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How To Overcome Sexual Abuse

Question:

I was sexually abused @ the age of 8-10. physically, emotionally, and verbally for 9 yrs. i am now 30 yrs with a husband 4 kids and a great life but i can not over come my past I still have flashbacks, anger, hate, and feel revengeful. how can I bring myself out of my fearful past it has taken a toll on my present life. I feel out of control, and unworthy!

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Answer:

This is a great question, and one that I’m sure that many, many readers out there will relate to. I invite readers to add their comments to mine, because I am not terribly qualified to speak as an expert on this topic, and would appreciate some help from people who have been there, survived and even hopefully thrived after having been abused.

Though you’ve not provided much detail on your life, you do talk about the ways that having been abused as a girl have affected you as an adult woman. I think your multiple feelings can be grouped into two basic themes, the first being anger (e.g., "anger, hate and feel revengeful"), and the second being low self-confidence (e.g., "out of control and unworthy"). You are also dealing with flashbacks, which are at least an indication that you consider the abuse to be unfinished business, and might also be a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder or something similar to that depending on how intense they are. Even though things are really good for you these days, your past abuse is constantly fresh on your mind. You’re angry it occurred, but also feeling like damaged goods.

As I turned your message over in my mind, it started to remind me of an essay Dr. Dombeck recently wrote about the long term effects of bullying. He suggests that similar outcomes as you’ve experienced are common among adults who were systematically bullied as children, but also provides what I think is a helpful way of thinking about why those particular feelings come about. What the bully is communicating through forceful acts of bullying is the idea that the victim’s needs don’t matter, and that the victim is inferior by nature. These messages get internalized by victims who start to believe that they are true.

I think this bullying process may have happened to you, only with the added whammy that profoundly misogynistic parts of our culture have made a fetish out of virginity and look upon sexually abused or raped women as damaged goods, or sluts who were "asking for it". These misogynist messages get internalized too and make it that much harder to feel good about yourself in the aftermath of sexual abuse. Perhaps one casualty of your having been sexually abused is that you’ve partially lost the ability to think about what has happened to you from your own perspective. Instead, you tend to view and value yourself from the perspective of your abuser (e.g., something to be used) and end up feel unworthy and powerless.

Thankfully, this perspective difficulty you might have developed is only partial. As an adult, you’ve been around the block enough to know that you didn’t do anything to deserve having been abused. You get it that you were taken advantage of and quite rightly you are angry about it. Your revenge feelings probably are fueled by this anger, but the other side of this coin is that since revenge is probably impractical and or morally wrong (two wrongs do not make a right), you might end up feeling that much more helpless (to take revenge) too.

This way of thinking about what has occurred suggests that you’ve been disempowered, and have been taught a set of beliefs about yourself by your abuser and culture that, though wrong, are being accepted by you in an uncritical fashion and thus are causing you to feel unworthy. The solution would appear to be finding ways to empower yourself, which means in more concrete language, finding ways to examine and reject beliefs about yourself that you’ve internalized which happen to be false but which you’ve believed anyway. The more of these ideas you can examine, the more you’ll start feeling better about yourself, I think.

You could go about this empowerment process in multiple ways. You can, as Dr. Dombeck suggests, take on an empowerment goal of some sort and prove to yourself through actions that you are a capable person (at least in the arena(s) you choose). A more general and abstract way to go about this process would be to hire a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist to help you inventory your beliefs about yourself, what you are capable of and what you are worth, and teach you how to examine these beliefs for logical problems and biases. A therapist can also help you find productive ways to deal with all that (appropriate and legitimate) anger so that it doesn’t become self-destructive.

Besides learning how to identify and reject false self-beliefs that keep you down, another angle of empowering yourself might involve learning how to be legitimately selfish. I think that part of what happens when you’ve been abused, is that you get very sensitized to thinking about what you might have done or not done that has triggered your abuse and you try to take control over your situation by learning to focus very carefully on the moods and needs of others, but not on your own moods and needs. So part of the empowerment process might involve learning to feel okay about being "selfish" for a while and doing things that feel good for you without (over) concern about how other people will react. This process is often called assertiveness training. Mental Help Net has material to read about assertiveness training located here.

Throughout all of this, keep in mind that in some important ways you’re doing well (Not everyone is so blessed as you with your multiple children, good marriage and great life), and keep this all in perspective. Some terrible things have happened to you, true, but other good things have happened too, and you have the opportunity now to recover some of what has been lost, I think (or maybe regrow it is a better way to talk about it). The past is done and cannot be changed. What is available to you now is the opportunity to find better ways to look at what happened to you and who you are and better ways to live well. Living well is the best revenge.

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