Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors: Creating Intentional Behavior
For many survivors of child sexual abuse, a key part of healing from trauma is feeling empowered by the choices they make. This is especially the case when survivors have developed coping behaviors that they don’t fully understand or feel like they cannot control. The good news is that such behaviors, no matter how dominant they are in a survivor’s life, can be replaced with new behaviors that are more beneficial to a survivor’s healing and well-being. We call these types of healing actions intentional behaviors.
What Are Intentional Behaviors?
Intentional behaviors are the decisions you make and the habits you build with healing and growth in mind. 1,2 Unlike prior behaviors that are reactive and emotionally driven by a distressed limbic system, intentional behaviors are mindful, seeking to align the survivor’s actions in the present with where they’d like to be in the future.
Why Is Creating Intentional Behaviors So Important for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors?
Intentional behaviors enable survivors to build new neuropathways that can help them manage the effects of their trauma, including the unhealthy coping behaviors they may have developed over time. These behaviors can be anything from excessive shopping or exercising to sabotaging potential relationships or dissociating on a frequent basis.
Many of these unhealthy or unwanted behaviors are driven by the limbic system’s urge to keep the survivor safe and experience relief. And while these behaviors may have been useful at one point in helping the survivor cope with the trauma of the past, they may be hindering the survivor’s healing in the present.
Take Olivia, who believed that the only way she could find any sense of relief or control in her childhood was by eating whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. This coping behavior helped her endure through the most difficult times of her abuse. As Olivia aged into adulthood and the abuse stopped, she found that she still used her eating habits as a coping behavior, even though those habits were getting in the way of her well-being, everyday decisions, and relationships with others.
Olivia set the intention to be more mindful of how the food she was eating made her feel. However, she found it difficult to fulfill that intention after a few days. Because her unhealthy behavior of overeating was her most familiar and comfortable method of coping, she struggled to redirect that behavior into a new, more healing action.
Like Olivia, we all have behaviors that we’ve come to rely on over the years in order to survive. And while these behaviors brought us relief, comfort, and escape in the past, we may have reached a point in our healing where such behaviors are no longer helpful. Given that we’ve defaulted to these familiar behaviors for so long, it can seem especially challenging to replace them with something new, even after creating a plan to do so.
Is It Really Possible to Create New, Intentional Behaviors?
Yes, with consistency. Consistency involves continuing to do the things you intend to do, even when it is hard—to keep going and keep putting in the effort each day, even when thoughts of shame and self-blame try to convince you that you have failed, that it is too late to try again.
Because such self-defeating thoughts and emotions are common when we are attempting change, it’s important to balance consistency with compassion. Offer yourself the grace and understanding to allow room for trial and error, for perceived missteps or setbacks, and for days of struggle and frustration.
With this combination of consistency and compassion, you can—over time—turn the new thoughts and actions that you have set for yourself into fully developed behaviors. As these healing behaviors become more familiar and well-practiced, it will be easier to defer to them rather than to your old behavioral patterns.
How Do I Create an Intentional Behavior?
Creating a new behavior can seem overwhelming, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Below is a list of steps that can help guide you as you work to create an intentional behavior.
Set Your Intentions
The first step towards making a change in any area of your life is to set an intention. An intention is a word, phrase, or statement that communicates what you value most in life and/or what you would like to work towards for your future. Intentions serve as reminders of what you want to center the choices in your life around.
Examples of Intentions
- Restful sleep
- My family and friends
- I spend time outdoors.
- I make decisions that nourish my brain and body.
If you have more questions about what intentions are or how you can identify them, visit here.
Create a Plan to Carry Out Your Intentions
Once you’ve established what your intentions are and written those intentions down, you can take actions to help move yourself closer to the future you want. And you can do this by creating a plan—one that breaks your intention down into smaller, attainable goals.3 While an intention is an ongoing statement that signifies what you value, a goal is something realistic and measurable that you set out to accomplish.
For example, if your intention is to nurture your creative expression as a way of coping and finding joy, your goal might be: “Spend fifteen minutes each day working on a creative project.”
Through the goals you set, you create a plan. And with this plan, you make decisions by aligning the choices you make with what matters most to you.
As you write out your plan, identify your obstacles so you can be more prepared for the things that may keep you from meeting your goals. Let’s say you have a goal to do less online shopping, and to shift that coping behavior toward journaling. One barrier you might identify is that you tend to do more online shopping right before bed. To be more prepared for this barrier, you set a plan to put your phone away after a certain time in the evening and have your journal and pen set out next to the bed. This way, you will be more likely to replace the nighttime online shopping habit with nighttime writing.
Remember to also identify any obstacles in your environment or relationships. This may include boundaries you may need to set with people who are not supportive or who perpetuate actions and behaviors you are working to change.
Intentional behavior is built on small, everyday actions.4 Too much change at once can cause you to feel overwhelmed and incapable of making changes that last. The more realistic and measurable the goal, the more likely you will be able to carry it out. Goals are designed to help you take a step toward the change you want to make, rather than attempting a leap.
For instance, rather than setting the goal: “I’m going to be very social from now on and make plans for every night of the week,” you may instead write: “I’m going to reach out to a friend or loved one this week and see if we can set up a lunch.” Or, instead of writing: “I will never look at any of my screens after 9:00 p.m.,” you might write: “When I have the urge to look at my phone after 9:00 p.m., I’m going to take a 10-minute pause and try something else first.”
Because meaningful change can’t happen all at once, as you set a goal, take into account the amount of time you may realistically need before the changes you’ve made yield fulfilling results. Usually, it takes weeks or even months to change a behavior.
For instance, if you set the goal of doing a 15-minute meditation every day, it’s still very likely that you will miss one day or even several. And that’s okay, because you can allow yourself the time and grace to make this change. As you give your new behavior time to develop, you are allowing time to change the limbic system’s memories and to build new neural pathways.
Seek and Accept Support
As part of your plan, consider the people in your life whom you trust and whom you can turn to for assurance and support during challenging times. List a couple of names so that if the first person isn’t available during a crisis or challenge, you have other supporters you can reach out to. Perhaps you just need to talk to someone about the obstacles you’re experiencing and how they’re making your goals more difficult. Or maybe you need someone to remind you of your worth, resilience, and abilities. Ultimately, it’s easier to be consistent with your plan when you have someone on your side.
Journal Your Wins and Your Mistakes
Journaling is a great tool to help you observe your pattern of behavior and to track your perceived mistakes, as well as your growth. As you review your progress, celebrate your victories, no matter how seemingly small. And when acknowledging your mistakes, remember to replace self-judgment with self-compassion. An example of an entry might be: “I did struggle with my communication issues during a meeting today and defaulted back to my passive aggressive tendencies. But it was a very stressful morning and I’m trying my best.”
Revise Your Plan When Necessary
The goals you plan do not have to be set in stone. As you create a plan to build your intentional behavior, schedule a date where you will review your plan and see what is and what isn’t working. Maybe you set an intention to reconnect with your body and decide to carry out that intention with the goal of going on a run each day. However, after one week you realize that you are dreading these runs and would rather incorporate a different physical activity into your everyday routine. So, you can choose to adjust your plan, deciding to instead spend a little time each day gardening or going on walk. With this adjustment, you feel more empowered to maintain consistency and establish this new behavior in your life.
You might also choose to revise your plan later based on the changes in your needs, boundaries, situations, and relationships. Perhaps gardening and going on walks served you for a time, but you’ve now set a new intention to build a stronger relationship with your nieces and nephews. So, to foster those relationships, as well as continue strengthening your connection to your body, you set a new plan to play racquetball with a niece or nephew a few times a week. With this new plan, you are able to merge your intentions into a plan that fosters growth in multiple areas of your life.
Wherever you are at in your journey, and whatever needs and aspirations you currently have, you can set intentions to match where you are now with where you would like to be.
Healing Happens as You Keep Practicing
By creating a plan to carry out new healing actions and behaviors, you’re not only moving closer to the future you want, but you are helping your brain heal. Making conscious choices, such as planning, tracking, and following through with your intentions, strengthens your frontal lobe. This added strength also positively impacts your limbic system as you build new connections in your brain that drive your body into action. As you look ahead and act on your intentions, you may find that you can create new positive memories and experiences. Over time and with consistent care, these newly developed neural pathways will get stronger, and you’ll feel more empowered to act on the plans and aspirations you have.
Again, as you aspire to carry out your intentional behavior, be kind and gentle with yourself. Incorporating new behaviors into your life takes time, patience, and a great deal of practice. Remember that slowing down, being mindful, and allowing room for compassion increases your consistency, rather than seeking to achieve all of your intentions at a breakneck pace.
As you create a plan that will enable you to develop new, intentional behaviors, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by recognizing the coping behaviors in your life that are no longer helpful and the areas of growth or change that you would like to see.
- Mindfulness by being aware of what values are most important to you, what you can do to align your behaviors with those values, and what obstacles may crop up along the way.
- Aspiration by planning out the actions that you intend to carry out in the future, based on the belief that you can heal.
- Covey, Stephen R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Free Press.
- Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
- Keller, Gary W., & Papasan, Jay. (2013). The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Austin: Bard Press.
- Scritchfield, Rebecca. (2016). Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out—And Never Say Diet Again. New York: Workman Publishing