My first passion for psychology stemmed out of an interest in trauma work. And I’m partial to treating adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I have seen an influx of clients lately who are healing from this type of early abuse. When I get an influx of clients handling a particular issue or a particular aspect of a trauma, it can usually indicate that I have something very specific to learn about the bigger picture.
I recently had a realization in working with trauma clients who survived childhood sexual abuse that there is an insidious thing that happens – especially if the perpetrator was any good at what they did. In witnessing the stories and personality cadences of my clients, I saw that the perpetrator’s talent was in teaching the child how to continue to perpetrate the abuse upon herself. It shows up as self-hatred, self-flagellation, criticism, insecurity, self-rejection, self-deprecation and just down right ugly self-talk.
For me, this was a key. The wonderful thing about finding such a maladaptive pattern is that there is a way to work WITH the client to help her to protect herself. The deeper the wounding or abuse (which considers DIF - duration, intensity and frequency) the more likely the survivor of abuse would coil into a pattern of self-abuse through how she perceived herself, talked to herself, and related to others. The deeper the wounding, the more likely my survivor client would continue to abuse herself – behavior taught by the original abuse and the original abuser.
So now I ask a client to look at her negative self talk as it relates to the original abuse and abuser. I am able to gently challenge the client to be in alignment with who she truly is at her core. I often find that she does not want to be in agreement with the original abuser who taught her to turn on herself. If she can begin to see that she has aligned with the abuse and the abuser and begun to turn on herself, may begin to be in a greater place of choice and freedom. She can choose to align with the abuser, to re-abuse herself and become a metaphorical suicide bomber OR she can decide to switch teams from terrorist squad to gentle and benevolent squad or even self-protection squad. Once she makes the link that the trauma taught her to turn the abuse upon herself I find that she is usually more willing to make a new alignment with her child-self. Instead of colluding with the abuser and putting herself down, she may defy the abuser and protect her child-self who was not allowed protection.
At every turn I try to make a game out of it. “Oh, OK, so your outfit looks lame? Is that the abuser re-abusing you or is that your authentic YOU?”
“So you say you’re not an interesting conversationalist? No one likes you? That’s funny because I find you very likeable and you have compelling stories to tell?”
From there I may ask, “Who decided you were a poor conversationalist or were unlikable? Would that be YOU or the abuser?”
I’m careful not to force the choice. Instead, I can invite my client to advocate for herself. Once she sees the pattern of self-abuse, she can decide if she wants to do things differently. She may not have had a choice in the past. The joy of seeing a maladaptive pattern is that it brings her freedom to remain in the pattern or to step in a different direction. I find that she almost always does want to advocate for herself. She can end the pattern of abuse here and begin to validate the child who was silenced.
I applaud my clients and all individuals who courageously move forward after sexual abuse. My hope is that when they have the choice to see themselves as deserving compassion they can see the beauty and light that I am able to see in them. It is truly a joy and a privilege to do this kind of work.