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From hyper control to burn out: the insidious consequences of sexual abuse on professional life

de l'hypercontrole au burn-out

One woman in five* says she has already been sexually abused. Among the hundreds of women I have accompanied in their professional development, nearly one in four has told me about a sexual assault or rape suffered, most often in childhood or adolescence. In the course of their careers, these women find themselves held back by mechanisms linked to this traumatic experience. How can these women unleash their professional potential and find the path to success?

To live happily, let’s live hidden

Women who have been sexually abused experience a dissonance between the person they present to others (reliable) and the person they think they are (flawed by having been in a situation where they were abused). The fact that they were mostly children or very young at the time of the abuse does not change the case.

Courageous, they commit themselves unreservedly to their professional lives, ignoring the trauma that they hide or that they experience in great solitude. However, it is often this violence that cuts off their wings at a key moment in their career.

It is rarely a spectacular failure. They are insidious and invisible brakes, psychosomatic assaults, a small inner voice that cuts off momentum, an invisible shadow that dulls the glow, while the thought is clear. Women, if they have not elaborated the aggressions they have suffered, nourish this often unconscious belief that they do not deserve and that it would be dangerous to come to the forefront because they hide a secret flaw. If this were known, it would inevitably lead to blame, disgust and disappointment.

Their minds are therefore constantly oscillating between a total commitment to the work, driven by the will of steel, and the insidious little voice that sabotages their progress. This constant inner struggle consumes infinite energy and generates discouragement and exhaustion. No time or energy to look up. The habit of being in the tunnel makes it unreal that the light exists and that it is possible to get out. Whatever the conditions of life – which may be comfortable – this tunnel is their inner landscape, furnished with disembodied activities, with well-orchestrated organisation or totally disorganised for the madmen: in either case, all thoughts are absorbed by setting up and respecting the organisation or, on the contrary, recovering piecemeal from the hazards of non-organisation. This avoids being connected to painful emotions.

2 false friends: protective mechanisms

Every woman is different and the protection mechanisms put in place vary according to each person. I will describe two very recurrent ones.

From hyper control to chronic exhaustion

Hyper-control is a strategy that often recurs: any unanticipated or ambiguous event is associated with danger, and no room must be left for the unexpected. This strategy is particularly asphyxiating because hyper-control never leads to the feeling of security it seeks and is applied to an ever-increasing number of areas, at an ever-increasing level of detail. Hypercontrol is in itself a major cause of burnout.

Burn out or deliberate endangerment

While burn out always has multiple causes, a history of sexual abuse is clearly a risk factor.

To understand how a woman comes to deliberately endanger herself, we need to remember a few physiological elements related to trauma. When a person is assaulted, he or she goes through an initial phase of shock: the victim is paralysed by a sudden burst of adrenaline and cortisol. This is followed by a phase of ‘dissociation’: in order to feel the pain as little as possible, the brain secretes morphine and ketamine-like substances, which give the impression of being ‘out of it’.

I realised that some victims of sexual violence move the rape scene into the professional sphere to ‘replay’ it on a non-sexual terrain. In fact, they more or less consciously exhaust themselves in order to enter this phase of stupor, where they are no longer actors in their lives. They enter a state of ‘tetanisation’, which removes any ability to develop a strategy to ‘get out of it’, just as when they have been assaulted. Then comes the phase of dissociation: they feel as if they are ‘out of their body’: it sends them multiple alarm signals. They feel pain, often very acute, without listening to it.

Understanding the defence mechanism

It is well known in psychology that when a problem remains unresolved, the person experiencing it has a tendency to reproduce the patterns of the story that imprisons him or her, until he or she is able to find another way out.

This is the same mechanism at work: some rape victims trigger the same surges of hormones as when they were attacked, in the hope that someone will come to their rescue and give them another end to their unbearable psychological and physical suffering. When they come to the painful realisation that there is no saviour who can give them the redemption they are looking for, they turn the violence against themselves. This can lead to deliberate acts of self-harm, presented to those around them as accidental domestic accidents.

The final stage of this escalation is despondency: the traumatic scene has been ‘replayed’ in the hope of a redemptive ending; it has in fact led to the repetition of violence and despair.

Moving beyond sexual assault and into the workplace

My observations show that the less the abuse has been worked out in therapy, the more it affects professional development (in addition to the impact on private life). In order to be able to return to fulfilment by overcoming one’s inner demons and fears, it is essential to go through therapeutic work, to revisit the traumatic scene, to name the events, to put words on the emotions and to re-establish responsibilities.

Sexual aggression is an urge to be powerful
Everything is about sex but sex. Sex is about power’, said Oscar Wild. Sexual assault is never the result of an irrepressible sexual urge. It is a drive for domination and destruction. It is the triumph over the other, say the psychoanalysts. The attacked is by no means a victim, who has inadvertently aroused the lustful interest of a manly man. The attacked is the target of a predator who wants to destroy her by imprinting the seal of omnipotence on her. It is the aggressor who bears total responsibility for the criminal acts he commits.

Emotions, reactions and neuroscience

Neuroscience has documented how the brain and memory function during a traumatic event. When the brain’s alarm system sounds, the frontal lobes of the brain are no longer supplied with blood flow. This is the most sophisticated part of the brain, which allows us to be logical, to organise memory, to set priorities, to make judgements, to develop strategies and solutions. During an aggression, the rational part of the brain is therefore out of order. The victim is unable to reason and often unable to shout because this blood flow defect often also affects ‘Broca’s area’ which is the language centre.

The functioning of the memory is also impaired

The functioning of the memory is also impaired: the memory of the senses takes over and the frontal lobes cannot organise the different elements stored in memory to organise them in a linear way. This is why the memory of traumatic events comes back in incoherent flashes. Victims of aggression often try, after the event, to make sense of the fragments of memory and ‘fill in the blanks’ by using logic, in the absence of memory. (NB: This is why their story may vary if they repeat it several times, which may not serve them well in the police/court if the police/judges are not trained).

Putting words to the emotions they feel

Putting words to the emotions they feel allows them to reconnect with their terror, their distress, their powerlessness, their shame, in order to bring the reality of the facts to the forefront of their consciousness, to overcome them and to re-establish the truth: the only person responsible for an aggression is the aggressor, him and only him.

This painful return to traumatic events, sometimes buried deep in the consciousness, allows the memory trace left in the neuronal system to heal. It is a passage that cannot be avoided in order to give oneself the long-awaited redemption and emerge strong and triumphant from this fight for life.

A therapeutic follow-up allows one to free oneself from the yoke of the past

A therapeutic follow-up allows one to free oneself from the yoke of the past in order to conquer one’s rightful place in the world of work. In addition to classic psychotherapies, various therapeutic approaches are effective: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), hypnosis, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) are very interesting. The clinical trials of MDMA -in stage 3 of the clinical trials- give very promising results. The change in posture that is taking place in professional life is as subtle as its impact is powerful. It allows not only to (re)-connect with fulfilment at work, but also to taste all the colours of life.

OMS report published in 2014 

Compliment, joke, flirt or sexual harassment: where is the limit ?

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