In this series of posts, we’re talking about the difficulty of leaders helping people navigate through sexual brokenness. In Part 2, we talked about the important realization that what presents on the surface isn’t the whole story. We need to recognize that actions are influenced by experiences that might not be obvious, but with curiosity we can learn how to draw these experiences out so that we don’t inadvertently make a difficult situation worse through our assumptions.
In this post I want to talk about those experiences themselves. The descriptor I am going to use in referring to them all is trauma.
Trauma is an incredibly powerful influence in people’s sexual brokenness.
People have many different reactions when they hear the word trauma. Think for a second about what you thought when you read that word. What came to mind?
Someone in a life-threatening situation (hostage/kidnapping/wild animal attack)?
Someone who underwent severe abuse (rape/molestation/being beaten)?
Someone who witnessed the sudden death of a loved one in an accident?
Someone who served in the military in a combat zone?
If you thought about situations like that, you’re right. All those experiences are traumatic. However, it’s important to realize that even if the people you counsel never went through the kind of trauma described above (at least to your knowledge), that doesn’t mean they did not experience trauma of some sort. The first important observation for this post is…
1. Everyone carries trauma, even if they don’t know it.
It’s important at this point to establish what I mean when I use the word trauma. I like to quote my good friend, therapist James Horne’s definition of trauma. For purposes of this post, we’re going to say that trauma is “any experience in my life that was less than safe and nurturing.” In other words, I had a need, and that need was not met. When that lacking is ongoing, through abuse, neglect, etc., the child begins to adapt, learning how to meet needs on his/her own. We learn lessons, even ones we cannot name. Those lessons translate into beliefs, then into actions, and these actions are intended to meet a need.
Here’s an example. A child grows up with an emotionally distant father and a mother who struggles with alcoholism. His existence is filled with neglect from his dad, and emotional abuse and abandonment from his mom. Often this child has to get himself ready for school, fix his own lunch, etc. He lives with a constant anxiety, fearing that his dad will leave or that his mom will snap. When he hits puberty, he learns that through masturbating he can alleviate that anxiety for a time. This behavior seems normal…everyone does it, so it seems harmless. But when it’s being done not out of curiosity but out of anxiety, this is a trauma response. What begins as using masturbation to calm anxiety eventually graduates to a full-blown porn & sex addiction that presents in your office after he’s been caught cheating on his wife again. (Does this sound anything like the couple in the example in the last post?)
Trauma often ends up manifesting in unwanted sexual behaviors. Author Jay Stringer reminds us that, “These behaviors that you’re very ashamed of have origin stories, often in the family in which you grew up.” Statements like this are, again, not designed to remove personal responsibility. On the contrary, by recognizing how our past experiences influenced our present behavior, we are better able to understand and take healthy responsibility for those actions, and to move forward in repentance and healing. To move forward, however, we must understand how trauma specifically connects to the choices we make, which brings up the next point:
2. Trauma causes people to develop strategies to survive.
Think again about the example above, of the man whose sexual addiction – which manifested in repeated sinful and hurtful behavior – began by using masturbation to cope with adolescent anxiety. As a helper who is trying to do right by both this man and his wounded wife, it would be very easy to focus only on the here and now, which would result in a narrative that only focuses on how bad his actions were. It’s true that his actions were bad, and that they were sinful, and that they cannot continue if he wishes to keep and heal his marriage and become a healthy person.
But what would it look like to begin with a different approach, one of curiosity? Curiosity understands that, like we said in the last post, there is always more to the story than what presents on the surface. What if we were able to hold a space in which two things are true at the same time: First, that this man’s actions are wrong, sinful, hurtful, and must be addressed. Second, that this man’s actions probably were the culmination of a survival strategy he developed years ago in an immature attempt to get his needs met. These two truths present tension for anyone walking through the situation with this man, but they are not contradictory or mutually exclusive.
Recognizing that bad actions don’t automatically represent the character of the person doing them is important. It allows the caregiver/helper to approach the person with curiosity and compassion, and with a desire to uncover what may have caused them to develop this survival strategy in the first place. Then, by the time the behavior itself is addressed, the tone is less confrontational or punitive, and better represents the heart of Christ for restoration. Think of how it would look for a church to graciously and lovingly live out what the writer to the Hebrews talked about in 12:11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Training indicates we’re seeking to learn something through the process of discipline, and we can’t learn unless we’re curious. A curious helper will inspire curiosity and will help reduce self-shaming on the part of the person who has caused the harm. One more thought for this post regarding trauma:
3. The sinful actions that result from a person’s survival strategies shouldn’t surprise us.
This isn’t really a new thought, but more of a restatement. It’s important for all of us who help others to remember something. Those we seek to help are watching us for our reactions. They have often been shaming themselves for a very long time, and they expect others’ reactions to be shaming as well. They often come in bracing for impact, expecting punishment, rejection, condemnation. They have learned to prepare for and protect themselves from these experiences, and so it’s critically important for us to think about our responses.
Rather than responding with, “How could you?!” what if our responses when hearing their stories was more like, “Well, of course.” When we better understand what trauma does to people, and the choices they make out of that trauma, we get to the point where very little surprises us. From this place, we can be purposeful about responding to people in ways that makes them feel less defective and more hopeful. They then will hopefully let their guard down and trust a process that leads them toward repentance, restoration, forgiveness, and healing.
You might be thinking, “That sounds great, but I’m imagining what the wife is going to feel if I start sounding all compassionate toward the person who betrayed her!” And that’s a very good point. Helping both the “offender” and the “offended” can be a mine field, and that is going to be the subject of our fourth and final post. Check back for that…
Greg Oliver is the Executive Director of Awaken, a faith-based recovery ministry that provides Gospel-based and therapeutically sound help for individuals, couples, and ministry leaders who have been impacted by sexual brokenness. Awaken offers in-person and online recovery meetings for men & women who struggle, and for women whose partners struggle. We also offer 1-on-1 and couple’s coaching, recovery intensives/ workshops, and training/equipping for church leaders. For more info on any of our resources, check out the rest of our site or CLICK HERE.