Usually when we, as human beings, feel guilty it is because we know we have done something that we should not have done. The problem with that in abuse situations is that it is generally the victim that feels this guilt not the abuser. It has become a belief that you are guilty and is not just an emotion. Erasing the belief is much more difficult to do than just re-programming yourself to not “feel” the guilt.
First you need to look at why you were abused. That is often a hard step for most of us to take, because we still have feelings of love for our abuser and do not want to shed a negative light on that person. No matter how many excuses we can conjure there are no reasons amongst them that will give grounds to the abuse being ok. You were not abused because of anything you did! The answer to the question doesn’t lie within you this time it lies within the abuser. Since we are not here to analyze your abuser and this is about you, we are not really trying to figure out why you were abused, but instead determining what the cause wasn’t. Now we have an answer to that; you were not the cause.
Once you realize that you were not the cause of your abuse you can move forward to removing the guilt beliefs and/or feelings. But first let’s examine some reasons you may feel the guilt should reside with you. You may feel guilty for not leaving sooner, or you may feel guilty for not staying and trying to work things out. You may think that it is your fault that your abuser lost his temper with you when you didn’t get all the housework done on any given day.
These things just aren’t true. In most cases an abuser is going to “loose” their temper just exactly when they want to and if they can’t find something to loose it over they will fabricate things. You have probably noticed that if someone arrives unexpectedly in the middle of one of these fits an abuser can turn off that rage just as quick as it was turned on. Therefore, you can now start to realize that if that switch can be flipped at those moments at will, it is always flipped at will, and that leads you closer to understanding it was never your fault to begin with.
Let’s look at what harboring this unearned feeling of guilt can bring to us. When we feel guilty we tend to separate ourselves from others because we do not feel equal to them. That leads to feeling loneliness and eventually a lack of trust in others; if that isn’t something we have to being with. Guilt can also lead us into feeling a sense of competition with everyone around us which then can make us feel jealous and have envy towards others.
Life Story: Guilt
Anna had always prided herself on keeping her house neat and clean, but yet comfortable and inviting to others when they visited. Shortly after she married John he praised her for managing to keep the house that way and still manage to raise the children and work. He had told her that he didn’t know how she managed to get it all done. When he came home one day from work and began complaining that things weren’t just right, she figured that he had a bad day at work and worked harder the next day to ensure that everything was very neat and ordered when he arrived home. Pretty soon over the next few years he began complaining more often about her housework, until eventually he was violent over it. This was not the only thing he got violent over but it was the one thing that usually seemed to start a tirade. Anna could not understand what was happening because she knew she had not changed anything and that she still kept the house just as clean, ordered, comfortable and inviting as she always had. Yet she began to feel that she couldn’t even do the simplest things correctly, even though deep down she knew it wasn’t her that had changed. Soon she began to feel that maybe it was her and that if she could just keep the house as good as she did when they were first married then he would have no reason to be angry with her.
In the meantime a woman she worked with had started noticing a change in Anna’s appearance and attitude and began to ask her questions that lead her to believe she probably should try to get away from John. She already was afraid of him and knew he was abusing her, but she still thought that if she could just be good enough he would stop. She went on this way for a couple more years trying and trying to please him but none of it worked and one night a fight got so out of hand that the cops were called by a neighbor. The cops told Anna about Domestic Violence and that there was a shelter she could go to in order to be safe. She went, but still thinking that this was all her fault she told the cops she didn’t want to press charges because if she had gotten the dishes done sooner there would have been no fight. While at the shelter Anna kept insisting that she was the guilty one and even after moving into her own apartment she still rushed to get the house clean and keep it that way all the time. She obsessed over it and felt guilty each time someone came over that maybe her house wasn’t going to be the way they expected it, or wouldn’t feel comfortable to them or clean enough.
When Anna visited the homes of others she always found herself comparing her house to theirs and feeling that in some way her home did not match up. She eventually stopped going to her friends homes because it always left her with a sadness that she would never be as good as they were. She always made some excuse for not accepting their invitations and soon others stopped coming to her house also. She found that she actually preferred it this way and so was happy to just meet up with her friends in public places. Although her friends rarely meet in public places because they all had children and usually just visited with each other in their homes. After a few more years went by she noticed that she no longer got invitations to visit with others, even when they were meeting at a public place. She had alienated herself and was starting to feel jealous when others at work talked of visiting with each other. She knew that even if she were asked she would say no because she didn’t like the feeling it gave her when she compared their homes to hers.
Through all of this Anna never realized that she was holding on to feelings of guilt that were born of the abuse she had suffered, and that the guilt she felt was incorrectly placed on her. Anna never thought about the fact that her home really was neat, clean, inviting and comfortable. She didn’t realize that she didn’t need to compare her home to the homes of her friends. She thought they didn’t like her and that was why they stopped inviting her, not because she always said no and didn’t invite them to her home anymore.
The truth is she was still feeling the guilt that she had been programmed to feel while in her abusive marriage. She let it consume her to the point that now she had all kinds of other feelings that were overwhelming. Anna now was truly alone and had no one to turn to for advice.
(i) Beliefs that Anna had:
She couldn’t keep her house clean enough for anyone
She was abused because of she couldn’t keep her house clean
She had lost her friends because her house wasn’t clean
She deserved all of this
(ii) Beliefs Anna should have:
She didn’t deserve the abuse she suffered
She kept her house just as well as she used to
She was abused because she married an abuser, and he would have found something to abuse her for no matter what
She lost her friends because of her feelings of guilt, because she pushed them away
(iii) Steps Anna can take to stop these feelings of guilt:
Realize that her ability to do housework was NOT the reason she was abused
Understand that she does not need to measure up to anyone else’s standard
Let go of focusing on results of housework as a measure of her worthiness
Start reforming her friendships without the feelings of guilt, comparison, and jealousy
What other things do you see in this story that Anna should or should not believe? What other steps could Anna take to regain her friends and have a happier life?
As we see here; a seemingly small feeling of guilt, turned into a major belief, which in turn ended up controlling Anna for several years. Getting control of that guilty feeling sooner could have saved her some of the heartache she endured. It was never her fault that she was abused. Even if there were days that her husband came home and the dishes weren’t done, she still did not deserve to be abused for it.
So many of us will have a very hard time letting go of our guilt, because it is something that we have held onto for so long, and one of the things that has worked towards keeping us sane. Without it we could not have survived to get this far. Senseless acts of violence are just something that most people can’t wrap their minds around and therefore we need to put blame somewhere when exposed to them. Most of us tend to blame ourselves when the violent act is abuse towards us because we fear blaming the abuser.
Take a look at Anna’s situation and what she believed; plug in your own reasons for feeling guilty. Write down what you currently believe, what you should believe and the steps you could take to overcome your beliefs.