by Andrea M. Darcy
The most common question readers ask us is, “how can I remember childhood trauma and abuse?”
It’s understandable. Suspecting you were abused or traumatised as a child is an overwhelming experience.
Once the shock wears off, it’s normal to want to know exactly what happened to you.
[In crisis because of abuse memories? Our new sister site harleytherapy.com can see you talking to a therapist by tomorrow.]
The bad news about how to remember childhood trauma
Until someone creates a time machine, you can never know exactly what happened in your childhood.
Science’s understanding of the human brain is still quite limited. But research shows that the mind doesn’t form an exact replica of experience. And it is very easily influenced when forming ‘memories’.
Our memories are influenced by what others tell us or insinuate happened. They are affected by other people’s stories and memories that we confuse with our own. Assumptions we make based on emotions we experienced, our perspective at the time. And of course our own imagination.
So any technique or alternative therapist who claims they can ‘help you remember’ is not a good idea. There is too much of a risk they will influence what you ‘remember’ and traumatise you even more.
Are you saying I wasn’t abused?
This is not to say anyone was not abused if he or she remembers being abused!
Sadly, statistics show that many of us were sexually abused. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) estimates that almost one in four children in the UK experience sexual abuse.
But it is to say that exact details can be hard to pinpoint, so obsessing over them can be more harmful than helpful.
Also note that rushing off and making accusations that you unfortunately can’t prove is not the best immediate tactic when suspecting you were abused. Read our article on ‘What to Do If You Think You Were Abused as a Child‘ for better ideas.
As for the recent trend of bingeing on internet articles about abuse then assuming you were sexually abused? Despite no other memories but just as you have ‘symptoms’? Know that things like depression, anxiety, and sexual issues can stem from all sorts of childhood experiences and traumas, not just sexual abuse. Instead of obsessing on ‘remembering’ abuse that might not have even happened, obsess on seeking support for your symptoms.
So does this mean a therapist won’t believe I was abused?
A professional therapist is there to support you and be on your side. You will not have to ‘prove’ anything. You will be listened to.Then the therapist will help you process the feelings your memories bring up for you, irrespective of the ‘exact’ details of your trauma.
Note that just as a good therapist won’t make you feel your memories aren’t true, they also will not try to make you think something happened you don’t have a memory of. This is known as ‘implanting false memories’, and is unethical, not to mention dangerous for you as a client. It’s worth reporting to the association your therapist is registered under, should it happen to you.
Will I remember more things about childhood abuse in therapy?
It’s true that the therapy room creates an environment where new memories, thoughts, and feelings quickly surface. It is a safe space, and the power of someone intently listening to you can have this affect.
But there is no guarantee therapy will help you remember things. In fact its entirely possible to experience the opposite. Some people go to therapy worried they were abused, but discover it was some other childhood trauma altogether.
If I am not going to remember exactly what happened to me, why bother with therapy?
Here’s the big secret about getting over childhood sexual abuse and trauma. The exact details of what did and didn’t happen are not the most important thing.
What actually matters is recognising and dealing with your symptoms. This might be anxiety, edginess, sexual acting out, self harm, the list goes on. Such symptoms get better when your process your emotions and upset, regardless of exact facts.
One of the worst things you can do if you suspect you were abused is to ignore your symptoms. Or not seek support because you are too busy ‘figuring out exactly what happened’. Constantly focussing on details can mean you are re-traumatising yourself. And it can mean you engage with other people when you are emotionally vulnerable in ways that can also further traumatise you.
It’s far better for your wellbeing to accept what memories you have, exact and ‘real’ or not. Then work on processing these memories and the feelings they involve in a safe, supportive environment like a therapy room.
Harley therapy connects you with experienced London therapists who can help you with childhood trauma and abuse issues. Not in the UK? Our new sister site harleytherapy.com offers online therapy wherever you may be.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert, who has done some training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and advises people on how to plan their therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy