Updated: Mar 1, 2022
There are so many of us that carry guilt around with us, and for the survivors of trauma, we carry more than we have to. Many survivors of a traumatic event are left with this sense of guilt and shame, this is known as trauma-related guilt.
Many of us have been diagnosed with PTSD. Guilt and shame have a role in this disorder. Trauma-related guilt is the feeling of regret that we could have, should have, and we didn’t do something different than what we did at the time of the event, or within the ongoing abuse or trauma-related incident.
Survivor guilt is often related to a traumatic event that one person survived while others did not, but in the case of an abuse survivor, it is my personal belief that this too could be called survivor guilt. It does not matter what kind of trauma that we may have experienced, physical, sexual, emotional, combat (although it feels like combat when you are in an abusive relationship) or even a loss of a loved one, trauma-related guilt can often leave us feeling helpless or even a feeling of hopelessness.
Therefore, when addressing PTSD in treatment it is important that the therapist addresses the trauma-related guilt as it has the potential to create negative consequences.
From my own personal experiences and as a therapist, there is a profound sense of guilt which is one of the deepest and most painful effects of abuse that afflict the survivor. Many who have never experienced the pain of abuse would declare that the survivor was the innocent victim and did not cause the abuse, so in turn, should not feel guilty at all. Although they are correct in every way, as a survivor we see things quite differently. First of all, we have all the times, etched in our memory, that the perpetrator would blame us, gaslight us and accuse us of all the things that they were doing and then there are the victim blamers... you know the ones, the ones that say; 'What did you do to provoke?' or 'If they were abusing you why didn't you just leave?' (I could tell you many more, but I won't waste my time on them) These types of statements already add to the survivor's internal struggle
I have found that until we have addressed the guilt and shame, we find it hard to reconcile the past.
One of the thought patterns we may believe is that the abuse was ‘my fault’ or ‘I could have done something, I should have done something, but I didn’t’. This belief gives a false sense of control to the situation. None of us likes the feeling of being out of control and admitting that it was not my fault, then recognising that there was nothing we could have done to prevent the abuse, brings along this terrifying feeling of being out of control. When realising there was nothing, we could do to stop the trauma event, it makes us feel that if it happened again, we would be helpless to prevent it. Holding on to the ‘It was my fault’ mindset allows us to believe that it was ‘our behaviour’ that caused the abuse. Consequently, we then hold on to this false hope, that in the future we can prevent it by being ‘good’. We are taught from an early age that if we are good then 'bad' things won’t happen. When we confront this lie head-on, we must acknowledge that it really wasn’t our fault.
Here are some conversations that we might have had with ourselves.
Was it my fault? I feel like it was my fault…
Could I have stopped it? I feel like I could have…
Could I have done something different to stop them from hurting me?
Was I unlovable? Could I have done something else to make them love me?
I should have known what they did to me was wrong.
Could I have done something differently to make them stop having sex with me? Was it my fault that he raped me? Did I lead them on? Did I wear something inappropriate? Did I put over that I really wanted it? They are my partner/spouse I don't have a right to say no.
If I tell someone they’ll hate me, they won’t believe me.
Why didn’t I tell someone sooner?
I should have protected others from being abused. It's my fault others got involved and got hurt.
These thoughts build into guilt and shame and build into self-doubt, and sometimes, maybe to the point of hating ourselves.
I was recently listening to Dr. Brené Brown, she is a shame and vulnerability expert, she states that she believes that “shame is an epidemic” in our culture. In her “Listening to Shame” TED talk, Brown says that shame frequently manifests itself in women as a feeling that they must, “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.” We often fall short, because we are human and then shame is quick to punish, humiliate and condemn.
Dr. Brown explains this difference between shame and guilt perfectly: she says ‘Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad,” … Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
It is important to recognise this difference in our own thinking, as often they work together to continue to send us down a spiral rabbit hole which eventually becomes a habit and a belief system that has distorted the truth. We believe the lies and find ourselves in a pit of despair, alone only with our shame and guilt and other emotions are thrown in on top.
In other words, as shame and guilt gain momentum, it begins to make sense to us. It becomes the loudest voice in our minds that structures and distorts our beliefs. We allow shame and guilt to decide who we are. Self-doubt and fear become a basis where we create ourselves. We then reinvent ourselves based on a lie that we have believed.
When listening to our thoughts we need to decide whether there is any evidence to support them and if the evidence is actually true, not something we have created to fit in with the shame and guilt narrative. It is important to break down absolutes that shames us into believing the lies. We can do this by reframing.
Reframing can interrupt our shame and guilt cycles by confronting our false self-talk, this makes us feel vulnerable and can be a long journey. Learning about self-love, self-grace, and acceptance. We need to promote these environments and build a space where shame and guilt is not the final word on who we are. It is good to get some help from a therapist at first but then with friends and family helping you to keep your thoughts accountable. For instance, when you claim certain thought patterns teach them to challenge you on them… such as:
Where did that thought come from?
Why do you believe that?
What is the opposite of that thought?
Can you find any evidence of this thought? Is that evidence true? Why do you believe it to be true?
Remember false shame and guilt are lies. Don’t build your lives on lies.
It might be a long journey, but you can learn new ways of thinking and changing your thought patterns. Our brains are created to change, it’s called neuroplasticity, the more we start believing the truth it becomes more natural to us the more we do it.
If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship, please feel free to contact me or find someone you trust to help you. Some organisations will support you, so google organisations near you.
Read my 'Great Safe Escape blog for more information on leaving an abusive relationship safely.
If you have found this helpful to understand survival guilt and shame, then please share and link this blog.
If you would like to know more about my own personal story, you can buy my book 'Broken To Be Beautiful' here.
Author information: Xenia Schembri
Along with her husband, Simon, are the founders of the charity At the Ark based on the Gold Coast Queensland Australia. Since 2010 At The Ark have supported families whose children have been abused and families impacted by domestic violence.
Previously, Xenia was in a 15-year domestic violent marriage. Xenia has become a voice for the voiceless and has a passion to prove that the past does not have to negatively impact the future, but positively propel anyone to change to their future.
Xenia was Woman of the Year 2020 on the Gold Coast Australia and one of Westfield's Local Heroes in 2020. She is an international speaker and author of 4 published books. The Brave Little Bear series equips families with self-protective behaviours and her own story Broken To Be Beautiful.
Here are links to some of her other blogs that you may find interesting.
 Bub K, Lommen MJJ. The role of guilt in posttraumatic stress disorder. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2017;8(1):1407202. doi:10.1080/20008198.2017.1407202  Street AE, Gibson LE, Holohan DR. Impact of childhood traumatic events, trauma-related guilt, and avoidant coping strategies on PTSD symptoms in female survivors of domestic violence. J Trauma Stress. 2005;18(3):245-52. doi:10.1002/jts.20026