Healing Steps for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is a form of trauma and needs deliberate effort in order to heal. It is a profoundly damaging experience that erodes a child’s sense of value and distorts his or her sense of self and ability to trust. The damage is inflicted by the perpetrator of the abuse, as well as by caregivers who do not believe the child or who knowingly allow the abuse to continue.
Being victimized as a child at the hands of a sexual predator is injurious beyond what words can fully capture. Not being rescued is a devastatingly awful experience that compounds the injury and further complicates the trauma of sexual abuse. If you have been victimized by any form of sexual abuse, which can include rape, incest, inappropriate physical touch, fondling, inappropriate conversations, non-verbal communication of a sexual nature, voyeurism, manipulation and threats, healing is possible and available. It will be a journey, but a very worthwhile one that can dramatically change your emotional health and your life.
Following is a series of steps that can help create a powerful pathway to healing and recovery.
1 Tell Your Story. I know this can be so hard to do. Though sexual abuse is in no way the fault of the child, the shame that a survivor feels makes secrecy seem like the only safe option. It is understandable if you have no desire to ever talk about what happened to you. However, finding your voice and being your own advocate by giving voice to how you were violated and dishonored is a tremendously powerful way to begin the healing. Find a safe person who you can tell. This might be a mature friend who is trustworthy, or a mentor, or a counselor.
2 Write Your Story. Journaling regularly about the impact of the abuse is a truly therapeutic process. Write about what happened to you and how you were betrayed by the perpetrator and by others who were supposed to protect you. List what the abuse has cost you emotionally, physically, relationally, mentally and in other ways. What did you lose because of the abuse? Acknowledge those losses by writing about them. Also, if you were rescued and protected by someone, write about that. Journaling helps with the very important step of accessing and facing the damage caused by abuse, which is a necessary part of healing.
3 Acknowledge the Shame Imposed on You. Perpetrators of sexual abuse unleash terrible shame on their victims. That shame keeps many survivors shackled to the abuse. Talk about your feelings of shame, humiliation, and guilt. This helps to unhitch the shame from your shoulders and to remove from you a burden that does not belong to you. It belongs to the perpetrator. Facing the shame by acknowledging its presence and by owning the truth of why it is not yours to carry requires a vulnerability that will help you being to see yourself with fresh eyes.
4 Grieve your Losses. Recovering from abuse means doing the very important work of grieving. Knowing that you are in pain is not enough. You need to own and acknowledge the pain by exploring the losses and wounds that are causing the pain. Some of the losses may include the loss of childhood innocence, the loss of a carefree childhood, the loss of safety and trust, the loss of being valued, the loss of the ability to trust now that you are an adult, the loss of peace and instead the carrying of a great deal of anger. Some of the wounds you live with might include living with a sense of fear, finding difficulty in having truly vulnerable adult friendships, experiencing the inability to enjoy sex and intimacy with your spouse, feeling dirty or guilty, feeling a profound sense of worthlessness, and the pain of strained family relationships. Give deliberate thought to your losses and wounds, acknowledge them, write about them, talk to someone safe about them, cry through them, and say goodbye to the losses. An important part of grieving is considering how you can begin to meet, in a healthy way, the needs that have gone unmet in your life. How can you connect more, trust more, love yourself more? This takes time and is difficult to do without some help. A trusted and mature friend or a counselor can be of great value.
5 Be Patient with and Kind to Yourself. You need to treat yourself with compassion. Your needs are valid and your struggles are real. Learn to honor those needs in healthy ways and to work through the struggles in a way that is healing and helpful. Pay attention to your self talk, exchanging self criticism with understanding and kindness. Recovery is a journey and self condemnation will not help the process. Pray and spend time in God’s Word learning of His deep love for you and who He says you are. Live into that truth. Also connect with a community of Christ-filled believers where you can find encouragement, kindness, and truth.
Because sexual abuse is a form of trauma, survivors may experience post-traumatic stress. The good news is that post traumatic stress is treatable and healing is very possible. While as a child you needed a protector and advocate, now you are an adult and can become your own advocate by taking the steps to begin your healing journey. Understanding that it is a difficult journey to make alone can help you reach out for help. You are valuable and worthy of living a healed and restored life.
Read Part 1 here.
Dr. Dawn-Marie shares a refreshing blend of professional insights and personal stories in this encouraging blog.