For the adult survivor of childhood abuse, what is most frightening about the therapeutic process is its demand for verbal communication and intimacy. Many victims are unaware of their past history of abuse or find it too difficult to speak openly about their painful memories, especially to a therapist.
Victims of abuse are conflicted about how they should relate to a therapist. They desire their therapist’s understanding and care, but fear if they let down their defenses they might become vulnerable once again to possible abuse.
Childhood abuse rarely appears as the presenting problem. To diagnose a victim of abuse, the therapist must learn to read between the lines of what the person is saying or even not saying. It is within the silence that victims express their suffering and need for help. The abuse victim communicates less with speech, and more with the symbolic language of the body.
There they sit facing the therapist, scared, frightened, hyper vigilant, numb, looking away from the therapist’s eyes in order to avoid what they perceive as their therapists’ piercing and critical gaze.
As a perceived parental figure, therapists can easily become screens for the victim’s projections. The individual may experience the therapist as if he or she is an abuser and the therapeutic session an abusive situation. If this occurs, the conflicts and struggles the adult had as a child may be acted out within the realm of the therapeutic relationship.
It is understandable why even a seasoned therapist might be disturbed by the victim’s inappropriate and situationally dystonic behaviors and actions. To cope with their own level of anxiety, some therapists might choose to relate to the patient in a defensive manner.
The most common form of defense used by therapists to create distance between themselves and the acting out patient is the diagnostic procedure. By labeling a person with a diagnosis, the patient as subject is transformed into an object that can then be defined, manipulated and controlled.
Because of their hyper vigilance, victims are sensitive to how others perceive them. If they feel the therapist is relating to them as an object rather than as a fellow subject, their acting out tendencies will escalate.
The feeling of being objectified by the therapist will serve as a catalyst for the victim to re-experience and reenact the past abusive situation within the present therapeutic relationship. In other words, the defensive therapist will be perceived by the victim as being manipulative and controlling and as a result will react in a defense fashion against what they perceive to be a threat.
The goal of treatment is not for the therapist to diagnose the victim, but rather for the victim to begin to learn how to identify and understand their patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. By organizing their experiences into language, their victim will develop the psychological distance and personal integrity required to gain a sense of mastery and control.
Over and against the victim’s negative projections, the therapist must relate to the victim with unconditional compassion and support. For it only by developing a safe and highly structured milieu that the victim will be able to let down his or her defenses and begin to work through the issues related to the abuse.
It is understandable why the victim’s defense mechanisms might be interpreted by both the therapist and patient as maladaptive character traits. No one would dispute the negative effects these defense mechanisms have in terms of sabotaging and resisting the therapeutic process. However, to continue to view the victim’s defense mechanisms as a form of “resistance” will have a negative effect upon treatment. To critically confront the defenses can make the victim feel as defective and helpless as he or she felt at the time of the abuse.
By recontexualizing these defenses mechanisms, from within the horizon of a developmental/ historical perspective, the victim will begin to realize the important role these personality traits played in terms of their survival. Defense mechanisms are, in fact, coping strategies that, in the past, helped the victim adapt to a maladaptive environment.
By reinterpreting these defense mechanisms as coping strategies, the patient will begin to develop more positive self-image and begin to fell more integrated and in control. In time, they will realize that these maladaptive defenses mechanisms are no longer appropriate or needed.
In addition to basic trust, self doubt is a problem that also plagues victims of childhood abuse. The victim does not trust his or her own thoughts and perceptions – especially past memories associated with the abuse. In fact, many victims are unsure if their memories are fantasy or reality.
To help the victim overcome self-doubt, it is important for the therapist to validate his or her memories. What matters is not the historical facticity of the memories, but rather what psychological significance these memories have in terms of the person’s current experience.
To accomplish this goal, the therapist, must keep in mind that the victim’s recollections of the past are based upon a child’s perspective – a viewpoint that is very different from how we as adults perceive ourselves, others and the world. For example, children tend to perceive adults as being bigger than life and also do not have a proper understanding of sexuality, aggression, or even a clear demarcation of self and other. From this vantage point, it is understandable why the victim’s memories might have a limited or distorted child-like quality to their narrative.
Working through the defenses, learning to trust oneself and the therapist, reconnecting thoughts with feelings, and beginning to integrate the past with the present is both a frightening and exciting process.
What is most frightening about the process is that it requires the subject to face the unknown, What is most rewarding about the process is that if offers the subject the freedom for personal expansion and growth.
Dr. Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. He specializes in the treatment of trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and adults survivors of emotional, physical and sexual childhood abuse.
Dr. Martin Klein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport and Branford CT. He works with children, adults and couples.