The first thing you need to know is that self-blame is really common. And it can be confusing. Because even when we know rationally that the harassment wasn’t our fault, emotionally we can still feel like it was.
If you’re experiencing self-blame, here are things you might be thinking:
- It’s my fault it happened.
- I must have said or done something to give them the impression I would be okay with this.
- There’s something wrong with me, because they picked me.
- People can tell there’s something about me that makes it safe to harass me.
- This is my fault, because it’s happened to me before.
- I should have known better.
- If I hadn’t (stayed late/laughed at their jokes/worn that outfit) none of this would have happened.
These thoughts might make you feel embarrassed, guilty, upset with yourself, or ashamed. But we want to be clear that you did not deserve to be sexually harassed. This is true regardless of what you wear, how you look, how much money you make, where you work, what you do, or anything else.
You did not deserve what happened to you. It was not your fault.
Even so, sometimes we do blame ourselves. To move past that, it can help to understand why we’re doing it.
It’s not your fault
It’s common to wonder what it was about you that caused the sexual harassment.
The truth is the person who harassed you was most likely going to harass somebody. It’s very rare for someone to only sexually harass one person, one time. The person probably harassed other people before you, and they will probably harass more people in the future.
It’s really important to know there’s nothing specific about you that makes you deserving of harassment.
Sexual harassment is incredibly common, and all kinds of people get harassed. Younger people and older people. People who dress modestly and people who don’t. People who are conventionally attractive and people who aren’t. People who are religious and people who aren’t. People who behave the way society expects them to and people who don’t.
Seriously: It’s not about you. It’s not about who you are or what you’ve done.
That’s easy to say, but for a lot of us, it can take a while to truly accept it. Keep reading to understand some more reasons why we struggle with blaming ourselves.
You can’t control other people
After a harmful experience, your brain looks for ways to prevent it from happening again. Even when it’s something you can’t control, like what someone else does, your brain looks for ways you can protect yourself.
Subconsciously, you might be thinking: “If I can figure out what I did to cause this, then I can avoid doing that so this awful thing won’t happen again.”
Imagine if you tripped and hurt yourself. You might go over what you were doing before that. Say, you realize that you were running or not looking where you were going and that’s what led to you falling down. So in the future, you slow down and look more carefully to keep from tripping again.
But things aren’t always in your control. Being sexually harassed is less like you were running and tripped and more like someone pushed you. Replaying everything you did or didn’t do doesn’t actually help you to prevent it from happening again.
It wasn’t something you did
Maybe you dated the person, flirted with them, or had sex with them before. Maybe you knew or suspected that they had a history of being inappropriate with others. Maybe you’ve always looked up to this person, considered them a friend, a mentor, or someone who’s helped you a lot in the past. Maybe it’s happened more than once.
Maybe when it happened you didn’t know how to react so you didn’t say anything. Maybe after it happened you acted overly nice to the person or reassured them it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe the person isn’t the kind of person we think a harasser is: they’re someone really respected in society or more attractive than you or physically smaller or female. So you or others have a hard time believing that person could hurt you. Maybe you really like the person for other reasons and feel torn about seeing them as someone who’s hurt you.
It’s important to know that it’s not unusual if your situation feels more complicated—in fact, that’s the more common situation. The majority of sexual harassment cases involve some kind of complication.
Often the person who sexually harassed you uses those complications to confuse you, to deny it happened, or to convince themselves or others that what they did was okay.
But the truth is they harassed you.
Why people sometimes don’t believe you
It’s possible that, after you experience sexual harassment, someone you tell minimizes, dismisses, or flat-out doesn’t believe you when you tell them what happened.
The person you tell may ask you what you did, what you wore, or how you responded, implying that this was somehow because of you. That makes it even harder to not feel responsible.
Why do people question you or not believe you? There can be lots of reasons.
- They may be surprised or in shock.
- They may be unable to believe that you could be hurt.
- They may be unable to think that someone they trust or respect would harass another person.
- They may want to protect the person who harassed you or the company where you work.
- They may have an idea of what counts (and what doesn’t count) as sexual harassment. Like, they may assume it can only happen if the person is physically violent.
- They may think you must have done something to cause or deserve it.
We are slowly getting better at changing those reactions, but there’s still a strong assumption that somehow sexual harassment is avoidable.
What can help
- It can be helpful to realize why our brain replays over (and over and over) why we think it was our fault. Remember that, even if your brain is able to identify something you could have done differently, that’s not the same thing as you being the one who caused the harassment.
- Remember that, at the time, you might not have known everything that you now know. Even if there are certain things you would change now, at the time you likely didn’t have all the information to know what to do or what not to do.
- Ask yourself: “How would I feel if a close friend was in my situation instead of me?” Would you place the same level of blame on them? Or would you feel more patient or protective? Many people find it easier to be understanding with a friend than they are with themselves. For the same reasons you wouldn’t blame a friend after they were sexually harassed, you also don’t deserve that blame.
- Remember that the harassment doesn’t define you or your self-worth. This is something that happened to you. This is something that can have a big impact on you. But this was not because of you. The sexual harassment is entirely because of the person who harassed you.
- Talk to someone who is understanding and supportive. Explain to them how asking certain questions may make you feel blamed and clarify how they can better support you. A lot of the time, we just need someone who will listen and make an effort to understand. If it’s hard to find someone in your life who can do this, consider speaking to a counsellor, therapist, or health care worker who has experience in working with people around sexual harassment. If it’s difficult to access professional help, consider calling a helpline.