December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 8 min read
Despite the fact that sexual assault and abuse are not the fault of victims, many sexual trauma survivors struggle with self-trust after abuse. This is partially due to the prevalence of victim blaming in our culture – but it’s also a function of our survival instincts. When bad things happen to us, we understandably become wary toward anyone or anything we associate with our traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, this often includes ourselves.
Below, you will find a guide for how to rebuild self-trust after sexual assault or abuse.
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After an experience of sexual assault or abuse, our sense of trust in ourselves may feel broken. Even though sexual assault and abuse are never the fault of victims, it’s still very common for victims to feel as if they are somehow to blame for what happened. For example, a victim might think, “Because I chose to date someone who ended up abusing me, I can’t trust myself to choose a safe partner.”
Another example of how one might experience a lack of self-trust following an experience of abuse is if a victim feels that they should have tried harder to fight off their abuser or stop what happened to them. Although it’s extremely common for victims of sexual assault to freeze for the sake of survival and self-preservation, a survivor might still end up thinking, “I can’t trust myself to say no or stand up for myself in the face of abuse.”
Establishing a relationship with a trusted and qualified therapist or counsellor is a critical part of healing and rebuilding self-trust for most survivors. However, there are many things you can do to rebuild self-trust outside of therapy as well.
The following list provides six ideas for how survivors of sexual assault or abuse can begin to rebuild self-trust after trauma.
While it’s easy to feel frustrated or impatient with the parts of you that are struggling to trust, those parts exist for a reason. Trust is a function of how we keep ourselves safe. When trust is damaged, our wariness steps in to protect us from further harm. Therefore, it actually makes sense when part of you struggles with trust after experiencing trauma and violation.
To validate your feelings, try acknowledging and thanking the parts of you that are struggling with self-trust. Offering emotional validation to those parts will lay the groundwork for allowing yourself to experience trust again in the future.
Example: “I recognize that the untrusting parts of me are trying to keep me safe. It makes sense that those parts are struggling to trust me after what happened, even though I know it wasn’t my fault. I have compassion and understanding for the parts of me that are struggling to trust again.”
If you feel you’ve violated your own trust, a critical first step is to move toward self-forgiveness. Even though you are not at fault, try offering forgiveness to the part of you that, for example, chose to date someone who ended up abusing you. Forgive yourself for not being able to stop the assault from happening. None of these things were ever your fault to begin with, and you deserve your full forgiveness.
Example: “Even though I am not at fault for having been abused, I forgive myself entirely. I had no way of knowing what was going to happen, and I forgive myself for trusting a situation that proved to be untrustworthy. Ending up in a dangerous situation does not mean that I am no longer worthy of trust.”
If you want to meaningfully rebuild trust with yourself, it’s important to recognize that this process will take time. Although trust can be broken in an instant, it must be rebuilt carefully, piece by piece. Expecting yourself to trust again right away is unrealistic and will likely lead to disappointment and frustration.
Example: “I understand and accept that rebuilding trust with myself will take time. I will not hold myself to unrealistic expectations, and I will have patience with myself as I gradually rebuild self-trust.”
Those of us who struggle with self-trust often also struggle with perfectionism. For example, you might be thinking, “I’ll only be able to trust myself once I can guarantee that I will never get myself into a dangerous situation ever again.” While this would be an amazing ability to have, the unfortunate truth is that none of us have the power to keep ourselves perfectly safe all the time.
Instead of equating self-trust with the ability to keep yourself safe from all harm, try redefining it. Instead, think of self-trust as your ability to trust that you will show up for yourself when you need it. Self-trust means trusting ourselves to weather all of life’s circumstances, even when things get complicated and hard.
Example: “I understand and accept that being trustworthy does not mean that I will never make mistakes or end up in dangerous situations. Trusting myself does not mean trusting myself to be perfect – it means trusting myself to show up and care for myself no matter what, even when things don’t go according to plan.”
Psychotherapist Adam Phillips famously wrote that trust “is a risk masquerading as a promise.” Part of learning to trust ourselves again is learning to accept the fact that danger will always exist. Just as there’s no such thing as perfect trust, there’s also no such thing as unbreakable trust. Self-trust requires flexibility, because we’re almost certain to let ourselves down from time to time (and that’s okay).
Example: “I understand and accept that trust is a risk, not a promise. By choosing to trust myself, I accept that trust is an uncertain process.”
Once you’ve established a more holistic perspective of what self-trust is, you can begin to practice establishing self-trust in practical ways. While there is no single grand gesture to remedy your self-trust challenges, you can begin to rebuild trust by showing up for yourself and following through regularly.
For example, maybe you’re feeling tired and want to spend the night at home resting, but a good friend has invited you out for the night. Exercising self-trust could look like saying “no” to the offer of social time even though you might feel a bit bad for disappointing a friend.
Another example of exercising self-trust could be trying something new that feels safe albeit slightly scary. For example, maybe you’ve been wanting to take a self-defense class but you feel intimidated by the physical demand or group setting. Self-trust could look like deciding to take the class anyway, and trusting that you will be able to meet yourself in the challenges and manage your limitations as they come up.
There are so many different ways to practice self-trust, and these techniques will look different depending on each person’s individual circumstances.
Example: “Even though I don’t feel ready to trust myself completely, I can find small ways to show up for myself, offer care, and follow through as a way of gradually rebuilding self-trust over time.”
Rebuilding self-trust is a complex process, but it’s entirely possible given time. Try to maintain as much patience with yourself as you can and respect your internal boundaries and limitations.
For information on how to rebuild trust in others, check out “Tools for Survivors: How to Rebuild Trust in Others After Sexual Assault or Abuse.”
Struggling with self-trust after an experience of sexual assault or abuse is extremely common for survivors. Working with a mental health professional is an excellent way to support yourself as you learn how to rebuild trust, but there are also plenty of ways to cultivate self-trust outside of therapy. These techniques include validating the parts of yourself that are struggling with trust, working towards self-forgiveness, accepting that rebuilding trust takes time, establishing a realistic understanding of what self-trust is, and finding practical ways to exercise self-trust on a regular basis.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.
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