Those who have been sexually traumatized very often carry undeserved shame. This is an unfair, unfortunate, and very common reality. The information below begins by describing a few important truths, then points to several possibilities for healing.
Shame is a Tricky Emotion
When you cut your skin, the physical pain feels the same, no matter how or why you cut it. In a similar way, shame feels the same no matter what caused it. This makes it easy for your brain to take a shortcut--if you feel shame, you must be guilty. But this shortcut takes you to the wrong place when your shame came from something that someone else did wrong to you.
You Are Not To Blame
People who have been sexually violated tend to carry an impression that they were responsible for their own sexual trauma. If your sibling was older or bigger or had higher status in the family than you, or if your experience was marked by fear or a need to please, these are clear indications that it was not your fault.
You were not responsible, even if:
You didn’t resist
You didn’t say no
You didn’t tell
You were aroused
You returned to the person for affection or attention
You continued the behavior
You continued to be 'friends'
When a sibling, whom you may have loved and trusted, whom you may have spent your whole life with, whom may have been your hero, turns around and violates you sexually, it rocks your world. It can be impossible to believe they could really do this. You may be afraid to believe, or not want to believe, that it really happened the way it did. When you experience something that seems impossible, sometimes your brain plays tricks on you. Without meaning for it to happen, or even realizing it is happening, your brain might convince you that it was no big deal, or that it must be your fault, or that it never even happened.
Your Worth Comes From Who You Are and What You Do
Being sexually violated profoundly impacts your mind, your spirit, and often your body. Many survivors describe feeling “ruined,” like “damaged goods.” Feeling this way, even through no fault of your own, is a source of undeserved shame. This shame is magnified by the social stigma around sibling sexual trauma.
You may feel shame about your own strong reactions after you were sexually violated. It is entirely appropriate to feel anger, rage, desire for revenge, fantasies of retaliation. If you did retaliate or tried to retaliate, that is understandable. You were attempting to get justice, to hold your sibling accountable, in the only way you could or that you knew at the time.
Your sexual trauma may have started you down a path that led to you hurting others, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not. It is normal and human to feel guilt and appropriate shame when you have done something wrong. You may decide to apologize and make amends, or to talk about what you did with a third party who you trust. But have compassion for yourself; put your guilt in the context of how you got there and what your realistic options were at the time.
You also may feel shame that you allowed your sibling to violate you, that you didn’t scream or escape, that you didn’t tell anyone, that you may have even encouraged their inappropriate behavior. Your sibling may have brought you to believe that you wanted it or that you are somehow responsible for it. If you were groomed or manipulated, you may be tangled in a mental and emotional knot that will be hard to escape on your own. This is why the support of a therapist and/or other survivors is so important.
Unwanted sexual activity is a violation–a type of violence, whether or not it was paired with actual or threatened bodily harm. When experiencing violence, some people will respond with fight or flight, but during sexual violence it is very common to freeze, especially for children. What child could outrun or outfight most danger? So children are wired to freeze when they face a threat. And if you were frozen, could you possibly have run away, or pushed your sibling away, or even screamed? (Tense your throat and try to scream--can you do it?)
The path to freedom from undeserved shame is not easy or fast, but it is possible. Here are some steps that may be helpful:
Remind yourself that your worth comes from who you are and what you do.
Hold on to the truth that you are not responsible for your sibling’s abusive actions; it is not your fault.
Find someone to tell your story to: therapist, a friend, a listening ear ready to believe you 24/7 at rainn.org
Find a support group with other survivors, online or in person. When you discover they went through similar things or felt the same way, it will validate your truth.
Help other survivors. As you reassure others of their worth and help them place blame where it belongs, it will then become easier to believe in your own worth and truth.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy can help you learn to replace negative self-talk with positive truths that move you toward more positive feelings.
Practice self-care–treat yourself like a person worthy of care and compassion, and you will learn to believe it.
Join groups that are speaking out and replacing their shame with pride: #MeToo, #IncestAware, #MeTooSiblingsToo, #HimToo
Tell your story anonymously at #SiblingsToo
Your story and narrative belongs to you. If you feel you are ready, and want to share your story publicly, you can and should do so. Some people want to share their story right away, others feel ready with time, and some are never ready, or never want to, publicly share their story. All options are valid. There is no right and wrong.
Saprea has more guidance specifically for survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Joseph Burgo, PhD: Building Self-Esteem: How Learning from Shame Helps Us to Grow
Siblings Too Podcast: Shame and how it affects survivors