One of the things I most hate about the ongoing effects of sexual abuse is that people who have been abused can be tricked by the very trauma they suffer into losing out even more of their life. It works like this. Many people who have suffered abuse, feel shame and despair and an ongoing consequence of their experiences. It’s said that these are normal reactions to an experience which in itself is far from normal and which in an ideal world no one would ever have to experience.
The problem come in what we do with the shame and despair that we feel! The experience of being abused is enough to make anyone feel powerless and to struggle to trust others. So in one sense it becomes more difficult to cope with stress and we can get triggered into anxiety by all kinds of things that remind us of our bad experiences. It seems so natural in these types of circumstances to avoid those things that trigger our anxiety and overwhelm.
After all, who in their right mind wants to continue to expose themself willingly to situations or people that are going to remind them of the very experiences that traumatised them in the first place? So we start to avoid people or situations that we anticipate are going to trigger us into anxiety or overwhelm. This can start a process where even though we are avoiding anything that we think might trigger anxiety or bad memories, we still get taken by surprise in some situations. So, we avoid even more, and do even less, but because the core of the experience which is eating us up is inside us, avoiding external situations or people doesn’t necessarily mean we feel much better.
Instead of feeling better, our world can become smaller and despite our best and most sincere efforts, we end up feeling just as badly. The difference is that our confidence has also gone down and we feel like failures. Avoiding issues, simply doesn’t work. Thinking that by avoiding external realities that upset us will somehow resolve the inner issues that torment us, is like believing a wild dog attacking you will leave you alone because you are a nice person. It doesn’t work like that!
Part of the problem is that people who avoid issues often do so for a good reason. They have lost their trust in their own ability to deal with challenges from life. They genuinely feel that they cant cope with the overwhelm. They feel powerless to change what happened to them in the past and therefore feel that they are doomed to always feel the same way and that the best they can do is to avoid things as best they can. But running away from these things is a race we can never win.
The reality is that we are able to make changes that are worth while and can give us most of our life back. The answer is not simply to try and tough it out when we are overwhelmed. Because getting overwhelmed by an experience in everyday life that reminds us of the past can trigger crippling anxiety. Rather, think through your own decision not to allow the past to rob you of your future. Be aware of the potential cost of simply trying to cope by staying away from upsetting things. Then outsmart your own fear. The way to do this is to ask yourself questions such as, “What can I do to help give me the ability to go through one thing I fear?” It may be as simple as giving yourself some positive self talk, or asking a friend to go with you. Another thing to keep in mind is that we all need to be aware of our strengths. Remind yourself about what you are good at. There’s nothing like avoiding challenges to encourage us to believe the lie that we cant do it, and are too weak to succeed. Maybe counselling can help you become aware of your inner abilities and to help you develop inner strengths first, before tackling the situations which only a short while ago we might have been avoiding. We only need one success to prove to ourself that we can reclaim our life!