“Reaching In”

excerpted from
The Right to Innocence: Healing the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Beverly Engel, M.F.C.C.
Pages 1-4

In addition to reaching out for help, you will also need to reach within yourself during your recovery process. Your biggest ally will be your emotions. Through them, you will learn more about what really happened to you, how the abuse affected you, and what you need to do in order to heal. Your emotions will enable you to reclaim the self you long ago hid away.

Typically, victims of childhood sexual abuse have a difficult time expressing their feelings. They are more accustomed to minimizing their pain and hiding how they really feel, both from themselves and from others. They often become frightened whenever they feel anything intensely, be it anger, pain, fear, or even love and joy. They fear that their emotions will consume them or make them crazy. They imagine their emotions spilling out, creating havoc in their lives.

But the more repressed our feelings, the more likely that they will burst out of us when we least expect it. Strong feelings repressed for too long become uncontainable; they can result in our overreacting or reacting inappropriately, our becoming irrational or being prone to “temper tantrums.” You will not “go crazy” if you allow yourself to feel and express your strong emotions. On the contrary, you are more likely to have emotional disorders from resisting, denying, and not expressing your feelings. If you consistently and constructively express your feelings as they occur, instead of holding them in, then a sense of personal power results. You will find that you are more in control of your emotions, not less.

Why we come to deny our feelings

Victims of childhood sexual abuse have been taught by their parents to suppress and deny their feelings. Usually, at least one parent was very out of touch with his or her own feelings. This nonexpressive, nonaffectionate parent would discourage any overt display of emotion in the household. As a child you may have also been told, “You’re too sensitive,” or, “You feel too strongly about things.”

Children learn to deny their personal feelings when they live in a home in which everyone is busy ignoring the reality of how bad things really are. Even before the sexual abuse occurred, you may have been physically, emotionally, or verbally abused by one or both of your parents or caretakers. Time after time, you may have been told that nothing had happened, even though you knew it had.

When the sexual abuse began, we were again told that nothing was wrong. Swayed by the smooth-talking adult, we began to deny our body signals, dismissed our doubts and fears, and ultimately complied. In addition, we very likely began to master “spacing out” (splitting or dissociating) to avoid pain. Eventually we called on it to cope with any painful situation. We buffered ourselves from the world, operating as if in a fog. As a result, when we became adults we found ourselves seldom complete mentally and emotionally present when interacting with others. Unfortunately, this survival mechanism served to exclude us from being in the real world, from learning how to relate successfully to others; we thus became isolated and disconnected from others and ourselves.

Some survivors pride themselves at their ability to withstand physical pain; they see it as a sign of strength. They “keep going,” in spite of injuries, illnesses, and symptoms that would otherwise sideline most people. This ability to ignore pain contributes to the delusion that other problems will also go away if only ignored long enough. The price to be paid for all this avoidance and denial is to never be fully alive, to truly feel.

The emotional and mental splitting from your body that formerly meant your survival during the abuse is now backfiring. Your perpetual state of slumber has become a waking nightmare. Your real self is hidden, out of reach. You are out of contact with your own body. In order to recover, you will have to re-learn to integrate your body with your mind, and your emotions with your thoughts. Emotions are not just states of mind, they are also states of body.

As a victim, you may be so emotionally and psychologically cut off from your body that you literally do not know how you feel at any given time. Usually you try to think about how you are feeling. As an alternative to that, try to start paying attention to how your body expresses emotion. Our bodies experience a different set of physical sensations for each emotion. When we feel angry, our muscles become tense, anticipating action. When we feel sad our throats become constricted, our eyes begin to water. Fear can cause us to lift up our shoulders, cover up our stomachs, and stiffen our bodies. We each have our own ways of physically expressing how we feel. Begin to notice your body signals, and you will learn to differentiate one feeling from another.

We also need to change our beliefs about feelings. There is no “positive” or “negative” feeling. All feelings are natural and good. We need to learn that anger is not a negative emotion. It is what we do with it that makes is constructive or destructive. If we repress it or turn it against ourselves, it becomes destructive. If we take it out on someone who doesn’t deserve it, it has served no good purpose. But if we vent it in a positive way, such as talking it out with the person we are angry with or beating a pillow, it becomes constructive. We also need to realize that OUT feelings will not perpetuate themselves forever. We may fear that if we start crying we will never stop. But we will cry only as long as there are tears to be shed, as long as it takes to reach a sense of completion, however partial. We may be afraid that if we get angry there will be no end to it. But we will be angry only as long as there is anger to be expressed.

If we want to be fully alive-able to love and enjoy other people, share our thoughts and feelings with friends and loved ones, break out of our isolation-then we must be willing to take the risk and allow ourselves to feel and express all our emotions.

Your inner child

When you were a child you were in touch with your emotions far more than you are now as an adult. In order to reconnect with emotions you long ago cut off, it will be necessary for you to reach inside yourself to reconnect with your inner child. Most of us forget the small child that is a part of us, the child we were, with her fears, insecurities, and desperate need to be loved. But within all of us, this inner child still exists.

In order to heal the wounds of our past we must love, comfort, and nurture the little child within us. Get to know your inner child. Learn to treat her as a good parent would a cherished son or daughter. Listen to her needs. Your inner child needs to learn to trust that you (the adult part of you) will not be neglectful and abusive like the other adults in her life have been. Unfortunately, we often end up perpetuating the cycle by being as neglectful and abusive toward our inner child as our parents were toward us. We ignore our child; we are ashamed of her, we do not take care of her in appropriate ways. We pretend that her feelings of fear and insecurity and her need to be loved do not exist.

Start by remembering what kind of a child you were. Close your eyes and visualize your child at a time when she was very much in need of nurturing and protection. Take in the entire image, including facial expression and body posture. You may see yourself as a baby, a toddler, or an older child the image is significant, since it may represent when you were most in need. Accept this inner child, who has been emotionally starved and had to pretend that feelings did not exist. Don’t continue depriving her of the love and support she so urgently cries out for.

A good way to identify and care for your inner child is to buy a stuffed animal or doll for her. Do you remember the wonderful warmth and security you felt by holding your special childhood toy? Your inner child needs that comfort once again. Take your inner child to a store and spend lots of time choosing just the right stuffed animal or doll for her recovery process. Many people resist the idea of getting a stuffed animal-it’s “silly” and “childish,” and hugging an animal seems embarrassing. But most of my clients get past this quickly, once they let themselves feel the comfort it brings and realize the extent to which the child in them needs nurturing.

Stacey was one of them: “When we first talked about a stuffed animal I thought the idea was ridiculous. But one day while shopping I noticed the most darling stuffed dog. I couldn’t resist picking it up. All of a sudden I found myself having feelings of love for it. Now when I feel afraid or alone I hug my dog, and I don’t feel so bad.” Similarly, Barbara resisted buying a toy for some time, but finally gave in. Much to her surprise, and even though she does not fully understand why, she feels comforted by it. She confided, “Last night I searched desperately for my bear before I went to bed.”

Another way to acknowledge and nurture your inner child is to have a dialogue with her. This can be a verbal or written dialogue, an imaginary conversation between the adult part of you and the child part of you. Start your dialogue with a question like “How are you today?” or “What’s the matter?” or “You seem upset, is something bothering you?” With practice, your inner child will express what she is feeling. The adult will then be able to listen to the child, soothe her, and become her “good” parent.

While you work on each step of your recovery program, continue your dialogue with your inner child. Check with her often to see how she feels. Listen to her closely. She will tell you what you need in order to feel safer and more secure. She will also tell you when you are neglecting her (your emotional needs). If you give her what she needs, you will be better able to continue in your recovery process to completion.