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Posts Tagged ‘identity issues’

A common aftereffect of child abuse is wrapping up your identity with a symptom of the child abuse. When you do this, it can make it that much harder to heal because, as you unravel your childhood trauma and memories, you fear that you will lose your identity.

I did this with my self-lie of being a virgin. The most traumatizing event I experienced was when my virginity was taken the first time. This was the memory I most deeply repressed. Then, I built a “fake” identity on top of that memory. Throughout my teen years up until I married, my identity was built upon “being a virgin.” I thought about being a virgin all the time and prided myself in my “purity.” I bought the whitest wedding gown I could find, and all of my wedding flowers were pure white. I was very active in my church and saw my strong self-identification with my “virginity” as being more active in my faith.

So, you can imagine the explosion in my life when the first flashbacks came of my being vaginally raped. My subconscious actually eased me into this knowledge through terrible nightmares of being promiscuous and/or raped. I would awaken in a cold sweat and tell myself that I know that never happened because I was a virgin. So, when the first sickening awareness settled upon me that even my virginity was taken, it wasn’t quite as big of a shock as it would have been without the nightmares, but I was still shaken to the core. If I wasn’t a virgin, then who was I? I feared that my life was built on nothing but lies and that, as those lies came tumbling down, my entire identity would come down with it.

You might have done something similar. You might have built your identity around being an alcoholic or drug addict, an anorexic or bulimic, a virgin or a sadomasochist, etc. Be very careful about basing your identity upon anything that you do (or, in my case, don’t do). Who you are runs so much deeper and is so much richer than what you do.

If you have built up a false identity, this is just another way that you have tried to protect yourself from your childhood trauma. It is okay to let go of this false identity and find the real you. Who you are is much fuller than being a member of a particular group. You are an amazing and unique individual whose identity cannot be contained within one label.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry entitled Unmet Needs after Child Abuse: Age Six to Twelve, a reader posted the following comment:

I’ve subconsciously taken on mannerisms and speech patterns (including regional accents) of other people, once I’ve been around them long enough to consider them friends. Long ago I recognized this about myself, but had no idea why or where it came from, just that it happened. Now, it makes sense! – Midge

This is a common aftereffect of child abuse called mirroring.

Abused children do not know how to interact well with other people. Their abusers (obviously) do not socialize them well. In fact, it is in the abuser’s interest if his victim does not know how to make friends. An isolated victim is much less likely to tell about the abuse.

Human beings are social creatures by nature. Because the abused child’s ability to learn how to socialize well with other children was stunted, many abused children learn how to “mirror” the behaviors and mannerisms of other children whom they want to befriend. As the saying goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” By mirroring other children, the child seems more like those children, making those children much more likely to bring the abused child into the fold.

I, personally, did not have the first clue about how to make a friend. I spent most of seventh and eighth grade sitting alone at lunch because I did not know how to make a friend. In ninth grade, a “new girl” moved to my school, and she became popular (as in well-liked, not in the snobby way) instantly. I began mirroring her behaviors and, voila, I suddenly started having friends.

Fortunately, this girl was a wonderful role model. I still hold onto many of the traits I learned from her to this day. Now that I know how to befriend others, I generally look for the person who is feeling left out and use the skills I learned from this girl to make the other person feel more comfortable. So, mirroring is not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem is when you become like a chameleon – when you only reflect the personalities of the people you spend time with and lose who you are in the process. Or, worse, you never even knew who that person was to begin with.

I used to believe that healing from the child abuse was about turning myself into a new person. I have come to recognize that healing is really about discovering who I have always been. Beneath all of the pain, shame, and mirroring has always been a unique personality that is all mine. Learning how to stop viewing myself through the distorted lens of my abusers opened me up to discovering myself.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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