When you’re a child and you suffer abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual, or emotional, you make it your mission to find out if this is normal. You wonder if other kids experienced the same things.
It’s easier to doubt your perception than it is to accept the fact that you are living in a dangerous situation. If you knew that to be true, you’d have to do something about it. You’d have to talk to a teacher, a school counselor, or a police officer. You’d have to expose something that brings you great shame and pain. You’d have to face your abuser. Even though you’re only a child.
As a child, you can’t walk to school on your own, you don’t understand fractions, you don’t know what the economy is, and your best friend is your best friend because you brought the same cookies for lunch on the first day of school. For a child, life is simple and small. Abuse is not.
You don’t understand what’s happening to you. You wonder if it’s just something you did. Perhaps you’re just deeply flawed and deserve to be treated this way. You wonder if your perception is all wrong. As a child, your experiences are limited, and gauging whether or not other kids are experiencing the same abuse is tricky.
I recall my own experience. I remember having asked myself almost every day, “Is this normal? Is it just me?” I know that I didn’t want to be direct in asking my friends about it because I didn’t want to expose my own experience. I was deeply ashamed of what happened to me. Sometimes I even believed I deserved to be abused. I thought that telling my friends about it would make them disgusted with me.
What I had to learn was that it’s the feelings that matter. It’s not helpful to focus on the abusive event, the motivation of the abuser, and the rate at which other people experience similar abuse. The thing that is most important is… How it makes you feel.
Abusers don’t want you to trust your feelings. They tell you — maybe explicitly but definitely implicitly — that your feelings don’t matter.
That was drilled into my head. I was taught that my feelings weren’t trustworthy. In fact, my feelings were a total nuisance because they were constantly at odds with my abuser’s. Things were the way my abuser said they were and nothing more. My abuser decided if I had any rights to my body or personal space, if I have the right to cry or complain. When I felt disgust, self-pity, fear, or any other negative emotion, I was told it was wrong. My abuser told me how to feel.
It’s taken years to learn to trust my instincts because that would mean embracing my feelings. What is instinct if not a feeling? What is anxiety if not an emotion cluing you into the fact that you are in danger? And certainly feelings aren’t facts, but you don’t have to tell that to an abuse survivor. Survivors take to ignoring their feelings because it was the only way to survive.
In order to move on though, you have to give yourself permission to stop weighing the trauma, measuring it’s perimeter, and scrutinizing each detail. Trust your feelings. No one should ever make you feel degraded, insignificant, or miserable. A person who loves and cares about you doesn’t make you hate yourself. This might sound obvious and you may understand this when it comes to how you treat your own friends and loved ones. But this is about how you were treated.
Console the child inside by accepting the feelings you have about the abuse without judgment. Validate yourself.
“Validating yourself is like glue for fragmented parts of your identity,” writes Karyn Hall, PhD. “Validating yourself will help you accept and better understand yourself, which leads to a stronger identity and better skills at managing intense emotions.”
You have a right to your feelings, you are the sole authority on your own experience, and you deserve comfort and safety. Understand that your emotional reaction to the abuse was normal. Any child would have reacted the same way. Now it’s time to validate those feelings to help you move on from that childhood trauma and give yourself the life you always deserved.