Recovering from Incest
Survivor-advocates have been down the recovery road and back and have valuable suggestions to offer those just starting their healing journey. Here are some helpful practices from survivors on healing methods and strategies that can help. Each person’s healing journey is uniquely their own and what works for one person may not be helpful for another. The key is to find your own way to health and well-being.
Build social support. Incest can make a person feel isolated and alone. Take steps to build your social network with people who feel safe to you and people you feel good being with. Often this includes people outside of your family circle. Consider building relationships with other sexual violence survivors. Think about joining an online support group so you can converse with others who share similar experiences. Survivor-moderated, private social media groups can help build your virtual support network, as can in-person groups running in your area. See our page on Personal Support Options for links to safe resources.
Find a skilled and experienced therapist who has worked with survivors of incest and sexual abuse. If possible, take time to meet with several therapists to find the best fit for yourself, and select a therapist you feel you can trust and with whom you have rapport. Your therapist should be fully focused on and engaged with you throughout your therapy session because if they’re not, this can trigger old feelings of being overlooked and de-prioritized and prompt you to try too hard to make things right. One of the key goals of trauma-informed therapy is to create a safe therapist-client relationship that is a refuge - a secure relationship for healing and growth - instead of harm. If the therapeutic relationship isn’t working, find another, but try to end any nonproductive therapy in a manner that leaves you feeling proud of yourself.
Many sexual assault organizations offer free and confidential counseling to survivors. Consider alternative therapy methods, for example, trauma-informed, equine-assisted therapy. The human-horse connection and human-beloved animal connection allows some survivors to experience emotions, such as love, through entirely safe, nonverbal communications. This can be particularly effective with teens for whom traditional therapy doesn’t work well. Whatever counseling method you pursue, it is best if possible to find a therapist who has training and experience in trauma and is credentialed and highly ethical.
Psychology Today’s website has a “Find a Therapist” directory of therapists, psychiatrists, and treatment centers located throughout the US that is searchable by city or zip code.
Since the body is the site of abuse, however the abuse occurred, learning to care for and nurture one’s body is often central in the healing process. What this means specifically can vary from one survivor to another. For one person, this can be learning to get enough sleep, for another healthy food, for another exercise, for another dance and improvisational theatre, for another not abusing substances. The key is to learn what activities help you feel healthy and happy. Explore music or art therapy, exercise or yoga, meditation or spiritual activities, time in a swimming pool or in nature - any and all physical activities that help you feel at home in your body. Learn to observe and identify what feels healing for you. Each person’s healing journey is truly uniquely their own path.
Write in a journal. Articulating your feelings and hardships doesn’t have to happen interpersonally. Journaling can help survivors of incest to process emotions and experiences in a way that’s completely private and personal to you.
Explore books and podcasts about recovering from sexual trauma. One book that survivors of incest have found helpful is The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, which has an associated workbook for males and females healing from the effects of child sexual abuse. The combination of checklists, writing and art projects, open-ended questions, and activities in the workbook guides readers through the healing process. (See our page on Books, Articles & Podcasts for more resources.)
Remind yourself often of your worth and value, and surround yourself with people who reflect those beliefs. Remember that the abuse was not your fault, that your life is precious, and that you have worth. Exploring the resources in our Books, Articles, & Podcasts page can be a good way to start learning about building self-esteem and worth.
Make choices that keep you safe from emotional, financial, and other forms of abuse from family members with whom you continue to have a relationship. Toxic family members abuse their power to control survivors’ emotions, self-esteem, and choices. Distancing oneself from abusive family members is a choice that some incest survivors find helpful for healing and rebuilding self-esteem and self-worth.
Learn to say “No” with confidence, kindness, and firmness. Survivors of abuse, especially when this occurs in early childhood, have been exploited for another person’s needs. Survivors who become high functioning and successful adults can give too much – too much energy and too much of one’s precious time – in loving support of others. Even when the other’s cause or request is pressing, remember that protecting one’s own body and energy needs to come first, and this means saying “no” at times to requests or invitations from others.
If it’s right for you, you may choose to tell your story. Some incest survivors have found healing in sharing their stories, whether one-on-one with supportive people in their lives, or more publicly through a storytelling forum. For more on this topic, visit our Tell Your Story page.
Be patient. Healing from incest takes a long time. It’s a journey, not a destination. Remind yourself that each day is a step forward in your recovery. If you want to survive and thrive, you can and will do this!
"Healing is a process that doesn’t have a time frame. Don’t rush your healing. Advocating and spreading awareness through my YouTube channel is one way that I heal."
- Ja'Nay Chew