What does a therapist do to help a survivor become a thriver?

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artwork by Natalii Rak

How do you write about something that people are afraid to see? How to you expose an undermining, but insidious, practice? How do you change peoples’ minds? How does a civilization heal from the wounds of abuse?

It might be helpful to understand what a therapist would do to help an adult who is struggling with childhood or adolescent abuse. It might help you understand how you can help or support that person in their healing. And if you are that person who is struggling, sometimes it can be helpful to see a map of the journey you are on.

Treatment for adult survivors of childhood/adolescent sexual abuse first focuses on building a trusting relationship between the therapist and the survivor. In the beginning, the survivor is encouraged to tell their story, which is cathartic, as well as provides the therapist good information for determining the course of treatment and which therapeutic techniques may be the most beneficial.

Telling the “story” can be very difficult. Memories are often fragmented and confusing to the survivor. Telling the story can trigger the experience of the abuse, making it hard for the survivor to begin the telling. Often times, the abuse is so pervasive it can feel like it highjacked the survivor’s whole sense of childhood or adolescence. The therapist can be helpful to provide the survivor parameters and tools in which the survivor can piece their childhood or adolescence together in a way that makes more sense, and can become useful as a foundation for building a new life with structure for intentional living.

With this foundation in place, the therapist can help the survivor safely process the trauma. First by acknowledging that it happened and that it impacted their life in some significant ways. Re-experiencing the trauma with the safety of the therapist allows old feelings associated with the trauma to be expressed and released. This is critical in changing dysfunctional patterns that likely developed as a result of the trauma. Discovering distortions in thinking regarding what happened and who is responsible, is crucial to changing irrational beliefs that may have developed. Irrational beliefs like “I am a bad person,” or “I deserve bad things to happen,”  often lead to expressed or latent anger.

New beliefs, like “I am not a bad person,” or “Things happen that are hard to understand,” allow the anger to be processed and provide feelings of security which allow the survivor to live in the present and not feel confined by the past. These new beliefs coupled with the release of old emotions, allow the survivor to consider self-trust and trusting others. With self-trust, the survivor can embrace the harmed child that resides within them and unify with that child for healing, instead of fighting each other. At this point the therapist can help the survivor clearly distinguish the past from the present, allowing them greater opportunity to create a future-oriented outlook that does not include the experience of the trauma. As the survivor moves forward in their newly created life that includes a new sense of autonomy, the therapist can help the survivor navigate the new experience of actively and intentionally living their current life experience while continuing to discard any remaining distortions that cloud the survivors self-esteem.

That is what a therapist would do. And then, the therapist would celebrate the survivor’s success, deem them as graduated from surviver to thriver, and encourage the thriver to keep living the life they want to live. Now that you know that, you might know better how you could help or support someone who is struggling with childhood or adolescent abuse. And if you are the person who is struggling with childhood or adolescent abuse you might take a look at this map and consider finding a guide to help you in this journey.

Tami Boehle-Satterfield, MSW, LCSW-C, NBBCH, HTP, a licensed psychotherapist at attentiontoliving.com has challenged herself in 2016 to post weekly about the unpopular topic of abuse. Learn more about Tami at attentiontoliving.com

acknowledgment: http://www.secasa.com.au/pages/working-with-adult-survivors-of-child-sexual-assault/

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