Guilt is a complex emotion. But it is one that survivors of abuse are intimately familiar with. The experience of abuse is—among many other complicated things—the world’s biggest guilt trip.
The perpetrator will convince the world—and especially their target—that abuse is caused by the behavior (or the simple existence) of said target. The abuser treats the target as though their actions and mere existence are what provokes and justifies the abuse.
There is not a survivor of abuse who has not heard statements like:
- If you were prettier, I would not have to cheat on you!
- Why do you make me do this to you?
- If you could just do abc/not do xyz I would not act like this.
Add to that guilt trip a society prone to victim blaming (e.g. Why don’t you just leave him? Or how could you leave your parents like that?) and the survivor of abuse is faced with insurmountable guilt.
Psychology Today has this to say about guilt:
Appropriate guilt can function as social glue, spurring one to make reparations for wrongs. Excessive rumination about one’s failures, however, is a surefire recipe for resentment and depression.
4 Shades of Guilt
Guilt in the world of the abuse survivor is not just excessive, but it is also based on smoke and mirrors; lies told by the abuser to control and manipulate. Guilt also manifests as a result of the misintepretations of outsiders who make judgments about the target’s situation when they, realistically, cannot comprehend the complexities of the emotional and psychological trauma that is taking place.
Between the abuser’s accusation that the target causes the abuse, and society blaming the survivor for both staying and leaving in equal measure… The survivor seems to be stuck between a guilty rock and a guilty hard place.
As we move further away from the abuser and heal ourselves, the feelings of guilt evolve and change. After a while, we think we’ve conquered those feelings, but then we realize they actually exist on a deeper level than we’d realized.
I am not trying to depress you by making you think that you will forever spiral downward in some bottomless pit of guilt. Because it’s really not what I’m getting at. What I’m trying to convey is that guilt can often be an ongoing consequence of the trauma we’ve experience that needs healing. It is a wound that needs attention, and simply trying to cover it up with a band-aid is likely going to cause it to fester. You need to peel back the layers, and really work this stuff out. It is therefore helpful to look at how guilt may evolve and affect us on that journey
“Jeepers, I Prioritized Myself” Guilt
This week marks 5 years since I left my parents a letter asking them not to contact me anymore. When I first contemplated that move, I was wrecked with guilt. I felt awful about doing it. How could I be such a bad daughter? How could I leave my parents to deal with old age and failing health alone? How could I burden my sisters with the duty of care? How could I be so selfish?
Over the years I had been made to feel so utterly responsible for my parents’ happiness and emotional well-being, that the idea of prioritizing my own needs over theirs was entirely foreign to me. The first shape of my guilt had to do with that shift in priorities.
The process of realigning my priorities had started before my decision to cut contact with my parents, of course. A few months earlier when my sisters insisted the family go on a fun camping trip (because you know, we are all so very close and happy together). I really could not face the prospect, and faked illness to get out of it. I felt horrible about it—both the lie and saying no. I just knew it would be an assault on my sanity, and I could not bring myself to allow that. I had, in fact, already told my sisters I did not want to even plan the trip when they came up with the idea. My ‘no’ went unheard, and so I saw only one way out: make up an excuse.
“Jeepers, I Prioritized Myself ” Guilt is guaranteed to pop up its ugly little head, when you first start creating distance and boundaries. What helped me deal was to keep reminding myself that:
- They would not respect my boundaries if I established them in any other way—my earlier attempts proved as much.
- Did they not carry responsibility for pushing me so far that I felt this was my only possible defense?
When one of my sisters had a big argument with my parents, my father showed up at her front door. He was crying his eyes out, begging her not to cut contact with the family. “This has always been a fear of mine“, he confessed. That to me shows that he was aware of the toxicity in our family. He was aware that one of us may eventually feel our only option for survival was to cut all ties. Yet he did nothing to improve the family situation. He continued to manipulate and abuse. Where lies the responsibility of that choice?
“I Am Leaving Them Behind” Guilt
Once I began overcoming the guilt of prioritizing my own needs, I started to feel guilty for leaving the people I loved behind. How could I condemn my sisters and my niece to dealing with the abuse? Well, first of all, my sisters are all adults, and they have to make their own decisions—about their lives and those of their dependants. Secondly, continuing to allow myself to be mentally brutalized was not going to help anyone. Sure, it wouldn’t have rocked the boat, but that wouldn’t have actually made a positive impact on their lives.
It may sound horribly egocentric, but at the end of the day: your well-being is your responsibility. In the same way your siblings, neighbors, aunts, uncles, work friends, or whoever it is that you have left behind to deal with the abuser is responsible for their well-being. You are no good to any of your loved ones (including your kids if they are caught in this situation too) if you do not protect yourself.
Offer help and support when and where you can, but don’t allow guilt to stop you from staying away.
“I Am Such a Bad Person” Guilt
By far the hardest guilt to shift is that guilt that the abuser installed in our very operating system. The idea that there are things so bad and repulsive about us that we caused the abuse. These messages of blame and disappointment become so internalized that we can barely remember (if we can at all) who we would be without them.
It is the eternal question of what made us so horrible that we became completely unlovable? Of course you know, rationally that the answer to this question is: nothing! We are not unlovable at all! The more I learn to see those feelings of guilt as belonging to my parents’ programming and projection, the easier it because to let it go. It is a slow process, and there is definitely an ebb and flow to the intensity of those feelings.
“I Should Be More Healed” Guilt
This last type of guilt that we might stumble across on our healing journey is guilt about the healing journey itself.
I have never know a group of people more prone to self-chastising and perfectionism than survivors of abuse—this includes me, too! Somehow whenever we talk to another survivor—and sometimes even to “normies”—we feel like our efforts to heal are inferior and not effective enough. We should be working harder and accomplishing more.
Two weeks ago I wrote: “If our aim is to process painful memories and addressing helpful coping mechanisms, we need to reframe staying safe as an incubator for healing. We simply cannot heal without a sense of security in our lives. You are not weak for needing this. It is important to honor the pace of your recovery by not pushing yourself too hard, challenging yourself too much, or chastising yourself when you feel you are not making “sufficient progress” (whatever that may be).”
For so many, if not all of us, leaving the abuse does not only lead to a time of emotional instability, but also financial, physical and social instability. We need to make sure our basic needs are met before we can even get to the emotional repair. It takes time to build a new life that feels safe and secure. To surround ourselves with the support network we need, to find a new job that can pay the bills, find a house that feel safe and comfortable, go through court proceedings, settle into new routines, and the list goes on.
Healing takes time, and it takes different amounts of time for all of us. That is nothing to feel guilty about. You are not at fault for not “being fixed yet”, if there is, in fact, such a state of fixedness.
You are here, and you are reading this. That tells me you have a wish to improve yourself, to heal yourself. That drive to make your life better is something to be proud of. It is something to nourish and nurture. Do not quench the flame of healing by treating it as though it is not burning bright enough.