Ask a Therapist
Often survivors struggle with feeling alone in their experience and want to seek help. Therapy is an extremely useful tool that unfortunately not all survivors have access to. Because of this, Honey has partnered with trauma informed therapists to answer your questions about survivorship, healing, and life post-trauma. If you are a survivor, ally, or someone interested in learning more, please submit your questions below. Licensed therapists will review your questions and we will publish their responses below. All submissions will remain anonymous.
Previous Questions and Answers:
Q: What is the best next step when your partner makes you feel guilty for not wanting sex or uses guilt and shame as a way to coerce sex?
There is a lot to consider in this question. Have you discussed your feelings about this with your partner? Is your not wanting sex connected to a past sexual trauma? If so, does your partner know about this trauma? Do you trust them enough to tell them? Are they the cause of not feeling/wanting sex? Are they the abuser?
I would say that couples counseling is the best next step.
If this is a loving, trusting relationship and your partner has difficulty with emotional awareness and healthy ways of asking and getting their needs met (acting inappropriately from emotions of rejection and hurt) then a it would be helpful to have a conversation (maybe with the help of a couples counselor) about how it makes you feel and asking directly for what your need to feel safe and what helps drive your desire for sexual intimacy with them. It helps to use non-accusatory language so you don’t activate their defenses and keep the dialogue open.
If this is not a loving, trusting relationship, then finding a therapist to help you navigate an exit strategy is the best next step.
Q: Do you have any tips for whether or not to confront your assailant? How do you know you're ready?
There is a lot in this question to process. Overall, I would say to consult a mental health professional to discuss and decide if it would potentially put you in more danger of being abused, be helpful or hurtful to your healing, what the purpose or meaning of your confrontation is for your healing, or what route you would like to take e.g. legal action (consulting a lawyer), personal letter, in-person, digital (email/DM/text), or a phone call. I would say that it is hard to know when you are ready to do something that scares you, our body will never feel completely comfortable. However, to check in with your level of readiness you can ask yourself the following questions:
Can I talk about the abuse without having a panic attack?
Can I talk to people I trust about the abuse without feeling numb, out of body, having flashbacks, intense anxiety that causes me to leave the conversation, or feeling like I’m disconnected from reality?
Have I talked with the assailant since the abuse? If so, can I talk with them without the reactions listed in the above question?
What are the potential consequences of confronting my assailant? E.g. positive: feelings of relief, feeling justice is beginning, vindication, closure, etc. Negative: further trauma from their reaction, the opportunity for gaslighting or invalidation of the abuse, triggering severe trauma responses (flashbacks, disassociation, intense fear, panic attack) which inhibit your ability to say what you want to say, increased anxiety and fear of retaliation, etc.
Working with a therapist will help you understand your readiness, the psychological and emotional necessity for confronting your assailant as it relates to your circumstances, and to help you build assertive communication skills should you decide to confront them.
Why am I experiencing promiscuous behavior after being assaulted as an adult?
People react differently to their trauma. Promiscuity is one of those common reactions. Often, our relationship with sex shifts as we are trying to navigate our healing. One explanation could be an unconscious attempt to reclaim the aspect of power and control with sex. If you felt like you were powerless during your sexual assault, then choosing when and with whom could be the basis of sexual promiscuity. Often, being mindful and paying attention to what you gain from your behavior, what needs are being met, will help you understand the function of that behavior. This is a difficult process that would be easier to navigate with a trauma-informed therapist or a sex therapist (AASECT Therapist).
Q: I love my friend who is also a survivor. Since her assault she has changed so so much and I know it is 100% not her fault, but it is getting to the point where we are not compatible anymore, and I don't want to desert her, but I don't know if I can stay close with her. Am I a terrible person for not wanting to deal with it anymore?
A: It can be a precarious path to walk as a close friend to a survivor. On one hand, we want to be there for them no matter what, on the other hand, it can be emotionally draining, mentally exhausting, and a heavy weight to help carry. My advice would first be kinder to yourself. “Terrible person” is a label that is not an accurate description of who you are, the totality of your thoughts or actions. Secondly, it might be helpful to shift thinking from black and white and lean into the grey. Could you continue to support your friend while they heal AND find the appropriate amount of space or distance that doesn’t negatively affect you or end your friendship? Could you set some boundaries for yourself and your friend that would allow you to continue being there for them and not being too caught up in their struggles with healing?
Other things to consider:
Their personality changes could be temporary
If you feel they can take feedback, appropriately share with them your observations about their change, approach it with curiosity, do they notice these changes?
If they are verbally, emotionally, or mentally abusive then giving space would be necessary for your emotional/psychological safety
Do they have other good social supports?
There are obviously more details to this situation that I would need to know to merit a more helpful answer. Again, finding a trained professional to navigate this would be my ultimate advice. These are difficult waters and they can be better traversed with help and support.
Q: My rapist is a very popular sports player and everyone adores him despite me being vocal about his assault. How do I explain to people that their support of him is just as traumatic and hurtful as the rape itself?
A: One hard reality to accept when healing is that some people will not understand how trauma affects survivors and how their actions, attitudes, and words about sexual assault affect the survivor. Some people will deny or avoid it like the plague. We can speculate why (too painful for them to consider, triggering their past trauma that they never processed, ignorance, lack of empathy, etc) however when sharing these experiences with people it is important to consider who will actually listen and understand, these are people that will be best to lean on as your supports. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have trauma-informed friends or family members talk with others (those supporting your perpetrator) about this too, without mentioning you. For example a friend telling someone who is supporting them “I know someone he has sexually assaulted, I can no longer support him, did you know that talking highly of a perpetrator around someone who has survived a sexual assault at their hands can cause them to experience symptoms that causes them distress and pain as if it were happening to them again?”
Q: I was assaulted by a woman and everyone talks about how it is always men's fault. I feel like such an outcast because my experience was so different from others. I feel like no one gets the fact that women are perpetrators too. How do I tell people this so that they will get it?
A: First, You can provide people with the research, “Researchers have found that at least 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse or assault, whether in childhood or as adults. And this is probably a low estimate, since it doesn’t include noncontact experiences, which can also have lasting negative effects. If you’ve had such an experience, or think you might have, you are not alone.” - 1in6.org Similar to another answer I’ve provided, a difficulty in your journey of healing will be accepting the fact that not everyone will understand your pain and experience. There are harmful social stigmas and beliefs around masculinity and male sexuality that stifles people's empathy and clouds their ability for understanding. Being firm and confident when speaking of your trauma can be practiced and discussed with a therapist. Some take to advocacy and activism as a way to fight these unhealthy social stigmas and beliefs.
Q: My close friend was assaulted and we always talk about it. Before her assault, I had a very healthy sex life, but since it happened I feel my own view of sex changing and my ability to be comfortable having sex with my own partner is going downhill. How do I separate my view of sex from her experience?
A: I would first say that, depending on your relationship with your friend and their connection to professional help, it would be beneficial to start setting boundaries around how much you talk about their sexual assault. If you “always talk about it” then it will be front of mind and will then affect your relationship with sex. Another suggestion would be to turn your conversations towards what healthy sex should be or times when you have had very fun and healthy sexual experiences, discussing the emotional connection, novelty, pleasure, etc. I would suggest following some sex-positive social media accounts (finding AASECT therapist’s accounts). It might also help to ponder on the positive attributes of you and your partner’s sex life, keeping in mind that it is (hopefully) safe, bonding, fun, pleasurable, emotional, etc. If you feel comfortable enough, I would share these feelings with your partner to get their help, they could maybe be more sensitive to making you feel safe during the period in your life.
Q: Should you start talking to a therapist when you're ready or right away?
A: The short answer is: right away.
The long answer: Good trauma-informed therapists will never force you into facing and processing your trauma. When you start right away, you don’t have to work on processing the event(s) right out of the gate. There are other tasks you can do with a therapist such as building rapport and trust with each other, working on other life difficulties and stressors, and building general coping skills to manage the anxiety and trauma responses without ever talking about specifics or details of your traumatic experience. For example, I’ve been working with a woman for over 2 years. It wasn’t until the end of our second year together before we started processing her traumas despite me suspecting, asking, and us briefly discussing it generally in our first session. Those 2 years before were spent on building skills, rapport, processing other life stressors and relationships, and building trust. If you are financially able to start seeing a therapist, I highly recommend starting the process sooner than later, your therapist can help you in other ways and also help prepare you for processing and healing from your trauma.
Q: After my assault I am afraid of men and intimacy. How can I change my mindset?
A: First, you are not alone in this; it is a normal reaction to what you have been through. You can shift your mindset through working with a therapist on processing and reframing the core beliefs that were born in your trauma, learning that they don’t apply to all men or all sexually intimate situations. Most of the time our bodies hold our trauma, our conscious thoughts are at odds with our physical trauma responses. Through mindfulness practices and other coping skills, you can safely, gradually enter situations that your mind knows are safe and valuable, while your body is saying otherwise and over time your body will adjust. This is not a rushed process, it will be slow and difficult. It will help you dissipate your fears and slowly restore your ability to trust again. It helps to have a safe, trustworthy, partner who is kind and patient; someone who understands that this will be a process that will take time.
Q: How do I tell my new partner that I am a survivor without scaring them away? I have a lot of issues because of it but I know that doesn't make me unworthy of love.
A: This is a sensitive, case by case, issue. There are a lot of things to consider e.g. your trust level in the relationship, your partner’s understanding of trauma, history with this current partner, your attachment style, and most importantly, where you are in your healing. Another thing to remember is that you control how much you disclose. If they ask you follow-up questions, you only need to answer questions you are comfortable with, keeping boundaries around this is not unfair or a barrier to emotional intimacy, it is moving at the pace of your healing. It is helpful to share this directly. You could say, “I’m not in a place to go into further details. I need you to trust that I’m working on this and will tell you what you need to know when I’m ready.”
Talking through this with a therapist is highly recommended. It could be navigated without professional help as well, however, having a therapist to game-plan and process with is ideal.
Q: I’ve gone through so many stages in thinking about my abuser. For so long I couldn’t think of him, then I was hurt and sad, and so ashamed, I’m finally to a point in healing where I know it’s not my fault, and I’m SO angry at him. I don’t know what to do with this anger or all of these things I want to say to him about how he hurt me and treated me. How do I process now wanting to defend myself to him for what he did in the past without actually confronting him?
There are many ways we can experience and feel our anger and hurt. The important part is to allow ourselves to feel the anger. Anger is not a “bad” emotion, it is uncomfortable, yes, but also very necessary. Anger and resentment need to be expressed. There are healthy and unhealthy/damaging ways of expressing our anger, it is important to learn how to experience it in healthy ways. Anger is to be seen as a stop on the journey of healing, not a destination. Some stay longer in anger than others; there is no set time for how long we should be angry. We should also be mindful not to set up permanent residence there too.
Expressing anger in a healthy way can come in different ways: journaling, writing poetry or songs, venting to a safe and trusted friend/family member, finding a survivors support group, channeling it into exercise e.g. boxing, running, etc. or writing the abuser a letter (and most likely not sending it to them).
Some important questions to consider asking yourself:
How necessary is it for my healing for him to know how he hurt and traumatized me by his actions?
Would he listen to me, truly listen, and hear my suffering and pain, and acknowledge, even in part, that he was the author of that pain?
What if he becomes more defensive and minimizes my pain and suffering? How harmful will that be for me?
Working with a therapist to process and answer these questions would be recommended.
Here is a quote that might be helpful (I know you are not asking about forgiveness, but the overall message applies):
“We don’t need to forgive the actions of an unapologetic offender to find peace of mind. We need to, over time, dissipate its emotional charge. We need to accept the reality that sometimes the wrongdoer is unreachable or unrepentant - or perhaps dead - and we have a choice as to whether we continue to carry the wrongdoing on our shoulders or not. Letting go is certainly not easy, but forgiveness need not be a part of that process when the wrongdoer has done nothing to earn it. There is no one path to healing” - Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. in “Why won’t you apologize?”
Q: I get so anxious when I have to go to the doctor. I hate being touched and looked at by strangers, even though I know most doctors have the best intentions. Being that vulnerable is emotional torture for me. What can I do to make the experience better?
First of all, I want you to know that this is so so so normal. Intense anxiety about doctors visits happens for people who haven’t been sexually assaulted so when there’s been an assault, it’s even harder. Second, having a primary care physician will be helpful so they can get to know you. If you have to see someone new every time, that can be extremely difficult.
Does your doctor know about your assault? If not, it would likely be helpful to tell them and explain how now doctor appointments are extra vulnerable for you. If it feels hard to say to them, most doctors offices have a way you can email your provider or you can write a note and ask the nurse to give it to the doctor before they come in.
If you’re needing to have any sort of testing done that feels even more vulnerable--having to be bare chested for an EKG or having a pelvic exam or even having an abdominal ultrasound—I suggest telling your doctor beforehand that you suspect it will make you incredibly anxious and they might prescribe you an anxiety medication to take beforehand to make it more tolerable.
Q: I am currently dating someone who knows about my past experiences, but it’s still hard for me to enjoy sex. I’ll get flash backs sometimes or just feel like my body is going into fight or flight mode and I lose the emotion. The worst part is I always end up apologizing, even though I know my reaction isn’t my fault. I want to enjoy being intimate, and I want to show my partner I’m enjoying it but a lot of the time I’m just not. What can I do?
This might not be what you want to hear, but, honestly, if you’re having flashbacks and your nervous system is panicking (the fight or flight feeling) and you’re not even having fun or in the emotion, I’d recommend you stop having sex with your partner for now so you can work on your trauma without being triggered so intimately. You and your partner can intimately connect in other ways still—does making out feel good and not triggering? what about cuddling? You’ll need to take a step back from sex for a little while and relearn that intimate touch is not a threat.
Seeing a therapist who specializes in sexual assault trauma would be helpful. There’s also a book by Wendy Maltz, The Sexual Healing Journey, that could be helpful. It even includes some exercises you and your partner can try to teach your body that intimate touch isn’t threatening in a safe context.
Q: I don’t trust people anymore, especially men. I always feel like I’m being used and I constantly question others’ love for me. I’m always assuming they just want to be with me for my body. How can I learn to trust people again?
When I have clients who are struggling with trust in a similar way, I notice that their difficulty with trust has gotten them to isolate themselves to a certain extent. Teaching yourself how to trust will feel risky and hard...and it’s also worth it because there has to be a little bit of trust for connection to be built.
That being said, the absolute best way for anyone to build trust with people is by having firm, clear boundaries. It might sound backwards, but having clear boundaries and communicating them to people lets them know what’s okay and what’s not okay. When people respect your most basic boundaries, you can trust them a little and see if they can be trusted with a little more.
For example, I might have a boundary about alcohol use and I let my friends know that I don’t feel safe around people who are drinking. Then, when a friend invites me over to her place for dinner and she’s got a bottle of wine open on the counter, it’s okay for me to reiterate the boundary saying, "Hey, I’d really prefer if we could spend time together without alcohol being involved—it makes me anxious.” She has the opportunity to gain your trust by saying “I totally forgot. I’ll put it away. Do you want a sparkling water?” That little moment and lead to more and more little moments of letting people show you that they are worthy of your trust.
Q: I’ve needed so much validation since being assaulted and it sucks, because I haven’t always been like that. What steps can I take to get back to the real me?
We all need validation. It’s how we feel seen and understood in the world. I’m guessing that you’re saying that your need for validation is coming from a place of insecurity, maybe even worry that you’re being judged. If I’m right, then your first steps are about acknowledging the stories that are running in your mind. When we don’t have all the information about a situation and especially when we feel insecure, our brains fill in the gaps to make a story that makes sense.
For example, if we are at dinner and you keep taking out your phone to text, I might make up a story about how you’re bored and I’m just a boring person and we aren’t as good friends as I thought. That could be true but there could also be 117 other things going on. Acknowledging the story I’m making up in my head and fact-checking it (saying, “Hey, you’re checking your phone a lot and I’m making up this story in my head about it being because you’re bored—what’s going on?”) with you will keep me in a state that feels like the real me rather than the insecure, needy feeling you’re experiencing.
Q: Since being assaulted, I've felt really disconnected from my body. Is that normal? Will I ever feel connected again? What can I do to help myself feel more connected?
It is normal to feel disconnected from your body after sexual assault and it is possible to reconnect to your body again. Reconnection is a process that occurs over time. When we are harmed, especially in a sexual way, we separate from the site of the pain, from our body and from ourselves. While it is protective, it also creates a sense of disconnection. We can feel disconnected from our bodies and emotions and therefore from ourselves and others. Reconnecting to the body and to your feelings is often (understandably) difficult due to the uncomfortable sensations and painful emotions that may be present regarding the assault. Reconnection needs to be done over time, gently, and at your own pace. To facilitate reconnection, body-based, creative and pleasurable activities and practices can be very useful. For example, yoga, simple stretching, breathing exercises, physical activity, integrating activities that connect to the five senses, in a pleasurable way, can foster connection. Engaging in art, writing, dance, music, etc. can also support connection.
Q: Being assaulted has really impacted the way I view my body. I feel like it's less "mine" now and sometimes I feel like I almost resent it. How can I improve my body image?
It is also common to have resentment toward your body after sexual assault. We can feel that our body betrayed us (didn’t fight; felt positive/pleasurable sensations; froze, etc.). Working to develop a relationship with your body over time is part of a recovery process. Using the strategies suggested above can help you reconnect to your body. Also, beginning to focus on all the things your body does for you, to support you, may be a helpful strategy. Focusing on the simple and necessary functions such as breathing, walking, standing, moving from place to place, digesting, resting when needed, etc. can help refocus the relationship with your body. Visit this link for more information on grounding techniques (integrating the senses).
Q: I really struggle with intimacy now. I sometimes feel physical pain in my sexual organs, and sometimes I totally space out during sex. How do I move past this? What can I do to maintain a healthy sex life?
Intimacy and sexual activity are often triggering (being taken back to a traumatic incident by a reminder in the present) and cause survivors of sexual assault to “space out” or avoid sex and intimacy all together. Being triggered can result in emotional, physical, and/or mental re-experiencing such as in images, flashbacks, associated feelings (fear, vulnerability, sadness, anger, disgust) and/or somatic reactions (pain, nausea, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, headaches). Finding ways to reconnect to your body in a positive, non-threatening, safe way is important. Communication with your partner(s) about what you are experiencing can be a useful part of the process. It is essential that this process occur in the context of a safe relationship and this recommendation is made with the assumption that the relationship is safe. It’s important to develop ways to remain present while experiencing the feelings and sensations that arise from being intimate. “Spacing out” or dissociation is normal and keeps us from feeling the pain. The first step is to address spacing out and to remain present even when discomfort arises. (See question above on reconnection and grounding.) Working toward addressing the discomfort and then communicating what you need when triggered is helpful.
It can be helpful to work with a trauma-informed therapist and/or a local Rape Crisis Center to process triggers and develop strategies to remain present when triggered. When triggers occur it is common to immediately try to avoid the trigger and related sensations and emotions. Over time, and in your own time, reducing avoidance and developing tolerance of uncomfortable reactions, as well as expressing your experience, helps to decrease the intensity and frequency of the reaction. This takes time, patience and self-compassion. Finally, having a medical exam regarding physical symptoms is important to rule out any medical issues that may also be causing pain and need care.
Q: I've turned to self-harm as a method of coping with my trauma. What should I do?
It is very common to develop symptoms such as an eating disorder, self-harm, and substance use/abuse after a traumatic incident such as sexual assault. These actions often provide a sense of control and/or relief from emotional pain and distress. The strategies above for grounding and self-soothing can be very supportive in addressing these symptoms. Given the safety risks, I recommend seeking the assistance of a trauma-informed therapist who can help you address the thoughts, feelings, impulses and body responses that contribute to an eating disorder and self-harm.