National Psychotherapy Day

It has been proclaimed:  today is National Psychotherapy Day

Many people have a long list of assumptions about psychotherapy.  What many may not know is the long list of potential benefits that can come from engaging in psychotherapy.

So in honor of National Psychotherapy Day, I ask you to reflect on your ideas about psychotherapy.  Have you had direct experience with it?  Have you seen media examples of it?  Do you have a positive or negative attitude towards psychotherapy? 

Psychotherapy has been mysterious and secretive for too long.  Let's start a more open conversation.  The more we clear barriers that block access, the more people may be able to access psychotherapy as a resource for help. 

Possible actions after a sexual assault

Urgent information

If your loved one was recently assaulted, there may be time-sensitive things to do in the immediate aftermath.  While there is not one “right” way to respond to sexual assault, here are some steps that survivors often find useful:

  1. Find safety.  Put distance between the victim and his/her perpetrator.  Call the police.
  2. Go to the nearest hospital to seek medical attention.  Even if the victim doesn’t believe he/she has any injuries, a SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) exam can be a way to access tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as a way to collect evidence.  There is no cost for SART exams, so don’t worry about financial barriers to these resources.  Help your friend preserve any physical evidence, especially on his/her body.  Discourage your friend from bathing or washing before getting a medical examination.  If your friend has changed clothes since the assault, locate the soiled clothes and bring them with you to the hospital.  This way any evidence will be collected in a way that maximizes the chances for catching or convicting the perpetrator.
  3. Call the RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network) toll-free hotline at (800) 656 – HOPE(4673) from your local phone.  This will connect you to the rape crisis center in your area.  Many rape crisis centers have available advocates who will meet you and your loved one at the hospital to walk her through the process.  An advocate can also provide valuable information about resources that may be available to your friend.

This is not an exhaustive list, but an informal, informational blog post.  There are potential legal and other ramifications of such a serious incident.  Contact your local authorities for more information.

For more information on how to support a loved one who has disclosed sexual assault to you, see this post.

Your loved one was abused--how will you react?

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010) reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men are raped in their lifetime.  Sometime in your life, you may be faced with the task of lending emotional support to someone who was abused or assaulted. 

In my work with survivors of sexual abuse, I've seen a common experience: victims feeling hurt and confused after disclosing their trauma to people who had unsupportive reactions.  It is clear that survivors would benefit from loved ones being better equipped to support them through the recovery process.

Here are some of my suggestions for how to respond when a loved one discloses that he or she has experienced sexual abuse:

(This is not a piece about what to do after someone has been assaulted.  If you are in search of what to do immediately after someone was assaulted, see these tips.)

Believe your friendThe recent cultural conversation around the idea of “legitimate rape” illustrates how sexual-abuse victims are often placed in the position of having to prove they’ve been abused.  The scars left after sexual abuse are not always visible, so this can be an overwhelming task, especially when someone is already struggling with the other aftereffects of trauma.  Sexual assault can be complicated and murky.  Many perpetrators are people that the victims have known and trusted, and drugs, alcohol, or head injuries can create fuzzy memories around an assault.  Thus, many survivors are already struggling with self-doubt, self-criticism, guilt, and shame.  Adding your disbelief to the equation can compound the shame your loved one is already grappling with.  Examples of comments and questions that communicate doubt and disbelief are:

  • “I know that guy and he’s a really good guy.  I can’t believe he could do something like that.”
  • “You don’t seem to have any bruises.”
  • “Are you sure he heard you say ‘no’?” 

Instead of comments like these, be diligent about communicating that you believe your friend and that you see his or her emotional reaction as legitimate.

Interrupt and challenge any urge you have to judge.  You may find yourself struggling with the task of believing your loved one or taking her seriously.  This can lead to judgment.  The bottom line is that it absolutely does not matter what your loved one was wearing, drinking, or doing.  It is preposterous to believe that someone who was drunk, high, flirtatious, or dressed provocatively cannot have been raped or abused.  Yet many listeners have reactions that display this type of judgment—e.g., because a victim was wearing a short skirt and drinking at a club, she somehow bears some blame for the criminal act of another.  This judgment can be extremely destructive for your loved one. 

Again, your loved one is likely already struggling with her own feelings of self-doubt and shame and may easily pick up on the judgment of others.  It is important to be careful about what you communicate.  Some things that can sound judgmental are:

  • Direct blaming (“You shouldn’t have tempted him!”)
  • Asking “why” questions (“Why were you there?  Why did you listen to him?”)
  • Implying that a responsible person would have made different choices (“Did you consider distracting him and leaving the room?”)
  • Trying to impart a lesson (“From now on you should think twice before having more than two drinks.”)  (There may be a time for a lesson, but the time for that discussion is later.)   

Above all, remember to save your anger and contempt for the appropriate targets:  those who perpetrate abuse and the culture that allows for it. 

Have empathy.  You care about your loved one.  In this time of need, see the humanity in the person in front of you.  She has just allowed herself to be very vulnerable by sharing this information with you.  Even if your loved one has disclosed abuse from years ago and she has been functioning well as long as you’ve known her, her pain might feel raw again after talking about it with you.  Being attuned to your loved one while still allowing her to have an emotional reaction can help her know that you are there for her.  This might mean letting her cry or get angry and still staying present for her.  You don’t have to force her to talk.  Just let her know that you are available when she needs you, and if she does come to you, listen to her with a kind and compassionate ear. 

Empower your loved one.  By nature, sexual assault is disempowering.  If someone’s physical body is violated, that person can feel like she doesn’t have control over anything.  Don’t add to that process by imposing your beliefs.  Support your friend, but let her choices be hers.  For example, she should ultimately get to decide whether she goes to the police or hospital or who gets to know about her abuse.  (This assumes that your loved one is an adult.  If your loved one is a minor, there are more issues at play that are beyond the scope of this post.)

Know some of the common responses to trauma.  

Recognize that there is grief after sexual assault.  Generally, our society is able to tolerate and respect one kind of grief: loss of a loved one due to death.  But there are many losses that can occur in all of our lives.  Some of the losses that can come with experiencing a sexual assault can be: the loss of feeling safe, the loss of feeling secure, the loss of certain relationships, the loss of innocence, the loss of closeness with others, the loss of childhood, the loss of virginity.  Try to give the same type of care and support that you would give to someone who was recently bereaved. 

Consider connecting your friend to community resources.  Encouraging your loved one to find a trained therapist and/or other community resources (like support groups) can give your friend safe spaces to work through her thoughts and emotions.  This can be especially important if you start to worry that her emotional reaction is veering down an unhealthy road (for example, she starts to drink heavily or isolate herself from others).

Recognize your own feelings about what happened.  This can be a difficult time for everyone involved, including you.  You may struggle with your own sadness, anger, distrust, or other emotions.  Maybe you know the perpetrator, too.  Or maybe you have a conflicted relationship with your loved one.  Get support and be thoughtful about taking care of yourself–it will be hard for you to be helpful to your loved one if you are overwhelmed or burned out. 

Even if you are not currently faced with this situation, I encourage you to think now about how you would respond to a loved one. 

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever been in this situation?  How did you respond?  How do you think you will respond if it happens in the future?

My Case for Emotions

Emotions have a terrible reputation. They’re blamed for bad decisions; they're squashed behind bitten lips and held breaths. Feelings are held up against rational thought and almost always seen as inferior. Expressing emotion has become equated with showing weakness--something that terrifies even the most powerful among us. Afraid of being perceived as "too sensitive," people struggle with revealing their emotions in even their safest relationships.

But no matter what we try, emotions are a fundamental part of us. And I'm glad, because emotions have something very important and powerful to offer. Feelings are connectors, motivators, and signals. Inside of compassion is a force that creates relationships. Inside of fear is a push to escape danger. Inside of debilitating sadness, haunting guilt, and tingling excitement can be pieces of information about what might be happening around us. When anger burns in our chests and ears, we get information: there is a threat, so it is time for our defenses to go up.

This is not a proclamation that emotions are superior to thought. Thoughts and feelings have equal importance in helping us understand and navigate the world around us. In an illuminating TED talk, David Brooks tells us: “Emotions are not separate from reason, but they are the foundation of reason because they tell us what to value.” Sadness and grief show us that a recent loss was significant. If we walk into a room and feel an eerie sense of impending disaster, we can look for the cause and prepare ourselves. We are bombarded with stimuli every moment we're alive, so emotions help us recognize where to focus our attention.

Brooks goes on to advise that “reading and educating [our] emotions is one of the central activities of wisdom.” Once we can identify our emotions, we can understand them, challenge them, and have control over what we would like to do with them. Take that burning anger I mentioned above. Once we know that we’re feeling angry, we can ask ourselves: “Is there really a threat around me? Am I responding to something in this moment, or is this kicking up an old memory? Should I confront someone with this anger or take some time to decide my next steps?” This type of reflection brings us more control over ourselves and our choices. The desperate attempt to control our feelings by pushing them out of our mind does not work. It only keeps us from understanding ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us.

I leave you with this quote from Albert Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” What could your life be like if you valued both? More present, more connected, and more fulfilling. I encourage you to find out for yourself.

Therapy is a great space to learn more about yourself and your emotions. Follow my blog for future explorations of emotion, thought, and other psychological stuff.