Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse
The Worst Kind of Pain?
Published in The Association of Christian Counsellors Magazine
A long time ago I was caught up in the middle of a horrendous “boyfriend dumps me for best friend” saga. Although barely seventeen I could that perceive that although deeply upset that my relationship, previously on the rocks, was now apparently ship wrecked; the real pain I felt was not with the loss of him – but with the deception of her. She was close to me and had really betrayed me. David, in his Psalm 55 understood this well “If an enemy were insulting me I could endure it, if a foe were raising himself against me I could hide from him…but it is you a man like myself, my companion, my close friend.” Psalm 55 v12-13.
Being betrayed is, arguably, the worst part of relationships. The story of Jesus is in a way the story of betrayal. The man who betrayed Jesus was of course Judas, (and to a lesser extent Peter) and yet there is no record in the gospels that Judas was any less involved with Jesus or his ministry than any of the others, so we can see Jesus experienced deep betrayal by an intimate person.
Clients who come to us have often experienced a great deal of the pain of betrayal. Frequently this is by a close relative, friend or partner. As someone who has worked for a number of years with women who have experienced child sexual abuse, all of them, in my experience, have been betrayed by people close to them, people they knew and trusted very well. Despite media headlines, I have never met any person pulled off the street by a stranger and assaulted. Research confirms this. 94% of children who called Childline in 2005/2006 because they were being sexually abused knew the abuser. “Grooming” involves establishing some kind of “relationship” with the child before the perpetrators real agenda is acted out. (Source: Childline Information Sheet: www.childline.org.uk)
Damage of Betrayal:
David recognised that because his betrayer was his friend it has caused him all the more pain. This is the case in child abuse – the more intimate the relationship, the more the pain, the deeper the betrayal, and the more difficult it is going to be for the child in adult life to form deep and trusting relationships with others. Penny Parks talks about this well:
“The abuse itself, as frightening and confusing as it is, is not as crippling as the effect of the betrayal the child feels at the hands of trusted adults”. (Penny Parks “Rescuing The Inner Child” – Human and Horzions Series – Published 1990 page 131) Penny Parks points out that one of most damaging consequences of abuse is that people choose to isolate themselves and avoid relationships because their trust has been shattered and they fear being betrayed again.
In 1991 Professor Jennifer J Freyd first introduced the terms “Betrayal Trauma” and “Betrayal Trauma Theory” and today some mental health professionals accept betrayal trauma as a possible alternative diagnosis to PTSD.
Although a complex subject it is my understanding that Betrayal Trauma can be summed up as occurring when the people or institutions we rely on violate us. As with PTSD the shock of the ordeal leads to amnesia, memory loss and other types of disassociation at the time of the trauma which however surface later on in life.
Ms Freyd says that because of the complicated relationship that many children have with their betrayers (for example they may be the main caregiver in the child’s life) the child has to “continue to act interacting” with the betrayer as to with draw from the caregiver would “further threaten his life both physically and mentally”. The child therefore has to continue to the relationship as though nothing is wrong “thus the trauma of the child abuse by the very nature of it requires that the information about the abuse be blocked from mental mechanisms that control attachment and attachment behaviour”. However, although it may be blocked or buried, the true damage of betrayal, like PTSD emerges later in adulthood leaving the person extremely wounded both physically and emotionally. (JJ Freyd Langley Porter Psychatric Institute, University of California August 1991)
How It Plays Out
Whether betrayed through child abuse or not, the legacy for most people who have experienced deep betrayal is that they suffer in their current relationships which can often be characterised by fear and sabotage. Betrayed people can often feel they do not want to risk another heartache and disappointment and are suspicious of relationships and intimacy. Inevitably as the quote from Penny Parks pointed out, this leaves the person leading an isolated life where closeness is avoided.
In Dan Allender’s book “The Wounded Heart” he summarises that damage of betrayal as “the deepening conviction that relationship can neither be enjoyed, trusted nor expected to last” (The Wounded Heart” – Dan Allender – NAV Press- Published 1990 page 121). He points out in relationships this can act out in some very strong and potentially destructive behaviour patterns namely: Hypervigalence, Suspiciousness and Distortion and Denial.
• An over awareness of what people see or think about us
• Constantly concerned about others/Lack of objectivity – reading too much into situations
• Over scrutiny/analysing behaviour of situations – looking for others to betray constantly
• Results in loss of objectivity and exhaustion.
- Suspicion over people’s motives/Feelings of paranoia about others
- Waiting for someone to let us down and betray us
- Anticipating being let down and doing it first so to keep the control.
Distortion and Denial:
• Our minds tell us partial truths that we latch onto
• Avoiding betrayal by living in fantasy and half truths
• Also not being aware of what is obvious to others – avoiding the truth.
(Adapted from“The Wounded Heart” – Dan Allender – NAV Press – Published 1990 pages 118 – 119)
You can see how distressing the effects these patterns would have on the person and their close friends or partners, putting huge amounts of stress on relationships which often buckle under the strain of such constant pressure.
Betrayal In The Therapy Room
In his article “How The Wound Enters The Room And The Relationship” (Therapy Today November 2006) Michael Soth states that “the wounding relationship gets replicated in all later relationships but especially those that set out to address the wound or offer the promise of healing”. When the wound is that of deep betrayal the client, in my experience is especially likely to enact behaviours from the past including:
Defensiveness of the abuser(s) – Of course, clients are often split in their loyalty to an abusive person with whom they also had a perceived loving and intimate relationship. However, I have noticed an extreme protectiveness of this type of abuser, whilst projecting or transferring their real feelings onto others in their current life. For example, clients projecting their past rage onto their current boss, partner, children or even you the therapist, whilst refusing or finding it very difficult to look at their abuser’s behaviour.
Sabotaging the Theraputic Process – In seeking to keep control of the relationship clients can subconsciously try and bring the therapy to a close – by turning up late, cancelling appointments, wanting to end sessions earlier than the contract stated.
Pushing the Therapists Boundaries – Clients can in order to “test” out the therapist often push boundaries. For example ringing the therapist in between sessions, arriving without payment, and also wanting physical contact “Can I have a hug?”
How then can we help and support our clients who have experienced deep betrayal?
As counsellors of betrayed people we need to be even more vigilant over our own conduct and professionalism, taking the slightest slip in boundaries to supervision and getting support and direction.
Learning to trust for someone who has been deeply betrayed, is a long and painful road but of course for our clients the start of that journey often begins with us. We need to support that at every stage. There are many ways to do this but I have found strong boundaries, good supervision and helping the client root their current fears in what may have happened in their past are key factors to helping clients emerge from isolation and start to re-connect with others.
I have also found that really encouraging clients to begin by communicating their inner thoughts – particularly finding out what their significant others (including us as their counsellor) are really thinking – not what they perceive they are thinking is very important and begins to break the cycles of suspiciousness and hypervigilance.
We also need to be wise, not everyone is trustworthy. We need to accept that without being suspicious of all people. Interestingly if you look at Jesus’ example, he did not trust everyone. In John we read that Jesus “would not entrust himself” to a group of believers. (John 2 v24). We may not have the cutting discernment he had, but we can encourage our clients to observe certain attributes about people that give clues as to whether they could be the foundation of a trusting relationship.
However, perhaps it is the therapy room itself which can often be the most powerful catalyst to start to break the isolation of the past. Nothing could be of greater privilege than witnessing a client start the journey of recovering from deep betrayal, than by beginning by taking the risk of trusting you their counsellor.
How The Wound Enters The Room And The Relationship – Michael Soth – Therapy Today November 2006
Memory repression, disassociative states and other cognitive control processes involved in adult sequelae of childhood trauma – JJ Freyd Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, University of California August 1991
Rescuing The Inner Child – Penny Parks – Human and Horzions Series – Published 1990
The Wounded Heart – Dan Allender – NAV Press – Published 1990