The 1997 movie Good Will Hunting is one of my favorite films for a number of reasons. Each of the main characters is deeply flawed, lonely, fearful, and trying desperately to mask the pain that envelops them.
Among the numerous powerful and poignant scenes in the film is a breakthrough moment in the relationship between psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) and his patient; the troubled, underachieving genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon).
We learn in the scene that both patient and therapist survived horrific child abuse. Eventually, Sean says to Will, “Sport, it’s not your fault.” Will plays the macho card and replies, “Yeah, I know.” But Sean persists, repeating, “it’s not your fault.” Will is cocky and grows annoyed, even agitated, but Sean doesn’t back off. Finally, Will breaks down sobbing, grabs onto Sean, and holds him tightly.
Why? Because even though he never admitted it, even to himself, Will Hunting believed the abuse and neglect he suffered was indeed his fault. And Sean knew it only too well because he languished in that same morass himself for too many years.
When I finally told my wife that I had been sexually abused as a boy, one of the first things she said to me was, “It’s not your fault.” Those four words are uttered countless times by therapists, counselors, law enforcement, doctors, parents, partners, and clergy to anyone and everyone who admits to being victimized by any kind of abuse.
Until I dug down into the issue of fault and self-blame I never understood why people said these words. Of course, what happened wasn’t my fault. It would be absurd to think it was. But, that’s my logical brain talking. That’s just what’s at the surface.
It’s much different deep down inside where many of us believe an unspoken false narrative; yes it was our fault. We’re weak, worthless, evil, defective, complicit, not good enough, a failure. Intellectually, we know better, but deep down in our gut, we ignore the truth to suffer the lie.
In their book, Not Quite Healed, Cecil Murphey and Gary Roe quote an unidentified therapist who articulates this sad and paradoxical phenomenon: “The thing that I see repeatedly with sexual abuse survivors is that they’re sure they must have done something wrong for this to have happened to them. When something bad transpires, they assume they’ve failed to do the proper thing, and many of them spend the rest of their lives trying to be right.”
That was true of me and its true for many other survivors of sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. So, why do we feel this way? What is the root cause?
I believe the culprit is shame; toxic shame. At some point in our youth, we got the message that we were not good enough. Maybe it was the hurtful and unrelenting words of a parent, a coach, a teacher, or other kids. Maybe it was unspoken; an attitude, a look, a sigh. Maybe we failed to live up to the unreasonable expectations of someone or of ourselves.
Whatever the reason, the impact is profound. Shame can actually set us up for a cycle of systemic abuse. “If you conclude that you must be a terrible person you start expecting other people to treat you horribly,” writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score. “You probably deserve it, and anyway, there is nothing you can do about it. When disorganized people carry self-perceptions like these, they are set up to be traumatized by subsequent experiences.”
Females who level sexual assault allegations against a male perpetrator are often forced to endure a barrage of castigation and innuendo. What were you wearing? How many drinks did you have? Why were you there? Are you sexually promiscuous? Did you clearly state you did not want to have sex?
This secondary assault seeps into the survivor’s unconscious and eats away at logic. Maybe my skirt was too short. Maybe I did drink too much. Maybe, deep down, I really did want to have sex with him. Maybe… it was my fault.
Survivors begin to doubt themselves and that’s when shame swoops in to make the kill. According to research professor Brené Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” That’s why whatever happened to me was indeed my fault. I am flawed and unworthy.
And, that’s how it works. In spite of the evidence, some of us sometimes blame ourselves.
“The central issue that needs to be addressed,” according to Dr. van der Kolk, “is usually self-blame — accepting that the trauma was not their fault, that it was not caused by some defect in themselves, and that no one could ever have deserved what happened to them.”
But instead, we say to ourselves: If I had just gone straight home after the event. If I had only said or done, or not said or done, this or that. I should have been more careful. If I wasn’t such a useless person this wouldn’t have happened. This was payback for something I did. God is punishing me for my sins.
Sadly, we can always talk ourselves into believing that we are to blame for our own misfortune. That’s the essence of toxic shame.
We may not admit our shame to anyone, maybe not even to ourselves, but the belief is still festering inside of us wreaking havoc on our psyche, our relationships, and even our health. But it’s wrong; dead wrong, and only we can absolve ourselves of our feigned guilt by scratching beneath the surface to find the truth.
So, like the fictional Robin Williams character, we must persist and dig deeper. Look beneath the mask and penetrate the armor. Cut through the layers of defense and get to the heart. That’s when and where the process of healing can begin.