Moving on from surviving sexual abuse to thriving in life can often be an up-hill battle of epic proportions. People, who have been sexually abused and did not get immediately support, care, and love from their parents, inevitably struggle with developing trust. This struggle is not a possibility, it is a fact. In most cases it is a direct result of the abuse. Being betrayed and abused by an adult who should care and protect erodes for most survivors the foundation for trust in other people. This is particularly bad when the perpetrator is a parent or close family member. Who can be trusted if the own family turns out to be not trustworthy?

Betrayal, breach of boundaries, and assault by an adult who is supposed to look after the child is an attack on her budding self-structures and that interferes with the child’s ability to develop a

• Sufficient level of self-confidence
• Sufficient level of regulating internal states
• Good enough thought processing networks
• Sufficient level of social functioning
• Healthy understanding of boundaries
• Basis level of trust and safety.

Instead, in an attempt to step away from people and thus from potential hurt, the child tries to maintain its internal equilibrium by resorting to withdrawal, avoidance, dissociation, or other socially isolating coping strategies.

Thus trauma not only attacks these self-structures and prevents normal functioning, the aftermath of trauma isolates the child and reduces opportunities to learn social skills or have experiences that could counteract the destruction of abuse.

It’s no surprise then that starting therapy, meeting a potential life partner, having children, going to work, making friends all are activities that often cause a high level of fear, insecurity, and lead to great internal conflict.

In order to re-establish trust in other people, survivors of sexual abuse can help themselves by following some effective steps:

1. Start a journal and keep track of all interactions with others. Especially pay attention to any feelings that are familiar and remind you of the past. Write down your thoughts, memories, and feelings. Use the feeling as a bridge into the past that tries to let you know how it was for the younger you. You can use that information for processing some bits of the trauma. More important however is that you develop compassion with the younger you, the part of you that is reacts today with fear.

2. When you are with another person and you get fearful, tell yourself that the feeling is most likely not about today, but it’s about the past. Kind of like an echo from the past that interferes with your life today. Always do the “Then-versus-Now-Test” and speak kindly to you younger parts.

3. Allow your adult thinking to check out whether a present social situation is safe. If you conclude it is, stretch yourself and face the social situation. That might mean to connect with a therapist, friend, or partner. You could have a little ‘training programme’ whereby you steadily increase the level of difficulty, frequency, or intensity of social contact.

4. Tell yourself that the feeling is a feeling from the past and therefore a cognitive distortion caused by the trauma. It was accurate in the past when you were traumatised, it’s an attribution error to have these feelings in present time.

5. It would be very good to address the struggle with trust regularly with your therapist. The more you can bring your feelings and the associated dynamics into awareness, the better you will deal with it.

Adults who suffer from the aftermath of sexual abuse often have their social avoidances strategies re-enforced over many decades. To reverse that will take time because it involves the building of new neuro-pathways that need to become ‘well trodden pathways’ through being used over and over again instead of the old, unhelpful ways of operating. This explains why the development of trust is a slow but steady process that takes time.

The alternative is rather sad. A person, who continuously gives in into her fear and responds to it with avoidance, will not have enough exposure to her upsetting material and desensitisation will occur only marginally. She will continue living with fear, flashbacks, distress, and isolation and re-enforce mal-adaptive behaviours. It could lead to chronically established psychiatric distress and condemn the survivor to live the life of a mental health patient.

Exercising the ‘trust-muscle’ ideally takes place in a relationship. That’s where many survivors of sexual abuse find themselves in a catch22. Having a lack of relationship skills often gets in the way of establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. When survivors have decides that they want to change this, they might benefit from learning a few simple relationship skills. By enrolling in a free relationship skills course they will get a clear idea where they stand and in which area they need to acquire more skills.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Gudrun Frerichs is a trainer, psychotherapist, and researcher who has researched for the last 9 years how people recover from the impact of abuse. She has dedicated herself to assisting survivors of sexual abuse to grow strong and fulfil their potential and their dreams. Read on and Is your relationship in distress? Get her free mini course Successful Relationships