In 2017, the #MeToo movement brought a focused awareness of sexual violence against women. From Hollywood to Corporate America, women in all walks of life–from college campuses to the United Nations, to retirement communities—shared their truth with the simple hashtag “#MeToo.” In many environments, #MeToo triggered a new inquiry into how some men have leveraged power–whether physical, financial, or professional—as a tool to force women into sexual submission. But for many women, #Metoo triggered painful memories.
While researching my book, The Sweet Spot, Self-Esteem for Women of Color, I was horrified to learn that nearly 50% of all American women experienced some sort of sexual violence before the age of 18. Most carry an emotional burden, feeling shame, anger, loss, and guilt from their experiences well into adulthood. These emotional debts can have a devastating effect on their motivation and drive to pursue their professional success, leadership, and happiness goals. Working with a trained mental health practitioner, clinical therapist, social worker, or coach can help address the underlying trauma and open the doors to personal and professional advancement and healing.
For me, this was undoubtedly true. When I was a child, my personal experience with sexual abuse inhibited my ability to enter into close relationships with others, damaged my sense of self-worth, and blocked my career advancement. I disassociated myself from memory; I thought I was “over” what happened; I thought I could just forget it and move on. And yet, I couldn’t seem to move forward to achieve what I wanted personally or professionally—and I didn’t understand why.
The issue was I had disassociated from myself and my life. My mind separated from my body and my heart. For years I functioned in a detached state of awareness, detaching me from what was going on around me to protect myself from being hurt again. Dissociation is a common experience after sexual violence. Dissociation means being disconnected from the present, from the here and now. Occasionally everyone daydreams or experiences a moment of mind-wandering or feeling like you are walking around in a fog – this is normal during memories of traumatic events. The human brain may signal dissociation to avoid coping with the negative thoughts or feelings related to the trauma. It is self-protective—and even helpful for a while. But when disassociation inhibits your ability to reach for what you want, it’s no longer protective. It’s a problem.
I was stuck professionally and personally, separating myself emotionally and physically from anything that might cause me pain—but also blocking the opportunities that would lead to joy and fulfillment. Finally, fed up, frustrated, and desperate for more success and happiness, I embarked on a real effort to understand the emotions that dissociation concealed: anger, hurt, loss, guilt, depression, and shame. I focused on releasing those pent-up feelings safely and identifying the patterns they had caused in my life. With a new perspective on my trauma, I was able to slowly put my fears aside and reach for my heart’s real goals, seek visibility in the world, take on leadership roles to help other people heal and find greater happiness.
I didn’t do it alone, however. I also sought professional help.
Confronting the trauma of sexual assault is extremely tough and complicated work—you need support. If you’re a #metoo survivor and find yourself stuck in a personal or professional rut, you may be experiencing disassociation from your trauma. Take it as a signal that it’s time to seek help. Working with a psychotherapist, life, or executive coach can offer you the insight you need to free yourself from trauma—and guide you towards living more fully as a survivor of sexual violence, not a victim.
Debra Ann Cruz, C.E.A.P., C.E.C., L.P.C., is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional, a Certified Executive Coach, and a Licensed Professional Counselor, and author of the upcoming book THE S.W.E.E.T. Spot of Self-Esteem for Women of Color. You can learn more about her at firstname.lastname@example.org.