Taking Life Back After Sexual Trauma

Taking Life Back After Sexual Trauma

While most of my blogs stay gender-neutral, this writing might have a strong slant toward a female audience.  Sexual abuse affects both genders and needs to be addressed for all children.  That said, it does seem to be more prevalent for little girls.  And the impact it has on girls as a population is devastating.  It shows in the body as chronic illness and pain caused by unexpressed emotions of shame, fear and grief.  It shows in relationship through all forms of domestic violence and codependence.  It shows through wage gaps and unfulfilled purposes and careers.  There is no aspect of life that is not permeated by the effects of sexual abuse.

But why?  So many of us leave abusive homes and believe we have escaped our trauma.  I remember leaving for college, and although I didn’t remember my abuse, I was hopeful that things would be different, that I could finally live a happy, undisturbed life.  But as most of you already know, that didn’t happen.  It wasn’t going to happen.  And it doesn’t happen for any of us after a childhood of sexual abuse.  And it doesn’t make sense.  We do everything it takes to stop the cycle.  We work hard.  We do our best to avoid people like our abusers.  We try to make people happy.  We exhaust ourselves trying to make life better.

But nothing changes.  We go from one bad relationship to another.  We get mistreated by people constantly.  It seems like the entire universe is against us.  With all our efforts to make our external life the best possible life, we have missed one very critical affect of our abuse.  The very thing that saved us in childhood is now destroying our adult lives.  What is that one thing?  Dissociation.  It hides the truth from us as well as everyone else.  It takes the impacts of abuse and pushes them deep inside, so we can cover all the trauma with a bright-colored mask that looks just like the world wants us to look.  Over time, we forget it’s there.  We stop hearing it.  And if we do hear it, we ignore it.

And one of the most devastating aspects of dissociation is the unconscious belief system we hold.  We have “learned” things about how the world works through our traumatic experiences.  And no matter what we say to the outside world, those unconscious beliefs manifest.  Let’s talk about the beliefs I have discovered in myself and others on this healing journey.

  1. My body is my livelihood. I am only good for what my body can provide to another person.  In other words, I am only good for sex.  To make matters worse, if my body ages, or is damaged through the detrimental effects of long-term trauma, I no longer have any value.  This belief has been detrimental to my attempts to establish worth outside of my body.  I have many college degrees.  I have been relatively successful working in teams to implement projects in corporate America.  But any time I have attempted to establish my own value within a corporation or as an entrepreneur, I can hear that voice telling me I can’t.  I am only good for one thing.
  2. Sex and love are the same thing. If I want to be loved, the only way I will receive that love is through sex.  Love is not possible in any other way.  I cannot find love through the caring and supportive expression from others.  That doesn’t really happen for me.  If I want any kind of positive attention, it must come through sex.  This belief has led to many detrimental relationships with bad partners who had no other way of expressing love, leaving me without any hope of feeling truly unconditionally loved for who I am.
  3. People only want one thing. If anyone gives me any positive attention at all, it is because they want sex in return.  If I make myself visible to others in any major way, I will attract sexual attention.  This belief has been the main reason for my isolation.  I have made many decisions to stay small and isolated so that I could avoid sexual attention that I didn’t want.  I also have a tendency toward “frumpiness”.  If I have the option to dress in fleece and flannel, I will take it.  Covering up my body has always been my strategy to keep from being noticed.  And honestly, it has worked for me.  I’ve been invisible for a long time.
  4. My boundaries don’t matter. My need for space is of no importance if there are others in my life who need something too.  I don’t have the right to say no to sex or any other request.  If someone wants something from me, it is my job to provide.  This belief was the detriment to my well-being for the bulk of my early adulthood.  And I have to say it was the first belief to be chucked out.  That makes sense.  It is impossible to live life with this belief and not go absolutely crazy.  It is common for this belief to be replaced with the opposite belief of “say no to everything”.  And as we heal, that may be necessary.  So be it.

I want to be clear about these beliefs.  Just like trauma, they live on a continuum.  Sex abuse may be the extreme version of the problem, but sexism lives on many levels.  Sexually suggestive statements made to children, focus on children’s looks and weight and parentification are all examples of traumas that can create these belief systems on some level.  It might be fair to say we all hold them to some degree.

So if you want to live a life of freedom, it is important to examine how these unconscious beliefs might be impacting your life.  Believe it or not, these beliefs can be changed.  You don’t have to live with them forever.  But they do take time to unravel.  It might require retrieving memories.  It will require feeling emotions.  And of course, without a doubt, there will be writing from those inner parts who hold these beliefs.  But you can change these beliefs.  You can stop the cycle and move toward the life you have always wanted.  I promise.  Give it a try.  You deserve it.

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24 Comments

  1. I know you said this post was geared, directed more towards a female audience, but from a male survivor of sexual abuse, I didn’t notice to many differences. Great post. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thank you Jaime. I thought so, but I didn’t want to speak for men.

      Reply
  2. This really hit home and brought an awareness and perspective thank you for the post

    Reply
  3. This really resonates with me. My father sexually abused me as a teenager and told me it was all my fault as to him I looked like my mother. My now ex-husband was also sexually abusive and initially I ‘did as I was commanded’. Most men that I came in contact with treated me as only a sexual being, never as just a human being. It’s not like I was attractive either, I was and am just a plain Jane, it’s like I wear a sign that says please touch me, I’m all yours. I hated this attention and especially the touching, it disgusted me. A hug from some men is okay and actually nice, but, from others its horrible and has other connotations, it’s weird how I can tell. Then whilst having therapy I started working on healing the incongfuences betweem my core beliefs and values and what I wanted for myself. I started taking back the power that I had given him. This ultimately ended the marriage as he didn’t want a ‘strong and resilient’ partner he wanted the weak and submissive doormat. I’m still a work in progress as I face my demons and work towards finding inner peace and work with my inner child in finding that human flourishing that has been non-existent.
    I have a strong desire to change the narrative of my life. I’m at University studying to become a counsellor and I’m 53 years old. I am also writing a book about what I’ve been through. Not all the finer gory details but the thoughts, feelings and emotions and how my faith has enabled me to keep going. For me writing it down is very therapeutic and I’m healing in ways I never thought possible. It also includes letters, stories and poems I’ve written over time. I don’t know what I’ll do with the book when I’m finished, I guess time will tell as I don’t know how to go about getting a book published if I chose to do that.

    Reply
    • I am sorry you went through this abuse Judy, but I am so glad you have found a way to express your voice and heal your past. Thank you so much for your comment here.

      Reply
  4. Hi Elisabeth, this is so REAL! you can do nothing but PROSPER! In your life. I’m a realist myself, I don’t love what happened to me, but I LOVE self awareness, thank you for your COURAGEOUS spirit! It helps me to continue to self observe and practice ways to push on and get better. Your transparency makes the world a better place ❤️

    Reply
  5. Oh my goodness. Wow. This all makes so much sense now. I have struggled with these things and recently a part has started to talk about that. How interesting. I have always thought, and been told, that if someone (particularly a man) is nice to me that is just because he wants sex… or I should do whatever will make other people happy, even if that means I have to suffer myself.. getting better with that one but still working on it – especially with those closest to me. And the clothing thing! One day I was wearing an outfit to work and a colleague (female) said to me, “You’re looking extra curvy today” I immediately felt embarrassed and worried that I was dressed inappropriately and said, “oh, no. Is it too much!?”. She said of course not, you look great! Needless to say.. .that outfit isn’t coming back out anytime soon! But ya… I get this. Thank you for sharing these insights… they help so much!

    Reply
    • I am so glad this writing is helping you see how you are not alone. These beliefs are so common after sexual abuse. Love to you!

      Reply
  6. Thank you, thank you Elisabeth for your candid blogs!
    I resonate with all the beliefs you listed, although my boundaries are much, much better as I have learned to honor myself.

    My biggest struggle at this point is that my part – she calls herself Delilah (isn’t that ironic) – I really want to love her but there is a part of me that rejects her. She has caused so much trouble in my life, even in adulthood so I REALLY struggle to accept her. I know it is extremely important that I come to terms with her and that I recognize she was just doing what she had to do to survive but it is SO HARD!! I observe her watching men and she sees a “look” in their eyes – she has been trained to seek it out. It is her job to satisfy others needs. Although she recognizes she cannot act out that programming anymore it still exists. Other parts of me find this soooo disturbing. How do I love her when she hurts me?

    Love to you all,

    Reply
    • There is something she is looking for from others because she isn’t getting it from you. Ask her what she needs – not on the surface, but on a deeper level. I am sure one need is to express her emotions and story. How can you help her to meet her needs without the dysfunction? It can also help to look at her strengths. What does she bring to the family system? How is she (or can she be) helpful?

      Reply
      • Bless you Elisabeth for the clarity – that helps steer me in the right direction. 🙂 Delilah resonates with that.

        xoxo

        Reply
  7. I had the tendency you mention to say no to everything with others, but in a couple of significant cases I said yes to the wrong people. This happened with a significant boyfriend, but this problem even extended to non sexual relationships. I would give a lot only to have the friend turn and change completely. This happened three times. In one case the former friend became mean. I really don’t seem to have a good sense of who to pick as friends. It is partly because my dad died when I was a baby, and my mother later dated a physical/sexual abuser for 9 months. He told my mother that he had to watch me to make sure I was safe and she just believed and went along with him. However, I’ve realize recently that my problem with relationships is also because I felt like my mother had abandoned me. She was the only parent I had, and I only had her inconsistently.

    Reply
    • I like to say that after trauma, our “screeners” are broken. Our love seekers (inner part) want to find anyone who can love us and tend to get mixed up with people who say the right thing. Our isolators was to avoid any vulnerable interaction. We have to come back to our adult self in relationship and look at things differently. Instead of asking “Will this person like me?”, we need to start asking, “Will this person be good for me?” To do this, we have to slow down and build awareness of our inner parts and how they are trying to drive things. Love to you Diane.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the insightful reply. Yesterday I read a letter from a past friend that was sent just over a year ago. (I tore it up then.) This friend has a pattern of having problems with people and then writing long 4-6 page letters so I should have know it was coming. On the surface it seemed sweet and caring. However, she claimed that I did the behaviors that she had been doing. She even put thoughts in my mind that I never had. She finished a couple sentences that I had originally said in a negative way (words that weren’t there to begin with). I must be more aware now. First I prayed about it, but then I realized the only thing I had done wrong is not confront her when she was rude or harsh. This made me seem distant to her. I was basically trying to distance myself from harsh behavior. We had been friends for 16 years, and she had said we were like sisters so this did hurt. I tried to tell myself that I was okay because it wasn’t a boyfriend break up, but I really wasn’t okay. I also realize that this “friend ” had many traits that my mom had so I was wondering if was subconsciously trying to work things out with mom even though mom died in ’99. I think that because these accusatory statements and “mind reading” about motives were similar to mom’s behavior when she got angry. In fact the whole thing made me feel frantic like a child who is misunderstood and can’t get through to their parent. I think I have a better understanding, but I do need to screen to see if someone is good for me.

        Reply
        • These patterns are so important to see in our healing. Your awareness is growing and that is a beautiful thing.

          Reply
  8. “It shows in the body as chronic illness and pain caused by unexpressed emotions of shame, fear and grief”
    It’s so hard for me to understand how this actually occurs – but I have been told that unexpressed emotions are playing a big part with regard to my own chronic pain. Thank you for including this point here because once again I feel that I am not alone.

    Reply
    • You are definitely not alone. I actually believe the majority of physical ailments are caused by unexpressed emotions. For those of us with complex trauma, it is on a more significant scale. Love to you.

      Reply
  9. I really appreciated this post. All 4 of your points are exactly what I have struggled with for years! As a survivor of CSA I am finally recognizing my worth after feeling for 35 years my ownly value was sexual and to meet and please other peoples needs. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thank you Lara for your comment and your courage to heal yourself.

      Reply
  10. Thank you so much for sharing your story it’s extremely hard for me to find other child trafficking survivors who were exploited by a parent and others. Honestly I commend you for being so open about your trauma. Maybe as I grow older I will aquire that trait. Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Thank you Emma! I am glad I can be here to share with fellow survivors so they know they are not alone. Sharing openly isn’t for everyone, but you will get there if it is the right thing for you. Sending love to you.

      Reply
  11. Although in some ways I like to think I have gotten really good with boundaries, I am terrified that someone will want sex from me in all sorts of random scenarios, and that I will just comply. I have done it before. I realized over the last two years when things have become particularly hard for me, I dress as asexual and unappealing as I can with the hopes that no one will notice me in a sexual way. I have been married for the past 20 years, and I don’t think my spouse would understand the complexity of why it would happen. I, too, have parts that are love seekers outside my marriage. Recently, I had a massage at one of these chains and the therapist was sexual with me and I froze and did nothing to stop it. I still can’t trust myself to not freeze, so looking unattractive and asexual is all I got right now.

    Reply

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