Written By: Lauren Barris, LCSW-C
I often have clients come to me expressing frustration and confusion about the ways they have been treated in their life. All too often, these are individuals who have been through horrific treatment at the hands of parents or family members whose job it was to care for and protect them. If you are reading this and you are someone who has experienced abuse, please know that this short post will not be comprehensive, and it may not speak directly to your experience. Everyone responds differently to situations of abuse. I encourage you to reach out to us if you have questions about this, or if you would like support in working through your own past trauma or abuse.
My hope is that this post can help at least a few people make some sense of their emotional response following what has in some cases been a lifetime of abuse or neglect. One of the most common themes in my sessions with survivors of abuse or trauma is their tendency to put the blame on themselves. They may believe on some level that they deserved the treatment they received due to some unknown crime. This pattern of self-blame can spill over into other areas of their lives, causing them to revert to self-blame whenever something terrible happens to them. Of course, this perception is rarely accurate, and it is almost never helpful to the person in meeting their own goals. At the same time, it is valid. It is common. It makes sense. It is understandable simply due to some of our most basic survival instincts.
When a young child, or anyone in a vulnerable position, is subjected to abuse, their first instinct is often to assume they have done something to cause their caregiver to punish them, even if the abuser has not expressed any blame toward them. We do this in an effort to try to keep ourselves safe --it all boils down to survival. In the survivor’s mind, the abuse is far less dangerous if it was brought on by something they themselves did, because if it was, that would mean it would be within their control to stop it from happening again. If this were the case, they would just need to figure out what it was they did, and then they would be able to keep themselves safe. This frantic effort to discover what they have done to bring on abuse can lead to hyper-vigilance and high anxiety, as well as, you guessed it: self-blame, for everything and anything that could have somehow caused the abuse.
The reality of course, is that abuse is never warranted. Nothing a child (or adult) could possibly do would result in them ever deserving abuse. Their effort to figure out what they did wrong will be in vain. But for someone who is in a vulnerable position, applying the blame to themselves and trying to figure out where they are going wrong is often more comforting (and sometimes safer) than believing that the person who has been entrusted to care for and protect them is cruel, unpredictable, or incompetent. We all want to believe that the people in our lives who have control or influence over us know what they are doing, and are capable of keeping us safe. Tragically, this is not always the case. Not everyone with power is able to wield it responsibly or with compassion; the reasons for abuse lie solely with the abuser, not with their target.
As adults, some come to realize that they have been misplacing the blame that belonged with their abuser by turning it toward themselves instead. Some are able to process this and transform the self-blame into other, more productive emotions. But this is an extremely difficult task to take on, especially without support.
If you or someone you know are experiencing abuse currently, there are resources available to get help. You can call the police in any emergency, reach out to your local Child Protective Services Agency, or contact a local Domestic Violence Hotline (https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/can/ OR http://www.ncadv.org/). If you have your own experience with this and would like support in processing and working through it, please do not hesitate to contact us here at Innovative Psychiatry.