By Virginia Sherborne MBACP (Accred.) Published on 30th August, 2010
For many survivors, counselling may be the first time they have ever disclosed the abuse. They may have been locked into silence for years or even decades. Telling the counsellor can bring tremendous relief. On the other hand, some survivors may have revealed the abuse previously, only to be met with disbelief or rejection. Being heard and believed for the first time is an immensely important experience.
Trust is a difficult issue for most survivors of abuse. They may find it impossible to trust anyone: anyone could be a potential abuser. Others, though, have a problem with trusting too easily. As children, they weren’t able to learn who to trust and who not to, so in adult life, they are not able to use their gut instinct to recognise situations that would make other people feel uncomfortable. This means they can find themselves getting into abusive relationships and dangerous situations.
Counsellors are trained to be trustworthy with respect to confidentiality, reliability and other boundary issues. Experiencing a trusting relationship with the counsellor allows the client to re-set their capacity to trust other human beings.
Childhood sexual abuse is traumatic in many different ways, and children often learn to protect themselves by splitting off their awareness of the abuse. This process is called dissociation, and it is almost like self-hypnosis.
A consequence of dissociation can be that adult survivors experience terrifying flashbacks of the abuse, which don’t feel like real memories. A trained counsellor can help the client to understand the process of dissociation, so that they are less frightened, and can begin to re-integrate their memories.
Many survivors have feelings of intense shame, which they carry with them all the time. Telling their story to a counsellor, who is always non-judgmental, allows them to see things from a different perspective. They may realise for the first time just how young and vulnerable they were when the abuse took place.
The counsellor will emphasise that a child is never to blame, no matter how persuasively the abuser tells them that they are. Hearing from an expert that their experience was typical can bring huge release from shame. Instead, feelings of anger and grief may surface, which the counsellor can help to deal with safely.
Counselling for sexual abuse
Counsellors who are trained and experienced in working with sexual abuse are used to hearing very shocking and upsetting accounts. For the client, being able to share details which once seemed unbearable for another person to hear can bring great comfort, and again can help to dissolve feelings of shame. Current issues, no matter how painful, can be brought up in a supportive, non-judgmental environment.
For the counsellor and client to work through the many issues arising from childhood sexual abuse can take a while, but eventually, the aim is that the client feels ready to move on, leaving counselling feeling more empowered and more free to live their life.