Vol 10 #14 November 17, 2021
Associate Clinical Professor, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA. [email protected]
“I told them what he did to me, but they didn’t believe me.” “She said it was my fault.” Such heartbreaking statements have been heard in various forms. A concerning realization I was confronted with early on during my residency emerged after hearing stories of sexual abuse. Patients had had the courage to open up to others about it (family, therapist) but were dismissed. And as I sat, incredulous (and obviously naïve) upon hearing that people, often in childhood, were not believed about something so serious, I felt an immense wave of outrage. I was shocked and very sad that my patients had not received the support they needed at the time. And I felt disturbed that those who were supposed to protect them didn’t. These emotions arose as I also observed that what I would call invalidation trauma, or having one’s trauma narrative being invalidated, seemed worse than the abuse itself. I have been reflecting over the years on how to help repair such a wound, the added insult to the injury, but I also had to ponder about what was going on in those deniers, silent accomplices, or enablers of perpetrators.
Maybe it was secondary, or indirect trauma in the person hearing the story. It was such a shock to realize that someone could commit atrocities (and the shock being more intense if the perpetrator was admired or liked), that the confidant shut down. Or there was the sudden fear upon realizing that the world is indeed not so safe, that this could happen to them too, if it happened to their child, friend, sibling. Their views of the world are suddenly shaken, and it is too unbearable to even imagine that the perpetrator might have done this to them. As a consequence, a parent might reply “you imagined this” or a police officer, the legal system, or even a therapist might imply that the victim provoked or caused the abuse. Maybe it stems from cognitive dissonance, a concept that Kristin Neff explains in her excellent book “Fierce Self-Compassion”. People will do what they can to select only the information that fits their perceptions of the world or a person, the input that is not dissonant. They prefer to cling onto the illusion that the perpetrator is perfect (otherwise, it will threaten their own sense of self if they have a narcissistic need to identify with the perpetrator, or their own safety, for instance, like for a mother refusing to see that her husband is a pedophile). I think there might also be another phenomenon at the root of this problem: guilt for not having been able to prevent the abuse. Guilt, unlike emotions, is not useful nor signaling something in a constructive way. It is the end result of ruminations and only distracts the sufferer from a sense of helplessness. Human beings who have not embraced their vulnerabilities or have defended against them by compensating with a sense of omnipotence are at risk of not experiencing the needed empathy because the omnipotence prevents them from identifying with the victim. Then, a sudden sense of helplessness puts a dent in those defenses, creating even more forceful ones, generating more trauma in others. The victim is doubly traumatized instead of receiving help.
Victim-blaming and victim-shaming, the externalizing attitudes of such inner experiences, are even more disturbing to me. In my decade-long in-depth work with survivors of trauma of all kinds, I have been bearing witness to such destructive narratives. My reaction has most of the time been one of outrage, leading to intense facial expressions (and inflammatory writings). This “yang” energy was not channeled well and was too dissociated from my natural compassion tendencies. I became blinded by furor, almost like a mother bear. It shielded me from intense pain, but also prevented me from accessing emotions that could have made me a more attentive and supportive healer.
Then something powerful came to my awareness. In bits and pieces one evening (and Dr Neff’s book probably facilitating this), I started looking at my own life, mirroring, in an ironic way, the story of some of my patients. One had the horrific experience of being beaten up by her brother after being raped by a stepfather. This story was shared right while I was in the process of trying to recover from the shock of having been shunned and excluded from a group a few weeks after I had gathered my courage to speak up about an unacceptable dynamic. So my patient’s story, an extreme illustration of the inability of some people to acknowledge the pain from trauma in others, became a blind spot. I was not making the connection yet. I guess I thought this was completely different. It wasn’t. I had been too consumed with a recent sense of erasure of my existence by people I somehow thought cared about me. I felt deeply betrayed and appalled that they had not even tried to hear my version of the story, by blindly aligning with the perpetrator they always viewed as perfect and now suddenly playing victim. It was so unfair. I had so much outrage and despair towards that situation, feeling it was almost more traumatic than the destructive dynamic I had disclosed (and not even directly to them) and which had led me to feel paralyzed in many areas of my life for months. One evening, making the parallel between the ugly little duckling in me and the one in so many others I had listened to finally created a shift I will never forget. A sense of humility submerged me, as I let myself finally name and embrace the hurt, the necessary mourning (because there were a few people in that group I felt still fond of and could forgive for having been influenced), and even experience gratitude towards my patients who have taught me so much about courage. My catharsis reached a peak as I started to play a theme I am really fond of on the piano. Instead of finding its way through my fingers, fluidity chose the streams coming from my eyes. I am not sure if they were tears of grief, or joy. Maybe both. Or tears of liberation. I felt I was no longer paralyzed because I was not alone. And I was reminded that my tears are my superpower. The compassion I had so eagerly offered to loved ones and patients had to be turned inward this time.
Cognitively, I often review the mechanisms underlying cruelty. This is theory, therefore easy to grasp. I also rationalized how I had become pariah based on insights described above. But I had not let myself experience it on an emotional level. I had emphasized the why and the how, not the what. It was too painful, too raw, and I simply couldn’t let go, as if I had fantasized that they would come back to reason, realizing their mistake, their harsh judgments, and undo the rejection of my being. But I felt the liberation from finally telling myself that my life didn’t need adults who didn’t at least give me the benefit of the doubt. I did not want to nurture one-way relationships with people who would not really see who I truly am and try to listen. Since this rupture happened, amazingly supportive souls became more prominent in my life.
Beyond knowledge, and from the experience of my heart, I feel that I am not alone. Tears and a stronger solidarity with all victims, especially those who were not believed, were probably the sign I was turning to self-compassion to replenish myself. To end the paralysis. To realize the people who had deserted me were not in an enviable position, clearly unconscious and unaware.
Now that I am no longer stuck in a freeze mode, hiding and dissociating my feelings from my cognitive appraisal of a situation, I am transcending this paradox of shared reality within aloneness to rather see the deep connection, the threads of humanness and potential to be agents of change in all of those brave, empowered people who dared to speak out. Writing this piece almost in one gist is not only an indication that a dam that broke in me shook me out of my lethargic fright, but it is also my pledge to have compassion for myself and always pair it with activism or advocacy. Validation starts with oneself.