Living as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse can be emotionally confusing, and many survivors struggle with the pain for the rest of their lives. Becoming educated about child sexual abuse can help you cope with the trauma. Here are some basics for you to start with:

1) You are not alone

Sexual abuse occurs in secret, and most children are too afraid and ashamed to talk about it. Usually, survivors of abuse don’t disclose the secret until years later, either when it starts causing them to have problems in life, or when they understand it better and find the courage to share. Some never do. Unfortunately, this secrecy, combined with a taboo against discussing sexual abuse in public, leaves children to suffer in silence. Not only have you gone through the abuse alone, but you most likely have had to survive the aftermath of the trauma all by yourself. Struggling with this secret can make you think you are different from everybody else, which can lead to feeling that something is wrong with you, or that you are inferior, damaged, or worthless. And it can feel very, very lonely.

Because people avoid discussing it, most people are not aware just how prevalent the problem is. You may be shocked to learn that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. These numbers have been found by researchers to be similar in all communities, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or financial status. Think about this: Many of the people you keep the secret from have their own secrets. You are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you.

2) It was not your fault

Most abused children are confused about what happened to them. They intuitively know it was wrong, but they cannot understand how or why it happened. There is a strong tendency for children to blame themselves. Sometimes, the abuser manipulates them by saying things like, “We could both get into trouble for this.” Often children (and adults) want to protect the abuser, because the abuser is someone loved or respected such as a parent, sibling, family friend, counselor, teacher, or rabbi. Blaming yourself can also give you a false sense of control over what happened, as if you had the power to prevent it had you wanted to or tried harder.

Furthermore, being taken advantage of and violated in the most private boundaries of your body feels shameful. It can leave you feeling exposed and degraded, and sometimes people confuse feelings of embarrassment and humiliation with self-blame.

It is important to understand that the abuse is the fault of the abuser alone–the person who chose to use you for their pleasure without regard to how it would make you feel. They may not have forced you physically, as many child molesters use more manipulative ways to get what they want. Often, they groom the child by showing love and attention in order to win your trust. Sometimes, they make sure not to cause physical pain, and even expose the child to pleasurable sensations that can make the abuse even more confusing, as children wonder, “If it felt good, then maybe I wanted it...” The truth is, even if a child did “want” it, it is still only the abuser’s fault. A child does not have the understanding or emotional maturity to give real consent to any sexual act, under any circumstances.

Accepting this will help you move past your feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion.

3) Your pain is real

Since what happens when you are abused is confusing, it can be hard to understand your feelings afterwards. You might question why you feel so bad and why these bad feelings can linger for so long. Why can’t you seem to put it in the past? Why do the memories still cause such pain that it can hold you back from freely living your life?

It is important not to minimize or deny how much you have been hurt. The abuser violated you physically by using your body. Psychologically, the abuse means that you had no control, power, or choice in what was done to you. Unlike in natural disasters or in war, in sexual abuse the trauma is caused by another person who is most often known and trusted by the child, creating the experience of betrayal trauma.

And the hurt is not limited to what the abuser does. Often there is an even greater sense of shock and betrayal felt by the child because other adults weren’t there to protect them, making the child feel abandoned. There can be a sense that it takes a village to raise a child…and it takes a village to abuse one. Especially when the abuse happens in an ostensibly “good,” caring, community, it can feel like the whole world has been complicit, and this can cause you to feel unsafe and insecure in the world.

The pain of sexual abuse is also different from other kinds of harm people inflict on each other. It feels different. It hurts differently. It has a different meaning. It is more misunderstood. It is a lonelier trauma to experience. Your sexuality is a deeply personal, private, and even spiritual part of who you are. It can feel like you have been hurt in the core of who you are.

Religious people are raised to believe in the spiritual value of sex and how crucial it is to save sexual behavior for the intimate loving relationship in marriage. Children are sheltered from even learning about sex prior to maturity, and our youth are warned of the spiritual dangers of experimenting with sex before marriage. When one’s first exposure to sex is that of abuse for another person’s pleasure, it robs the victim of his or her innocence and challenges their spiritual and sexual development.

4) All of your feelings are real

Realizing that the abuse has hurt you deeply is the first step toward acknowledging and accepting your feelings about it. Each person is different, and reactions vary widely, but there are some common feelings that survivors of abuse often experience in an intense way. We have already discussed the guilt and shame often felt by children after being sexually abused. If these feelings are not adequately dealt with, they can lead to intense feelings of self-loathing, and sometimes even impulses for self-harm.

For people who have been traumatized, fear is often the most overwhelming feeling that can remain for a long, long time. The fear can come in the form of chronic anxiety, and feelings of helplessness, or it can cause panic attacks when you are exposed to a “trigger,” something that reminds you—consciously or unconsciously—of the trauma. Fear can also lead to mistrust of others, and mistrust of yourself, making it difficult to connect and feel close to loved ones. Abuse can also create negative, fearful, or confusing feelings about sex that can cause problems in intimacy, love, and marriage.

As children grow up and become more aware of what was taken from them, there can be a deep sense of sadness and grief that requires them to mourn for all that was lost. Sometimes, not being able to change what happened can create a sense of hopelessness and a risk of losing faith in others, in the world, and in G‑d.

A normal part of any grieving process is anger, and when that loss is actually something taken by another person, there can be overwhelming feelings of rage. These feelings are normal and understandable, but it can feel scary and cause even more guilt. While forgiving those who have hurt you can sometimes be achievable, it requires working through anger to get there. If anger is repressed or ignored, it can add to emotional problems and prevent true healing. Even if, and when, you can forgive, you will probably never forget. While you don’t want the abuse to define you, the trauma and your recovery are part of who you are, and their lessons will help you grow and strengthen into the person you will ultimately become.

5) Find someone to tell

It can be very difficult to admit that you were sexually abused. You may feel embarrassed, ashamed, and afraid of how others will react. Will they judge you? Look at you differently? It can seem easier to deny or doubt yourself about what happened or keep it a secret. It might feel like if you don’t talk about your abuse, it didn’t really happen.

But when you stay silent, you cannot get help, and you may keep feeling like a helpless victim. There is a tremendous amount of darkness and secrecy connected to child sexual abuse: the hush-hush way in which it is done, the manipulation and dishonesty surrounding it, the lies and deception used to keep it covered up. Keeping the abuse a secret adds power to the darkness of an already dark and sinister act. Carrying the secret can make you sick—emotionally, psychologically, even physically. And to make matters worse, it can isolate you from other people and make you feel alone.

But unlike going through the abuse, when you were alone in your pain, in recovering from the trauma you don’t have to be. As scary as it might seem, when you find someone you can trust, and disclose what happened to you, you are opening the possibility for healing. You are acting with power you didn’t have as a child by being the one to decide that it does not have to stay secret and that you do not have to go through it alone.

It is important to be selective about who you tell, especially at first. It’s best if you tell someone you believe will care, and who can stay calm enough to help you. If you don’t have someone you trust, talk to a therapist or call a sex abuse crisis hotline. Getting the secret off your chest is the first step toward recovery.

6) There is help

Sexual abuse therapy will help you understand and learn to accept what happened to you, and give you new ways to manage the complicated feelings arising from the trauma. Working within the safety of a confidential relationship with a caring professional who has been trained to understand your feelings will help you discover answers to questions that confuse you. You will develop a narrative of your life story that makes some sense of what happened to you and how you have survived. You will discover that some of the ways you coped were necessary at the time but may have led to unhealthy emotional habits that you can now move past. Gaining perspective will allow you to free yourself from the feelings of overwhelming guilt, self-blame, shame, and anger you may be carrying. Many survivors are then able to find meaning in what they went through, and in surviving and overcoming what happened to them. Integrating the trauma that you suffered into the bigger story of your life will break the hold it has on you and how you feel about yourself. This can help you heal the deep spiritual pain the abuse caused, and you will begin to imagine a future in which your trauma doesn’t define you or dictate every choice you make.

Aside from the emotional support you can find in therapy, consider joining a support group for sexual abuse survivors. These groups can help you feel less isolated and can also help provide information on coping with symptoms and working towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.

7) G‑d loves you

Shame about the abuse can leave a child feeling unworthy and unlovable. Loneliness and a sense of betrayal and abandonment may create a sense of spiritual dejection. It can be very difficult to grow spiritually and emotionally when there is a sense of being somehow “damaged” or “bad,” and at times it can seem that even G‑d is rejecting you.

In truth, it is possible for survivors of abuse to find comfort and support in their faith. Even if they worry that other human beings might respond to the abuse in irrational, unhealthy, or unloving ways, they understand that G‑d is above these neurotic reactions. G‑d’s view can never be distorted by social stigma, or fear of “what the neighbors will think.” G‑d is not afraid that acknowledging the truth of what happened could put Him at risk of being hurt by the perpetrator, and He does not make the mistake of blaming the victim, who was, after all, an innocent child. G‑d knows the truth about what happened to you and understands your pain and suffering. Whatever your level of religious belief or observance, which is often affected by trauma, G‑d understands that you are human and that you were hurt deeply as a child. He doesn’t judge you for what happened, and always continues to love you.

8) You can heal

Although victimized, you do not have to be a victim. Some people mistakenly believe that childhood sexual abuse is so emotionally devastating that victims can never recover and enjoy a normal, happy life. In fact, healing is possible, and so is a deeply fulfilling life. What was taken from you is not what you are. You are so much more. You cannot change the terrible thing that happened to you. But with help, you can discover and develop your own inner resources to overcome it, and to create safety, security, love, faith, and happiness in your life. You can feel whole again, and free and powerful to achieve your dreams and be the great person you were meant to be.