Tag Archives: shame

Talking about #MeToo

By Laurie Meyers August 31, 2018

In 2006, activist Tarana Burke founded the “me too” movement — a grassroots campaign to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-wealth communities. Over time, the movement with a simple message — you are not alone — built a community of survivors from all walks of life.

In fall 2017, in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and harassment by film producer and entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, “me too” went viral — and global — with a single hashtag. Social media feeds were suddenly flooded with #MeToo, sometimes accompanied by personal stories or alternately issued as a statement in itself.

In the year that has followed this mass call for awareness, stories of sexual harassment and assault have continued to come to light. The discussions about how to achieve safety and equality show no signs of flagging. Some of these conversations are happening in counseling practices as counselors help clients process their own #MeToo stories.

For licensed professional counselor (LPC) Sarah Kate Valatka, a private practitioner in Blacksburg, Virginia, the most striking element of #MeToo has been the sense of community — albeit an unchosen one — the movement has created for survivors. That feeling of community not only helps clients feel less isolated but also engenders hope as they see other survivors navigating their own trauma, says Valatka, an American Counseling Association member whose practice specialties include addressing gender-based violence.

Other counselors say the movement is encouraging women who previously chose to remain silent about their experiences to seek help. “I absolutely believe this has empowered more women to come forward,” says Brooke Bagley, an LPC at the Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee in Knoxville. “I have heard the narrative repeatedly — that many have been scared, isolated or unsure of the legitimacy of their own traumas, and this movement has given these individuals a voice.”

Indeed, Bagley says although the practice where she works has not seen a substantial increase in new clients, a number of people who had not previously thought of themselves as survivors have come in looking for help to process their experiences.

Charity Hagains, a licensed professional counselor supervisor who specializes in sexual trauma, says she and other counselors at the Noyau Wellness Center in Dallas have seen many new clients seeking help not for assault but for experiences they are just now realizing had crossed the line into sexual harassment. Hagains says she has commonly heard statements from clients such as, “It never occurred to me that this [behavior] wasn’t OK. Every boss I have ever had commented on my body.”

Hagains says the #MeToo movement has also caused many adult women to reconsider their younger experiences. Typical incidents these women have shared in session with Hagains include being pressured to show their bodies in a chatroom when they were preteens or being coerced into having sex as teenagers. At the time, they didn’t consider it coercion because they thought they were old enough to consent or had been drinking and thus excused the other person’s actions.

“It always made me feel awful,” clients have told Hagains. “I was ashamed, but I didn’t realize that it was something that other people would see as not my fault.”

Conversations such as these — both inside and outside of counselors’ offices — are long overdue, asserts Laura Morse, an LPC who specializes in relationship and sexual issues, including assault and trauma. Telling these stories has served to highlight how often sexual assault occurs, but clients are grappling with what comes next, she says.

“So much of the counseling journey with sexual assault survivors is figuring out the ‘and’ after identifying with #MeToo,” says Morse, a private practitioner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Empowering individuals after assault to write their narrative, decide their legal choices and how or if they want to share their story, that’s the part of the conversation that #MeToo leaves us grappling with as a community.”

Moving on from #MeToo

The journey to healing from sexual trauma often begins with defining what has happened to the client, Bagley says. Using psychoeducation, she talks to clients about what constitutes sexual assault or harassment. She also explains common reactions and responses to sexual trauma. Once clients have a better understanding of what they have experienced, Bagley says she can delve into how their trauma is manifesting and work toward the management of symptoms.

Shame and guilt often accompany sexual assault and can be difficult to move past, says Trish McCoy Kessler, an LPC and owner of Empower Counseling, a practice in Lynchburg, Virginia, that focuses on the needs of women and girls. She starts by normalizing what clients are feeling and emphasizing that the sexual violence or harassment they have experienced is not their fault.

Kessler, a member of ACA, uses cognitive behavior therapy to help clients note when they experience a negative emotion and identify the thoughts that are evoking that feeling. She then challenges those thoughts, asking clients to consider whether any evidence exists to support their negative self-talk. Simply instilling hope in clients that their feelings of shame and guilt will lessen over time can help reduce their anxiety and stress, Kessler adds.

Kessler also focuses on coping skills with clients, she says, because many people who have experienced trauma use maladaptive coping skills such as substance abuse and emotional eating. Kessler teaches clients to instead use positive skills such as meditation, reaching out to friends (to avoid isolation), listening to music and writing or journaling. She has found it especially helpful to suggest that clients (and particularly teen clients) keep a list of effective coping skills on their phones to refer to when they are feeling overwhelmed. Kessler also emphasizes the importance of self-care, including getting adequate sleep, getting the proper nutrition and engaging in regular exercise.

Hagains notes that many of her clients lack compassion for themselves. She encourages them to identify as survivors rather than victims and attempts to teach self-compassion by holding a mirror up to the compassion that her clients show to others. For example, Hagains asks clients to consider what they would say to a friend going through the same experiences. “It’s usually not something like, ‘You’re awful,’” she notes wryly. “If you would give your friend a hug, give yourself a hug,” she urges.

Hagains also asks clients to identify the shame statements that they tell themselves. Then she helps them create positive, affirming messages to replace the negative self-talk.

Over time, Bagley has created a five-phase model that she uses for clients who have experienced sexual trauma. In the first phase, she assesses and identifies the client’s level of trauma through a symptom-based checklist. She then explores the emotional, cognitive, physiological and behavioral responses the client is experiencing.

Phase 2 focuses on building rapport and establishing the therapeutic relationship. Because clients who have experienced trauma are very vulnerable, it is imperative to provide a nurturing and safe environment, Bagley emphasizes. Once she has established a bond with the client and a sense of safety, Bagley focuses on the person’s present strengths and explores how the client can use those strengths to cope with the trauma.

Bagley begins cognitive-based interventions in Phase 3. Together, she and the client identify thought distortions attached to the trauma and start practicing ways of reframing negative beliefs.

In the fourth phase, Bagley focuses on identifying specific emotions. She teaches clients to practice mindfulness by noting where on their bodies they feel certain emotions and what is happening around them when they experience these feelings. Bagley says this helps clients identify triggers and also aids in bridging the mind-body disconnect that can occur with recent sexual trauma.

In the fifth and final phase, clients build a narrative surrounding their trauma. “At this stage in the therapeutic process, clients should be displaying more stability and management of symptoms,” Bagley says. “This is often apparent through changes in the language clients use to describe their trauma experience, as well as a shift in self-view.”

At this point, Bagley has clients retell their trauma to desensitize their trauma response and to empower them to feel more in control of their story.

It takes a village

Morse often works with other professionals, including law enforcement, to help survivors of sexual violence. She tells clients there are different paths they can take as part of their treatment and asks them what makes sense or seems helpful to them. Some clients are empowered by learning about their legal rights, and the possibility of pursuing justice gives them a sense of agency. For other survivors, gaining strategies to manage anxiety is critical to their daily functioning, Morse says.

When clients choose to seek justice through the legal system, Morse offers to go to the police station with them and sit in on a meeting with detectives. Beforehand, she prepares clients by explaining that they will be asked numerous questions about what happened to them. She also educates them about how lengthy the legal process can be and the emotional toll it may take.

Many of Morse’s clients have experienced harassment at work, and in these cases, they often choose to file a complaint through their employer’s human resources department. To prepare these clients, Morse goes through their employee handbook so they fully understand the company’s harassment policies.

Morse also strives to help survivors of sexual violence feel safe again, which often requires connecting them with outside resources. She frequently recommends self-defense classes, noting that in many cities, there are now free classes offered for survivors of assault. In some cases, reestablishing a client’s sense of safety may require a change in phone number or residence.

For those who struggle with overwhelming anxiety, Morse is a big proponent of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and she refers these clients to a certified EMDR practitioner. If anxiety and depression are impeding her clients’ daily functioning, she has them meet with a psychiatrist to explore the need for short-term medication management of symptoms.

Morse says group therapy can also be a crucial therapeutic tool because it provides a way for survivors to share their stories with others who have experienced sexual trauma. Many community agencies and YWCAs offer free groups, she notes.

Morse also emphasizes the power of just being there for clients. “Many survivors of assault reflect that the most helpful part of the therapeutic process is simply having someone to listen and believe them on their journey,” she says. “Oftentimes, we’ll spend several sessions talking through the details and allowing a woman to rewrite her narrative as an assault survivor.”

When #MeToo is painful

Although counselors generally say that the #MeToo movement is socially necessary and can be personally empowering, they also note that for some survivors, the constant reminders of sexual trauma can have an unintended adverse effect.

“The movement can often feel like a double-edged sword in terms of awareness for survivors,” Bagley says. Although many survivors are grateful that the truth of the widespread nature of sexual violence is being made evident, the sheer volume of stories can be overwhelming. “It floods social media, news outlets [and] radio programs, leaving little escape for survivors,” Bagley explains. “Additionally, the backlash and negative media response to the movement has … a triggering and negative impact.”

Valatka agrees. “You [a survivor] may be on social media, and it’s just a normal day. Then someone shares, and it’s bringing it into your day — bringing it to survivors when they weren’t planning for it.”

Shaina Ali, an LPC and owner of Integrated Counseling Solutions in Orlando, Florida, says that when clients who are survivors of sexual assault or harassment bring up #MeToo, she uses an existential approach. “How does this affect your story? What does this mean for you?” Ali asks clients.

Her intent is to help clients focus on how hearing these stories affects their progress. In some cases, clients realize that they have handled potentially retraumatizing information better than they thought they might, says Ali, who specializes in trauma work. For others, their reactions are an indication that they have more trauma work to do. Ali notes that some of her clients who had come to her for issues unrelated to trauma realized that the #MeToo stories mirrored their own experiences — experiences they previously hadn’t recognized they needed to talk about.

Because #MeToo and other news stories related to mental health — such as the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — can potentially have an effect on any client, Ali always raises such topics in session. She says this serves two purposes: to check in and head off trouble before it starts and to give clients an opportunity to bring up experiences they haven’t previously been ready to share.

Sometimes the triggering comes from the casual conversation of people clients are close to, Hagains points out. As people talk about #MeToo, sexual assault and harassment survivors hear a lot of opinions being shared, some of which are full of blame. It is not uncommon to hear people say things such as, “Well, she went to his apartment, so she deserved it,” Hagains notes.

Hagains tells clients that in these cases, they need to set boundaries by telling friends or family members that they do not wish to discuss the topic and that they will have to agree to disagree. In certain cases, such as with casual Facebook friends, Hagains urges clients to decide how important it is for them to stay in contact. It may be in a client’s best interests to mute those who are making hurtful statements. Sometimes setting boundaries means limiting contact; other times it may become necessary to cease contact altogether. 

What are men learning?

The larger goal of #MeToo is to change the way that men and society as a whole see — and treat — women. Is it working?

Hagains says the topic is definitely coming up in sessions with male clients. She says that about 90 percent of the men she counsels have asked her about behavior — as in what is OK and what isn’t.

“I think a lot of men are reexamining their roles,” she says. Many of them are realizing that what they thought was appropriate or complimentary to women can actually be offensive.

A familiar refrain that Hagains hears in session from male clients who are grappling with the implications of #MeToo: “I thought women liked to be complimented on their bodies.” She responds by telling them that it might be OK to say in a bar but definitely not at work.

Ali, an adjunct professor at both Central Florida University and the Chicago School of Psychology, has also heard increased discussion from men about the topic of sexual assault and harassment, both in her practice and in the classroom. Ali teaches clients and students about harassment, setting boundaries and establishing healthy relationships.

“The way I see it,” says Kessler, “is that #MeToo is not just for women. I want men to see, this is how you treat women.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Adult Child Sexual Abuse Survivors” by Rachel M. Hoffman and Chelsey Zoldan
  • “Intimate Partner Violence — Treating Victims” by Christine E. Murray

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Addicted to sex?

By Amanda L. Giordano and Craig S. Cashwell August 7, 2018

Sex and sexuality are necessary, healthy and, arguably, sacred aspects of the human experience. What happens, though, when sex is used not to enhance intimacy and connection with others but, rather, becomes out of control? What happens when a person describes a clear set of personal values around sexual behavior yet consistently crosses his or her own boundaries and compromises personal sexual values? What happens when a person continues a pattern of sexual behavior despite detrimental consequences? Can a person be addicted to sex?

Although most forms of sexual expression are healthy, the sex addiction model posits that some individuals may develop compulsive, dependent relationships with sex. Critics of the sex addiction model suggest that the addiction label pathologizes nonnormative sexual behaviors (e.g., fetish, kink), yet true proponents of the model do not claim to define morally appropriate forms or frequencies of sexual acts. The focus, rather, is on one’s relationship with sex.

Just because a sexual behavior violates an individual’s personal values, religious or spiritual beliefs, or societal norms does not make it an addiction. Instead, sex addiction has specific defining characteristics:

  • Loss of control
  • Continued engagement despite negative consequences
  • Mental preoccupation or cravings

Thus, rather than being sex-negative, advocates of the sex addiction model work to identify those who are unable to control their sexual behavior, are experiencing distressing outcomes and are mentally preoccupied or craving sex. Once sex addiction is determined, individuals then can get the treatment and support they need to establish healthy sexuality. 

A topic for debate

The notion that sex can be addictive still is debated among mental health professionals. Instead of addiction, alternative explanations for problematic sexual behaviors include impulse-control issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder, neuroticism, learned behavior, a form of sensation seeking, internalized sex-negative messages or manifestations of a mental health issue such as bipolar disorder.

The addiction model, however, purports that the primary issue is an out-of-control relationship with sex resulting from changes in chemical messengers in the brain. Specifically, naturally reinforced behaviors, such as eating and sex, are linked to the release of neurotransmitters (i.e., dopamine) related to pleasure and reinforcement. A naturally rewarding behavior such as sex can become a supernormal stimulus leading to dysregulation in the dopaminergic system. The resulting neuroadaptations affect reward, memory, attention and motivation. Thus, from an addiction model perspective, sex can hijack the natural functioning of the reward pathway in some individuals, leading to addictive behavior.

The sex addiction model contends that in addition to being positively reinforcing through the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, sex can be negatively reinforcing. Over time, sex can become addictive when it is used as the primary or, sometimes, sole method of regulating undesirable emotions. In other words, sexual behavior can be negatively reinforcing when it functions as an avoidance strategy and is used to escape emotional pain. In a negative feedback loop, however, the individual often feels shame as a result of his or her out-of-control sexual behavior. Paradoxically, this shame may become part of the undesirable emotions that the person then strives to regulate through sexual acts. From an attachment perspective, it is likely that these individuals never learned to coregulate emotionally and, instead, try to autoregulate emotions.

Scholars who primarily emphasize the negative reinforcement of sexual behavior often argue for terminology other than sex addiction, such as compulsive behavior or hypersexuality. However, the fact that sex provides both negative reinforcement (i.e., escape) and positive reinforcement (i.e., pleasure) seems to give credence to the addiction model.

Although controversy remains, the mental health field is steadily embracing the notion that behaviors can become addictive. For example, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) included the diagnosis for gambling disorder in a chapter titled “Substance Use and Addictive Disorders.” In addition, internet gaming disorder and nonsuicidal self-injury (which some conceptualize as a behavioral addiction) were included in Section III as conditions in need of further study.

A diagnosis of hypersexual disorder was considered for the DSM-5 but ultimately was not included. The American Society of Addiction Medicine, however, revised its official definition of addiction to include both chemicals and naturally reinforcing behaviors. Furthermore, within the World Health Organization, the Working Group on Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders for the 11th version of the International Classification of Diseases has recommended a diagnosis of compulsive sexual behavior. The organization determined the need for additional research to classify sexual behavior as addictive but clearly recognizes that out-of-control sexual behavior is a public health issue.

In addition, the recent surge of public concern related to pornography use and related erectile dysfunction among relatively young men (as evidenced by high traffic on websites dedicated to helping individuals “reboot” or discontinue use of pornography) has contributed to the influx of neuroimaging studies exploring addiction to pornography. Researchers have confirmed that the same regions of the brain activated by drug stimuli also are activated by online sexual stimuli and that addictive sexual behavior may be associated with decreased gray matter and diminished connectivity in the brain.

Types of sex addiction

Scholars conceptualize two types of sex addiction. The profile for the classic type includes early attachment wounds, family-of-origin issues and trauma histories, culminating in insecure attachment strategies in adulthood. Research shows a clear link between problematic sexual behavior and insecure attachment styles, and the majority of individuals in treatment for sex addiction have experienced trauma. For individuals with classic sex addiction, their sexual behavior may have been a primary means to fulfill attachment needs or escape emotional pain. Over time, however, the behavior became compulsive and out of control as the natural longing for sex became a need and then an addiction. 

Recently, a second contemporary type of sex addiction has been identified among individuals without the classic profile of trauma or attachment wounds. Instead, the contemporary type emerges as a result of chronic, excessive exposure to sexual stimuli, especially in the form of pornography or cybersex, made more readily available when the internet became ubiquitous. Sex researcher Alvin Cooper referred to cybersex as a triple-A engine, offering affordability, anonymity and accessibility to users.

Online sexual images and videos are pervasive, and current estimates suggest that the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11. This initial exposure is often accidental on the part of the child, with pornography sites known to purchase domain names of commonly misspelled children’s websites (referred to as cybersquatting). Over time, however, pornography becomes a supernormal stimulus reshaping the brain by repetitive experiences of pleasure associated with online sexual images. The brain responds to this hyperactivity in the reward pathway by decreasing natural dopamine production and receptors. Consequently, with decreased natural dopamine production, those with sex addiction may feel mildly depressed at baseline, inducing cravings for sexual behavior to alleviate the negative mood. Thus, whether classic or contemporary, sex addiction leads to changes in brain circuitry, which, in turn, perpetuates the addictive cycle.

The nature of sex addiction

Among individuals for whom sex has become addictive, the condition is all-consuming. When those with sex addiction are not engaging in sexual behaviors (acting out), they likely are thinking about them (fantasy and mental preoccupation), getting ready for them (preparation and ritualization) or recovering from the consequences (physically and emotionally).

Sensitization caused by neuroadaptations may lead individuals to seek novel or more intense sexual stimuli to achieve the desired effect (otherwise known as tolerance). For example, an individual may shift from nonviolent to violent pornography or change from streaming cybersex to partnered anonymous sex. Those with sex addiction begin to live a double life as they hide their out-of-control sexual behaviors from others, withdraw and isolate. Furthermore, many people with sex addiction lose sexual interest in their romantic partners and experience sexual dysfunction because of classic conditioning in which arousal is paired with alternative stimuli such as a computer. The addiction affects the individual physically, psychologically, spiritually, relationally and emotionally. Although sex addiction begins to control these individuals’ lives, they often are reluctant to tell anyone about their experience because of intense feelings of shame and self-loathing.

Addictive sexual behavior can manifest in a variety of ways, from compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex and prostitution to compulsive sexual relationships, voyeurism or rape. Indeed, some sexual acting-out behaviors can cross the legal line and fall into the realm of sexual offenses, but the majority of those with sex addiction do not offend; rather, they engage in legal forms of compulsive sexual behavior.

Sex offenders generally have distinct profiles from sex-addicted nonoffenders. Specifically, sex offenders are more impulsive; engage in more intrusive behaviors; respond to offenses with hatred, anger and entitlement; and have low remorse. This profile differs from the progressive trajectory of sex addiction that tends to include more frequent, yet less intrusive, acting out; triggers shame, despair and powerlessness; and is met with high remorse. When sexual acting-out behaviors cross the line of legal offense, those who are sexually addicted are legally responsible for the consequences of their actions despite having an addiction (much like someone with alcohol addiction who injures another person while driving under the influence).

Although individuals with addiction are not responsible for “giving themselves” sex addiction, they are responsible for their recovery through seeking help and working a treatment program. Increasing public awareness about sex addiction can help promote early access to professional treatment, with the hope being that this step will aid in avoiding decades of negative consequences both for individuals with sex addiction and for others who may be affected.

Clinical considerations

Given that sex addiction can include myriad sexual behaviors, it is important for clinicians to assess and screen appropriately. Most sex addiction emerges in late adolescence and young adulthood, so school counselors and community clinicians working with young clients can provide early intervention by regularly screening for sex addiction. Counselors are encouraged to broach the subject of sex in counseling and explore clients’ relationships with their sexual activities, such as masturbating, sexting, hooking up, using pornography, engaging in cybersex, using sexual apps and engaging in compulsive sexual relationships.

Despite the fact that sex addiction emerges early, most individuals do not seek professional treatment until later in life as a result of experiencing often extreme negative consequences (i.e., “hitting rock bottom”). Accordingly, all clinicians should be screening for a loss of control over sexual behaviors, continued engagement in sexual behaviors despite negative consequences, and mental preoccupation or cravings. Along with informal screening and exploration, many formal assessments for sexual compulsivity and addiction exist, including the Sexual Addiction Screening Test, the Sexual Compulsivity Scale and the Sexual Dependency Inventory. The use of these instruments can help clinicians better understand their clients and coconstruct appropriate treatment goals.

Once counselors identify the presence of sex addiction, they have many tools and treatment programs to assist in helping clients reach long-term recovery. Unlike recovery from chemical addictions, the goal of sex addiction treatment is not abstinence from all sexual acts, but rather the development of healthy sexuality. It is the compulsive, detrimental sexual behavior that counselors and clients work to eradicate.

To help clarify recovery from sex addiction, many clinicians and 12-step recovery programs (such as Sex Addicts Anonymous) use the three-circles activity. With a sponsor or counselor, those with sex addiction draw three concentric circles. In the innermost circle, the client lists all unhealthy sexual behaviors that have led to negative consequences and over which the individual has lost control. These are the behaviors from which the client is choosing to abstain.

In the middle circle, the client lists behaviors that may lead to sexual acting out. Identifying middle-circle behaviors is important from a neurological perspective. The amygdala is responsible for emotional memory; thus, it remembers stimuli associated with the experience of pleasure. After years of sex addiction, individuals likely have associated specific locations, sounds, sights, smells and actions with sexual pleasure. The middle circle, therefore, includes any stimuli, such as excessive fantasizing, cruising or sexually objectifying others, that may trigger the amygdala and lead to sexual craving.

Finally, the client uses the outermost circle to identify healthy behaviors that will support the individual’s recovery. These behaviors might include participating in 12-step groups, engaging in counseling, fostering spiritual practices, exercising, eating healthy, keeping home and work spaces nonchaotic, spending time doing recreational activities and increasing healthy social support.

Many counseling approaches and interventions, including cognitive-behavioral approaches, psychodynamic approaches, acceptance and commitment therapy, motivational interviewing, art therapy, group counseling, couple and family counseling, and even psychopharmacology, are appropriate for work with sex addiction. It is important to note that recovery from sex addiction often spans years rather than months. Clients, family members and partners may erroneously believe that recovery occurs within a matter of weeks and can become disheartened when initial attempts to change behavior are unsuccessful. Providing psychoeducation about the neurobiology of sex addiction can offer a more accurate perspective and create realistic expectations. Clients can find hope in the fact that, in time, the brain can heal and resolve dysregulation in the reward circuitry. This healing process takes time, however, and the completion of specific tasks such as those outlined in Patrick Carnes’ 30 tasks of recovery.

Additionally, sex addiction may not be the only concern addressed in treatment. Given the common mechanisms underlying addiction, it is not surprising that coaddictions to gambling, food, gaming, the internet or substances often exist among those with sex addiction. Furthermore, research supports the prevalence of comorbid mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, among those with sex addiction. Finally, a trauma-informed perspective may be necessary to help clients resolve trauma to improve emotion regulation.

Clinicians should take an integrated approach to address all addictive and mental health concerns in treatment. Integrated care may be more complex than addressing one concern at a time, but diverse treatment teams, supplemental or adjunct resources, and holistic recovery plans can best help clients reach long-term health and wholeness.

Advocating for clients

One of the most necessary forms of advocacy for this population is increased awareness related to sex addiction. During the Masters Tournament in 2010, roughly six months after the story broke concerning Tiger Woods’ sexual behavior and treatment for sex addiction, someone flew a plane over the Augusta National Golf Club with a banner reading, “Sex addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me too.”

It is inappropriate for anyone outside of Woods’ personal and professional circle to try to determine a clinical diagnosis for his case, but the plane and banner reflect a popular public sentiment: Sex addiction is not real. Advocates can work to increase public knowledge relating to sex addiction and dispense critical research about the condition.

Additionally, mental health professionals can take several practical steps to advocate for clients who are sexually addicted. Currently, many counseling centers do not include information about sex addiction on their websites or relevant items on their intake forms. This lack of acknowledgment may inadvertently communicate to clients that sex addiction is not an appropriate topic for counseling. Thus, one of the simplest forms of advocacy is to include the experience of compulsive sexual behavior on websites, advertisements and client intake forms.

Another important advocacy effort is to acknowledge that individuals of all genders can have sex addiction. Specifically, when community groups, media spokespeople or well-meaning educators leave women out of the conversation about addiction to sex or pornography, they add a layer of stigma for these individuals. Although prevalence rates may differ among genders (about 1 in 7 of those with sex addiction are women), it does not discount the salience of sex addiction among female populations.

Finally, the most recent standards of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs require educators to teach students about theory and etiology of addictive behaviors. Therefore, counselor training programs can advocate for future clients by infusing relevant, up-to-date information regarding sex (and other behavioral) addictions in the counseling curriculum.

Conclusion

Much work is needed to decrease the stigma and shame associated with sex addiction. Although stigma exists with any addiction, it seems particularly poignant with regard to compulsive sexual behavior. In the cycle of sex addiction, shame serves as both a precursor and a consequence of sexual acting out. Raising public awareness regarding the nature of sex addiction can help combat this shame.

Rather than conceptualizing compulsive sexuality as a moral failing, the addiction model provides a framework to empower clients to manage their condition while offering effective tools for recovery. Controversy may always exist regarding the conceptualization of sex addiction, but it is imperative to continue the conversation, increase empirical evidence and engage in advocacy efforts to serve and support this population.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Amanda L. Giordano is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. A licensed professional counselor, she specializes in addictions counseling and multiculturalism. Giordano serves on the executive board for the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling and the editorial review boards for the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling and Counseling and Values. Contact her at amandaleegiordano@gmail.com.

Craig S. Cashwell, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is an American Counseling Association fellow. Additionally, he maintains a part-time private practice focusing on couple counseling and addictions counseling. He serves as editor-in-chief of Counseling and Values.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

In search of an affirming faith

By Laurie Meyers July 25, 2018

One of Cyndi Matthews’ most vivid memories of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian church was watching the minister point at her brother’s best friend during a service and say, “You don’t belong here. Get out.” The reason? The boy was gay.

Matthews, a licensed professional counselor supervisor (LPC-S), says that incident was her first glimpse of a pattern of spiritual abuse directed at congregation members who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ). The animosity that leaders of the church held for LGBTQ members did not fit Matthews’ conception of Christianity. This religious cognitive dissonance would lead her to leave the church and subsequently focus her research and counseling practice on spiritual abuse.

Matthews, a member of the American Counseling Association, sees many LGBTQ clients in her Garland, Texas, private practice who struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs and experiences with their affectional orientation or gender identity. Many of these clients grew up internalizing a message that it wasn’t just their identity or orientation and behaviors that were wrong, but that there was something “wrong” with them as people, she says.

The LGBTQ community has frequently encountered intolerance from religious institutions. Although there are religious traditions that are affirming and open to LGBTQ people, many are not, says Misty Ginicola, lead editor of the book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People, published by ACA. Nonaffirming religious groups usually have markedly rigid beliefs — there is wrong and there is right, and nowhere in between, she says. These are the voices that call for anti-LGBTQ legislation under the guise of exercising their religious freedom. As a result, even LGBTQ individuals who do not identify as religious are affected by nonaffirming religious beliefs, points out Ginicola, a member of ACA.

This conflict has produced not just a broader culture clash, but in some religious traditions, a pernicious history of rejection and outright abuse of LGBTQ individuals. Many of Matthews’ LGBTQ clients have been subjected to a wide range of religiously sponsored or endorsed abusive techniques intended to “cure” them. One client — a gay male — was not allowed to cross his legs or wear pink. He was directed to pray anytime he had “gay” thoughts and to replace “gay behavior” with Scripture reading or increased proselytizing. Other of Matthews’ clients were sent to church-sponsored “reparative” retreats where they were prayed over or even subjected to “exorcisms.” Matthews, an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Louisiana Monroe, has also been told about particularly horrific techniques such as forced ice baths and electroconvulsive therapy.

The emotional and even physical abuse that some LGBTQ individuals from strict religious traditions experience is so traumatic that Matthews says all of the survivors she has encountered in her practice were actively suicidal or had been suicidal in the past. At the same time, because clients from strict religious traditions have internalized the idea that what they are told in their churches is God’s word, it is often difficult for them to label their experience as abuse, she says.

Even LGBTQ individuals who break away from their religious traditions so they can fully embrace their affectional or gender orientation have a hard time discounting what they were taught. If someone who identifies as LGBTQ has been told from a young age that they are inherently wrong and immoral, it creates an inner message that lingers, says Ginicola, an LPC in West Haven, Connecticut, whose practice specialties include LGBTQ issues.

Brady Sullivan, a provisionally licensed professional counselor specializing in LGBTQ issues, has worked with clients who believed God hated them. “Every time they engage in sexual or romantic behavior or participate in pride activities, they feel an overwhelming sense of guilt,” he says.

Examining beliefs

Matthews says that, despite their experiences with spiritual abuse, some of her LGBTQ clients still want to find a way to reconnect with religion or at least retain a sense of personal spirituality. Others no longer want anything to do with religion; they come to counseling to untwine the message of being sinful or wrong from their sense of self and sexuality or gender identity.

The therapeutic relationship that is the core of counseling is especially crucial with clients attempting to navigate a conflict between their religious upbringing or current beliefs and their identity as LGBTQ, Matthews says. When people have been taught to seek comfort and strength from a religious tradition that then ends up rejecting them, it feels like a violation of trust, she says. Unfortunately, that sense of rejection can be further compounded when people in the LGBTQ community seek therapy from a practitioner who turns out to be nonaffirming. Matthews always asks clients if they have previously been in counseling and, if so, what that experience was like. This information helps her to address the therapeutic trauma that some LGBTQ clients have experienced.

Matthews screens for spiritual abuse as part of her intake process. She asks clients about their religious background and beliefs and if their experiences are something they would like to address as part of the counseling process. She says that LGBTQ clients from strict or fundamentalist religious backgrounds are highly likely to have experienced spiritual abuse, so the question usually isn’t “if” they will need to work through their experiences, but “when.”

These clients don’t always disclose or even perceive a history of spiritual abuse. However, counselors can look for a number of red flags, Matthews says. These include clients who:

  • Talk about how they are the cause of their own suffering and need to attend church more and to be more faithful and forgiving to alleviate their suffering.
  • Display magical thinking attached to “good” and “bad” behavior; they commonly believe that accidents, illnesses and other tragedies are the result of their “sinful” behavior.
  • Have a difficult time setting boundaries and saying no because of underlying guilt and shame.
  • Feel powerless to take action or make decisions because they fear repercussions from family members, church members, church leaders or their personal deity.

It is critical that counselors understand their role as helping professionals dedicated to providing a safe and affirming space for all clients, including those who are LGBTQ, says Ginicola, a professor of counseling and school psychology and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Southern Connecticut State University. Simply sitting with clients, supporting them in their pain and validating their experiences helps the healing process begin, she says.

Once clients are ready to talk about their conflicted views and feelings related to their sexual or gender identity and their experiences with religion, Matthews helps them explore the harmful beliefs they have been holding on to and works to dispel them. She is careful not to disparage clients’ faith traditions but does encourage them to question whether the condemnation they have been confronted with is actually the voice of God.

Lorrie Byrd Slater, a licensed professional counselor-mental health services provider in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who counsels many survivors of spiritual abuse, uses her knowledge of Christianity to help clients examine their beliefs. She urges clients whose religious communities have condemned or disparaged them to consider what the Scriptures say about the nature of Jesus Christ. She then asks them if their experiences are in line with Christ’s teachings. Slater, an ACA member, also reminds clients that their particular church is just one church out of many; other places of worship hold very different — and affirming — views of LGBTQ individuals.

Ginicola says cognitive behavior therapy is particularly helpful when confronting clients’ internalized beliefs that being LGBTQ is wrong or sinful. She asks clients to consider how those beliefs began and who taught them that they are inherently wrong. Ginicola exposes clients to religious viewpoints that are affirming to LGBTQ individuals through documentaries and bibliotherapy or putting them in touch with affirming pastoral help. She also encourages clients to explore a question for themselves: If God is love, as they have been taught by their faith communities, how could he hate them?

Practicing GRACE

Both Ginicola and Sullivan have found the GRACE model originally developed by counselor R. Lewis Bozard and pastor Cody J. Sanders — particularly helpful for guiding LGBTQ clients through the resolution of their conflicted religious views. Sullivan, who is practicing part time in addition to earning his doctorate in counselor education at the University of Missouri–Saint Louis, emphasizes that the model is just a guide, not a step-by-step process. For most clients, he uses only a few of the “stages.” The process involves:

  • Goals: Sullivan, an ACA member, talks to clients about their religious background, asking questions such as what faith tradition they grew up in (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, other) and whether they identify with a particular denomination or sect. He also asks how they feel about what they have experienced, both good and bad.

Ultimately, he wants to find out what clients are hoping to achieve by addressing the conflicts they feel between religious belief and who they are as a person. Sullivan asks: “If you woke up tomorrow and all these issues went away, what would that look like?”

As Sullivan guides clients through their background and goals, he stays alert for reactions, particularly any signs of trauma. If a client seems too upset in a particular session, he will back off and switch to another topic.

  • Renewal of hope: This stage involves uncovering shame and abuse and working through it, Sullivan says. For instance, some nonaffirming religious leaders individually confront LGBTQ congregants with questions about their affectional orientation or gender identity. These confrontations often take on the tone of an interrogation, culminating with  a reminder that “God hates those people.”

Sullivan tells clients that although a particular pastor might think that God hates LGBTQ people, many other religious leaders and faith communities do not hold that belief. If clients are amenable, Sullivan offers to help them make contact with an affirmative pastor to talk about religious views that do not condemn those who are LGBTQ.

  • Action: This stage represents decision time. Sullivan and the client have talked about the religious conflict for a while, and together they’ve processed the client’s trauma and grief. What does the client want to do now?

Sullivan says his role is to explain clients’ options to them and help them identify what they need to do to move forward. Some clients choose to remain planted in their current religious tradition, unready to move on from a community in which their spiritual roots were cultivated, even if that means continuing to wrestle with painful beliefs and practices. Other clients want to stay under the larger umbrella of their current religious faith but choose to find another church home or denomination that is more affirming of LGBTQ people. Still others decide to make a more drastic change, such as converting to a different faith system entirely. And, finally, Sullivan says, many clients decide that they no longer want anything to do with religion at all.

  • Connection: For some clients, processing their past experiences and finding a new place to worship isn’t enough, Sullivan says. Instead, they need to examine their personal relationship with God or whatever higher power they relate to. Ultimately, this involves clients identifying what God or that higher power believes about them and how that affects their view of their religion as a whole.

For instance, Sullivan might probe by asking clients what they believe God’s reaction is when they engage in sexual activity with someone of the same sex. He says that most clients are only able to develop the view that although they are sinning, God loves them anyway.

Sullivan does not like to end the GRACE process with this belief still intact. However, he says the pervasive sense of shame that many LGBTQ clients feel often makes it difficult for them to let go of the notion that living a life that embraces their true affectional or gender identity is sinful behavior. “It’s a struggle to get people to realize that God has made them this way and to accept that they are not sinners,” he says.

  • Empowerment: Sullivan acknowledges that he doesn’t see this stage achieved very often. It takes place only after clients have taken some kind of step such as attending a different church, joining a church-affiliated small group gathering or Bible study, or connecting with a church-sponsored social event, he says. Counselors have an obligation to help clients process these experiences, particularly if they are negative.

“The goal of the empowerment phase is to keep the client traveling down the path toward connection of spiritual and sexual identities, even if they have a negative experience,” Sullivan explains. “This is important because self-confidence and comfort with sexual identity are increased as a result of exploring the intersection between spiritual and sexual identities.”

In reality, Sullivan says, most clients who go through the GRACE model still struggle to reconcile their religion beliefs with being LGBTQ, but they are more at peace with the conflict.

Looking for aff irmative alternatives

One way that counselors can support LGBTQ clients who want to maintain their religious affiliation but feel conflicted is to help them find an affirming congregation, Sullivan says. However, he stresses that counselors must do their due diligence. It isn’t enough to read that the church is part of an affirming denomination or to see that it includes a rainbow flag on its website.

To ensure that he isn’t sending clients into a religious environment that appears affirming but actually isn’t, Sullivan makes a point of calling churches directly. He tells whoever answers the phone that he is a gay man and wants to know the church’s stance on the LGBTQ community. If the person tells him that he is welcome to attend the church and that the church will pray for him and support him in efforts to leave the gay lifestyle, Sullivan thanks them for their honesty but says the church is not for him. Although “welcoming” to LGBTQ people on the surface, churches that hold those types of beliefs do not make it on to Sullivan’s “recommended” list for clients.

Matthews notes that some faith traditions pose a specific and significant challenge to LGBTQ individuals who want to maintain a religious connection. Churches such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church) embrace particularism — the belief that their particular religious tradition is the only authentic path to God. These paths rest on tenets that are significantly different from what mainstream Christians believe.

For those raised in a church that embraces particularism (and is not affirming of LGBTQ individuals), pursuing their faith by switching denominations is akin to losing their religion entirely, Matthews says. When someone has been told all their life that there is only one path to becoming a Christian and gaining salvation, envisioning another form of faith and worship is almost inconceivable, she explains.

LGBTQ individuals struggling to align their personal and religious identities may look to their families for support. Unfortunately, families are sometimes part of the problem, Matthews says. Many families find it difficult to reconcile their religious beliefs with the reality of their child identifying as LGBTQ.

Matthews has worked with couples from strict religious backgrounds grappling with how to support a child who, according to what the parents hear in church, is living a sinful lifestyle. She provides these parents with psychoeducation by recommending books, giving them information about PFLAG (an advocacy and support organization for the friends, families and allies of those who identify as LGBTQ) and answering their questions, such as whether being LGBTQ is a choice. Matthews might also ask the couple to look for what the Bible actually says about being gay rather than relying solely on what their religious leaders say.

Counselors must also consider that particularly for LGBTQ people of color (POC) or those of low socioeconomic status (SES), leaving their religion behind may also mean losing their community, Ginicola says. “If you are a POC or have low SES, religion is not just a place you go sometimes; it could be a lifeline,” she says.

Losing a whole community can be devastating for anyone, but particularly for someone who has multiple marginalized identities, Ginicola continues. She gives the hypothetical example of a gay black man who, by coming out, loses his church. But when he turns to the LGBTQ community, he may encounter sporadic instances of racism. As a result, he ends up feeling like he is not fully accepted — and, thus, can never feel totally comfortable — anywhere.

Counselors need to let those with marginalized multiple identities know that counseling is one place where they can be fully themselves, Ginicola says. Counseling can encompass all of who these clients are — black, Christian, gay — without judging. Many people seem to think that they can identify either as LGBTQ or religious, but not both, Ginicola notes. She believes the idea that these two identities can’t coexist is harmful because faith — believing in something greater than ourselves, even if it isn’t a deity — is an integral part of life.

Given their negative experiences, some LGBTQ people lose all desire to return to organized religion. Regardless, spirituality can remain a significant part of who they are as people, says Slater, an assistant professor of counseling and associate dean of students at Richmont Graduate University. Spirituality is not the same as religion. In fact, an individual’s spirituality may not even encompass God. Spirituality is simply something that is bigger than us and that provides people with a sense of purpose, Slater says. For some people, that sense of spirituality and meaning can derive from nature, philosophy, personal ideology, science or even the belief in human rights for all, she explains.

Even when LGBTQ clients ultimately decide that they no longer identify with their past religious faith, Matthews tells them that it is possible to hold on to certain positive aspects and values of their religious upbringing that still resonate with them, such as practicing generosity and gratitude and loving others. Or, if these individuals previously enjoyed reading the Bible as literature, she might suggest that they explore other religious or spiritual texts outside of their faith tradition. If the ritual of prayer once provided clients with a sense of peace, she might encourage them to replace that experience with something nonreligious, such as a meditation practice.

Wearing blinders

Counselors who identify as religious know that imposing their values on clients is unethical, and most counseling professionals work hard to bracket their beliefs. Laura Boyd Farmer, an assistant professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech, has published numerous research studies on LGBTQ issues. She recently completed a research study that has not yet been published but that was presented at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco. The study consisted of a survey that asked 455 mental health and school counselors how they thought their religious beliefs affected their work with LGBTQ clients.

Some respondents said that because their religious traditions were based on acceptance and the idea that Jesus loves everyone, their beliefs had a positive effect, helping them to provide LGBTQ-affirmative counseling. Other participants said their work was in line with their religious tradition, which calls on believers not to judge. Some counselors said that they disagreed with the LGBTQ “lifestyle” but chose not to judge. Others disclosed that their religious beliefs pose a conflict with which they struggle — striving to practice ethically despite their nonacceptance of LGBTQ individuals. Some respondents said that they agreed with the statement “love the sinner, hate the sin” and that this belief did not negatively affect their counseling of LGBTQ clients.

When counselors refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients because their religious beliefs tell them that doing so is wrong, that represents an obvious violation of the ACA Code of Ethics. But where things get tricky is with counselors who take a low-profile nonaffirming stance, says Farmer, an LPC who provides pro bono counseling for LGBTQ individuals in the Roanoke, Virginia, area. These are the counselors who say that they don’t agree with the “lifestyle” but wouldn’t refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients. These practitioners may think that no matter what their beliefs are, they can still maintain unconditional positive regard for their clients, but they might be operating with a big blind spot, Farmer contends.

To illustrate her point, she describes a recent casual conversation she had with a practicing counselor. This person talked about working with gay clients despite believing that being LGBTQ is a sin. The counselor said that they just tried not to judge. Farmer, an ACA member, asked how the practitioner was able to do that. Their response: “To be honest, it doesn’t come up.”

In providing counseling yet not fully accepting LGBTQ clients, this counselor was attempting to manage conflicts with their personal religious beliefs by avoiding pertinent topics. For example, Farmer says the practitioner was working with a gay youth struggling with depression, yet the challenges of identifying as LGBTQ “never came up.” Farmer says this makes her wonder how many other professional counselors are walking around wearing blinders.

Counselors like the one in Farmer’s story are not fully owning — or understanding — their bias, Ginicola says. A bias isn’t just, “I hate these people,” she explains. It’s also that working with someone who is LGBTQ doesn’t feel “right” and the counselor isn’t comfortable with it. By not confronting the discomfort, counselors are much more likely to miss signs (even if unintentionally), miscommunicate and project their worldview on the client rather than identifying the real issues, Ginicola asserts.

Disaffirming counselors resent that ACA’s ethics code requires them not just to set aside their personal beliefs to work with LGBTQ clients but to actually be advocates for them, Ginicola says. These counselors don’t view the experiences of LGBTQ clients as valid, she adds, and it is impossible to work effectively with clients unless you intrinsically embrace their value.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the importance of exploring aspects of religion and spirituality in clients’ lives, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Critical Incidents in Integrating Spirituality Into Counseling, edited by Tracey E. Robert and Virginia A. Kelly
  • Integrating Spirituality and Religion Into Counseling: A Guide to Competent Practice, second edition, edited by Craig S. Cashwell and J. Scott Young
  • Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, edited by Ellen P. Cook

Journal of Counseling & Development (counseling.org/publications/counseling-journals)

  • “Psychological Safety and Appreciation of Differences in Counselor Training Programs: Examining Religion, Spirituality and Political Beliefs” by Amanda L. Giordano, Cynthia M. Bevly, Sarah Tucker and Elizabeth A. Prosek
  • “The Ways Paradigm: A Transtheoretical Model for Integrating Spirituality Into Counseling” by Joseph A. Stewart-Sicking, Paul J. Deal and Jesse Fox

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

  • Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling

ACA divisions

  • Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (aservic.org) and Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (algbtic.org)

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

When post-abortion emotions need unpacking

By Bethany Bray April 3, 2018

Catherine Beckett, an American Counseling Association member with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, has made it a habit to avoid using “must” phrases with clients. “It sends a message to the client about what they’ve experienced,” says Beckett, who specializes in grief counseling. “I don’t ever want to say, ‘Oh, you must feel so guilty,’ or ‘You must feel so isolated,’ because that may not be the case at all.”

A case in point: when clients reveal in counseling that they have had an abortion at some point in their past. Some clients consider that experience to be just another piece of their life story, free of any negative associations. For others, the experience can evoke a range of issues, from spiritual and familial turmoil to attachment difficulties and feelings of loss. When dealing with such a highly charged topic, counselors must be prepared to put their own personal views aside to support clients who fall into either camp — and those who present a range of emotions in between.

Research cited by an American Psychological Association task force found that the majority of women who elect to have an abortion will not experience mental health difficulties afterward (see apa.org/pi/women/programs/abortion/). In February 2017, JAMA Psychiatry published a study titled “Women’s mental health and well-being 5 years after receiving or being denied an abortion.” The study observed 956 women over the course of five years, including 231 who initially were turned away from abortion facilities. Among the authors’ conclusions: “In this study, compared with having an abortion, being denied an abortion may be associated with greater risk of initially experiencing adverse psychological outcomes. Psychological well-being improved over time so that both groups of women eventually converged. These findings do not support policies that restrict women’s access to abortion on the basis that abortion harms women’s mental health.”

Even though most women will not experience long-term mental health problems after an abortion, some may still endure feelings of loss or encounter other negative emotions caused by external factors such as culture or family. For certain clients, a past abortion experience, whether it took place one month ago or decades ago, can be at the root of a range of issues — low self-esteem, relationship problems, disenfranchised grief — that surface during counseling sessions.

Beckett notes that most of the women she works with aren’t questioning their decision to have an abortion but rather “struggling to process it and place it in the narrative of their own lives in a way that feels comfortable.”

“As a practitioner, you should know about [abortion] and understand that within the population you’re seeing, it’s probably in their story,” says Jennie Brightup, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist in private practice outside of Wichita, Kansas. “You need to be prepared to know how to work with it.”

Counselors should approach the revelation of an abortion just like any other experience or issue that clients may have in their histories, Brightup says. “Have an open mind. Allow it to be something that can be a problem for your client. See that it could be an issue … [and] have some knowledge about how to treat it.”

‘You think you’re alone’

The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, estimates that in 2014 (the most recent data available), 926,200 abortions were performed among women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. This comes out to a rate of 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women.

The institute notes that this marks America’s lowest abortion rate since the process was legalized nationwide by the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. The U.S. abortion rate has seen a steady decline after peaking in 1980 and 1981 at close to 30 abortions per 1,000 women. Using the 2014 data, the Guttmacher Institute extrapolates that 5 percent of U.S. women will have an abortion by age 20; 19 percent will have an abortion by age 30; and 24 percent will have an abortion by age 45.

Abortion is more common than many people, including mental health practitioners, think, says Trudy Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who presented on “Choice Processing and Resolution: Bringing Abortion After-Care Into the 21st Century at ACA’s 2012 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Johnson, who had an abortion in college, says that for many people, processing the abortion experience is “a slow burn. It doesn’t affect you until later on. [Many] women have had an abortion, but you think you’re alone. You don’t feel you get to grieve it. … It’s a gut-level thing, a tender place. Many have never told a soul,” says Johnson, who specializes in trauma resolution, including abortion-related issues.

Connecting issues

For clients who have yet to process and place a past abortion into their self-narrative, it can feel like a sadness that they can’t quite pinpoint or define. “It’s kind of like a phantom pain. It’s there, but you don’t know why,” Johnson says.

Clients with a variety of presenting issues may have unprocessed emotions surrounding a past abortion that could be compounding their struggles, Johnson says. These issues can include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Complicated grief
  • Anger
  • Shame and guilt (especially shame that is undefined or has no apparent cause)
  • Self-loathing and self-esteem issues
  • Relationship issues (including destructive relationships)
  • Destructive behaviors (including substance abuse)

For certain clients, their unprocessed emotions can feel like a weight they have carried and buried deep within themselves for a long time without sharing it with anyone, Johnson says.

Johnson recalls one client who initially came for couples counseling with her husband but eventually started seeing Johnson for individual counseling. During a session, Johnson recognized that the woman was becoming upset, so she handed her a blanket and pillow for comfort. The client put the blanket over her head, obscuring her face, and disclosed that she had had an abortion 18 years prior. Her family had shamed her for the decision, and her feelings of shame were still so overwhelming that putting the blanket over her head was the only way she could bring herself to talk about the experience, Johnson recounts.

“You just can’t imagine the shame that [some of] these clients carry,” says Johnson, a private practitioner who splits her time between Arizona and Tennessee. “They just have to talk about it. We, as professionals, can be that safe place.”

Clients who have had abortions sometimes question whether they have the right to grieve because there was a choice involved to terminate their pregnancies, says Beckett, who is an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral counseling program at Oregon State University. The concept of the experience of disenfranchised grief — those who are not supported in their grief because it is not culturally recognized or validated — applies in these instances, Beckett says. In fact, the disenfranchisement can be both external (a loss not recognized by the client’s culture) and internal (a loss that the client, individually, does not recognize).

“People do not have the same kind of support and validation [to grieve a loss] when they’re disenfranchised, and that is a huge part of abortion grief,” Beckett says. “The emotional aftermath is so impacted by spiritual, political and ethical values and beliefs. That will really color how they process it and how much they’re able to reach out and get support. This all needs to go into our assessment of a client. What was their experience, but also how are they talking to themselves about it? All of that should inform how we offer support.”

Broaching the subject

Practitioners might want to consider asking clients (female and male) about pregnancy loss, including abortion, on intake forms. Brightup asks clients about past pregnancy loss in a genogram exercise she does in the first few sessions of counseling. If the client mentions an abortion, she simply makes a note and keeps going. It is not a topic she feels a need to jump on immediately, she says, and she doesn’t want to risk retraumatizing clients or prompting them to talk about it if they are not ready. Some clients may not mention an abortion on an intake form or genogram because they don’t consider it a loss or associate it with trauma, Brightup says. Others have buried the issue so deep that they don’t think about it or feel that it is worth mentioning, she adds.

“When you’re hearing their story, you can find places to check in and ask questions. Most of the time, I allow them to come around and tell me. It’s a core secret. If you feel [judgmental] to them, they’ll never tell you and they’ll run [stop coming to therapy],” says Brightup, a certified eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapist.

Practitioner language is also important, Beckett notes. “For some people, asking [if they have an abortion in their past] is giving them permission to talk about it. And the way we ask about it may give them clues about whether or not it is safe to talk to us about it,” she says. “For example, there’s a difference between, ‘Is this something you have experience with?’ and ‘Well, you haven’t had an abortion, have you?’”

Even the word “abortion” can provoke an intense reaction for some clients, Johnson says. In some cases, she will use the phrase “pregnancy termination” or even “the A word” with clients who feel triggered and begin to close themselves off.

“You might need to say it differently,” Johnson advises. “Abortion immediately turns it into a political, socially charged [issue]. Changing the terminology helps it to be safer.”

The key is to foster a safe, trusted bond so that clients will feel free to bring the topic up themselves when they are ready, Johnson says. “The most important thing is building a relationship of safety,” she emphasizes.

Different points on a path

Clients who disclose having an abortion in their past may vary widely on how they feel about the procedure and how much they have processed those feelings.

“There are clients who will come in and do not report having any mental health issues related to their abortion experience. Understand that they’re out there. But the other side is out there too,” Brightup says. Practitioners must be prepared to work with clients who express either sentiment — or a range of feelings in between.

Counselors should watch their clients’ body language and other cues, especially in cases in which a client is emphatic or even defensive when talking about an abortion. It is wise to unpack the client’s experience and associated feelings over time, Brightup says.

If counselors disagree with a client’s assertions concerning how she feels about the procedure, “you can lose the client because they won’t come back [to therapy],” she says. “Agree with their narrative. In little pieces, once they trust you, you can come back to the story and probe a little, ask a few questions as gently and carefully as you can.”

Some clients will have fit the abortion into their self-narrative and moved on, whereas others won’t be as far along in the journey. Still others will have worked through their feelings surrounding the procedure in a healthy way previously but may find themselves struggling with it again as they move into another life stage such as pregnancy or motherhood, Beckett says.

This was the case for one of Beckett’s clients who sought counseling because she was struggling with powerful emotions that had resurfaced. The client had undergone an abortion when she was 17. Later in her life, she had a daughter, and that daughter was now turning 17 herself. Even though her daughter wasn’t facing any type of decision regarding pregnancy or abortion, her age triggered feelings in the client that needed more therapeutic attention.

The client’s abortion had been illegal at the time where she lived, so she had felt compelled to keep it a secret, Beckett explains. The client realized her daughter was now the age she had been when she had an abortion. “The mother saw, for the first time, how young she [had been] and how desperately she had needed love and support at the time, and she didn’t get it,” Beckett says. The realization was “exquisitely painful” for the client, but at the same time, it brought “a new level of compassion for her 17-year-old self,” Beckett recounts.

“She took a great deal of comfort in knowing that if her daughter were to get pregnant, it would be an entirely different experience. Her daughter would have the support of her family and better care,” Beckett says.

The hard work of unpacking

Just as clients will differ in the work they have done — or haven’t done — to process the emotions surrounding an abortion, the support and interventions they might need from a counselor will also vary.

“People grieve very differently, and we need to be ready to support people however they are doing it,” Beckett says. “Some people are going to want to take action or give back somehow. Others will respond to more creative processes or ritual creation. Others will want a quiet, safe place to process.”

Normalizing a client’s experience can be a much-needed first step. Beckett says that talking about how common abortion is, and the fact that many people feel a need to process their feelings afterward, can bring relief to clients. Practitioners can also help clients reframe their thoughts to realize that feelings of relief after the procedure are common, as is a fear of judgment and a sense of isolation that can accompany that fear.

“Figure out what this particular client’s experience is and then, if appropriate, offer normalization of that,” Beckett says. “Support them to determine what is needed to move them toward greater comfort and peace. Offer them ideas and support around getting those things that they need.”

In Brightup’s experience, post-abortion work with clients often falls into four quadrants:

  • Reconciling how clients feel about themselves
  • Engaging in grief work around how clients perceive and feel about the loss (if they do indeed view it as a loss)
  • Working through clients’ spiritual issues or any inner tensions related to “rules” that were broken
  • Working on clients’ relationships and how they relate to people: Are there areas that need healing?

From there, practitioners should tailor their approaches to meet each client’s individual needs and pacing, Brightup says. She often uses sand tray therapy as a tool to help clients talk about post-abortion loss and find closure. Journaling, writing letters or poems, creating art and engaging in other creative outlets can also be helpful, she says. Certain clients may respond to creating some kind of physical memorial or taking time out of a counseling session to do a remembrance with just the two of you, Brightup adds.

Beckett agrees that counselors should collaborate with clients to find a ritual or activity that works for them. Although many clients will make progress through talk therapy or by connecting in group work to those who have had similar experiences, others will feel a need to take some kind of action, Beckett says. Creating memorials and rituals, writing letters or participating in other creative interventions can help these clients to process their emotions and experiences.

For one of Beckett’s clients, healing involved creating a special ritual on what would have been her child’s due date. Each year, the client would be intentional about spending time with a child — whether a niece or a nephew or the child of a friend — who was the same age that her child would have been.

“She came in pretty soon after her abortion, and she knew she needed help to process it,” Beckett says. “She wasn’t questioning the decision, but she was having trouble [with the fact] that her life would move forward but the life of the baby she had not had wouldn’t move forward. She wrote a letter to that baby expressing her caring and regret and explaining why she felt she couldn’t bring him or her into the world. Every year on her due date, she would find a way to connect with a child she knew that would be that age. She would spend time with that child and make it a good day for them.”

Whereas this intervention helped this particular client to find peace, “for other clients, the thought of that would seem hellish,” Beckett stresses. “There’s no prescription for this. It’s a process of figuring out what is still remaining and needs to be released. Talk with the
client to find creative ways to be able to do that.”

Counselors can help clients navigate areas in which they feel emotionally stuck, Beckett explains. For example, one of her clients was struggling even though she had worked through many of the emotions she had experienced after an abortion. The client had three children, and when she became pregnant with a fourth, she and her partner made the decision to terminate the pregnancy.

“There was one part that she couldn’t get OK with: ‘I see myself as someone who takes care of others,’” Beckett says. “That’s where we focused: How did she define ‘taking care’? How did this decision threaten her self-concept? We dove into that area and she eventually realized that terminating the pregnancy was taking care of her fourth child. That was the best way to take care of that child, instead of bringing the child into an already-overwhelmed system that wouldn’t have been able to provide what the child needed.”

Johnson finds narrative therapy a useful approach when focusing on post-abortion issues with clients. Giving them the freedom to tell the story of their abortion — how old they were, how it happened, who came with them that day — can be powerful, she says. Sometimes clients won’t remember the details about their abortion because they’ve blocked them out, Johnson says, but as they open up and talk about the experience in therapy, they often start to recall things.

“This has been in their head for years. When they finally start talking about it, they go on and on because that’s [often] what they need,” Johnson says. “You can see the layers coming off as they’re processing it verbally, the whole story. … Letting them talk about the details and tell their story is a starting point.”

When relevant, Johnson also helps clients identify all the points of grief connected to the abortion beyond the loss of a pregnancy. For example, clients might have experienced a breakup with their romantic partners or the breakdown of a relationship with their parents or other family members either leading up to or after the abortion. Giving clients permission to grieve and accept the loss of these things is an important step, Johnson says.

There are “so many layers to this. The main thing [for counselors] is being a safe place. The impact of a hidden abortion could really be affecting the outcome of your therapy if it’s not addressed. Be aware that there could be this issue under all of the other stuff [the presenting issues],” Johnson says.

“Treat this as a disenfranchised and complicated grief situation, and take out all the political mess and pros and cons,” she continues. “The client has already made a choice. Let’s forget about that and just work on the grief. They’re not the same person that they were when they made the choice. They’re a different person now, so they need to have permission to revisit that time in their life and be free of it. The therapist is kind of a vessel of freedom for that, and it’s a wonderful place. … You’re helping them overcome the bondage, pain and grief that’s been with them for so long.”

Putting personal feelings aside

Abortion remains one of the most politically and socially polarizing issues in modern-day America. Despite this — or, in some cases, because of this — certain clients are going to need to work through issues related to abortion in the counseling office. A practitioner’s role is to be a support through it all, regardless of his or her own personal views on the topic.

Brightup urges counselors to rely on their training, which includes setting personal opinions aside and being what the client needs.

Creating a neutral and welcoming space for clients to talk about such a sensitive topic is paramount, Johnson agrees. “If you don’t have any experience working in this area, you can do more damage without meaning to,” she says. “Or, for some people, there’s a hidden implication that if you help a client through feelings related to an abortion, you’re condoning abortion.” That is simply not true, she stresses.

Beckett agrees. “Clients need a safe and nonjudgmental space to share [about their abortion experience], and that’s hard for some counselors based on their own belief system. It’s not going to be easy for all counselors — that affirmation of [the client’s] right to grieve. [But] a client needs support to determine what is needed to move them toward greater comfort and peace. Offer them ideas and support around getting those things that they need.”

 

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Disclosing an innermost secret

As clients process post-abortion emotions, they may struggle with the decision to tell others, including a current or former partner. What should a counselor’s role be in that process? Read more in our online-exclusive article: wp.me/p2BxKN-54z

 

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Related resources

  • The upcoming ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta includes an education session titled “Compassion and Self-compassion: Therapeutic Approaches to Heal From Grief and Loss” (Saturday, April 28, 7:30 a.m.). See the full conference program at counseling.org/conference.
  • For more on the mandate for counselors to practice competent, nonjudgmental care, refer to the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics at counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics/code-of-ethics-resources. ACA members with specific questions can schedule a free ethics consultation by calling 800-347-6647 ext. 321 or emailing ethics@counseling.org.
  • Interested in networking with other ACA members on this and other related issues? ACA has interest networks that focus on women’s issues, grief and bereavement, sexual wellness and other topics. Find out more at counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks.

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Understanding and treating survivors of incest

By David M. Lawson March 6, 2018

Adults with histories of being abused as children present unique challenges for counselors. For instance, these clients often struggle with establishing and maintaining a therapeutic alliance. They may rapidly shift their notion of the counselor from very favorable to very unfavorable in line with concomitant shifts in their emotional states. Furthermore, they may anxiously expect the counselor to abandon them and thus increase pressure on the counselor to prove otherwise. Ironically, attempts at reassurance by the counselor may actually serve to validate these clients’ fears of abandonment.

The motivating factor for many of these clients is mistrust of people in general — and often for good reason. This article explores the psychological and interpersonal aspect of child sexual abuse by a parent and its treatment, with a particular focus on its relationship to betrayal trauma, dissociation and complex trauma.

Incest and its effects

Child abuse of any kind by a parent is a particularly negative experience that often affects survivors to varying degrees throughout their lives. However, child sexual abuse committed by a parent or other relative — that is, incest — is associated with particularly severe psychological symptoms and physical injuries for many survivors. For example, survivors of father-daughter incest are more likely to report feeling depressed, damaged and psychologically injured than are survivors of other types of child abuse. They are also more likely to report being estranged from one or both parents and having been shamed by others when they tried to share their experience. Additional symptoms include low self-esteem, self-loathing, somatization, low self-efficacy, pervasive interpersonal difficulties and feelings of contamination, worthlessness, shame and helplessness.

One particularly damaging result of incest is trauma bonding, in which survivors incorporate the aberrant views of their abusers about the incestuous relationship. As a result, victims frequently associate the abuse with a distorted form of caring and affection that later negatively influences their choice of romantic relationships. This can often lead to entering a series of abusive relationships.

According to Christine Courtois (Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy) and Richard Kluft (“Ramifications of incest” in Psychiatric Times), greater symptom severity for incest survivors is associated with:

  • Longer duration of abuse
  • Frequent abuse episodes
  • Penetration
  • High degree of force, coercion and intimidation
  • Transgenerational incest
  • A male perpetrator
  • Closeness of the relationship
  • Passive or willing participation
  • Having an erotic response
  • Self-blame and shame
  • Observed or reported incest that continues
  • Parental blame and negative judgment
  • Failed institutional responses: shaming, blaming, ineffectual effort
  • Early childhood onset

Incest that begins at a young age and continues for protracted periods — the average length of incest abuse is four years — often results in avoidance-based coping skills (for example, avoidance of relationships and various dissociative phenomena). These trauma-forged coping skills form the foundation for present and future interpersonal interactions and often become first-line responses to all or most levels of distress-producing circumstances.

More than any other type of child abuse, incest is associated with secrecy, betrayal, powerlessness, guilt, conflicted loyalty, fear of reprisal and self-blame/shame. It is of little surprise then that only 30 percent of incest cases are reported by survivors. The most reliable research suggests that 1 in 20 families with a female child have histories of father-daughter child sexual abuse, whereas 1 in 7 blended families with a female child have experienced stepfather-stepdaughter child sexual abuse (see the revised edition of The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women by Diana E. H. Russell, published in 1999).

In 1986, David Finkelhor, known for his work on child sexual abuse, indicated that among males who reported being sexually abused as children, 3 percent reported mother-son incest. However, most incest-related research has focused on father-daughter or stepfather-stepdaughter incest, which is the focus of this article.

Subsequent studies of incest survivors indicated that being eroticized early in life disrupted these individuals’ adult sexuality. In comparison with nonincest controls, survivors experienced sexual intercourse earlier, had more sex partners, were more likely to have casual sex with those outside of their primary relationships and were more likely to engage in sex for money. Thus, survivors of incest are at an increased risk for revictimization, often without a conscious realization that they are being abused. This issue often creates confusion for survivors because the line between involuntary and voluntary participation in sexual behavior is blurred.

An article by Sandra Stroebel and colleagues, published in 2013 in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, indicates that risk factors for father-daughter incest include the following:

  • Exposure to parent verbal or physical violence
  • Families that accept father-daughter nudity
  • Families in which the mother never kisses or hugs her daughter (overt maternal affection was identified as a protective factor against father-daughter incest)
  • Families with an adult male other than the biological father in the home (i.e., a stepfather or substitute father figure)

Finally, some qualitative research notes that in limited cases, mothers with histories of being sexually abused as a child wittingly or unwittingly contribute to the causal chain of events leading to father-daughter incest. Furthermore, in cases in which a mother chooses the abuser over her daughter, the abandonment by the mother may have a greater negative impact on her daughter than did the abuse itself. This rejection not only reinforces the victim’s sense of worthlessness and shame but also suggests to her that she somehow “deserved” the abuse. As a result, revictimization often becomes the rule rather than the exception, a self-fulfilling prophecy that validates the victim’s sense of core unworthiness.

Beyond the physical and psychological harm caused by father-daughter incest, Courtois notes that the resulting family dynamics are characterized by:

  • Parent conflict
  • Contradicting messages
  • Triangulation (for example, parents aligned against the child or perpetrator parent-child alignment against the other parent)
  • Improper parent-child alliances within an atmosphere of denial and secrecy

Furthermore, victims are less likely to receive support and protection due to family denial and loyalty than if the abuser were outside the family or a stranger. Together, these circumstances often create for survivors a distorted sense of self and distorted relationships with self and others. If the incest begins at an early age, survivors often develop an inherent sense of mistrust and danger that pervades and mediates their perceptions of relationships and the world as a whole.

Betrayal trauma theory

Betrayal trauma theory is often associated with incest. Psychologist Jennifer Freyd introduced the concept to explain the effects of trauma perpetrated by someone on whom a child depends. Freyd holds that betrayal trauma is more psychologically harmful than trauma committed or caused by a noncaregiver. “Betrayal trauma theory posits that under certain conditions, betrayals necessitate a ‘betrayal blindness’ in which the betrayed person does not have conscious awareness or memory of the betrayal,” Freyd wrote in her book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse.

Betrayal trauma theory is based on attachment theory and is consistent with the view that it is adaptive to block from awareness most or all information about abuse (particularly incest) committed by a caregiver. Otherwise, total awareness of the abuse would acknowledge betrayal information that could endanger the attachment relationship. This “betrayal blindness” can be viewed as an evolutionary and nonpathological adaptive reaction to a threat to the attachment relationship with the abuser that thus explains the underlying dissociative amnesia in survivors of incest. Under these circumstances, survivors often are unaware that they are being abused, or they will justify or even blame themselves for the abuse. In severe cases, victims often have little or no memory of the abuse or complete betrayal blindness. Under such conditions, dissociation is functional for the victim, at least for a time.

Consider the case of “Ann,” who had been repeatedly and severely physically and sexually abused by her father from ages 4 to 16. As an adult, Ann had little to no memory of the abuse. As a result of the abuse, she had developed nine alternate identities, two of which contained vivid memories of the sexual and physical abuse. Through counseling, she was able to gain awareness of and access to all nine alternate identities and their functions.

Although Ann expressed revulsion and anger toward her father, she also expressed her love for him. At times, she would lapse into moments of regret for disclosing the abuse, saying that “it wasn’t so bad” and that the worst thing that had happened was that she had lost her “daddy.” During these moments, Ann minimized the severity of the abuse, wishing that she had kept the incest secret so that she could still have a relationship with her father. This was an intermittent longing for Ann that occurred throughout counseling and beyond.

Thus, understanding attachment concepts is critical for understanding betrayal traumas such as incest. Otherwise, counselors might be inclined to blame survivors or might feel confused and even repulsed by survivors’ behaviors and intentions. For many survivors, the caregiver-abuser represents the best and the worst of her life at various times. She needs empathy and support, not blame.

Dissociation

As defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, dissociation is “a disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, perception, body representation, motor control and behavior.” Depending on the severity of the abuse, dissociative experiences can interfere with psychological functioning across the board. Survivors of incest often experience some of the most severe types of dissociation, such as dissociative identity disorder and dissociative amnesia (the inability to recall autobiographical information). Dissociative experiences often are triggered by perceived threat at a conscious or unconscious level.

As previously noted, betrayal trauma theory holds that for incest survivors, dissociative amnesia serves to maintain connection with an attachment figure by excluding knowledge of the abuse (betrayal blindness). This in turn reduces or eliminates anxiety about the abuse, at least in the short run. Conversely, many survivors of childhood incest report continuous memories of the abuse, as well as the anxiety and felt terror related to the abuse. Often, these individuals will find a way to leave their homes and abusers. This is less frequently the case for survivors who experience dissociative amnesia or dissociative identity disorder.

Depersonalization and derealization distort the individual’s sense of self and her sensory input of the environment through the five senses. For example, clients who have experienced incest often report that their external world, including people, shapes, sizes, colors and intensities of these perceptions, can change quickly and dramatically at times. Furthermore, they may report that they do not recognize themselves in a mirror, causing them to mistrust their own perceptions.

As one 31-year-old incest survivor stated, “For so many years, everything within me and around me felt and looked unreal, dull, dreary, fragmented, distant.” This is an example of depersonalization/derealization. She continued, “This, along with the memory gaps, forgetfulness and inability to recall simple everyday how-tos, like how to drive a car or remember the step-by-step process of getting ready for the day, made me feel crazy. But as I improved in counseling, my perceptions of my inside and outside worlds became clearer, more stable, and brighter and more distinct than before counseling. It all came to make more sense and feel right. It took me years to see the world as I think other people see it. From time to time I still experience that disconnection and confusion, but so much less frequently now than before.”

Initially, some real or perceived threat triggers these distorted perceptions of self and outer reality, but eventually they become a preset manner of perceiving the world. Reports such as this one are not uncommon for survivors of incest and often are exacerbated as these individuals work through the process of remembering and integrating trauma experiences into a coherent life narrative. For many survivors, a sense of coherence and stability is largely a new experience; for some, it can be threatening and trigger additional dissociative experiences. The saying “better a familiar devil than an unfamiliar angel” seems to apply here.

The severity of dissociation for survivors of incest is related to age onset of trauma exposure and a dose-response association, with earlier onset, more types of abuse and greater frequency of abuse associated with more severe impairment across the life span. Incest is associated with the most severe forms of dissociative symptoms such as dissociative identity disorder. Approximately 95 to 97 percent of individuals with dissociative identity disorder report experiencing severe childhood sexual and physical abuse.

Fragmentation in one’s sense of self, accompanied by amnesia of abuse memories, is particularly functional when children cannot escape the abuse circumstances. These children are not “present” during the abuse, so they often are not aware of the physical and emotional pain associated with the abuse. Yet this fragmented sense of self contributes to a sense of emptiness and absence, memory problems and dissociative self-states. Many survivors of incest are able to “forget” about the abuse until sometime later in adulthood when memories are triggered by certain events or when the body and mind are no longer able to conceal the memories. The latter results from the cumulative effect of lifelong struggles related to the incest (for example, interpersonal problems and emotional dysregulation). It takes a great deal of psychological and physical resources to “forget” trauma memories.

Dissociation, especially if it involves ongoing changes in perceptions of self and others, different presentations of self and memory problems, may result in difficulty forming and maintaining a therapeutic alliance. Dissociation disrupts the connection between the client and the counselor. It also disrupts clients’ connections with their inner experience. If these clients do not perceive themselves and their surroundings as stable, they will mistrust not only their counselors but also their own perceptions, which create ongoing confusion.

Thus, counselors must remain alert to subtle or dramatic fluctuations in survivors’ presentation styles, such as changes in eye contact or shifts in facial features from more engaged and animated to flat facial features. Changes in voice tone quality and cadence (from verbally engaged to silent) or in body posture (open versus closed) are other signs of possible dissociative phenomena. Of course, all or none of these changes may be indicators of dissociative phenomena.

Complex trauma

Incest, betrayal trauma and dissociative disorders are often features of a larger diagnostic categorization — complex trauma. Incest survivors rarely experience a single incident of sexual abuse or only sexual abuse. It is more likely that they experience chronic, multiple types of abuse, including sexual, physical, emotional and psychological, within the caregiving system by adults who are expected to provide security and nurturance.

Currently, an official diagnostic category for complex trauma does not exist, but one is expected to be added to the revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) that is currently in development. Marylene Cloitre, a member of the World Health Organization ICD-11 stress and trauma disorders working group, notes that the new complex trauma diagnosis focuses on problems in self-organization resulting from repeated/chronic exposure to traumatic stressors from which one cannot escape, including childhood abuse and domestic violence. Among the criteria she highlighted for complex trauma are:

  • Disturbances in emotions: Affect dysregulation, heightened emotional reactivity, violent outbursts, impulsive and reckless behavior, and dissociation.
  • Disturbances in self: Defeated/diminished self, marked by feeling diminished, defeated and worthless and having feelings of shame, guilt or despair (extends despair).
  • Disturbances in relationships: Interpersonal problems marked by difficulties in feeling close to others and having little interest in relationships or social engagement more generally.
    There may be occasional relationships, but the person has great difficulty maintaining them.

Early onset of incest along with chronic exposure to complex trauma contexts interrupts typical neurological development, often leading to a shift from learning brain (prefrontal cortex) to survival brain (brainstem) functioning. As explained by Christine Courtois and Julian Ford, survivors experience greater activation of the primitive brain, resulting in a survival mode rather than activation of brain structures that function to make complex adjustments to the current environment. As a result, survivors often exhibit an inclination toward threat avoidance rather than being curious and open to experiences. Complex trauma undermines survivors’ ability to fully integrate sensory, emotional and cognitive data into an organized, coherent whole. This lack of a consistent and coherent sense of self and one’s surroundings can create a near ever-present sense of confusion and disconnection from self and others.

Regular or intermittent complex trauma exposure creates an almost continual state of anxiety and hypervigilance and the intrinsic expectation of danger. Incest survivors are at an increased risk for multiple impairments, revictimization and loss of support.

Treatment issues

Although a comprehensive description of treatment is well beyond the scope of this article, I will close with a general overview of treatment concepts. Treatment for incest parallels the treatment approaches for complex trauma, which emphasizes symptom reduction, development of self-capacities (emotional regulation, interpersonal relatedness and identity), trauma processing and the addressing of dissociative experiences.

Compromised self-capacities intensify symptom severity and chronicity. Among these self-capacities, emotional dysregulation is a major symptom cluster that affects other self-capacity components. For example, if a survivor consistently struggles with low frustration tolerance for people and copes by avoiding people, responding defensively, responding in a placating manner or dissociating, she likely will not have the opportunity to develop fulfilling relationships. The following core concepts, published in the May 2005 Psychiatric Annals, were suggested by Alexandra Cook and colleagues for consideration when implementing a treatment regimen for complex trauma, including with incest survivors and with adaptations for clients with dissociative identity disorder.

1) Safety: Develop internal and environmental safety procedures.

2) Self-regulation: Enhance the capacity to moderate and rebalance arousal across the areas of affective state, behavior, physiology, cognition, interpersonal relatedness and self-attribution.

3) Self-reflective information processing: Develop the ability to focus attentional processes and executive functioning on the construction of coherent self-narratives, reflecting on past and present experience, anticipation and planning, and decision-making.

4) Traumatic experiences integration: Engage in resolution and integration of traumatic memories and associated symptoms through meaning making, traumatic memory processing, remembrance and mourning of traumatic loss, development of coping skills, and fostering present-oriented thinking and behavior.

5) Relational engagement: Repair, restore or create effective working models of attachment and application of these models to current interpersonal relationships, including the therapeutic alliance. Emphasis should be placed on development of interpersonal skills such as assertiveness, cooperation, perspective taking, boundary and limit setting, reciprocity, social empathy and the capacity for physical and emotional intimacy.

6) Positive affect enhancement: Work on the enhancement of self-worth, self-esteem and positive self-appraisal through the cultivation of personal creativity, imagination, future orientation, achievement, competence, mastery seeking, community building and the capacity to experience pleasure.

Typically, these components are delivered within a three-phase model of counseling that is relationship-based, cognitive behavioral in nature and trauma focused:

  • Safety, self-regulation skill development and alliance formation
  • Trauma processing
  • Consolidation

The relational engagement component is particularly critical because for many survivors, to be attached often has meant to be abused. Furthermore, accompanying feelings of shame, self-loathing and fear of abandonment create a “failure identity” that results in low expectations for change. Additionally, it is important for counselors to attend to client transference issues and counselor countertransference issues. Courtois suggests that ignoring or assuming that such processes are irrelevant to the treatment of survivors can undermine the treatment process and outcome.

In addition, strength-based interventions are critical in each phase to help survivors develop a sense of self-efficacy and self-appreciation for the resources they already possess. A strength-based focus also contributes to client resilience.

For some clients, dissociated self-states or parts will emerge. Counselors should assume that whatever is said to one part will also be heard by the other parts. Therefore, addressing issues in a manner that encourages conversation between parts, including the core self-structure, is critical. It is also important to help parts problem-solve together and support each other. This is not always an easy proposition. A long-term goal would be some form of integration/fusion or accord among alternate identities. Some survivors eventually experience full unification of parts, whereas others achieve a workable form of integration without ever fully unifying all of their alternate identities (for more, see Treating Trauma-Related Dissociation: A Practical, Integrative Approach by Kathy Steele, Suzette Boon and Onno van der Hart).

Finally, it must be mentioned that repeated exposure to horrific stories of incest can overwhelm counselors’ capacity to maintain a balanced relationship with clear boundaries. A client’s transference can push the boundaries of an ethical and therapeutic client-counselor relationship. Furthermore, the frequent push-pull dynamics between counselor and client can be exhausting, both physically and mentally for counselors. Therefore, it is important for counselors to frequently seek supervision and consultation and to engage in self-care physically, psychologically and spiritually.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences

David M. Lawson is a professor of counselor education and director of the Center for Research and Clinical Training in Trauma at Sam Houston State University. His research focuses on childhood sexual and physical abuse, complex trauma and dissociation related to trauma. He also maintains an independent practice focusing on survivors of posttraumatic stress disorder and complex trauma. Contact him at dml3466@aol.com.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.