South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Why can't I get on with my life?

For Family & Friends, Female Survivors, Male Survivors

Tags: Child Sexual Abuse, Mental Health, Survivor's Stories

Some impacts of childhood sexual abuse on the life of adult survivors

By J Summers

Many people believe that, because the abuse happened as a child, as an adult the survivor should now just 'forget about it and get on with life'. If it were this simple, many survivors would do it! It is not this simple however. Survivors were not given the opportunity to experience a 'normal' childhood and they cannot go back and re-experience it. Childhood is where all humans learn the basics of adult behaviour. It is where they learn to talk, to walk, to feed themselves, dress themselves, to relate to others and how to decode all manner of verbal and non-verbal messages. When this learning process is distorted through abuse, it is impossible to change or erase the lessons learnt once adulthood has been reached. This is not to say that a survivor cannot lead a perfectly happy and fulfilling life, but they will never be the same as a non-survivor. The way a survivor is taught to think and act is forever different from a non-abused adult. This altered way of thinking affects relationships with their families, partners, close friends, their own children and with themselves.

If someone is skeptical about this statement, then ask them to try a simple experiment. Ask them to do two things in their life differently from the norm. Ask them to brush their teeth with their non-dominant hand and to brush their hair with their non-dominant hand. Once they have done this, ask them to imagine that, for the rest of their lives, brushing their teeth and hair will be that difficult. It won't feel 'right'. You look in the mirror and know that you can't quite do it. You can see others around you who seem to have no problems with it, but your own hands are clumsy. There are knots in your hair that you can't quite reach, or the part won't go straight. You resign yourself to the fact that you will never be able to make your hair look as good as everyone else's. Even if you get it done professionally, this is only a temporary solution. You know when brushing your teeth you've missed some of those back molars and scooping up the water was a nightmare so you used a little less than was needed. You know that eventually this type of tooth care will lead to decay but resign yourself to having to pay for the dentist bills and being admonished for your delinquency. You have learnt that others will attribute the reason for these behaviours to either a deliberate choice on your behalf or some undesirable personality defect such as laziness. But you endure, you get by.

Now tell the person to imagine that the reason they have to do this is merely to titillate and amuse some grown-up. Ask them to reflect on how they would think about life knowing that everyday was going to be a struggle and all because someone else selfishly used you for their own gratification when you were young. Now tell them to blame themselves for allowing it to happen and to feel the guilt that they are unable to tell anyone about it. This experiment may give a non-abused person a small insight into the life of a childhood sexual abuse survivor. Instead of teeth and hair brushing being 'different' for a survivor it is everything.

What is this thing called love?

Adult survivors therefore, do not have the same outlook on life as non-abused adults. As a child, someone they trusted hurt and manipulated them. Not understanding what was happening, but somehow 'knowing' that it was wrong, they assimilate many deviant behaviours into their understanding of 'normality'. They grow up with a different view of many of the cornerstones of inter-human relationships and interactions.

An example would be the concept of 'love'. Often the abuser will say that they love the child. The non-offending parent(s) will say they love the child. Love is then understood to be a good thing - people who love you care for you, comfort you when you are sad, give you presents on your birthday, make you feel happy etc. It is also a bad thing that leads you to get physically hurt, to become terrified at times, makes you feel embarrassed or dominated. It will include forced involvement in activities that must be shrouded in secrecy and which you will not be able terminate, avoid or have any control over. To a child being abused, this becomes what 'love' is. Upon reaching adulthood the social pressure to find a life partner to love and that loves you in return is seen as a dubious or alarming goal. The survivor may also 'love' someone else and may view this emotion in themselves as forever corrupted. Anyone who proclaims love may 'naturally' be viewed with suspicion, perhaps dread or fear, or at best with wariness. The other person's motives will always be open to speculation.

To try to grasp complex emotional concepts like love, children group experiences into simplistic extremes. Good or bad, black or white, there is no grey. They can't differentiate between one trusted adult's behaviour and that of another's. Therefore, if one trusted adult abuses them, this experience is not taken away by the non-abusive relationships they experience, it just becomes part of their understanding of 'relationship'. The child learns not that 'some adults do bad things', but that 'all trusted people can do bad things.' This includes even the child itself. Like many other aspects of their developing psychological make up, this distrust becomes an integral part of their socialised constructs - their sense of how they see themselves and others and how people relate. It is just the same as their sense of humor or ability to reason. As with these psychological traits, once it is integrated it can never be 'unlearned' or erased. It 'just is'.

In adults, this total acceptance of distorted worldviews form the basis of many survivors beliefs about their 'true selves'. These views are like coloured lenses placed on the eyes of the survivor - they see everything through them and are usually totally unaware of their existence. It forms the core of their beliefs of themselves and of how others see them. It is through these lenses that they observe others interactions with themselves. As the beliefs are tainted with shame and guilt, they promote isolationist or self-destructive behaviours (I hate myself, you have no idea what I'm 'really' like, I am unlovable, you're only being nice to me because you want something). It is common for these beliefs to go unchallenged until the survivor begins sexual assault counselling.

The family

The family interactions become the child's preoccupation. The quality of the child's day, the level of terror they must endure is dictated by external influences, always. This has lead to comparisons made between the trauma process displayed in survivors and that displayed in combat troops in war. Just like the foot-soldier, this situation galvanizes the child's sense of survival. Adult survivors continue to display this inner strength and resilience. They have vast amounts of courage and heightened skills for coping under extreme conditions. Survivors have adapted to continually being in a state of readiness.

As a consequence, the family unit is seen paradoxically as a place of support and of pain. Within the family is where a child learns the concept of authority and respect. They are taught to respect authority. To obey authority. This adds to the confusion of the concept of 'family'. On the one hand, there is kindness and caring from the non-abusing family members with whom the child willingly bonds. On the other is suffering and degradation from the abusing member(s), which the child tries to avoid, but yet is also bonded to. However, to a child a family is one whole unit. In order to reject the abuser, they think they must reject the whole family. Children are vulnerable. In order to survive they must remain in a family unit.

They come to believe that the abuse is the price they pay for remaining a part of their family. They believe they made a choice and therefore must accept the consequences. This adds to their guilt and self-blame (it was my fault). The authority figures in their lives are not perceived as benevolent dictators as in non-abusive families, but as tyrants with absolute control and little compassion or empathy. Feeling 'trapped' and powerless becomes a common understanding of being a part of a "family". In an adult this view is evidenced in statements like; I don't respect anyone, I have no respect for myself, I have problems with authority figures, s/he was trying to take over my life so I left, they are the boss I must do as they say, I can't visit my brother/sister, my abuser might be there.

A "mother's love"

To a child, their primary caregiver's powers are unlimited and omnipotent. Therefore, regardless of whether the primary caregiver (usually the mother) intervened or even knew of the abuse, the child assumed that she did know and therefore chose to do nothing. We are socialised into believing that mothers are supposed to love and protect their child. Mothers are supposed to make things better. To the abused child, none of this was true. Adult survivors often harbor deep hostility and resentment towards their mothers for these reasons.

In order to resolve their resentment towards their mothers, adult survivors must reconceptualize the cultural stereotype view of mothers. They must understand that mothers are not omnipotent, that they are humans and that they have flaws and weaknesses just like everyone else. Mothers also must work hard to reestablish a genuine intimate relationship with their adult child. Just saying 'I'm sorry, I didn't know' is not enough. It is hard for victim/survivors to accept the fact that many mothers were successfully duped by the offender into believing that there was nothing going on. This manipulation by the offender is aimed at keeping the crime a secret so that it can continue.

It is not surprising therefore, that adult survivors often believe that they have never 'known' a mother's love. Mothers and primary caregivers in general may be regarded with suspicion from an early age. This paradox is in conflict with a child's natural state of dependency and innocence. It often results in children learning to equate dependence with trepidation and even fear. In adult survivors it is common to see this belief fueling behaviours which ensure that a degree of distance and independence is maintained from those they choose to be close to. It also enables many survivors to be able to 'cut their losses' in a situation they find undesirable and to quickly start afresh, for instance by changing jobs, moving house, ending a relationship etc. On the other hand, feeling overly dependant on someone or something for an adult survivor will often trigger depression, panic attacks, anger or helplessness.


The child quickly learns three vital lessons:

  1. That they are powerless to escape from abuse once the scenario begins.
  2. That they are powerless to prevent the abuse from happening permanently, and
  3. That no one is going to 'rescue' them.

The objective now becomes to avoid abusive situations on a day by day basis.

A child is not psychologically able to understand the complexities of human interaction. They have no concept of a man feeling powerless through work pressures and compensating by exerting his power over his family through abuse. The child knows the abuse is happening for a reason (it must). They use their limited life experience and equate the abuse with a concept they are familiar with - punishment. They have already learnt that punishment is only metered out to a bad child. The child comes to the realization that the real reason for the abuse is due to themselves. They are the bad ones. This belief is often encouraged by the abuser. "You're special/different/bad, I have to do this". In adult survivors this belief is converted into self-hatred and self loathing and causes profound psychological damage. If left unchallenged, it will remain a part of the adult survivor's self-concept for life.

With the child's new 'It's my fault, I'm the bad one' belief firmly in place, suddenly things begin to make sense. There are now a myriad of reasons why the abuse occurs. Now there is hope. Now the child believes they can control the abuse or stop it completely by being 'good'. The longer they are abused, the more minutely they examine their actions to isolate the offending behaviour and eradicate it from their routines.

Behaviours and beliefs linked to this survival mentality are very difficult to alter when internalized during the dependency stage of childhood. Each time an adult survivor tries to change them, they literally feel they are taking their lives in their hands. They firmly believe their lives will be decimated by even the smallest modifications to their carefully constructed routines and beliefs.

And so the child analyses everyday incidents and uses these observations to predict when abuse (punishment) is most likely to occur. These predictions are achieved through staggering amounts of both conscious and unconscious observations and calculations. Some examples: observing that if mother applies a certain shade of lipstick, it means she is preparing to visit a particular person's house. That if the car keys are placed on the bench it means someone is going out (=danger), but if they are tossed onto the bench, it means that no one is planning to go out (=safe). That when the abuser raises his eyebrows 2 millimeters while looking at the child's crossed legs, then he has abuse on his mind, but the same action while he is looking at the child's hands means it will be alright (=crossed legs bad). If the abuser inhales or exhales in a certain way there may be trouble (=don't let this happen/run and hide when it does).

This learnt hyperawareness continues on into adulthood and is why survivors often seem 'psychic' or aware of trivial details that no one else is. It is also common for survivors to habitually sit close to doors or windows, to avoid confined spaces when others are present and to 'just know' when someone is in a bad/angry mood. This strengthened sense of others makes survivors empathetic friends. The hypersensitivity enables many survivors to write stories full of description, create works of art in staggering detail and means they are ideally suited for work which involves people contact such as in management or counselling. It also means they may become agitated with people over small incidents - 'you sat in the blue chair - that's where I sit', don't look at me like that, you had a glass of wine with lunch - you know I hate drunks, I get nervous when you breath like that.

'The Wall'

Despite the best avoidance strategies however, children soon learn that the only truly 'safe place' over which they have total control is inside their own minds. It is common for the abused child to create a psychological 'wall' around itself where no one is able to emotionally touch them. No one can see inside this sanctuary. It is where all the bad, abused and private parts of the child are kept. It is where the child 'lives'. By disassociating from their bodies, the child can again feel safe, as it is only the body which is being abused, not the 'true self'. This coping mechanism is paradoxically able to co-exist with the hypersensitivity. It 'kicks in' when options to avoid the situation prove futile. The wall also allows survivors to enjoy heightened concentration levels that are immune to a vast amount of distractions.

Having learnt from an early age to 'pretend that everything is fine' contributes to many survivors having a highly developed imagination. This makes many of them very talented in the creative arts. The optimism that is required to maintain their hope that one day it will all stop, engenders in survivors the ability to sustain their belief in the intangible for long periods of time. Later in life this enables them to make 'dreams' happen - for instance creating a business enterprise, or embarking on projects which everyone else says can't be done, often with great success.

As they mature, the ability to attribute bad things as happening to 'the body' often results in adult survivors being disinterested in, or unaware of, many of the challenging situations 'the body' might get into. An example would be a survivor passively sitting by while a situation becomes aggressive. The survivor is able to 'tune out' until the situation is resolved and is often totally mystified when the question of their taking an active hand in deflating the proceedings is raised. They do not understand that such options exist because of their learned inability to change things. Sometimes they think that 'they' were not even there! This can have an even bigger impact on an adult survivor's sexual relations. They may be accused of being cold or disinterested by their partners. They may be unable to feel an intimate love with their own bodies or take joy in their own sensuality.

Due to the distortions they adopted as children to cope with the abuse, the 'wall' they created around themselves is not penetrable by even the closest of relationships. This wall was created for survival and it is not so much that the survivor chooses to maintain it, more that they have no concept of how to have a relationship with anyone without it. Often they are not even aware that it exists and are surprised when they begin to 'see' it. Survivors often talk about feeling 'different' from others, of feeling 'distant' and the existence of the wall is just one of the reasons why.

Relationship Boundaries

Relationship boundaries remain blurred as the child gets older. It is not unusual for survivors to group many different types of acquaintances, friends and family members into the same levels of intimacy. They are unable to differentiate between the level of trust one should allocate to 'true friends' who genuinely care about them and that which should be allocated to acquaintances they have just met. Personal safety comes from the coping strategies they have learnt; hypersensitivity, avoidance and disassociation, not from trust or being able to actively alter a situation once they are in it. They no longer question that some people are more trustworthy than others. They have learnt that all people are untrustworthy. Therefore, if someone appears to mean you no harm on first meeting, they are treated the same as a close friend or family member. This often contributes to adult survivors becoming involved in abusive relationships later in life where they are re-abused. It also means that they can be extremely kind and generous to people they have just met. For instance meeting a back-packer on the train, taking them home and treating them with the same hospitality others would reserve for siblings or close friends.

How Can You Change The Unchangable?

Re-learning certain aspects of a survivors outlook is difficult but not impossible. In order for this to even begin to take place a survivor must do something they have learnt to be wary of. They must trust another person's word for it that things can be different. This might seem like an extreme statement, but to the survivor, the new outlook is something totally foreign to them and of which they have no personal knowledge. They can 'see' that other people do not seem to have the same problems they do when relating to others. They can 'see' that others may be happy and seemingly contented with their lives, but they have no concept as to why or how this is the case. Like all people, they have so integrated their childhood experiences that they firmly believe that the way they see things is totally 'normal' and that others see things the same way. When the time comes that they realize this is not the case, an internal crisis occurs and, due to their learned inability to trust others, they are not sure where to turn for help. It takes a great deal of courage to take the first step. It is a leap of faith that, if they jump off the precipice into the unknown, they will land safely.

The best that a survivor who has had no counselling as a child can hope to do is to integrate new and healthier behaviours into their psychological makeup. What healthier behaviours? Ones that remove the sense of guilt, shame and disgust from the survivor. Ones that allow the survivor to put the blame squarely where it belongs - towards the abuser not themselves. New non self destructive behaviours. Ones that allow the survivor to make changes to their opinions of others and particularly to the ones they love. New behaviours that help to alleviate some of the loneliness and isolation. There is a part of every survivor that will always be aloof as they will never be able to undo the damage of the past, but they can lessen the impact of it on the rest of their lives.

Toward Healthier Behaviours

New behaviours can be integrated with courage, repetition and persistence. It requires the survivor to actively choose to change and to learn new ways of reacting to and thinking about a situation. Like learning another language as an adult, it will always be a 'second' language, but that does not mean that it cannot become the language of choice.

The best way to start is small steps. A good counsellor will assist with this, but the risk taking will always be on the shoulders of the survivor. Test new behaviours slowly and thoroughly for instance; speaking to a counsellor about some of the 'black inside'. Gently edge the self-doubt and self hate out into the light so that it can be examined by new and perhaps less critical eyes. Many of the old memories are those of a child who had a different set of judgmental criteria upon which to assimilate assumptions and experiences.

A Note For Survivors Reading This

Place the care of you, the adult survivor, firmly into your own hands. You take control. You set the pace. Let yourself make mistakes. You are learning and it takes time.

Many things will seem strange and scary at first and that's normal. Read, ask questions, use counsellors, experiment on close friends and family (ask them if it's ok first). Reassess your boundaries. Practice saying no or yes to people. Ask close friends questions that might at first sound basic, but remember you're learning a new language. Ask 'what was it like to have a mother and father?' How do you know they love you? How do you know you can trust them? What happens when you want to be close to someone - what do you do? How do you know when you are good friends with someone? How do you know if someone likes you? How do you know if you don't like someone? How do you say no to someone? What makes you think you won't destroy your family if you do something bad? Is it true that you feel like your family will 'always' love you? Are there any bits of yourself you don't like? How do you make friends? How do you think of your sexuality? How do you view sex? How do you view children? Whatever you want to know. Perhaps they won't be able to answer your questions, but learning to ask them and to question the depth of your own distortions is just as important.

Try loving yourself. If that is too hard at first, then try finding just one little bit of yourself you like - perhaps an ear or a toe. Try finding some things in your personality you like too - perhaps your creativity or sense of humour or compassion. Work on these things until you can accept all of yourself. It may take years but that's ok too - you have the whole rest of your life.

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