While most of my blogs stay gender-neutral, this writing might have a strong slant toward a female audience. Sexual abuse affects both genders and needs to be addressed for all children.
That said, it does seem to be more prevalent for little girls. And the impact it has on girls as a population is devastating. It shows in the body as chronic illness and pain caused by unexpressed emotions of shame, fear and grief. It shows in relationship through all forms of domestic violence and codependence. It shows through wage gaps and unfulfilled purposes and careers. There is no aspect of life that is not permeated by the effects of sexual abuse.
But why? So many of us leave abusive homes and believe we have escaped our trauma. I remember leaving for college, and although I didn’t remember my abuse, I was hopeful that things would be different, that I could finally live a happy, undisturbed life. But as most of you already know, that didn’t happen. It wasn’t going to happen. And it doesn’t happen for any of us after a childhood of sexual abuse. And it doesn’t make sense. We do everything it takes to stop the cycle. We work hard. We do our best to avoid people like our abusers. We try to make people happy. We exhaust ourselves trying to make life better.
But nothing changes. We go from one bad relationship to another. We get mistreated by people constantly. It seems like the entire universe is against us. With all our efforts to make our external life the best possible life, we have missed one very critical affect of our abuse. The very thing that saved us in childhood is now destroying our adult lives. What is that one thing? Dissociation. It hides the truth from us as well as everyone else. It takes the impacts of abuse and pushes them deep inside, so we can cover all the trauma with a bright-colored mask that looks just like the world wants us to look. Over time, we forget it’s there. We stop hearing it. And if we do hear it, we ignore it.
And one of the most devastating aspects of dissociation is the unconscious belief system we hold. We have “learned” things about how the world works through our traumatic experiences. And no matter what we say to the outside world, those unconscious beliefs manifest. Let’s talk about the beliefs I have discovered in myself and others on this healing journey.
- My body is my livelihood. I am only good for what my body can provide to another person. In other words, I am only good for sex. To make matters worse, if my body ages, or is damaged through the detrimental effects of long-term trauma, I no longer have any value. This belief has been detrimental to my attempts to establish worth outside of my body. I have many college degrees. I have been relatively successful working in teams to implement projects in corporate America. But any time I have attempted to establish my own value within a corporation or as an entrepreneur, I can hear that voice telling me I can’t. I am only good for one thing.
- Sex and love are the same thing. If I want to be loved, the only way I will receive that love is through sex. Love is not possible in any other way. I cannot find love through the caring and supportive expression from others. That doesn’t really happen for me. If I want any kind of positive attention, it must come through sex. This belief has led to many detrimental relationships with bad partners who had no other way of expressing love, leaving me without any hope of feeling truly unconditionally loved for who I am.
- People only want one thing. If anyone gives me any positive attention at all, it is because they want sex in return. If I make myself visible to others in any major way, I will attract sexual attention. This belief has been the main reason for my isolation. I have made many decisions to stay small and isolated so that I could avoid sexual attention that I didn’t want. I also have a tendency toward “frumpiness”. If I have the option to dress in fleece and flannel, I will take it. Covering up my body has always been my strategy to keep from being noticed. And honestly, it has worked for me. I’ve been invisible for a long time.
- My boundaries don’t matter. My need for space is of no importance if there are others in my life who need something too. I don’t have the right to say no to sex or any other request. If someone wants something from me, it is my job to provide. This belief was the detriment to my well-being for the bulk of my early adulthood. And I have to say it was the first belief to be chucked out. That makes sense. It is impossible to live life with this belief and not go absolutely crazy. It is common for this belief to be replaced with the opposite belief of “say no to everything”. And as we heal, that may be necessary. So be it.
I want to be clear about these beliefs. Just like trauma, they live on a continuum. Sex abuse may be the extreme version of the problem, but sexism lives on many levels. Sexually suggestive statements made to children, focus on children’s looks and weight and parentification are all examples of traumas that can create these belief systems on some level. It might be fair to say we all hold them to some degree.
So if you want to live a life of freedom, it is important to examine how these unconscious beliefs might be impacting your life. Believe it or not, these beliefs can be changed. You don’t have to live with them forever. But they do take time to unravel. It might require retrieving memories. It will require feeling emotions. And of course, without a doubt, there will be writing from those inner parts who hold these beliefs. But you can change these beliefs. You can stop the cycle and move toward the life you have always wanted. I promise. Give it a try. You deserve it.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW