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Coping with Doubt and Minimization - Chat Transcript

The Pandora's Aquarium chat room welcomed Randi Nathenson, as a guest speaker on December 16, 2011. Randi is a clinical social worker based in the United States who works with clients with a trauma history. Her clinical interests are trauma, grief, and anxiety. She works with children, adolescents, and adults. She has also done advocacy work with rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, and particularly felt drawn to hospital advocacy work.

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Kadie: Welcome everyone to the Randi Nathenson guest speaker chat! We're very excited that she has agreed to join us to discuss doubt and minimization when it comes to abuse! This chat will have two question and answer sessions. The first half will be questions our members have submitted to ask Randi. Throughout the chat, feel free to ask questions you would like Randi to answer. These questions will be sent to a moderated queue and we will do our best during the second half of the chat to ask as many of them as we can!

Randi Nathenson: Hi everyone. Thanks for having me here.

Kadie: Let's begin with our first question and answer session.

Question: I personally have a problem with doubt. When I have a flashback/nightmare, before I can believe that the specific thing did actually happen, I have to validate it by going to the place and finding whatever it is I may be seeing, or keep my ears open to hear someone talking of it. Do you have any suggestions on how I can move on from these memories without having so much doubt?

Randi Nathenson: The problem with doubt is that the focus gets placed on proving something happened rather then on the feelings or associations that the memory evokes in you. Doubting gets in the way because it blocks you from knowing what you know, which is that you were abused. The fact that you are having nightmares and flashbacks is evidence and proof enough.

Memories may not be 100% accurate, but they are real. What helps sometimes is to look back at a neutral memory. Remember eating breakfast this morning? Could you give me a 100% accurate and detailed description down to how many bites you took? Likely not, but you know it happened. You do not have to prove you ate breakfast any more then you have to prove you were sexually abused.

At times I have found that survivors doubt because it is a way of coping with the reality of what happened. Accepting the reality is often terrifying and painful and that doubt can "protect" the survivor, except of course it does not really.

Question: I was dancing with one of my guy friends (the first time I let a guy get that close to me since I was ....) and I was wasn't nervous at all. What does this mean in terms of my healing?

Randi Nathenson: I cannot say for certain what it means, not knowing you or your story, but generally it could mean that you are healing. You are making progress in regaining trust, you are learning a sense of when you are safe and when you feel safe having someone close to you. It sounds like something that triggered you before is no longer as triggering, and that is wonderful. What it does not mean is that what happened was not bad. It WAS bad, and it shows you are beginning to heal

Question: My perpetrator often employed doubt and minimisation to make me question that the abuse was happening, I feel that I've internalised this and as a result I invalidate and minimise how I feel about the trauma I've suffered. How can I start to counteract this?

Randi Nathenson: Perps often use these tactics to manipulate and abuse. They do it to protect themselves and justify their own wrongdoing. You can start by telling yourself that what they said were lies. It WAS big and it was wrong. It was abuse and it was that bad. You do not need to listen to the lies any longer, or believe them. You can believe your own truth.

Question: I have a friend who is also a survivor. Sometimes when I was struggling we would get together and talk. No matter what I would say, she would come back with her story which was always so much "worse than mine" so it always ended up being about her. Her way of trying to make me feel better was by telling me how her situation was worse than mine. It really minimized my feelings. How do I validate my feelings when another survivor minimized them?

Randi Nathenson: It is difficult to feel validated when others are not listening to you. Trauma is trauma, abuse is abuse. There is no true objective standard for what is worse than something else. All sexual abuse is equally terrible in my opinion. How it is experienced is up to the individual survivor.

You could try talking to her, letting her know you need her to listen and hear you, rather then jumping in with her story. You can also choose not to interact with her, if she is not helping your healing. One thing that can help is to focus on the common ground of healing. No matter what the story is, all survivors have that bond and deserve to heal. No matter what the story is.

Question: Sometimes in the media or in real life people use rape to make jokes or other humorous matter. How do you not minimise your own rape when it's presented in a humorous way around you?

Randi Nathenson: Rape is not humorous and should never be used in a joking manner. It is minimizing when presented that way. However, it does not change the truth, and the truth is rape is really that bad. Trust yourself and what you know. You are the one who is right. If you are comfortable, speak out and let others know how you feel about it. Sometimes just doing that can help you feel less minimized.

Question: How do you deal with the uncertainty of abuse? How do you come around to believing it happened?

Randi Nathenson: As I mentioned, often the uncertainty is a way of protecting yourself from the reality. Doubt allows you to cope with something that is really big and terrible. But it is not a positive coping skill that helps with healing. What can help is figuring out what is under the doubt and uncertainty. What would it mean to be certain? What would it mean to know? It is far more effective to look at the feeling and understand it rather then trying to prove whether or not it happened. It did happen. It is okay to trust and believe yourself.

Question: How do you deal with people who want to minimize what happened to you.... like pushing forgiveness or acceptance?

Randi Nathenson: You can tell them that every survivor heals differently. What you need and deserve is to be listened to and supported. Telling you to simply accept or forgive is not recognizing the significance of what happened. Abuse is not something you just "get over". Often the people who tell you those things are trying to make themselves feel better. Sometimes it may be necessary to avoid them, but you can also let them know how it feels when they minimize your experience. You deserve to be validated.

Question: I often find myself thinking my abuse wasn't that bad, because in general I'm feeling okay. Then at night I have horrible dreams about what happened and rarely sleep. I find this so confusing. Is this a form of minimization?

Randi Nathenson: Yes, it is. Your abuse really was that bad. Everyone responds in different ways at different times. The impact is not always the same. There is no right or wrong way to feel, be, or heal. Allow yourself to be where you are. If you are feeling okay it does not mean the abuse was not that bad, all it means is that is how you feel. The nightmares and not sleeping in itself is a lot, and shows the impact it had on you. Which was big.

Question: I'm a survivor of CSA and my partner is forever saying it was probably just typical kids curiosity and I'm making a big deal over nothing. How can I explain to him/her that it was much more than that?

Randi Nathenson: It sounds like your partner does not understand the impact of abuse, even when perpetrated by other children. It is a myth that it is just childhood curiosity and not traumatic. It is traumatic and big. Perhaps giving your partner some reading on the subject might help them to understand. Explain the impact it had on you and what a big deal it really is. You can explain how it feels when your partner minimizes. Hopefully they can begin to understand the impact.

Question: I blame myself mostly because I was really drunk when I was attacked and I'm not sure if it counts. What if I gave consent then blacked out?

Randi Nathenson: Rape can never be your fault. Being drunk does not mean anyone had a right to take advantage of you. If you were drunk you could not legally consent anyway and it was not your fault. Rape is never your fault.

Question: My parents insist on having the entire family together for holidays even though my cousin who abused me will be there too! How can I get them to see this is minimizing my abuse/pain?

Randi Nathenson: This is a really big question and I struggled with it because there is no easy answer. Family does not always get it. Unfortunately it often results in having to be isolated from family if they do not understand. What you can do is set rules and boundaries for yourself and do what makes you comfortable. You can tell them you will not go if your cousin is there. You can choose to go if they are there. You should do what you want and what you feel is right for yourself. The biggest priority is your comfort and safety.

Question: My perpetrator made me choose how I was going to be abused, I feel like since I participated it wasn't rape. How do I work around the fact I contributed to my own abuse?

Randi Nathenson: Even if your perp gave you a "choice" it was not really a choice. You never had a choice not to be abused. It was not a real choice or real participation. It was forced.

Question: I think I minimize what happened so I don't have to face the truth. Can you give me any tips on how to get past this so I start to heal?

Randi Nathenson: Be patient and gentle with yourself first of all. Understand where you are, how you feel, give yourself love and compassion. You deserve those things. You can remind yourself that even though it is big and scary, it was in the past and you are safe now. You can find ways to comfort yourself and remind yourself that you are strong.

Question: I've had therapists in the past minimize what happened to me because I don't have clear, full memories and they didn't want to deal with it because of that. Is there a good way I can explain to future therapists I want to talk about my memories/pain even if they're not all clear and make sure they respect that?

Randi Nathenson: I am sorry that therapists have minimized your experience. It does not matter if your memories aren't clear and full, a therapist should work with the memory you do have. I suggest finding a therapist trained in working with abuse survivors with memories that may have been repressed. You can ask them if they have experience with this before you make an appointment. You can also make it clear at the first session exactly how you feel. What you said in your question would be a perfect way to start.

Question: How do you deal with minimization when an abuser acknowledges their actions but feel they've done nothing wrong?

Randi Nathenson: Abusers rarely admit wrongdoing even if they acknowledge what they did. Truthfully, I don't think their opinions or their feelings matter. What matters to me is the opinion and feelings of the survivor. You get to define and decide what happened, you get to decide that it was wrong and not okay. They do not get to make that decision for you.

Question: When memories of the abuse come up for me I find I don't really feel anything about it, I feel quite divorced from my feelings. How do I begin to rectify this without feeling overwhelmed?

Randi Nathenson: It is normal to feel cut off from the feelings, it is often a way the psyche handles the memory. It does it so that it does not overwhelm you. Slowly go into the memory. You can write or draw or just imagine how it felt. Often doing this in therapy can be helpful because the therapist can help you to stay grounded. The key is to allow yourself the time. You will feel the feelings when you are ready to do so. Be gentle with yourself.

Question: My mom has come up with "proof" that my uncle didn't rape me but I still have very strong feelings that he did. How can I be sure if there is proof against it?

Randi Nathenson: I would trust yourself and your feelings, and question the "proof" your mother gave you. I would say your feelings are proof enough that it did in fact happen.

Question: I was often told how lucky I was as a child which contributes to my minimization now. I don't feel like my abuse was "bad enough" to deserve to be upset about and I'm confused about my past because I was always told I was so lucky. Any suggestions for how to deal with this?

Randi Nathenson: All abuse is bad. It does not matter what other things you had in your life that made you lucky. If you were abused, it was that bad and you deserve to be upset over it. Life is both beauty and pain (Pema Chodron says this), the joy we have in life does not diminish the pain. You do deserve to heal.

Question: I have minimized my experiences because I was abused by an ex-boyfriend (both sexual assault and other kinds of abuse). Some people seem to think it isn't that bad if it happens in a relationship. I don't think like that when it comes to other survivors of relationship abuse, but it does affect my own healing. How do I get past this minimization?

Randi Nathenson: Sometimes it helps to tell yourself what you would tell someone else. The rules are the same for you, if you can have compassion and understanding towards other survivors of relationship abuse then you deserve it for yourself as well. Give yourself what you give others. It was that bad.

Question: How can one deal with the urge to "trigger out" memories that may come up to "prove" that what happened is real and bad enough to one's self? I tend to get stuck on this and sometimes make myself sick over it, or successfully trigger out memories but make myself worse for the wear. I'm hoping there's a better way to cope that others have found?

Randi Nathenson: What can help is to write or draw or use some other creative medium to get out the feelings behind the trigger. The fact that you know it is a trigger is proof enough that it was real. When you feel the urge try doing something comforting to you, try something that is self soothing.

Question: One of my abusers was younger than me, which has been very embarrassing for me. I try to minimize what happened and tell myself it couldn't have been abuse because I was older and should have done more in the situation. I ask myself if it was abuse or just experimentation? Any input would be helpful.

Randi Nathenson: Someone younger then you can abuse you. The age of the abuser is insignificant. Just because you were older does not mean you could not be abused by the person. There may be differences in size, real or perceived power and a million other variables. I have worked with several clients with abusers younger then them. It does happen. And it did happen to you.

Question: During the time I was abused, for the most part I was pretty normal. Only years later I started to be affected by the abuse. I don't understand why as a small child I was able to cope but as an adult I am so weak and passive?

Randi Nathenson: You are not weak or passive first of all. You did what you needed to do to survive and what you did was exactly right. It is often the case that survivors don't feel the impact of the abuse until years later. As a child you could not do any differently. As an adult you have the choice to heal, which also means it can affect you. You can deal with it. What you are is strong and healing.

Question: I confronted my aging father earlier this year about the sexual abuse and told my mother as well. They have not spoken about it since then, however the other day they called to say that they wished to meet with me and discuss it. My mother kept hounding me, asking me what happened, when, how, etc. I just could not give her all the details since I don't remember everything. The phone call made me feel so sad and I started second-guessing everything I have survived and the therapy I have been through over the past two years. I don't think I can meet with my parents. Is that okay?

Randi Nathenson: It is completely okay. You get to decide what you feel comfortable with. You make the rules and set the boundaries.

Question: I have recently lost my job because I finally told someone. I feel a mess due to my past and my mum has finally accepted that my eldest brother raped me for many years. However, she still won't let me tell my best friend the truth as to why I am now home. I have to lie to her. How can I let my mum know this feels like I am still hiding and minimising the effect the abuse had on me without it turning in to a huge guilt trip or row?

Randi Nathenson: I am sorry you are being placed in that position. You can tell your mum that you need and deserve the support from your best friend. You should be the one who chooses who and when to tell, not your mum. Your mother has to deal with her own issues and should not place them on you.

Question: I spent 5 years pretending nothing happened and now that I am dealing with it and want to tell people, I had a social worker tell me I shouldn't tell people my story because I am just trying to get back at him. That made me feel like my feelings weren't valid. Is it wrong to want to tell my story to those I'm close to?

Randi Nathenson: The social worker was wrong. You can tell as many people as you want. As an abuse survivor sometimes you need to tell people your story, you need to tell it many times and to many people. What you are doing and what you deserve to be doing is healing.

Question: How do I get my partner to realize that our intimacy is triggering even when I am perfectly aware that I'm with him and not the abuser/s?

Randi Nathenson: What helps is to talk about it when it is happening. Tell your partner how you are feeling and what you are feeling. You can set rules and boundaries for intimacy based on what makes you comfortable. Wendy Maltz has a wonderful book, The Sexual Healing Journey, which I encourage both survivors and partners of survivors to read.

Question: When we decide consciously to be in complete denial, then that kind of stops working, how can we just decide it's all true and move on? Is it realistic to decide "okay, it happened"? I guess I am asking "Now what?"

Randi Nathenson: I think when you are ready, you will decide. It is realistic to "decide" and to recognize it is a process. You won't wake up one morning knowing and that's that. Often you go back and forth between doubt and knowing. Allow yourself to be where you are in the process.

Question: My father is close to my abuser and still has relations with him even though I recently told him about the sexual abuse. It makes me so angry at my father but I feel bad about being angry. How can I make him understand how much of an impact this still has on me?

Randi Nathenson: You do not have to feel badly for being angry. You can let him know how it makes you feel, how impacted you are by the abuse and how it feels that your father still interacts with him. It may be something you have to say often to him until he gets it.

Question: I often make excuses for my mother abusing me, i.e. that she was a single parent under a lot of stress and was probably abused herself. I can't really feel like her abuse was bad when I do this but I can't help seeing it from her perspective. It's kind of who I am to do this and if I don't do it I feel less of a human and just like her emotionally. How do I see her abuse as bad enough without feeling like this about myself? Is it normal to sympathize like this with our abusers?

Randi Nathenson: There is no excuse to abuse. Abuse is wrong and not okay no matter what the reasons. However, it is is normal to sympathize and it shows what a kind heart you have.

Kadie: This concludes our guest speaker chat with Randi. The chat room will be closing now, but feel free to join the General or Healing chat rooms as soon as they re-open. Thank you everyone for attending tonight. We would like to thank Randi for joining us today to talk about this topic. The information you’ve provided is very much appreciated, Randi. Thank you for spending time with us!

Randi Nathenson: Thank you everyone. Everyone had some great questions. I hope I answered them to your satisfaction :)


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