A big part of recovery from the legacies of sexual abuse is getting to a point where you have a sense of control over your emotional states. That means not to be thrown around all the time – or a lot of the time – by feelings of hurt, anxiety, fear, panic, suspicion, envy, hopelessness,"self-loathing, and hate.
On one hand we are taught to trust our feelings and use them as a guide for the way we behave and interact in this world. "How do you feel about this …?" A common questions we are asked to answer, not only in therapy but also in all other areas of life.
A misconception is, however, to take the answer to the feeling question as a revelation of 'the truth' or of 'reality'. Nonetheless, our feelings are very important information and we have to pay attention to them – not necessarily act them out.
Some prime examples: A survivor won't go for walks at a busy beach because s/he doesn't feel safe. A survivor feels hurt in a conversation because s/he perceives the other person's reaction as disrespectful or attacking. A survivor feels rejected or unloved because her/his friend is not calling as promised. A survivor feels hurt or hopelessness because her/his 'important other' does not understand or anticipates what the survivor is feeling or dealing with. A survivor goes into a shopping centre and has a panic attack.On the other side a survivor stays in an abusive relationship and disregards her/his feelings of hurt or indignation.
These are all very common experiences. How survivors are then dealing with or using their feelings is crucial to their well-being. "I don't know what to do with these feelings" is a statement often uttered by survivors, implying that there would be a way to get rid of them. There is nothing you have to do with feelings. Don't suppress them, don't avoid them, don't distract yourself from them or ignore them.
That being said, when you feel you can't cope with the intensity of feelings, employing all the emotion regulation skills and distress tolerance skills you know is very vital.
In all other situations feelings – no matter how pleasant or unpleasant – are your friends. Feelings are your bodies way of telling you that you have to pay attention. In a multiple way, you can say that your feelings are messages from your younger parts. It is your task to understand these feelings and put them into a context that makes sense.
Feelings are neither good nor bad, instead, they tell you something about your situation right now. Lets assume we are dealing with fear.
- First you have to use your adult reasonable thinking and determine whether your fear is based on actual danger in your current life or whether it is a transferential feeling, meaning a feeling from your distant past triggered by a thought you had or a thing you saw, heard, or experienced.
- If you are currently in real danger, you have to take action to protect yourself and get yourself into safety. Feeling fear when you are swimming with sharks is a perfectly reasonable and normal reaction. You better head for the shore as quick as you can.
- If with an reasonable adult thinking process you can't detect elements of danger around you, you need to take a journey into your past.
- ask yourself: How old do I feel when I feel the feeling in question?
- What were the circumstances when you had that feeling as a young person? Did someone bully you, reject you, didn't notice you, or hurt you?
- Is your current situation in anyway similar to what happened back then?
- When you get a sense of a fit between the past feeling and the present situation, then turn your attention to the younger you and speak to her/him. Reassure that part of you that you are now an adult and that you will make sure that nothing bad will happen. Let her/him know that you are there to protect her and that you care.
- Tapp on your chest in the sternum area and calm that younger part down. "It's ok now, I will take care of the situation".
- Express that you are sorry for her/him for having had such a hard time. Tell that part that you are glad to have found it and that you want to listen and understand.
- Thank that part for helping you to solve yet another part of the puzzle and thereby helping you to recover.
There are many more soothing and calming things you can say. First it will not be easy, but over time the parts you didn't like to get in touch with will start trusting you to be able to deal with difficult situations. Gradually you will notice an improvement. You will have learnt the most important emotion regulation skill: soothing yourself down.
If you don't explore the origin of the feeling but act out on the feeling you have: for example you feel anxiety in the shopping mall and you leave immediately to make the fear go away, then you missed out on an opportunity to heal yourself. Instead you are re-inforcing lessons learnt in childhood that prevent you from leaving a meaningful life today.
Give it a go! It's worth it!