After working with sexual assault survivors, one of the most common themes that arises is guilt. Survivors feel guilt for not stopping an assault when they believe they could have, guilt for not pressing charges, guilt for pressing charges, guilt for putting this emotional burdon on their loved ones, guilt for disrupting the family when disclosing that a relative has been abusive.
When seeking counseling to work through an assault, guilt is usually a large topic that is addressed through a variety of methods. But one important first step is to recognize the kind of guilt you have (Grohol, 2007).
Grohol breaks this step down into “healthy guilt” and “unhealthy guilt.” Healthy guilt involves a situation when you know you have acted inappropriately, like when you’ve had that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, day” and the straw that breaks the camel’s back is when the barista makes you an iced latte rather than the hot one that you requested and you explode, telling them that their job can’t be that hard. As you storm out of your local coffee shop and climb into your car, you feel terribly about speaking to a person in that way and you contemplate finding a new place to get your mid-day caffeine fix. Basically, it’s the mind telling us that our behaviors need to be changed.
Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, is when you have the same emotional reactions of self-blame, but your behavior isn’t something that needs to be reexamined. This is where the guilt experienced by a sexual assault survivor would be classified. Many survivors feel as though their actions somehow contributed to the assault taking place: they didn’t fight back, they had been drinking, or maybe they had previously had consentual sex with the offender. However, a person should be able to act in any way they choose without expecting to be assaulted; therefore, the survivor’s behaviors never need to be reexamined.
While guilt is a common reaction among sexual assault survivors, an important step in processing the assault is to understand that your actions, regardless of what they were, did not cause it.