Article – From Taboo To Empowerment

Published in BACP Private Practise Magazine June 2019
by Rebecca Mitchell

In September 2018 I read a fantastic feature in the BACP Magazine Therapy Today called “Let’s Talk About Rape”. In the article the writers Frances Basset and Deborah A Lee identified themselves both as Therapists and also Survivors of Rape and encouraged other counsellors to do the same. As a Counsellor who has set up a project for Survivors and is also a Survivor I was ecstatic (really!) that these women not only identified themselves but also encouraged other Therapists who were Survivors to come out and talk about their own experiences.

So much so, I wrote a letter to Therapy Today to say how much I appreciated the article. Something I had never done before despite having read that magazine for over 12 years and promised myself endless times to write in! Within my letter I mentioned that I was a professional counsellor and that I had also lived through sexual violence and incest.

This produced something I didn’t expect. I began to receive emails from other therapists who had also been victims of incest saying it was a real relief to hear of another counsellor who had been through this experience and identify themselves. They said they had experienced a real stigma around their past abuse – even within the therapeutic community – and were struggling with feelings of shame and isolation because of this.

I was saddened by this but to be honest not entirely surprised.


It is A Taboo

Incest is one of society’s ultimate taboos – even for mental health professionals “Few subjects in psychiatry elicit more profound, visceral, and polarised reactions than incest – the occurrence of sexual behaviours between closely related individuals – behaviours that violate society’s most sacred and guarded taboos” (Source: Ramifications of Incest Richard Kluft Psychiatric Times Published: 11/1/2011). Perhaps because of this sense of taboo when you have experienced incest you are left feeling that not only is what has happened to you is an unmentionable topic – but that somehow part of you is “taboo” as well.

I have often wanted to confide in friends how my past has impacted me, but previous experiences have taught me even with close friends; this is not always a wise move. Taking the risk of opening up I have been met with expressions of shock, disbelief and even disgust. Sadly, I have found that this frequently applies to the counselling profession at times as well. When I have dropped my guard with other counsellors either in training, or on a CPD Course, or a peer group and opened up about my past; fellow Counsellors frequently look astonished and speechless. These experiences leave me feeling lonely and even ashamed for bringing something so traumatic into the room.

This is the big problem with sexual abuse – the shame keeps getting placed back on the victim.


Survivors Carry The Shame

Many Survivors of Sexual Abuse can carry huge amounts of shame because they have been abused. Often, this is because Survivors can internally carry the shame that does not belong to them but to the abuser. Penny Parks says in her book “Rescuing The Inner Child”: “The aggressor projects the blame and guilt onto the child and the child accepts that projection as truth. It is like life imprisonment for a crime that someone else has committed.” (Source: “Rescuing The Inner Child” – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series: Published 1990). I so identify with this. My Dad owned nothing leaving me to carry the heavy burden of the shame of the situation totally alone.

The way out of shame is to talk about the very issue you are ashamed of with trustworthy people. However, this is the action people often find it hardest to do – fearing the judgement of others and re-enforcement that you are somehow to blame for this torturous situation. This is why it can be so devastating when you bravely disclose and are not met with support or understanding.


How Others Respond

I think what I fear the most with other mental health professionals is being seen as somehow less than or even perhaps unable to do my job if they know that I have lived through incest. Despite working so hard at the issues of shame for me it takes real guts to bring it up. I remember sitting in a supervision group one day and it came to a discussion about personal therapy. I mentioned I had been in therapy for over 30 years in one way or another.

My Supervisor looked shocked “Three O?” She asked clarifying.

I nodded. “But that’s not all I have done” I explained eagerly to her “I have held down a job, got married, had a child, set up a project for Survivors, written a book” I trailed off realising I was getting defensive. “There is no doubt though I need support” I added quietly. Then I stopped and wondered would it be ok to tell her why? To tell her I was a victim of incest and working though the issues it had left me with is a lifelong journey.

How would she respond? She was a Supervisor of many years standing and had probably heard pretty much everything that humans are capable of but I still hesitated. I was concerned that my disclosure would override her trust in me as a professional.

In this instance it worked out well. I waited for her to flinch and she didn’t and I respected her all the more for that.

However, I also have to say that I have had other experiences with counsellors that have not worked so well. Sexual assault by your Dad seems to be a concept that is too big, too unacceptable for even some of the most hardened therapists to look at – and yet unhappily it is not uncommon. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England in the UK Report published in November 2015 found two-thirds of child sexual abuse took place within the family environment or the close circle around it.

I have also observed disclosing my past with other professionals has not been met with the same level of support as a counsellor who has experienced other damaging life issues; like a tragic bereavement or disastrous marriage breakup. Maybe this is because of the shock factor. Perhaps bereavement in the counselling profession may be seen as something that counsellors are expected to experience in this life – maybe incest and sexual violence is still not.

As a client as well, I have had to look long and hard to find counsellors who do not find the extremity of the situation too overwhelming – even when they are in their professional role. Once I left a session where my own counsellor had been crying far more than me. “Are you OK?” I said on the way out wishing I could have my £50 back. As a Survivor, it is my view all training courses should cover sexual violence and sexual abuse as a compulsory topic. Otherwise this leaves counsellors ill prepared for the clients that will almost certainly heading towards them looking for help. A Survey by PODS and One in Four in 2016 discovered that less than a third of Counsellors had received any specific training on Child Sexual Abuse and yet 98% of the counsellors had gone on to work with Survivors of CSA. A Survey by PODS and One in Four in 2016 discovered that less than a third of Counsellors had received any specific training on Child Sexual Abuse and yet 98% of the counsellors had gone on to work with Survivors of CSA. It may be worth considering that the therapists responding to the survey were on the Mailing List for One in Four and PODS so may have prior interest in sexual abuse. (Source: Multiple Parts Magazine Volume 8 Issue 1)


Therapy Really Helps

However, conversely, I have also found that the answer to being trapped in a cycle of pain, shame and isolation has been talking about my experiences. I have sought out and been fortunate enough to receive huge amounts of amount of recovery and re-empowerment from amazing counsellors, groups, support systems, youth workers and even unexpectedly through the Christian community.

Working through my issues especially in a group setting has been one of my most significant sources of change. With this in my mind I went onto set up a project for other Survivors ( which is especially focused on group work. It is striking to me the number of times I have heard from Survivors that it is hearing from other Survivors’ experience and perspective that shame, pain and isolation dramatically dissolve.


Let’s Be Open With Each Other

Perhaps as a profession being open to those around us who have lived through sexual violence is a start to get conversations going as Frances Basset and Deborah Lee encourage us to do in “Let’s Talk About Rape”. I am hoping that more counsellors will open up about their past experiences as Frances and Deborah bravely have and our profession’s response to each other will begin to change. There will be less shock from our colleagues and more openness and empathy – which in turn will be passed on to our clients.

If you are an incest or sexual violence Survivor and Counsellor I would encourage you not to hide it from your colleagues but to be bold, brave and talk about it in a healthy way. Sadly, there will be people (and some will be Counsellors) who will not be able to offer you understanding because of their own issues or lack of resilience – but move on from them.

The more we talk about sexual violence from a personal perspective within our profession; the more the shame will be lifted from us. The easier it will be for us as a community to help ourselves and our clients to move from taboo to empowerment.

Rescuing The Inner Child – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series: Published 1990 Ramifications of Incest Richard Kluft Psychiatric Times Published: 11/1/2011 Multiple Parts Magazine Volume 8 Issue 1
Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCC) Report “Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action” November 2015

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