What I Learned in Therapy Lesson 4: It wasn’t my fault


Therapy Lesson One
Therapy Lesson Two
Therapy Lesson Three

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.

  1. Starrynights
    March 27, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    AG, this is the most thorough discourse on surviving child sexual abuse that I have ever read. How very, very tragic what happened to you, yet how incredible and inspiring has been your path to healing. A hug of gratitude and respect to you~

    Starry

    Like

    • April 25, 2012 at 11:22 am

      Starry,
      Thank you, I am so very glad you found it helpful. This was a lesson that was woven throughout my healing work and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to both of my therapists for their clarity and reassurance whenever this came up.

      AG

      Like

  2. smiley
    April 25, 2012 at 11:51 am

    AG – I really needed to read that today. Thanks for sharing and putting some insight out there.

    Smiley

    Like

    • April 25, 2012 at 11:53 am

      Smiley!
      Welcome to my blog!! Thanks for reading and commenting. Made my day, Smiley, that I could ease your burden even a tiny bit. And it’s true, it wasn’t your fault.

      AG

      Like

  3. August 31, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Thank you for this, I really needed to read this x

    Like

  4. September 30, 2012 at 2:56 am

    AG, I am not sure how I landed on this post. It’s nearly 3am and random search queries about this topic have led me to many interesting sites, but as usual, yours is the most helpful. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately due to who-knows-what, and in these early hours, unwanted memories have been slowly creeping in that I just can’t grasp. This post has helped me make a bit of sense out of things, and as usual, I very much appreciate your shares!

    Like

    • September 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm

      ((((PD)))) Nothing like 3 AM to help me sound like I’m making sense. 🙂 I joke, but I am sorry that you are having trouble sleeping and being haunted by unwanted memories; I think you know I understand that. I am glad if reading this lightened your load even a bit. And it really wasn’t your fault, of that I am so certain. I hope things get better soon. ~ AG

      Like

  5. Jen
    February 28, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    AG, I’m so grateful, once again, for this post. I read it several months ago and have now just read it again from a different perspective. The last time I read this it wasn’t about me. I hadn’t yet recognized that what my mother had done to me/with me was sexual abuse. Then a few months after that realization my mother died. Holy cow, right? Yeah.

    So thank you for having this here for me to bookmark and to use to explain to friends. I’m also going to send it to my T so that he knows that I know this (don’t want to waste time with understanding this — because I do — I want to get to the healing parts if possible).

    Gratefully,
    Jen

    Like

    • February 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      Jen,
      I’m sorry about what your mother did to you, it’s a terrible realization to come to grips with. Especially when it was followed so swiftly by her death. I am very glad that this post was helpful to you and can be used to communicate with your friends and therapist. Thanks for taking the time to say this. I wish you the best in your healing. ~ AG

      Like

  6. annie
    December 2, 2013 at 6:10 am

    I wasn´t ever sexually abused, but somehow I’ve always related most with stories about sexual abuse, maybe because my father’s emotional and sometimes physical abuse was so severe. I literally was scared 24/7 and would wake up from deepest sleep just a sound of key pushed to door lock, signaling he’s home and I should be aware and ready for whatever bad is going to happen for me in a minute or two.

    A few years ago I realized something very disturbing, when thinking my father, who I really despise and haven’t seen in nearly 30 years. I have no memories of wanting to be loved by him, only fear that I felt. And then one day I realized that deep down I wanted him to have sex with me. That somehow I’m more worthless than anyone, as he did hate me so much that he wouldn’t use me for that. I wasn’t good enough even for that. I haven’t (yet) told anyone this, but wanted to share with you and the reader’s, since this blog is so incredibly clear, helpful and genuine. (And yes, I’m thinking about telling my T some day near future).

    Reading your amazingly insightful blog entries is so helpful and in many ways reliefing. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write these.

    Like

  7. chickadee
    January 9, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    I’ve been reading through old posts and got to this one – when I read the title I almost threw up. I bookmarked it and waited a couple of days to read it (which I just did).

    I have just begun to realize how intensely I believe that what happened was my fault. I have talked about it a tiny bit with my T, who said some things similar to what you said above. It feels unbearably confusing and overwhelming. Also really discouraging… I wish that it wasn’t my fault, but I somehow don’t know how to imagine something different.

    I don’t know why attachment makes this issue so much more painful, but it does. I want something to make it feel better right now… tonight.
    But thank you for this post.

    Like

    • January 14, 2014 at 11:35 pm

      Hi Chickadee,
      Forgive me for taking so long to reply and welcome you to my blog. The last half of last week was a bit insane and we were out of town over the weekend helping my older daughter move between apartments, followed by a doozy of a session yesterday. The result of which is I am a bit behind. 🙂

      I am sorry this was so difficult to read, although that means to me that it was even more important that you read it. We make it our fault in an attempt to provide some control over a situation in which we are truly powerless and without control. A terrible feeling for an adult, let alone a small child with limited resources. The feeling that we are at fault is so very strong I know, that it truly feels like it MUST be the truth, but that’s really not the truth. I do not know what you have been through, but I would urge you to find a child who is the age now that you were whenever whatever happened started happening and see if you can conceive in any way that they would be deserving of the treatment you suffered. It is only when we clear away the fog of our own feelings about ourselves that we begin to see the truth. I hope that you can give yourself permission to begin to imagine something different. And attachment make it feel worse, because we start to hope that at long last someone will see us and tell us it wasn’t our fault, that we no longer need be alone. But being seen, when you deeply believe you are worthless and shameful is the most terrifying thing in the world. So we are caught in the bind of simultaneously being desperate to move closer and to flee. I hope you will continue to read here and can find some hope in what is written. ~ AG

      Like

  8. chickadee
    January 15, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Thank you, AG. I am very glad I read this article. I have to say that what you write on this blog has been helpful over the last few weeks as I continue to struggle with attachment and trust in therapy. The way you explain things helps them make sense, and helps me to have a bit more patience with both myself and with my T. I’ll be sticking around 🙂

    Like

    • January 18, 2014 at 9:16 am

      Happy to hear that reading here is helping you to have compassion on yourself, Chickadee and even happier to hear you’ll be sticking around! 🙂

      Like

  9. June 22, 2016 at 10:09 am

    you haven’t mentioned (that I have found so far) whether those of your childhood were (are) parts of your adulthood. I have the most trouble not with the memories but with the reality of now abuse that still remains a part of life because no one is ever able to consider child abuse victims to be in their 40’s or 50’s and the people around consider me to be only the one that is a ficticious complainer or the problem.. still. I hear constantly, when around the people who know us all that I need to “get over it” “stop complaining and being negative” “she is such a nice person” “forgiveness” and yet the adult forms of abuse still continue so how is all that possible? how does it ever go away without totally wiping out all family contact with all of them who refuse to accept memories of abuse even if some of those included them being abused also?

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