Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse
Congruence and Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Published in “Interact” The Journal of the Trauma and Abuse Group
Winter 2014 Volume 14 Number 2
My seven year old daughter was giving me some much needed advice. I was about to start a new job at a counselling service. New rooms, new clients new colleagues… new new new. I was nervous and feeling it. ‘Just be yourself Mum’ advised my daughter as I picked up my bag. ‘After all that’s all you can do.’
Something about what she said stayed with me as I hurried to the bus stop. She was encouraging me to trust my feelings to be… congruent.
Barrett and Lennard define congruence as ‘The degree to which one person is functionally integrated in the context of his/her relationships with another such that there is an absence of conflict or inconsistency between his/her total experience and his /her awareness, and over communication in the relationship.’ (Barrett-Lennard GT 1986)
As a Survivor of Sexual Abuse and counsellor of Survivors it is my experience as client and Professional that congruence, especially at the intimate level of consistency, and communication does not always come easy.
In some ways Survivors learn to be incongruent in order to survive. To express pain and show disgust at the abuse could open the door to more abuse – so pretending it isn’t happening seems a better option.
Statistically too most survivors know the abuser or are related to them. Childline statistics (2007-2008) tell us that the vast majority of children who called their helplines for help regarding sexual abuse were abused by someone they knew:
- 59 per cent said they had been sexually abused by a family member
- 29 per cent said they had been sexually abused by someone else known to them
- 4 per cent said they had been sexually abused by a stranger
Other statistics from 2006 revealed the family members were very closely related indeed:
- 22% of girls cited their father as the abuser
- 20% of boys cited their father as the abuser
Speaking out about abuse from a family member is often impossible as children fear not being believed or if they are, anticipate being blamed for causing a family breakup. However, children, especially when abused by a trusted relative or friend often cannot cope mentally with the betrayal and pain of what has happened. Sometimes to carry on living their lives in some kind of order they push the pain of their trauma into their subconscious; and often it can lie there hidden away for years seemingly buried. A study by Feldman-Summers and Pope (1994) supports earlier studies indicating that abuse survivors routinely reported periods of time when they had forgotten some or all of their abuse. In Briere and Conte’s study, 59.6% of Survivors of molestation reported a period of their lives before the age of eighteen when they had been amnesic of their abuse.
Survivors then learn how to hide their feelings from themselves – gradually though this can lead to forgetting about the abuse altogether and then forgetting why you had to forget! Incongruence though has a price. Later on in life symptoms of abuse can start to seep into their lives causing disruption and distress. It is at this point that Survivors may start to investigate their feelings and background looking at what drove them to make certain choices or behaviours they may be finding unhelpful – sometimes entering into counselling for more support to do this.
As a young girl I had to keep my bedroom ‘just so.’ Toys neatly stacked, shoes in a row, and pencils sharpened precisely in order to feel calm. After years of sexual abuse I had I felt so out of control internally but unable to voice it outwardly – that my room was the only thing I could control. As an adult though, the behaviour did not disappear – and caused huge amounts of stress and conflict with flat mates (and latterly a husband) if they did not keep the flat exactly as I wanted them to.
What I needed and eventually sought was help to understand the external behaviour. Where was it coming from and what was I trying to say with it? In essence I need to go back to the original incongruence that I had not faced. It was only when I looked at this internal confusion that my outward rituals began to diminish.
Crucially though, it was in the area of communication that I really struggled. ‘It’s like getting blood out of a stone’ my friends would groan at me frustrated at my inabilities to talk about myself or express myself coherently. It was only after years of patient work with therapists that enabled me to find my voice, often spending hours (in my own words) ‘wasting time’ in sessions as I just couldn’t articulate my thoughts.
Sadly, I have seen this reflected time and time again in clients I have worked with. Clients whose lives have become so isolated and rigid with behaviour patterns they are stuck in and unable to communicate effectively – without knowing why.
‘I can’t eat or drink anything I have not cooked or made myself’
‘I can’t talk to my boyfriend properly and I think he is going to finish with me’
‘I don’t know how to be a friend – what do you say? How do you talk to people?’
‘I can’t allow my children to play with their toys or make a mess’
It is not surprising however, why there is this incongruence with truth when it can be so agonising to face.
Dan Allender the Psychologist and author of the iconic book ‘The Wounded Heart’ writes that Survivors face ‘an enormous battle in labelling the truth which is hard to imagine.’ And he should know. Whilst he himself was conducting a seminar on sexual abuse, a good friend asked him if he had ever been abused personally. A question he had been asked many times and he had always answered in the negative. However, later on in the conversation he began to realize that this was not the case. His previous ‘amazement’ at the ‘reluctance of others’ to face the truth of their own abuse vanished in the light of his own ‘deep reluctance to begin the process of change by admitting that damage has occurred.’ (Allender: 1990: 29)
At Into The Light (www.intothelight.org.uk) we have sought to create safe spaces for Survivors to be able to be congruent with themselves and with others – sometimes for the first time.
We have found our Survivors Groups are particularly helpful for this. Survivors struggling to face feelings or perhaps minimizing their painful past; can often see this in a different light when other group members reflect back their own feelings about the suffering they see in each other. This enables them to begin to embrace their feelings rather than dismiss or reject them.
‘It wasn’t that bad he didn’t actually penetrate me’
‘The violation was really damaging it has really affected me and my relationships’
This new congruence often opens up new feelings of pain but with that, new opportunities to explore and begin the journey of processing it.
It is also the case that groups can really help expose and challenge the shame and false guilt survivors are frequently loaded down with.
I recall a moment very clearly in a group where a very broken group member was tearfully confessing the shame and liability she felt about the abuse she had suffered as a teenager at the hands of a close family friend. Week after week she would state her part as a ‘seductress’ of this ‘innocent Dad’ despite at the time having had no sexual experience prior to the assault.
Her group however were not convinced about the role she said she had played.
After sitting through several sessions of listening without interruption; the other women counter argued her points, both effectively and empathetically; stating their reasons why they saw her as the innocent party and how the blame fell on the other person.
Suddenly she stopped speaking and the group fell silent. ‘I can see what you mean’ she whispered ‘I can see it no matter what he said… I never instigated this … I had never even kissed anyone before’.
It was an extremely powerful moment.
The group’s persistent congruence with their own feelings opened the door for this Survivor to begin to see herself and the abuse very differently.
The effect on her after this session was quite dramatic, the following sessions she seemed less defensive, much more open with her feelings, emotionally stronger and more… congruent.
Another way in which Survivors can begin to grow in congruence and trust in their own feelings is for their counsellor to reflect back their own feelings to the client – no matter how difficult to face those feelings are.
This can lead to pivotal moments in the therapeutic process both for counsellor and client.
Val Wosket (1999:196) boldly shares a very brave moment of congruence when a client was disclosing an incident of sexual abuse to her. She says she was feeling ‘sexually aroused as the client was describing yet another occasion of being molested.’ Initially feeling ‘disconcerted and alarmed’ at her responses she then began to trust them.
Trusting her past experience that ‘whenever I encountered unexpected and physical responses with my clients these were often found in the clients experience’ led her to gently disclosing her feelings to her client. Because of this disclosure her client was able to talk for the first time ever about her own arousal during the abuse. She had previously felt ‘too ashamed and dirty’ to do so. The counsellor’s fearless congruence had led to a break through moment for the client who had been struggling alone with some hugely difficult and dark secrets. Val Wosket’s suggests that her congruence with herself ‘having these feelings and accepting them’ led to her ‘understanding being broadened and my acceptance of myself and my client being deepened.’ (Wosket: 1999:197)
I can’t help but admire Val Wosket’s transparency with reader and client. Even more so, when she later reveals she consequently encouraged a Student Counsellor writing a dissertation about counselling Survivors, to look at how this situation can raise sexual feelings in the counsellor. The Counsellor was horrified and refused.
This however is the problem. If therapists won’t look at these bewildering feelings for themselves how can clients be expected to face these confusing and often shaming feelings with their Counsellor?
Congruence though as counsellors ‘isn’t just about being honest and speaking the truth; it also incorporates accurate and timely delivery of thoughts and feelings… it is about appropriate transparency.’ (Davies, 2014). Knowing when to be transparent with a Survivor (or any other client) is a finely tuned skill that perhaps comes with years of experience of knowing ourselves both as a counsellor and as a client or even just as a human!
Working too fast and revealing too much of your own feelings can cause clients to feel pressured or overwhelmed. However, being too slow to respond to a client could mean you are lagging behind the client – stuck in a feeling that they may have moved on from. It’s a subtle balance!
Perhaps Rogers puts most elegantly when he talks about being with a client “moment by moment… moving about in a delicate way… communicating your sensings of the person’s world… frequently checking with the person as to the accuracy of your sensings.’ (Rogers: 1980:142)
With that level of sensitivity, a client who had experienced the hugely devastating impact of being abused; could hopefully feel the therapist’s congruence as support, at a very deep level, and in a healing way. Perhaps in a way that would enable them to gain the self-assurance to start really feeling and trusting their own emotions. Conceivably even reaching the place where they are able to relax and talk about their feelings – possibly even enjoy them; and gain the confidence they need to live them in a way they are truly themselves.
Allender, Dan (1990) The Wounded Heart, Zondervan Press
Barrett-Lennard GT, (1986) The relationship inventory now, issues and advances in theory, method and use. In Greenberg LS and Pinsof WM (eds) The Psychotherapeutic Process: A research handbook. New York: Guildford Press.
Briere, J., & Conte, J. (1993). Self-reported amnesia for abuse in adults molested as children. Journal of Traumatic Stress,
Davies, Nicola, (2014) Congruence or Criticism? Therapy Today July 2014
Feldman-Summers, S., & Pope, K. S. (1994). The experience of ‘forgetting’ childhood abuse: A national survey of psychologists. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 636–639.
Rogers, Carl: ( 1980) Way of Being Page: ( First Edition) New York, Mariner Books
Wosket, Val (1999) The Therapeutic Use of Self, Routledge