Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com
Self-Blame: Abuse, Misogyny and Shame
Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.
Last year the Chicago theatrical community witnessed the demise of Profiles Theatre, a company led by people who reportedly abused actors on a regular basis and finally got called out on their behavior. In the piece I wrote at the time, I tried to explain how the artistic director allegedly managed to verbally, sexually and physically victimize actors without retribution for years. He was seemingly able to create situations where actors would experience a double bind, a “damned if you stay, damned if you leave” conundrum that forced too many people to submit to his abuse. Actors stayed because the circumstances were often traumatizing, and trauma causes humans to lose the ability to think and act rationally.
One issue I did not explore in detail at the time is the tendency for people to blame themselves when they are under the kind of duress that’s caused by feeling trapped in an untenable or threatening situation. From stalking and verbal harassment to rape and domestic violence, victims far too often believe they are responsible for the other person’s damaging behavior. Why do we blame ourselves when we are the victims of verbal or physical violence?
Anyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can be the object of mistreatment. However, despite controversies regarding the exact statistics, women and those identifying as LGBTQ are far more likely to suffer all varieties of abuse than cisgender, heterosexual men. In addition, men more often blame other people or environmental factors for their suffering than women do. Recent neuroscience research has suggested that women are more “internalizing” than men, which means that they are more likely to believe that a problem lies within themselves rather than in the outside world; i.e. they blame themselves for the bad behavior of other people. One result of this is higher rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders in women than men. Since men are generally more “externalizing,” they are more prone to react with uncontrolled anger, aggression, poor impulse control and substance abuse.
Psychologically, self-blame can be the result of low self-esteem, feelings of disempowerment and a history of trauma. The present abuse may activate whatever survival mechanisms the person used to try to protect herself earlier in her life. Common strategies include denying that the problem exists and assuming that the abuse is your fault. Blaming yourself for actions that are objectively outside of your control is an attempt to feel that you have power when you really don’t.
From a social perspective, there’s one over-arching, malignant, relentless phenomenon that’s responsible for self-blame in women: misogyny. Patriarchy is alive and well in the 21st Century and it continues to guarantee the political, economic and social hegemony of the male portion of our species. The most insidious aspect of male supremacy is internalized sexism, a powerful factor in the formation of the psyches of our society’s women. Girls are too often brought up to be submissive, polite and non-confrontational. They are socialized to put a far higher value on physical attractiveness than autonomy or assertiveness. They are brainwashed into believing that they have to ‘redeem themselves’ by putting others’ needs above their own (via caretaking, being quiet, sexual availability, etc.). The culturally sanctioned denigration of girls and young women all but guarantees that they will hold themselves accountable for anything and everything that happens to them.
One infuriatingly common example of misogyny is the ‘she was asking for it’ trope regarding rape. The sexual violence is devastating by itself; the devaluation and victim blaming promulgated by our culture add an incalculable layer of trauma. Even your friends and family may blame you for getting sexually assaulted and, worst of all, you may blame yourself.
Self-Blame and Shame
The quintessential psychological result of misogyny is the feeling of shame that so many women experience. (Men also experience shame, but for different reasons and with different consequences). Shame may be defined as the painful consciousness that one is inherently inadequate, evil, contemptible and unworthy. It may include feelings of humiliation, chagrin, impropriety and incompetence. If guilt is the feeling that one has committed a bad act, shame is the belief in the certainty that one is a bad person. If you were raised to believe that you’re inherently inferior based solely on your gender, of course you would be more likely to accept the blame for whatever maltreatment you suffer. You would expect to be treated poorly and to feel that you deserve it.
Trauma: Thinking vs. Feeling“
“Wait a second,” you may be thinking. “I know I’m not inferior. I know that verbal or physical abuse is wrong and that the perpetrator is to blame. I’m not a victim!” Yes, good for you! That means you have a healthy, well-adjusted self and that your cerebral cortex (the home of higher brain functions like thought) is operating within normal parameters. From a rational perspective, most people understand basic interpersonal boundaries and are able to make logical judgments about who’s responsible when one person deliberately harms another.
However, if you find yourself in the midst of a threatening situation, there’s a very good chance that what you feel will be quite different from what you think. When you’re intimidated by someone’s words or behavior, your ability to think rationally is drastically reduced. Your cerebral cortex is overridden by the sudden activation of your amygdala, the center of the brain’s limbic system, which is tasked with keeping the organism (aka you) safe. The limbic system bears the imprint of our earliest, most primal experiences. When you feel under attack, this ancient part of the brain takes over and causes your system to revert to the most fundamental survival impulses, some endogenous, some learned.
Hard cut back to the actors at Profiles. Those folks most likely didn’t think they were inferior or unworthy. They didn’t think of themselves as victims. And yet they behaved the way people who are being traumatized by abuse behave. They felt and acted the way you might if you were being stalked, harassed or attacked.
It is my sincere hope that no one reading this piece has ever been the victim of any form of harassment or violence. Sadly, I know that’s impossible. If you have been the target of verbal, physical or sexual abuse, I hope that you have received the help you need and deserve in order to heal. Know that whatever you’ve suffered was NEVER your fault.
Bill Harrison is a contributing writer for PerformInk who’s past INNER MISSION articles can be found by clicking here.