-Sharie Stines, Psy. D
“Resilience, rather than pathology should become the standard expectation in the aftermath of trauma.” –Aaron Levin
Are you a victim, parent, or in a counseling capacity, wondering how to help yourself or your loved one cope with the trauma and horror of sexual assault? Whether the crime was child molestation, rape, sodomy or some other sordid type of sexual perversion inflicted upon you or your loved one, the aftereffects can be devastating. Victims of sexual assault struggle with their sense of safety in the world, sense of personhood, and value as a human being. After experiencing the crime of being objectified and humiliated by another human being for base purposes, the victim is never the same again.
This is not to say that healing is not possible, because, in fact, healing is very probable; however, once you have been the victim of a violent sexual crime you have been through a “life defining event” that changes you forever.
The road to healing is not “one size fits all,” for each person’s journey is different. One victim of sexual abuse may tell his family what happened and be told that they’re lying; while another person may be able to experience full cooperation from their family members as well as the community, and may even see their perpetrator brought to justice. This is to say, the events surrounding the assault have their effects as well as the crime itself does on the victim.
One thing I am most certain of is that you cannot heal from sexual assault unless you are willing to face the truth, talk about it, share your story with empathic others, grieve your loss of trust and sense of security in the world, and feel your pain until you have completed the process of grief.
In order to face the truth, defense mechanisms must be challenged. These have the faces of denial, minimization, forgiving too soon, dismissing, dissociating, addictions, intellectualizing, and a variety of other creative methods of numbing reality.
Resilience must be built. Resilience factors include: healthy connections with others, the ability to self-soothe difficult emotions, cognitive flexibility, principle-driven living, positive outlook on future (hope), an internal locus of control (that is, you see that you have some power over your own life), and the ability to experience positive emotions more often than negative ones. If you don’t have the qualities required for resilience already, the good news is that they can be learned and developed over time.
Resilience, in my opinion, is the number one necessary ingredient for overcoming any type of trauma, and this would include sexual assault. One aspect of resilience is to not only focus on the need for healing the wounds caused by the trauma, but also to focus on the “Post Traumatic Growth” resulting from the life altering experience. Post Traumatic Growth emphasizes that strengths can emerge through suffering and the resulting struggle to overcome.
Yes, PTSD is a result of trauma and must be addressed; but, PTG has been found to exist as well. Many survivors and thrivers of trauma actually realize that they have learned some valuable wisdom. Survivors have found their inner strength and resolve, tenacity and hope. Without embracing denial, reality can be faced, challenged, grieved, and accepted. The survivor of sexual abuse rises up and discovers that he or she is whole. She or he triumphs in self-empowerment, able to face the rest of his or her life boldly.