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Overcoming Shame: It Wasn’t Your Fault

Erica* had a lot going for her. She had a good job, a solid group of friends, and was engaged to be married.

One night, after having some drinks with friends, Erica accepted a ride home with Mark.

Mark walked Erica to the door, then pushed his way in and raped her.

After the sheer terror of the assault had passed, Erica sat sobbing. Despite having done nothing wrong, she felt an intense sense of shame.

She questioned herself: why did I stay out so late? Why did I take a ride from a guy I barely knew? If I hadn’t had that last drink, I could have fought back more. The more she thought about it, the more she blamed herself, and the deeper her sense of shame grew. She didn’t tell anyone, because in the end she had convinced herself that the rape was her fault.

Shame is a deep sense of having done something that goes against a person’s set of internal values. When a person does something wrong and feels badly about it, shame can push them to take responsibility for their actions. This is a good thing. But there is another kind of shame that I call ‘false shame,’ which isn’t good or useful.

False shame is felt by someone who has done no wrong, but feels ashamed anyway.

False shame is damaging. People who are victims won’t report crimes because they feel responsible. Often people who are saddled with shame become severely depressed, even suicidal.

When people hold on to shame that isn’t real, they call themselves names, like stupid, foolish, ignorant, weak. They criticize themselves and put themselves down. They become their own assailants.

Sadly, carrying around false shame is not uncommon.

If this is something you’ve experienced, know that it doesn’t have to be this way. It may feel like you’ve become so entrenched in hating and blaming yourself that you’re in a hole too great to dig out of.

There is hope.

Step back, and look at your situation with new eyes. Allow yourself to feel compassion. Give yourself permission to grieve, to hurt. It can be scary to recognize that you were vulnerable or powerless.

Remind yourself that you are in a different place in your life now. You don’t have to carry the shame anymore, because it’s not your shame.

Feeling shame does not equate guilt.

Shame is a strong emotion, but it doesn’t have to be overpowering or permanent.

It may be frightening to recognize your own vulnerability, and to realize that the hurt you feel wasn’t your fault. But it can lead to healing, growth and strength.

Give yourself the gift of compassion and understanding. Give yourself the gift of truth.

Hold your head high and release yourself, free yourself, from pain that isn’t yours to bear.

*all identifying information has been changed


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Overcoming Shame: It Wasn’t Your Fault

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2012). Overcoming Shame: It Wasn’t Your Fault. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 23 May 2012
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