Saturday, August 28, 2010

Healing from Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is a pervasive issue that violates our humanity. Sexual contact is not consensual when there is use of coercion, force, threat of force, manipulation, or deception. When someone or a group of people have engaged in sexual activities against your will, there can be many long lasting effects. These effects may include but are not limited to depression, anxiety, substance dependence, eating disorders, difficulties with intimacy, distrust, post traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts, plans, or behaviors. It is important for sexual assault survivors to know that the violation hurts and affects us deeply but it does not have to have the final say in your life. There are many survivors among us who have found healing, recovery, and empowerment from various sources.

Here are a few approaches to healing that you may want to explore:

1. Counseling – Sexual assault can often leave you feeling isolated and misunderstood. It can be helpful to talk with someone who really has an understanding of what sexual assault is, how it affects you, and helpful strategies to assist your recovery.

2. Self-help education – As with other issues, knowledge is powerful. It is important to read about sexual assault and there is much information available on the web, in bookstores, and in your local library. When you aren’t aware of how sexual assault affects you and how to effectively cope with these effects, you can end up blaming yourself and condemning yourself. It’s important to recognize the dynamics of sexual assault so you can gain strength for the journey to wholeness.

3. Express yourself - Sexual assault can bring great feelings of shame and self blame. This can result in silence and secrecy. When we hold things it, the negative consequences can multiply. It is important to find helpful ways to express what you are feeling and thinking. This may be done a number of ways such as talking to friends and family members, engaging in artistic expression, journaling, and praying. Don’t hold it in. It was not your fault and you don’t have to hide your story.

4. Hotlines – Rape crisis centers and other advocacy agencies provide nationwide crisis hotlines. You can talk to an advocate on the phone and even have an advocate accompany you through the medical and legal processes if you choose to make use of those options. Flashbacks and panic attacks can be very distressing. Having someone you can call anytime who will respond with compassion and understanding is very critical.

5. Self care – It is so important for you not to neglect yourself. Even when it is difficult, try to rest, eat healthy foods, and avoid unhealthy coping strategies such as cutting and binging. We interrupt the ripple of assault when we refuse to treat ourselves as if we are worthless. You are valuable and deserve love and respect even when that is not what you have always received.

6. See your strengths – Instead of focusing your energy on self blame and critique, celebrate the ways you have survived. While it has not always been easy to recognize we should honor the fact that we have tried to survive and recover.

It is important to pursue healing by any means necessary. There are many pathways available to you, including but not limited to spirituality, group therapy, activism/social justice work, and medication to help manage your symptoms as you work through the recovery process. You deserve the opportunity to find the pathway that works for you. Sexual assault is a “comma” in your life and is not the “period”. You can shape the next chapter of your life and you don’t have to do it alone. Dedicate yourself to moving from victim to victor.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

10 Tips for Improving your Relationship

There is much attention given to the issues of being attractive, flirting, and dating. Much less attention is given to how to sustain a healthy, happy relationship. This requires important skills that many of us did not observe growing up. Here are a few tips from a mental health perspective.

1. Seek wellness. Our emotional stress and strain can create stress and strain on the relationship. When you feel better about yourself, you are able to be a better partner. Take care of yourself in ways that work for you. These can include quiet time, journaling, counseling, praying, exercising, engaging in activities that you enjoy, and getting rest.

2. Give genuine compliments. We often are quick to point out the things that are wrong with the relationship or to even stop talking at all. It is important to recognize and appreciate the things your partner is doing right. You want your relationship to be a place of emotional safety and nourishment for both of you. Be sure to do your part in giving affirmation, compliments, and validation.

3. Broaden your world. We all want to be heard, understood, and respected. Even if they are not your primary interests, learn about the things that interest your partner. Talk with them about their hopes, dreams, and disappointments; also be open in sharing your world with them.

4. Spontaneity. People sometimes feel a relationship is boring but we have the capacity to interrupt the routine. Plan something out of the ordinary, be willing to step out of the regular pattern, and spice up your love life.

5. Forgiveness. We are not perfect and our partners are perfect. As long as you are not being abused or abusing your partner, you need to learn not to cling to the past. Words and inconsiderate behaviors hurt us but if you are going to keep an active hold on the past you will not be free to build a future with your partner. Letting go of the past doesn’t mean that it was OK for the person to do what they did but it means your love and respect for each other in the present is stronger than the errors of the past. (If there is abuse of any kind, I recommend individual counseling for both of you.)

6. Quality Time. Spend time doing an activity together. Cooking, praying, talking, walking, dancing, and laughing. If we are not careful we can grow a part and that is when many people start turning to others instead of to each other. While you will face stress together, you don’t want the relationship to be defined by stress. You want to have a strong foundation and connection so you can get through the storms of life together. You build this strength by spending good times together.

7. Communicate and compromise. One of the greatest parts of thorough pre-marital counseling is the segment on expectations. Often we have expectations about roles, responsibilities, and routines that we have not communicated. These expectations may come from our parents, our past relationships, our dreams, or even from media portrayals of relationships. You need to express yourself, your needs, hopes, fantasies, fears, and concerns. You have to also know that no matter how alike you and your partner are your expectations will not be identical in every area. There has to be room for compromise recognizing that you are two different people who are learning to love each other.

8. Emotional and physical intimacy. If you are closed off from each other you can easily slip into the role of roommates who live under the same roof but are actually quite distant. Be willing to open up emotionally. To grow in trust we have to be willing to be honest and risk vulnerability to another person. To truly be loved we have to be known and we can’t be known if we are living a lie. Intimacy means take the mask off, come of the stage, and be free to be you. Intimacy is also physical affection. Work on getting comfortable with your sexuality. Reclaim your passion and creativity. Constant fatigue, holding grudges, and discomfort with our changing bodies can be barriers to physical intimacy. Be intentional about nurturing every aspect of the relationship, including the heart, mind, body, and spirit.

9. Being comfortable does not mean being cruel. Sometimes we can start to take each other for granted. Being honest is not the same as being mean-spirited or inconsiderate. Consider your partner’s feelings and do not operate in such a way that assumes they aren’t going anywhere so you can do whatever you want. Yes you want to be yourself but being real does not replace kindness and respect.

10. Social justice and community empowerment. Instead of getting caught up in a narrow view of life, engage in community work together. It is a wonderful thing to come together around something larger than you. This may include volunteering with those who are homeless or suffering in other ways, creating artwork together, attend community organizing events together, purchasing and giving donations together, assisting with a youth program together, or participating in walks together that are aimed at raising awareness and funds for a particular cause. These larger issues can play a special role in bringing us closer to each other as we remember our shared values and compassion.

Healthy, lasting relationships require sustained efforts. When you both put in the effort, you reap the benefits of being authentically known, loved, and celebrated. It’s possible and every relationship can be improved when we commit fully to the process.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Friends: No time for fake ones

One of the most important human needs is the connection found in positive relationships. We strive to be understood, respected, valued, appreciated, and loved. Many of us have friendships from the various stages of our lives: childhood, young adulthood, and beyond. Friendship is an important aspect of our lives. When it is healthy it is a source of inspiration, joy, support, and strength. Unfortunately, the wounds caused by insincere “friends” can also be the most hurtful. Most of us have had friendships that did not last and that resulted in some negative feelings. To help prevent some potential hurt, let us consider some warning signs that someone may not actually be a true friend.

1. One-sided. It is very important for friendship to be mutual. Both people need to have concern and respect for each other and both people need to desire contact and communication. If you have to initiate all of the conversations and times together, you should step back and think honestly about whether the other person truly wants the friendship.

2. Jealousy. A friend is happy for your successes. They want the best in life for you and are the main ones leading the parade to celebrate when things are going well in your life. If someone’s insecurity, envy, competitive spirit, makes it hard for them to enjoy your happiness, this is a major warning sign. If you have to start keeping your good news a secret for fear that they will get sad, angry, or distant, something is seriously wrong with the nature of the relationship.

3. Put downs disguised as jokes. The gift of friendship is that we can truly be honest with each other. If you really want feedback on something you said, something you wore, something you are thinking about doing, you can trust a real friend to tell you the truth. This is important but when things go too far and a person constantly puts you down there is a problem. Being in the presence of a friend makes you feel better about yourself not worse. A sense of humor is wonderful but someone who enjoys constantly making jokes at your expense is not really concerned for your feelings. Even if someone says, it is just their personality, remember we are all responsible for our words. Taking opportunities to cut someone down for entertainment is not an indicator of real friendship.

4. Watch your back. If you know someone is not trustworthy, you have to ask yourself why you continue to confide in them. If someone shares things you ask them not to share, if they talk about you to others, and if you cannot trust them in the presence of your romantic partner, this person is not your friend. A friend is someone who has your back not someone you have to fear will stab you in the back.

5. Wing clipper. Friends encourage you to grow, mature, thrive, and soar. They want you to live a happy and healthy life. If someone discourages you from doing positive things and encourages you to engage in negative behaviors, this is not a positive friendship. A friend honors the changes you try to make to live a better life instead of dragging you back to the bad habits of the past.

All of these warning signs represent both things we should avoid in others and in ourselves. To attract good friends we have to also strive to be a good friend. If someone is not being a good friend to you, you may want to first have an honest conversation with them to see if things can get better. If there is no improvement, it may be time to create some space and time in your life for more healthy friendships to develop. Most importantly, don’t let unhealthy friendships of the past cause you to cut off your willingness to trust someone new in the future. Isolation is not the answer. We just have to move forward with wisdom knowing that there are other people out there who value good friends.