The Navigation of Stigmatized Emotions
Like many survivors of gender-based violence, I suffered unforeseen consequences for breaking my silence about my experiences of trauma. Our society fosters victim-blaming, rape-apologizing narratives that enable aggressors and fail to support survivors. Through my healing journey, a major source of my recovery and self-care has been through communicating my experiences in safe, trauma-informed spaces, as well as implementing writing as a form of therapy and self-analysis. As survivors, identifying and expressing our emotions is empowering, and allows us to process and navigate such complicated, distressing life experiences. Often it is difficult to understand our emotional realities and responses post-trauma. Judgement of our emotions creates more suffering, whereas acceptance of our emotions allows us to transcend our suffering. We must allow ourselves to honour and give space to our experiences, alongside the accompanying, varied emotions. The following are passages quoted from my own writing during my healing journey, which document my personal struggles as a survivor, followed by my commentary and critical analysis of current societal standards.
“After I was raped, my whole identity, my boundaries, my whole sense of being in this world became skewed… and I didn’t know what I was doing with myself. I underwent an aftershock. Rape was something that I just never expected would happen to me, especially with someone I trusted, in a situation that I felt was safe. I didn’t know how to manage such a major, unexpected traumatic event. I was in denial because I didn’t want to believe that such a horrible incident happened to me, and I didn’t know HOW this could happen to me. I just wanted things to be okay. With denial came a better outlook at the time – it was easier to excuse his behaviour, because with this option I could keep my career and I wouldn’t have to admit to myself that I had been raped… that I was now a rape victim. I wouldn’t have to feel the depths of pain underneath the surface. I didn’t want to believe that the world was unsafe. At the time, it was hard to accept such a traumatic experience. I couldn’t even bear the thoughts of the truth that would creep up; my body would shut down; my mind would get hazy and I’d avoid thinking about what actually happened. I already felt powerless from this whole situation, and in combination with the manipulation I faced from my abuser’s gaslighting, it gave me an out from a truth that I didn’t want to face. I didn’t want to live with the label of being a rape victim, along with all the other taboos. It made me feel somehow tarnished as a person, it negatively changed how I viewed myself, because a bad person had touched me. So, by engaging with my rapist I extended the shelf life of my denial – it gave me a false sense of control to change my narrative, and it allowed me to believe in a good, safe, and just reality of the world. The denial protected me from the truth that I didn’t want to accept.”
Denial is a cognitive process many survivors of rape undergo but few are willing to talk about due to the associated stigma, confusion and shame. It is difficult for survivors to admit to themselves that they were victims to such life-altering violations. In some sense, denial is a coping technique and often an unconscious response to trauma. Denial may facilitate an illusion of safety and control. Denial may mean a better outlook in the moment; it often means that careers, relationships, and lives are salvaged. Survivors of rape will resist acceptance because they do not want to personify the identity of a rape victim. The denial acts as a shield, temporarily protecting the survivor from painful emotions. Denial can also manifest in gaslighting from perpetrators, enablers, and the people to whom they disclose, which generates even further confusion in the survivor.
“I was tortured by self-blame. All I could think about was the abuse, I desperately wanted to know why this happened to me and why he did this to me. I called myself stupid for ignoring my own judgments and feelings of paranoia. I felt naïve for being groomed, and not seeing that he was a rapist. In hindsight, I felt that I overlooked his repeated forcefulness and narcissism that made me uncomfortable. I now realized that he kept testing my boundaries throughout our interactions. But at the time, I reasoned away his predatory behaviour and my doubts because of his “good image.” I was angry with myself for dismissing and ignoring these persistent red flags. I was embarrassed that I approached the situation with such naivety and trust, not looking at the warning signs. I would repeatedly analyze what had occurred, in many cases insensitive to my experiences, asking myself: What was I thinking? Why did I befriend him? Why didn’t I see the alarming signs? How was I not suspicious of his actions? Why didn’t I trust my instincts and cut off contact? Why didn’t I know better? I also blamed myself for how I responded to the trauma, because I didn’t react like the stereotypical rape victim and my rape didn’t align with archetypal rape myths. My attacker was my employer and depicted himself as a good person, which didn’t match my expectations of a rapist. And I didn’t act like what I thought a “normal” victim would act like. I blamed myself for my unconscious trauma responses and coping techniques. I criticized myself for what I felt like was inappropriate navigation of something so painful and psychologically scarring. My trauma responses caused me to act very unstable and irrational, which made me feel weak. I blamed myself for failing to defend myself through the abuse. These judgements left little room for self-compassion and self-care. I often overlooked the impacts of abuse. Instead, I punished myself by harbouring all this shame and self-blame. Just as I suffered from the thought of suffering, I also suffered and blamed myself for my reactions and the reactions of others. The rumination represented the feelings of self-loathing I had about myself at the time, it was a sort of psychological self-mutilation. In a way, this felt safer than to admit to myself that I was wronged and had faced malevolence, because otherwise I would have to face painful emotions like grief and fear. It would require me to reexamine my beliefs of the world.”
Similar to the process of denial, self-blame can be an unconscious attempt for the survivor to regain control in a situation that made them feel utterly powerless. To ruminate is to search for reasons, even at the cost of one’s own peace and self-esteem. Post-traumatic rumination reflects the mind’s fundamental and incessant need for survival. A traumatized mind isolates the trauma and focuses on it, often relentlessly. As such, the victim is plagued by hindsight bias brought on by struggling to see the full context of the circumstances that led to the attack. This manifests in self-blame and harsh judgment. The victim may feel like a failure, blaming themselves for being naïve, or believing that they somehow put themselves in harm’s way. Furthermore, societal rape myths perpetuate an image of what it means to be a victim and what it means to experience trauma. The survivor may feel that they didn’t take proper care of themselves, that they put themselves in an unsafe position, and that they somehow ‘deserved it’ for their ’wrong’ behaviours. The self-blame often reflects the societal conditioning victims have been exposed to via archetypal rape myths – it’s the idea that rape must be this theatrical, alleyway attack by a violent stranger to be recognized as valid rape. Survivors are often told they “asked for it” by presenting ‘seductively’ in some way through what they wore, did or said. But contrary to these toxic belief systems, rape is not about seduction but rather control. While blame is shifted onto victims, rapists are given excuses such as the “boys will be boys” narrative. These are all constant messages that rape is the victim’s fault, rather than that of the perpetrator. Rape survivors are not omitted from these societal conditionings; they too internalize preconceived judgements of what it means to be a rape victim. Not only may survivors struggle to accept the sexual abuse they suffered because they don’t want to identify with the attached stigma and shame, but they may also struggle to acknowledge their assault because the details of the assault itself, the perpetrator, or the survivor’s responses do not correlate with rape myths and tropes. As such, the victim often questions and blames themselves for how they reacted and the warning signs they did not see.
Disgust and Shame
“The taboo nature of rape made it difficult for me to sit with my pain. My experiences of trauma felt like they were so bizarre; I felt so demeaned and humiliated by them. And I felt as though I was now defined by my traumas, that I was labeled, and had to carry and identify with these names, as well as the resulted shame and taboo. To know someone like him touched me – I felt tainted. I felt like my right to choose to be with someone, to do what I wanted to do with my body, was savagely disrespected and taken from me. It was my decision not to be involved with him, and to have that completely defiled in this way was devastating. When he initially expressed his interest in me, I made it clear that I didn’t feel the same way and that I wanted my boundaries respected. But he didn’t have any respect for me, my body or women in general. My endless “no’s” were never enough. How else was I supposed to voice my complete disinterest to him? What would suffice? What would be enough to have my boundaries respected? To have someone so easily violate me, someone to whom I repeatedly and clearly outlined my boundaries to… I felt so powerless and numb. I felt like my basic needs and rights as a human being were unseen. The lack of respect for my boundaries was indescribably damaging and painful. This disgust was a feeling that weighed me down, I carried it with me everywhere I went, and it felt like I was forever bound to its sufferings. The shame and embarrassment I felt stemmed from the negative view I now had of myself. Because I now felt like I could never be the person I wanted to be or live up to those standards. I suffered with this seemingly constant icky, dirty feeling I felt. I would get these waves of sickness, and this gross feeling throughout my body. It would make my skin crawl, and I felt prisoner in a body that I now found foreign. I would get triggered even when showering because I just felt so dirty. I developed severe OCD because someone I viewed as dirty had touched me. I would clean my home constantly, and my hands were dried and cracked from all the cleaning products and sanitizers I repeatedly used. I was terrified of STD’s and got retested repeatedly.”
Disgust is an incapacitating, relentless emotion in relation to sexual assault. It can show up as self-hatred and shame, or the sense that one is ‘unclean’ – these feelings are connected to the taboo nature of sexual trauma. The victim may also feel like they are less worthy, because they have now been tarnished by the label of rape. Moreover, the labels associated with sexual abuse can lead to experiences of dehumanization. Rape fundamentally affects a victim’s sense of safety and self-worth because something as basic as their personal autonomy and right to consent were disregarded. Rape often destroys the victim’s sense of boundaries. They may also feel helpless or powerless, and as a result can be more suggestible to further abuses, both psychological and physical.
Our society has rigid boundaries and set, misogynistic conditioning regarding how survivors should react and feel. Seldom is there space for trauma-informed, survivor-centered understanding. Instead, survivors are often expected to simply react in accordance with clichéd rape myths, even while undergoing a life-changing, destabilizing and dehumanizing experience. But these rape myths are unattainable, because they are rooted in patriarchy and an oversimplification of the suffering that survivors experience. Rape routinely occurs by a person the victim knows, so not only are there accompanied violations of trust, there are long-term grooming processes involved. There exists an ironic dichotomy within our cultural perceptions of rape – we recognize rape is immoral, yet we struggle to accept that rape can happen in close proximity to any one of us individually. There is a collective detachment from the reality that rape is a common occurrence committed by people we may even know and trust. For most, there’s some level of disconnect between the categories of ‘rapist’ and ‘human’. We view rapists as faceless, fiction-like monsters. And the notion that a sexual predator may be someone we relate to, or even have some sort of relationship with, is uncomfortable. Thus, it feels safer to attack the victim’s credibility rather than assessing our own conditioned biases.
Survivors often struggle to have their experiences acknowledged or even heard; often, they can find themselves shunned by family, friends, communities and society. Consequently, there is little space made available for survivors to safely sort through their complex emotions. The multifaceted and unspoken psychological difficulties of rape cause confusion, blame and doubt for survivors. Also, there is often an internalized self-blame that mirrors the societal victim-blaming that survivors undergo. Victims also blame themselves for not reacting like the stereotypical rape victim, when in fact, such stereotypes are nothing but societal illusions. Survivors of all sorts of sexual abuses are habitually painted as liars, and rape myths are routinely weaponized by perpetrators to escape accountability. Truthfully, our society puts unrealistic responsibility on victims to navigate these painful, psychologically scarring traumas. Survivors are often blamed for their unconscious, yet very reasonable trauma responses and coping mechanisms. And these societal pressures negatively influence their self-esteem and healing, which leads to a toxic cycle of stigmatization and internalization.
A trauma-influenced mind may reject real thoughts of abuses a person has experienced, and that can manifest in the form of lost memory, fatigue, mental fog, and worse. However, it is not difficult to understand why a survivor’s mind would struggle to tolerate a violation so harsh and abrupt. Instead of uncritical adherence to rape myths, and associated narratives of victim blaming and perpetrator apologia, what is required is a renewed focus on the effects and complexities of trauma. With a trauma-informed lens, we can not only understand the various survival functions of survivors and the range of their emotions with acceptance, but build better methodologies for survivors in which to heal and ultimately thrive.