Hi everyone! I hope you’re all well. I wanted to come on here to talk about a very unhelpful thought cycle that can make navigating life after sexual abuse or violence even more difficult. I’m talking about the worry that what you were subjected to was not ‘bad enough’ to justify the impact it’s having on you and your life. These feelings can turn into an uncomfortable internal battle and leave us feeling out of touch with ourselves. On the one side, no one understands better than we do how distressing our experience was, but then sometimes there’s this other side of us, that we may falsely believe is our more rational side, telling us to stop overreacting, that what we were subjected to really wasn’t that bad after all. This part of our minds feeds on those fears of being labelled an ‘attention-seeker’ or a ‘drama queen’ and tries to convince us that our reaction is not appropriate. These fears are completely normal and most of us will have them, but if we listen to them and start to believe that they’re true we may begin to undermine the validity of our own experience. Naturally, this only leads to more negative thoughts and feelings, like feelings of guilt at our inability to just get on with life as usual. We start telling ourselves to ‘just get over it’. The sad irony is that these harsh words often have the opposite effect and actually make our recovery even harder. After all, it can be difficult to heal in a hostile environment, let alone one that you can never escape from because you’ve created it inside your head.
No one deserves to feel like their own mind is somewhere they will be judged and undermined. Unfortunately, although most of us would never dream of undermining the experience of a friend, we always seem to reserve the harshest judgements for ourselves even while we have the most empathy for others. We generally seem to be able to recognise that experiences of all kinds are equally valid only when they are the experiences of others. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to use the empathy they have for other’s experiences as a means to undermine their own. Maybe you have compared what you have been subjected to to others who you deem to have ‘had it worse’ then you. This can leave us feeling like we have no right to be upset in comparison because, we think, at least it wasn’t that bad. This is a difficult sentiment to grapple with because how exactly can we measure how ‘bad’ an experience was? Which experiences can we qualify as traumatic and which can we not? How can we measure trauma?
There isn’t actually a scale on which we can measure trauma and there is no benchmark your experience has to meet in order to be classified as traumatic. This is because trauma does not originate in the event, but in the person who experienced it, making it subjective. We can assess the severity of the trauma of sexual abuse or violence only by the person who was subjected to it’s reaction, not through how many times the abuse occurred or what it did or did not involve. This means that if your experience is having a big impact on your mental health, and on your life in general, then it was a traumatic experience for you.
As it stands, a lot of us seem to have a pretty narrow view of what ‘counts’ as sexual abuse or violence. The truth is that there are many different forms of sexual abuse or violence and all of them are serious. What you were subjected to may not fit neatly into just one category, but this does not make it any less valid than what happened to someone else. It is more about how your experience made you feel. There is no criterion your experience must meet or level of severity it must surpass in order for your reaction to become valid. Rather, your reaction, the impact this event has had on you and your life, is all the proof you need that your experience is valid.
Trust the response that you’re having because it is not an overreaction, it is an indication that you need to take more time and look after yourself. Try some of that empathy you keep for others out on yourself. You may find that once you’re able to give the severity of your experience the respect it deserves, you open up the space for more healing as you no longer have to feel guilty about giving yourself the time and space to heal. Simply recognising that our experience is valid and the trauma we feel as a result of it is normal can take some of the weight off our shoulders. It does not matter if it happened once or a hundred times, there is no such thing as small or lesser abuse, there is only abuse and your experience of abuse is valid.
- I. Workman