In 1987, I wrote an article telling the story of four sisters who had been molested by their father. Each of them had been molested the same way. Each experienced this at the same age–he moved on from one to the next with maniacal precision. Of course, each of them had been emotionally damaged by the abuse.
I wrote the article for a psychological journal more to point out the differing outcomes of each one. Though they were all affected negatively by the abuse, they all compensated differently to it as adults. They each gave me permission to share their story since I had counseled every one through to health.
But I was intrigued by what they wouldn’t allow. Their father was still alive and still married to their mother. I had talked about the possibility of all four of them confronting him on what he had done. Though they could not have him charged because of a Statute of Limitations, they could have the satisfaction of letting him know how his crime had changed their lives. There is a healing aspect to confrontation.
But all four refused to do it. Curiously, each of them had a different reason:
- One was afraid it would kill their sick mother
- One felt she had somehow participated in the abuse and had no moral grounds to confront him.
- One was sure confronting him would destroy her inside
- The final one felt she would never be able to get the words out of her mouth.
Their unique responses to confrontation underscores how each victim experiences abuse and assault differently. But it also shows that every victim wrestles with different beliefs emerging out of the abusive situation.
Several of these beliefs are patently false. Here are five false beliefs that are often found with victims of abuse or assault, whether they experienced this as children or adults.
This is my fault/I am to blame
Amy was invited to go on a sleepover with her friends, so she wore a new outfit she loved. She admired how she looked in it. Her dad was supposed to drive her to the event, but he was late coming home from work. Her grandparents lived with them, and grandpa volunteered to drive Amy to her friend’s house. Along the way, he told Amy they had to make a stop. He took her by the levy road and stopped at a secluded curve. Over the next half hour, he molested her.
After the assault, he told her that she looked especially sexy in that outfit she was wearing. He let her know he couldn’t help himself when she looked like that.
Amy admitted to me in counseling that the one thing she believed coming out of that weekend is she bore the brunt of the blame because of what she wore. It was all her fault. Even when her brain told her it is ridiculous to think that any victim is at fault, she still believed it.
There is a reason for this. Victims often can’t reconcile how a friend or relative could hurt them. They ask the question “how could they do this?” Even though illogical, the mind gravitates to assuming personal responsibility instead of laying the blame on the attacker.
Amy spent much of her teen and adult life living in shame. She also rarely stood up for herself in confrontations. She came to see me after a suicide attempt. Her boyfriend of two years had broken up with her and she assumed it was all her fault. Her world came crashing down. The crash, however, had started when she first accepted even the tiniest bit of responsibility for the abuse.
Something is Wrong With Me
This false belief seems like a variation of the first one, but it is much different. This belief supposes that there is something broken about us, at our core, which causes other people to do bad things.
Donald was the oldest son. His dad was an abusive alcoholic. Many times, Donald went to school with bruises and even a broken arm. He never told anyone what had happened to him, not even his mother.
When his dad started to beat on his younger brother one time, Donald stood in between and began to hit his dad. This enraged the father who beat his son unconscious. They had to take him to the Emergency Room. But even there, he told the doctors that he had been in a fight with neighborhood bullies.
From that day, Donald believed that was all he was good for–to be someone’s punching bag. Whatever he did in life, he kept being treated badly by others. As an adult, he was often scapegoated at work. Narcissistic bosses bullied him more than other employees.
In counseling, I asked him what he believed about himself. Here was his response: “Everyone must see this. Everyone knows there is something wrong with me. That’s why everyone treats me so badly”.
I will never be clean
Her story is like almost every girl involved in the porn industry or in stripping. She had been abused by her brother as a young girl. She remembers all the details of the many times he used her as his sex object. She played all the abuse events over and over in her mind.
She had performed as a stripper in San Francisco clubs for over two years. The club owner had insisted she get breast implants which he paid for. She did it willingly. She reasoned “I will never be clean from what my brother did to me. No matter how well I live, I am only good for one thing.“ Stripping was the obvious profession, and therefore implants were simply equipment for her job.
[Note: I include this story as an example of this false belief. I do not include it to imply that all strippers believe this. Nor do I suggest that sex workers have been abused. These ideas have been proven to be untrue in study after study.]
But when her boss compelled her to participate in their porn production company to keep her job, she came for counseling. During the first session, as she was processing her first time being abused, she admitted that was when she began to believe she would never be clean again. At age 22, she still believed it, and she lived it out every day she took off her clothes for men.
I have no control over my life
Brenda had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She washed her hands 50-100 times a day, but they never felt clean. It is commonly believed that some OCD sufferers have a deep inner belief that their life is out of control. They seek to control it by repetitive activities of their own choosing.
At age 16, Brenda was date-raped. Her date had taken her into his basement to watch television. She left dazed and confused half an hour later. He told her not to tell anyone or he would personally make her life a living hell. She never told a soul.
Her OCD started a year later.
As we processed the memory of the rape, the one belief she clung to in that moment was this: “I am not in control of my life. Other people can do whatever they want to me.” Her reaction to this was to orient her life so that she planned every moment of every day. She became obsessive about her date planner and her daily duties. She never did something unless he had planned it out the day before. Eventually, most of her friends abandoned her because her day planner ruined their friendships with her.
When she got sick her second year of college, she determined never to let it happen again. She started to wash her hands after touching anything that might have germs. It didn’t help that she was a biology major and knew that almost every surface had germs.
She believed she was out of control, and she compensated by OCD. Other people may use compensating behaviors like cutting, anorexia, drug use, BDSM, lying, or abusing others. The root of it all is the idea “my life is out of control.”
No one will believe me
Janny was 10. Her uncle was one of the local sheriffs. For months, her uncle casually mentioned to her how little girls had been molested by someone and how the people who did this were not charged. One time, he told her how police officers often did this to children and no one ever believed the kids.
All of this was grooming her to accept what he did next. When he molested her the first time, he concluded by saying “no one will ever believe you if you tell them.”
She never told anyone.
At age 27, she told someone for the first time. In counseling, she revealed all he had done to her on three separate occasions. When we processed it, I asked what she believed about it all. “I could not help coming to the conclusion that if I told someone, I would be a laughing stock. No one would think a police officer would do that to a child.”
This prevented her from ever telling anyone about this abuse. It prevented her from telling people about any problem she had in life. She struggled with opioid addiction because she could not admit her problems to anyone. She came to me to counsel for the addiction, but her real problem was isolation. She assumed she was all alone with her painful memories and her lonely life.
There is a Solution to False Beliefs
I have permission to use the stories shared above. Each of these survivors came to counseling to deal with their immediate problems. They were all compensating for years of pain caused not only by the abuse but also by the false ideas they had decided to believe. Each of these ideas was embedded in the memory of the abuse and pain. This made the idea hard to dislodge, since the details of the abuse were so hard to fathom.
In therapy, we re-processed the memory with the idea that we would bring light into the dark place. As we walked through it, I would ask what was happening, what they were feeling, and what they were believing. Some of the beliefs were contextual (eg. “what they are doing is bad”, or “I am hurting”). Some of the beliefs were conclusions. Some of those conclusions were accurate. One of the survivors said he believed that his dad was an evil man. This is probably an accurate assessment.
But some of the beliefs were not accurate. Let’s take the most common one: “I must have done something to cause this.” For example, as we re-processed Amy’s memory of her grandfather’s assault, I asked her what she would say to that little girl about this belief. At first, she called the little girl a “slut” for wearing that outfit. Then, I asked her if she would be willing to listen to what her Creator God said about the little girl.
Into her mind came a different idea. She saw that her grandfather was a man who despised everyone but himself. He hurt her. He used her for his sexual pleasure. God showed her that she had done nothing wrong. As she saw this, she stopped victim-shaming herself.
Each of the survivors mentioned in this article re-processed their memories this way. Two of them did not believe in God, but it didn’t matter. They were able to let go of the false beliefs and accept a more adult version of the events. This helped all of them to let go of their problems and start living a more healthy life.
You do not necessarily need a therapist to start doing this. Here are a few guidelines I use.
- If you can, have a friend with you who can monitor your progress and ask you what’s happening.
- If you find you get re-traumatized, then immediately stop and seek out a therapist who does some form of memory processing (such as Internal Family Systems) and/or EMDR.
- Go slowly so you don’t miss any of the beliefs. Help the person in the memory see things from your more adult perspective. Keep your current sense of self separate from the “you” in the memory. You are not them. They are not you. You only share some history with them.
- Keep searching the memory until all of it feels settled and cared for. The only thing left may be emotions like anger, grief, and sadness. These are normal and will often dissipate once the false belief is gone.
- Return to the memory again some time later to see if there is any other beliefs that were subtly left over from the last time.