Through our traumas, we are often at risk of ingesting our perpetrators, continuing to perpetuate the same cycles of abuse and abandonment on ourselves and on others, and believing the messages of unworthiness communicated through the injuries that were inflicted. Left unchecked, these messages can be fully absorbed like toxins through our skin, and we may not even know we are infected.
It is not enough to help our clients identify the source of their ongoing patterns and propensity to both abuse and abandon. We must also help them reveal how these beliefs continue to affect their relationships with themselves and limit their ability to truly heal.
Powerless to change
“Devin,” 45, had started therapy because of complicated grief associated with having his fiancée leave him several months before our first meeting. Devin was severely depressed and was becoming increasingly suicidal. Early sessions included taking a close look at Devin’s relationships, which revealed a pattern of abuse set in motion by growing up with a mother who had been both physically and sexually abusive to Devin at a young age.
Because of early trauma, Devin had grown up believing he would continue to be victimized. At first, treatment involved uncovering this belief and how it had defined his relationships with others. We unpacked his various traumas and co-created a space in which he could process these events and integrate them differently along the way. Motivated, Devin worked hard to change how he had narrowly defined himself and began broadening his personal identity. Knowing he was making progress, I was not expecting the reemergence of earlier symptoms, dying embers of self-abuse growing once again into a raging fire.
One day, coming in for a session looking simultaneously exhausted and agitated, Devin discussed feeling increasingly hopeless. We revisited the progress he had made up to that point, how he had fostered compassion for himself and his perpetrators, and how he had taken steps toward a bright and meaningful future. But despite these efforts to shine light on his growth, Devin continued to feel both stuck and helpless to move any further. It became obvious that he still believed he was powerless to change his life.
Feeling his frustration, I asked Devin how he could continue his healing while also holding on to a belief that he could not change. Although abrasive, his victim identity had become a comfortable blanket he wrapped tightly around himself throughout his life. We discussed how it was hard to let go and identified the various ways he continued to stay in the shadows. For example, precious time in counseling was still spent focusing on many of the people who had hurt him. It was at these moments of misguided focus that he continued to disappear, abandoning himself in the process of trying to understand and predict the actions of others.
Open to the idea that he had been binding himself, we discussed the true nature of acceptance. Acceptance is not about needing to embrace the events that have happened; it is about embracing the impact of these events. This involves being completely present to our experience (while simultaneously limiting the overwhelm), feeling the fullness of our grief and loss, and acknowledging what we need along the way.
Early on in counseling, time spent dissecting the actions of others may have been valuable in regard to deepening Devin’s understanding that his abuse was not his fault. But at some point, more time needed to be spent acknowledging his personal experience and his needs moving forward. Extinguishing the flames of abandonment involves catching those moments when we abandon ourselves. By focusing only on those who abandoned us, we can slip back into the abyss, feeling powerless with no obvious way out.
As Devin became more proficient at recognizing his own patterns of abandonment, he also became more adept at focusing on his feelings, his passions, his desires and, ultimately, his true identity. Changing how he related to himself and the belief that he had to abandon allowed him the opportunity to let go more fully and ultimately get back on the journey to focusing on what was truly in his control.
Attempting to solve the problem with the problem
“Reece,” 53, was an accomplished career woman. Always impeccably dressed and looking as if she had just stepped out of a salon, Reece maintained a successful business. At the same time, she was also struggling with an alcohol problem and unresolved grief surrounding the recent loss of another meaningful relationship in her life.
Reece had grown up with parents who focused solely on achievement and withheld love from her when she failed to perform at high levels. She discussed, for example, how her father had encouraged her to start dieting at age 12, limiting treats when she didn’t lose weight, and how both parents rarely acknowledged her perfect report cards, stating that her academic achievements were expected and nothing to celebrate. As perfectionism took root at a young age, Reece constantly chased approval from others, believing she was never good enough despite her numerous achievements.
Through early stages of counseling, Reece became more aware of her drive for perfection and why it had evolved. We discussed how her need to perform continued to run her life and affect her relationships with others. She routinely chose partners who affirmed the belief that she had to perform or else be punished. Although it was useful information for Reece to realize how perfectionism was part of how she had survived as a child, it became apparent that her growing awareness was not enough to effect change. She became increasingly impatient (both with herself and with me) and progress slowed. She would have occasional bursts of confidence and clarity, but inevitably she would slip back into her depression and grief over the loss of her relationship with her boyfriend. It was during these “slips” that her self-abuse would also become amplified. In addition to other forms of self-injury, she began coming to therapy with scratches on her neck and the backs of her hands.
During one particularly difficult session in which Reece arrived with fresh cuts, I told her that she may be “stuck” because she was attempting to solve the problem with the problem. She had tried to approach healing and recovery the same way she had approached everything else in her life — with perfection, unrealistically high expectations and punishment in various forms when she failed to deliver.
In her push to move quickly through recovery, she routinely minimized her feelings, berating herself for not moving forward and effectively tightening the chokehold of both abuse and abandonment. Acknowledgement is the No. 1 prescription for healing and recovery because it is the exact opposite of what has been done. With traumatic events, our needs have been completely disregarded. Reece’s refusal to acknowledge her grief and despair had simply created more of the same. Her substance abuse and self-injury were two more perpetrators serving to mute and minimize her feelings and needs.
Beginning to recognize that sitting in the mess was also a way to move through it, Reece started to practice patience for her own natural healing process. She began working toward the idea that she was inherently lovable because of who she was, not because of what she did. She began seeking acknowledgment from caring others and received additional messages of worthiness in the process. Increasing her exposure to lovingkindness was the antidote.
Letting go is a challenging and difficult practice. It requires commitment, recommitment and tremendous patience. When therapy seems to stagnate and our clients feel as though they are hitting an unmovable wall, it may simply mean that they are getting ready to push through to the other side. Sometimes letting go of our old identities, even the ones born out of abuse and abandonment, can activate both new and old feelings of loss. We might actually hold on more tightly as we feel the old relationships with ourselves slipping through our fingers. The desperation comes because we cannot bare the thought of additional loss. For many of our clients, these relationships with themselves and others, although abusive, are what they have always known, making it difficult to let them go.
Without understanding the pervasiveness of these messages and the terror of potential additional loss, we are at risk of joining our clients in their frustration over a lack of progress. Our frustration and failure to accept our clients unconditionally can tighten the vice grip of self-abuse rather than help free them from it.
We do not want to reinforce messages of abandonment through our work. We simply have to read the writing on the wall that our clients are bumping up against. If we do that, we may be able to help them discover that seemingly slow moments in therapy are actually a necessary part of healing and recovery. It is a signal that they are in the final steps of letting go and it is always darkest before the dawn.
It is not enough to change our patterns with others. We have to first start by changing the patterns with ourselves. What keeps us pushing is the faithful knowing that there is beauty on the other side.
Kim Johancen-Walt writes “The Hope Chest” column exclusively for CT Online. She is a licensed professional counselor with almost 20 years of experience. Her clinical experience includes working as a therapist for La Plata County Human Services, where she helped develop a treatment model for adolescents in Durango, Colorado. She has presented her clinical work at mental health conferences nationally, including at the annual conference for the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury. Additional clinical experience includes a position as assistant training director and senior counselor in the Counseling Department at Fort Lewis College. She currently operates a full-time private practice in Durango. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.