What I Learned in Therapy Lesson 4: It wasn’t my fault
Therapy Lesson #4: I wasn’t responsible for the sexual abuse nor did I deserve any of it.
This was a VERY tough lesson. It’s a very tough lesson for most victims of abuse but especially so for people who experience long term abuse as children. So many of the circumstances around abuse and developmental truths about children can feed into the perception on the victim’s part that they “deserved” the abuse, they “asked” for the abuse or they are some kind of pathetic target for abuse because there is something fundamentally warped in them. We can have a very good cognitive understanding that it wasn’t our fault, but to get that emotionally? Long uphill battle. There is an almost incomprehensible level of shame around this subject, which doesn’t make it easy to talk about. But the only way to break through shame is to talk about it. Terrifying to say the least. Couple this with the fact that so many victims actually believe that if they get close to someone and let them know what happened, they’ll infect them with their “darkness.” So it took a very long time and being told over and over and experiencing compassion from so many people around me to learn this one.
OK let’s start with the basics as told to me by both my first therapist and the Boundary Ninja. Whenever there is sexual contact between a caregiver and a child, it is ALWAYS the caregivers responsibility. Always, no exceptions. Nope, not that situation either (whichever one you just started to offer as the exception). For starters, a child is dependent upon their caregiver for their very survival, and the will to live is extremely strong, so saying “no” to someone upon whom your live depends when you are small and powerless REALLY is not a possibility. I remember once talking to BN about some of the things I “did” to survive, in terms of “willingly” participating in the sexual abuse. I felt horrible and guilty and ashamed. He told me that I did what was necessary to survive and I told him that I was still ashamed, that there are things worse than death. To which the BN responded, that is a very advanced cognitive thought and not one available to a child. He was quite clear and firm about this one. What really helped me was to think of one of my daughters at four or five years old (as clearly as I can put it together which is fairly murky at best, to be honest, the abuse began when I was around four or five years old) telling me no about anything, let alone anything as ambiguous as sexual contact.
Children are not sexually mature and are therefore never seeking sex. They are asking for physical closeness, affection and comfort, all healthy needs in a child. Part of attachment theory was the understanding that a defenseless infant/child must stay close to an adult in order to be protected when a threat appeared. So our biological instinct is to seek out proximity to our caregivers. Touch is very powerful. Think about the fact that we hug hello and goodbye in our important relationships. Skin to skin touch is one way we acknowledge significant bonds and it grows out of this need to be close. Also, because our frontal cortex does not come online until around the age of two, the presence of a caring other is conveyed by touch. When in distress, we are pulled in close, held, cradled and spoken to softly. This is how we learn we matter, that our needs are responded to by loving, gentle touch. That is what a child is seeking.
But the truth is that some adults exploit those needs to use a child for their own ends instead of taking care of the child and meeting the child’s needs. Pedophiles usually prey on child who are emotionally neglected because their desire to get close to someone is so strong. A child who has already been abused is even more needy because now they need help with what happened to them so it makes them even more vulnerable. But what needs to be clear is that the needs are not in and of themselves a problem, nor is a young child wrong to have them. The problem lies with the caregiver who exploits a child healthy needs. In other words, the problem WAS NOT in you, it was in the people who choose to do an evil thing and exploit an innocent child.
BN and I were discussing my feelings for him once, and I was talking about my frustration with the boundaries and wanting more beyond them, and he was discussing how my father overran my boundaries and overstimulated me. I connected to my very strong feelings of wanting BN to run over the boundaries and I freaked. I still remember the horror, starting to cry and looking at BN and saying “oh my God, I WANT the abuse to happen all over again. I wanted it to happen.” He told me that I didn’t want to be abused now and I had never wanted to be abused then. I just wanted to have my healthy desire for closeness and care met.
The most difficult part of blaming myself came from the fact that there was some pleasure associated with what happened. In cycling through feelings about the Boundary Ninja, I identified a pattern of the erotic/romantic feelings getting much stronger when I was trying to avoid something painful. It was as if the closer I got to painful associations, the more I tried to distract myself in the here and now by making it about unrequited desires about him. Thinking about this and why it was true, led me to a breakthrough. During the abuse was the only time I experienced any kind of affection or comfort from my father. It was overwhelming and terrifying, but at the same time, the human physiology is such that certain types of touch in the right places are going to physically pleasurable no matter the circumstances. So I realized that as much as I hated what was happening and how overwhelmed and confused I got about it, that when the touch felt “good” it was some of the only respite I got from the fear and dread. So I realized that I wanted to be able to have sex with the Boundary Ninja, because it would at least buy me a few minutes of peace and surcease from the pain, the same way it had with my father. I was not happy to make this connection, honestly, it made me nauseous. But it did explain why sometimes in the midst of relating a really terrifying experience or incredible pain, a feeling of arousal could be mixed in. Our sexuality is very complicated and can be wired in complex ways. The truth is that if you are aroused sexually by someone touching you in the right places, whatever else is going on at the time, including pain and fear, can become wired into your sexual feelings. This doesn’t mean you wanted anything to happen, it means that what happened conditioned you in certain ways.
I told BN about the connection and received an incredibly compassionate response, that he could totally understand my wanting to find a few minutes of peace any way that I could. He also was very reassuring about my physiological reaction of arousal and pleasure being something that is hard-wired into the biology and is not something that can be made not to be true because it was being forced on me. He also acknowledged how incredibly confusing it could be to know you felt pleasure along with the terror and pain, but that the pleasure was a response, and not one for which I was responsible. And that I sought out my father because I was seeking comfort in a healthy way and going to the only place I could get. That part of why I disassociated was that I had to leave for the “bad” part, to preserve my “good” father and make it feel safe to go to the only place I knew I could get what I so desperately craved, some soothing and love.
What can complicate this even further (as if it needs to be even more complicated :)) is that abusers often blame the victim in order to avoid their own guilt about the abuse. My father told me that it was my fault, that I did want it and I was the reason he was doing something so evil. I actually spent a large chunk of my life with the unconscious belief that it was wrong of me to even WANT to be attractive, let alone actually be attractive. Because being attractive meant I wanted a man to want me, and wanting a man to want me was wanting a man to do something wrong. So I must be evil if I wanted to be attractive. Once you pull that belief out into the light of day, it doesn’t make much sense does it?
OK, so if we know all this, why are the feelings of it being our fault still so strong? I think the heart of the problem is that on some level we really believe ourselves both to be responsible for what happened, and to be so worthless that how could we get upset about ANYTHING that happened to us? We are driven to feel responsible for what happened out of an attempt to gain some sense of control over the situation. When there is ongoing trauma as children, the single strongest characteristic is our complete powerlessness to stop it. Powerlessness is a helpless feeling and can lead to despair because it brings you face to face with the fact that you can’t do anything but endure. And realizing that could put you over the edge. So do you know what most traumatized kids do? They make it somehow about the person they are being responsible or causing it, because then, maybe, just maybe, they could control it. If you could just figure out what you were doing wrong, then it would stop. The problem is, we grow up, it stops, but we still believe we did something. I believed for years that I was intrinsically evil and repulsive, that I deserved the abuse from my father and as a matter of fact that my wanting affection and closeness and to be held presented a horrible temptation to my father and MADE him abuse me. Those are lies straight from the pit of hell. But they gave me hope that I could stop it, with the added benefit on preserving a “good” father. Can you see how it would work? That maybe our determination to make this somehow about a lack in ourselves, of strength, of courage, of perseverance, of fortitude might be an attempt to retain control in what was an uncontrollable and as a matter of fact, an out of control, situation? And then it follows, that if we’re to blame then how can we feel bad about what happened?
Add to that the fact that when your needs are neglected, or you are used to meet another person’s needs, what you hear on a very deep level is that you are worthless and you don’t matter. You believe it. So when something good happens, you reject it because it doesn’t fit with what you “know” to be the “truth.” But when something bad happens, that fits your understanding so you can take in. So the sense of worthlessness runs very deep. When was the last time you saw someone get upset because someone kicked a trashcan? That was my image for so long of my father. That I was a human trashcan in which he dumped his rage, pain and shame. OK, so someone dumped trash in a trash can, what’s the big deal?
Guess what, dear Reader? Right now I would bet a quite tidy sum of money that you are thinking “but you’re not a trashcan, you didn’t deserve that, it was horrible.” And do you know why you’re thinking that? Because you do NOT have deep-rooted unconscious beliefs about my worthlessness or my responsibility. Without those emotions to cloud your perceptions, it’s clear that I didn’t cause the abuse; that no way in the world would a four-year old EVER deserve to be treated that way.
I remember once discussing with my T about how responsible I felt for causing the abuse and I looked at him and said “the funny thing is that if someone else were sitting with us right now and saying exactly what I’m saying, I would see so clearly they were wrong, that they weren’t responsible.” and BN asked me “what’s the difference?” And I answered that “my feelings are screaming so loudly at me that I am.” He was so happy with that answer he practically handed me a lollipop! 😀
OK, here’s my favorite trick for understanding how wrong and/or bad what happened to you was (it was alluded to earlier in the post): Picture a child the age you were or imagine that you are hearing about what happened to someone else and see how you feel. The reaction you have then is so much closer to the truth because it’s not clouded by all the distortions and lies you learned WHILE you were being abused.
It was the caregivers responsibility to hold those boundaries. No matter what a child does, the parent should model appropriate behavior and let nothing happen that is not focused on the child’s wellbeing. So while I am responsible for my behavior now and how I handle what happened to me, the fact that it happened to me is not in any way my responsibility. Nor did I deserve any of the abuse. Nor did you.
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