Can I Recover Repressed Memories of Child Abuse Without Therapy?

Photo by Fe Ilya - - For illustration only

Reader’s Question

Is it possible to uncover repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse without some kind of therapy work? I’m a 21-year-old woman, and my mom has told me that when I was 11 years old I was sexually abused by my babysitter’s son; but she didn’t tell me details.

I don’t remember the event, so my mom thinks it didn’t bother or affect me. But there is definitely something wrong, and I’d like to know what it is. Ever since I can remember, I have had thoughts of sex involving knives, being hurt, or even having the “excitement” of possibly losing my life. To this day, I can’t have a normal sexual relationship (although the guys I gravitate towards are into some of the same stuff, including an interest in murder). And every time I have any type of sexual contact, I have flashes in my mind of being threatened and having my throat slit, and these thoughts truly do scare me. Some of my male friends have offered to role play rape and murder scenes with me (since they are also interested in these sorts of things), but I don’t feel good about this. I don’t feel normal, and I know there must be a reason I am this way.

How do I fix myself without counseling?

And how do I uncover memories I might have repressed and find out what truly happened to me?

Psychologist’s Reply

Almost no area of psychology has been subjected to such vigorous debate in recent years as the topic of repressed memory recovery.

Repressed memory is not like amnesia, whereby a memory is lost due to some damage to memory centers in the brain. Rather, repressing a memory is seen as a dissociative strategy to disconnect one’s conscious mind from something too terrifying or painful to keep in awareness.

There has never been any clear, empirical support for the repression of memories. To compound matters, there has been some research suggesting that the most unreliable “recovered” memories are those recovered within the therapy process at the possible “suggestion” of the therapist.

So, to answer your second question, you do not necessarily need to be in therapy per se to recover repressed material. What’s needed is to be in an atmosphere in which you feel safe and secure enough to reconnect with your memories and feelings. And to answer your first question, you also don’t necessarily need therapy to heal or to deal with your unusual sexual inclinations either. You need only reckon honestly with yourself about the nature of your relationships and what you believe you must do differently in them to make them healthier sexually, and emotionally, and in terms of intimacy.

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched
(Please read our important explanation below.)

Without some objective corroborating evidence, it’s very difficult to distinguish a true memory that was once repressed and is now recovered from a false memory. So, your mom could be a valuable resource, and if there is mutual trust between you, you might encourage her to share what she knows.

In the end, however, counseling of some sort might be a good idea for you, especially with a professional with expertise in the areas you know involve issues needing attention. You seem rather certain that some sort of sexual trauma must lie at the root of the concerns you report. However, it’s also possible other issues might either be responsible for or exist in addition to those concerns. A trained therapist can help you sort things out.

Please read our Important Disclaimer.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. Originally published by on and last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

Ask the Psychologist provides direct access to qualified clinical psychologists ready to answer your questions. It is overseen by the same international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals — with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe — that delivers, providing peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2023.