How does psychotherapy work ?

I went to see a psychotherapist once it was clear I was not going to make it on my own. And by “make it”, what I really mean is being able to live my life. I waited until I had no other option partly because I did not know how it would work.

Giving access to my inner world to someone else, without understanding what would happen, was terrifying.

I had found my therapist in the phone book, which is admittedly not the best way to do it. At the time the main trend in my country was the psychoanalytical theory. So what I imagined was lying on a couch with a therapist sitting behind me, who would not say a word while I would be going on and on about my past.

Understandably, the idea made me want to run away. I was so relieved when I saw there was no couch and my therapist did not particularly expect me to talk about the past.

Apart from that, she did not have a clue as how to help me, and the therapy went nowhere. Honestly, no benefit at all. After a couple of months of me being mostly confused, she moved to another country and let me in the care of a male, more experienced therapist.

I was petrified at the idea of spending an hour a week alone with this unknown guy, but I gave it a try because it was still my last hope. I think he also did not know how to help a child sexual abuse survivor, but still, with time he managed to reconcile me with the male half of humankind. He also got me to a perfectible but better relationship with myself. All in all, no small result.

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Fear based living

All too often, our decisions are based on the fear of getting in trouble or getting abandoned, rather than on the principles of having meaningful and equitable interactions with the world.

Pete Walker, in Complex PTSD, from Surviving to Thriving

Fight, Flight, Freeze

No need to be a psychologist to know the “fight of flight” phrase. It has been pretty much everywhere, from tv programs to magazines to blogs to online psychology courses. Usually it comes with the example of a cave ancestor faced with a saber toothed tiger.

Threat ? Fight or Flight.

This “Fight or Flight” has been around since the 1920’s, initially describing the instinctual response of animals to danger. With time, it was discovered humans have the same hardwired reaction to threat, and that it can lead to us being traumatized.

Unfortunately, this idea that there are only these two possible reactions to a threat is shaming for us, survivors of sexual trauma. Because of course, when we disclose what we were victims of, or even in the privacy of our own heads, there it goes: “when it happened, why didn’t you fight? Why didn’t you flee?”.

Indeed, most of us did not: instead, we froze.

This can, and very often does, lead to unfair self blame later.

It can also be used by malicious or uninformed people as a proof of consent. I think you know, but just in case: not fleeing, and not fighting, is not a proof of consent. Unpressured explicit consent is a proof of consent. As for children, informed consent simply does not exist.

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Facing love addiction

In a nutshell, love addiction is being dependent on a relationship, even though it has become a source of pain.

Sometimes, the pain is about your partner being physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive. Sometimes, it is about a partner who openly does not love you. It can be that your partner is in the throws of another addiction, such as alcoholism, workaholism, or sex addiction. The issue may me narcissism. Repeated betrayals. A loved one being married to someone else. Whatever.

Life in this relationship is painful, chaotic, unhealthy. On some level, you know that the relationship is not good for you. You may even be clear that it is destroying you. And yet, you find it impossible to walk away. You sometimes make attempts to do so, only to realize that ending the relationship is truly unbearable. You go back, and now on top of everything you despise yourself.

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Emotional Flashbacks

Quite by chance, I took an incredible book with me during my holidays : Complex PTDS, from surviving to thriving, from Pete Walker. I bought it because of its amazon reviews. I remember one stating : “if you buy only one recovery book, buy this one”. This is quite a statement.

You will soon see my own review for this wise book, but one of the central ideas of Pete Walker, emotional flashbacks, deserves its own full post. I can’t believe I, whith all my reading and studying, came accross this idea only now. It does resonate with my whole experience, my whole life.

My experience with emotional flashbacks

I remember precisely when I kind of understood on my own what it was. I was standing, waiting for a tramway to go to work one morning. It was more than a decade ago, but I still recall how beautiful Paris was in the morning light. My significant other was travelling for a few days, and as usual when it happened, I was feeling scared and confused. I hadn’t slept much.

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How long does therapy take?

I started my recovery from sexual abuse more than 2 decades ago, with the help of a therapist. Before that, I had been reading psychology and self help books for a few years, looking for answers already in my adolescence.

At the time, one of my most pressing question was: how long will my recovery take before I feel better ?

What I wanted is to be over and done with as soon as possible, as something I could cross on my to do list. I wanted to move on. I would have loved someone to tell me, you know, it is going to take two years, two years and a half, max. Then you can go on and live a normal life.

Fast forward to now, coming back from a few weeks of holidays: wether I like it or not, it is never over and done with. My recovery is still happening now, even when I decide that it is not because I’m on holidays and I’d like to relax.

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How to increase our self esteem

As a young adult, I was certain the solution to increase my self esteem was to to win the holly grail of achievements. Once I would have a great job, a great partner, friends, a cool house and a cool life, then, my self esteem would be ok.

What a disappointment.

I sometimes hear people trying to explain the fleetingness of good feelings when reaching their goal. For me, even fleetingly, it did not happen: achievements never increased my self esteem, not for a minute. Nothing.

You will find a self esteem definition in a previous post. I have also tried to explain the meaning of a low self esteem in another. Here, let’s talk about how to increase our self esteem. (Hint: it is not by reaching goals.)

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The meaning of low self esteem

We often believe that our low self esteem is about who we are, some mysterious and definitive inadequacy of our being. It is not: it’s about what happened to us.

And this, my friends, makes a real difference: it is not about us.

Of course, having a self esteem issue does not mean we have necessarily been through a trauma. And violence can have many other consequences . Sometimes, our self esteem stays miraculously intact regardless. The relationship between sexual trauma and self esteem is not that simple.

But psychologists have long known that sexual violence creates long term damage in our self esteem. Why it is so is not that difficult to understand: it’s all about the messages we receive.

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A self esteem definition

Clara’s talking to herself

 « I have been so ridiculous in this meeting. When my boss asked for my opinion, I blushed, then blurted out something that made no sense at all. I feel so ashamed.

Deep down, the reality is that I’m incompetent at work. Other people seem so self assured; I just feel lost. I never really know what is the best thing to do. I never really succeed in anything. I’m really not up to the task.

In reality, I feel stupid and worthless most of the time, in any type of social interaction. What I say or do is often silly, if not downright inappropriate. I can not even count the times when all I wanted to do was to disappear into the ground. I hate parties. I hate dinners.

And I’m not even talking about my love life: it’s even worse. »

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Recovery: where to start

Me too : Recovery works

I do consider myself in recovery for more or less 25 years. Yes, it is a long time, and I realize it can seem discouraging.

It does not need to be. I started to feel better relatively quickly – granted, considering the state I was in, it does not seem such a feat.

But still, it was important to see my situation improving. It created the space for a lovely feeling: hope. One day, I will be fine. And sure enough, one day I was just fine. Not “happy ever after” fine, but fine most of the time.

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Me too: what is sexual violence ?

Stranger violence

My friend Sara always stayed in her home country, France. For reasons she never articulated, she did not like the idea of travelling abroad. It was not a real problem for her though, and she organised her life around it.

One day, Sara was promoted. Part of her new responsibilities included travelling abroad. Before her first trip, anxieties mounted to an almost unbearable level. When the day came though, her business trip web very smoothly, and she came back relaxed and satisfied.

This episode triggered some self reflexion: why was it initially such a problem for her ? She remembered that as a yound adult, she travelled to North Africa with a few other friends. The whole time, the group of girls had been harrassed by unsolicited, insistent and intrusive male attention. Some nights, it was impossible to sleep because of the never ending ringing at their doors. Sara realised that her anxiety at the idea of travelling appeared after this unfortunate first experience.

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