Shame and the Survivor

Shame and the Survivor

The High Cost of Shame

It’s been more than 60 years since the concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first introduced by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to explain the mental health condition we once knew as “shell-shock.” 

So many years later, our understanding and treatment of trauma and PTSD has vastly improved. And yet, for many survivors, and especially survivors of sexual abuse, there is an equally significant though far less understood barrier to recovery that often follows a traumatic experience: shame. 

According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, shame is “a highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion arising from the sense of there being something dishonorable, immodest, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances.” 

The results of shame, according to the APA, are typically characterized by some degree of psychological symptoms, including withdrawal from social interactions. But this is only the clinical understanding. In practice, the repercussions of sexual abuse, and particularly of sexual abuse in sport, can be life-altering.

“I’ve talked to hundreds of survivors over these last couple of years, and there is so much shame held by all of them,” says #WeRideTogether founder Carrie Kehring. 

“Where they often struggle is in the fact that, for many of them, they were teenagers, and they were groomed. There’s this false idea that ‘I wasn’t eight years old, I should have known better, I shouldn’t have consented to it.’ But it’s just that. A false idea. A minor cannot legally consent to a sexual relationship with an adult—particularly one in a position of authority.”

Kehring says she’s witnessed first-hand the shame that survivors of sexual abuse endure for years, even decades after their abuse has ended—suffering everything from PTSD and revictimization to suicidality. The problem, she says, starts at our own front door. 

“There is so much misunderstanding about the survivor experience. If we can peel back the curtain even just a little and understand how shame shapes a survivor’s response, we’re in a much better position to support them.”


The Science of Shame

For survivors of trauma and sexual abuse who suffer from feelings of shame, the lasting implications on mental health and interpersonal relationships can be debilitating. What’s more, the actual feelings associated with shame, while acute, can be difficult for a person suffering from it to even identify. 

“Down here when it’s hot in Tallahassee, Florida, we have this thick fog that settles in. In many ways, shame feels like the weight of fog when it’s on you,” explains Dr. Charles Figley, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and the Founder of the Tulane Traumatology Institute. “You just know it—you have a sense of it—though it may come out in different ways for different people.”

Is there a shame gene? Maybe not. But it is known that some people are inherently more prone to feelings of shame than others, according to researcher June Tangney of George Mason University. What’s more, according to data analyzed by Tangney and her colleagues, there is also a strong connection between shame and depression, with more than 22,000 individual participants in 108 studies demonstrating a clear link. 

It doesn’t end there. 

Even without the added emphasis of trauma, shame can have serious mental health ramifications ranging from anxiety and eating disorders to low self-esteem, according to the APA. And, when it comes to abuse in sport, the fact that victims of sexual abuse often tend to be young and female make the effects of shame particularly pervasive. 

In a study conducted by Ulrich Orth of the University of Bern, for example, researchers looked at more than 2,600 mostly American volunteers between the ages of 13 and 89. They discovered that not only were women in the study more likely to feel humiliated more quickly and to feel shame more acutely than men did, adolescents were particularly susceptible to these emotions. 

When it comes to abuse in sport, these findings are more than troubling. While studies are currently underway to determine at what age most young athletes are abused, anecdotally, Kehring says, the majority of survivors she speaks to are young women who were abused as teenagers—from 16 to 19 years of age.  

“We need to understand, in athletics, that when sexual abuse happens at these ages, regardless of whether it’s close to the age of consent, it’s happening to adolescents,” she says. In many cases, Kehring notes, these young people have been groomed for years leading up to the beginning of a sexual relationship. And, at a time in life when, according to experts, they are most vulnerable to the long-reaching tentacles of shame. 

Shame & PTSD

The fact that women are more susceptible to shame, on the whole, also echoes in Dr. Figley’s work focusing on trauma survivors with PTSD. 

“Women tend to experience the symptoms of PTSD much more profoundly than men,” he explains. “Part of this is good news, because they allow themselves to be more emotional. They have greater expertise when it comes to their feelings, and they're able to titrate and control the amount of emotion they feel at one time.”

The upside to this ability, Dr. Figley says, is that when it comes to the data on PTSD, women tend to recover more quickly and more thoroughly than men do on the whole. Whether or not this prognosis holds true for the shame component of trauma remains to be seen. Though research on the topic is limited, some studies do suggest a link between shame and PTSD, specifically as it pertains to an individual’s likelihood of recovery (shame, it’s suspected, may be an added deterrent). 

But the inherently secretive nature of shame makes it as difficult to treat as it is to research. The reason for that is simple. 

“Shame is something that people guard,” Dr. Figley explains. 

“There is this sense that they have to endure something, like missing a finger. They need to be constantly aware of it, and then have quick explanations for anything that pops out with regard to changes in their emotions. They’ll likely have some really handy explanations, or ways of being able to get out of a particular conversation and off the topic.”

These avoidance tactics can be deep-seated, Dr. Figley adds, serving to buffer a trauma survivor’s shame not just from other people, but, in some cases, from themselves. Often, he says, it can take either many sessions of psychotherapy or a big physical change in a person’s life, which then creates new experiences that sometimes bring these emotions to light.  

“Depending on the particular person, whether it's a therapist, or a potential friend, or an acquaintance that you've known for a long time, those individual people are stimulators of these deeper thoughts,” Dr. Figley says. “Shame is among the reasons why people abandon psychotherapy, to the extent [to which] the practitioner starts touching on things that a survivor isn’t comfortable talking about. But it's an extraordinarily important thing to do.”

A Way Forward

Like so many conditions associated with trauma, there’s no therapeutic ‘cure-all’ for coping with shame. But there are always ways to move forward. 

“One thing we talk about with survivors of trauma, in general, is the process by which we become traumatized,” Dr. Figley says. “You need to be able to be aware of that in order to know how you get back to being untraumatized

“Typically, when one is traumatized, we ask a series of questions: What happened? What happened to me? Why did it happen? Why did I act the way I did at the time? And then, if it happens again, will I be able to cope?

“What people find is that they have to admit that there has been a traumatic event that's happened. And if they're able to slow things down, and be in an environment where they feel safe, they're often able to come to some conclusion about their trauma. For example, the notion of  'Why did I act the way I did at the time?’ is an extraordinarily crucial question that traumatized people attempt to answer.”

Writing, with the support of a mental health professional or trained writing coach, is another tool Dr. Figley says can offer significant relief to those suffering with trauma and shame. And he has this to offer those friends and family members who may be unsure how to support a loved one coping with these issues, or one who confides in them: Don’t judge.   

“Much of it is really about responding with acceptance,” he says. “It's not necessarily understanding, because you may not be able to understand what they are experiencing. They may not even know, really. The thing that is important to avoid is making judgment calls.”

It’s a lesson, Carrie Kehring says, that we as a society can and should take to heart, especially when it comes to how we treat survivors of sexual abuse in sport. “Survivors are often lauded for being ‘so brave,’ when they come forward and talk about their abuse, because it’s ‘so shameful.’ But talking about abuse shouldn’t be shameful,” Kehring says. 

“It should only be shameful for the abuser.”

Learn more about trauma-informed care at Tulane University Traumatology Institute

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Nina Fedrizzi

Writer and Editor


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