March 31, 2003
Sexual Problems - Part 3: Denial
Trauma, by its very nature, is a denial. It is a necessary, protective denial of the violation that is happening at the moment of abuse. The overwhelming, painful stimulus is hidden away from consciousness so as not to "blow" the circuits of the system.
Traumatic repression works like a fuse in the electrical circuitry of a home. A blown fuse only protects the house temporarily until the electrical overload problem is corrected. Similarly, repression acts as a temporary band-aid until the traumatic overload can be brought out of repressive denial and expressed in a release of feelings.
The healing cycle of trauma and release can be seen in animals. If they are under attack and cannot successfully flee or fight, they may freeze in protective shock. If they escape and find themselves in a safe environment, they will release the energy of the terror and pain by shaking, running, stretching, and making sound. If they do this, they will not be traumatized, and they will return to a state of physical and emotional balance. If they do not do this, the trauma will remain lodged in their systems, and will interfere with bodymind functioning.
The natural response to systemic overload is to encapsulate excess energy and release it later. First there is a natural denial of the pain (trauma) and then a natural acceptance of it (feeling awareness and emotional release).
But what happens if, after a traumatic incident, there is no safe environment within which to reverse the denial and release the pain? What if the person who is abusing you is the one that is supposed to be your protector?
In modern society, most parents and caretakers are emotionally crippled by dysfunction from their own traumas. This neurotic condition is so widespread that it has become normal - though not healthy. This appearance of normality doesn't change the fact that these caretakers unwittingly inflict trauma on their own children and therefore cannot be the safe haven needed for its release. If trauma cannot be released, it stays in the system. The longer trauma stays in the system, the more it gets entrenched. A soft "imprint" in the clay of our minds will become rock hard.
Although denial is the hallmark of repressed trauma, denial is often intensified with sexual abuse because sex itself is a repressed subject in this society. Sex is a general taboo, and even more so to those children who have been sexually abused. Society says, "Don't think about it and don't talk about it." This societal repression adds to traumatic repression and sends the painful incident further below consciousness.
Sometimes children are sexually abused by people they love, need, and admire, in ways that seem like affection. In this type of abuse, a child's body may feel good - as well as confused and uncomfortable. Regardless of any positive feelings, the incidents always have to be kept secret and cannot be shared with others. Like all things shameful and bad, they have to be hidden and denied.
Sexually abused children are often threatened with humiliation, isolation, punishment, injury to family members, damnation - or death - if they tell. They are often told that "it never happened," or that no one will believe them. On top of their natural traumatic denial, they are overtly forced to deny reality. Young children have malleable, developing minds, and they will often doubt themselves when confronted by the power of a seemingly all-powerful abuser. Natural denial is further reinforced.
Sexual abuse often causes severe trauma due to its invasive, shocking nature. The more severe a trauma is, the more severe the repression of memory - and the denial. The passage of time erodes the recall of normal childhood memory, traumatic repression inhibits it further, and the severe repression of sexual abuse can block memory completely. The earlier the abuse, the more likely the victim will experience complete "amnesia."
Highly charged, traumatic memories may disappear from everyday consciousness, but they remain in the system, pressing for release. They make their appearance in dreams, neurotic behaviour, and puzzling physical symptoms. They are like messengers knocking on the door of our denial, needing to be heard. Until we open the door of our denial, we cannot fully heal.
When it comes to sexual problems and childhood sexual abuse, the layers of denial are many. There is natural traumatic denial, shock-level denial, abuser threat denial, self-esteem denial, family denial, professional denial, and societal denial. When someone with sexual problems begins to consider the possibility of childhood sexual abuse, acceptance of that possibility is often blocked on many levels.
Sexual abuse usually undermines a person's confidence and leaves them feeling worthless, intrinsically bad, and less than human. In spite of the evidence, symptoms, feelings, and memory flashes, sexual abuse survivors often think they are "making it up." With their confidence shattered, they feel bad - even evil - for thinking such things. If they can't believe it themselves, they are not likely to risk the shame of "exposing" themselves to an unbelieving public of doctors, psychiatrists, friends, and family. As their painful, dysfunctional symptoms continue, they often conclude that they are fundamentally or genetically flawed. It's as if they are still in the grips of their abuser.
But nature cannot be fooled. No matter what the trauma is, or how old it is, the organism looks for a safe environment in which to release it. A responsible, experienced primal integration therapist can be that safe environment. Having accepted much of their own traumatic denials, therapists can offer the acceptance within which denial will melt.
If you have sexual problems and symptoms that point to childhood sexual abuse, finding the safe environment of the right therapist can be the first step in healing. Then the process can begin to unfold.
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Sexual Problems - Part 1: It's a Feeling Problem