Your Sexual Assault Didn’t Make You Stronger
By Abbi Barrie
Maybe you’ve heard someone say that what happened to you made you stronger, or perhaps you’ve even said this to someone who experienced sexual violence. What does it mean when we say this? The message we are trying to send is that despite what happened to us, we have survived and we are strong because of it. Often when we’re coming from a good place and we don’t know what else to say, we fall on phrases like this. Or perhaps we just don’t feel comfortable with any “negativity” and as a result, we have to find a positive spin for everything. So, what’s the problem with this well-intended, seemingly positive line? If we think carefully about the message that is received on the other end, it quickly becomes clear.
There are a few harmful hidden messages being sent in that phrase, one being that someone else’s violating actions are credited for us being strong. That in some twisted way, we should be thankful or grateful to those who have harmed us. That maybe there was some reason we needed to experience such violence in order to grow into the person we have become. The truth is, nobody is strong because of the violence they’ve experienced – you are strong because of who you are. This is an important distinction in the healing process where we start to take our personal power back, and that’s difficult to do if we are still giving power to an abuser.
The other piece of this is it puts pressure on someone to be “strong” as the only acceptable way to heal and move forward. If I’m not strong then that must mean that I’m weak, and weak is bad, right? After all, being weak is how I got hurt in the first place. This is what many survivors tell themselves as a result of deep feelings of shame. Part of healing after sexual violence is forgiving ourselves and having self-compassion so we no longer feel at fault for what someone else did to us. The pressure to be strong as a response to sexual violence is rape culture in action, something that victims/ survivors are already up against. This is especially harmful for male survivors who already have to battle societal discomfort and rejection of male emotions and “weakness”. When we only accept and promote “strength” after violence, we are not making space for vulnerability. The harm is that it completely dismisses a victim/ survivor’s experience and minimizes the complexities of healing and exploring our identity as a survivor of violence.
One of the biggest parts of healing after violence is finding our own language and having our feelings validated by others who know our stories. Many people get stuck in their healing process by trying to find an answer to the “why” behind what happened to us. If we can understand why this violence happened to us, maybe we can stop it from happening again. This is a big misconception, and another part of rape culture, that somehow there are things we could have or should have done to prevent being victimized. Trying to understand why it happened to us can lead to roadblocks in our healing and continued suffering, as there is no real satisfying answer. The reality is that it is not a victim/ survivor’s responsibility to end violence – someone who perpetrates violence is responsible for that.
Sure, our experiences in life can lead to us discovering more about ourselves, our beliefs and attitudes about the world we live in. But we don’t go through pain to become who we are. In fact, even when you were going through that pain, you were there all along. Maybe you had to put on a mask and hide parts of yourself, or adapt to an unsafe situation in order to survive. But you are not your trauma response. Being forced to suppress our true feelings, thoughts and beliefs and act in ways that are inauthentic to ourselves is a way of surviving. When we are finally safe enough to take our mask off, this is where we can invite our true self to come out of hiding. The turning point in our healing, when safe to do so, is being vulnerable enough to reconnect with ourselves, not being strong.
Here are some ways you can practice reconnecting with your true self:
- Be mindful about the media you consume/ take social media breaks. It’s way too easy to become overwhelmed or consumed by what we see others doing
- Pick a day/ time to dedicate to yourself for rest. If we ignore our needs for long enough, our body will pick the day/time for us, and it probably won’t be very convenient
- Practice forgiving yourself for what you did in survival mode, either by saying it to yourself in your head or writing it down and putting it somewhere you will see it as a reminder
- Take good care of your anger. Anger is there because it knows you were mistreated. Your anger cares about you, and it’s important to reciprocate and practice ways to nurture our anger rather than pushing it away
- Practice building trust in yourself by creating boundaries for yourself. This could be saying no when you don’t feel like socializing or not checking work emails after hours
- Try keeping a journal to help you witness your own patterns. Without judging yourself, what kind of feedback can you give yourself? What patterns do you observe and what can you learn from your observations?
- Don’t forget to breathe! Yes, you’re already breathing…but are you noticing it? When we take deep, mindful breaths it actually helps us reconnect with our body
- Choose an affirmation or mantra, such as “I am safe now” or “I have choice and I am going to get through this”
- Recognize what you needed in the past that you didn’t get. It’s okay to still be hurting from this. How can I give to myself now what I needed back then?
At the end of the day, it’s important for all of us to understand that we aren’t subjected to violence so that we can become a better, stronger person. You are strong because of the incredible person that you are, not because of what you suffered. And there is so much more to you than just being strong, because vulnerability is the pathway to healing.
Abbi Barrie is a Youth Counsellor with Women’s House Serving Bruce Grey