Shame of past behavior
I am a 43-year-old woman, married with two children and divorced once. I was overzealously disciplined by father (whipped with a belt and verbally abused) not all the time, but enough to know it wasn't right. I sexually experimented with a childhood girlfriend age 9 and with my brother (aged 6) when I was 8.
This is the first time I have ever dared say what I am about to say. I am a 43-year-old woman who as a teenager would baby-sit to make extra money for myself. I love children and have been trying to deal with what I did so many years ago and can't forgive myself for even wanting to forgive myself. As a young girl I felt very unattractive and was shy with boys to the point of almost fainting just thinking about talking to the object of my affection at any given moment. I know this is no excuse for what I did, but I need to know how to let go of the guilt I still feel. As you can probably guess. I fondled some of the children I babysat for. I am sickened by what I did and it sickens me now to even confess this anonymously. This was 30 years ago and still haunts me. I would fondle only the children who couldn't tell on me or who I thought wouldn't remember what I had done, so I knew it was wrong, but didn't stop myself. I have not touched a child in that way since I was 16 and know I never will again. I have been soul searching for many years now and have read many psychological profiles and self help books, but have never run across anything even remotely close to what I did without that person actually becoming an adult pedophile.
I am in a wonderful marriage with two children of my own. And I am not a pedophile. I don't have any sexual desires for children. I don't want to make excuses, but I think I was experimenting not thinking (obviously) how this would all affect them or me in the future and am so mortified by my actions that I can't stop thinking about it. I pray that I have not done permanent damage to any of the children - I often think of finding them and apologizing for what I did, but don't know if that would be productive for them or me. What can I do to get past this or do I even deserve to be past it? I feel like such a bad person, even though I know it would never, ever, happen again. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Dear 'Still Guilty',
For two-thirds of your life you have been a good person. At sixteen years of age you realized that you have done something that is bad, and have been trying to live with the guilt and shame since.
My dear, I also have done things I am ashamed of, though of a very different kind. Everybody has past experiences they would love to be able to undo, if they could.
My response has been to try and learn from my past misdeeds, and to make up for them by spreading a little kindness around. I suspect that you have done the same: I'd be willing to bet that you have led a blameless life from the moment that you realized that fondling little children is a bad thing to do.
Am I right?
I agree with you: what you did as a child may well have had bad effects. Some of those children were possibly scarred by what you did to them. At the time, you were responding to the pressures of your young life: the repressive father, the feelings of shyness and of being ugly, all the many things that made you feel worthless and unlovable. This may explain what you did, but does not excuse it. You are responsible for having done something bad.
But... But you have been beating yourself over the head for this for the past 27 years, and have not done anything reprehensible since, and you have learned a very important lesson from the experience. You are RESPONSIBLE, but not GUILTY. You would have a right to feel guilty if you had continued, regardless of the knowledge that you were causing harm. But, as soon as you became adult enough to know this, you stopped.
I would like to distinguish SHAME, GUILT and RESPONSIBILITY. They are different from each other.
Even when you were young, you felt a certain amount of shame, and made sure your activities would not be discovered. It would be right for you to be ashamed still if you had continued to harm children. But you no longer do so, haven't done so for nearly 30 years.
You are NOT the girl who did those things. She is in your past, and because she is, you are now a better person than you would otherwise be. It was right for her to be ashamed. It is no longer necessary for you to be. Oh, given the prejudices of society, I think you are wise to keep quiet about this blot on your past. I suggest you continue to keep it a secret, not because you the adult needs to be ashamed, but because you don't need to live with other people's prejudices, preconceptions and hasty judgments.
Guilt has served you well. Once you were old enough to feel guilt, it goaded you into stopping your damaging activity. And it has been with you all this time, steering you always towards the right path. Your habits of a lifetime, the person you are, have been shaped by your guilt.
Those habits are now well established. You are what you are, and you no longer need to suffer to stay that way. My dear, please give yourself permission to let go of the guilt. You no longer need it.
It is clear from your question that you realize: you still have a responsibility. You need to make atonement, and then you will feel at peace.
Hunting up those children is not a good idea, even if you can manage it. They are in your past. Leave them there. Finding them and apologizing could do more harm than good, as you yourself have mentioned.
I suggest you do a certain kind of volunteer work, and if it turns into a vocation, you might attend courses and start a new profession. And don't tell me you are too old, at only 43!
Exactly what you might try will depend on your local resources (I don't even know what country you live in) and on your personal tastes and strengths. Here are some possibilities:
- If your husband and children agree, foster a child whose home circumstances are currently unbearable.
- Train as a volunteer phone counselor for 'Life Line', 'Crisis Line', 'Samaritans', 'Suicide Line' or whatever your local service is called.
- Become a volunteer youth worker, helping the teenagers of today deal with their demons.
- Offer your help to the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul or another charity organization.
- Be a regular visitor to a women's prison.
I could go on, but you'll get the idea.
I am a good helper because I have suffered myself, because I know all too well that I am not perfect. I do not feel myself to be superior to you, but your equal. For exactly the same reason, you will make a very good helper to other people in trouble. You know how they feel, and accept them for what they are, without judgment. After all, you've been there yourself.
And maybe now you can change your name from 'Still Guilty' to something more positive. If you have read this reply, please email me and tell me what the new name is.
And have a good life. It is possible.
This question was answered by Dr. Bob Rich. Dr. Rich has 30+ years of experience as a psychotherapist. Dr. Rich is also a writer and a "mudsmith". Bob is now retired from psychological practice, but still works with people as a counselor.For more information visit: http://anxietyanddepression-help.com