Sexual trauma is devastating in countless ways, and while many of the wounds are unique to the survivor’s experience, there are some common themes we recognize in the kind of pain people experience after a traumatic sexual experience such as assault, rape, or abuse.
The elements that might make such an event traumatic are not altogether clear, but they often include a perceived threat, (typically unexpected), fear, and feeling stuck. Those elements can apply to any kind of traumatic event like a tornado, car accident, or earthquake, and they can also lead to significant distress hours, days, weeks, even months after the event. The survivor’s life has been disrupted, and their (likely subconscious) core beliefs about the world are challenged, or broken. The classic example is the general belief that, “terrible things don’t happen to me”. And then there’s an earthquake. Another example would be that “I’m safe,” when driving for instance, and then you’re in a serious car accident.
When the trauma is interpersonal, meaning something that is done by one person to another, (or multiple people to multiple others), our core beliefs on an interpersonal level are shattered. Again, we believe terrible things won’t happen to us and that we’re safe. We might believe we are safe enough to walk outside at night, or to go out on a date, or to disagree with our spouse, but the assault or the rape teaches us otherwise. We might believe this person loves us, cares about us, is truthful, wouldn’t hurt us, that we can trust them; but then that person molests or abuses. A survivor learns that terrible things do happen to him or her, that they are not safe, that people don’t care as they thought they did and that they will hurt to you, violating your trust.
Not only does the survivor have to deal with the physical effects of the abuse, the emotional distress, the guilt and shame and hurt, he or she also has to deal with a powerful new set of core beliefs that have likely overtaken the old “innocent” ones. The shift in perspective can be subconscious, she may not even realize it has happened or is happening. As she stops walking alone at night or he stops allowing people to get close to him, they begin a pattern of avoidance that reinforces those beliefs that were true for them at one time, but hopefully are the exceptions, not the rules.
How Do We Move Forward?
Of course, as unfair as it is, some people and places aren’t safe. So while it is important to recognize that the traumatic experience(s) are (typically and hopefully) not the norm, it is also important to recognize that they were still true experiences and it wouldn’t be wise to just right them off and ignore them. So how can we reconcile the new shift in core beliefs and world views with the old?
Renewing a Shattered World View
When someone experiences a sexual trauma, they have correctly learned that the perpetrator is not to be trusted, is not safe, and is not caring for them well. The difficulty is that often that belief is generalized to all teachers or pastors or dates or friends, rather than true about that one person. An important piece to remember here is that that kind of reaction, generalization, or new set of beliefs makes sense. The things you learned were true at the time, and it makes sense that you would want to avoid that kind of scenario again and that you’d want to be extra careful in the future. It takes time, but over time, with help, and with good discernment the survivor can take a closer look at how their core beliefs or worldview may have shifted, and work towards a more complete and healthy set of beliefs.
Then vs. Now
There are plenty of ways to work through and modify your own beliefs, even they’ve been shattered and put back together in difficult, stressful, or unhealthy ways. You can look at your traumatic experience, but also look at your other good or neutral experiences of similar people or people with similar roles who have not perpetrated, or even other experiences doing the same kind of activities when everything was okay and you were safe. You can also take intentional steps to remind yourself that those things were true then, but that you are safe now. There are lots of ways to work towards healing from the kind of shock, betrayal, and shifts that so often come with sexual trauma.
If you’ve experienced trauma and are interested in exploring how that event may have affected and shaped your worldview, give me a call. I would love to walk through this with you.
Written by therapist Clair Miller
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