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Sexual Violence 2/5: Disconnection and Connection

Sexual violence can shrink our worlds and reconfigure our sense of self. In the second part of her series about working with survivors, Erene Hadjiioannou, author of a forthcoming textbook, discusses its impact on our ways of relating – and suggests how therapists might begin to support a search for the self amongst the trauma.

Sexual violence can shrink our worlds and reconfigure our sense of self. In the second part of her series about working with survivors, Erene Hadjiioannou, author of a forthcoming textbook, discusses its impact on our ways of relating – and suggests how therapists might begin to support a search for the self amongst the trauma.

When a client is a survivor of sexual violence living in a re-traumatising world, making connection with themselves or others can hugely affect their ability to make use of therapy consistently. In my next blog, I will focus on the ‘in the room’ experience of working relationally with such clients. Here, I want to talk more generally about how sexual violence impacts people.

Sexual violence is a form of trauma perpetuated person-to-person, usually in the context of a relationship of some kind. It also breaks the body barrier as a personal boundary, creating a particular experience of violation. Both of these differentiate it from other types of trauma, creating difficulties in processing its impact at psychological and somatic levels.

The power of sexual violence to completely re-configure a person’s sense of self and wider life never fails to impact me as I’m working with a survivor. Sometimes this power is tangible enough to momentarily force disconnection between us, as we try to stay allied whilst navigating their trauma. Although I am cognitively registered as a safe person in a safe space, my client may feel under threat in some way.

Knowing the truth of sexual violence does not necessarily make it easier to work with its impact. A natural consequence of this is oscillating between relatedness and disconnection ourselves, alongside our clients’ own movements in these ways. This is a natural response to the horror of sexual violence and is a protective mechanism for all who come into contact with it, whether first- or second-hand.

Often, the worlds of survivors of sexual violence suddenly become very small as disconnection plays a part in keeping them safe. For highly traumatised clients, their world may only periodically extend to the limits of their body and no further. The important concept of inhabiting one’s self more comfortably, with connection within one’s control, enables survivors to step out into the wider world and to inhabit this as safely as possible too.

Finding the self amongst trauma

As with many other mental health difficulties, the impact of trauma on human beings is as varied as the human race itself if we look beyond diagnostic criteria. Alleviation of post-trauma symptoms is the hallmark of successful therapy for sexual violence, but it should not be the only standard therapists aim for. True relational psychotherapy is also interested in finding the self amongst the trauma wherever possible. This is part of embodying personal power, which may be of particular use with survivors who have been violated or exploited because of aspects of their personal identity, such as their race, gender, or sexuality.

I find that a helpful first step is mirroring the language used by survivors. This approach respects the individual’s power and personal identity, and minimises the chance of re-triggering within the psychotherapeutic dialogue.

Many survivors feel very alone with their experience, though they are certainly not the only person to have been present at the time sexual violence occurred. Becoming voiceless as a form of disempowerment and disconnection is also a feature of internalised blame, shame, and guilt that many carry. It is our job to notice how expressions of the impact of sexual violence are continually being made – even when a survivor is forcibly absent from their own bodies and other spaces in the world.

Psychotherapy with Survivors of Sexual Violence: Inside and Outside the Room, by Erene Hadjiioannou, will be published by Routledge in September.

                                                                                                                                                            

Join us for our event - Working with Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse - Webcast Streaming Date: 18-19 June 2021 

Christiane Sanderson will deliver this essential 2-day live CPD workshop on transformative care for survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse!

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Erene Hadjiioannou

Erene Hadjiioannou is a UKCP Integrative Psychotherapist. She has worked with adult clients since 2010 in statutory, third sector, higher education, and private settings. Currently Erene is solely based in her private practice, Therapy Leeds. Between 2014 and 2018 Erene created and co-ordinated two specialist services for women with complex needs (offenders, and survivors of sexual violence). Her work is firmly based in relational, humanistic, and empowerment perspectives to maximise the efficacy of psychotherapy.

Erene incorporates activism into her work around sexual violence, believing that as practitioners we have a responsibility to advocate in service of our clients and our shared world. You can view her writing and speaking engagements here. Erene is currently part of a steering group aiming to influence the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on pre-trial therapy, and is writing a professional textbook for psychotherapists and counsellors working with survivors of sexual violence (due 2021).

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