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Relationships, Trauma, and Personal Narratives: Abuse

Posted on April 15, 2016

This week, our discussion about trauma’s impact on personal narratives shifts from the client’s view of self to their view of relationships. Over the next few weeks, we will focus on the topic of relationships without actually touching much on one of the most powerful relationships in our life – the attachment relationship with our parents or caregivers. I’ve written a series of posts in the past that cover this topic, which you can find here:

Whether a result of an unhealthy attachment or traumatic experiences – or both – trauma has a major impact on the role other people and relationships play in someone’s personal narrative. One impact, and the theme of this post, is the tendency to view people generally as abusive. For most clients, their trauma involved abuse by someone who had power over their lives. This could be anyone – an attachment figure, uncle, partner, teacher, coach, classmate, or sibling. Abuse results when someone takes advantage of their physical, emotional, social, or economic power to violate the dignity of another human being.

The brain is great at taking one intense experience and generalizing that experience to other parts of life. People can be dangerous and destructive, and when we are hurt by another person, it is natural for us to be cautious of other people similar to the person that hurt us. While this can, at times, serve us well, when someone experiences repeated or complex trauma, or trauma as part of the attachment relationship, it become hard to not generalize that ALL people are possible threats.

When the client’s narrative views all people as possible threats, it can become very difficult to create trusting and safe relationships with anyone. One of my favorite trauma authors, Judith Herman, sums up the results of the reality, stating, “The core experience of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others.” When we take into account the understanding that trauma can also rob people of their self-worth and a sense of safety with self, the inability to form healthy relationships adds isolation to this already painful situation.

In my thinking about personal narratives throughout the years, I have started to realize how trauma’s impact on personal narratives also makes it so difficult for many clients to connect with us as helpers. In many ways, the helping relationship can mirror the abusive power dynamics present in trauma. The helper has tremendous power and controls the rules, resources, and services. The client, on the other hand, needs to follow the helper’s rules in order to receive the services and resources they need. Most helping situations have some aspect of power disparity inherent to the structure of the relationship.

Transference happens when the client projects his or her past experiences, and the emotions associated with that experience, onto the helper. Since helpers play a powerful role in many clients’ lives, this is a natural occurrence. While it is a natural part of the helping relationship, transference can negatively impact the effectiveness of the relationship if it goes unchecked and grows in intensity to the point of retraumatization.

Power disparities between the helper and client, and the intense empathetic nature of the relationship, can often lead to the traumatized client transferring their feelings about their abuser onto the helper. The helper’s power position and the intimate nature of the helping relationship will often trigger memories of the relationship with the abuser. Even the most compassionate, empathetic, and skilled helper can retraumatize a client by just doing their job and fulfilling their role.

As we will discuss in future posts, breaking through this generalization and showing the client that relationships can be safe and healthy starts to change the client’s story of others, and eventually of themselves as well. I wonder if you have seen this dynamic play out in your own work or your personal life? How have you successfully broken through this generalization either in our own life or your work with clients?

10 responses to “Relationships, Trauma, and Personal Narratives: Abuse”

  1. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    As a person experiencing homelessness, a challenge is to manage the preconceptions of significant others (social and family circles) regarding homelessness. Stereotypes predominate, clouding healthier perceptions. If some have experienced abuse, this may compound misperceptions and some may see a non-existing threat. Innocence is persecuted. Trouble is redoubled. Pain is piled on. The work of organizing those in these circles increases. Communication must persist. Sometimes granting more space, being silent, taking additional lumps in the relationship is necessary before finding room to advance to cultivate trust. An attitude of continuing education is helpful, as it allows for the consumption of new words, new possibilities, examples, hence hope.

  2. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    As a person experiencing homelessness, a challenge is to manage the preconceptions of significant others (social and family circles) regarding homelessness. Stereotypes predominate, clouding healthier perceptions. If some have experienced abuse, this may compound misperceptions and some may see a non-existing threat. Innocence is persecuted. Trouble is redoubled. Pain is piled on. The work of organizing those in these circles increases. Communication must persist. Sometimes granting more space, being silent, taking additional lumps in the relationship is necessary before finding room to advance to cultivate trust. An attitude of continuing education is helpful, as it allows for the consumption of new words, new possibilities, examples, hence hope.

  3. Celina says:

    Stay with this guys, you’re hepling a lot of people.

  4. Celina says:

    Stay with this guys, you’re hepling a lot of people.

  5. I wonder if there is a conflict between mobility rights and legal rights. We learned that you must live in a region for at least six months to run for office or vote there. Isn’t that a violation of mobility rights? The employee in this case worked for the city and they had a policy requiring all employees to live there. I do agree that your employer shouldn’t be able to tell you where to live.

  6. I wonder if there is a conflict between mobility rights and legal rights. We learned that you must live in a region for at least six months to run for office or vote there. Isn’t that a violation of mobility rights? The employee in this case worked for the city and they had a policy requiring all employees to live there. I do agree that your employer shouldn’t be able to tell you where to live.

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