The Pain of Shame


Recovery work is painful. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is no wonder that I spent two decades avoiding it. Deep down in my unconscious where the memories were stored, I had determined that the pain of the emotional memories was far worse than spending my life defending against them. And my overactive cortex was happy to oblige. I could come up with almost anything to justify my feelings or an image that may have flashed in my head. On the bad days, I could keep myself so insanely busy that there was no time to examine anything. My head would run in circles all day long, only stopping for sleep. It was exhausting. Some days, I felt like I had run a marathon from the anxiety and intensity of getting through the day. But it still seemed better than facing the pain.

After seven years of recovery, I can vouch that the emotional and physical pain of recovery is hard, but it is not as bad as the constant defending. Honestly, and a bit morbidly, it is unlikely that I would have survived much longer if I had continued down that old path of denial. I was getting physically sicker and sicker. There is no doubt in my mind that my life would have been cut short.

While my story has turned positive, there’s a lot of defending against the unconscious that is happening in our world today. And it isn’t just the victims of trauma. It is the perpetrators … maybe more so. The pain of being a victim is hard to feel. For me, the misplaced shame is the worst. It sits in the pit of my stomach and makes me feel like I am going to throw up. I hate it. I always know when the shame is ready to be processed. And I always want to avoid it. But the shame is worse for the perpetrators. They took their own victim shame and tried to place it with someone else. They unconsciously thought that would be easier than feeling it. But the shame multiplied. And now the pain is worse.

And so they continue to act on their shame. They somehow believe that a certain number of victims will make the pain go away. But with more victims comes more shame. And with more shame comes more defending. In Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman discusses the pain of committing evil acts. “The violation of human connection, and consequently the risk of the post-traumatic stress disorder, is highest of all when the survivor has not been merely a passive witness but also an active participant in violent death or atrocity.”

It is the ultimate pain. I know because I have felt it. When I was in middle school, my stepfather forced me to sexually abuse a younger family member. He stood in the corner of the room in the dark telling me what to do. He did this because he had a plan. It was a strategic step in my abuse. I had been talking about escaping the life that my family was living. I had been telling him that I would never do the horrible things he was doing. He wanted to prove me wrong. He told me that I must do these things or he would kick us out of the house. I believed him. I was a kid. Unfortunately, this abusive event marred me further in shame. And my stepfather knew that would happen.

Even with the clear understanding that I was still the victim in this situation, the pain was horrific. It was far worse than the pain of being a rape victim. And so I extrapolate. I imagine the shame of a pedophile. I imagine the intense physical pain that must stay with the pedophile every day. I imagine the defending against the unconscious that must feel like “life or death”.

So when I read about or listen to pedophiles discuss their “disease” and I hear them say they were “born this way” or “there is nothing they can do to change it”, I know why they say it. They would rather be reviled by society for the rest of their lives than face the pain of recovery. And honestly, I think society would rather revile them than help them, so conveniently, it works out for everyone … except the victims … and the overall unconscious health of the human race.

It is amazing how the truth, and the pain that comes with it, can be so scary. It is amazing how an individual would rather accept a life as a societal outcast than face whatever happened in their life that built their shame to such an astronomical level, a level that would generate such an intense need to place their shame anywhere else. It is amazing how jail can seem better than freedom, the kind of freedom that only comes from truth.

If even a small percentage of pedophiles were willing to do the work it took to recover (and could find the support to do it), our collective consciousness would shift so dramatically that we would not recognize our own planet. We would begin to take the human race to a completely new level. Call me an optimist, but I believe it is possible … if we make another choice.


21 thoughts on “The Pain of Shame

  1. Elisabeth,
    Great, candid and insightful post. Your transparency can certainly help a lot of men and women victims. I agree with your statement wholeheartedly, “If even a small percentage of pedophiles were willing to do the work it took to recover (and could find the support to do it), our collective consciousness would shift so dramatically that we would not recognize our own planet. We would begin to take the human race to a completely new level. Call me an optimist, but I believe it is possible … if we make another choice.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe our society, like you say, cares about healing as much as it does reviling. Something I heard about prison inmates is interesting. I understand that prisoners who are not child molesters despise and revile pedophiles and child molesters in prison.


    • That is so true Steven. Many pedophiles are attacked and even killed in prison by other inmates. I think they are considered the lowest of the low. Many pedophiles who have tried to recover have been unable to get help. Granted … most don’t try.


      • I would imagine that a large number of pedophiles would rather live in the shame and guilt rather than deal with the truth and recover. Jesus asked a very probing question to the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda who had been there 38 years and complained that no one would ever carry him to the healing waters of the pool. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” Many, today, I’m afraid, who deal with debilitating diseases and addictions, don’t want to be healed.


  2. It is a interesting view. One that can only come from your forgiveness you’ve given your abuser (if you will allow me to assume this is true). I feel I am an optimist as well and i truly want to move to a point of forgiveness enough to heal myself. I’m working on it daily. This week I made a commitment to move forward in that process. Being able to want healing for the abuser is a thought to consider in the future. Thank you for sharing.


  3. This one was hard to read in a way.
    While I can see where you are coming from to see my perps as victims themselves seems difficult.
    Maybe because of my own anger and unfinished work/forgiveness it makes it hard to accept this.
    I believe whole heartedly that you were in fact a child in that situation and in NO WAY was what you did your fault..
    As for an Adult I don’t know.
    I was told my own parents were just messed up and that they were just hurting ppl but I could never and not sure if I am.ever willing to see them as a victim themselves.
    Please know I am not trying to argue with you about this. . I am just trying to process this all.


    • Your viewpoint is very valid and I completely understand it. While I know for a fact that my parents were victims in their own childhoods, I do NOT admonish them from personal responsibility for what they did. They are NOT innocent of their crimes. Honestly, they should go to jail for what they did. They were responsible to make different choices than their parents once they reached adulthood and they choose to ignore their pain, passing it down to the next generation. That was a choice they made. And they should and will deal with the consequences of that choice. I feel some level of forgiveness and some level of anger toward them. It is certainly a combination which I try to balance so it doesn’t take over my life.


  4. You show great courage and depth of experience in writing this post about the complex issue of the perpetrators own healing. Your own story is extremely moving, including the considerable insight you have gained from your own painful process.
    I agree that it is so important for the collective unconscious for the perpetrators to heal and I understand why it must be so hard to even begin to face these things…enormous courage and integrity is needed.
    I know I too would be extremely sick now if I hadn’t begun to face my own pain from the past and I know my abuser must be, as you explain, in so much pain himself. That doesn’t make me feel victorious, it makes me feel sad.
    I agree with the previous comment that it can be hard to see the perpetrator as a victim. All I know is all of us are on a hard, important path as catalysts and truth-seekers and we all have our own unique contribution where all is valid, each step of the way. I have a full range of emotions regarding my abuser, which are constantly changing and evolving. I do think there is a real need for articles like this one, as well as all the other vital support for victims, and I do believe its possible in the future for huge change to occur both for victims and perpetrators. This gives me hope.
    Thank you for your writings. Thanks for your forum too. I may take part again when I’m stronger.
    Finally…thanks for your honesty and awesome bravery, your intelligence and depth of character. Thanks for reaching us all.


    • Thank you so much Jane. I agree with everything you say here. And I am so glad to hear from you. I love our interactions because our paths are so similar, but I understand your need to go at your pace. And don’t underestimate your own bravery. It takes so much courage to do what you do.


  5. I shied away from dealing with my deepest pain for many years. I suffer from Panic & Anxiety Disorder as well as Depression. I was brought up in a physically abusive home. Children were to be seen & not heard. Punishment for infractions was swift & cruel. I had trouble making & keeping friends because I was ashamed of what was going on in my home. The few friends I did have (I found out later) knew exactly what was going on but felt helpless to do anything to help me, so they went on with their lives whenever I wasn’t around & I always felt left out. I suffered bad breakdowns a number of times where I would seek counselling. As soon as we had dealt with the problem at hand, when they would try to get into my childhood, I would quit & continue living for a while longer, repeat, repeat, repeat. I don’t know if it was because I was finally ready, the particular counsellor or what, but I finally opened up about the abuse I suffered at my parent’s hands. I was in my late 30’s when I finally dealt with this & I had to “divorce” my family for a couple of years to help me get enough space to deal with everything I had stored up. I learned to forgive my family for my own sanity through some understanding of what may have led to their abusive behavior. We did finally repair (somewhat) our family relationship & I took it upon myself to do this because my mother got very sick & I could not have lived with myself if I had let her die without having me in her life. She recovered & they are still going strong 20 years later. Our relationship will never be what I wanted from parents, but it is now something I can live with.


    • Thank you for this comment. You and I definitely had some similarities in our experiences. I did not deal with my abuse until the late 30’s also. I did divorce my family and it will stay that way. I just can’t fathom having unrecovered pedophiles in my children’s lives. If they truly wanted to get better and worked to get better, it might change things, but I am not hopeful that will happen.


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