Before we take an in-depth look at working with parts of the personality, I want to stress the role society plays in psychological fragmentation. In part, how we respond to sexual trauma is determined by whether our communities provide the support necessary for recovery. Feelings of alienation and shame intensify when we lack trusted confidants and protectors. Fragmented memories that could be resolved through the nurturance of caring and responsive people are instead avoided. The longer we go without support, the more our ability to reach out for help is impaired. Over time, we lose not only trust in community, but also in the natural capacity for recovery from trauma.
When communities fail to adequately address the impact of sexual trauma on girls’ and women’s psyches and bodies, they in effect relay how to fragment, revealing which aspects of personhood will be valued and which will be rejected. And when we infer (or are told) we should silence parts of ourselves that hold memories of sexual trauma, we are more likely to blame ourselves for what happened.
We become social beings largely by absorbing the implicit beliefs of our communities. In most societies, as well as throughout recorded history, to be sexually abused is to exist as part of a category rather than as a person. This makes it exceedingly difficult to share our stories without the worry of being stereotyped. For many of us, we intuit, if not consciously know, what journalist Parul Sehgal observed: “Those who have faced sexual violence are so commonly sentimentalized or stigmatized, cast as uniquely heroic or uniquely broken. Everything can be projected upon them, it seems — everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.”1
What does not get expressed outwardly takes on a life inwardly. This can lead to what Auguste Comte called excess subjectivity, the obsessive inner pursuit of a grounded sense of self.2 This is akin to the tongue constantly exploring a sore tooth. When we feel we must hide parts of ourselves, we increase the likelihood of becoming absorbed in discovering who we are.
Sexual trauma can be so damning because it is an abuse of power that takes advantage of the implicit societal expectation that victims will remain silent. When distracted by excess subjectivity and the effects of psychological fragmentation, unequal power dynamics (and predators) often go unaddressed. The status quo remains intact.
For centuries indigenous cultures have identified power intrusions as the cause of a sick soul. In his book, The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner observed, “In shamanism, the maintenance of one’s personal power is fundamental to well-being.”3 What we today see as mental illness, shamans might have described as the outcome of someone’s attempt to gain power over the deepest parts of another. If you have been sexually abused, you likely see the truth of this ancient wisdom.4
The South American culture Harner studied used shamanism to both protect against and heal from power intrusions. They also used rituals to overcome soul sickness. To help individuals recover from power intrusions, the community came together.
Sexual trauma is typically not considered a disease caused by the abuse of power. Since the late nineteenth century, sexually abused girls and women have received diagnoses that conceal the role subjugation plays in their suffering. Rather than victims of power abuses, we have been cast as hysterics and borderlines, manic depressives and women with histrionic personality disorders. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson witnessed this tendency to medicalize social ills in Sigmund Freud’s recantation of his seduction theory in favor of a purely psychological explanation of hysteria: “What had been a deeply disturbing, even threatening account of external reality was turned into a theory about the power of internal fantasy, one that was far less threatening to the fabric of society.”5
Even though today the role trauma plays in mental and physical illness is increasingly acknowledged, the long history of anesthetizing the effects of power continues. We learn to speak of our reactions to sexual trauma in the language of psychopathology. Rather than addressing power intrusions, we manage or eradicate symptoms. Outside the therapist’s office, connections between power and sexual violation are regularly made, yet there isn’t the same level of attention to addressing power abuses therapeutically.
Often symptoms of mental disorders are identified in facial and body expressions, such as the vacant look of dissociation, the forward curving shoulders of burden, or the collapsed chest of submission. Studies of hominid evolution suggest these particular somaticized emotions first evolved to communicate the need to repair ruptures to social cohesion that resulted from excesses of power.6 Before the emergence of language, the body was the primary way the effects of subjugation were articulated. We have not lost this early evolutionary adaptation, and still communicate our histories through our bodies and facial expressions.7
Similar to how the body retains histories of abuse, so does the mind continue to anticipate the possibility of further harm. Women who have been depressed especially anticipate the possibility of aggression. Studies of eye-tracking showed that women with histories of depression tended to notice angry faces when shown photos of different emotional expressions. Furthermore, women who picked up on anger were more likely to experience depression within the next two years. The study did not ask about histories of sexual trauma or other types of abuses of power such as domestic violence. Yet depression is a natural reaction to being subjugated to oppression or violence, especially when the abuse is chronic and cannot be escaped.
We live in an era when human inequality is at its greatest, which is typically measured according to disparities of wealth and resources. No doubt, poverty is a disease to the soul and itself a power intrusion. Yet the most widespread power wound of modern times may be that so many of us walk around with the signs of subjugation inscribed on our faces and bodies while no one responds. Instead of relying on others for help with recovery, constantly scanning for the possibility of aggression has become a way to cope.
Although humans have been living in societies that rely on exploitation of the ‘bottom rung’ for at least five thousand years, this is but a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of years anatomically modern humans have been in existence. For most of our species’ time on Earth, humans are thought to have lived in egalitarian societies that consciously avoided extreme differentials in power. These communities are thought to have used dance, drumming, rituals, and myths to create a collective holding of members that relieved the threat of alienation that is a core injury of power intrusions.
Following any traumatic or overwhelming experience, we naturally revert back to a greater state of dependency. We need a sense of belonging that not only increases safety, but also helps give meaning to the overwhelming events of our individual lives. When we are not supported in our efforts to overcome sexual trauma — whether because of the fear of stigma or further harm — we are thrown back on ourselves, trying to fulfill the instinctual drive for social and psychological integration, although without the community we need to recover.
It’s not our faults that at times we fall apart or feel crazy in response to sexual trauma. We humans did not evolve to confront experiences like sexual trauma on our own, or hide our histories in shame and self-blame. Recovery requires letting go of the obsessive loop of excess subjectivity and the belief in one’s brokenness, and taking the risk to find safe people who can support the journey back to wholeness.
Questions to ponder: How has keeping the secret of sexual trauma affected how you feel about community or being part of groups? How would you like people to respond to you when (or if) you share your history of sexual abuse?
1 “The forced heroism of the ‘survivor’.” Parul Sehgal, May 8, 2016. New York Times Magazine, page MM13.
2 Davoine, F., & Gaudillière, J.-M. (2004). History beyond trauma: Whereof one cannot speak…thereof one cannot stay silent. (S. Fairfield, Trans.). New York: Other Press.
3 Harner, Michael. (1990). The way of the shaman. New York, NY: Harper Coolings, Kindle Location 127.
4 Ibid, Kindle Location 1450.
5 Moussaieff Masson, Jeffrey. (1998). The assault on truth: Freud’s suppression of the seduction theory. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
7 Ogden, Pat. (2007). Training for the treatment of attachment, development, and trauma manual. Boulder, CO: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).