Archive for Guilt

The Non-Offending Parent

How do you tell your non-offending parent that you were abused?  Here’s one survivor’s letter to her father. Names have been blocked out to assure her privacy.

 Could you write to the person who should have protected you and didn’t?

Remember, you don’t have to mail the letter. Carefully writing it, editing and re-editing, can be healing.

Questions you probably ask yourself:

Was that parent aware and doing nothing?

How could the non-offending parent allow this to go on right under his/her nose?

Was that parent abused himself/herself, which might account for why he/she didn’t notice? (That is, dissociated.)

Let me know your thoughts on my questions.

Your comments are welcome. So are your letters.


“Dear Dad:

 The time has come for me to disclose something to you and I do not want to do it over the phone.  I had tried on two different occasions to talk to you about this deep dark secret, but I could not bring myself to open up to you. 

I remember you were complaining about Mom only serving us cereal for breakfast every morning during the week and you thought that was crazy.  You felt that we should have had a better breakfast.  I have to admit I agree with you 100% as I remember she used to beat me every morning to eat my breakfast.  To be honest I don’t think you knew anything about the beatings because you were getting ready for work.   You see by the time you came out of your bedroom into the kitchen to have your coffee I had already left the table to get dressed for school and she had already put away the belt that she used to hit me with.  You may think this is the deep dark secret I want to tell you but the answer is no.

Anyway Dad, I should get to the point of my letter.  Dad, I want to let you know that I was sexually abused by *** (Mom’s youngest brother).   The sexual abuse started at a very young age.  I believe I was about five years old or younger I don’t remember the exact age.  The sexual abuse continued all the way up to when I left *** for good and even when you sent me a ticket to come home for a visit every year.   I believe everything came to an end not until I was about 26 years old as I was able to find my voice and told him to stop touching me.  He still tried to continue this behaviour even when I told him to stop but I was strong enough then to fight him off and I ensured I was never alone when he was around.

I have to admit to you this is quite hard disclosing this information to you.  I am not sure how you are responding to this letter but at the moment for me I am nauseated just writing about my sexual abuse.  I am also shaking inside and once again I feel a migraine headache coming on.  I don’t know if you remember how I used to suffer regularly with migraine headaches when I was quite small like from the age six years old.  I know in those days we did not call it migraine headaches it was just a very bad headache and both you and Mom could not understand the reason why I had the headaches so frequently.

The sexual abuse used to take place at Granny’s and Pop’s place when you and Mom would go out for the evening and leave us there to spend the night at their place.  There were many times I went to school crying inside of me because I was too afraid to tell someone.  No, *** never threatened me not to say anything.  He always told me I was being a good little girl because I allowed him to fondle me.   . 

Dad I am guessing you will be quite angry at *** and I believe that may be another reason I withheld this information from you.  Besides wanting to protect you I believe you may lose your anger on *** and may have wanted to kill him.  Now that he has passed away I feel this is the right time for me to disclose this information to you. 

Dad I just want to let you know, you are the best father I could ever ask for.  You know I always looked up to you and you always encouraged me to fulfil (sic) my dreams.  You were the one who always wanted what’s best for me.

With all my love your daughter.”


Recently I received this email on the subject of forgiveness:

“Mary, I think it was you who said that she was sexually abused by her father, and you eventually, forgave him. I don’t believe I’d be able to forgive him if he did that to me. Can you please tell me how you managed to come to forgiving him? I will be very grateful if you tell me, as I have had a hard time forgiving someone who drugged me and used me for money.”

As a start I sent her this message in an email:

“Forgiveness (in my mind) is about settling the hate and rage that clog up our own body energy. Forget about the perpetrator. What matters is the victim. I don’t want to carry around the awful feelings of hate for the perpetrator. That would harm me, not the perpetrator. What do I need to do to free myself of the ugly emotions?”

She wrote back:

“The reason I sent you the email is that I have always thought – maybe wrongly – that by holding onto the anger I am giving myself some power over my abuser. I was emotionally abused by my mentally ill brother since age five. He stopped abusing after I rebelled against him, but that was after twenty-seven years of inflicting emotional pain on me. Sometimes I feel confused. I heard that if I don’t feel anger then I don’t have a sense of justice. I thought the kind of abuse you suffered is something only God can forgive.”

Here’s what I think:

Simply deciding to forgive doesn’t work. Nothing has happened to make things better for the survivor. The inner work has not been done to release the wounded person from the shame, hatred and sense of betrayal. I call this process skipping. Healing may take years. It’s not an act of willing to forgive.

In a perfect situation the perpetrator would come to understand the harm he or she has caused and feel remorse. Then the perpetrator would ask for forgiveness. This could lead to true forgiveness. Unless the perpetrator acknowledges the harm done and apologizes, the only person suffering is the victim. The victim’s anger does nothing to hurt the perpetrator.

What matters to me is the way the victim carries the traumatic memory. What really matters is attending to one’s own shame, pain and sense of betrayal. However you choose to do that –through psychotherapy, bodywork or whatever – it’s your wellbeing that matters.


Guilt: a useless emotion

Years ago, Dr. Eugene Gendlin, my psychological mentor, told me that guilt is a useless emotion. “It doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said. “It just makes you feel bad.”

I pondered that for a long time. Wasn’t guilt what normal, decent people experience when they’ve betray their own sense of fair play? When they cheat or lie? Would I be responsible and reliable without my guilty conscience?

Back in those days, I wasn’t aware of feeling shame. Later, I learned that shame is the last emotion we become aware of. In fact, shame is such an uncomfortable feeling that psychology has only recently studied it. Most people squirm at the thought of studying their own shame.

Since shame is the inevitable outcome of child abuse, it seems important to get a handle on it. But what’s the difference between shame and guilt?

Guilt is in response to something we have done. Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are. There is something innately defective or wrong with us.

That means that we can do something about guilt. We can make amends, change our behaviour or apologize.

Maybe that’s what Dr. Gendlin meant – that we don’t have to carry our guilt with us. Maybe the message is this: Do whatever you need to do and drop your guilt.

What do you think? Please let me know by writing a comment in the space provided below.