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Self-Blame and Unraveling the Complications When a Perpetrator is a Mother

In therapy recently I found that it was much easier to blame myself and believe that I was bad for the abuse my mother had done to me than it was to believe that she was responsible for the abuse she had done. I felt extreme fear as I transferred the responsibility from myself onto her shoulders. It was a terrifying exchange; one that was met first with disbelief, then tears and sobbing.

It was one thing to deal with the physical and sexual abuse my father had done; then the abuse by a priest and a nun, and German Nazi scientists who had done medical experimentation and mind control projects. Dealing with the abuse that had been done to me by my mother meant feeling the utter despair of abandonment, letting go of the fantasy that I had a loving caring mom, and the horror of the fault being mine that I had taken on as a way to cope to survive; the belief that it was all my fault and that I was to blame.  I had been completely abandoned by all the adults in my life as a young child. The startling truth was that my mother who was supposed to be a source of love, protection, nurturing, and safety was a monster capable of harm.

As I was feeling the intense feelings of blame shifting off of me and onto my mother it didn’t help to try to understand the intricate dynamics of abuse and the profound impact on a child’s psyche, or how a child is wired to seek attachment and connection with their primary caregivers nor the mechanism used by young children as a coping skill. I was in a state of emotional flooding which was overriding all of my cognitive processes. My focus shifted towards my need for validation and taking some deep breaths as I went into the memory of being put in a bathtub of water and intaking water as she pushed me under the surface. I hung onto my brown stuffed teddy bear for comfort. I knew that I would gradually work toward a more reflective understanding as I processed what it meant for me to not be guilty. I felt shame lift some but still felt like hiding. I felt the need and total dependency that I had on my mother as the small little girl that I was. To preserve the bond that I had to have for survival I internalized the belief that I was the cause of all she had done to me to maintain some semblance of attachment to my mother.

Children are remarkably adaptive and accepting blame gives them a sense of control in a chaotic, and unpredictable environment. Self-blame is a survival strategy. It became a way for me to make sense of the world and rationalize the actions of my mother. Guilt was also instilled when I was told that I was bad and when she told my dad and brothers and sisters when they got home from work and school that I was bad on the days that I was able to escape her by hiding in a closet all day. Guilt became a powerful force that shaped my self-image and reinforced the belief that somehow I deserved the mistreatment and that I was the cause of the abuse. I was 66 years old and had carried this heavy burden into adulthood. Unraveling who was to blame was necessary for me to heal. It has impacted my sense of self, my self-esteem, my overall well-being, and my relationships.

How was I to undo these ingrained beliefs about myself? It’s not like I can just say, “Ok, I wasn’t to blame”, These beliefs I carried about myself were so strong like they were a part of my very identity. It was as if this is who I am. I am to blame. Loud and clear had I heard that and lived that out. I had carried shame for so long it was as if it was my middle name. I needed to affirm to the child that I was that she was not to blame without judging her for taking it all on for so long. She felt like she was stupid for believing it all now that she knew the reality of our situation. Realizing that the abuse was never my fault gave me a little relief. Accepting and believing that truth would take a while. I accepted the truth a little bit today. Maybe tomorrow I can accept it some more. I also knew at a deep level that connecting with healthy friends and people that could support me was needed to break the isolation that I lived with regularly and that I needed to give myself compassion. Maybe I could even have a healthier relationship with myself. I remember reading the John Bradshaw book “The Shame That Binds Us” and thinking about how much shame I had let go of back in the 1990s. I realize that letting go of shame, blame, and guilt is a continual process. Breaking free of the patterns and distorted perceptions we carry requires time, support, and a commitment to our healing journey. By reclaiming our narrative, rebuilding our sense of self, and developing a future free from the shackles of shame and blame we can take responsibility only for what we truly have control over now; our choices as an adult. My mother was responsible for what she did to me. Making that statement feels very empowering even though I am still feeling the aftermath of the intense emotions that I was feeling just 15 minutes ago. Maybe as I say the words aloud, the knowledge will permeate into the deep levels of my psyche until every part of me believes it and replaces the lie that I was to blame with the truth that I was not to blame for what my mother did to me.

My mother was responsible for what she did to me. Yet the question still lingers; How does one undo such deeply rooted convictions about oneself? Affirming that the abuse was never my fault provides a glimpse of relief, and with time, support, and self-compassion, I aim to break free from the blame, guilt, and shame. As I uttered the empowering truth that my mother was responsible for her actions and that I was not to blame I heard the echoes from my past still linger, yet the commitment to my healing journey remains and I will persist and not buckle by the weight of the past beliefs. I survived. My mother didn’t destroy me. It was a moment of triumph as I reclaimed the girl that I had left behind. She and I would build a future free from the heavy weight of blame, the shackles of shame, and the condemnation of false guilt, step by courageous step.

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