It is not uncommon for men who have been sexually abused to feel a sense of shame. Shame can be an extremely powerful feeling. It can be paralysing. It can leave men feeling that they were somehow responsible for the abuse, or should have seen it coming, or should have been able to stop it. The fact that the abuse was sexualised can make the feelings of shame more intense (sex has a history of being considered something shameful and not to be talked about). Just thinking about the abuse and what was done can result in men feeling embarrassed, blushing, sick to the stomach, drained, ‘dirty’ and confused.
Sense of shame can stop men speaking up about the abuse.
It is an unfair legacy of sexual abuse that the person who was abused often ends up left with feelings of shame. It can be helpful to remember that the abuse was not caused by you. For some people, a sense of shame comes from thinking about how they could have avoided the abuse. There is nothing wrong with thinking about this. However, there is a difference between wishing you could have done something to stop the abuse, and being responsible. This might become clearer if you imagine how you might offer safety advice to a child who is going down the park to play with friends. By offering advice, that does not mean you would hold them responsible for the actions of an adult who hurts them.
Shame commonly manifests itself in the form of harsh self-judgements. These could be externally focussed (imagining what others are thinking about you or how they see you), or internal (judging yourself as flawed or bad or inadequate).
It is useful to be aware of the ‘function’ of shame. It can be a source of information; it can let us know that something not ok has happened, that a situation is personally dangerous or diminishing of our sense of integrity.
If feelings of shame appear when you have flashbacks or thoughts about the abuse, you might ask:
- What are the feelings of shame telling you about that situation; not about your identity, but about the situation?
- Was your integrity and dignity as a person being fully respected?
- Consider carefully who was responsible for this – who had the knowledge and power? (see section on ‘tactics of abuse’).
When you notice you are feeling shame, it can be useful, practice mindfulness. In particular mindfulness of ‘Thoughts, Body Sensations & Emotions’, ‘Compassion Mindfulness’ and ‘Mindfulness of Difficult/Painful Thoughts’.
Try to take a curious observing approach to physiological sensations. These sensations are usually extremely unpleasant, leaving us feeling exposed, and it is not surprising that we usually try to distract ourselves or do whatever it takes to ‘cover up’ or make these feelings ‘go away’. Unfortunately, these actions often result in further feelings of shame if they don’t fit with your sense of values and integrity as a person. If you are able to learn some skills around tolerating these sensations, you may be able to find ways of managing them that builds a more encouraging robust sense of self.