How Abusers Rely On Shame To Keep Victims Down
Four years ago I graduated from Rutgers University with a Master’s degree in art history. I was surrounded on that sunny day by my family, including my fiancé and my soon-to-be stepdaughter. I was one of the first kids in my family to go to college, and this felt like my greatest accomplishment yet. But when I look at photos from that day — my fiancé’s daughter grinning and wearing my mortarboard, my father standing gravely with a bouquet of flowers — I feel not pride or nostalgia, but shame.
Several months later, I would shove as many things as I could carry into large plastic trash bags, grab my cat, and get into a car with my mother, only returning to that house once, briefly, in order to pick up the rest of my things. But even though I got out, the shame lingers, poisoning even my happy memories. Like many survivors of abuse, I wonder: did I put up with it for too long? Was it somehow my fault?
In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t), author and speaker Brené Brown calls shame a “silent epidemic”:
It’s a problem of epidemic proportions because it has an impact on all of us. What makes it “silent” is our inability or unwillingness to talk openly about shame and explore the ways in which it affects our individual lives, our families, our communities and society. Our silence has actually forced shame underground, where it now permeates our personal and public lives in destructive and insidious ways.
Brown says that shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. It’s no wonder, then, that people who have endured abuse at the hands of an intimate partner are so likely to feel ashamed about it. Abusers thrive on secrecy, silence, and judgment, too. They rely on planting the very feelings that nourish shame.
My ex-fiance was a master gaslighter, which is to say that he thoroughly manipulated me into questioning my own sanity and perception of reality in the course of our relationship. He was adept at making me believe the problems in our relationship were my fault. He went to great lengths to distance me from family and friends so that the only support that I perceived for myself was him. He made me feel small. He made me feel useless. This, in turn, made me feel ashamed — and that shame did his work for him. Shame made me doubt myself; it tricked me into believing that everything he said about me was true. Once he began nurturing an environment that encouraged shame, I was less likely to put up a fight.
For the last nine months of our relationship I thought daily about leaving, but was held in place by the paralyzing fear of what other people would think of me should I break off the engagement. Coupled with the bond that I had formed with my stepdaughter, that fear kept me nailed in place throughout the summer that followed our engagement.
After I left my fiancé and his daughter, I did not stay at my parents’ house; I preferred to couch-surf rather than grapple with the fallout of that relationship in front of the people who loved me. Eventually, shame drove me into a shell of a home that a friend had purchased with the intent of renovating it for his family. I would live out the winter there without heat or most basic amenities. I chose to be alone and miserable rather than show myself to others. I was sick more times that winter than I had ever been in my life. Not once did I consider reaching out for safe housing or a place to land.
Shame carves deep scars in people who have endured psychological abuse, myself included. In fact, I didn’t even acknowledge that what happened to me was abuse. That word in itself is filled with shame. Using it feels like you are invoking something bigger than yourself. Calling it abuse felt like I was making a big deal out of the situation, making excuses for myself, asking for attention I didn’t deserve. I told myself other people had endured so much worse than I had. I told myself it wasn’t that bad. I was ashamed of the abuse, but I was also ashamed to think of myself as a victim.
Shame is not easily shaken off. In fact, it can affect the core perception of ourselves and our identity. People who have experienced traumatic events may rewrite their self-perception to include feelings of disgust and humiliation, as well as negative comparisons of themselves with other people. Acute, chronic shame can erode self-esteem in ongoing and destructive ways.
Even now, I cannot banish the shame. As survivors of emotional abuse, the language of shame perfectly echoes the language used by our abusers. It tells us what they told us: that no one will believe us. That we aren’t worthy of support and compassion. That we aren’t just people who make mistakes, but rather that we are, at our very core, mistakes in and of ourselves. Shame tells you that, if you are truly seen, the world will judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. It tells you that you are unworthy of acceptance and belonging. It tells you lies. And even knowing what a liar shame is, I still fear the effects of allowing this part of myself to be seen.
The research done on intimate partner abuse has touched on shame in various ways over the years. An Australian study into shame in the context of trauma concluded that shame is “an effective tool for perpetrators to exploit the vulnerability of their victim and enhance their own power over the relationship dynamic.”
The researchers found that abusive partners deployed shame in different ways at various points in an abusive dynamic. During the relationship, shame worked to erode victims’ self-esteem, in order to keep them compliant with the will of their abuser. Shame worked both within and outside the abusive dynamic by rooting itself in social cues surrounding sex and gender, relegating intimate partner abuse to the private realm and discouraged victims from disclosing. As if all that wasn’t traumatic enough, the shame had the added effect of isolating victims post-trauma. Shame is relentless, not only keeping victims locked into their abusive relationships, but also ensuring that survivors do not feel comfortable speaking out or seeking support after they have left an abusive situation.
Shame tells the victim of psychological abuse that the degradation, putdowns, and judgements of their abuser are all true and thus threatening to the social self. Survivors are ashamed of the terrible people they believe they are. And even after they escape, lingering shame tells the victim of psychological abuse that people will think less of them if they tell the truth about what they have endured. That their peers will not accept them. That they will be rejected and outcast if they choose to speak their truth openly.
Shame, of course, is lying.
So how do we find our way back from shame? One word: empathy. In her influential 2012 TED talk about shame, Brown stated that:
If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: “me too.”
And I’m here to tell you that it’s true. The more I have spoken openly among my peers about the truth of my relationship with my ex-fiance, the more acceptance and warmth I have experienced. The louder I shout, the more people have come forward to support me.
The empathy that others have shared with me has allowed me to be more gentle and empathetic with myself. And even though there have been some who have chosen not to believe me, or who have turned their backs on me because of what my openness has made them feel, the majority have applauded my courage in speaking out. Those kind, compassionate listeners have swaddled me in empathy, insulating me from my own shame as well as the judgment of others. When someone rejects me, I no longer feel the sting.
I have been a prisoner of shame for many years. In many ways, if I’m honest, I still am. But if shame needs my secrecy and silence to grow, speaking openly about the most shameful time in my life is a big step toward healing myself.