The Complexities of Self-Care After Sexual Assault
By Molly Boeder Harris, The Breathe Network
“The doors to the world of the wild self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door.” — Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Self-care is a concept that has become commonplace, if not cliché, and yet, it can elude so many of us.
Caring for the self might seem basic, yet there can be several barriers to embarking upon this sometimes daunting endeavor. Many of us find ourselves challenged to establish regular patterns of care. However, life often interrupts routines, and our motivation to expend precious resources towards healing waxes and wanes.
As a sexual assault survivor, a yoga teacher, a Somatic Experiencing practitioner-in-training, and the director of The Breathe Network — a training, education and healing arts community centered around resilience building for sexual assault survivors — I grapple with the idea and implementation of self-care every day. I am also not immune to the societally imposed pressures to be “well,” to be “balanced,” to “overcome,” and to eventually heal from trauma.
Still, to engage in self-care is the ultimate counterbalance to the way in which sexual trauma attempts to steal agency, autonomy, vitality, and sacredness. To say I will care for myself by engaging in x, y, and z practices is a way in which we can reclaim our right to exist, take up space, be seen, be heard, and be valued. It is empowering to show up for ourselves — messy, wounded, tender, and flawed — and to unapologetically communicate our need for care, regardless of how much time has passed.
Our bodies can be a resource in navigating what kind of self-care we require. They communicate via signals and symptoms that we can use like a map — to uncover where we need to go next in our healing practices, recognize what parts of us are in need of more care, translate the language of both our wounding and our healing, and help us appreciate the micro and macro stories of resilience being birthed in our tissues daily.
Lately, I am placing self-care practices more clearly within the wide spectrum of healing. I am prioritizing flexibility, simplicity, and nonattachment in my approach. This shift is an intentional response to my own evolving life circumstances as a new mother navigating the paradoxical task of finding ways to care for myself when every system of my body is currently working overtime in service of caring for another. The introduction of a baby into my life has complicated my self-care. For others, it could be changes in employment, health, relationships, living situation, or the equally impacting reality of how our social and political environment requires taking stock and re-imagining a self-care plan.
In my recent struggles with self-care, I am humbly reminded of the privileges associated with accessing many forms of care. It has been a radical wake-up call that self-care needs to be both the practices I do or engage in, like movement, therapy, and cooking home-made meals, as well as ways of being with myself that are kind, patient, and compassionate, even when — especially when — I have fallen far off my self-care track.
Self-care for me is increasingly a practice of noticing and self-reflection. Here are some questions that I often ask myself:
- When do I exit my body?
- Where does my resistance to gentleness show up?
- What precipitates my coming out of balance?
- What do I do with those long-expired messages about value, worth and capacity that sneak up on me after years and years of healing work?
- What is the most tangible, simple and direct way I can resource myself right now?
- How can the act of giving attention and care to something or someone else be a way in which I fortify my own future capacity to give similar attention and care to myself?
Like healing, self-care is a nonlinear practice. It is responsive to the moment, the circumstance, and the resources available — all of which are constantly changing. I am especially clear that self-care must not become another burden on an impossibly long to-do list, while reconciling with the fact that to some degree, finding ways to access self-care will make that list far more bearable. So I do what I can with what is most available in the moment.
Like healing, self-care is a nonlinear practice.
What becomes possible when we liberate ourselves from notions of self-care as acts we do to achieve some idealized version of the self, and instead embrace self-care as ways of being and thinking and feeling that are simply about opening up to ourselves as we are in this very moment?
What gets released when we approach self-care not as acts we do to outrun or move beyond the weight of our wounds, but rather as resources and tools that will enable us to learn to live alongside them?
What is available if we consider that care is cumulative, and that each act of care, no matter how subtle or small, no matter how long it has been, remains integral to our overall healing?
The tenacity, creativity, and primal impulses required to survive sexual trauma, in the moment and in the years and decades that follow, can be cultivated in service of our healing and empowerment. Self-care after trauma is a reparative act of embodied justice and there is no “right way” to practice self-care. It is a practice with ebbs and flows, as well as highs and lows. It is sometimes clinical and it is often organic. For some of us it is intellectual, whereas for others, it is quite instinctual.
If you are seeking out new ways to practice self-care, here are some ideas — perhaps one or a few will resonate, or maybe they will remind you of other practices that might appeal more:
- Movement: Yoga, dance, running, climbing, hiking, walking, paddle boarding, martial arts, biking.
- “Gentle” Mindfulness: Meditation, breathing exercises, listening to mindfulness podcasts, playing your favorite soothing music and letting your body rest while you notice what you notice in relationship to the music, your body, your mind, etc.
- “Active” Mindfulness: Coloring, making art/crafting, re-organizing your home, cooking a meal.
- Experiential: Floatation tanks, acupuncture, sound healing, massage, reiki, baths with essential oils, exploring intimacy with self and/or partner/s, going to see music/stand-up comedy/theater/museums, planning a trip (whether a few hours, a day or longer).
- Fundamental: Establishing a supportive sleep routine, eating in a way that energizes your body and supports your unique digestive system, taking time for baths/showers, visiting your dentist, doctor, or psychotherapist, developing a plan to stay consistent with your medications and supplements.
- Other: Whatever it is that fuels, rejuvenates, motivates, nourishes and, as one of my teachers says, “makes you feel most like yourself.”
Remember, maybe even write it down: Healing is a practice. Give yourself permission to start small with your self-care. Start anew. Start wherever you are. Start by saying hello to the trauma scar. Perhaps, as Dr. Pinkola Estes suggests, you can start by allowing the scar, exactly as it is, to be your door.
Molly Boeder Harris was launched into the field of sexual violence advocacy and trauma healing after surviving being raped in 2003. Exploring many diverse resources for recovery in the aftermath of the assault, she found that the approaches which integrated the physical, mental, energetic, and spiritual impacts of trauma proved to be the most effective and the most empowering. Recognizing the barriers to accessing holistic healing resources, combined with her direct experience of their profound ability to promote resilience, led her to develop the vision for The Breathe Network.