The Importance of Defining Our Own Experience

Sometimes in life there are certain experiences or feelings that we might struggle with. At their worst, these challenges might paralyze us from within, or over time we might realize how deeply traumatizing something that happened to us truly was, or how stuck we are.

Finding the right words to describe our experiences can often help us unlock what feels like a locked door inside. Without words, our feelings or memories may become trapped in nameless sensations or images that make it difficult to share with others and get better. Our bodies might contort or stiffen in old familiar patterns, causing chronic pain, fatigue or headaches, with no outlet for relief. If something happened long ago, perhaps our child selves cannot find the right words, and our adult selves struggle to bridge this gap between present reactions and past experiences.

Words help. Definitions that accurately describe our own experience help us shape our identity, find a place of self-acceptance, mourn and grieve past losses, and return back to ourselves.

Sometimes stereotypes and old biases from our culture block us from this process. A common example of this is the tendency to under-report and minimize sexually abusive experiences, especially amongst boys. Although our culture may at times find greater ease defining a girl’s experience as exploitative or abusive, often boys who have been exposed to premature and exploitative sexual experiences may be told that they were just experimenting, that the experience is a natural part of a boy’s sexual curiosity or development, or even that a boy ought to be lucky to have had such an experience (!)- especially if the perpetrator was an older female care-taker or relative. Sexual abuse can cover a wide range of behaviors, and can often go under-recognized when we assume that sexual abuse is defined solely as forced penetration or intercourse.

Sexual abuse definitions cover a wide range of behaviors, including premature exposure to sexually explicit material such as pornography, or intimate details of a parent or other relative’s sex life. Role reversals in which a child may be placed into a partner role, such as comforting a parent or providing physical affection through invasive cuddling or spending the night with a lonely or depressed parent can provide a basis for sexual exploitation and abuse, even when no overt sexual contact takes place. Sexual abuse can include seductive behavior such as exposure to nudity or inappropriate, invasive comments about one’s developing body or sexual orientation/identity, or accusations of sexual behavior that are false. Sexual abuse is at least in part the disregard of appropriate physical boundaries and age-appropriate roles that maladaptively fulfills a void for the person engaged in the exploitative behavior, without any attention paid to how the person on the receiving end may be affected. The effects of these traumatic experiences often last long after the event itself has passed.

If an experience like this has happened to you, you may want to decide if naming it and giving it a label may be helpful. Defining our experience, for example labeling something as “sexual abuse” or even just “abuse” can be a part of the counseling process. Sometimes recognizing these experiences as abusive can be liberating, especially when other definitions of abuse such as physical abuse or emotional/verbal abuse don’t seem like a good fit, but you know that what happened to you felt exploitative, confusing, or traumatizing. Perhaps you still struggle today with anger, sadness or avoidance around what happened to you.

Sometimes a part of us may wish to minimize or deny our experience, especially if that experience was painful or we felt powerless to stop it. Mourning this kind of loss is too painful for most of us to bear alone, and being in a therapy process with a trusted professional can really help.

In other cases, even well-meaning friends or professionals may try to help by defining experiences in binary ways that may not always be helpful. It is especially important for the survivors of traumatizing experiences or anyone struggling with identity issues to find an authentic self, and to feel empowered to define one’s own experience. In recent years, many advocacy groups have formed that attempt to validate the trauma that many people face. As an unfortunate side effect, I have observed that clients sometimes feel they are betraying a just social cause when the definitions offered by these groups are too black-and-white, and pigeon-hole ones’ experience in ways that don’t feel true or honest. Some examples of this might include feeling pressured to define oneself as a victim, for example as a victim of rape or assault, domestic violence or abuse, when parts of what happened don’t seem to fit this mold. Some terms may just not feel like a fit for what you are feeling. Other examples include feeling coerced to define one’s sexuality in terms of gay, bisexual or straight. Feeling empowered to define one’s own experience and to find the right words is a critical part of the healing process.

Good therapy should help you find an authentic and accurate sense of self. The still, quiet voice inside becomes clearer and easier to tune into. Old feelings of anger and sadness fade, and past experiences become folded into a more cohesive sense of your life story. This is where healing begins.

For a great book on the topic of male survivors of sexual abuse, I recommend Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse by Mic Hunter.

For a terrific website focusing on male survivors of sexual abuse, please visit Male Survivor.org.