Relationships, Trauma, and the Personal Narrative: Victimization

Posted on April 22, 2016

This week, we continue our examination of the impact of trauma on the personal narrative, specifically the role others and relationships play in this narrative. Last week, we discussed how someone who has experienced repeated abuse can start to expect that all people are dangerous and are out to harm them. Besides seeing everyone in power as a potential abuser, the client can often see themselves as a perpetual victim.

iStock_000006782630XSmallAnyone who experiences trauma is a victim as the thing (natural disaster, accident or person) causing the trauma to occur The word victim is not used here to put down the client, but to describe a mindset that often results from repeated traumatic experiences. Even the strongest and healthiest person can become a victim – the key is to not stay in this mindset. Too often, particularly with repeated trauma (i.e. complex trauma), the person is never given the opportunity to recover.

Interpersonal trauma is not only an abuse of power, but also a failure of our society. The police did not come. A parent knew about the abuse, but did nothing. The mental health or justice system didn’t take the abuser out of society in time. The client was powerless to prevent the abuse themselves and those in power did nothing to prevent it from happening.

Then, you walk into their lives. At first, the client is likely to associate you with all the people and systems (School, social services, healthcare) that failed them in past.  But…you smile. You listen. You care.

Helpers play a powerful role on two levels. First, we give psychosocial support, in the form of empathy. For many clients, we are the only person in their life who values them enough to listen to what they have to say. We can’t underestimate the impact this has on those we work with. Our ability to establish trust and safety sets the biological (brain chemistry) and psychological conditions in which change and healing happen.

Second, we hold resources connected directly to the client’s basic needs, like housing, medical care, and food. Many clients see us as the bridge to their survival in a dangerous and chaotic world. This puts an intensity on our work that does not exist in many other professions. There are few things that bring more joy than being able to pull together resources that allow the client to start living the life they want and deserve. Unfortunately, too often there are not enough resources in the community to meet even some of the client’s basic needs.

Clients often view us, or the resources we can connect them to, as the few lights of hope in a hopeless world. This, combined with our power in the relationship, will often lead the client to put unrealistic expectations on the helper, leading to the helper being seen as a savior. For the helper, this might feel better than being put in the abuser role, but it’s also an unproductive and even dangerous role. All of the client’s hopes for a better future are placed on the helper’s shoulders. It is difficult not to be pulled into this dynamic and want to rescue the client, robbing them of the opportunity to lead their own journey.

In my work with clients, I have often felt like both the abuser and the savior, sometimes in the same session! While this felt a little crazy-making, I soon realized it was part of the relationship building process. For clients who have not had the chance to engage in many positive relationships, the helper relationship is a testing ground of learning and experimentation to find the boundaries and roles without a healthy professional yet empathetic relationship.

I’m wondering if you have ever felt this way? If so, please share your experience in the comment section. For those that might have been on the client side, I would love to hear about your experiences as well.

5 responses to “Relationships, Trauma, and the Personal Narrative: Victimization”

  1. Matt Parkhouse says:

    I can identify with your comments in this weeks essay……8 years ago, I was working at our local Catholic hospital (Penrose) as an RN in the Rehab unit. I came down with a bad gall bladder. The Penrose surgeon botched the operation. I was in a septic coma for two weeks. When I awoke, I could not stand or walk. I spent the last two weeks of my 57 day inpatient stay as a patient on my place of work, relearning how to walk. The day before I staggered home on a walker, Penrose FIRED me “because I could no longer do the work”. A month later, my family lost our health insurance. That was the start of a four year struggle, in which we spent a good part of our retirement savings. Many American families have become homeless in this sort of situation. I’m pretty good at forgiving people but I have yet to figure out how to forgive a cruel corporation! If I had been working for Bank of America or General Electric, I might have been on the lookout for this sort of bad treatment – having this occur from a platitude-spouting religious non-profit was a real “black swan”…..I had a VA therapist tell me ” I don’t know which messed you up the most – Vietnam or that hospital!” NONE of the local “helping agencies” we’re of any support, the only help came from Gov’t agencies like the VA, Medicare and Social Security. Thanks for what you do!

  2. Matt Bennett says:

    Wow Matt, your story is heartbreaking and your resiliency amazing! We live is a society that fails to often to meet need with compassion and assistance. It also shows me the power of expectations. I’m sure you knew Vietnam was hell going in. Being let down by a non-profit you believed in and expected more from, in many ways, could have a greater impact. Thanks again my friend for sharing your story.

  3. Mar Thoma II says:

    That hospital sounds more Roman than Catholic.

  4. Darla Peterson says:

    Matt, I was in a meeting today and we were planning training for staff on customer service and how to deescalate a person who may be angry or irate. I mentioned the trauma informed care lessons and how we have to remember that this may be the “last straw” today for all they’ve been going through. Someone responded, “Not most the time. Most the time they are just unreasonable people”. I didn’t want to argue back in the group setting. How could that have gone better so that the person could understand it isn’t “unreasonable people”. My staff and I went through the training but this won’t happen for the rest of the 250 staff.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Darla, great examples of paradigms colliding!

      First, I applaud you for standing up for your clients! Second I’m wondering if there is an opportunity to learning. Could you, or some group, or outside person provide a short training for the staff who were not able to come to mine? If this isn’t an option, I could suggest books or other resources if there is openness to collaborative learning.

      Keep fighting the good find, we are at the beginning of this shift and there is plenty of old thinking that needs challenged and changed but it is important to meet this old thinking with compassion and partnership.

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