How Emotional Abuse Leads to Guilt and Shame

The reason given for emotional abuse varies: you are bad, stupid, ugly, or unwanted, or you are the wrong sex, the wrong age, or the wrong whatever. No matter what reason is provided, you are to blame for what is happening to you. You are guilty of causing the abuse.

The guilt you are feeling is not true guilt. True guilt is brought on by a realistic understanding of your behavior and its consequences to yourself and others. False guilt is an oppressive burden that is not based on reality but on the warped views, ideas, and attitudes of others. Emotional abuse transfers those warped views on you, and those warped views produce mind-numbing, action-paralyzing shame.

For some people, assuming the guilt for the abuse might seem to be a devastating decision – and it is – but it also has some very practical uses. For the person who has been emotionally abused, guilt is born out of a sense of fear of the world and what it holds. At first it makes no sense that this should be happening, but then guilt takes over. You feel responsible. You are told you are responsible. Some of the nameless chaos is encapsulated. Bad things happen to me because I am bad. A sense of order is established. By latching onto your guilt, you are really attempting to take back control of your life.

If I am guilty of causing the bad things that are happening to me, then all I have to do is change my behavior, my looks, my weight, to stop causing the bad things. To children this is a very logical conclusion. It is a way of asserting that they really do have some control over the way they are being treated.

At first, children who are abused in this way will attempt to control their behavior so completely that they do nothing that angers their abuser. They will often appear to be model children – compliant, quiescent, extremely adult acting. They are praised by other adults for their behavior. They begin to hope that they have found the key that will stop the abuse.

Hand in hand with false guilt is false hope – hope that if they are just good enough, thin enough, bright enough, or hardworking enough, the abuse will stop and the people are supposed to love them will finally start acting in a loving way. By accepting the mantle of guilt, the child expects a payoff in hope. If I can be the way you want me to be, then you will love me. If the person who abuses them will change and love them, the crushing weight of guilt and shame can be lifted.

Just as your eyes deceive you with closure, your heart can deceive you with false guilt. You can so completely see the proof of your own guilt that it affects the very mental image of yourself that you carry around inside. You are guilty. You are bad. You deserve the awful things that happen to you and that people say to you. You are right to be ashamed of the way you are. Something is wrong with the world if you are not punished. The overwhelming feeling of guilt becomes was is normal. If others do not punish you, you will punish yourself so that order may be maintained. You will desire to create what you were used to enduring and used to feeling. In essence, better the hell you know than the heaven you do not.

Tragically, the abused child accepts guilt and endures shame to buy hope, hope that he or she can control the situation. The human heart has a tremendous capacity to hope. This is especially true of the heart of a child, because there is still plenty of room for hope to stretch its edges. The scarring of disappointment hasn’t started to restrict and bind.

As year after year of disappointment builds, as time after time the abuse has continued no matter what the abused child has done to control his or her behavior, the abused heart will being to harden. Hope can no longer find a suitable home. Disappointment leads to frustration and anger, which result in resentment slowly creeping in.

– I’ll never be good enough.
– Mom will never like the way I look.
– I’m too fat for anyone to ever love me.
– I’ll never be smart enough to get a real job.
– I guess Dad was right when he said I’d end up on the streets.

Hope hasn’t worked. It was false all along. Controlling your own behavior hasn’t worked. The abuse continues. Disappointment and resentment must now be contended with. But they rarely come alone.

The above is excerpted from Chapter 3 in Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse by Dr. Gregory Jantz.

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About Dr. Gregory Jantz

Dr. Gregory Jantz is the founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources, Inc., in Seattle, Washington. He is also the author of more than 20 self-help books - on topics ranging from eating disorders to depression - most recently a book on raising teenagers: "The Stranger In Your House." Married for 25 years to his wife, LaFon, Dr. Jantz is the proud father of two sons, Gregg and Benjamin.