I often meet abuse survivors who are on their own journey to recovery struggling with shame and guilt because they find themselves getting drawn to do the very things they know will not be good for them. If you are still feeling very raw or can be easily activated by things that trigger bad memories, it may be best to delay reading this post until you are in a better place. This is about a few of the reasons abuse survivors do the very things that can help continue an inner sense of not being able to be safe. The situations that trigger this can range from being drawn to partners who feel unsafe to be with, to having sex with others a lot despite not wanting it. The problem is that it is so easy to blame yourself for getting into these situations After all, at some level we all know that the destructive situation we are drawn to isn’t going to work out well, but it is as if we are drawn against our will into the danger zones! I am sure that many of us can relate to these examples and many others that are similar. We can end up being scared of ourselves and almost feel a form of self-hatred, because we can’t understand the compulsion to engage in actions that result in our experiencing even more fear and panic.
I have met many brave abuse survivors over the years who have really struggled with this type of situation. One example that many people have experienced, is when an abuse survivor has a period in their life when they have sex with many different partners following their abuse. One reason for this is when the survivor becomes so unsure of themselves in social situations that they struggle to give the “go away and leave me alone” message when someone makes a move on them. The other person misinterprets the lack of the “go away” signal as a kind of come on. The survivor freezes emotionally, and can’t overcome their own anxiety enough to get away, and the end result is they end up having sex with someone they don’t know, don’t like and don’t want, and worst of all hating themselves when it is over.
The difficulty here is that we don’t always understand the impact that post-traumatic stress can have on our emotional experience. It can result in increased fear and the belief that we are powerless, and the action that naturally follows from this is “So why try to resist”, but it can also literally freeze our ability to respond or react in the way we would like. It’s like something in the brain paralyzes the ability to think and plan or even to move sometimes. Another common response is some survivors describe their experiences in terms of saying that their compulsion to have sex randomly with others can also be the result of an inner desire to develop the ability to have sex and feel nothing. At a deep level this both deprives the partner of a loving engagement, as well as somehow being an attempt to make it easier to cope with the original abuse. After all, if I can have sex and feel nothing, then maybe I can make myself feel less about the original abuse as well. While these are not an uncommon response for people who have been raped, a different response can happen for those who have experienced abuse through their childhood.
In this situation, the survivor may not have been threatened with harm (although many are), but a more subtle issue is if the child was in an home situation of neglect or physical violence, then the abuse can be experienced by the child as a form of love. The trouble is this attention or grooming can distort the growing child’s view of their own value as a person. Many survivors describe hating themselves even more because they experienced some pleasure in the abuse or needed the attention emotionally. They grow up believing that love is the same as sexual compliance and their value lies in their body not in their personality. The more natural alternative, is that we should all grow up believing that we are likable for who we are and not for our sexual function. We need to have a sense and an inner belief that we matter to others, that our feelings and hopes and dreams are important to others, and that others will want to take the time to learn about us as people if they love us, rather than dumb it all down to intercourse or some other sex act. It can take a long time to rediscover our own sense of self and to value our own dreams and aspirations in counselling, because this is what childhood abuse also damages and changes.
Understanding why we react the way we do, is one of the important milestones marking our ability to keep growing in our own journey to recovery. It never does any harm to consciously and deliberately cut ourselves some slack from the inner critic and allow some self-compassion to the inner part of our heart that continues to carry the hurt from our abuse. This lays a foundation for further healing and enables an inner shift to occur where we begin to realise that we do deserve to grow and heal. But as long as we carry self-loathing and shame, it is harder to recover because it can be all too easy to have that inner sense that we don’t deserve our healing or recovery. I’ve yet to meet a survivor who deserves stay unwhole and hurting because of their experiences and I have seen hundreds of survivors over the last 40 years.