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Trauma: Blame vs. Responsibility

Updated on February 1, 2013

I work with many people who have suffered trauma at the hands of someone else. It is a horribly common event. It is estimated by the United States Center for Disease Control that 1/5 children will suffer from child abuse by the age of 18. The statistics on rape are that 1/5 women and 1/71 men will suffer rape in their lifetimes, with higher numbers in both genders for acts of sexual coercion. Combat trauma for our nation's veterans is a topic that frequently makes the news these days and it is estimated that 1/6 returning veterans suffers from PTSD.

One of the most common reactions someone experiences after a trauma is shame and self-blame. I’ve had many people tell me that what happened to them is their fault. They live each day with the memory of what happened and the belief that somehow they should have stopped it, no matter how unrealistic that is. This sense of shame and blame often stops them from seeking help and care that could resolve their trauma. I’ve even had people say to me that they don’t want to “be a victim.” They want to take responsibility for themselves, and somehow asking for help in their minds is equated with not taking responsibility. They blame themselves for what happened and refuse to seek help in an effort to “be strong.”

The problem with this way of doing things is that it frequently doesn’t work. Being traumatized by someone else, whether it is emotional, physical or sexual trauma, whether it happens in combat or in day-to-day life, is a profound injury. It is every bit as real an injury as a broken bone or a gunshot wound. In fact, it truly is a physical, brain based injury according to the research data we have on how parts of the brain change their functioning after trauma. Any trauma injury requires some type of care to allow healing to occur. And part of getting that care is sorting out the difference between blame and responsibility, which is a big stumbling block for many people.

The difference between a victim and a survivor is that a survivor acknowledges the need to seek help and to take responsibility for trauma recovery. That’s real strength. Recovery on your own isn’t realistic for most traumas but neither is it realistic to expect that others will heal you without any effort on your part. You can’t and shouldn’t take the blame or responsibility for the actions of the person who hurt you. You can take responsibility for getting the help you need to recover.

Think of it this way. If you were walking down the street, and someone came up with a gun and shot you in the stomach, who is at fault? They are, of course! They did something awful to you, and it is not your fault. You could not have stopped them or prevented the gunshot. You have every right to walk down a street with the expectation of safety. Again, it is not your fault and you are not to blame that someone assaulted you. You can’t take responsibility for their actions. In the same way, if you have been abused, raped, exposed to combat trauma or suffered other kinds of trauma, it is not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not do this to yourself and you could not control the actions of the person who harmed you.

On the other hand, if you have been traumatized, it is your responsibility to seek care and healing. You are the only one who is able to take these actions, so that is the arena in which you can and should assume responsibility. Again, consider the example of someone shooting you. What do you need to do? Well, call an ambulance of course! You don't want to just sit there and bleed to death, saying it's not your fault you were shot. That is true but it won't get you where you need to be. You need to seek help, right away. And then you will need to go through surgery, and endure the pain of getting that wound repaired. And then you will need to follow the doctor’s instructions about how to care for yourself after surgery. And then when you are stabilized, you will need to engage in physical therapy to regain your former functioning. And even though it isn’t your fault you were shot, you are the one who is going to have to do all these things. Other people can help, and you will need them to, but ultimately you must take responsibility for getting yourself well again.

I encourage you to let go of shame and self-blame over your trauma. It happened and it isn’t your fault. Instead, assume responsibility for your own recovery. There are many well researched and very effective treatments for trauma survivors. They all require the help of caring, trained professionals and the full participation of the person who wants to recover. Often a combination of psychotherapy and medication is the most helpful treatment. Avoidance of numbing agents (like alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behavioral) is also necessary. Treatment takes time, so be patient. Seek the care you need and participate fully. You’ll be amazed at how much better your life can be.

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