How To Process Trauma For More Satisfaction In The Lifestyle
Written by Dr. Cari Oneal on Jan 23rd, 2022
For many people, playing in the Lifestyle can be as easy and natural as any other hobby or past-time. That said, there are many other wonderful people who get tripped up when they try to join in on all the fun. Why?
Sexual trauma is a complex trauma. As a victim, you are left to deal with the impact of the event that occurred as well as the repeated events and symptoms you now have even after the event stopped. This cycle of emotional and psychological distress, often unconscious and chronic, can undermine every aspect of your life— sexual and non-sexual. This includes your ability to show up in the Lifestyle and enjoy all it has to offer.
In this post, I will show you how sexual trauma gets in the way of enjoying the sexy lifestyle, why this trauma MUST be processed to feel sexually free, and then provide you with the 3-part framework I use with clients to help you process your experience(s).
Everyone is impacted by sexual trauma
Every woman you know has either been assaulted, narrowly avoided assault, had to calculate the possibility of being assaulted, or has held the hand of another woman who was assaulted. Sexual trauma does not only impact women. Male sexual assault is very real and grossly underreported.
Someone is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. Every person you know has had some form of relationship with sexual assault.
I am a sexual assault survivor myself and have been professionally processing client’s trauma since 2016. The way I address sexual assault with my clients is unique and highly effective so I thought it was time for me to share this framework with a broader audience.
Why is it so important to process your sexual trauma if you want to enjoy the Lifestyle?
Bob and Mary (not their real names) contacted me recently wanting my help navigating issues of jealousy and their rocky entry into The Lifestyle. Both chose to enter the world of Swinging for all the right reasons — they had built a wonderful life together, had a solid loving relationship, and were looking for a way to recapture the great sex life they had before raising kids and professional careers got the best of them.
They did their research and took my Sex Positive Event Essentials class before attending their first sex party. Mary thought she was ready, they met a sexy couple at the party, but when it came time to play, Mary “freaked out and it was totally humiliating and awkward for everyone.” She froze, she got jealous, she started to panic, then the tears and embarrassment set in. It was all she could do to collect herself and get to the car with her partner. Unfortunately, she’d done this multiple times and was starting to lose all confidence in herself as a woman and partner and began to write off any connection to the Lifestyle.
People need to make choices that keep themselves and their relationships healthy. There is nothing wrong with Mary deciding that the Lifestyle is not a preference for her, but there is a lot of harm if she makes that choice from a place of shame. Such was the case for Mary when she came to see me.
This happens more often than you might think in the Lifestyle. Bob and Mary thought they just needed help working on how to handle jealousy. When I reviewed Mary’s intake form she had sexual trauma from childhood as well as instances through her early 20’s. In discussing this, Mary felt like she had already gotten over those events long ago and did not think twice about them when entering the Lifestyle.
When you start experimenting and exploring new sexual behaviors and relationship styles, it is very common for old traumas from the past to flare up again. Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM), Swinging, Polyamory, or any “non-traditional” relationship style can have a profound way of stirring up what has not been fully processed.
It was clear to me that Mary needed to spend time fully processing her sexual trauma from years ago if she wanted more fun and less drama the next time she wanted to play at a Lifestyle event. You can process sexual trauma regardless of whether it happened recently or years ago. Until you do so, owning your sexuality, feeling free, trying new things like Swinging, or engaging in the Lifestyle (even with a trusted partner), will continue to seem out of reach for you.
“My Lifestyle Clients always want to work on the fun stuff, but really owning and creating your sexual confidence requires that past traumas be resolved so you CAN feel confident in your own body and with your behavior(s).” – Dr. Oneal
How to Process Sexual Trauma
The moment you were sexually traumatized, you began creating three “buckets of pain.”
- What your BODY experienced.
- What you SAID to yourself about what happened.
- What BELIEFS you have created since the trauma occurred.
Now being aware of the Three Buckets of Pain and how they affect your mental and emotional wellbeing, it is imperative that you take the time to process. This looks like acknowledging each bucket of pain giving each what it needs for resolution.
Not sure what that looks like? Let me walk you through it.
What Your BODY Experienced
“Organs, tissues, skin, muscle, and endocrine glands all have peptide receptors on them and can access and store emotional information. This means the emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just or even primarily, in the brain.” — Psychology Today
Emotional pain gets stored in the body which must be released for optimal health.
Several modalities can be used to release emotions trapped in the body, but the one I have found to be most accessible and effective is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or “Tapping”).
Processing your sexual trauma through EFT will include…
- Recalling every detail of the event while processing it with an EFT practitioner.
- Feeling your feelings. It is quite common for a victim to have conflicting feelings about the event. You must acknowledge, feel, and process all of your feelings and thougths, whether or not you understand or approve of them. Releasing trapped emotions through EFT is like lancing the pus from an infected wound— it’s a pain worth the effort. Without it, healing cannot take place.
- Telling your story to an EFT practitioner who understands trauma, sexual assault, and recovery can make all the difference in your progress. These things are not easy— having someone who understands what you have been through can be instrumental to helping you get through a process like this. I understand— you don’t want to go back to the difficult event(s), thoughts, and emotions. But by going back in this way, you release the emotional and mental pain you are feeling, ultimately freeing you from them.
What You SAID To Yourself About What Happened
After the event, you tried to make sense of what happened to you. Start by acknowledging what stories you are currently consciously telling yourself— from here you will be able to start untangling and re-writing them.
Note: you are likely to have created unconscious stories as well. This is where working with someone who specializes in sexual trauma can be especially beneficial.
Stories you’ve told yourself might sound like…
- He/She didn’t know ______.
- I deserved it because ________.
- I’ll be okay, this isn’t that big of a deal.
- This isn’t rape because I’m not beaten up.
- Be okay with this— it could have been a lot worse
The stories we tell ourselves are powerful. Our mind does not know the difference between a thought and reality so we must be mindful of what narratives we tell ourselves. Acknowledging, processing, and ultimately re-writing the stories you tell yourself will be a critical piece in your journey to healing.
The above examples are common for victims to say easily. When I work with a client who has been assaulted, part of the method of this step is to process the pain and come to the following narratives, which are also true. This is part can be extremely painful, hard to come to, and nearly impossible without the help of a practitioner guiding the way through your labyrinth of pain.
NEW narratives you tell yourself might sound like…
- I froze. I was scared.
- I was just a kid!
- It was not my fault.
- I just went along so I would not be hurt worse.
- I did not know it was going to happen like that.
- I just wanted to be liked/loved.
- I did not deserve that.
- I have a right to my body.
- No one deserves to be hurt.
- I deserve to be heard and respected.
When ALL of the experience has been acknowledged, given a voice, and had its moment to be heard and witnessed, the electrical charge those feelings carry gets discharged and your neural system can finally downregulate. With this, you reach a place where you can move forward in life with acceptance of the events that have occurred. You cannot change the events, but they finally no longer run you or what you believe about yourself.
Processing this bucket of EMOTIONAL PAIN is complex work and cannot be overlooked.
What BELIEFS You Have Created Since the Sexual Trauma
In this bucket, you are trying to create physical and emotional safety for yourself moving forward. After the event, you naturally start creating conscious and unconscious beliefs about who you are and what is possible for you. In an attempt to make yourself feel whole and safe, you may find yourself creating new rules for yourself.
UNCONSCIOUS rules you’ve created might look like…
- Don’t ___.
- I can’t ___.
- It’s not safe to ___.
- Some sort of self-blame, playing small or other limitations to be safe.
It is healthy to self-reflect and learn from life experiences. You certainly don’t want another similar ordeal nor do you want to live in fear or experience negative triggers related to the incident. Becoming aware of these new beliefs and processing this bucket of pain will be foundational to your self-confidence as a person in the world again.
New, EMPOWERED rules might sound like…
- I can trust myself.
- I can trust others.
- I deserve to be respected and valued.
- I don’t put myself in situations that are not safe for me.
- I listen to my inner sense and take measures for my safety.
- Saying No or not doing something can be an act of self-respect.
This is where survivors can reclaim their sense of self. Able to consciously make their own rules about what is possible for them. Able to regain a sense of safety and ultimately choose the life they want for themselves.
Don’t let your trauma hold you back
Whether you have experienced one traumatic event or a lot of them, I want you to know that what happened to you was not your fault. If you find that joining the Lifestyle intellectually makes a lot of sense but emotionally you find it hard to have as much fun as others, I encourage you to explore processing your past sexual trauma.
Take your life back by finding your way, your voice, and your power again. It IS possible to cultivate a thriving life (personal and sexual) after experiencing sexual trauma. It is possible to attend Swinger parties and not get triggered when it comes time to play.
I often say “When one of us wins over the darkness…WE ALL win!” Take the time and make the effort to unwind the unfortunate events that have occurred in your past so that you can live in the present.
Take your life back by finding your way, your voice, and your power again. It IS possible!
Resources To Help You Process Sexual Trauma
If you found this framework to be helpful, I have compiled its core elements into a printable Tri-Fold. Whenever I teach a class, I leave a stack of these at the back of the room for people to take as needed. Please accept this free download as a gift to support your healing. Print it out as a reminder for yourself throughout your journey of personal growth.
If you are an educator or Lifestyle event coordinator, I invite you to print out a stack to give out. The rate of sexual abuse in our society is high and it is not uncommon for victims to remain quiet about what they are experiencing. Providing a discrete, free resource is a good place to start bringing awareness and safety to your communities. If you are passing them out, please let me know!
You are not alone, processing sexual assault with a professional will greatly improve your recovery and save you a lot of time suffering. Google resources in your area. Here is a list of national resources. People are standing by and WANT to help you.
- National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-4673 online.rainn.org
- Rape Recovery Center, 801-467-7273 raperecoverycenter.org/
- You Are A Survivor— Mobile App, UT Coalition Against Sexual Assault, ucasa.org
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255
Try One on One Coaching
“As a rape and child sex abuse survivor, it seems crazy that I would even be open to playing in the Lifestyle. After working with Dr. Oneal I have tools, I know I have the right to my voice and my choice, and I know how to handle my flashbacks. I don’t get them very often anymore, but when I do, I now have the skills to process myself in the moment (yes, even while my body parts are engaged) and find the emotional safety I need. Her processing my traumatic past the way she does has opened my entire world to SO MUCH more!”
— Female business owner in her 50’s. 10 successful years in the LS
I coach people experimenting with alternative partnership styles. Sexual trauma, jealousy, relationship agreements, and good old-fashioned street smart Lifestyle savvy are often the most popular topics. With my personal and professional experience around these topics, my credentials in EFT, and a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality, I am well-equipped to help you process sexual trauma and navigate Lifestyle challenges so you can have more fun and less drama.
You can recover. You are not “too broken.” You are still a person of great value.