I wanted to run, I wanted to hide, I wanted to hurt myself—anything to escape. The one thing I did NOT want to do was admit this to my therapist. I was certain that he would hate me, fear me, and reject me. I was terrified by the thought of telling him, but I was equally terrified by the thought of being alone with this secret. After agonizing over it for some time, I finally made a decision, hoping it was the right one but fearing it would be my therapeutic downfall. I
chose to tell him what I had done.
My therapist did none of what I expected when I told him. He didn’t hate me, fear me, or reject me. His compassion was clear and genuine. He not only still cared about me, he praised me for having the courage to face an ugly truth about myself. It was a pivotal moment in my treatment, and I was grateful for his ability to respond with sensitivity and kindness.
Not all trauma survivors are fortunate enough to experience compassion in the face of their own admission of guilt when it comes to hurting someone intentionally. Not all trauma therapists are capable of responding to such admissions with sensitivity and kindness. This is unfortunate, because the truth is that we are all capable of inflicting harm, and the sooner we recognize this fact, the better our chances of understanding and preventing it.
But some therapists react with fear, and though they may try to respond therapeutically to our admissions, as trauma survivors we are quite adept at recognizing both fear and anger in people important to us. We don’t usually miss this; if anything we tend to seize upon it immediately and revise our version of events to minimize the impact on our therapists.
When therapists react with fear, it sets the stage for a therapy with little substance or honesty, sometimes resulting in an elaborate but unproductive game of self-deception for both parties involved. Sometimes therapists minimize the impact of our actions by questioning our actual intent. They sometimes become self-protective, insisting upon behavioral contracts to protect the therapy even in the absence of any threats to our treatment. Others become even more punitive, to the point of outright rejection, insisting that they cannot work with us because they do not feel safe.
Safety, of course, is essential to both client and therapist, and in the presence of behavior that truly threatens either party, it is necessary to take protective action. But it has been my experience, and the experiences of numerous other trauma survivors, that some therapists exhibit a knee-jerk reaction to any perceived threat, real or imagined. I once had a therapist tell me she was frightened of me because of a violent dream I had shared with her. Needless to say, the therapeutic value of that relationship went downhill rather quickly.
But I am far from alone in this experience. Without making a generalized statement based on assumptions, I frequently see some common factors that I believe contribute greatly to therapist fear and to the failure to help us face and understand our own hurtful behavior. Unfortunately, these contributing factors sometimes result in therapy that only touches the surface, or in termination of treatment. In either situation, the possibility of exploring and understanding the harm we inflict upon others is lost.
The first factor, which I encounter often in discussions about trauma therapy on the Internet, is a significant history of trauma and abuse in the therapist’s own life. This is a delicate issue, because of a common belief among both trauma survivors and a number of therapists that
survivor therapists are the best trauma therapists due to their own experiences. I don’t dispute the fact that survivor therapists are probably the most sympathetic therapists due to their own experiences, but sympathy alone does not make one a good therapist.
Though this is not universal, survivor therapists often appear to be more fearful in general, which is not surprising given the neuropsychological complexities of trauma related disorders, and the fact that residual effects of trauma can last for many years. This fear is usually communicated to clients in one way or another despite the therapist’s efforts to conceal it. Its effect is to preclude any real investigation of our own tendencies to lash out at others because we are more likely to hide those aspects of ourselves that we believe our therapist fears or dislikes.
We want to be cared for and liked, and we also have a tendency to be caretakers ourselves, so any indication that our therapist is anxious or upset by something we revealed is likely to be met with a reluctance to disclose such information in the future. This is a problem I encounter frequently on Internet survivors’ forums, and I believe a contributing factor is that survivors who later become therapists often do so before they complete their own therapy, which makes them even more susceptible to vicarious traumatization. This is detrimental to both client and therapist.
Psych Central. (2007). Accepting the Truth about Ourselves. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 11, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/accepting-the-truth-about-ourselves/000243
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.