There are many legitimate things people can work on forgiving themselves for – from minor mistakes to major mishaps. Yet so many of us are struggling with a sense of blame that does not actually belong to us, for events that were outside of our control, for crimes that were committed by others inflicted upon us. I see this very prominently among survivors of abuse and assault. We are told that we need to “forgive ourselves” for being the victims of crimes – but we have to ask, forgive ourselves for what?
Survivors of abuse, assault or any other heinous crime are often blamed and shamed for being victims in the first place – and it’s no surprise that they struggle with self-blame in the aftermath.
There are so many questions others ask us when we tell them our stories. We are asked why we chose to stay beyond the first incident of abuse (never mind that there are many psychological and institutional factors that can prevent us from leaving). We are asked by ignorant people why we “revel” in victimhood, as if victimhood is a choice rather than a lived reality. If we were assaulted, we are asked why we wore that dress or why we drank that night or why we dated the wrong person. We are asked to be the “perfect victim” as a prerequisite to being supported or believed.
Society shames us, but the deep-seated traumas we experience also carries its own brand of toxic shame. The very effect of trauma is that it makes us feel small, invisible, and convinces us that we’re not good enough. That we’re defective for having been targeted in the first place.
Shame wears us down and makes us feel as if we need to justify, apologize, and overextend ourselves in explaining why we did what we did, why we got involved with the people who mistreated us and why we stayed so long.
We start to internalize this as self-blame and interrogate ourselves. Why were we victims in the first place? How could I have been so naïve? Why did this happen to me? Like children being reprimanded, rather than being asked how we can be better supported, we are asked what we could do better next time. We are asked why it took us so long to finally speak out, despite the backlash and numerous silencing tactics we endure when we do.
These questions are in desperate need of reframing, both in our society and in our individual perspectives. By all means, forgive yourself for what you think you’re accountable for (if anything), but know that you don’t take the blame for the heinous actions of others.
We need more empowering questions that ask us how to own our agency and power without blaming ourselves in the process.
Just because you wanted a loving relationship or stayed longer than you should have due to the effects of trauma bonding does not mean you deserved to be abused; abusers unmask themselves after their victims have already invested in the relationship. You’re not to blame if you were groomed by a predator or taken advantage of by someone you trusted. Many predators are skilled manipulators and know how to present a false image to the rest of society. Even the best experts can be duped.
Rather than asking how we were the culprits in the crimes we were actually victims of, we need to be asking: how can I best heal? How can I engage in self-care? How can I best support myself during this difficult time? What kind of support and validation do I need most? Which healing modalities are available for my mind, body and spirit? How do I embrace the fact that forgiveness is a complex journey, one in which I hold the reins? In what ways can I protect myself, without blaming myself?
How can I be more gentle in the ways in which I speak to myself? Is there space for self-compassion? These questions can be explored in countless different ways, such as through therapy, inner child work, positive affirmations, trauma-focused yoga, journaling, meditation, mind-body work, and support groups.
Self-blame is a very common symptom of the abuse, so it does take effort and professional support to start to heal it. Yet even if we don’t believe it quite yet, it’s important to acknowledge that it was not our fault for being victimized. Usually we are targets because we have all the qualities that predators want to exploit. Qualities which would flourish in healthier situations, with healthier, like-minded people. Qualities like compassion, empathy and conscientiousness.
So we have to recognize when we’re trying to forgive ourselves for something we shouldn’t even have to forgive ourselves for. The traumas we’ve experienced were not our fault. As I’ve written about in the past, there are many reasons – from the psychological to the biochemical – as to why abuse survivors stay in toxic relationships far beyond the first abusive incident. These have to do with the effects of trauma, not strength, intelligence or character. There is also no excuse for raping, assaulting or harassing someone, regardless of how they’re dressed; these horrific acts are a crime of power, not passion.
Changing the Narrative of Self-Blame and Toxic Shame
Survivors who move from toxic shame towards self-compassion may still encounter the victim-blaming and shaming narratives that are weaved into the fabric of our society.
After all, we live in a victim-blaming society that urges us to “stop casting blame” on the perpetrators and emotionally invalidates our experiences, which gaslights us into believing that we have to own our part of something that was done to us – everything from child abuse to date rape. The implicit takeaway being, don’t forget to blame yourself if you were violated. The perpetrator has their reasons, of course, but how could you put yourself in that situation in the first place?
Women especially are expected to keep quiet and asked to be accountable for being on the receiving end of heinous crimes; they are asked to not be angry or “childish” in seeking justice. They are asked to seem spiritual or mature while they endure numerous violations quietly. They are even asked to show compassion and forgive their oppressors – without even processing their authentic emotions first.
Crimes like these, whether they be an emotional or physical assault, are usually committed by those who are disordered and morally corrupt. Their character should be the one thrown into question – not that of the survivors. While self-blame might arise after trauma, know that you shouldn’t have to forgive yourself for being the victim of a crime or whatever you may have “done” to place yourself in harm’s way. Compassion for yourself is paramount.
While we can own our agency in changing our lives and doing what we can to best set boundaries, we don’t have to carry the blame that should be reserved for our perpetrators.