Effects of abuse, part 3
By Paul Irby Special to the Abilenian
Posted February 4, 2009 at 1:08 p.m.
This third article in the series of six reflects what can be called a continuation of a chain reaction beginning with the cognitive impacts discussed last month, which lead to the emotional experiences discussed in this article. The most common emotional experiences a sexually abused child encounters include fear, anxiety, anger, guilt and shame.
Fear and anxiety are closely related emotions. Many of their physiological and psychological experiences are identical. Fears and anxieties experienced by an abused child can be specific to gender, age range, status or race. When these fears are category-specific it is most likely tied to associations with the abuser. Fears and anxieties can also be more broad and general. Common generalized fears of abused children include the fear of their secret being found out, being rejected by peers and being emotionally vulnerable which would ultimately lead to being betrayed by someone else.
I recall working with a 23-year-old man who had been sexually abused by his mother from the age of 6 until the age of 21. One of the main reasons for his desire to seek therapy was “feeling angry all the time.”
I explained to my client that when I hear someone make such an assertion that my mind immediately returns to what I know to be the nature of anger. Anger is a secondary emotion. Quite literally, what that means is that anger is what we feel second in the sequence of emotional experience. Most often what is felt first is some kind of fear. This is only true of genuine anger, not frustration or irritation.
Think back to your own experience of being cut off in traffic. We can easily identify the feelings of anger toward that driver and our subsequent desires to express that anger. If someone were to ask you how you felt after being cut off, you would probably frame this experience as one that prompted anger. However, if we were to trace back the very first emotional experience, it would be one of fear. For the driver, it is the fear that the vehicle or self might be hurt, and the fear quickly manifests itself into anger. So, when I heard my client contend that he was “angry all the time,” we began a discussion of what fears are present that lead to his consistent feelings of anger. In reality one who has been abused, who walks around angry “all the time,” is living with pervasive fear. Anger was the way in which this person chose to protect himself from the fears becoming a reality.
Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably in our language, but an important distinction was made to me by one of my wise clients. He defined guilt as “believing you did something bad” and shame as “believing you are a bad person.” When considered in the framework of one who was sexually abused as a child, this is one of the biggest lies he or she can believe. While much of our society can look from the outside in to another’s experience and logically make a case finding fault in the abused child’s reactions or responses, these outsiders are wrong. Often they will say things like, “well you shouldn’t have kept it a secret so long,” not recognizing the power of intimidation, fear and humiliation that maintains the secret. Abusers use sick “logic” to rationalize abuse, claiming that the child “flirted” with them or “wanted it as much as they did.” These abusers fail to recognize their humane responsibility as adults to the welfare of children, and often confuse affection for sexual advancement.
Survivors of abuse will internalize these inaccurate beliefs that result in feelings of guilt and shame. Children should never be blamed for abuse perpetrated against them.
Paul Irby, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor with the Ministry of Counseling and Enrichment. Mental Health Matters is facilitated by the Mental Health Association in Abilene.
The original article can be found here: