This is an incredibly challenging topic. Disagreement is okay. My thoughts are not definitive. I voice perspective and coping strategies to hopefully help healing.
I. Decisions Are Made with Current Information
Healing involves both an emotional and an intellectual component. Let’s tackle some basic intellectual elements of forgiveness and having a better relationship with yourself.
Firstly, we make decisions everyday. Some are seemingly insignificant. Others are important. In both cases we evaluate our emotional feeling towards a situation as well as calculate the best course of action based on incomplete information – we do the best we can with what we have. It’s easy to become frustrated with that process in hindsight, but keep in mind that [your personality is probably not something you’ve consciously chosen]. If that’s so, even decisions you made that were “typically” you do not have to bring shame or guilt.
You made the decisions you made then with the information you had and despite how on the fence you may have been, you fell to one side of the fence when the decision needed to be made, the same as anyone else. We all have decisions we aren’t sure about and have to make a decision. It isn’t profitable to think of how things could have gone or wish that you had been in a slightly different headspace. Sometimes it’s positive to think of the inexorable truth that while you chose a course of action you didn’t choose the elements of yourself that led to choosing that course of action.
In any case, bad things happen and they sometimes lead to lasting consequences; however if you focus on post traumatic growth and a healthy mindset, you can recover much faster. Feelings of guilt and “should have” prevention strategies are normal for survivors based on internalized rape culture and societal conditioning. Feeling that they’re right or easy doesn’t make them right.
Try to avoid internalizing the opinions of others when they don’t contribute to your mental health. Take the good. Leave the shame and guilt behind . Those aren’t yours.
II. You Are Not Responsible for Others’ Actions
It’s reasonable to take steps to reduce the risks you take in life, but this is always a statement about future risks. You cannot go back in time, and judgments about past actions rarely serve to make you a happier, healthier person.
Crucially important to healing is understanding that only the one acting can be responsible for the action itself. No matter what complex justifications are offered, the subject taking an action is completely responsible for the consequences of that action.
Example: Shoved into Traffic
If a pusher pushes a target into traffic, the target is not responsible because they were simply in the way. If the recipient of the action informedly tried to obstruct the subject taking the action, the waters become more murky but nothing changes the truth that regardless of all else, only one person did the shoving; and violence is unreasonable in almost every case (except in self defense or arguably to reduce total harm to others if one is taking a Utilitarian approach to ethics and placing beneficence above autonomy, with which I disagree strongly).
Someone may argue that intentionally trying to obstruct someone is “just cause” to physically move them out of the way, but unless that person is fleeing from immediate physical danger or death (i.e.: fire, assault, etc), it is a very unreasonable argument to move them into harm no matter how emotionally perturbed someone is. I can hear my third grade teacher stressing “we use our words instead.”
Even with such a simple example, it’s easy to see how abusive or manipulative people could try to reason their way out of accountability and take an irresponsible approach to their actions. Another common manipulation is that the recipient “made them angry.” It’s disturbingly commonplace to hear people describe their emotions not only as reactions to others’ actions but as directly caused by others’ actions – as if they are helpless to manage their own emotions. While this is an incredibly under-taught skill, one is always responsible for one’s own emotions.
In the context of trauma, this can seem like a bitter and ruthless statement. Keep in mind that there’s a time and a place to process that. Initially, grieving is very reasonable. It’s okay to not be together. With something so brutally affecting one’s emotional state, it’s very hard not to think of the action and emotional response as causal or even the same. Triggers (lasting emotional responses) linked to a traumatic event can make the two seem irrevocably intertwined. Yet over a longer term, it is possible to understand and untangle the connections, sorting action from emotion.
If the responsibility for shoving is *always* on the shoulders of the person shoving, regardless of the context, then being shoved into traffic leading to hospitalization isn’t one’s own fault. People can victim blame all they want saying you shouldn’t have been walking so close to traffic, but that’s an unreasonable argument. Of course you should have. Why not walk so close to traffic? Sidewalks are supposed to be safe. It doesn’t matter if you were walking near the roadway or not. Some may argue if you hadn’t been so close, someone else might have gotten shoved instead of you. What an incredibly selfish argument. The problem is some maniac is shoving people into traffic, not that you got shoved into traffic.
Re-framed as something someone else did that you can’t control, it may take blame off your shoulders intellectually, but guilt can still remain emotionally. Here’s an approach to managing emotions that don’t seem to make sense to you.
III. Your Emotions Make Sense and You Can Change Them
Intense Emotions Make Sense
Firstly, I simply can’t stress enough that with experience and practice, emotions make reasonable sense and are absolutely rational in their logic. Consider that emotions are based on past experience and situations. They make experiential and situational sense. Thus when viewed in the correct context of their origins, you can make sense of your emotions.
Emotions Can Be Disarmed Through Processing
Once you understand why your foundation emotions are so strong leading up to a traumatic event, it’ll be easier to dismantle the emotions of the traumatic event itself. Imagine most of society starts at a 1 out of 10 for their background sense of guilt. If you had guilting parents, you might run at a 2. Alternatively, if your parents were great but as a woman you were exposed to a religious set of ethics, you might be at a 3. Or alternatively, society may have shamed you about your body and you may also be at a 3. Or we could combine them.
Consider too that your factors aren’t quite additive – they may in fact multiply. Perhaps you’ve done a lot of work on yourself, realizing how unreasonable body standards are, thinking your parents were kind of full of crap, and that maybe some of those religious standards were anachronistic. You could still experience a feeling of guilt at a 5 or 7 out of 10 as your background shame/guilt levels.
IV. Processing Through Shame, Embarrassment, and Guilt
Words have great power in the realm of emotional management. Your internal monologue (your own voice in your head) and your sense of narrative structure (the way you frame stories to yourself about what happened and why it happened) have direct consequences on your happiness and quality of life). Read more here.
Hopefully my model of understanding will help you find yours.
Shame as a Socially Imposed Judgment
If society has blamed you for something they feel is preventable (ex: choosing to express your sexuality and be a happy, sexually active person with your partner), they may use a word as powerful as shame to describe what they think you should be feeling. That is to say it is within your control and socially unacceptable, even taboo. Thus it is your fault, and they disapprove of it. They even blame you for it and any consequences that happen as a result. You may feel bad, that a judgment of your character or your worth as a human being has happened. You may even agree with this judgment.
Judgment Reduces Quality of Life
Judging others leads to judging yourself and vice versa. It’s an unhappy place to feel like the world is wrong and only you’ve got it right. Softening and learning to be flexible eases difficult relationships and improves your ability to forgive both others and yourself.
Make Your Relationship with You a Top Priority
Commit to a healthy relationship with yourself today and agree to stop judging yourself. You can still make evaluations on changing for the future, but stop hurting yourself and using judgment as a tool for self harm.
Psychological self destruction like this is a conscious choice. It’s okay if you choose not to act on this today, but please keep it present in your mind as an option. As someone who has dealt with trauma and being on the receiving end of an emotionally abusive relationship, the sooner you to commit to a healthy relationship with yourself, the sooner you begin to heal in a really meaningful, lasting way. <3
Embarrassing Things Are Viewed as Outside Your Control
Do you feel embarrassed? Is someone embarrassed “for you?” Is someone embarrassed of you?
Embarrassment often describes something outside the control of the one feeling it (not their fault) but still somewhat judged by either them or society (or both). Ex: if one’s sex life or lifestyle is exposed to conversation by someone else against your wishes, you might describe it as embarrassing. That their sharing your information without your consent was embarrassing. An empathetic friend might be embarrassed for you, feeling their association with you extends social judgment of you onto them. In this case, fault would likely be placed on the non consensual sharing of the information. A less kind friend mind be embarrassed of you, placing fault on you for doing something society regards as inappropriate or of poor character the first place.
Embarrassment Is an Opportunity to Change Society
All three circumstances (feeling embarrassed yourself, being embarrassed for a friend, and being embarrassed of a friend) involve different kinds of judgments.
The ideal situation in my opinion is if fault is found with unreasonable or culturally-specific social expectations. It’s important to communicate how you feel and ideally not feel embarrassed at all – at least in the case where you feel you’ve done nothing wrong or have done something you don’t think should be viewed as wrong.
Guilt Is A Personal Judgment
Guilt is a tricky one to troubleshoot because it is extremely internal. One judges oneself and chooses to feel guilty based on one’s morals, ethics, or other codes/evaluations of one’s own actions. Having experienced a great deal of intense guilt (even to the point of suicidal thoughts and tendencies) myself, I can confidently assure you it is fixable even without medication.
There are several approaches to dealing with guilt: modifying how judgmental you are; modifying your code/morals/ethics; expressing your guilt and reasoning to a therapist; and self harm. Obviously some of these are healthier than others (I did a year of weekly counselling and then another year of biweekly and then monthly counselling). Yet self harm seems to be one of the most commonly followed routes.
Emotional Self-Harm Can Seem Invisible
Self harm can also take insidious, seemingly invisible forms such as guilting oneself and convincing oneself one is a bad person. It can also take the guise of a healthier coping strategy like changing one’s code. However in this case, one may change one’s code to believe that all is right in the world, that one deserved it (which is an incredibly painful thought but such suffering can feel good when you’re in pain – this is fairly normal and part of the self harm mindset). This avoids the stress and confusion that comes with having one’s world view challenged, and let’s be honest: sometimes you really just want to suffer as a way of coping with trauma. Many move into the world of BDSM (sexual or asexual BDSM) to have a safe, sane, consensual partner help them get the intense experiences they need to let out their suffering. While this may be a few steps healthier than self harm, BDSM is not a substitute for counselling the same way pain medication is not a substitute for a back injury. It’s nice while you’re recovering, but pursue qualified, professional therapy. It’s worth it. Embrace the ick and the suck of counselling. It gets better.
With all that in mind, let’s return to resting/foundation levels of guilt.
Resting and Aggravated Emotions
Some seem paradoxically unscathed by trauma. That doesn’t make you or them abnormal. Both responses are normal. People cope differently. Reactions also differ based on resting emotional levels.
If you are normally at a 5 or 7 for shame/guilt or feelings of agreeing with social shaming, a traumatic experience may feel like something you did to yourself. Levels can spike up to 9s and 10s, leading to debilitating depression, huge emotional upheaval, loss of relationships (lovers and friends even), self-distancing other people, trusting yourself less, trusting others less, and many more awful consequences.
Yet someone normally at a 1 or a 2 might only spike to a 7, experience fairly intense emotions, but find it only moderately difficult to go to counselling and manage what has happened on a day-to-day basis.
Developing an awareness that resting emotions are constructed from experiences of varying sizes makes deconstructing them and processing through them so much easier. Returning to the back injury metaphor, straining your back is much worse when you have a pre-existing injury and simply rehabbing each injury properly and spending the money on physio is best (yet very few people do this until they lose quality of life from a major injury).
V. Empowering Strategies
Post Traumatic Growth (PTG)
No discussion of trauma would be complete without a discussion of PTG. Unlike with a severe back injury, you can completely recover from trauma and actually become more self aware and emotionally intelligent. Awful emotional experiences can spur you into learning and growth.
While some will tell you to “plan better in future,” be cautious of the enormous victim blame inherent in that statement. Producing a consent culture is the best practice here (like Take Back the Night in Vancouver or supporting a Consent Positive cause), but it’s important not to forget you still likely live in a culture with a fundamentally different worldview. A differing sense of ethics and problem solving approaches may be problematic. The most important take-away here is awareness.
Some Take-Away Strategies
1. Choose to see pain and suffering as a learning opportunity.
2. Work on your relationship with yourself. Be a united front against the world. There are enough people who will tear you down in this life. You don’t need to be one of them.
3. Focus an equal amount of time on Post Traumatic Growth as you do on dealing with the various forms of Post Traumatic Stress.
4. Make the time to learn. Read books or listen to audiobooks teaching emotional integration strategies like The Whole Brain Child. Read books on better communication like Nonviolent Communication or on emotional intelligence (I still have to read the original found here: Emotional Intelligence)
4. Commit to life long learning and personal growth. You can view trauma as a lifelong curse or the attention it has drawn to self betterment as a lifelong gift.
5. Focus on boundary setting. It’s common when boundaries are broken or unclear that healing needs to happen in this area. Clear, consistent communication is essential but requires self knowledge, practice, and self confidence.