Should I tell my therapist?
September 13, 2014 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Seeing a therapist for extreme lack of self-esteem and fear of intimacy and I'm not sure if I should tell them about childhood trauma. (Trigger warning)

I know that therapy is what I make it so whether or not I tell her is completely up to me. I've read before that disclosing trauma can actually risk re-traumatising the individual and some people are able to live full & healthy lives without getting it all out in the open.

I don't even know if I what I went through can be classified as trauma. The incidents were on going sexual events that I was forced in to when I was 11/12 initiated by someone significantly older than me but still under the age of 16. I didn’t consent but I didn’t not consent either - I think I was too terrified to say anything and perhaps got to the point where I was dissociating from what was going on. I’ve blocked out a lot of the events but there are still a few terrifying memories that make me sick to the stomach when I think about them.

I couldn't have got a better fit for a therapist, she is lovely and warm and responsive and strong and if I was going to tell it to anyone I would feel safe with her it's just that I've never said it out loud before and I am terrified about what is going to happen if/when I do.

I am in my mid 20’s now, I thought that I would be able to go on without talking about this and maybe I can. I can see positives around talking about this but they are completely over shadowed by the possible negatives if this doesn’t go well – what if my therapist doesn’t believe me? What if it wasn’t significant because the individual (Perpetrator?) was also under 16? What if it makes me remember the memories that I’ve managed to shut out and my condition worsens? I am completely terrified.

Words of advice or encouragement would be greatly appreciated. I am seeing my therapist this coming week.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A really useful conversation to have with your therapist could be,

"I have some trauma in my past but I'm not sure I'm comfortable talking about it with you. I have heard that it can be re-traumatizing to talk about it."

Then your therapist's job is to work with you to help you decide if and when you want to talk more about the traumatic experiences.
posted by latkes at 5:01 PM on September 13, 2014 [32 favorites]

I'm so sorry--it sounds like you've been through a lot of pain over the years since this happened to you.

What if it wasn’t significant because the individual (Perpetrator?) was also under 16?

In your own words, they were ongoing sexual events you were forced into. Even if you didn't feel you were forced into them, you were a child and unable to consent anyway. It's significant no matter how old the perpetrator was, even if they were a child too.

What if it makes me remember the memories that I’ve managed to shut out and my condition worsens? I am completely terrified.

That's why your therapist is a good first person to share this trauma with. She is equipped with the tools to help you deal with it.

Maybe you could broach the topic slowly at first--tell her there are events you have never told anyone else before, it's a childhood trauma, but you don't know how to talk about it and you are worried about the potential emotional consequences of revisiting these traumatic events. See what she has to say.

On preview: what latkes said.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:07 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, honey. I want to reach out and give you the biggest hug ever.

You say this: "...and perhaps got to the point where I was dissociating....blocked out a lot of the events....terrifying memories that make me sick to the stomach when I think about them." Those are all good indications that yes, it was trauma, and it's still impacting your life today. It's also very likely that this trauma could be part of what's causing your issues with low self-esteem and fear of intimacy. (IANATherapist, IANYT)

I am equally terrified of my upcoming counselling appointment (which isn't for another 3 weeks, yay, more time to freak out!), but I will tell you similar things to what good friends keep telling me: It's not her job to believe you or not believe you. It's her job to help you process what happened, and heal from it. It was absolutely significant because you blocked out a lot, and get sick to the stomach when you think about the memories you do have. If it makes you remember what you've shut out and your condition worsens, your therapist will help you deal with that - also her job.

It's ok to be terrified. But keep in mind that that terror, that fear, is a selfish beast that wants to stay stuck in your head. (Many thanks to KathrynT for this excellent comment recently so that I can say such things to you. You should go read it. It's seriously awesome. TW: the comment is in the World Suicide Prevention Day thread on the blue.) That terror is what's telling you to NOT tell your therapist about this trauma. That terror wants you to stay right where you are, terrified, with low self-esteem and fear of intimacy. Don't let it.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 5:15 PM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh absolutely discuss! I have every assurance your therapist will be very gentle with you. Don't worry if she believes you, she's on YOUR side.

You will feel so much better and she'll help you process what happened to you.

We're all rooting for you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:28 PM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

You don't need to worry about whether what you went through would qualify as trauma. You get to make that call. If you were traumatized by a rerun of Gilligan's Island when you were 6 and it's given you lifelong phobias, that's still trauma even if the source was a harmless TV show. And a good shrink is never going to tell you your trauma isn't significant. If it's trauma, it's significant!

I also don't think you need to worry that your shrink won't believe you. Unless there's something wildly improbable about your story, why wouldn't a therapist believe you? Even if you tell your shrink you were abducted by aliens, the shrink doesn't have to believe you to take your pain seriously and try and help you deal with it. If you believe it happened, it matters.

I'd say, talk about it now. It's better to start dealing with things sooner rather than later. I can tell you from experience that you can think you've got your childhood trauma all dealt with, and then one day you can surprise yourself by having a big, messy meltdown over it. We don't always know ourselves as well as we think we do.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:29 PM on September 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, this sounds so hard. I'm so sorry.

This is not a decision you need to make right this minute. I have been seeing my therapist twice a month for nearly 2years and there are still things I'm not ready to bring up. All in due time.

The important thing is that you are putting in the work. Therapy isn't something you can necessarily "finish", so there's no checklist to get through. It's a safe space to test out your limits.

Be well.
posted by third word on a random page at 5:32 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a therapist who specializes in helping clients resolve traumas. I am not your therapist, so I'm not advising you what to do (and even if I were, it's absolutely your choice about how to proceed!).

A very lot of my time is spent talking with clients about what it would be like if they were to tell me about the trauma. Some clients absolutely come in ready to spill everything, and they need to just get it out (after which we then tend to go back and look at the pieces in more detail); many clients, however, are terrified of disclosing. Especially with childhood sexual assault and abuse, because part of the traumatizing aspect of it is being told (explicitly or not) that you'll get in trouble if you tell anyone -- and the longer you don't tell, the more reinforced that anxiety can become.

Every client I've worked with about childhood abuse has expressed the same fears and doubts about reawakening memories. And for many clients, working through past traumas will re-open the emotions from those traumas. An important thing to remember, though, is that you will be dealing with those feelings now as an adult, with all your adult knowledge and intelligence and coping skills. You also have much more power now than you did when you were 11 -- power to pause the therapeutic work, power to tell people who don't believe you to piss off, power to take care of yourself in a way that you couldn't back then. And that is an extremely important difference in thinking about how you'll be able to cope with this process.

A lot of the newer thinking about disclosure being retraumatizing is more about "debriefing" immediately after a trauma; it used to be considered preventative care to have trauma survivors tell their stories over and over again right after it happened. Studies have shown that doing so can create problems for people, that most people are able to resolve many traumas on their own (often unconsciously) and that being forced into describing it can kind of cement it in weird ways. If something from the past is still affecting you today, though, that's a different situation. In this situation, most people find that being able to process what happened with a caring supportive witness (like a therapist) and integrate the event into their sense of self -- rather than walling it off as something too scary to talk about, or being so overwhelmed by it that it takes over their lives -- makes an enormous difference in their ability to be happy, self-confident, and intimate (platonic and romantic) with others.
posted by jaguar at 5:36 PM on September 13, 2014 [35 favorites]

I can't improve on what jaguar said, but I want to add that if you trust your therapist, you shouldn't give a second thought to whether this was "really" trauma and whether it was significant enough to qualify. If it's something that's bothering you, your therapist will be interested in exploring it with you and a good therapist won't dismiss any concern that you bring up.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:44 PM on September 13, 2014

If you end up deciding to discuss it with your therapist, I advise scheduling yourself to have the rest of the day after that therapy session off from work/school/socializing/etc. If you're anything like me, you may end up feeling completely drained and need to sleep it off after. Best to plan that leeway into your schedule just in case.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:54 PM on September 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I know from friends and feminist circles that truly believing what happened to them is wrong is sometimes very hard, because of a lot of our cultural messaging around what is and isn't consent, and not feeling like they are worthy of somehow claiming survivor status, when the feeling of not being worthy itself is tied to the trauma. From your question, it sounds like you might be going through some of the same things. This certainly does not oblige you to take a particular course of action (everyone heals in their own way), but when you think about someone telling you that it's okay to be hurt from this experience because you survived something awful, do you feel a strong sense of relief?

If so, it might be something your therapist can help you with understanding. It might also be something you can talk to other survivors about, whether in face-to-face or on the internet, if you feel like you need allies in order to feel justified in calling your trauma 'real trauma'. If that thought isn't appealing, even through the haze of anxiety, it might not be time or you might need to take a different path. There's no right way for this to happen, only the way you need.

Either way, wishing the best for you.
posted by WidgetAlley at 6:24 PM on September 13, 2014

As an almost therapist (I'm testing for licensure very soon) I cannot say anything better than what jaguar said.

If you can't talk about the trauma right now it is okay. You canopen up very very slowly. It is okay to test with safer information and see if your therapist is responsive in the way you want.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:58 PM on September 13, 2014

You don't have to call it trauma or justify it against anyone else's experiences in order for this to be a valid thing to make your therapist aware of.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:35 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

And I should have said this earlier: I believe you. I'm sorry this happened to you. It is a real trauma. You didn't deserve it. It's not your fault. You deserve to feel better and to heal.

Again, I can't provide therapy via messages or online discussions, but please feel free to MeMail me if you want additional information or resources about dealing with childhood sexual abuse (and that goes for anyone else reading this thread, too).
posted by jaguar at 7:43 PM on September 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm not usually one to advocate for this, but I think in this case it would be a good idea to print out this question in its entirety and give it to your therapist.

Good luck. This may be hard work that you're doing, but it is important work, and you will be glad you did it in the end.
posted by Night_owl at 7:56 PM on September 13, 2014

Traumatic events are traumatic because of how you felt when they were happening, after they happened, and ever since. There's no objective measure of how serious or harmful a given action is. It totally depends on your situation.

Also -- everybody who sees a therapist brings all their usual traits and issues with them. I'm a people-pleaser, and I tend to want to please the therapist....I've developed more useful motivations, but that desire for approval isn't going to go away entirely. You say that intimacy is hard for you; it makes sense that revealing very painful events and feelings is going to be difficult.

Bring up the matter in whatever small way feels manageable to you. Start out as vague as you need to be. Somehow let your therapist know that you're holding back because some experiences are too overwhelming to talk about. You can talk about how the conversation in the moment is making you feel. You can just stay quiet and let your nervous system settle down, if that feels like the right thing to do.

I said you should broach it in a small way -- I know even that can be really, really hard.
posted by wryly at 8:36 PM on September 13, 2014

In case it helps: I am working with a client who was abused when she was young, and her perpetrator was 10 years old at the time he started abusing her. We have discussed, briefly, how it's probable he himself was abused prior to that, because it is odd that a 10-year-old would be so sexually precocious otherwise, but holding that reality does not in any way change my understanding of her trauma: She was abused, I'm sorry it happened to her, it is a real trauma, she didn't deserve it, it's not her fault, and she deserves to feel better and to heal. The age of her perpetrator doesn't change my view of how traumatizing the experience was for her.
posted by jaguar at 9:06 PM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you think it might help you, you might consider that you've already told us, so telling the therapist won't be the first time you've talked about it. I'm so sorry you've had to live with this and hope you find a way to deal with it in therapy, because what happened to you was wrong. The fact that it weighs upon you now proves that it was wrong. I'm sure you'll find therapy (especially as your therapist sounds lovely) really helpful.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 12:56 AM on September 14, 2014

That was me. That was my father. (Hard to even type the words, even now.)

Speaking out loud saved me. Being heard saved me. Your therapist sounds wonderful, and a good fit for you. You don't have to say everything all at once, or ever. But saying what happened out loud can be so healing. I felt as if I had more room around my heart, somehow.

Trust yourself. What happened to you is in the past. You're living your life now, and you sound very brave. I'll be thinking about you, and wishing you freedom and joy in your future.
posted by kestralwing at 2:05 AM on September 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

As someone whose also been there I understand where you're coming from.

The urge to talk about this, and the urge not to is so very hard to parse that it makes it even harder to go into the room.

Speaking the truth is hard, as you're not only battling yourself but everything you've ever been told, felt and feared.

Talking about this stuff was the hardest thing I've ever done, but in doing so I was fighting not with my therapist, my abusers, or the uncaring world but struggling against myself.

Recounting it all is like pulling bits of broken mirror out of yourself; then over time slowly putting them together to see your whole reflection: Pulling out the pieces and examining them is very hard to begin with, as its all so frightening and new and nothing connects, so the picture is fragmented and distorted and confusing, but as the picture builds things start to make more sense and you begin to see things a lot clearer, and you realize that rather than looking at a monster you're actually only looking at yourself, and you're ok.
posted by Middlemarch at 2:42 AM on September 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

When the question is "should I tell my therapist," the answer is always yes, assuming you have a trusting therapeutic relationship. Childhood trauma manifests throughout life in a lot of ways.

Approach it slowly and on your terms, start slow as latkes said, but absolutely yes talk about it.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:38 AM on September 14, 2014

1) While I agree with Jacqueline, maybe have a close friend on family member on stand-by if you end up not wanting to be alone after that therapy session.

2) If you feel traumatized by something, then I think you are allowed to call it a trauma. Even if it's not one in the strictly psychological terms sense - we call someone a narcissist without them necessarily having Narcissistic Personality Disorder, no?

3) Even if the person who did that to you was just a kid themselves, it happened to you and it was real. Maybe you can't blame them, but that doesn't make this any less awful. In fact, I think it makes it worse for you because you have no one to be angry at.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:28 PM on September 14, 2014

I would 100% say that this is something you should discuss with your therapist (when you feel ready). It will be scary and hard and hurt some, but it will be freeing. Just by quoting your own post, you mention terror three times, nausea, and several ways it is almost surely affecting you today. Will sharing it hurt? Yeah. Is there the possibility things could go wrong? Yes. (But it sounds like your therapist is a nice, accepting lady. If I was a therapist ((I'm not)) I would for sure believe my patients if they expressed this sort of trauma.) Can you survive by keeping it squashed down, (yes) and live a life as full and free as if you purged it? ...maybe. But I think of it like surgery. It may not be life threatening, and healing from surgery sucks, but the improvements are worth it!

I agree with others that it doesn't matter Perp's age... wrong is still wrong. If my 16 year old cousin shoots me, it still hurts, leaves scars, and I still have to heal and deal with the consequences.

Your therapist has almost assuredly heard similar- and worse- stories to yours. This is in no way meant to diminish or lessen your pain and hurt- I see from your post that it exists, and is effecting you- but to assure you she can handle it. Its a significant part of her job description, in fact!

I think it will be ok. You can do this. It is worth doing. I believe your life will be better if you do this (when you are ready) But even discussing it here is brave :) I'm proud of you!

As always, I'm open to mail if you want. :)
posted by Jacen at 7:34 AM on September 15, 2014

I've been where you are now. My uncle was in his late teens when he sexually abused me. His youth doesn't absolve him of his crimes, though, just like it doesn't absolve your abuser of the pain and trauma they caused you. I believe you. Please believe me when I say that you didn't deserve what happened to you and that lack of strenuous objection doesn't mean you consented. And just remember that trauma isn't a competition. Your trauma is just as real and important as anyone else's and there's no minimum threshold you have to meet for legitimacy (regardless of what society might otherwise tell us).

I'm not a therapist, but from personal experience I would say that your lack of self-esteem and intimacy issues are probably directly related to the sexual abuse you experienced. It's going to be hard to address those problems if you don't treat the underlying issue. I understand why you're reluctant to broach the topic with your therapist, but these issues didn't just spring into existence for no reason. I don't know if you've done any reading about adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, but these are pretty textbook post-abuse symptoms for people like us.

If you're worried, I think you should talk to your therapist about the situation in general. You don't have to talk about the trauma at first, just tell her that you went through a childhood trauma (without mentioning what it is) and that you're worried that you might get retraumatized by talking about it. See if she can offer you coping strategies and if she can work with you on ways to minimize spillover before you start discussing it. Going through her therapeutic process might allay your concerns and remove the fear of the unknown.

You shouldn't have to be terrified of these memories or feel sick if you think about them. You should be able to acknowledge them and move forward. I feel like they're holding you back, and that keeping them bottled up isn't going to do you any favors. I know it's hard, I know how terrifying it is, but you deserve a to live free of the baggage that this trauma has left you with. I think that if your therapist is kind and warm, she'll believe you and understand your fears. If she's good at her job, she'll know how to help you. You just need to let her know that you need help, just like you let us know that you needed help.

I think you can do it, you've already demonstrated remarkable strength in telling us about what happened and sharing your fears. Just remember that you deserve to be happy and whole and it doesn't mean you're weak if you need help. (If you need to talk, feel free to send me a memail. For any reason, or none.)
posted by Arrrgyle at 1:34 AM on September 17, 2014

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