Helping former victims of child sexual abuse avoid being re-victimized.
This piece is part of a series directed toward those who experienced child sexual abuse (CSA).
In a previous post, I outlined why it is that victims of childhoodsexual abuse tend to be re-victimized in adulthood. In this article, I focus on how and why self-compassion can help prevent this pattern of re-victimization.
There are many reasons why self-compassion can help former victims of child sexual abuse (CSA) to avoid being re-victimized as adults. The first reason has to do with the amount of denial and avoidance that former victims of CSA engage in.
Many people who have experienced CSA have already acknowledged that they were sexually abused and may have already sought help for the trauma, either by seeing a counselor or therapist or by attending a support group. But some of them likely haven’t faced the painful truth of what they endured. Many people who were sexually abused as a child or adolescent go through life in denial of those experiences or in denial of the effects it had on them. There are various reasons for this:
- The trauma of child sexual abuse (CSA) is so intense and life-changing that many simply cannot face the pain. Instead, they “pretend” it didn’t happen or they tell themselves that it wasn’t a big deal.
- A trauma such as CSA can cause the victim to dissociate—to leave their body—in order to survive. Because they are not in their body while being abused, they have no memory—or at least very little memory—of the abuse. Dissociation provides an escape where no actual escape is possible. It provides a mental escape from intense experience, emotions, and memories.
- Many victims of CSA blame themselves for the abuse and therefore don’t view themselves as victims. Children tend to blame themselves for most of what happens to them, and many perpetrators tell their victims that the abuse was their fault—that they did something to cause the perpetrator to react as he did or that they clearly wanted it. This can be especially confusing if the child experienced any kind of pleasure during the assault or if the child returned to the place or the person who molested them.
For these reasons and others, many former victims tend to deny the assault and try to move on with their life without attending to the trauma. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work because they are still affected by it. Childhood sexual abuse colors every aspect of their lives, especially their ability to protect themselves from further sexual violations, and even their motivation to do so. Former victims of childhood sexual abuse are often unable to stand up for themselves and adequately protect themselves from the dangers all around them. This is because the effects of child sexual abuse are devastating to young persons’ self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-concept. Furthermore, the shame victims of childhood sexual abuse experience can make it difficult for them to believe they deserve to be protected and respected.
Others minimize the abuse, telling themselves that “It wasn’t that bad,” or “It happens to everyone.” But it is important for former victims to realize that diminishing their experiences of being sexually abused is a form of diminishing themselves. Saying “it wasn’t that bad” is like saying “I’m not that important” or “My feelings aren’t that important.” And thinking “it isn’t that bad” sets one up to accept less-than-appropriate ways of being treated by others. It causes one to set the bar far too low in terms of what they will accept from others.
Telling oneself that “it wasn’t that bad” also causes them to be hard on themselves for not “getting over it” sooner. After all, if the sexual abuse they suffered wasn’t all that bad, why are they still suffering from the effects of it? Why are they still carrying so much hurt and anger and shame? Why are they hyper-alert, just waiting for the next attack?
If you were sexually abused in childhood or adolescence, don’t continue to minimize and diminish the sexual abuse you have suffered. It was that bad. It is vitally important that you acknowledge the damage it has caused you, that you have compassion for your suffering, and that you make a connection between any difficulties you have in standing up for yourself now and the trauma you experienced as a child.
We Can’t Heal What We Don’t Reveal
Until you can acknowledge to yourself that you were sexually abused and that this abuse caused you great pain and suffering, you will not be able to heal. Put simply, you can’t become self-compassionate if you don’t recognize your suffering. We can’t be moved by our pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists.
Denial is a very powerful and effective defense mechanism. Without denial we simply would not survive in some situations. While denial can certainly be your friend in some situations, at this point, denial may have become your enemy. Although you have already survived the actual abuse, unless you face the truth about what happened to you, you will not be able to fully heal. Unless you stop blaming yourself for the abuse and instead face the pain of admitting that someone treated you in such damaging, selfish or callous ways, you are likely to continue to punish yourself in the form of self-destructive behaviors or continue to repeat the cycle of abuse by getting involved with people who will continue to abuse you. The truth is that if you don’t give yourself compassion for how you have already suffered, if you don’t connect with the trauma you have experienced on an emotional level, you will find it harder to move on with your life. Specifically, you will find it harder to stand up against further affronts and assaults. As I addressed in my new book, “I’m Saying No!” Standing Up Against Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Pressure, a major reason why former victim of CSA are re-victimized as adults is that they often have a difficult time standing up for themselves and saying No! to sexual pressure. In fact the word No! can be especially difficult for women and men who were sexually abused as a child. When first attacked they probably didn’t have an opportunity to say no—or perhaps they did, and their requests were ignored. These experiences can lead these former victims to believe that any future attempts to say “No!” will be similarly futile, so there is no point in trying. Other reasons include:
- They have no basis for what a healthy relationship looks or feels like, and they believe that sex will always be forced.
- They do not believe they have a right to say no (this is especially common for former victims who were abused at an early age).
- They feel guilty because they don’t want to be touched in certain ways or to engage in certain activities (so they go along with whatever their partner wants).
- They fear that any attempt to say no could make a bad situation worse or more violent.
As Judith Lewis Herman states in her classic book Trauma and Recovery: “Many survivors have such profound deficiencies in self-protection that they can barely imagine themselves in a position of agency or choice. The idea of saying no to the emotional demands of a parent, spouse, lover or authority figure may be practically inconceivable.”
Let It Sink In
The word compassion comes from the latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer) or—“to suffer with.” Therefore, when someone gives us compassion they join us in our suffering. Self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering.
Ask yourself: Have I taken the time to acknowledge my own suffering? Or have I tried to just put it away—out of sight and out of mind?
I want you to take time now to let it really sink in: the pain, shame, and fear you are faced with every day. Acknowledge how hard it has been to live in the world given the fear you often feel, the flashbacks you endure, your low self-esteem and your debilitating shame. Acknowledge all the pain you have endured due to the sexual abuse you’ve suffered.
Now I’d like you to say or write something that expresses compassion toward yourself for all your suffering. You can speak in first person such as: “I really have suffered a lot because of the sexual abuse” or “I’m in a lot of pain because of having been sexually abused and it gets hard to carry that pain every day.”
If you can’t think of something compassionate to say to yourself, think of what a supportive friend or family member might say if you told them about how you were sexually abused. For example, “I’m so sorry this happened to you,” “I know how much you have suffered,” “This has been so painful for you.”
As painful as it can be to stop denying, pretending, and defending, self-compassion can help. Providing yourself self-compassion for what you suffered at the hands of your perpetrator (s) is like providing yourself with a healing balm. It will soothe you and help mend your wounded spirit. It will let you know that what happened to you was important, that it deserves to be recognized. It will validate the fact that it was a soul-wounding experience—that it was life-changing.
Please note: If you aren’t clear about whether you were sexually abused or not, please refer to my books, It Wasn’t Your Fault or “I’m Saying No!” for a complete list of the types of childhood sexual abuse that exist.
Words You Wish You Had Heard
When you were being abused you felt painfully alone. There was no one there to save you, no one there to comfort you. And the time right after the abuse may have been even more difficult. You may have dissociated while being abused and once the abuse had ended you may have come crashing back to reality. For this reason, I ask you to pretend that you are hearing the words of comfort that you needed to hear after you were abused.
Exercise: What Do You Wish You Had Heard?
- Spend a few minutes thinking about what you wish you had heard from someone right after you were abused.Write these words down—the words of comfort you so desperately needed to hear from someone.
- Read these words out loud and imagine that someone you cared about had actually spoken these words to you at the time.
- Notice how you feel when you hear these words.
Give to yourself the compassion you needed then and still need. Offering yourself self-compassion is like reaching inside and bringing out the pain, cradling it in the palm of your hand and whispering softly to it:
- “I see you”
- “I hear you”
- “I’m so sorry you have suffered.”
How Self-Compassion Heals Shame
Self-compassion helps prevent former victims from being re-victimized primarily because it helps heal their shame—shame that causes them to stop caring about their own safety, shame that causes them to punish themselves by being reckless with their bodies.
Shame is the most damaging aspect of any sexual violation and is the number one risk factor for being re-victimized later in life. Most former victims are overwhelmed with shame.
Why is this the case? The most straight-forward answer is that abuse is a horrifically shaming experience.
Shame is a natural reaction to abuse. In fact, abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing. There is a feeling of being invaded, defiled and the indignity of being helpless in the eyes of another person. These feelings of being invaded and defiled occur most profoundly in the case of child sexual abuse.
Victims of childhood abuse also tend to feel shame because as human beings we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we feel humiliated. We believe we “should have” been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame.
It is especially shaming to a child when it is a parent who abuses them—who violates their body and their integrity. Children want to feel loved and accepted by their parents more than anything else in the world. And because it is so important to be loved by a parent, children will make up all kinds of excuses for a parent’s behavior—even abusive behavior. Most often the child ends up blaming themselves for “causing” their parent to abuse them.
The good news is that self-compassion is the antidote to shame. You need to offer yourself the healing benefits of self-compassion in order to rid yourself of the overwhelming shame you likely feel—at being sexually violated in the past, at being objectified and disrespected, at being blamed for your own sexual abuse, and, most important, for blaming yourself. Self-compassion will help heal the immense amount of shame you no doubt have regarding your body and your sexuality in particular. This shame has to be brought out, examined, and then healed by self-compassion: only then can you be empowered.
One of the most healing aspects of providing yourself with self-compassion is that it will help you stop blaming yourself for the sexual abuse. Childhood sexual abuse is an extremely shaming experience, as can be the ways in which we cope with the trauma. To summarize, victims feel shamed by any and all of the following aspects of childhood abuse:
- The shame and humiliation that comes from the violation itself and feeling helpless and powerless.
- The shame that comes from blaming themselves for “asking for it.”
- The shame over failing to “fight back.”
- The shame of feeling exposed if the abuse or assault is reported.
- The shame the victim takes on when the abuser projects his shame onto them.T
- The shame that comes from the victim’s attempts to cope with the abuse (sexual acting out, alcohol or drug abuse).
By providing yourself with self-compassion you can begin to rid yourself of the belief that you are worthless, defective, bad, or unlovable. Instead of trying to ignore these false yet powerful beliefs, instead of denying your shame and the feelings it engenders, you need to bring your shame out into the light of day.
Recent research in the neurobiology of compassion as it relates to shame has revealed new information about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections. According to these studies, we can proactively repair (and re-pair) old shame memories with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion. (Longe, etal 2010).
The Practice of Self-Compassion
Learning to practice self-compassion is not an easy task. It takes practice. It can be extremely difficult to learn to provide compassion to yourself especially if you have never been the recipient of compassion. Many of you reading this article may have never received healing compassion, not even from your closest friends. And many of you grew up with a lack of compassion in your family. Instead of family members showing kindness, concern and compassion for one another, you may have only witnessed and experienced criticism, fault finding and complaints.
Unfortunately, even if you are willing to acknowledge your wounds, you may not know how to apply the soothing salve of compassion to it. This will help: Think about the most compassionate person you have known—someone who has been kind, understanding, and supportive of you. It may have been a teacher, a friend, or perhaps a friend’s parent. Think about how this person conveyed their compassion toward you and how you felt in this person’s presence. If you can’t think of someone in your life who has been compassionate toward you, think of a compassionate public figure or even a fictional character from a book, film, or television. Now imagine that you have the ability to become as compassionate toward yourself as this person has been toward you (or you imagine this person would be toward you). How would you treat yourself? What kinds of words would you use when you talk to yourself?
This is the goal of self-compassion: to treat yourself in the same way the most compassionate person you know would treat you—to talk to yourself in the same loving, kind, and supportive ways that this compassionate person would talk to you.
In addition, no matter how you have tried to cope with your abuse, it is important that you develop an internal compassionate relationship with yourself instead of the self-critical one you likely have. By offering yourself self-compassion you will begin to understand why you have behaved as you have (i.e. alcohol and drug abuse) and to forgive yourself for the negative behaviors you have exhibited in response to the abuse—(i.e. sexual acting out and sexual addiction).
It is often the case that former victims of sexual abuse feel so much shame that they don’t care what happens to them. Healing your shame with self-compassion will help you begin to believe that you deserve to be safe. And because you are not needing to medicate yourself as much with alcohol or drugs you will indeed become safer.
Providing yourself with self-compassion will help you want to take better care of yourself, including not exposing yourself to dangerous situations and people. It is very important for you to understand this: In order for you to come to believe that you deserve to be treated with respect by others, you need to learn how to recognize and then tend to your own suffering. And before you can teach others to treat you with kindness and respect, you will need to learn to treat yourself with kindness and respect.
Self-compassion encourages you to begin to treat yourself and talk to yourself with the same kindness, caring, and compassion you would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has actually been shown to comfort and even help heal others of their ailments or problems, connecting with your own suffering will do the same for you.
- To learn more about the practice of self-compassion, read It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion and Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
- As always, I also encourage you to seek therapy to help you heal from childhood sexual abuse.
Longe, O., Maratos, F., Gilbert, P., Evans, G., Volker, F., Rockliff, H., Rippon, G. Neurolimage 49 (2010) 1849-1856. Having a word with yourself: Neural Correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance.