More than once I have had clients come into my office saying they think they may have been sexually abused as a child. You may be thinking “what? how do they not know?” But our memories are not perfect and our psyche can sometimes create obstacles to keep us from remembering in order to protect us. I won’t spend a whole lot of time going into detail on all of this but there are a few points that I would like to make because the feeling always is that they want to know for sure what happened and they want help from me in order to figure it out. Although our unconscious mind can access all those memories and I am able to get through to the unconscious mind via hypnosis, there have been too many claims in the past that therapists have implanted memories through suggestion, which in some situations is completely valid, and therefore I find this unethical to do. Another reason I find this to be unethical is because if you do not have a memory of something bad happening right now, there is probably a good reason, and what good would come of bringing that memory back to the surface? For the person remembering, likely none although I’m sure that some people could argue differently.
So now to discuss how our memories work for a bit. As I said, our memory is not perfect. In my work with clients, I typically refer to a study I remember learning about in my social psychology class in college some 7-8 years ago. As I tell the study, I describe that participants had to watch a video in which a car accident ocurred and after the video were asked if they saw the stop sign (which was not actually there) and they report that they did. In wanting to be able to refer to this study here I searched for it on the internet and found what sounds to be it here, posted by Elizabeth Loftus who states that she conducted the research. I will say that she describes the study with some slight different details than those that I remember, which I wanted to point out as another example of false memories, even if her research demonstrates being given misinformation and this is not quite the same thing. At least I remembered the lesson of the study, right? She also goes more into detail about creating false memories which would be a good read for those of you that are interested. I often remind clients of certain phenomena that I’m sure they have experienced as well such as having a dream they have difficulty recalling as real life or a dream. Or having memories from childhood that other people cannot confirm. I have even shared my experience of truly believing that we had a certain type of dog, by a certain name, and recalling an incident in which he ran away and each member of my immediate family (4 other people) have confirmed that we never had such a dog! I’m not sure if this was a wish that I had to have this type of dog (which is possible- to have memories from daydreaming or fantasies as a child) or an actual dream while sleeping, but it was a vivid memory of mine! Also, as children we do not always understand what is going on around us. As we get older we do not gain this understanding and sometimes try to make sense out of certain experiences and without all the information do so inaccurately. Another phenomena that many people may have experienced is hearing a story told by a friend and getting so immersed in it that later down the line it feels as though it actually happened to us.
All of the examples in the previous paragraph are ways that false memories can be implanted, but what about true memories that are forgotten? If you believe Freud’s theory that our unconscious mind tries to protect us then this may be a good explanation. We have all heard about repressed memories in which our brain some how forgets big events in order to protect us from having to remember and relive it. Other people may imploy denial techniques as well. Even without these explanations, can you remember everything that ever happened to you? Likely not. Yes, we tend to think of it as being the small things that we forget but it’s also very likely that you don’t remember many details about your birthdays and christmases over the years either and those were pretty memorable when they happened. Other times it may just be that as children you may not understand the importance of the event and just push it to the side.
So, I say all of that to make the point that we cannot rely on our memories solely. The goals that I suggest for those that are not sure if they were abused as a child is to work on learning how to deal with not knowing and if you are experiencing any negative symptoms that you think are attributed to something that may have happened, to learn to deal with those. For some people that may be sexual difficulties, avoiding certain stimuli you attribute to the possible perpetrator or event, or even things such as low self-esteem and eating disorders.