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3 Reasons You May Feel Confused After Sexual Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Living in a conservative family where expressing a big issue is considered taboo, I’m used to suppressing my own emotions. No matter how big the problem is, my family will always try to be kind toward every family member — including someone who perpetrated sexual harassment toward me. When they still treat him in a friendly manner, I start to feel a sense of betrayal, disgust, hurt, and fear. I even question myself whether I’m overreacting in this situation. I’m starting to feel helpless due to my lack of power.

The event was occurred years ago, yet the pain and memory won’t fade away. Being the youngest daughter makes everyone in my family feel like they have access to my privacy and my body. They have never asked me whether it was OK to cross my boundaries.

Here, I’m going to share my story hoping I’m not the only one who feels these confusing emotions. Every time I get triggered when I see the presence of the perpetrator, I feel a sense of terror inside, but due to my high self-control, I refuse to break down. In turn, I feel calm but angry at the same time. It’s a mixed feeling when you’re starting to question whether your response is considered “normal” or not.

Whether it is sexual abuse or harassment, most people probably experience intense fear, sadness, and anger. How about confusion? Perhaps before those emotions surfaced due to shock, some may feel puzzled, unable to feel nor label what they’re feeling at that moment. Indeed, they feel scared, but none of those emotions come to the surface. Instead, they’re trapped in the emptiness and confusion. It’s like numb, but not exactly numb because they know they’re hurt but fail to express it outwardly. That’s what I’ve been feeling lately and perhaps some people out there have, too.

As a psychology student myself, I’m going to share my view about the reasons behind these confusing emotions (remember this could be different for everyone):

1. There’s a lack of support.

If your friends and family are there for you after knowing about the incident, then perhaps you perceive yourself as having enough support. But what if you don’t get enough support? Perhaps you’ve told them about what happened, but none of them cared enough. They probably felt shocked at first, but eventually they moved on in the end — but you didn’t.

When the flashback of the unwanted memory comes back, it’s crucial for us to feel people are present emotionally, that they’re here no matter what. If you don’t feel supported enough, then it’s time for you to find another source of support. Perhaps this particular friend or family member doesn’t care enough, how about the other one? Or, maybe you want to seek out professional help? It’s up to you to choose, but please don’t face this alone.

2. You’re not getting enough validation.

Personally speaking, when I was considering reporting this case to the police, some people disagreed just because the perpetrator was my family member. They even were reluctant to discuss it. Sometimes, it’s not that people don’t care enough. Rather, their response is mixed with invalidation. For instance, many of us are probably familiar with these responses that might come after we share the sexual harassment/abuse incident:

“Why didn’t you defend yourself back then?”

“Why didn’t you fight back?”

“Maybe you perceive it differently. It’s not a big deal.”

Or, how about a friend or a therapist who expects you to forgive the perpetrator for the sake of “your own peace and well-being?”

These kind of responses definitely do us more harm than good. At that time, I felt like I shouldn’t feel these emotions and I shouldn’t seek help.

3. You’re suppressing your own emotions.

No victim wants to remember what happened when they were sexually assaulted. Sometimes, when the flashbacks come, it’s easier for us to pretend it never happens. When we get triggered, the fear and anxiety kick in, but somehow we may mask it, pretending we’re fine. This action isn’t helpful because it often only leads us into feeling confused. It also means we’re invalidating our own feelings.

My advice is to let it all out. It’s normal for you to cry and experience these emotions. Just make sure you don’t harm yourself while doing so. It’s important for you to find the right way to release them. The ways may vary for everyone. But for me, as I finished writing this paragraph, I started to feel relieved. When everyone fails to listen, you can write it down to release and to speak up. Who knows if people will get inspired to speak up, too?

Getty image by CandyRetriever

Originally published: November 6, 2021
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