Lessons to Pass On to Young Women

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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As I near sixty and embody my function as a female elder, I find myself in touch with the Crone, that part of myself that is old and wise, who has seen everything, and has dropped many of the pretensions, rules and limitations that society lives by.

Extending her acumen to young women ready to embark on a journey that is both promising and shattering, brings me back to the trials and tribulations I endured as a naive, reckless misguided young woman. Traumatized and ill equipped to be on my own, I was thrust into a scary world.

At eighteen, who I was beyond the self-destructive, hollow personae I personified eluded me, but I knew I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. So, in an attempt to save myself, I committed to getting a job, enrolling in a city university, and finding a therapist.

The first night in my college dorm the stiletto of terror kept me awake all night. The vast unknown loomed before me. I had one lone towel hanging from a rack, no money and no familial support.

Certainly I encountered mature women along the way who’d offer their sage foresight and guidance, but for the most part my willful stubbornness assured that I would learn the hard way. Without a doubt, I wish I knew then what I know now. It’s true what they say. Things are so much clearer in hindsight.

Given all I went through it feels like a personal obligation to pass on to the young women who seek me out for treatment, the lessons I gleaned through countless catastrophic missteps. It imbues those impetuous choices and struggles with redemptive purpose.

That said, here are some salient realizations I’ve gleaned throughout my life. It brings it full circle to share these insights with my ‘sisters’ who are moving through the early stages of life’s trials and discoveries.

Hold Out for Love that Elevates

The Hermetic saying, “as within, so without” has potent significance especially when it comes to the pursuit of love. Undeniably, one’s relationship to oneself is a decisive indicator of what one requires and allows from others.

Unfortunately, when I was a self-effacing codependent pretzel, plagued by the debilitating loneliness of ruptured bonds and a childhood steeped in abuse, my desperation for connection obscured relational rules of engagement. Feeling inherently defective and unloveable, I hadn’t a clue how to responsibly navigate the relational terrain. Needless to say, this put me in harms way.

I needed an observing ego, someone to instruct me to champion myself, to acknowledge my inherent worth, to advise me to hold out for love characterized by safety, kindness, commitment, affection, respect, honesty, compassion, compatibility and mutuality.

Like many of the young women I treat for complex trauma, I couldn’t know what I even deserved or needed from a potential partner. When I witness my female clients subjugate themselves to debilitating mistreatment in the ‘name of love,’ I can’t help but see myself. I am reminded of how easily we can lose sight of that which is the trajectory to entitlement and self care, specifically awareness of one’s innate lovability.

The basic acknowledgment of deserving to be with others who treat us well is likewise a reminder to treat others the way we desire to be treated. From this stance, the practice of patience, discernment, intelligent guardedness and self respect can prevail so that the pursuit of love can be fueled by the love of self. Undoubtedly this is my most treasured guiding principle.

Learn to Be Alone

In keeping with the encouragement to hold out for love that elevates, withstanding the temptation of duplicitous seductive lures requires a willingness to go it alone. In order to choose from sound judgement not desperation, tolerating loneliness is a crucial feat.

Yet for young women plagued by traumatic loneliness compulsive acting out with substances and people is a painful reality. Revisiting my youth I am saddened by memories of a loneliness so traumatic that I had no Self to grab onto. A tragically primitive idea of love kept me trapped in an obsessive quest for maudlin encounters that offered the temporary illusion of bonding and cohesion.

When I finally bottomed out I took a five year hiatus from romantic pursuits. Many pearls of wisdom were gleaned from my prolonged period of solitude. In fact, it prepared me for adult love.

Taking the time to exercise containment and engage with myself in profound ways allowed me to figure out what I needed from others in order to safely share my vulnerability and securely attach. At last I was able to assert discerning, tenacious boundaries and limits which created the safety necessary to cultivating real intimacy.

Travel

Through exploring the world one can be moved and even healed by the immense beauty of our planet. As many of my female therapy clients concur, leaning into ones’s wanderlust can be tremendously restorative and even conducive to profound psychological and spiritual shifts.

Throughout college I worked three jobs to save for sojourns with friends to Scandinavia, Portugal and Spain. Over the years I shared countless excursions exploring Europe, the Middle East, South and Central America, Morocco and my ancestral home, Russia. Every trip to distant lands mitigated fears of the unknown and unearthed dormant parts of me seeking integration.

Stepping into unfamiliar ways of life and cultures expanded my consciousness. The inherent meaning amassed from making wondrous connections with new places broke through my nihilism. For instance, being led by a Bedouin on a camel, to sleep overnight at the dunes in the Sahara Desert affirmed for me that I was a part of something much greater than the destitution I was born into.

Indeed, travel exemplifies a life-affirming means to stretch beyond the confines of secure familiarity, while embracing spontaneity and flexibility. Taking this unconventional risk unleashes an intrepid self that is capable and curious. In short, it stimulates thriving.

Also, given that many of the young women I have the privilege of working with with feel displaced, disowned and dissident, the pull towards uncharted locations are an apt reflection of not being securely anchored to family or home. Travel metaphorically shows them that where one finds oneself is where one belongs.

Actualize Financial Independence

Raised in bleak impoverished circumstances solidified the conviction that I would never allow myself to be financially dependent on another. While my conditions were dire, establishing this foundation of self-sufficiency galvanized a healthy capacity for resourcefulness and ambition. It ensured that I would never again fear homelessness or hunger.

Still, as frugal and hard-working as I was my shaky confidence convinced me that I lacked the aptitude to responsibly manage finances. My uncertainty also contributed to accepting far less monetary compensation than I was worth. Not surprisingly these are key issues many young women grapple with, as a recent study from George Washington University attests.

While sustaining financial stability, irrespective of economic standing, is a crucial matter for most people, ingrained stereotypes convince women that we are too financially illiterate to navigate the complex economic landscape.

It’s imperative that young women break out of these stultifying beliefs and set forth with acquiring the shrewdness, skills and acumen to confidently engage in essential fiscal concerns. It’s essential that women come to trust that the basics of creating a budget, saving a set percentage of ones income, and considering a future trajectory of money dependent goals, is within their capabilities.

Attaining financial wellness and a balanced sense of materialism entails spending money based on solid values, having minimal debt and maintaining a viable safety net of savings. Most importantly it means having a solid sense of worth and a positive appreciation for abundance.

Find Your Inner Warrior

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It’s no secret that passivity in women is culturally lauded and deeply ingrained. Given that wives and daughters were the property of their father or husband, ancient laws defined rape as a crime of theft. To this day this legal precedent underscores culturally sanctioned power submissive dynamics. We see this evidenced in the notion that women love abuse at the hands of a dominant, virile man. This idea, which legitimizes the eroticization of cruelty, is so entrenched in our culture that masochism and passivity are viewed as inherent characteristics of the feminine ideal.

Hence, like most women I was conditioned to cope with the violence I was born into. Minimize, pretend, and deny was the internalized mantra. Consequently, when I was raped at 15 y.o. I didn’t fight. I didn’t scream. I left my body. I was groomed to submit.

Some years later when a serial rapist was on the loose on the upper Eastside in NYC I was encouraged by a friend to join her in taking self defense classes. Run by female martial artists at the Safety and Fitness Exchange (S.A.F.E.), it was there, with other rape and sexual abuse victims, that I discovered my inner warrior. There I learned not just how to defend myself, but also how to mobilize my instinctual aggression.

University of Oregon sociologist Jocelyn Hollander studied the outcomes for college students who received self-defense training compared to those who did not. The results revealed that women who took self-defense reported far fewer incidents of unwanted sexual contact, than the women who did not participate in the training.

Hollander’s findings suggest that when women discover a sense of agency by engaging with their instinctual aggression, a natural aftereffect is the conveyance of what is allowed in their space and what is uninvited.

Clearly the insidious indoctrination that advises women to put their safety on the line for the sake of seeming ‘nice’ or accommodating needs to be dismantled and replaced with the conviction that standing up to violence (not being deferential) discourages predators to think twice, lest they incur harm. This is the collective message we women need to reinforce. It is certainly a message I regularly impart to the young women I work with.

Love Your Vulnerability

Our basic humanity emanates from vulnerability. It is a state of being that surrenders to our emotional depth, our inherent fragility, and all the insecurities and fears ignited by the unknown. Embodying vulnerability means connecting to the raw authentic capacity to open up to the possibility of being hurt. Alternatively, it can also open us up to a wealth of abundance.

If only I understood this when I was drowning in disdain towards my insatiable neediness. Being raised in a family in which my innate dependency needs were denied resulted in a traumatic attachment imprint that left me feeling broken and fearful of what I longed for the most. Although I was starving for love, I hated myself for needing that which I didn’t feel deserving of.

Similarly, many of the young women I encounter couple vulnerability with humiliation and abuse. As a result they are convinced that it’s safer to be ‘neutral’ or even numb. Hiding behind a facade of aloofness and self sufficiency so as to personify an alluring commodity is regarded as a tenable solution. Consequently innate longings for tenderness, affection and adoration are walled off.

Naturally this strategy doesn’t work. We can’t pretend to be what we’re not, at least not without incurring painful repercussions. What does work is reframing a scornful appraisal of vulnerability and relational cravings as inherent life affirming needs. This is a critical step towards honoring what was disallowed. This trajectory heals core attachment injuries and assists with compassionately engaging with the wounded feral child who was concealed behind a veneer of shame-based adult decorum.

It is heartening to observe the young women I work with compassionately redefine their vulnerability. Viewing what was once designated a weakness as a tremendous strength, is a powerful gateway to raw authenticity and courageous visibility.

Honor Your Sexuality

As a young woman my craving for love and physical affection blinded me. My sexual pursuits lacked discernment. Moreover my sexuality was defiled by rape trauma, and objectification. Not surprisingly, physical desire and attraction, based on the most superficial qualifiers, became the driving force behind who I slept with.

While on rare occasions this crapshoot approach led to positive experiences, even relationships, being impetuous resulted in being violated more times than I could measure.

Elevating my sexuality in a way that prioritized the sanctity of my mind, heart and body was a critical step in my healing and growth. This involved defining guidelines that supported my personal truth and honored my emotional and sexual needs. Doing this was not about touting absolutist moral prescriptions. It was about adhering to honest and responsible directives that reflected what was vital to my integrity.

Given that a woman’s sexual responsiveness is largely predicated on the basic need for emotional and physical safety, reclaiming the authority to say ‘no’ to what is unwanted and ‘yes’ to that which affirm sexual longings is critical.

When consent is muddled, even when there is no conscious malicious intent involved, the absence of sexual consonance and humane interaction can induce injury.

That being the case, I consistently encourage my female clients to realistically examine what rules of engagement need to be deployed in the service of self-care and protection.

Taking responsibility for sexual choices doesn’t just mean ensuring physical safety. For women who are seeking a steadfast bond, sexual intimacy can set in motion a vast array of complex emotions and dependency needs.

These are some relevant concerns and questions that often emerge for women entering into sexual relations;

  • Has there been sufficient time to feel safe and establish trust?
  • Is the decision to open up sexually to another based solely on personal volition or is there pressure to move faster than what feels natural?
  • Is the attraction with a person of character of someone who is on the rebound, a liar, a freeloader or an irresponsible emotional cripple?
  • If friendship is a pre-requisite, is laughter and intellectual stimulation part of the dynamic?
  • Is the potential sexual partner consistent and reliable?
  • Are you both on the same page regarding the nature of your commitment?

Throwing caution to the wind and hoping for the best is not an option. Becoming clear about motivations, intentions and readiness is a reliable necessary means to respect your unique sexual needs and sexual expression.

Explore Creative Expression

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Artist and writer Henry Miller wrote, “Every man, when he gets quiet, when he gets desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive form the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up to discover what is already there.”

Although as Miller proclaims, each one of us has an innate drive to transcend our mundane instincts, so as to bring into the world our deepest imaginings in a creative form, this potential is often blocked.

If throughout one’s life one is inadequately cared for, rejected and inconsistently supported, it is likely there are narcissistic wounds that hinder one from successfully owning and actualizing creative aspirations. This can lead to a state of ambivalent tension between self actualization and the pull towards safety.

Like myself, many of the young women I work with were victims of disordered parents. Due to this they grapple with an insidious shameful edict that one’s gifts are a threat, responsible for instigating feelings of resentment, inadequacy and envy.

Envied and perceived as a threat, they were forbidden to play music, draw, perform, or express their creative gifts. Alternatively their gifts were usurped as a source of supply for the disordered parent(s). The parental abuser’s egomaniacal fixation on status and personae either resulted in maligning the artistic child for her gifts, or aggrandizing their stature and self-importance through vicarious exploitation of her talents.

Reclaiming one’s right to shine without feared reprisal is a decisive step in exhuming creative expression and what humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as the real self. For this to happen client centered psychologist Carl Rogers emphasized that psychological safety and psychological freedom must be secured. These conditions make room for acceptance, empathy and the room to think, feel and contribute fully.

Free from judgment and criticism the energy of inspiration and imagination can emerge and walled off repressed parts of the self can be accessed. Whatever the medium, be it drama, painting, dance, or writing, art transcends class, gender, and race barriers and has the potential to teach, inspire and catalyze insight and action.

This became clear to me when I created a therapeutic theater project to encourage healing for at-risk underserved women and girls plagued by histories of childhood trauma, neglect, and abuse. It showed me and the women who participated along the way, that art making and creative expression frees up potentials and spontaneous action, and in so doing, it ignites one’s life force. It made it clear how morphing suffering into art is a reparative act.

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Photo by Sheri Heller/ Phoenix Project Workshop

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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