To Be Heard and Not Hurt
By Elizabeth Matz, PhD
Elizabeth Matz, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in private practice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been working with individuals and groups focused on child sexual abuse for more than 25 years. She has been an educator on issues of sexual violence in public and professional settings.
She is also a singer, dancer, year round bike rider, inline skater, and works every day at being an athlete in her 60s.
Dear Dr. Elizabeth,
I read that I need to feel emotions in order to find the greatest healing and freedom from past sexual trauma/abuse/incest.
How EXACTLY do you do this? it seems easy to say, but really how, where, by what means does one begin?
Searching for real answers
It is true that the bottom line is that change requires feeling, and not simply thinking about, or even only talking about traumatic experiences. Conscious breathing is a basic element of the process. That means also being conscious of when we are holding our breath, and of tension in specific parts of our body.
Breathing is important because sexual abuse results in freezing or numbing feelings by holding your breath and tightening muscles (tightening your throat, chest, tummy, butt, legs, etc.) while also thinking, imagining, fantasizing etc. These are actions that both children and adults do automatically in order to survive the experience (not the idea) of being hurt, overpowered, made helpless, isolated, hopeless, confused and more.
In the experience of being sexually abused, molested, raped when you are a child (or an adult), holding your breath causes the numbing of feelings. Often numbing feelings while also “going into your head” becomes a way of life. It becomes a habitual coping strategy and not a strategy limited to when someone is violating us. What was useful during a childhood trauma then becomes a liability. What was useful is now limiting, self‑defeating, and confusing in every day life.
I believe it is generally very difficult to learn to feel completely on one’s own because the feelings we had when someone was hurting us are so very frightening, foreign, confusing, and often overwhelming. I suggest finding a knowledgeable, experienced practitioner to help you to create a deep sense of safety, both physical and emotional. That means specifically, a person with whom you feel safe from judgments, scolding, unwanted touch, controlling attitudes, etc.
Learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions
One goal of this personal work is to achieve a sense of being safe enough to tolerate with awareness the uncomfortable, frightening, sad, angry, often overwhelming emotions, memories, body sensations, thoughts, and mental images which have been blocked, numbed and simply not allowed into consciousness.
Learning to breathe with awareness is much harder than people might think. Conscious, deep slow breathing can result in some level of body relaxation. This is hard. A favorite cartoon of mine illustrates the difficulty: A patient tells her physician, “I know I need to relax, but relaxation makes me tense.”
A goal is to be able to actually experience, with a safe practitioner, the fear, grief, rage and eventually relief and relaxation which are impossible to feel when trust is destroyed and you can’t breathe, move, cry, yell, and say “no.”
I also recommend finding support groups for survivors. The Healing Center, 611 W. National Ave., Milwaukee, 53204; 414‑671‑4325, has a Survivors of Sexual Assault/Abuse Support Group on Wednesdays from 3:30 pm to 5 pm. You can also do a computer search. I used Google for “Milwaukee, WI. support groups for abuse survivors,” which brought up quite a range of websites to check out.
There are some excellent books available that can also help you. I have listed some of them that are available in the Milwaukee County Library system, online and in local bookstores.
Books That Can Be Helpful (those marked with an * are available in the Milwaukee Public Library system, and for sale at Amazon.com, and in some Milwaukee book stores. The others may or may not be.
The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis*
The Courage to Heal Workbook by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis*
Outgrowing the Pain by Eliana Gil, Ph.D.*
Just Because I Am, a child’s book of affirmation by Lauren Murphy Payne, M.S.W. illustrations by Claudia Rohling* (written for children; important for people of all ages)
Victims No Longer, men recovering from incest and other sexual child abuse by Mike Lew*
Broken Boys, Mending Men, recovery from childhood sexual abuse by Stephen D. Grubman-Black*
The Sexual Healing Journey, a guide for survivors of sexual abuse by Wendy Maltz*
Women, Sex, and Addictions by Charlotte Kasl* (a library search for “Kasl, Charlotte” will list many excellent books on closely related issues)
Healing the Child Within by Charles L. Whitfield, M.D.*
Memory and Abuse, remembering and healing the effects of trauma by Charles L. Whitfield, M.D.*
Kiss Daddy Goodnight by Louise Armstrong
The Obsidian Mirror, an adult healing from incest by Louise M. Wisechild
Why Me? Help for victims of child sexual abuse (even if they are adults now) by Lynn B. Daugherty, Ph.D
Getting Played: African American girls, urban inequality, and gendered violence by Jody Miller*
Chain Chain Change for Black women dealing with physical and emotional abuse by Evelyn C. White*
Talking it Out a guide for groups for abused women by Ginny NiCarthy, Karen Merriam and Sandra Coffman
THE FOLLOWING BOOKS ARE IMPORTANT AND POWERFUL. THEY DEAL WITH THE TOPICS OF THE SILENCING AND REPRESSION OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN SEXUALLY ABUSED, AND WITH THE SOCIAL/POLITICAL BACKLASH AGAINST SPEAKING OUT:
Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics, what happened when women said incest by Louise Armstrong*
BOOKS BY ALICE MILLER*
For Your Own Good
Thou Shalt Not Be Aware
The Body Never Lies: the lingering effects of cruel parenting
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Dear Dr. Elizabeth,
I don’t know what to do. I am a survivor of child sexual abuse with years of group therapy, support groups, individual therapy, lots of reading and, I think, a good understanding of issues involved in sexual abuse. I understand that it was not my fault and that I should not feel guilty or believe that I was a bad or weak child.
But, I don’t understand why, with all that I have learned, I continue to feel stuck in old self-destructive patterns, including not trusting, or too easily trusting some people, and also using food, eati.
Can you tell me why this is still happening, or what I can do about it?
I am so glad that you are aware that it was never your fault and nor under your control. It takes a great deal of courage and perseverance to bring yourself to this point. I hope you can and do congratulate yourself for all that you have done.
From what you have said, I suspect that what has been missing from your work is (easy to say, but hard to do) experiencing feelings in your body, not only thinking about feelings. To be more specific, the terror, anger, grief, and more that children go through in the moments that an adult is hurting, invading, and controlling them are too overwhelming to express.
So the bottom line is that change requires FEELING, not just thinking.
Sexual abuse results in freezing or numbing feelings. Kids do this (as do adults) by holding their breath, tightening muscles and then also thinking, imagining, mentally picturing, fantasizing. These are things children do automatically in order to survive the EXPERIENCE of being overpowered, physically hurt, confused, made helpless, isolated, terrified, hopeless, and more.
Then, most often, the survival response of numbing feelings and “going into your head” becomes a way of life, not only what we do in the moment that someone is abusing/violating using us. What was useful in childhood becomes a liability in our adult years. What used to help now feels limiting and frustrating.
A too short, too simple answer is: one needs to seek out a person and place that creates a very deep sense of safety, both physical and emotional. That means no possibility of intrusion, scolding, judging, correcting, discounting, minimizing, and the like.
A person/place where you can actually feel. Where you can experience fear, grief, rage, and eventually a sense of safety and relaxation. None of these can be felt when you can’t breathe, trust, cry, yell, and say NO. I hope, if you so choose, that you seek out a therapist who is experienced in working with sexual abuse in ways that integrate the mind and body, that is, ways that put together thinking and feeling.
I’m glad you were able to express yourself and write to us.