by Dr. David Schopick
Chances are, there are people reading this article who have suffered from abuse. The abuse may have been physical, emotional, or a combination thereof. It may be buried in their past or they may still be victims. Either way, it is affecting their lives.
If you have been abused, or are suffering from abuse, know this: healing can take place. It will take work and it requires trust, which can be a very difficult thing to achieve once you have been abused. Abuse has a way of interfering with a person’s ability to trust, but learning to trust again is one of the first steps on the road to recovery.
Finding a therapist or counselor who is experienced in dealing with abuse is key. Once you have found a therapist, it may take time for you to feel comfortable enough to share your experiences, but a good therapist will guide you in a way that helps you make progress.
Why is therapy important? Abuse is built around secrets. Don’t tell what’s happening to you. Don’t tell who is doing it. Don’t let on that anything is wrong. If keeping secrets is the hallmark of a dysfunctional or abusive home, then sharing secrets, opening all the locked doors, letting all the monsters out of the darkness, is the hallmark of psychotherapy.
There are many ways to think about psychotherapy and the process of recovery. Therapists, researchers and people in treatment have many different theories about how the healing actually takes place. I believe that sharing our secret monsters is a key way that therapy helps to generate healing. Talking about the monsters takes away their power and has a therapeutic effect. In fact, I use the word “monster” deliberately as I encourage my patients to see their abuse as a monster on their shoulder, always there, always controlling them. Our job as therapists is to help patients identify the monsters then banish them once and for all. Monsters like dark, secret places so we get rid of them by bringing them into the open, into the light.
Secrets are a way that your inner self keeps you weighed down with all those huge monsters that you have lived with for so long. Secrets are like monster blackmail. Every time you recall the abuse your inner monster punishes you. It urges you not to tell anyone about what has happened: “If people ever find out, they’ll hate you!” says the monster. “They will see you as damaged!” Secrets foster feelings of fear, anger, loneliness and suspicion.
For you to be well again, the secrets must come out. The reality is the shame and guilt are not yours; they do not belong to you. They belong to the abuser.
During psychotherapy, all the secrets and secret monsters can come out, be closely examined, and healed. This is where you sort out the shame, guilt and terror that may have plagued you since the abuse.
Uncovering Feelings & Emotions
Therapy is a safe place where you can experience emotion. This may sound simplistic, but it is true. Many abuse victims say they have never felt safe anywhere because of what happened to them. For abuse victims, the therapist’s office is a place where they can feel safe, maybe for the first time in their lives.
Experiencing emotion is essential to restructuring your view of yourself. In our culture, emotional release is generally viewed as a sign of weakness. However, in therapy we learn that releasing anger, rage, grief, pain, loss and fear, as well as joy and pleasure, are necessary steps toward self-knowledge and growth.
In therapy, you become the master instead of the monster being the master. By releasing the monster inside, you can look at it, describe it, name it and finally move beyond it.
The goal of therapy is to learn new ways to relate to yourself and to others. An important step in this goal is learning to communicate your needs, feelings, wishes and fears more effectively. In therapy, anger is not acted out, but is instead expressed, understood and worked through. The goal is to bring everything, all the monsters, feelings and experiences into the light. Hiding your feelings during treatment will only undermine your therapy. Hiding your feelings is like keeping secrets; it may be something you learned to do as you were growing up, but just like secrets, it can poison a relationship.
Building a new life means building a new foundation of trust and communication. It means taking the monster off of your shoulder, putting it on the table between you and your therapist, and saying “What have we got here?” And that’s when the healing begins.
The next article will focus on techniques for coping with the pain and flashbacks caused by abuse, including ways to de-stress and relax.
In addition to more than 25 years of experience in private practice, Dr. David Schopick is also the author of “Safe at Last: A Handbook for Recovery from Abuse” which highlights the use of “monster therapy.