You don’t have to forgive your abuse to heal but you do have to forgive yourself. You were powerless to stop the sexual abuse or sexual assault. One minute you were minding your own business, enjoying life, and the next you’re in pain. Whether you were a child sleeping silently in your bed before your abuser came in and sexually violated you, or you were a young adult who was having fun at a party, until your rapist assaulted you, the sexual violation is not your fault.
Despite knowing this on a cognitive level, you still have horrible painful thoughts, where you blame yourself. You continuously replay the events. Scene by scene like a movie, you feel powerless as your mind keeps your assault movie constantly playing. You don’t know how to make it stop and this contributes to you feeling, “crazy” and “broken”.
You feel like you’re in your own personal hell. The abuser didn’t just hurt you sexually but he hurt you emotionally. Your world has been turned upside down and you no longer feel hopeful about your future. You isolate yourself because you don’t want to “fake” being happy and you don’t want to be a “burden” on others.
So how do you get out of this hell you’re experiencing? How do you let go of the self blame, the self hate, and how do you turn the movie off? Is it possible or are you destined to live like this forever?
There Is More To Your Life Than Pain and Suffering:
You’ve been in pain for so long and tried so many things, it can be hard to believe that there is a life outside your pain. I know you have felt like you have tried everything before and nothing has worked but there are things you can do to start to feel better, heal, and recover. The road to healing and recovery is not easy and it may also be very long. Healing is not a linear path, where you can check things off on a list and walk a straight line until everything is all better. Healing and recovery has many moving parts. Each part is like a puzzle piece. There’s a place for it to go and to fit. Slowly and methodically you can put the puzzle pieces together to make a puzzle of healing and recovery.
Putting Your Life Back Together and Forgiving Yourself
One of the puzzle pieces to focus on is forgiving yourself. Most sexual abuse and assault survivors blame themselves for what happened. The blame can look like wishing you would’ve fought more or it could be blame because your body responded sexually during the assault, becoming aroused, despite not wanting the rape to happen.
This is why this blog is going to focus on the puzzle piece of forgiving yourself. Forgiving yourself is so vital in the healing process. You don’t need to forgive the person who harmed you, but you do need to forgive yourself and your body for its betrayal. Otherwise you will continue to hate yourself, feel disconnected, and be in pain.
3 Tips To Forgiving Yourself, So You Can Be Free From Self Blame & Self Hate
#1: Engage in self compassion. Self compassion is the art of being gentle and empathetic to yourself. It’s being nice to yourself and not always criticizing who you are because of what happened. The brain unfortunately focuses on the negative, it’s a way of self protection and being aware of threats to your life. But being caught up all the time in negative thinking reinforces your self blame and self hate. It’s a horrible spiral, that if it continues unchecked, leaves you in chronic pain. Self compassion involves understanding and accepting that your body, during the abuse/assault, engaged in the survival mechanism that led you staying alive.
Once the Stress Response cycle kicked in there was no way for you to think through all your actions (this higher order thinking occurs in the cortex). Everything was done on an automatic unconscious basis (see more about the brain and Stress Response Cycle here). This includes your body shutting down and freezing as well as the biology of arousal. Yes, your body betrayed you in this moment but it’s the brains fault. The lower parts of the brain, who acted without your conscious awareness. It kept you alive during this assault, as that was it’s main focus. To do this it cut off your cortex, it was automatic, you couldn’t will it to do different no matter how hard you did or could have tried. (if you take away anything from this blog please remember this alone and repeat it daily to tackle that self blame).
Now it’s time to use that power of your cortex, the part that was cut off during the assault, the part that makes sense of things, to jump in when you’re feeling low and remind yourself that the assault was not your fault and that you are not to blame. Your brain did it’s job to keep you physically alive and now your cortex will do the emotional healing, which are outlined more in depth with the next 2 tips.
#2: Stay Connected to others. When you are a victim of sexual assault or child sexual abuse, you are wary of others and their motives. You unfortunately have experienced the worst of humanity and this makes you distrustful, unsafe, and unsure. On top of this, you feel uncomfortable with the way people look or treat you, as if you are fragile or broken. You want to feel “normal” and this can be hard with people who love and care about you always fawning over you. On the other hand you have changed. You feel different about yourself and different about your relationships. With all that is swirling around in your mind it’s no wonder that you begin to isolate yourself from others. It all just feels like too much to handle.
Despite all that is going on in your mind and your desire to isolate from others, don’t. It’s important that you stay connected to loved ones. People who do the opposite of what your abuser did, they show the best of humanity. This may be a best friend, a trusted family member, or joining a support group. There are so many parts to healing but relationships are the most important buffer, all the research and personal experience from other survivors bears this out. So resist the temptation to isolate.
Also remember that when people love/care about you they are ok supporting you were you are. You don’t need to put on a brave face, and in fact I think it’s important for your healing that when you reach out you say that you’re having a hard time. If possible be explicit about your needs. Maybe you just don’t want to be alone but you also don’t want to talk. Say that. Something like, “I’m feeling pretty bad today can we get together and get coffee. I don’t really want to talk but I also don’t want to be alone.” This is very vulnerable to say and it will feel hard, but your support system, whomever you have included in this, will understand. Even if they can’t meet that day if they give you a different day take them up on it. What’s important to remember here is that not everyone can be a good source of support, so please pick this person or persons carefully. Check out this handout about friends to give you more information about how to pick the right support person.
#3: Create a daily routine of Affirmations and gratitudes. Affirmations are the art of thinking about your unique gifts and keeping them at the forefront of your mind, especially when your not doing so great. Gratitudes are also used to help anchor you in the present, by highlighting the things that are currently going well. The use of affirmations and gratitudes is not to pretend that everything is all good and perfect, this is a fallacy that even I used to believe. When we are not feeling good we see everything through the prism of negativity. In this space we believe, that not only is the present moment bad but that we have a long history of bad things happening. This makes it very hard to believe that things can be different. When you incorporate a practice of affirmations and gratitudes you are taking a moment to notice what is going well. Bonus points if you track these moments.
As you start to have more days where you feel better and the negative thought cycle comes along you have something to look at that reminds you that everything is not and has not always been bad. Cognitive distortions, the belief that you and everything is all bad, are bread from rigid thinking. What we call black and white thinking. It’s either all one way. Affirmations and gratitudes allow for you to feel more open to the real fact that there is a lot more fluidity. Things are not all one way. You have good and you have bad. Even in your trauma. The good was that your biology works. Your Stress Response System kicked in and kept you alive. The bad is that you were targeted and harmed for no reason but the abuser chose to harm you. You did not do anything to cause it.
When first using affirmations and gratitudes, I highly suggest journaling every day. It doesn’t need to be a long story. Basically you create affirmation statements based on the positive things you feel about yourself, look yourself in the mirror and say them, at least once a day. For gratitudes just take a moment and notice what is going well. Maybe the sun is shinning and you love the way the sun feels on your skin. A simple sentence like, “today the sun was shinning and the warmth on my skin made me feel good”, is good. You’re just taking a brief moment to enjoy something positive.
By forgiving yourself you are letting go of the narrative of blame. When you forgive yourself you will begin to feel better and love yourself more. This is a critical part of your journey of healing and recovery.
If you have experienced child sexual abuse, assault, or any other sexual violation and your finding that the memories of it are haunting your present and causing you immense distress, then please reach out and get help. Therapy really does work and can help you put the pieces of your life back together. If your a survivor please Schedule Intake here I’d love to help you on path of healing and recovery.