Having and expressing human emotions is not weakness | Survivor Saturday

We aren’t being “emotionally fragile” when we feel human emotions in response to trauma.

Survivors are often labeled, by ourselves or others, as being “weak” or “fragile”. I previously wrote about that here. Since then, I’ve been giving some more thought to the whole idea of emotions…feeling them…accepting them…expressing them….

Some of us are, by nature, more “feeling” type people, and may be more expressive and communicative as well. Some may see this as a weakness, but why not argue that it is a strength? We need to affirm qualities like, She is so connected to her emotions, or She is so expressive and full of life, or even, Wow, she’s so emotionally gifted! Aren’t emotions part of our very human nature? Where did we get the idea that it’s wrong to feel some of them, or that they need to be suppressed and ignored?

Some families, more than others, stifle this part of their humanity. They might have unwritten “family rules” about emotions, such as:

  • Only men and boys are allowed to get angry.
  • Only girls are allowed to cry.
  • Women and girls need to act “happy” and “nice”.
  • Certain emotions are unacceptable.
  • Only positive emotions are allowed.
  • You are not supposed to talk about feelings.
  • It’s important to act stoic all the time.
  • Emotions should not be expressed — not even happy ones — except in a subdued, quiet manner.
  • Emotions are dangerous. Don’t listen to them.
  • Emotions are scary. Try not to feel them.
  • Emotional people are inferior. Don’t be like them.
  • Emotions are divided into good ones or bad ones, and the bad ones are sinful. Don’t feel them.
  • Getting in touch with your emotions is for California hippy types or wimps. Don’t be like them.
  • It’s OK to blame others for your emotions.
  • It’s the role of women and girls to make sure men and boys are happy.
  • Mothers are responsible for all the emotions in the home.
  • You should be happy — or it will make everyone around you unhappy.

Any of those sound familiar?

Some of us were told, growing up, that we were wrong to feel a certain way — or even that we were wrong about how we were feeling: “No, you can’t possibly be angry at your father! You are really happy for him.” We may have been told we were overly sensitive, or that we needed to tone ourselves down. We may have learned to suppress our own emotions, lest we anger or upset our parents. It’s a wonder more children don’t grow up wondering if they are the only ones in their families with any emotions at all!

People raised in emotionally inhibited (that’s nicer than saying “emotionally stunted”) families tend to take this discomfort with emotions out into the world with them. After all, if our parents were kind, decent, loving people, it’s rare that we scrutinize our upbringing for flaws, or spend time and energy analyzing the nuances of our family culture. Unless we have a good reason to change our minds, we tend to think the way emotions were handled in our home is pretty much the right way, even if it was fairly stifling.

Let’s imagine that two such people marry, and that the wife is a trauma survivor. If she has been raised to believe she must “keep your chin up no matter what”, she will find the vast chaotic swirl of trauma-induced emotions to be a sign that there is something wrong with her — rather than that her emotions are a natural response to the fact that something wrong was done to her. Painful emotions are painful no matter what, but the less emotionally savvy we are, the more tempted we are to numb or escape them. Like us, our hypothetical wife will most likely tend to follow her family’s lead in numbing, escaping, and/or suppressing.

Her husband will be quite content with an emotionally numb wife, if that is familiar to him because of what he grew up with. In fact, if she isn’t “good enough” at suppressing all her “negative” emotions, he will no doubt encourage her to keep her emotional range within his comfort level. If she fails, he will see this as her being weak, overly emotional, hysterical, etc.

The irony is that when his wife begins a deeper process of healing, when her emotions become unbound, when she becomes more fully alive, when she faces the truth of what was done to her and allows herself to feel all her emotions in response to such evil — when she is finally strong enough to do that — that is when her husband, instead of applauding her courage, is most apt to tell her that she is weak and fragile.

It is all too easy to accept that assessment. We think, yet again, that there is something seriously wrong with us. I remember crying in my therapist’s office, “Why does this hurt so much more now than it did back then?”

“Because,” he said gently, “back then, just in order to survive, you had to try to pretend it away. There was no safe place for you to feel, to grieve, to get angry at the cruel injustice of it all. You had to hold it all together. It was too scary to face the truth.”

It’s still too scary! I wanted to scream. In fact, I probably did…or, more likely, whispered it in a frightened gasp. Therapy session after therapy session, I bemoaned “ever opening up this can of worms”. Why not just keep on holding it together? Even if it wasn’t better for me, wouldn’t it be better for everyone else if I just went on pretending I was mostly fine? My therapist, God bless him, kept giving me assuring, encouraging, hopeful words — even when I accused him of lying or just mouthing therapeutic bullshit. But he was right. My sister-survivors and brother-survivors — my tribe — kept telling me the journey of healing was worth it, that I was not being selfish, that it was the right thing to do…and I grew to believe them more and more as I watched them walk it out.

Healing is messy. If we are human, experiencing trauma, betrayal, violence, humiliation, hatred, and dehumanizing acts will wound us deeply. We aren’t just recovering from those events, but from the years in their aftermath when we did not adequately heal. It takes courage and strength to face all that head-on…to stare down our worst memories…to allow the most extensive surgery to be performed on our most painfully wounded parts.

Emotionally healthy people actually feel and express their emotions. We may be a bit messy while learning to do so. We have been through a cataclysmic event; naturally there be some cataclysmic emotions…and, if we have held in many or most of them for years, they will seem overwhelming, like a dam bursting. It takes a lot of strength and courage not to avoid or numb that.

It takes even more strength to go against a lifetime of conditioning, to become more alive instead of less, and to pursue healing when it is so painful. But when the people who are supposed to care for us the most keep tearing us down rather than building us up, discouraging us rather than encouraging us — when they offer us words of weakness and failure rather than strength and hope — then it takes even more strength and determination on our part.

“Strengthen me by sympathizing with my strength, not my weakness.”
— Amos Bronson Alcott

So…my words of advice to any potential allies out there, anyone who wants to walk alongside a sexual trauma survivor on her healing journey: Don’t tear her down. Don’t demean her. Don’t add to her negative self-talk. If all you see is weakness and fragility, you don’t know her well enough to be her ally. If you have no words of encouragement and hope, if you cannot see her strength and worth clearly enough to remind her of it, keep your mouth shut — except to encourage her to find real allies.

And this is for those of us who are survivors, no matter what it might be that we have survived:

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn By Living

“Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it with use.”
— Ruth Gordon

“The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before. If you can live through that you can live through anything. You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.

You are able to say to yourself, `I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’

The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line, it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life

Note to my fellow and sister survivors: Although I am somewhat of a loner by nature, I believe very strongly in the value of finding a “tribe”. We heal best in community. If your current “community” — be it family, friends, or church — is not truly encouraging and supportive, in a healthy way, of your healing, this doesn’t mean you have to dump them. It just means you have to look elsewhere for your “healing community”. Don’t give up.

I’d love to hear from you about your healing journey. If you found a tribe, how and where did you find them? If you grew up in an emotionally open and expressive family, how did that help you in the healing process? If not, how are you overcoming that?

A sarcastic rant about rape prevention | Survivor Saturday

A few of the people who know about my rape have offered after-the-fact advice, as well as questions of “why did you…?” and “why didn’t you…?” I’ve combined their “wisdom” (after all, they sounded so sure of themselves, they must know these things!) and some of the common advice floating around out there and used all this to put together some rape prevention guidelines that – according to the unsolicited advice I’ve been given – would have prevented my rape. You see, apparently I lacked the wisdom and common sense that would have “kept me from getting raped”. (Or, even worse, maybe I was asking to be raped without realizing it!) Instead of throwing caution to the wind in reckless abandon, instead of enticing men to rape me, I should have been following these ten simple, foolproof rules:

How to prevent rape

  1. Don’t let a man test or cross your boundaries – EVER. That seemingly kind, older man who expresses concerns about your tear-stained face and tries to engage you in conversation after you say you’d rather be alone? He could be a fatherly type who wants to help…or he could be a serial rapist testing your boundaries!! Tell him very firmly, “No, I do not want to talk to you. No, no, no. NO. NO. Leave me alone. Go away.” (According to some participants in online discussions about rape, one must be very clear with men because some have problems understanding anything but a firmly stated and repeated “no”. These men are supposedly baffled by and unable to comprehend polite refusals and sometimes can’t even tell if a woman is saying yes or no!)

  2. Don’t trust men. If a man is trying to gain your trust, you have no idea whether he is a nice guy or a rapist trying to set you up! It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known a man – don’t let your guard down just because he hasn’t raped you yet!

  3. Don’t feel compassion for men. When we feel compassion, we lose objectivity. Next thing you know, we want to comfort this man, lend him a sympathetic ear, and help solve his problems. But he could be lying with his sob story. Maybe he is a rapist and he is just using the tragic death of his beloved wife as a way of gaining your sympathy and trust. You can’t be too careful.

  4. Treat any and all compliments or supposedly lighthearted teasing/flirting as a potential threat. Do not allow it. Yes, you may offend some nice guys but do you really want a rapist to claim, since you enjoyed being told you were pretty, that you owe him sex? Do you want others to claim you must have led him on?

  5. Never go over to an apartment where men live, no matter how much you trust them. [Oops…trust? See #2.] It doesn’t matter if you have a friend along. You don’t know if one of the men whom you are foolishly trusting might be a rapist. According to some men in online discussions of rape, going to a man’s apartment or inviting a man to your apartment is a signal that you are agreeing to have sex. (Perhaps, if you must be there, it would be wise to keep repeating, “NO SEX!! No, I will not have sex with you!” just so there will be no confusion.)

  6. Don’t drink alcohol around men. Especially don’t drink to excess. You never know if there might be a rapist in the room. Even if there isn’t, some people seem to think that, once a woman starts drinking, she is asking for any and all sexual acts that might be performed upon her, no matter how violent and/or degrading. It no longer matters what she says or how she might resist; the fact that she was drinking negates all that. (It’s probably best to forego all beverages, lest they be spiked or drugged. Thirst is a small price to pay for safety.)

  7. Don’t let a man serve you dinner or drinks. Sure, you might miss out on some nice evenings but, if he is a rapist, all you will miss out on is being raped.

  8. Never be alone with a man. In fact, don’t be alone with men. Better yet, avoid being in any place or situation where a man could behave inappropriately. Otherwise, if the men you are with turn out to be rapists, you will get blamed for “putting yourself in that position”.

  9. Always carry your keys between the fingers of one hand and your pepper spray in the other. The instant a man tries to touch or kiss you, no matter who he is, shout “No, NO, NO!!” If he doesn’t apologize and retreat to a safe distance immediately – and especially if he dares try to touch you again – he might be a rapist and so you should gouge his eyes out with your keys and spray him with pepper spray. Too bad if he is just a clueless guy with a crush on you. One can never be too sure. Besides, some people seem to think that allowing a man to touch or kiss you is a way of giving him complete, irrevocable consent for any and all sexual activity from then on. Make your “NO” as clear as possible and leave immediately, before he can recover from the pepper spray. [Note: some people, most of them men, will disagree with #9 and instead insist, “If a guy even tries to get fresh with you, grab your concealed handgun – every woman should carry one – and shoot him.” I find this advice a bit extreme.]

  10. Don’t like men. If you like a guy, it will be really hard to gouge his eyes out.

Probably, at this point, some readers might be wondering if I’m a “man-hating super-radical feminist”…a hermit-like cat lady…or just plain wacko. Others might be up in arms – do I really think all men are potential rapists and should be treated as such?

No. No, no, no. (Is that clear enough?)

So why did I write this stuff? I have to admit that I was in a sarcastic mood, and I did go for a bit of comedic effect – but the actual “advice” was based mostly on things people have had the nerve to come right out and say. To round things out, I included a few nuggets of the sort of “prevention tips” women are bombarded with. I wrote this to vent, but also to make a point.

Over the many years since my rape, until “coming out” on this blog, I’ve told few people, outside of my community of survivors. But some (most? I’ve tried not to keep track) of the non-survivors felt a need to “Monday morning quarterback” my experience, and – if they were women – let me know why my rape would have never happened to them. They have asked/said things like this:

“Why did you even talk to that creepy man in the first place? Couldn’t you tell he was a serial rapist?” Uh, no. I couldn’t. He looked like a harmless guy who was visiting his nice son over the summer. I guess he forgot to wear his “I’m a serial rapist” name tag.

“See? That’s why I don’t trust men. You shouldn’t be so naive.” Wait a moment…I shouldn’t trust any man? I should decide half of our planet is not worthy of my trust, just because they are male? How does that work in everyday life? What about marriage?

“Didn’t you see he was just pulling on your heartstrings to set you up? That sympathy ploy is the oldest in the book, and you fell for it!” So the next time some weepy neighbor shows me a picture of his late wife, I should just say “tough break, dude” and give him the cold shoulder?

“Why did you accept his compliments? And all that joking back and forth – some men see that as flirting, so what do you expect?” OK, I’ll yell at the next guy who says anything nice about me. And I’ll be sure to be serious from now on, lest some guy overhear me make a wisecrack and think that gives him the right to rape me.

“I would never go over to a man’s apartment. It sends the wrong message. And have dinner with a man? Especially a dinner he cooked? That’s dangerous.” We were neighbors! In and out of each others’ apartments all the time!

“Why did you put yourself in that position?” If I’d known he was a rapist, obviously I would have never given him the time of day, let alone hung out with him.

“You were drinking? No wonder. That’s practically asking for it!” Call me naive back when I was 23, but I had no idea the world worked that way. I thought they were nice guys. I had no idea that they would refuse to let me leave, despite my frantic begging and pleading, all because – according to my rapists and you – I was really asking to be raped.

“Why didn’t you leave immediately when you found yourself alone with a man?” Because, stupid me, I trusted him?

“If anyone had ever tried something like that with me, I would have…” Yeah, yeah…I get it. You’re some lean mean rape-thwarting machine, and I’m not.

I’ve been inundated with so much “rape prevention” advice that it makes my head spin. No one could implement it all. If I distill it down to the ten guidelines I listed at the beginning, I’d have to move to a lesbian separatist community to pull it off consistently…and I’m not a lesbian.

Besides, I have men in my life that I love and trust, men I feel compassion for. If I’d followed the fear-mongering advice I’d been given, I don’t see how I could have gotten to know my wonderful husband.

I see no reason to treat all men as if they are rapists. Let me put this another way: I don’t think all men are potential rapists. At the same time, as has been said many times before, rapists don’t alert us to their presence. They don’t wear signs. The ones who have been raping for quite awhile without getting caught do so because no one – until it is too late – suspects they are rapists. They get better and better at selecting their targets and “setting them up”. Afterward, they learn how to shame or intimidate their victims into silence and/or how to make them unlikely to be believed. That’s how they can go on raping.

After my rape, I found out that it wasn’t some isolated, freakish occurrence: the older of my rapists had an album full of “souvenir” pictures of his victims. (Thank God there were no mobile phones or Internet back then!) I learned that he and his nephew raped at least one other young woman that summer, and I have reason to believe there were more than that. I found out that he attempted to rape two other women in our building. This guy was slick – he really knew how to gain our sympathy and trust, how to spot and exploit our vulnerabilities.

With this kind of situation, it’s easy to pick things to self-blame about and I can always find someone who would be more than happy to join in the blame game. For example: Well, maybe if you hadn’t gotten drunk!! My sobriety or lack thereof would have not erased the fact that he was a serial rapist. If I had been the staunchest of teetotalers, he would have merely adopted a different strategy than plying me with overly strong mixed drinks. I believe he targeted me from the moment he first met me, when I was all weepy over a recent death in my family, and he got me to keep on talking with him after I made it obvious that I wanted to go into my apartment and be left alone.

My “rape prevention guidelines” most likely would have worked with him. But I don’t want to live like that! People would rightfully think I was rude, paranoid and misanthropic, and I don’t want to treat people that way. Despite what male rape apologists and some ultra-conservative Christians have to say, I’m with my feminist friends on this one: most men are not rapists, and most men can and will control themselves no matter what careless and stupid mistakes I might be making, or what “mixed signals” I might inadvertently be sending. If the world was made up of “most men”, it would be a much safer place. In the meantime, I will be cautious enough to lower my risk of being raped, but I refuse to isolate myself from half of humanity or treat every man in the world as if he is a rapist.

Why I refuse to participate in slut-shaming | Survivor Saturday

For starters, what is it? “Slut-shaming” was coined to describe the attacking, criticizing, demeaning, or “shaming” of a girl or woman for transgressing the sexual conduct rules of a particular group. I’m sure anyone who has grown up in America can think of plenty of examples.

But wait, Rebecca, what are you saying? Are we just supposed to be accepting of any and all sexual behavior? Are we supposed to throw all standards of morality and decency out the window? Are you saying that self-esteem and tolerance is more important than obeying God? Don”t you believe in the Bible any more?

Excellent questions, and I will attempt to address them while explaining the reasons for my commitment, before God, not to engage in slut-shaming:

  • The Bible does not command us to engage in slut-shaming. We are never told to respond to sin with gossip, name-calling, derision, mocking, or any other attempts to humiliate and degrade someone. Instead, the Bible says, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1 NASB) Keep that verse in mind, because it is the very antithesis of slut-shaming.
  • Jesus did not engage in anything even remotely similar to slut-shaming. He treated all women with dignity and compassion, offering redemption and reconciliation rather than condemnation. That is why one of the most extravagant acts of worship and loving devotion recorded in Scripture came from a woman described as a “sinner”. (See Luke 7:37-50.)
  • Slut-shaming imposes an anti-Biblical standard. Before you jump to conclusions and exclaim, “Aha! I knew it! Another so-called Christian who thinks it’s OK to run around having sex with anyone and everyone!” — hear me out. First, read a pertinent passage from the Bible:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:3-11 NASB)

Notice who is missing from this story? How could a woman be caught in adultery all by herself? We can speculate what it was that Jesus wrote on the ground, or what particular sins made the Pharisees slink away in their own shame, but what is beyond question is that Jesus refused to participate in such gross injustice. When we act as if women engage in immoral sexual behavior all by themselves, we are perpetuating injustice.

  • If I claim to follow Jesus, I should follow His example. Yes, I fail miserably. All the time. But that is no excuse to respond to anyone — even someone caught in the very act of adultery — in a way that runs contrary to my Savior’s response of, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on, sin no more.”
  • Slut-shaming says nothing about the gospel, but everything about my bad attitude towards the target of my accusations. The good news of Jesus Christ is never, “You’re a slut!” I can’t pretend to be enamored and grateful to a glorious God of redemption and reconciliation while withholding that amazing grace from someone else — just so that I can lob verbal hand grenades in her direction.
  • Slut-shaming is demeaning to men. Whether we are venting about the “home-wrecking skank” who ran off with our friend’s husband or fussing about teenage girls “dressing like sluts”, we are saying a lot about our low opinions of men. Apparently the poor, weak dears are slaves to their hormones, which is why we don’t judge them equally harshly for their sexual misdeeds. Everyone knows they are visual creatures, helpless to resist the evil wiles of those slutty seductresses…sorry, I’m not buying it. I refuse to treat men as less than fully human, moral agents.
  • Slut-shaming isn’t about upholding morality; it’s about attacking the character, heart and humanity of someone created in the very image of God. Let’s get off our high horses and stop smugly claiming to “hate the sin while loving the sinner”. It’s easy to hate other people’s sins — why not try hating our own for a change? If we are really honest, though, we have to admit that slut-shaming is personal. We aren’t crusading for decency as much as we are on a vendetta against this particular person — otherwise, why would we be attacking, demeaning, and shaming her, instead of assuring her that she is not her sin?
  • Slut-shaming ignores and perpetuates the deep wounds of broken people. I know some women who take issue with me on this one. “Just because we enjoy a full expression of our sexuality outside of marriage doesn’t mean we are broken or reacting to past sexual trauma. It just means we like sex and we don’t agree with outdated ideas about it,” they will tell me. That doesn’t mean I can toss compassion out the window, ignore everything I’ve just written, and say, “Well, then I guess you really are a slut after all.”

But the thing is, we don’t always know everyone’s story, even if we think we do. And we might be running around with all sorts of misinformation, wrong ideas, judgmental notions, rape myths, and prejudices in our heads. If she really had been raped, she wouldn’t be sleeping around now…She should hate sex, after what she claims…I’ve seen how she acts; she must have been asking for it…She probably seduced that older guy, instead of the other way around…Child sexual abuse victims don’t act that way…Rape victims don’t act that way…Even if she was raped, that’s no excuse for sin…Since we don’t know people’s stories, we may need to keep our mouths shut. We never know the destructive power our words might have.

  • When we slut-shame the survivors of sexual trauma and abuse, we are repeating the messages of their abusers. We are perpetuating the lies told them by the tormentor of their souls. We become abusers as well. If you think I am overstating my case, read Nikki’s story, especially this: “The dead corpse of my soul was surrounded by a body that was good enough to take, but never good enough to keep.” As survivors, until we begin healing, that’s the sort of things we believe about ourselves. That’s the devastating reality of our lives. Sometimes our abuse began when we were so young, that it may have rendered chaste sexual behavior not only seemingly impossible, but an utterly foreign concept. When we comment on someone’s sexual behavior, will we further batter the already battered? Heap shame upon shame? Crush the bruised and broken? Pour salt on their wounds? Or will we offer hope by showing Jesus to them, to each other, to ourselves?

Those are reasons why I purpose, as a follower of Jesus, not to engage in any slut-shaming of anyone. But there is a far greater reason why I hope never to add to anyone’s shame. Jesus, my precious Savior, bore my shame on the Cross. He took all that shame on Himself — the shame I’ve suffered because of my own sins and failures, and the shame I’ve suffered at the hands of others — He took it all. Knowing that, how can I attempt to place shame on anyone else?