The majority of adults who grew up with domestic violence feel immense shame and guilt as adults. Yet it can take time before we recognize that the source of our shame can often stem from feeling helpless as a child amid the violence at home, and somehow also responsible for causing it.
The good news is that we can do something about this as adults, and we can free ourselves from the shame and unlearn the lies.
First, however, it’s important to understand the gravity of our suffering and how it affected us as children. Without taking ownership of our past, we cannot hope to create a different future.
Here let’s explore how does growing up with domestic violence leads us to feel shame, and how that shame or guilt might still be affecting us today as adults.
In researching my book Invincible, it became clear that living with domestic violence is physically and emotionally devastating, and that pain often stays with a child long into adulthood and often with dire consequences.
These silent witnesses are the “forgotten victims of violence in the home,” according to the UNICEF report, “Behind Closed Doors.”
These same children, because they are often witnesses to violence they cannot stop or prevent, grow into adults who feel immense shame, guilt and resentment—toward themselves as well as toward their parents or caregivers.
This unrelenting shame leads to higher levels of depression, trauma-related symptoms, and lower self-esteem. A sizable body of research has conclusively proved that childhood domestic violence—either observing or experiencing chronic, uncontrollable violence in the home as a child—causes cognitive and emotional damage that goes much deeper and lasts much longer than we ever previously suspected.
The chronic exposure to the stress of living in a violent home changes the neural architecture of a child’s developing brain. It significantly impairs regions that are essential for learning, memory, and the regulation of emotions. It actually lowers IQ and slows development.
In fact, prolonged exposure to domestic violence is no different from what soldiers experience in military combat, but because it’s happening to a child whose brain is still developing, the results are often more traumatic and lasting.
A 2011 Senate hearing on the subject found that childhood exposure to domestic violence actually “changes who they are.” David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, told me, “It’s virtually impossible for these children to realize their full potential as adults, unless they unlearn what was learned.”
In December 2012, the Department of Justice released its “Report of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence,” a groundbreaking study that has gone further than any other study by a government agency to acknowledge the scale and long-reaching effects of living with domestic violence.
The report notes, “Living with domestic violence burdens children with a sense of loss and profound guilt and shame because of their mistaken assumption that they should have intervened to prevent the violence or tragically because they caused it.”
While the price of growing up with domestic violence can appear to be quite high, we can take heart in the fact that as adults we can undo the damage we suffered. We can unlearn the shame.
Please share in the comments below: Have you ever experienced a chronic sense of shame or guilt? How have you learned to overcome these feelings, and do you believe there is another truth for you now?