Have you been sexually abused at some point in your life? Have you ever felt like your trauma from that experience was dismissed or invalidated? If so, you are not alone. In fact, 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime, and 81% of women have experienced sexual harassments or assault. Clearly, this is an epidemic.
What exactly is sexual abuse? The emergency hotline for victims of sexual assault defines it as “sexual behavior or a sexual act forced upon a woman, man or child without their consent.” It is not something to be taken lightly and certainly not something to be invalidated.
Most people don’t necessarily mean to cause harm by what they say, but when you finally find the courage to be vulnerable about your sexual abuse to someone and it feels like they dismiss you, that can reinforce the trauma instead of aiding in healing. So, what can invalidation look like?
Someone may minimize the pain of what you experienced by saying “it wasn’t that big of a deal,” or “that was so long ago, it doesn’t matter now.” They may tell you you need to “just get over it,” as if it’s an easy thing to get over one of the most debilitating experiences of your life. Whatever they say, if it makes you feel like they are not recognizing the magnitude of the pain you are experiencing or trying to convince you it is not as bad as you think––it is minimization.
Minimization can make you question yourself and the experience you had. It can make you feel like you are being overdramatic, or like maybe it was all in your head. This can lead to self-doubt, anxiety and depression.
Blaming the Victim
The more insidious form of invalidation is blaming the victim: “It was your fault because you were hanging out with the wrong crowd,” or “you got yourself into this.” Maybe they use the fact that you were under the influence to blame you. Or worst of all, they may insinuate that you wanted it to happen.
Being blamed for something awful that happened to you compounds the trauma. You may start to believe that it truly was your fault, and that there is something deeply wrong with you. This can lead to feelings of worthlessness and deep shame.
Healthy Ways to Cope
If you have suffered sexual trauma and invalidation of that trauma, it can be hard to trust anyone with your pain. You may be tempted never to share your story again––but the only way you can truly heal is to find safe people to share that story with, who will validate you and help you process through all the emotions.
Find Safe People
Safe people can include friends that you trust, a therapist, a support group for survivors of sexual abuse, or a small group through your church. Find people (or even just one person) who will really listen and sympathize with you. They may not have any answers, but you will know that they can be trusted with your secret as they care for you and support you through it.
Another way to cope with sexual trauma is by acknowledging people or places that may trigger you or remind you of your abuse. Pay attention to these triggers, as they provide useful information for you and/or your therapist to process through what happened. Noticing triggers can also help you think of a plan to reduce the intensity of your reaction as you now know that the person or the place are reminders and not that the trauma is happening all over again. If you need to, for a little while in order to heal, avoid triggering people and places. And then over time, as you heal from your trauma, you may find that your reactions to triggers have decreased or that you are not triggered anymore by those same stimuli.
Finally, it is important to note that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of coping with trauma. The ways of coping listed above are good and useful, but using drugs or alcohol as a way of escaping your pain is not. It can be extremely tempting to turn to substances in times of great pain in order to numb all of your emotions, but in the long run it will lead to a whole host of other problems.
If you have suffered trauma or are experiencing PTSD, you are more vulnerable to substance abuse than others. PTSD and substance abuse tend to be somewhat comorbid, because people who have been through extreme situations tend to turn to alcohol and drugs to numb the extreme emotions that result from those traumatic experiences.
Unfortunately, coping with substances is a downward spiral––the more you abuse these substances, the more likely you are to experience another instance of abuse or trauma, because you may make poor decisions while under the influence that can get you into dangerous situations. And thus the negative cycle continues.
If you do find yourself stuck in this negative cycle, please reach out for help immediately. You cannot face this alone, and there are many therapists and groups that can help you recover both from your substance abuse and your trauma. You are never too far gone––there is always hope.
You Are Not Alone
There is a reason the Me Too movement was so powerful––it showed women they are not alone. There are so many other women who have been through sexual abuse and trauma, and though it can be extremely isolating when it happens to you, you can take comfort in the fact that you truly are not alone. Find other women who are willing to share what they’ve been through, and share your story with them. You will find deep friendships and even deeper healing.