Sexual abuse - How it shapes the lives of survivors
The traumatic experiences of sexual abuse are unique to each individual but in this brief article I will write about some generalisations usually experienced by many survivors.
Abuse in all its forms affects how survivors/the abused make life choices, how they see themselves, how they see others and particularly, how they form and maintain relationships.
Sexual abuse is also physical abuse: it is an intrusion of one’s own body without the consideration of a survivor’s own feelings. This leaves the abused as experiencing themselves as an depersonalised object. To cope with this horrendous intrusion, the abused psychologically disconnects their emotions from their body, leaving them vulnerable to further abuse in their adult life. This happens because their depersonalised body becomes ‘numb’ to the intrusion. Adults who were sexually abused in childhood usually describe how they go very still, switch off or play dead in order to dissociate from the traumatic experience.
Sexual abuse is also emotional abuse such as being manipulated in to keeping the event secret from everyone; made to feel ashamed so they believe it is also their fault. When the abuser is a family member/friend, it becomes so much more confusing because as a child you are likely to have learned to trust the person. Having known the abuser in different contexts such as going to the park, eating together, watching other family members enjoy their company, the confusion for the child when confronted with this abusive behaviour is often due to conflicted beliefs and feelings: ’my family likes this person, this person makes me laugh but now I am scared’; ‘what they are doing is wrong but I have to do as I am told’.
Some of the effects of sexual abuse
- feeling powerless/helpless
- anger towards others for not noticing and rescuing the abused
- have low self-esteem
- have no sense of self-worth
- find themselves, repeatedly in abusive relationships
- confuse the need for love with sex
- abstain from all intimate relationships
- feel uncomfortable with showing love to their children
- suicidal feelings
- some survivors of sexual abuse may use drugs or alcohol to block out painful memories
- complex post traumatic stress disorder
- eating disorders
- anxiety disorders.
How psychotherapy can help
Psychotherapy, with all its different approaches can help you build on your feelings of self-worth and self-esteem; help you to acknowledge your emotions and feelings so that you do not feel so helpless and powerless any more. Acknowledging any feelings of anger towards others often leads the abused to be more caring about themselves rather than continuing to punish themselves for something that was never their fault.
Psychotherapists can model a new way of relating by carefully and compassionately building a trusting relationship. Psychotherapy offers a safe time and place just for you, where your individuality is appreciated and together with your therapist you can develop your own sense of who you are – to feel, not like an object anymore but a whole person.