Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year, “The Silence Breakers,” and the #MeToo Movement, sparked a cultural sea change, inspiring millions of survivors of sexual harassment to speak about their experience. They also caught the attention of people in power, provoking them to ensure that those less powerful are treated with the respect they deserve. This focus on awareness inspired many who know about harassment and abuse to speak up in defense of victims, and to stop the lies and cover-ups of those who abused their power. It also gave today’s society more specific and healthy expectations of how males and females should treat each other and be treated.
But all of the positives are far-away ideals for those directly impacted by sexual harassment. One of the most unjust and unfair parts of sexual harassment is how it can rob the survivor’s confidence, leaving that person feeling isolated from him or herself, from their intimate partner, and from their place in the world. If you’re going through some of the very difficult feelings that sexual harassment leaves in its wake, there are ways to begin to take ownership of your healing process, so you can reconnect with yourself, your partner, and your place in the world.
Reconnect with Yourself
Healing begins with reconnecting with yourself. Choose healthy activities to help you to feel good in your own skin, such as working out or taking a yoga class. Together with a friend or loved one, prepare a beautiful and nutritious meal, or a satisfying dessert. Many victims of sexual harassment report a sense of feeling like their body is dirty. A nice bubble bath can help, or it may not feel helpful at all right now. Decide for yourself what makes you feel comfortable. Remind yourself that your body is just as precious and special as it was before this boundary violation. Keep in mind that while some people may not believe or understand your story and may blame you for the incident(s), you are not making things up. Your story is valid, and your pain is real. Please know that it is highly unlikely that you did anything to invite the unwanted advances or to cause the harassment to happen, and that nobody has the right to violate you. Harassers tend to think they are entitled to touch, control, and manipulate others. The harassment occurred as a result of their dysfunctional thinking, not because of anything that you said or did.
It can be hard to decide when and how to tell your partner about the abuse. You might feel the need to tell your partner right away. It’s entirely your prerogative as to when and how to share this information, and with whom. But telling your partner soon after the incident can help. Your partner may be hurt and confused like you, but can also be a large source of support.
Partners usually want to hear how they can help, but this help differs from person to person. Some partners are “fixers,” whose initial reaction might be to insist that you change jobs and/or report the incident. Another normal partner reaction is to confront the harasser. Let your partner know that it means a lot to you that they believe you and care. This open dialogue helps to restore communication as a couple. If you’re having trouble deciding how to tell your partner, or even whether to tell them at all for the time being, then it is recommended to speak with a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, or psychologist about this decision. There’s isn’t one “right” way to respond to sexual harassment; there’s only the right way for you and your relationship, based on your situation.
The prospect of reconnecting sexually with your partner can be daunting, but it is a big part of the healing process. Because you and your partner share an intimate, exclusive connection, you can both feel a loss of confidence after a boundary violation to one partner. At least for now, you may not want to be touched on a part of your body that the harasser touched. Conversely, you might want your partner to touch the violated areas of your body, as a way to reclaim them. It’s okay to let your partner know where you would like to be touched, and where you wouldn’t. Because you might be having mixed feelings about your body and being touched, it makes sense to keep things simple sexually at first. You and your partner can rebuild your confidence and your lovemaking communication by sticking with favorite touches and familiar sexual routines, as well as carrying on the little rituals that you enjoyed together before.
Reconnect with Your Confidence
Rebuilding your connection with your body and your partner can pave the way for rebuilding confidence around other areas of your life, including career, parenting, and friendships. The first few weeks can be filled with awkwardness at work and in social situations. If you feel comfortable doing so, find the opportunity to share your story with a few people you trust—people who will listen without trying to solve the problem. Knowing that you have a small circle of supporters will make the world feel a little less harsh, restore your faith that there are still good people in the world, and give you the clarity needed to process your feelings and even make important decisions about potential legal action.
Sexual harassment isn’t just painful and humiliating. It is an abuse of power, meant to control others, so it can be extremely disorienting. With support from yourself and others, and by taking ownership of your healing process, you will regain your balance.
Try these challenge steps to enhance your sense of well-being:
- Find three healthy outlets. It might feel empowering to unleash anger in a kickboxing class. You may choose to pamper yourself with a manicure, or go to a cafe for a fancy coffee. Better yet, get together with a friend for coffee. Take a walk with a co-worker at lunchtime. Extremes, like too much alone time or big crowds can be unnerving right now, so try to be around one or two people you’re comfortable with every day.
- Carve time for affection. Make it a point to be affectionate with your partner, especially at the five major connection points of the day: waking up in the morning, separating for the work day, reuniting after the work day, evening meal, and bedtime.
- Seek out the good. Participate in something that restores your faith in humanity. Donate money to a cause that you believe in. Be a good Samaritan for someone in need. Perhaps calling or writing to someone who has made a difference in your life, just to say thanks, will provide reassurance that there is good in the world.