Samantha was desperate for help when she first came to see me. As she told me her story, I could see the trembling pain beneath her eyes. She didn’t know it consciously, but more than a decade earlier, when she was only 13, she had been raped by a trusted male friend.
As a 27-year-old woman, all Samantha consciously knew was that her relationships with men were “messed up.”
She craved attention, love and sexual intimacy with a man, but whenever one got too close, she would explode in anger and push him away.[Samantha is not a real person, but rather a composite of many clients I have worked with who had similar experiences.]
In our first meeting, with tears streaming down her cheeks, Samantha described her latest failed love affair with Steve. The guy was great: thoughtful, artistic and good looking. He even cooked for her!
She told Steve she needed to go slow. He was attentive and patient, as they gradually grew closer.
When ‘the day’ came she prepared for their romantic dinner at her apartment carefully. Flowers, candles, tango music by Gotan Project and her pretty yellow flowered dress – the one that’s attractive but not overtly suggestive. Her heart fluttered in a mix of anticipation and fear. She was hoping that she would finally be able to trust a man enough to let him into her life. After dinner she enjoyed the kissing and let him continue. They moved to the bedroom and Steve took off his shirt. She was nervous, but OK.
Then at a certain point she just freaked out. She couldn’t explain it. Her mind and heart were both saying yes, but her body could not do it. She felt a surge of fear and rage as she shoved him away and burst out crying. She told him he had to leave.
With a bewildered look in his eyes, Steve put his shirt back on. He tried to console her but she lashed out at him telling him to “go right now!”
Steve picked up his wallet and car keys from the bedside table and walked slowly out of the room, glancing back over his shoulder with a confused and slightly pleading expression on his face, as he tried to make sense of what had just occurred.
As she heard his car pull out the driveway she buried her head in the pillow and spent the night crying to herself.
Samantha didn’t know it yet, but she was experiencing the aftermath of a choice she had made when she was 13 – the choice of denial.
The Best Compensation
At age 13 Samantha was raped by Gary, a 20-year-old neighbor and trusted family friend. After the rape she found herself in an impossible situation. She faced the shame of being violated; she felt the fear of pregnancy and contracting an STD. How could she possibly tell her parents that Gary – a friend who was so close that he was practically part of the family – had abused her?
And how could she deal with the terrible physical pain and emotions all on her own?
Instead, at an unconscious level, Samantha made a wise and reasonable choice. She denied everything that had happened. I don’t mean the everyday kind of denial where we just don’t tell other people about it. I mean the deep-rooted denial where we push it so far out of conscious memory that we forget it ever happened.
As a coping strategy, this was sheer brilliance. Instead of experiencing the pain, the trauma and the shame, she just forgot that it ever happened. She literally had no conscious recollection of it.
This coping strategy allowed her to live. It allowed her to deal with puberty, allowed her to muddle through the awkward teenage years and to survive high school.
She went on to graduate college and get a good job.
Your Worst Enemy
As useful as the survival strategy of denial was for Samantha, it had a downside.
At age 27 Samantha had no conscious memory of the event, and believed she had never been raped. That made her reaction to Steve and other men she had dated all the more confusing to her.
Worse, because she had no idea why she reacted to men that way, she was powerless to do anything to change her reactions.
She desperately wanted to change, but had no idea how.
The Path To Healing
When Samantha sought my assistance, her request was clear: “I want to be able to trust men and have a satisfying intimate relationship.”
When we started working together, the first step was for her to reestablish her mind body connection so that she could access her unconscious memory. I still vividly remember when she started to make the connection. She shook her head and softly said “No, that never happened” as the memories started seeping back up to her conscious awareness. Gradually she acknowledged for the first time in 14 years that it had happened. She had been raped. Tears of pain and relief flowed down her cheeks – pain as she remembered what had happened and relief because she could finally understand why she distrusted men.
This was her first step in coming to terms with the event and healing her wounds.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. Samantha’s journey was painful and scary in the begining. It took enormous courage on her part to face the pain and then heal it. However, the 27-year-old Samantha was much better equipped to deal with it than she was at 13. As an adult she had enlisted my support and had a group of close female friends she could talk to.
She was free to trust and love again.
Big And Little Denials
Samantha’s getting raped was an extreme (although all-too-common) experience. It’s obvious why she would have made the choice to go into denial.
However, we humans tend to adopt the same strategy of denial with minor pains almost as often as we do with major trauma.
For example, I describe how I went into denial about an almost insignificant incident when I was six in The Smallest Changes Can Make The Biggest Difference. There was no massive trauma, no rape, no abuse. There was just an embarrassing scene at school in first grade. I remember the event itself, but I denied my feelings about it. In particular there was a slight constriction of fear in my throat that I pushed out of conscious awareness. When I reconnected with that throat constriction and healed it, the transformation left me freer to express myself and my feelings to others.
We’re actually remarkably good at pushing unpleasant things out of our conscious awareness. I’ll describe exactly how we push things out of our consciousness in the next article in this Neuroscience Of Body-Psyche series, entitled “How Emotions Get Trapped In The Body.” For now the important thing to know is that we do go into denial and push things out of conscious memory quite often and remarkably easily.
Samantha’s extreme story is useful to illustrate why we go into denial, but denials large and small have a similar cost.
The Lifetime Cost: Compound Interest
Whenever we make the choice to live in denial – the choice to push a painful experience out of conscious awareness – we’re making exactly the same tradeoff: we’re taking a short-term reduction in pain in exchange for a long-term loss of vitality, wellbeing and wholeness.
Often times denial is a wise choice at the time, as the trauma may be too intense to deal with all at once or we may be too inexperienced to know how to deal with the challenge we’re facing. For Samantha at 13 the trauma was too big to deal with. For me at six I had no idea how to respond to an embarrassing event at school.
The problem is that the cost of denial compounds over time, just like credit card debt. The longer you leave old wounds unacknowledged and festering, the more impact they have on your life.
Sooner or later, the time comes when it’s wiser to pay off the debt and start living a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
Live Debt Free
It’s been five years since I worked with Samantha. A couple of years after our last session she sent me an email telling me she was in a satisfying relationship with a wonderful man. She was excited because they were just about to move in together. I recently heard that they now have an 18-month-old daughter. The family is happy and doing well.
As it did for Samantha, it takes courage for any of us to heal the wounds we’ve denied for so long. But first it takes the recognition that some of our more crazy, inexplicable or self-sabotaging behaviors may well be the result of things we’ve denied.
Later articles in this series will explain the science behind how the guided meditations and courses on this site assist you in becoming ‘debt free’ – by helping you reconnect with your unconscious memories and heal old wounds that have long been forgotten.
You can live debt free, even if you don’t know what the debt is that’s weighing you down. The first step is to have the courage to take the first step. Any of the guided meditations on this site will work as a starting point.
They’re all free. What are you waiting for?
P.S. If fear is stopping you, I recommend you start with Overcome Your Fears – In 45 Minutes.