Content note: This article discusses sexual, physical, and emotional abuse at length.
Victims of childhood abuse, rape survivors, and victims of domestic abuse are really good at one thing: feeling guilty.
We can feel guilty about everything, particularly things that aren’t our responsibility. Survivors are taught to feel responsible for the actions of perpetrators and, as a result, feel guilty about everything. And I mean everything.
When I got the restraining order against my mother, the relief I felt at not having to deal with her anymore was strained by the tremendous guilt I carried. Even though she was disruptive, disturbed, and dangerous, I still felt like I was hurting her. Although at time I claimed no specific religion, I was still steeped in a strong religious tradition and constantly fretted over the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days might be long upon the land which the Lord your God hath given thee.”
Ttwo years after the restraining order, I was speaking with a friend who knew the details of the depths of my mother’s depravity. I told her that even though I had no plans of seeing my mother again, I felt like I owed her an apology. I felt bad for hurting her.
My friend thankfully pointed out that I owed my mother nothing. I see now that the guilt I felt was really a fear of my mother’s wrath.
This guilt seeped into every aspect of my life. I felt guilty when someone would do something good for me. When I was in my twenties and living in Atlanta, I was in a car accident. Even though I walked away without a scratch, the car I was in was totaled. I remember being in shock and apologizing to the paramedics who were attempting to treat me. I remember saying to one of them, “I’m sorry for bothering you.” I called a friend of mine who came over right away and brought my dinner. I apologized to her for messing up her evening. She stayed with me until I went to sleep.
The paramedic was doing his job, and my friend was offering me nurturance in a time of need; and yet I felt tremendously guilty and undeserving.
I had extremely low self-worth. I felt guilty about spending money on myself. I used to live in deep deprivation. I donated most of the extra money I earned to charity. As a result, I had no money for clothes, a dinner out, or even a movie. When I would dare to splurge on the basics such as new socks or underwear, I’d feel tremendous guilt and shame. I felt guilty about feeling angry. I felt guilty about feeling sad. I felt guilty when I felt happy. This amount of guilt was irrational and misplaced.
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I had to learn to let go of guilt. First, I had to ask myself whether the guilt I felt made sense. In this instance, I had to learn to allow the logical part of myself to take over. I had to ask myself some questions. Was it logical that I felt guilty for “hurting” someone who had wrought such havoc in my life? Was it logical that I felt guilty for “hurting” someone who made no effort to apologize or make amends to me for her bad behavior?
The answer was a clear and emphatic “No.” Realizing this proved a great first step in overcoming the crippling guilt.
Then I had to consider my values. I am not perfect by any means, but I do live by the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” At times when I’ve felt guilty for setting a boundary or standing up for myself, I’ve asked myself, “Would I have treated someone the way they treated me?” If the answer was no, then I could see my guilt was misplaced. Over the years, the guilt has lessened.
I’ve also learned to look at what’s underneath any feeling of guilt I might have. A lot of times, what lies beneath the misplaced guilt is worry. Worry can be incredibly damaging and, in many ways, an effort to control the uncontrollable. Constantly worrying about the future by rehashing what I could have done differently in the past and feeling guilty about it takes excessive time and energy.
There are things I feel guilty about regarding the abuse I experienced as a child and adult. I’ve also carried a tremendous amount of guilt about what I perceived as my moments of inaction or things I thought I could have done differently.
For a time, “what if” list was very specific:
- What if I had told my childhood therapist about my mother’s abuse?
- What if I had run away as a kid?
- What if I had let my mother pour that pot of boiling water on me when I was home from college rather than kicking her away from me? Then the police would have been called, and she would have gone to jail.
However, if I’d told the therapist about my mother, nothing would have been done. Unfortunately, during the ’70s, very few recognized that women could be sexual predators, especially against their own children.
Plus, my mother has sociopathic tendencies and played the sympathy card like a master. With my mother sitting right outside the door, even the therapist’s office wasn’t a safe place for me.
When I was ten, my mother threatened to send me away to live with her sister. Apparently, the therapy was no longer effective in suppressing my normal reactions to her terrorism.
I didn’t want to live with my aunt because I knew my mother could easily change her mind and I’d be back in her clutches. My father wasn’t an option, either. He didn’t beat or sexually abuse me, but he was verbally abusive, and he liked to beat his wives. I had limited options.
So, I tried to come up with a plan. I looked through the Yellow Pages for orphanages, but I couldn’t find any listings. I wasn’t aware of foster care. I loved McDonald’s and thought I could go to the Ronald McDonald House. However, when I called and asked if I could come live there, the woman who answered the phone told me told me that it was only for sick children and their parents. As this was my last hope, I was devastated. I started to cry hysterically. I told her, “My mother doesn’t love me.”
The woman on the line and the only adult who tried to help me said, “Sweetheart, tell me your name! Tell me where you are!” When my mother caught me and screamed at me, she snatched the phone out of my hand and slammed it down into the cradle. I think my mother was shocked that I had reached out for help. She sat down, put her arm around me, and declared, “Okay. You can stay,” as if that were a good thing.
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So I decided to run away. I started hoarding my allowance and prepared a bag. However, I just so happened to read a book about a teen girl who runs away from home and ends up being seduced and raped by a pimp. He then turns her out on the streets to turn tricks. I’ll never forget the cover of the book. The girl was dressed in a red dress much too big for her. Her hair was in an updo and she wore a red boa over her shoulders. Behind her was her pimp, his eyes aglow like the devil.
I “opted” to stay and be assaulted by my mother. I felt it was better than the very real possibility of being assaulted by random strangers. When I think about how small and vulnerable a ten-year-old child is, how powerless I was, and how my only advocate in the midst of that hell was a very kind, disembodied voice at the Ronald McDonald House, the guilt dissipates.
The third “what if” happened when I was back in my mother’s home over a college break. I wanted to sleep late. My mother didn’t agree and, after trying to physically pull me out of bed for well over an hour, decided her best option would be to boil a pot of water and pour it over my legs. I instinctively kicked the pot away.
For years, I felt guilty about not letting her burn me. The water would have caused significant damage. The police would have been called, and I doubt she could have been able to talk herself out of an assault charge. With the help of therapy and time, I can now say, guilt-free, that preventing her from burning me was an act of self-defense, which is natural for every human being.
Guilt is a useless emotion. It makes a person feel responsible for the actions of others and keeps them rooted in a past that’s no longer of service. But guilt can also be used as a tool for recovery. Feelings of guilt can be used to uncover unprocessed emotion and pain. They can be used as a guide to forgive oneself for events beyond one’s control.
So when the guilt takes over, try to take a step back and view it from a different lens. Does that guilt really belong to you? It’s an important question to ask.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a young Black woman with black hair and dark eyes. She is wearing a brown top with a white blouse. She is resting her chin on her right hand with a serious expression.]