***TRIGGER WARNING: The following post discusses sensitive topics, including sexual trauma.***


It’s not a comfortable feeling knowing that as clinicians we get things wrong. It is inevitable that we do – to err is human. We learn to try to forgive ourselves and encourage our clients to talk the mistake through with us. The successful practitioners amongst us will use the situation, if the client is willing and in the correct mindset, to further understand our client and deepen the therapeutic alliance.

When it comes to clients that have Complex Trauma, CPTSD, or PTSD as a result of suffering horrific abuse, domestic violence, gun crime, rape, war, or sex trafficking, we often make one continuous, ultimately damaging error. I know I have made the error, and I also know I have been on the receiving end of that error. Honestly, I don’t know which is worse.

Judith Herman puts it so succinctly in her book Trauma and Recovery. Essentially, she says that — as therapists, counselors, shrinks, whatever — we have the urge to downplay the power of the perpetrator, to make it less. We try to guide our clients to feel that they can gain control of their life, their recovery, and their pain. We try to guide them to feeling (hopefully) that their abuser no longer holds control or power. In the present, the client has control and power.

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Poet William Ernest Henley, Inviticus (1875)

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The truth of the matter is that there are dangerous, nasty, and incredibly evil people in this world. We know this to be true better than most. The depths and levels to which human beings are willing to betray, inflict pain upon, and terrorise other human beings often go so far as to include those that are deserving of unconditional love.

We want to challenge our client’s perception of the person who has caused great harm, the perpetrator. Usually because our clients

  • self-blame, they may even self-harm as a way of punishment.
  • have an overactive sense of responsibility.
  • self-criticise.
  • exhibit chronic shame and guilt.
  • try to protect their perpetrator.
  • feel some kind of empathy for their abusers.
  • intellectualise their abuser’s behaviour.
  • suffer severe survivor’s guilt.

The list goes on and on. Abuse damages children and their subsequent attachment style as well as their ability to navigate and form relationships as adults. We all know the amount of harm and ramifications these adult children can suffer.

The thing is that the overwhelming fear in your client is not always a childhood mindset and feelings they simply haven’t dealt with or gotten over.

The seemingly excessive fear is sometimes fully grounded in reality.

While working with abuse survivors whose family members are in organised crime, women who may have suffered trans-generational trauma, women in the sex trade, women in South Africa who are terrified of being held at gunpoint when at a stop sign, I can’t tell any of these survivors that they are safe now. Maybe they are. But … maybe they aren’t.

I spoke with a nurse in Nigeria, a kind, compassionate woman. I was desperate to relocate her and find her a job within the NHS before I left International Recruitment as a career. She had been held at gunpoint six times, four of which were in front of her teenage daughter, and three had progressed from robbery into sexual assault or rape. When she spoke to me about her fears — that she did not want to be held at gunpoint again, that she did not want herself or her daughter to be sexually assaulted or raped — I couldn’t tell her she’d be safe.

While it is true that these crimes are statistically less likely in the UK than in other countries around the world, we can’t be fooled into thinking that such terrible occurrences do not occur in the UK. Incestuous family dynamics, toxic cults, and systematic abuse do appear on repeat here. In fact, they happen…every day.

We need to listen more effectively. As clinicians, we need to learn to sit with the fact that our client’s extreme fear could be wholly warranted. We need to understand that the instability could very well be a truthful representation of reality, not an overreaction in the client.

Our clients may not be able to challenge or change their perspective because their vision is 20:20, clear and true. Ours is the perception that requires readjusting, and we can’t shy away from making this change.


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