Posted on 09 November 2017
What it is and why it hurts.
Sexual harassment or assault can affect your life, your confidence and your relationships. In this post, I am going to explain why it is so insidious and how it can lead our unconscious mind to patterns of behaviour which are not helpful or pleasant.
If you have had a bad sexual experience, where you have felt coerced into doing something you did not want, or have suffered a sexual assault, you are probably aware that suffering this sort of horrible experience is particularly toxic. It can feel different and much worse than after other bad things which might happen to you.
Why is this? It’s worth going into, as understanding why we are behaving and feeling in a certain way can be the first step to healing and moving on.
First, is how we regard sex, although we live in a more open society these days, sex is still regarded as something private which should not be talked about in public. This means that if you have suffered any coercive sexual experiences, it can be very hard to disclose this to anyone. You may feel shame or even guilt.
Many people run through the events and ask themselves what they could have done to stop it. One advantage of seeing a good therapist is being able to confront these feelings and understand that being forced into sexual activity which you did not want is never your fault.
Whether you have been subjected to inappropriate comments at work or a full-blown rape there is a common thread – the loss of your power and control to someone else. Any sexual attention to which you have not consented can cause great damage, because of how your unconscious mind interprets that loss of power.
We should not under-estimate just how terrifying this loss of power, of agency, of not being in control of your own life, can be. All your basic defence mechanisms will be running in overdrive – your flight, fight or freeze responses will kick in. At a most basic level your whole system will be sending the message that you are under attack yet helpless in some way.
If, when it is over, you may internalise what has happened and begin to believe, at a very basic subconscious level, that the world is a dangerous, unpredictable place and for some, they begin to believe that they are liable to come under attack at any time.
This can lead to high anxiety levels, and behaviours which, with the intention of protecting yourself, actually mean you stop doing the sort of things you enjoy – the sort of things which give you pleasure and fulfilment and make your life happy. You may also find that any sexual contact reminds you of the bad things which happened, so it can start to impact on your consensual sexual relationships. Again, this is not necessarily conscious. You may find yourself shrinking away from your partner, or avoiding situations where you would meet new partners and begin new sexual relationships. Your life becomes more constrained, you are missing enjoyment and opportunities.
If you recognise these patterns you may become very angry with yourself, and even blame yourself. A trained and specialist therapist can help you here. The first step, and I hope this blog post has started you on this path, is to recognise that your behaviour and feelings are your unconscious mind trying to protect you from further danger. But in doing so, the unconscious mind is causing you problems.
A good therapist will work with your unconscious mind so that when you think of the event or events you do not experience the same emotional and physical response, the memories and thoughts don’t have the same emotional charge. In fact it becomes that you cannot be bothered to think about that time as it feels different so your focus can start to be on more positive things and you can get on with your life.
If you call me, I will explain in more detail what I can do to help, but I just want to say one more thing. Often, these problems can be solved in a relatively short time. We are not likely to be looking at years and years of work, more likely a few months. So, a happy future is not that far away.
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