I have been reading recently some interesting material on the subject of counselling people who have been through a traumatic experience. It picks up the ideas of Judith Herman who wrote a classic book in 1992, Trauma and Recovery. This sets out the principles on helping people to recover from trauma. The word ‘trauma’ would apply to any damaging experience from seeing terrible events in war to having your self-determination completely stripped away through membership of a extreme religious group. The first thing that a traumatised person needs is to find in the counsellor a place of safety where they can tell their story. It needs to be a place where the client can be assured that they are being offered real understanding and empathy. This kind of attunement with a sufferer is something that will require considerable experience as well as training on the part of the therapist. The sort of thing that can go wrong for any inexperienced listener is that he or she would be unable to listen to the events of the past without himself becoming themselves emotionally over-aroused. Emotion in itself is not inappropriate but it must never, on the side of the therapist, be so strong that it upsets his ability to calm the client down. The technical jargon puts it this way, that the therapist must regulate their own affect. The therapist must hear the story and be able respond to it with empathy but also with a level of detachment. Otherwise the client may easily go back into the shell of their undigested pain.
The ability to hear the extremely painful memories of another person without rejecting, disbelieving or in some way switching off, takes skill and training. This will require, on the part of the therapist, that the thinking part of their brain is working properly in tandem with the feeling, experiencing side of the brain. In short they need to have good left brain/right brain integration. Without such integration on the part of the therapist, the client may feel, either an over-intellectualised approach to their problem or the opposite, an over-emotional sympathy that does not allow them to have new insight into the issues of the past. Either way they still remain trapped and isolated in their pain and the terror of their memories. Proper connection with another human being, in this case the therapist, is the first stage of the journey through which the traumatised individual is brought back into connection with the wider human race. A gradual facing up to the past, experiencing it in a safe environment, is an essential stage of the journey towards healing and integration. One of the terrible things about trauma is that the one who experienced it may not at first be able to give it any kind of verbal expression. The part of the brain that has been traumatised does not have words and concepts. Part of the task of the therapist is to help the client to find symbols and later actual words to describe his or her experience. In this way they can relate to it in a new way, using the tools of intellect and reasoning rather than simply experiencing it as a traumatic event. The article I was reading picked up on the way that psychotherapy has as its aim the reintegration of parts of the brain that may have ceased to synchronise. These may have been sundered apart, either by one traumatic event or through years of subtle undermining of the personality by some cultic exposure. There is a lot more to be said about this and we have to leave it as a topic for another time. I would however just mention here the way that many cults undermine the parent-child relationship so that the instinctive need to protect children by parents is undermined has been undermined by cult teaching. The cult leader has constantly taught that the only true ‘father’ is himself
I give this summary of what is generally regarded as good practice in psychotherapy. It is offered in the context of helping clients get through the trauma of a terrible event like violence, rape or seeing something that causes flashbacks and nightmares. In contrast I want to quote some words from a ‘Christian therapist’ which was offered as a comment on Nigel’s Peniel blog. The Langlois report clearly indicated that many of the ‘victims’ from Peniel were suffering from a degree of post-traumatic stress which has resulted in a need for years of counselling.
She/he writes ‘It seems to me that unless this is sorted out in prayer then any one can jump on the band wagon and say they suffered at the hands of MR…..I have worked in the area of abuse, sexual, physical and emotional, but NEVER have I came across a group of victims who want to be reminded constantly about their abuse, and NEVER have I spoken to any who would take money as compensation…..This should all be `put to bed` so the abused can start to heal with the love and mercy of God….Leave Trinity/Peniel to sort out their own problems and find a decent Church to attend on a Sunday….that’s just my opinion based on years of experience both as a counsellor and Christian….
These words are possibly typical of the dangerous attitudes of some so-called Christian counsellors. They show how there is a serious mismatch between responsible therapy and what seems like ignorant nonsense. Christian forgiveness and prayer seem to be the only tools of therapy on offer in some forms of Christian-inspired training. It is not surprising that the majority of survivors at Peniel are steering clear of the therapy being offered to them by the church when they are faced with this kind of dangerous nonsense. This therapist who has worked, as she/he puts it, for years with the victims of trauma seems to have completely avoided good therapeutic practice by refusing to allow a victim or survivor to face up to the trauma of the past within an empathetic setting. Instead of the listening skills and empathy that are required for this kind of work, this particular therapist seems to have offered what she considers to be the Christian response, forgive the past and get on with your life. The secular model which Christian counselling so often turns its back on suggests the complete opposite – a slow painful facing up to the past with the support of an empathic therapist. According to the responsible mainstream literature, the part of the brain that experiences trauma, the limbic system, has trapped certain events so that they continue to trouble and plague the sufferer. These events need to be released and brought to the surface. That is the task of responsible therapy. ‘Putting to bed’ the events of the past is a far more complicated affair than this counsellor seems capable of imagining.
There are many other issues I have with so-called Christian counselling and some of these have been discussed before in this blog. In summary I object to the comment of the Christian counsellor above because he or she responds to the hard work of listening and empathising with clients by offering them mere platitudes and ‘holy’ language. The love and mercy of God will have a far better chance of working when a counsellor himself is freed from bringing unhelpful dogmatic beliefs into the counselling room. Forgiveness does not in fact solve everything. Christian love surely recognizes that much more is involved in the recovery from trauma. For myself I would entrust myself only to secular counsellors – never to people think that dogma and Bible quoting somehow sorts out every problem. The survivors of Peniel and indeed survivors of any traumatic experience deserve the best. Sadly what they are being offered is something that will probably totally fail them and they may end up far worse than before.