Sexual abuse survivors develop coping mechanisms to survive not thrive. When safety is compromised, it is imperative that survivors protect themselves. The focus is in getting away from their bodies where the abuse is taking place. Natural childhood development is compromised.
The Overall Way Adult Survivors Feel About Themselves
When children live in fear and secrecy, they do not have a chance to develop good self-esteem. The nature of secrecy itself is damaging; often survivors believe that if anyone were to find out, they would be repulsed. Abuse leaves no room for a child to say no or to develop appropriate boundaries. An overall confusion about what is OK and what is not is established. If they do tell and are not believed or even blamed, then you cannot trust your own truth. Children need validation. When it is not given, they end up “feeling crazy” and do not trust themselves in adulthood.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often feel different, dirty, damaged, wounded, shameful and unlovable. These negative beliefs about oneself lead to low self-esteem. You may be successful out in the world but still struggle emotionally with these beliefs, particularly in your personal relationships.
Some people experience self destructive behaviors developed out of self-hatred and the belief you should be punished. Survivors can self-mutilate by cutting, picking at their skin or burning themselves. Survivors may also suffer from addictions to food, drugs, alcohol, men or women. They can feel suicidal or have attempted suicide.
Low self-esteem may lead survivors to seek abusive relationships where they experience physical abuse, sexual or emotional abuse from partners. They may be unable to protect themselves from harm, and get into dangerous situations by denying apparent warning signs.
Survivors can have a hard time nurturing themselves, feeling good, identifying their own needs and tend to focus on satisfying other’s needs instead.
Often not able to identify personal interests or nurture talents. You may be afraid of connecting with underlying passion therefore start and stop anything that you are good at. Not believing in yourself.
Survivors may have a fear of success and believe they will fail at whatever they want to do, have difficulty achieving and identifying goals. Or strive for unrealistic expectations believing you have to be perfect in performance. Some survivors are overachievers and have an excessive need to prove themselves, fearing failure
How Sexual Abuse Effects Feelings and Emotional Reactions
Abuse creates confusion and an inability to trust oneself. What you see is not what you get. Abusive adults don’t admit to it. Survivors constantly feel they have been hit over the head with a hammer, have a lump, feel the pain but no-one admits to holding the hammer. When you ask about it the response is what hammer? You are left feeling crazy, believing you are imagining things, or you are in a foreign country speaking a different language, nothing making sense. As a result you do not know what to believe or what is true and cannot trust yourself.
Often survivors think feelings not feel feelings. Surviving abuse means disconnecting from your body where you feel the sensations of sadness, anger, helplessness, fear or love. Children learn to dissociate from themselves which is a coping mechanism to get away from what your body is experiencing. Adults can experience habitual dissociation and do not realize that they are leaving the moment. Or feel detached, distant or far away all learned attempts to guard themselves from sexual abuse.
You may talk yourself out of what you feel. If someone hurt your feelings, you go into wondering if you have a right to feel hurt. You leave the ache in your body and go up into your head back and forth weighing should I feel this or shouldn’t I, do I have the right to feel this or that, is it good or bad? You lead yourself so far away from the hurt that you no longer have a clue that you are hurt or become so confused you have to completely back away because you are unable to deal effectively.
Feelings are not safe, so you learn to deaden or numb yourself. Certain feelings may be safer to feel then others. For instance, you may believe its OK to cry but not OK to show anger, or only be able to get angry, but underneath you feel hurt, afraid, helpless or sad. Instead every emotion is felt as anger. It may be hard to differentiate between your emotions.
Held in emotions often lead to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, trapped and claustrophobic. The energy of feeling is held back never going out but in, bombarding your system, causing you to shut down. You are left agitated and on alert but don’t know why. Hyper vigilance is experienced leaving you unable to relax, feel happy or know you are safe.
Children should not have sex of any kind. It is overwhelming, frightening and confusing. It is impossible to sort out and understand especially without a trusting adult. Therefore, survivors often do not deal with their abuse until later in life when they are able to make sense of it. Unfortunately survival skills override mastering other life skills and healthy coping mechanisms.
Next, we’ll discuss how childhood sexual abuse impacts survivors physically.