Your Bill of Rights … for Survivors of Sexual Assault

‘Wow.  That’s a lot of rights!’

The first time I read this, I was sitting with a group of incredible women – all of them were beautiful, talented, intelligent, strong, funny – and they shared one other thing in common:  all were survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

As such, most (if not all) had experienced the loss of knowing and being able to honor some of their most fundamental rights as human beings.  We read this at the close of the group, and one of the women commented, “Wow. That’s a lot of rights!” with a huge smile on her face.  I agree; this is a lot of rights, and they are all YOURS, truly and fully (please read on … ):

Survivor’s Bill of Rights  (from WINGS Handbook, 2008, 2nd Edition)

  • I have the right to healing and wellness.
  • I have the right to make a decision or the freedom to postpone my decision.
  • I have the right to accept that I am human, make mistakes, learn from them, and go on with my life.
  • I have the right to participate in and enjoy sexual pleasure.  Even if I am not yet ready, I claim my right to know that this can be mine.
  • I have the right to joy and happiness right now, today, at this time in my life.
  • I have the right to my anger.  I have the right to turn it into my healing.
  • I have the right not to be numb – to feel any way I do at any given time.
  • I have the right to honor my coping skills.  I can choose what coping skills are still valid and necessary and change others at my own pace.  I can also revert back to them if I need to – they have served me well.
  • I have the right to be heard, to be validated, and disconnect from those who seek to harm or invalidate me, including my family of origin.
  • I have the right to protect and nurture my inner child – to re-parent her or him and to allow her or him to grow and play.
  • I have the right to love and support in all my relationships, to expect respect for my physical, emotional, and sexual well-being.
  • I have the right to safe touch, and to protect myself from all inappropriate behavior.
  • I have the right to love myself, be loved, and be accepted as I am, good points and flaws.
  • I have the right to set boundaries and limits, to say no to anyone including myself.
  • I have the right to grieve for my losses, and not feel guilt for that which was not my fault.
  • I have the right to grow and change, in myself, my relationships, and in all aspects of my life.
  • I have the right to learn to trust others and to trust in degrees as it is earned.
  • I have the right to forgive myself, and to choose whether or not to forgive my abusers.
  • I have the right to be ME.  To accept myself as a unique, precious, priceless individual who deserves the very best of all things.  I deserve to be the person I was created to be.
  • I have the right to see myself as a strong, courageous person who is reclaiming his or her own life.  I am powerful and determined.

If you are an individual with a history of childhood sexual abuse, or sexual assault in adulthood, I’m guessing a few of these really hit home as you read them.  It’s unfortunately quite normal for experiences from the past to sneak into the present moment, and to rob us of not only the ability to fully enjoy our lives, but even to rob us of our most basic human rights.

I encourage you to seek out the support of a trauma-trained therapist who can help you reclaim your life – and your many rights – as you heal from these past experiences.

If you are in the Denver-Boulder area, and are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, check out the WINGS Foundation, which runs therapist-facilitated support groups for survivors, both men and women.  If you are a survivor of sexual assault or rape as an adult, check out the Blue Bench (formerly RAAP), which provides prevention and care for sexual assault survivors.

And, a PDF of this Bill of Rights, for you, here: Survivor’sBillofRightsHANDOUT_KDunn_0913

What is going on with me? Common Symptoms of Trauma

Have you ever wondered, ‘what is going on with me?’ after a difficult situation or experience?  Let’s say, for example, you had a near-miss while driving, and you later find yourself shaking, hyper-aware of all of the cars around you, breathing shallowly, quick to a bit of road rage, and you can’t stop thinking about what happened, despite the fact that you know you are safe and okay.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI would venture to say that very few of us make it very far in life without experiencing some sort of distressing event or situation (that is, some form of trauma).  Our brains and bodies are wired to respond in certain ways, to help us get through … but sometimes these symptoms feel strange or don’t seem to make much sense, and can leave us wondering what the heck is going on with me?!?  This is even more difficult if the (under-informed) people around you are telling you to ‘get over it,’ or ‘it wasn’t that big of a deal.’

When one experiences, or is witness to, a disturbing event or situation, they often experience various symptoms of trauma.  Different people will experience different responses at different times, and yet all of these responses are completely normal, and will likely diminish over time – particularly by working through them with the support of a trauma-informed therapist.

  • Feeling Vulnerable
  • Shock, Disbelief, Numbness
  • Anxiety
  • Panicky Feelings
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated Startle Response
  • Intrusive Thoughts, Flashbacks, Unwanted Memories
  • Loss of sense of security and safety
  • Feeling Detached from others
  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Anger, Irritability, feeling Argumentative
  • Mistrust
  • Excessive Fear
  • Clinging to Family and Friends
  • Self-Blame  (“If only I …” “I should have … “)
  • Nightmares, Difficulty Sleeping
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Changes in Appetite
  • Feeling like emotions are out of control
  • Regression, behaviors from earlier ages emerge, e.g., sleeping with the lights on
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Deep Sadness
  • Depression
  • Physical Discomfort or Pain, such as headaches, stomach ache, muscle tension, nausea
  • Feeling Frozen, Immobile
  • Shame
  • Sabotage Behavior (finding yourself getting in your own way)
  • Feeling Overwhelmed
  • Suicidal Ideation – thinking about ending things, making attempts, taking action on thoughts
  • Difficulty with Intimacy
  • Avoidance of certain people, places, situations

When we hear the word “trauma,” we often think of “big T traumas,” relatively big, distinct events such as a tornado, war, child abuse, or a sexual assault.  However, these symptoms may show up for individuals as a result of relatively smaller traumas – “little t traumas” – things such as a consistently critical parent who made a child feel they were never good enough, a feeling that persists into adulthood.  Or, from growing up or living in an unsafe neighborhood, or from experiencing a loved-one’s illness.  It can be easy to dismiss the severity of these “little t traumas,” by comparing them to larger events, but keep in mind that over time, these experiences and situations can be just as damaging, and cause the same responsive symptoms to develop.

 Another important thing to keep in mind is that all of these symptoms are highly adaptive responses to abnormal situations, that allow us to get through and survive.  The problem comes when we get “stuck” in these response patterns, and they start to interfere with our present-moment lives – in a sense the past starts to interfere with the present.

 What can you do about it?

  1. Give yourself a break, and recognize that what you are experiencing is normal.
  2. Reach out for support from people you trust.
  3. Engage the help of a trauma-informed therapist, who can offer you guidance and support in working through your experiences.
  4. Practice extra self-care, focusing on the basics of nutrition, sleep, exercise, relaxation, and spending time with those you love.

Relaxing into the Hard Times

I recently found myself between a rock and a hard place.  Literally…. Between a rock … and, well, another rock…. Trying to shimmy and squeeze my way down the narrow crack, hovering 10 feet over a pool of murky water, held only by the tension of my body between two sandstone walls.


It was by choice, kind of.  My partner and I decided to hike a couple of slot canyons in Utah, successfully navigated one, crossed overland and dropped into the second one, and … well, it was a bit more than we had bargained for.  So here I was, stuffed between two rocks, trying to control my frantic breathing, my shaking legs, and even more frantic mind, talking out loud to myself (“It’s okay.  Okay.  You’ll be okay. Okay”) and gazing down at what seemed like certain death below me.

Now, I must confess that while I had a ‘climbing phase’ as a young adult, I am quite afraid of heights, falling, breaking my bones, etc., and tend to not manage my emotions very well when I get really scared.  And, after having already squeezed, shimmied, jumped, balanced, and dropped over one ledge with a rope, my nervous system was pretty well taxed by the time we got to this particular “problem.”

stone between canyon wallsBut, like a good therapist, I pulled out all of my skills:  I was using my breath, and making the exhale longer (this ‘lights up’ the parasympathetic and calms the nervous system); I used some EMDR-esque self-tapping to strengthen feelings of strength and grounded-ness; I had spontaneously found my mantra and positive self talk, “Okay.  I will be okay.” (who said it had to be something fancy?); AND I used my container to put away the fear until we got out and I was in a better place to let it process through.

And, then, here’s the thing:  when we are confronted by fear, and our systems are not resourced enough, I believe our true nature emerges.  And my true nature – I’m not going to lie – is to panic and freak out.  To push against the discomfort and to try to get to safe ground as quickly as possible.  The irony is, this doesn’t work when you are stemming between rocks; what holds you securely is the natural tension of your body between the rocks, so if you push away, you are actually much less secure.  Instead, you need to lean into the rocks, to actually relax into them – and this is where you find your most calm and stable position from which to navigate your next move.

canyonAs human beings (bless our hearts!) we spend so much energy pushing against our own lives, trying to avoid the pain and discomfort and fear, and grasping towards some sense of certainty or solid ground.  On this same trip I was reading the words of Pema Chödrön, who very eloquently speaks to this human conundrum, naming the root of our suffering as “our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation.”  She continues:

“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness.  When we resist change, it’s called suffering.  But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness.  Another word for this is freedom – freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human” (Chödrön, 2012, p. 6)

freedom by balonja on stockxchange
“freedom” by balonja on stockxchange

What if …? What if we could just relax into our difficult circumstances?  Perhaps we would find, paradoxically, a place to rest, support, and a solid place from which to make our next move.  I encourage you to look at the places in your life where you find yourself pushing away from your present moment experience, and instead, to lean into that moment, that experience, and let it unfold, let it support you.

“leaning in” with the breath – a practice

Fortunately, we have so many opportunities during the day to notice ourselves pushing away from our actual experience, and to recognize the choice to do something different – to relax into it instead.  Here is a simple mindfulness practice:

  1. Notice yourself resisting your situation, emotion, experience – that is, avoiding discomfort or reaching towards pleasure (easier said than done, I will admit)
  2. Create a “Pause,” to tune in to the present moment.
  3. Take three deep breaths, and just notice what is there.  Be curious.  Practice elongating the out-breath, and finding just a little more space to open up and relax.

 “We have a choice.  We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.”  (Chödrön, 2012, p. 14)

 Recommended Reading: 

  • Chödrön, Pema (2012).  Living beautifully with uncertainty and change.  Boston, MA:  Shambhala Press.
  • Chödrön, Pema (2010).  Taking the leap: Freeing ourselves from old habits and fears.  Boston, MA:  Shambhala Press.

Containment & Grounding Skills Workshop

wonder by bigevil600 via stockxchang

Life often throws us unexpected things – or just lots and lots of the same old stressful things.  The ability to manage stressful life events and situations, to manage our emotions, and to calm ourselves in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty is so essential to the task of being human.  Equally important is the ability to increase our energy levels and to re-engage with the world around us, when we just feel like checking out and shutting down.  The truth is, these human bodies and brains do not necessarily come pre-installed with the ability to manage everything life throws us, so learning and practicing skills for modulating and managing our experiences can be very helpful.

 If you can say “yes” to any of the following, then this workshop would likely be helpful for you:     Have you ever …

  • … had a panic attack?
  • … felt nervous, shaky, or jittery?  Been jumpy, easily frightened, or “on edge”?
  • … felt hyper-vigilant (i.e., highly alert to your surroundings with a feeling of impending danger)?
  • …  reacted strongly to something that, in retrospect, seemed out of proportion?
  • … experienced intrusive thoughts or images that cause you to ruminate or get really down in the dumps?
  • … had your mind “spinning,” through rapid thoughts, or in circles?
  • … felt numb or “checked out”?
  • … felt “floaty”? or experienced dissociation (i.e., a sensation like you’re not really in your own body)?
  • … had extremely low energy, with difficulty moving?
  • … had difficulty thinking or speaking?
  • … found yourself spacing out?

On May 18, my colleague Laura Pierce and I will be presenting a workshop, in conjunction with the WINGS Foundation, on Containment and Grounding Skills, aimed at helping participants better manage their responses to stress.  Based on a framework of the Window of Tolerance (Ogden, 2006), we will guide participants through practical, easy-to-approach exercises that can be practiced and used to surf anxiety and panic, manage overwhelming feelings and dissociation, and strengthen skills in grounding and relaxation.

surfing via stockxchangContainment” refers to the ability to “put away” thoughts and feelings in a safe place until we are better able to deal with them; this allows us to continue functioning despite difficult situations.  “Grounding” refers to out ability to stay connected to the present moment, rather than letting past regrets and triggers, or future worries, interfere with our enjoyment of the here and now.  Together, these practices can help us “surf” whatever difficulty is happening, and get us through to a place of greater calm and balance.

hand holding peace via stockxchangParticipants will also walk away with a handy pocket-guide that will include all of the exercises we practice during the workshop, plus many others; because often when we are in the midst of stress, it’s hard to think straight, and having a little (pocket-size!) reminder of what to do can come in quite handy.

I teach these techniques because I believe in them; I have seen the difference they make for people, and practice them daily myself.  So please join us on Saturday, May 18, 9:00 – 11:00am for a fun and informative experience! 


  • When:  Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9:00 – 11:00 a.m.
  • Where:  Community Room at Denver District 1 Police Station (1311 W. 46th Ave., Denver, CO)
  • How:  Call the WINGS Foundation office to sign-up (303) 238-8660
  • Suggested Donation of $10
  • get the flyer here:  GroundingAndContainmentWorkshopFlyer 2013_0408

Can’t make it?  Contact me; I am always open and available to schedule a workshop for clinicians or clients at a more convenient time.

Tips for Getting the Most out of Therapy

Tips for Getting the Most out of Therapy

If you are new to, or revisiting therapy, welcome to this part of your journey.  (Re)entering into therapy can be a very big step for many people, and often brings up conflicting emotions, including (but certainly not limited to) relief, anxiety, reluctance, excitement, and discomfort.  This is totally normal, and if you find you are experiencing this, I would encourage you to share this with your therapist.

Therapy is not unlike growing a plant…

Your growth and change processes are intuitive and innate to you – that is, they are naturally occurring and will work towards healing and wholeness regardless of what you do – just like a blade of grass or a flower that comes up year to year.  However, there are things you can do to support, foster, and nurture this growth – just like the work of watering, protecting, and fertilizing a plant.

Following are a few tips about how to get the most out of therapy, both in-session, and between sessions:

  • A therapeutic relationship requires time and commitment from both client and therapist.  Commit to coming weekly for at least six (6) sessions before revisiting your schedule.  This allows you to build and maintain momentum, trust, safety, and rapport in order to support your progress.  Without consistent attendance, it may be difficult for you to find continuity from week to week, and this may lead to a feeling of slowed or slower progress.
  • Be gentle with yourself.  Engage in intentional self-care between sessions.
  • Give yourself time to “digest” between sessions; try not to schedule your session before any stressful situation, and give yourself some time and space for the work we have done to settle and process through.  If you do have to go into a stressful situation after our session, let your therapist know so that they can make sure you are feeling grounded and as relaxed as possible before you leave.
  • Ask questions.
  • Be open, willing, and honest, with yourself and with your therapist, about what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
  • Talk to your therapist about what is working well for you AND what isn’t, as you work together.
  • Let your therapist know other forms of self-care, or self-exploration, that have been meaningful and helpful to you in the past – things like art, writing and journaling, dance and movement, exercise, religious practices, etc.  These are a tremendous strength that you bring to the process, and you and your therapist can incorporate and build off of them.
  • Both client and therapist must take responsibility for the process.  Your therapist can only effectively meet the amount of energy and intention that you put into your work.  At the end of the day, this is YOUR life and your journey, and so it is important that you be an active participant in it.
  • Communicate with your therapist about any changes or needs that you have.
  • Embrace curiosity.  In mindfulness practice, there is a term called “beginner’s mind,” that basically means to approach each task and experience as if it were your first time, no matter how many times you have done it before.  This allows you to focus on the present moment, and to truly be present and aware of your experience.  It also allows you to give up the burden of perfectionism and the hard demands we often place on ourselves.  Through an open, curious mind, you are able to meet yourself in a new way, and to really welcome the change and growth that will happen.

“and the day came when the risk it took to remain

tight inside the bud was more painful

than the risk it took to Blossom.”

– Anaïs Nin

Tips for Finding a New Therapist

Finding and choosing a therapist is an important decision.  Numerous studies have shown that the most significant factor in a person’s progress in therapy is related to the relationship with the therapist, itself.  Therefore, it’s important that you find someone you are comfortable with, and that it feels like en empowered, informed decision.  Remember, you are hiring the therapist to work for you, and it is okay to take your time and be careful in making your decision.

Most therapists offer a free initial consultation, and this is a great opportunity to meet them in person, and to get a feel for them.  It is also a great opportunity for you to find out about logistical things like fee and schedule, AND about how they might work with you.  Following are suggestions of things to consider, and ask, while making your decision:

Possible Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Do I feel safe with this person?
  • Do I feel seen and heard?
  • What other qualities feel important for my therapist to have?
  • Does this person seem to have experience and/or training, working with my particular issues?
  • How do I feel around this person?  Is there a connection?

Possible Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

  • What are your views about therapy?
  • What training, degrees, or experience do you have with situations similar to mine?
  • If concerning a child: How much professional and personal experience do you have working with children?  How much do you work with the parents, if you are counseling a child?
  • How do you feel about working with a _________? (Fill in the blank:  man, woman, transgender, working, unemployed, substance user, etc. – any factor about yourself that feels important)?
  • What are your views on marriage?  Divorce?  Etc.?
  • How do you decide on the fees you charge?  Do you ever make adjustments to fees?  Are you able to take insurance payments?  (if not, ask about how they might be able to meet your co-pay – often therapists can come close, and this gives you, as a consumer, more freedom and control over your care.)
  • Do you diagnose?  What might this mean for me?
  • What is your policy about canceled appointments?
  • What happens if I don’t show up?
  • What are your expectations and beliefs about therapy?
  • How collaborative are you?  To what extent will I be involved in decisions about my therapy?
  • What skills will I have when treatment is completed?
  • How do you/we decide when it is time for therapy to end?  How will I know when I’m finished?
  • If you are out of town, will I have a back-up therapist?
  • What am I not asking, that’s important for me to know about you, or therapy?

* Resourced, with revision, from: WINGS Foundation (2009).  Survivors’ guide to healing, 2nd Edition.  Denver, CO: self-published.

Download a pdf of this article: FindingNewTherapistHANDOUT_KDunn_0313