Rebecca Mitchell Draws Wisdom From Experience
Published in BACP Magazine Therapy Today, September 2019, Volume 30 Issue 7
Also available as a BACP Therapy Today Podcast.
Thoughts on counsellors talking about sexual abuse with peers.
In September 2018, I read a fantastic feature in Therapy Today called ‘Let’s talk about rape’. The writers, Frances Basset and Deborah A Lee, identified themselves as both therapists and survivors of rape, and encouraged other such counsellors to do the same.
I was ecstatic that these women not only identified themselves but also encouraged other therapists who are survivors to come out and talk about their own experiences. I wrote a letter to Therapy Today to say how much I appreciated the article and mentioned that I was a professional counsellor and had also lived through sexual violence and incest.
An unexpected outcome
This resulted in something I didn’t expect. I began to receive emails from other therapists who have also been victims of incest, saying it was a huge relief to hear another counsellor who had been through this experience 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.
The way out of shame is to talk about the very issue you are ashamed of with people you can trust. However, this is what people often find hardest to do, fearing the judgement of others and the re-enforcement that you are somehow to blame. This is why it can be so devastating when you dare to disclose and are not met with support and understanding.
It takes guts to share
It still takes real guts for me to bring it up with other mental health professionals. What I fear most is being seen as somehow less than or even unable to do my job if they know that I have lived through incest. I remember a supervision group where the discussion turned to personal therapy. I mentioned I had been in therapy for more than 30 years in one way or another. My supervisor looked shocked. ‘Three zero?’ she asked, clarifying. I nodded. ‘But that’s not all I have done. 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 that I was a victim of incest and that working through the issues it has 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 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.
I’ve received huge amounts of support
I have sought out and been fortunate enough to receive huge amounts of support and empowerment from amazing counsellors, groups, support systems and youth workers, and through the Christian community. Working through my issues, especially in a group setting, has been one of the most significant sources of change. This is what inspired me to set up Into the Light, a project for other survivors, which is especially focused on group work. Survivors so often tell me that it is through hearing other survivors’ experiences and perspectives that shame, pain and isolation dramatically dissolve.
Hoping that more counsellors will open up
I hope that more counsellors will open up about their past experiences and that our responses 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 to be bold and 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 and the easier it will be for us as a community to help ourselves and our clients to move from taboo to empowerment.
The full version of this article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Private Practice journal
- Basset F, Lee DA. Let’s talk about rape.
Therapy Today 2018; 29(7): 20-23.
PODCAST FOR BACP Members
Thank you for reading about my thoughts on counsellors talking about sexual abuse with peers.