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Adult Survivors of Childhood Incest


August 14, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

This week, I am revisiting the topic of incest. Much of my information comes from Pandora’s Project ( If you are a victim of rape or abuse or are trying to better understand someone who is, this site has some excellent resource materials.

Survivors of childhood incest often suffer from low self-esteem. This is not surprising, since emotional manipulation is so much a part of the incest dynamic. Many child victims are told no one (other than the perpetrator) wants them, that no one will listen to them, that they are unworthy. Conditioned to believe these lies, they emerge as adults feeling they lack value and that they must bury their emotions rather than expressing them. Low self-esteem makes it difficult to communicate and lack of communication can lead to relationship issues such as misunderstandings and internalization of emotions.

A major contributor to low self-esteem is self-blame. As strange as it may seem, it is often easier to blame oneself than to accept one had no control in the situation—psychologically, it lessens the trauma to avoid the thought of total helplessness. And, too, perpetrators usually shift the blame to the victim, either by outright statements of blame or by telling the victim they have a choice.

It’s important for victims to remember that only ONE person makes a choice to rape or abuse—the rapist. The victim has no choice and is not responsible or at fault.

One result of low self-esteem is feeling doubtful about emotional reactions and expectations in relationships. Pandora’s Project suggests keeping a journal of such situations. Describe the situation, what it is about and who is involved, as well as your emotions and why you believe you feel insecure about what happened or didn’t happen. This will help you learn to recognize patterns.

Once you learn to recognize situations in which you feel insecure and the reasons why, you can begin to learn how to stand up for yourself. Take time to look at the journal and think about how you might have responded, what you wish you would have said or done. You might try writing a letter to the other person involved—you don’t have to send it. It allows you to practice standing up for yourself. You may find email or letters are a more effective way for you to take action or putting your thoughts into written form may help you express them in oral conversation.

There are varied emotional and behavioral patterns that result from sexual trauma, all with their roots in how individuals process emotions. While some find ways to cope and recover on their own, others may need professional help.

Those who have trouble processing emotions may seek to flee from it instead. These persons may become risk takers, seeking physical activity that will replace emotional pain with adrenaline highs (my heroine, Lottie, rides roller coasters). They often refuse to talk about what happened, seeking to avoid it instead. To outsiders, they may seem happy and carefree, sometimes to the extreme. Professional counseling may assist these persons in confronting their emotions and learning to deal with them.

Depression may haunt some. These individuals are usually those who internalize emotions. Their pain, sorrow, anger, blame, and/or guilt are turned inward. These persons may refuse to talk about what happened but may think about it frequently. Because the intensity of their emotional baggage is so high, the chemicals that allow most of us to deal with the “blues” may become overwhelmed, resulting in clinical depression. Fighting clinical depression may require professional treatment and/or medication until such time that the emotional overload returns to naturally manageable.

Sometimes, victims may abuse drugs or alcohol as a way to escape their emotion. Others may be cutters, using the physical pain of the cuts to block underlying emotional pain. They, too, are trying to flee emotional pain but often suffer from depression at the same time. The added complexities of substance abuse further complicate their recoveries and treatment may be necessary for both the substance abuse and the depression.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often experience mixed emotions concerning their childhood selves. Many are angry at their selves for not fighting back or feel guilt that they somehow contributed to the events. They may feel that their childhood self should have known what was happening and done something to stop it.

Healing the inner child can be difficult and should be done with the help of a therapist (if you have one) or a support system. Among the first steps is acknowledging that the child that was is part of the adult that now is and thus that child needs healing if the adult is to heal. It is important to identify the emotions felt toward the child. Knowing if you are angry or sad or resentful or confused is important so that you know what you need to address.

The adult that exists today knows many things that the child did not know. Children are naturally trusting and need affection. When adults in trust roles take advantage of that trust, when they use the need for affection as a tool, they are acting in ways that children do not understand. Adult survivors may be angry that as children, they responded to abusers’ advances. It’s important to see that as a child, they see only the affection, not the abuse. It may have felt “wrong” but there was no understanding about what was wrong—it was affection, it was a feeling of importance created by the abuser calling it secret and special, it was delivered by someone who was trusted.

You were only a child and you had a child’s knowledge at the time. Only now are you an adult, able to perceive it as an adult. You were physically small, you were afraid, you were confused, you may have been alone. And you had no understanding of what was occurring until long after it happened.

Survivors of sexual violence also experience varied responses to consensual sex. Most people are aware victims of violent rape may experience fear or revulsion during subsequent sexual encounters. Other responses may occur as well. These may range from promiscuous behavior to guilt over desiring sex.

In some cases, victims may experience a false self-image of having encouraged the sexual attention. Even though the victim had no control over what happened, they may believe they would not have been raped had they not worn certain clothing or behaved in a certain way. Child victims are often told they lured the perpetrator into the act (and, because they are children, they believe it). Some victims are called names and told they “wanted it.” Those who are unable to separate the false reality may begin to act it out, or may believe they are unworthy of meaningful relationships or that sex is, in itself, meaningless.

Other victims may feel guilty because they desire sex. This happens when victims are unsure of their true motives in wanting a physical relationship and can also be a result of the manipulation, name-calling, and deflection of blame used by perpetrators. Sometimes, this guilt can occur in the middle of consensual acts and can complicate responses and relationships.

Some may feel that if they allow themselves to enjoy healthy sex, others will believe that they enjoyed the rape as well.

In all of these situations, it is important for the victim to remember that rape and abuse are very different acts from healthy sex. Learning to separate the two is important. Sometimes, looking at your reasons for having sex, and evaluating your feelings about it can help, as can professional counseling.

Helping a partner heal sexually can be key to a relationship with a victim of sexual abuse. There is no timeline for this and no set formula. Patience and support are critical as is allowing your partner to set the terms and to not force him/her to do anything before being ready. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.

Be aware of your partner. Learn to read signs of discomfort and respond by stopping and asking if he/she is okay or reassuring in a way that does not remind her of the past. If your partner asks you to stop, do so! Not stopping is yet another violation of trust and will hurt both of you and the relationship.

Communicate. Be willing to talk about what you each like and dislike. Ask questions, offer suggestions, listen. Let your partner initiate or be in control. Know that listening must occur outside the bedroom as well as inside. Even though your partner was the victim, you are part of the healing because of your relationship. You need to support your partner but you must make sure you get support, too. Take care of yourself, learn about the process, join a support group.

Do not make your partner feel guilty. Don’t force anything and don’t make him/her feel guilty for you abstaining from anything your partner is not comfortable doing.


Next week, I’ll discuss the efforts to preserve the Historic Elitch Theatre. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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