then when I really need a boost of guilt, I begin to remember all the guys I slept with, and I start to cry and feel really bad. But it works, and I get everything done. It's like I punish myself and the penalty is to work real hard. I know, though, that the reason I am here and the reason I come to this group is that I hope it will help my children. Also, my husband makes me feel guilty about everything.
I know this is because I am so good at feeling guilty. In fact, I'm better than anybody at doing that. I realize that while using this guilt on myself makes me get things done, it also makes me feel really sad. The reason I beat myself over the head is because most of the time I just lie around and do nothing. I just don't have any energy. I guess I am depressed."
The joy of objectivity.
Guilt often produces anger turned inward, which can lead to depression, as it did for Gloria. This is only one of guilt's devastating effects on victims. To combat those effects, we urge you to begin by examining the areas of life where you feel guilty. To effectively examine our areas of guilt is often difficult because sexual abuse robs us of our objectivity and leaves us feeling guilty about almost everything, even though there is no basis for doing so.
In your journal, list several things that you frequently feel guilty about.
Review your list. Place a checkmark beside those items that represent attitudes and behaviors there were your responsibility. Draw a line through those that are feelings of false guilt - items that are someone else's responsibility. Place a question mark beside those that you are unsure of.
Remember that you were a victim of a crime. Many adult victims and most child victims never make a sound while they are being subject to abuse. They are frozen and unable emotionally to deal with the victimization. People are victims when they are unable to stop what is being done to them.
The danger of Denial
Beware of the universal reaction of denial. Don was a bicyclist whose ambition was to ride a "double century". A "double century" ride is 200 miles in 24 hours. Don entered a ride that consisted of four 50-mile courses. He rode the first hundred miles and was near exhaustion. He was only able to complete the third 50-mile loop about midnight by pushing his bike the last few miles. Don did not attempt to ride the final 50 miles. Instead he drove home, fell into bed, and was unable to walk the next day. That experience was 20 years ago, and Don still blames himself for not completing the 200 miles. He continues to blame and condemn himself with statements like, "I had eight hours left and I only had 50 miles to go. Why did I quit? I could have finished the ride. I'm a wimp and a failure."
Compare Don's story with the millions of times when a child or an adult is sexually abused by someone who is older, stronger, or more intimidating and then the victim things, "Why didn't I ..... (fill in the blank)?" In your journal, describe what is wrong with both Don's thinking and the sexual abuse victim's thinking.
You may have explained the problem in one of many ways. The problem is denial. Don exhibits irrational thinking over something as simple as a goal he could not reach. In the same way those of us who have suffered sexual abuse continue to blame ourselves and to think we should have done something differently. The feelings of guilt spread to every area of our lives. These feelings grow from our unrealistic expectations of ourselves. To feel guilty is easier than to accept the fact that we were powerless. don did not have the power to ride one more mile. We did not have the power to stop the abuse.
How have you practiced denial by blaming and punishing yourself?
One victim is now able to laugh at herself as she describes her feelings of guilt. "First I feel that I am not doing enough for God; then I feel guilty about my husband. Next I overwhelm myself with guilt feelings about my children. Then come my parents. Finally I get to my dog and feel guilty because I don't spend enough time with her. After that I watch some talk shows and end up looking in the mirror and trying to forgive myself for not taking care of me."
As humorous as this story might seem, it illustrates how we need to be objective about our guilt feelings if we are to make progress. Examining our thoughts helps us to see if God is convicting us to change areas in our lives. Healthy guilt points out the areas where we need to make changes. This kind of guilt leads to a change of heart which the Bible calls repentance. In Romans 2:4 Paul says that the goodness of God leads us to repentance. If we allow God to overcome our thoughts of guilt, both real and false, the path of freedom more than rewards us for the effort.
Read your list of guilt feelings again. Spend some time praying about the feelings on your list. Ask God to help you to let go of false guilt and to accept forgiveness for any behaviors and attitudes that are harmful to you and others.
"There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Romans 8:1