You will see light in the darkness
You will make some sense of this
And when you’ve made your secret journey
You will find this love you miss
— The Police
Because so many people struggle with the effects of sexual trauma, whether in childhood or adulthood, I thought to put together some tips that victims and survivors can use to beat trauma and stop self-sabotage. It’ll always be a work in progress, so be patient with yourself. There is no substitute for doing the work, but I hope these unavoidably incomplete ideas will be useful.
Know what you are dealing with: When making a plan to address any complex problem, it is necessary to know what one is dealing with; sexual trauma is no exception to the rule. Because one of the most common ways of responding to any form of distress is with avoidance, in adulthood, sexual trauma can manifest in many ways which are not obviously connected with earlier experiences. Although public awareness has increased, many people only recognize the traumatic origin of their problem after years of suffering. Post-traumatic and dissociative symptoms fly under the radar, and the enactments of those issues in personal relationships, self-care and professional life are attributed to other factors—often re-enforcing self-blame, self-defeating patterns and pushing others away. Why? Because there is often a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to trauma. This is typically institutionalized, and is arguably a core component of our culture—to ignore and downplay trauma. Doing so helps maintain the status quo, preserving stability at great expense. Putting traumatic experiences in perspective, working toward having a context for understanding trauma, putting a name to the symptoms and its effects in one’s life while building new experiences which are healthy and self-affirming, can lead to greater empowerment and a shift toward a non-traumatic sense of self.
Be aware in the moment: Because traumatic experience is often driven by avoidance of one’s core self, memories and emotions, many people with unresolved or resolving sexual trauma struggle to remain present with themselves and others. The basic capacity to sit with and name difficult experiences can be cultivated as part of recovery and post-traumatic growth. Various forms of meditation, typically in the mindfulness tradition, can be helpful for this.
Learn to regulate emotions: Because of the emotional regulation challenges unresolved trauma presents, it is crucial to learn how to cope differently. This goes hand in hand with basic awareness, because having effective coping tools empowers one to recognize and respond to challenging experiences in oneself without as much fear of making things worse as a result.
Rewrite your story: Re-writing one’s story, putting trauma in context, has been shown to be an effective approach for getting out of survival mode and shifting the approach to one’s life, others and life in general. Seeking out positive experiences, cautiously (especially at first), over time leads to building a track-record of more optimistic expectations and chips away at the belief that life is incontrovertibly bad. It’s important to have the basic ability to be aware of and manage emotions in order to understand that unlearning old patterns and re-learning new ones is going to have ups and downs before becoming more consistent and reliable. There’s a lot more to this, because taking emotional risks isn’t always going to work, and the times it doesn’t can lead to major setbacks if one is not well-prepared.
Practice self-care: Unresolved sexual trauma too often leads to a negative sense of self. We can feel undeserving of love and care, we can be too-self blaming and having a basic sense of unworthiness, and can come to believe that any attention to ourselves is “selfish”. In addition, taking care of oneself can simply be unfamiliar, a skill set which never fully developed, especially if self-care is overly focused on basic survival. Self-care is about taking care of oneself physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Building self-care over time leads to a sense of greater self-efficacy, creates resilience, and reduces the negative health impacts of trauma, both mental and physical. Forgiveness, permission to grieve, gratitude and related practices can come with time, and are an important part of self-care as well.
Work with others: It is important to recognize that working on recovery alone may not be efficient, and may even stall at some point. Being able to ask for help is an important part of self-care, and can be difficult to do especially when trauma came from trusted others who betrayed that trust. Having a supportive group is important during periods of forward motion as well as during challenging periods, and having a plan to reach out for help especially when things are at their worst is often the decisive factor.
Cultivate patience: Growth takes time. Recovery takes time. There are periods where things may get better, and other times where it looks very bleak and terrible things happen. The overall goal is to establish a different pattern and to have a goal of maintaining the process, rather than focusing on short-term successes and failures (though goals along the way are useful to establish as long as they are flexible). Patience, compassion, curiosity – are likewise long-term process goals, good to cultivate with the understanding that the on-going effort is worthwhile rather than having an expectation of developing them overnight.