While survivors of childhood abuse are often wary of receiving help, we also long for rescue.
Dreams of rescue
Children growing up in abusive or neglectful homes dream of their “real” parents sweeping in and scooping them up, or running away and finding a better home somewhere else, or being careful and quiet and good enough not to be abused anymore, or finally making someone understand the hurt and horror so they would step in and make it stop.
Children build their dreams out of the stories they absorb from books, shows, movies, games, online content, and the people around them. They project themselves onto the main characters of stories, and think, “When I am like that, my life will be better.” They gather a conscious narrative about what rescue looks like, as well as implicit assumptions and expectations about it.
Beliefs about help
Depending on what we experienced in childhood, we might believe that helpers require us to be small and helpless to make them feel strong and powerful. We might believe that we need to keep a careful eye on the helper’s needs, because they must be kept happy before they will help us. We might believe that helpers require payment through emotional enmeshment or sexual favors.
Children reach toward whatever warmth is available, like a plant in rocky ground reaching for light and nourishment. Adult survivors also reach toward warmth and help, but with more “shoulds“. We “should” be able to distinguish between true help and manipulation. We “should” be able to take in help even if it is overwhelming or triggering. We “should” get better in a certain timeframe. We “should” be able to let it go, put the past aside, rise above our history, forgive our abusers, and above all not make any trouble for the people around us.
Growth, not a journey
When healing is seen as a journey, helpers are seen as more powerful rescuers who take us away from a bad place and move us to a better one. When healing is seen as growth starting from where we are, helpers remove obstacles and add nourishment and support. They help us become more ourselves, rather than transforming us into someone else.
When we believe in the narrative of being broken and needing fixing, we look for people who want to fix us. When we shift to a narrative of being essentially okay, and needing to learn new skills and find support, we look for people who want to support us.
Validation and responsiveness
Above all, survivors need validation and support for believing our own truth. Most abuse includes gaslighting. “You’re imagining things.” “There’s nothing to be upset about.” “You’re crazy.” Helpers who want to fix survivors often reinforce that narrative by telling us what is wrong with us, rather than what is right in us.
Survivors also need responsiveness and attunement. A primary injury in abuse and neglect is not being heard when we signal pain and distress. We need helpers who show us moment by moment with their attentiveness and care that our well-being does matter in the world. When mis-attunement is not swiftly repaired, it reinjures survivors in a tender place.
At the same time, help includes presenting new ideas that might feel dangerous at first. When a helper says, “You are allowed to have needs,” the survivor might feel a flood of suppressed needs for kindness and care, as well as a panicked inner guardian who says, “Absolutely not! Needs are unsafe, weak, bad, wrong.”
When a helper has clear boundaries and steps back from being enmeshed, a survivor might feel rejected and abandoned, pushed away from the only kind of care that is familiar.
When a survivor tentatively starts to feel safe with a helper, strong emotions can arise. Long-suppressed anger might come up about past lack of safety, and about feeling vulnerable. Anger can be welcomed and allowed to move through. Safety includes space for all emotions.
Feelings of safety and positive attachment might be entangled with sexual attraction. Practitioners are ethically bound to hold clear non-sexual boundaries. Practitioners who allow or invite sexual contact add another layer of abuse and confusion to the survivor’s burden. Sexual feelings can be allowed to move through without acting on them. Any shame that arises with and around them can also be kindly and gently allowed to move through.
Telling old secrets about abuse can evoke intense feelings of both terror and bonding as well. There might be younger parts urgently wanting to tell and get help, as well as urgently wanting to stay silent and safe. All the parts need to be heard and respected in the process of sharing about past abuse. Telling can be an important part of healing, and at the same time it is not required at any point.
Choose a goal
Healing might not look anything like what you expect. It might be more gradual, less terrifying. More lonely, less merged. It might not change parts of you that you want to leave behind. It might change core assumptions that you never thought to question.
How can we evaluate whether practitioners are good for us with so many intense emotions and longings around help and rescue? It helps to choose a concrete goal, discuss it directly with the practitioner, and evaluate over a few sessions whether there is any progress toward the goal.
The goal might be something like emotional support during a crisis, improvement in a specific symptom such as nightmares or anxiety or physical pain, a life change such as getting out of a relationship or finding a new job, or learning new skills to better manage triggers and activation. Also notice whether there are unexpected improvements in other areas, or an unexpected increase in symptoms.
Monitor how it feels
Monitor how it feels before and after sessions. Simply feeling better after sessions is a good reason to continue seeing a practitioner. If your gut tightens beforehand and you feel worse afterward, those are signals to strongly consider changing practitioners, or at least discuss the problem directly. Feeling unable to bring up issues with a practitioner is also a strong signal.
Sometimes it is possible to see progress in a single area with a practitioner, even if they are not helpful generally. Kristin H. sent me this great example of evaluating a new therapist. (Quoted with permission.)
“After four hours with him and his style that felt 20 years old and completely unhelpful for where I was in the journey, I asked him if we could just do a half session to strategize about a particular area he seemed to have a lot of knowledge in. Afterwards, I thanked him and asked if I could just contact him in the future if I got stuck in that specific area.”
Even if someone comes along and plucks us out of an abusive environment, we still have to do the internal work of healing. In the end, we each have to reluctantly, angrily, step by step, rescue ourselves.
At the same time, we receive kindness, help, and support from people around us even when they are not in a formal helping role. A well-timed piece of advice, a tip about a job opening, a warm smile from a stranger, a friend’s consistent emotional support. When we look back, there were little bits of rescue along the way, even if a single dramatic rescue never happened.
- Nurturing Resilience by Kathy L. Kain and Stephen J. Terrell has detailed information about developmental trauma and what can help.