Healing Imagery: Soothing the hurt child

When others don’t believe you, the pain can be real. You can feel lost inside yourself, trapped by a swirl of chaotic emotions that you don’t know how to deal with. In my case, at least, I often feel the need to “fix things.” To find whatever kinks there are in my machine and repair them. To dig through all the layers and analyze, piece by piece, what needs to be done to make things better-to make things perfect-again.

But sometimes we all just need to sit with the pain. We just need to acknowledge that we are hurt, and that we are having these emotions. My counselor gave me an interesting visual exercise to think on today during our session, and it goes a little something like this:

Sometimes, nobody believes you. Sometimes, others can’t give you the justification you feel that you need. Sometimes, and maybe all your life, there is no one who will simply gather you into their arms, hold you close and softly whisper that everything will be okay. Sometimes, nobody will even notice that anything is wrong.

This is when we need to step in and parent/comfort ourselves. My counselor today brought up a very interesting exercise. Imagine a child inside of yourself. Not in a pregnant sort of way, but just imagine the visual image of a hurt child. A little, weak, vulnerable child that has experienced pain- that could possibly be crying, whimpering, etc. Imagine a small, innocent YOU, at your rawest and most base form of emotion, and picture yourself as that hurt child.

Then imagine yourself comforting that child. Say to that hurt child: everything WILL be okay. I believe you. I know you are hurting right now, but it won’t always be that way. I will take care of you. I will listen to you. And everything WILL be okay.

The point here is not to create multiple personalities for yourself, but rather to be in charge of comforting and believing in yourself. To take a moment to feel the hurt, to feel the pain, or whatever you might be feeling at the time, and accept and love yourself for that. Comfort yourself like you would comfort a small child, crying from a scraped knee. And be as gentle towards yourself as towards that small, hurt child. In psychology, this technique is called “reparenting.” Whether you had bad parents, or simply need to retrain how an abuser warped your perspective, this can be a helpful tool for visual/imaginative learners.

As someone once said to me, believe in yourself, because if you don’t do that, who else will believe in you? In my experience, I find that we are often more harsh with ourselves than we are with others. We try to hold ourselves to higher standards than we would ever ask of someone else. The same holds true with how we view our healing process. I try to push it, try to force myself to be better, to deal with a situation, to “fix” the problem and “get over it.” But sometimes, it takes just being that small child, and comforting yourself, with the knowledge that the scrape on your knee (the pain, etc.) will pass eventually.

Take Back Control of Your Life

In earlier blogs, I mentioned that certain steps should be taken (in my opinion/experience) to further the healing process. So far, I have discussed defining the situation as abuse, getting distance from the perpetrator, and building a support group by telling certain family and friends.

But all of these baby steps reflect a larger and more general goal – To take back control of your life. If you’ve been abused, the general scenario is that someone else controlled your life; your emotions, your actions, etc., for some length of time.

Now that you’ve taken the above-mentioned baby steps (and perhaps even before some of them) it is time to reclaim your life for yourself. To focus on what makes you tick, where you find enjoyment.

This can be a scary thought. My immediate reaction when considering this option was goodness, Lauren, stop being so selfish. Me, me, me. But what about others?

My response now: Taking care of yourself does NOT mean that you are being selfish. In fact, it is my belief that it is necessary to take care of yourself before you are capable of properly caring for others. It’s like the oxygen masks on an airplane. You have to put yours on first before you can help someone else with theirs. If you are not in a state of calm, how can you convince someone else not to panic?

I spent most of my life believing that I had to please everyone: to keep the peace, not ruffle any feathers, to make others lives less difficult. Don’t be a troublemaker, I told myself (though I couldn’t help it), don’t be so talkative, don’t do this, don’t do that. I was binding myself by restrictions that looking back I realize were mostly silly. I forced those restrictions on myself in the hopes that I could be “good enough” for my abuser. That he would care if I fit the checklist of perfection.

The smallest step can mean the biggest growth in taking back our lives for ourselves. Start with enjoying activities that you like. Not that others like, or that others will think are cool. But with activities/things that you like.

Next, take control of your communication channels. Change your phone number if you need to to get away from negative situations. I had to do this, and so far I think it was one of my better decisions. Free yourself from contact with those who would do nothing but drag down your self-esteem, be unkind, or not be understanding/sympathetic. I also had to block my ex on Facebook to get away. And that’s okay.

Be in control of your situation and free yourself from the fear of your abuser contacting you, communicating with you. If further steps need to be taken to achieve this, then don’t be afraid to take them.

I think ultimately, taking back control of your life means learning to love yourself for exactly who you are in this moment. All your flaws, all your hardships, everything that’s happened in the past. The mistakes you’ve made, yes. But even more than that, start paying attention to your good qualities, and focus time and effort into those.

What am I good at? What do I like to do? I like to volunteer, write, and read. So I find time to do those things. Don’t worry about whether or not you see yourself as good at something. If you like to write, then write. It doesn’t matter that you’re not Shakespeare. Try this brief writing exercise out. If you like to dance, then dance. Youtube has some great teaching videos.

The point is, find the parts of you YOU love and invest in them. Find what you are good at and remind yourself of that daily. This is the hardest part for me to accept, as I am a perfectionist. But learning to love yourself is the first step towards letting others love you.

So take back control of your life. Take control of your communication, your friendships, your daily activity choices. Take control of loving yourself. I am trying to learn how to do this. Because if you love yourself, you don’t need the not-so-lovey, “love” that your abuser “gave” you.

To read about one woman’s journey to reclaiming her life for herself, check out Eat. Pray. Love, a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. There is a movie about it yes, but it is the book that helped me, the movie takes a lot of the spiritual journey out of the story. Although this novel is about a woman overcoming divorce, the general search for healing can be very enlightening and informative and I definitely recommend it to those searching for personal peace of any kind.

Healing with poetry

This is an exercise I would encourage everyone to try. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a poem, and it doesn’t have to be amazing or publisher-worthy. Just try writing down how you feel about your abuse. In a summary, perhaps no longer than 1 page, write exactly how you feel about what happened and where you are now in this moment. My friend encouraged me to do this for her art project concerning people who have experienced sexual abuse, and I thought I would share with you what I wrote, as well as encourage you to do the same.

I find that writing can be very therapeutic, as well as helpful in sorting through what can be extremely muddled and chaotic emotions. I encourage anyone who does this exercise to post it as a comment on my blog. Let’s start a shared space, and share our mutual experiences.

Here’s mine:

Anger flows like pain
Flows like ink
I try to write the pain away
Try to dance the pain away
Try to draw the pain away

I numb and I run
But it screams through the drugs
Chases me down
I can’t escape

Finally, one day
I face the pain
I learn acceptance
I feel the anger
Feel the hurt
Stop trying to numb
Stop trying to hide, repress, and deny
I face the pain head on

It takes ages
I’m still working
The healing process seems never-ending
But I see the light
The sun is rising
Hope lies just ahead

Slowly
Droplet by droplet
Peace seeps in
The anger slips away
Healing will follow
Healing is there

But I must fight for it
With both hands
With all my heart

Bitterness will not conquer
I will be whole again

The Power of Vulnerability

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
-Albert Einstein

I think this change of perception towards yourself is a very hard concept when healing from abuse. I wrote in an earlier blog, that the experience of being abused can destroy your self-confidence, your self-worth. It can warp and destroy your self-image, and create a false perspective in life, making the fish in you believe it is stupid for not being able to climb a tree.

Like the fish in the quote above, you have been judged by unfair standards. Perhaps all your life. You have been told you are not good enough, and not only told, but made to believe it. But once you realize that you are not a fish (ie- you were not in the wrong in this situation, you ARE good enough, life can be beautiful and you can find someone who will love and respect you), you begin to view yourself in a more fair light. You begin to set boundaries and demand the respect that allows others to judge you as you are, not as you have been told to be.

When you’ve experienced hurt, opening up again can be very difficult. It is not easy to trust people again, to love fully, to live with an open heart. Letting people in, and knowing that not everyone will hurt you is not an easy concept to grasp. The struggle is to learn to identify the ones to stay away from; the ones who won’t respect the boundaries you set, the decisions you make. You learn to stay away from the people who don’t support you, who don’t love you enough to help you through your battles. You pick the people who lift you up, who help see you for how you truly are: a person with flaws, yes, but with a beautiful gift to offer to the world.

Brené Brown is a psychologist who studies human connection and what makes people feel fulfillment in life. What she found, ultimately, was that the ability to make oneself vulnerable to life- to open up to the possibility of hurt- actually makes people happier. When you numb yourself to one emotion-pain, disappointment, etc. (perhaps through drugs, sex, etc.)- you numb yourself to joy, to happiness, to wonder; to all the things that make life worth living.

The video below is Brown’s talk given to the TED conference in Houston. It discusses the power of vulnerability, and the positive effect being vulnerable can have on each of our lives. The message is beautiful and I wanted to share it.

I know it’s hard to open up again, to trust again, after you have suffered the trauma of abuse. But being vulnerable, taking that risk with your heart-whether it’s opening up to new friends, new romantic relationships, that conversation you didn’t think you had the courage to have- can be terrifying. But if you don’t take that risk, that leap of faith, if you numb yourself to vulnerability, you also numb yourself to the possibility of success, the possibility of fulfillment.

The effect of abuse on my self-esteem

It is hard enough to recognize and accept the signs of being abused as physical or verbal actions taken by the abuser. However, I think it is even harder to recognize the effects that a person, as a victim, suffers internally.

The way my abusers made me feel was awful, to put it simply. They were both guys and were controlling, overbearing, perfectionistic, manipulative and lying. They both became violent, often physically, when they didn’t get their way. And when I was out-of-line with their wishes, my personal safety would sometimes be threatened.

I didn’t realize any of this until I had my aha! moment and even for sometime afterwards.

Aside from the obvious, what these people did, and the way they treated me, made me feel worthless. They were overly critical, and constantly accused me of not being good enough, not being pretty enough. I didn’t do my hair correctly, dress the right way. And ultimately, they brought me down in any way possible, to a level where they could be in control. If I didn’t feel good about myself, then obviously I didn’t know how to live my life. This made me believe I needed someone to direct me, because I wasn’t good enough to direct myself.

As for my younger years, once the sexual abuse ended, the physical and verbal continued. And I feel like the verbal abuse was the most difficult of all to cope with, and is the most lingering in my healing process.

For me, the hardest part of suffering from abuse is the way it makes you feel about yourself. It made ME feel bad. And for a long time, I never thought that the blame did not lay with me, but with him.

In my mind, that had been warped by the way I was conditioned to view myself, I was not good enough. I couldn’t do anything right. I was a ridiculous, over-exaggerating, clumsy Klutz who was flaky and couldn’t be trusted. I was incapable of taking care of myself. I never felt pretty, or loved, or respected. And what’s worse, I never felt like I SHOULD be any of those things.

This is my battle. This is the hardest part in dealing with what happened. How do I change my mind and see myself as beautiful and wonderful? How do I learn to trust myself and believe that I am worth it?

This is my current struggle, and I open this post to comments, feedback, and advice from any users. What has helped you the most to regain what your abuser took from you? How do you build your self-esteem again once it has been so demolished?

Get Help: Helpful Resources

I’ve mentioned support in your personal life. Now here are some resources, mostly in Austin, Texas, that I have found helpful (and one that I didn’t try that might be of use to you, if you’re a UT student). Even if you do not live in Austin, you could always call some of these organizations and do phone counseling/have them refer you to a place near you.

Safeplace:
Mission: SafePlace exists to end sexual and domestic violence through safety, healing, prevention and social change.
SafePlace… Provides Safety for individuals and families affected by sexual and domestic violence.
Helps victims in their Healing so they can move beyond being defined by the crimes committed against them, and become Survivors.
Promotes safe and healthy relationships for the Prevention of sexual and domestic violence.
Works with others to create Change in attitudes, behaviors and policies that perpetuate the acceptance of, and impact our understanding and responses to, sexual and domestic violence.

Website: http://www.safeplace.org/
Phone: 512.267.SAFE (for 24 counseling/more info)

Voices Against Violence:
CMHC Voices Against Violence (VAV) is a program of the Counseling and Mental Health Center at The University of Texas at Austin. VAV addresses issues of:
Dating/Relationship Violence
Sexual Violence
Stalking
Our programs are designed to serve the needs of the diverse UT population with information, education, training, advocacy, counseling, and referral services.
Services for Survivors and Allies include:
Individual Counseling
Anonymous Telephone Counseling
Group Counseling
Connection to resources in the community
Advocacy services which may include legal, medical, academic, and/or housing support

Website: http://cmhc.utexas.edu/vav.html
Phone: 512-471-CALL (2255) (UT Students Only)

Overcoming Sexual Abuse Website:
Overcoming Sexual Abuse began as a mother & daughter team, Christina Enevoldsen & Bethany Ruck, survivors of childhood sexual abuse. When we looked for an online support group for ourselves, our search turned up two types of groups: The first type was extremely supportive and nurturing, but lacked any belief or commitment to actually getting better. It was merely a place to share struggles, yet without hope of finding a way out. The second type was very uplifting and encouraging, yet gave the impression that healing was a matter of determination and positive attitude. We knew from our own healing journey that all of those were necessary to heal, but we also knew that without practical answers and tools for recovery there would be no permanent improvement. Since we didn’t find what we were looking for, we started our own group and Overcoming Sexual Abuse was born.

Website: http://overcomingsexualabuse.com/

These are some technical tools if you will for the healing process. These are professional resources designed to target and directly assist the victims with many levels of healing. Whether it is home relocation, counseling, group sessions, job searches for victims, or just someone to talk to, these resources can save you in a million ways. Overcoming Sexual Abuse is a website I found that compiles the writings of several people (women mostly) and their personal experiences, struggles, paths to healing, etc. While it doesn’t directly counsel victims, I have found some of the articles to be very encouraging and enlightening, and show my situation from different perspectives, several more forgiving than my own.

Building a Support Group 2: Telling your family

Having the support of your parents.

This can mean everything. I mentioned before the need to have someone in your life who will support you unconditionally. Telling my closest girlfriend was one thing. But telling my family was an entirely different experience. In a previous blog (click here for link), I mentioned that I even lied to my family at first.

I didn’t want to worry them or upset them. I was scared they wouldn’t care. Scared they wouldn’t believe me. And part of me still wonders whether or not, if my sister had not opened up, they ever would have listened. Getting up the courage to talk to you family is no laughing matter. But, at least for me, this was an essential part of the healing process.

A week after I lied to my mom, I called her back on the phone. She answered. “Mom,” I said. “It did happen to me also.” My mom broke. She and I have not always had the best relationship, I’ll admit it. And about a decade ago, it’s doubtful that she ever would’ve listened to what I had to say regarding this. But times change, people soften, and my mother (through much hardship, tears and apologies) has transformed into a rock for me. An anchor that holds me fast. Opening up to her about everything has brought to light how she experienced the same thing when she was younger. My mom, my sister, and I have formed our own support group, one of mutual experience and understanding, that has been invaluable to my healing process.

I was lucky to have such supportive parents in this. It made my healing process much easier. However, I also know that several victims, especially those whose parents were the perpetrators, never know that peace. It can be hard when that is the case. I have a friend who found herself in that exact situation and it has certainly affected her life. But in general, I view her as a very happy and fulfilled woman. One of those I look up to as my healing progresses. However, that is not my story to share, and not the path that this blog will take. Though there are many people, blogs, sites, etc., that you may visit if that is your particular situation. And I strongly encourage you to do so if that fits you.

That is why it is important to seek support outside of the family as well. Because, even if they don’t support you. Someone will. Someone will believe you, and sympathize, and understand. Someone will love you, and take your cares to heart, and make your worries their own.

My parents severed all contact between me and the perpetrator, someone who was very close to us. It was my move, my choice, my decision about everything. That is something I am very grateful for. And also, that is the way I think it should be. It is all right to take some space, to remove yourself from a dangerous situation. You don’t have to pretend like everything is okay when it’s not. Telling the family is just another way of building your support system. They can be an invaluable resource, and a rock. Even if they cannot DO anything to “fix” the problem. They can listen and care for you while you find your own path to healing.

It can be terrifying to open up, to share a secret that makes you feel so ashamed, so dirty, so guilty. But, and I have to remind myself of this all the time, it’s not your guilt, it’s not my guilt, it’s someone’s who was supposed to know better and chose not to act decently.

Ultimately, I believe the path to healing lies on the road to being honest with yourself, being honest with others, accepting what happened, and then learning to move beyond it. In my experience, without one of those steps, the process can never truly be complete. And it is better to just know. To truly know how people will react, how your family will take things, if they will support you or not. It is better to know for sure, one way or the other, rather than spend your entire life wondering, worrying, having it hang in the background of your mind. The lingering “what-if.”