As a mental health professional, I find myself helping individuals at crossroads in their lives as they seek to understand various emotions and events that have taken place or are taking place. No matter what path my clients might be facing, through the lens of our Savior Jesus Christ’s teachings, I have gained a deep understanding that the first step in the healing and self-acceptance process is the gift of love—love that invites each child of God to trust, hope, and seek spiritual guidance, self-acceptance, and, when appropriate, accountability. Jesus Christ, although He taught the masses, made it a priority to focus on the individual based on where they were or are today and why they sought Him or seek Him. Our Savior made it clear in His teaching that all types of abuse are not appropriate, both through His words and actions. It was Christ who stepped forward to stop stonings and mistreatments during His earthly ministry, and it was Christ who stepped forward to love and help those in need. The Church’s recent efforts to provide training and awareness about abuse for youth teachers make it clear that this is an important topic for us to know and understand. Here a few more insights to help us better support with love those who have faced sexual assault or abuse.
Understanding Complex Emotions
Often emotions of aloneness and loss are intensified when generalities are offered as suggestions for understanding and healing instead of individualized compassion. Having said that, in the field of mental health there is evidence-based research that there are some predominant emotional patterns that are generally consistent for those seeking healing after sexual abuse or sexual assault.
Understanding such patterns can help the survivor heal and those who love and support them gain a greater understanding of the journey a survivor will take to heal while also making sure treatment options and assistance are individualized. These emotional patterns can include increased levels of trauma, depression, feelings of worthlessness, self-blaming, self-shaming, difficulty trusting others, feeling alone, loss, deep feelings of abandonment, sexual promiscuity or sexual aversion, and difficulty with connection. These are not all the emotional patterns that an individual may feel who has been the survivor of sexual abuse or sexual assault, but these are the ones often talked about, experienced, and shared as survivors go through the therapeutic healing process.
Such emotions may be difficult for those who have not experienced abuse or assault to understand— yet for the survivor, these emotions are very real. For example, loved ones might find it hard to comprehend why a person who was sexually assaulted or raped would harbor guilt or think it was their fault. Although an emotion may not make logical sense, such feelings are very real for the survivor. To help offer support to survivors without negating emotions or passing judgment, loved ones can offer encouragement during the therapeutic process, offer a listening ear and supportive words such as, “I know this is so hard, and I am here. I know I do not understand exactly what you are feeling, but I am here.” Because sexual abuse and sexual assault are both physically and emotionally violating at deep cognitive levels for the mind and heart of the survivor, in an attempt to understand the trauma inflicted upon them some may self-blame. Reminding the survivor often that, “You did nothing wrong. It was not your fault,” and that they are loved is so important. Also, it is critical that Church leaders and loved ones help the survivor understand that they are worthy in every way. Sometimes, without intending them to, lessons taught on morality without clarification that abuse and assault in no way makes one unworthy can intensify the survivor’s feelings of shame.
Note that such feelings of shame, personal guilt, or self-blame are greatly intensified for survivors when the abuser is a family member or someone who the person trusted and believed would keep them safe. Sadly, cultural misconceptions can also intensify feelings of shame or guilt if the survivor experienced physiological responses during the sexual abuse or assault.
Better understanding what individuals who have been sexually abused or assaulted are feeling helps those seeking to support them. The beginning steps of healing start with understanding or a desire to understand.
Offering the Right Support
Both abuse and assault survivors and their loved ones need to understand that those who have experienced sexual assault or abuse may not understand why they feel what they feel or exactly what they are feeling, and that is okay. What the survivor needs is to feel listened to, not judged, supported, and safe while they, with the help of a trained mental health professional, move toward healing.
A word of caution: sometimes, in a desire to help those who have been sexually abused or assaulted, friends, family, and even Church leaders can cross the boundary between support and would-be therapists. This can potentially damage good relationships and, in some cases, cause harm to those seeking healing. While the support of loved ones and Church leaders is important, it cannot replace seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who has in-depth experience in treating victims of sexual abuse and assault. Together, as the support person and the survivor work with a professional, forward positive movement may be realized.
Recognizing That Healing Takes Time
As feelings are better understood and resolved with the help of a professional, both survivors and those supporting them need to be patient and understand it will take time to heal. Healing does not happen in weeks or days but in months and years. In some circumstances, complete healing will be achieved in the eternities, and that is okay. The blessings of the healing power of the Atonement negate time as a factor. The gospel of Jesus Christ makes it very clear that complete healing from all types of emotional wounds is not limited to this earthly experience but can and often does extend into the eternities.
The time necessary to heal is as personal and as individualized as the person participating in the therapeutic process. Often, when healing from abuse and sexual trauma starts, more intense intervention is needed. It is not uncommon for the survivor to participate in one or more therapy sessions per week at the beginning stages of healing or when the issues processed during therapy are more complex and emotionally difficult to resolve. This is okay. In effective therapy, healing takes place both inside and outside the office. For most survivors of sexual abuse and assault, a therapeutic office becomes a safe environment to process the abuse. The application of healing outside the therapeutic office is also an important step. What both the survivor and those who love and support survivors must understand is that healing outside the office can at times create increased levels of vulnerability for the survivors. If the vulnerability experienced by the survivor grows too intense, it is okay for the survivor to take a step back and wait until a safe place is present.
Knowing the Stages of Grief
Complex emotions are part of the healing process. Most survivors of sexual abuse and sexual trauma will travel through the stages of grief as they accept that their lives were altered, never to be the same, and that they can move forward. The abuse grieving stages will include anger, bartering, denial, sadness, and acceptance. As a survivor heals, they can experience grief emotions in stages, in days, or sometimes all at once. This is normal. During the healing process, survivors will learn to be self-accepting of their emotions. Loved ones of those taking time to heal do not need to understand the events and emotions experienced by the survivors as much as they need to provide support without judging, setting limits, or suggesting a time to move on.
Healing Line Upon Line
Healing from sexual abuse and sexual trauma will take time. Just as we learn gospel truths line upon line, we also heal line upon line and moment by moment. Note also that healing occurs in stages. Individuals may engage in therapy in their 20s and then feel that more healing needs to take place in their 40s. That is great. Healing should never be forced. If a person is not ready for therapy, then do not force them to go. If they are not ready to talk, then let them be silent. Remember, as a support person you can talk to a therapist as well, who can offer you guidance on how to support someone you know who has been sexually abused or assaulted.
One important question I ask individuals when they come to see me at the start of therapy is: if this was our very last session, what is it you hope will be accomplished during your healing journey? The answer to this question can help prepare someone for the process of healing. Healing does come. Healing is real. It is a roller coaster ride of emotions, it can hurt, and it helps create new pathways for those who have known loss to feel loved, accepted, understood, safe, and, in due time, able to trust again.
To all survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault, the loving arms of our Savior Jesus Christ are outstretched toward you. His love and the love of those who support you is real. You can find peace, for you are worthy, and you have done nothing to warrant what has happened to you. The nail prints in our Savior’s hands and His feet witness to us all that He knows the pains of abuse. It is His sacrifice that will bring us peace as we do the work to heal.