I counsel a young woman who was sexually abused by a family member when she was 7-years young. The way she has dealt with the abuse is unlike any other person I’ve known.
Forgiveness or Punishment
Most victims of sexual abuse who choose to confront the perpetrator do so with one of two strategies. Either they attempt to unilaterally forgive the person or they are punitive, seeking some form of retribution.
It is my belief that unilateral forgiveness is unrealistic. Unless the perpetrator accepts responsibility and offers to make amends, I believe forgiveness is unnatural and unhealthy, and often results in the victim repressing feelings which later manifest in other areas of their life. Genuine forgiveness arises as a result of the perpetrator taking some constructive action—taking responsibility, acknowledging, apologizing.
Being punitive is the other strategy and a most understandable one. The problem with this strategy is that it often hinges on the victim re-victimizing herself. For example, my client planned on writing a letter to the perpetrator seeking some kind of settlement. The settlement would include him going to therapy as well as providing her with some financial assistance. I expected my client to explain all the ways the abuse had damaged her and caused her suffering. Doing so would be a form of re-victimization. But this was not her intention.
Abused but not Ruined
She explained to me that to list all the ways she had suffered and was damaged would reinforce the power dynamic between her and the perpetrator. She would be presenting herself as damaged, flawed, pained, and suffering. When, according to my client, this was not an accurate picture of her. She said that as a result of the abuse she had grown tremendously, deepened herself, and come to understand things about herself and life that she would not otherwise ever have explored. The exploration had proven very valuable and she believed that it contributed to the person she had become.
Based on what I’m sharing you might be able to detect that this is one very unique and special young lady. She refused to present herself as damaged, ruined, or limited as a result of the abuse.
So I asked her what she wanted from engaging with the perpetrator and she said, “I want to right the power imbalance between us.” She wanted to present herself as a healthy and mature woman. This is not customary, especially when requesting some form of compensation. Usually people attempt to justify any compensation they seek based on the idea that they were damaged.
But my client explained that whether she was damaged or not, and to what degree, is not the point. The point is that what the perpetrator did was wrong and he should be required to accept the consequences for his actions. And my client was choosing the consequences. This was part of how she took back her power.
Acting from Heart Consciousness
As I listened to my client I realized that she was approaching the entire situation from the second degree of consciousness, which is heart consciousness. (To learn more about the three degrees of consciousness click here.) Most people who have been victimized approach the perpetrator from safety consciousness. This is what leads them to adopt forgiveness or be punitive. But when approached from heart consciousness—and you might think this would lead to forgiveness, but it doesn’t—the victim seeks a solution that is best for all parties involved. This is what my client was doing.
She believed that “righting the power dynamics” would help her, the perpetrator, and their respective families. It has been a learning experience for me to work with this young lady. She has demonstrated that we can shift out of safety consciousness—which is where we live most of the time and the most natural place to go when one has been abused. And as we move from safety consciousness to heart consciousness we find solutions at a higher level, solutions we previously couldn’t see.
Learning how to navigate the three degrees of consciousness is proving to be a highly valuable way to work through old “issues” in a completely new and refreshing way.