Refusing to validate client part of trauma therapy?
July 21, 2014 3:57 PM   Subscribe

Is it common and recommended practice for a therapist to refuse to validate and affirm a trauma client?

I've been doing therapy with the same counsellor for several years - it's for complex trauma and I've experienced some trauma during the time of the therapy and, overall, I would say I have made a lot of progress. Whenever I have asked if something is normal, bad, abuse, assault, if it's really okay to be struggling with this stuff, etc., she won't answer me. She says it won't help me and that I'm the only person who can help myself. When I said that I thought what would help me is hearing some of this stuff, she said she didn't agree and refuses to even see what the effect would be.

When I ask my friends about their experience in trauma therapy, they say that they receive affirmations from their counsellors, that they are given the answers to these things, etc. So I find this quite confusing. Some of them said they had to be told stuff over and over till they could hold the truth and pain for themselves.

I believe my counsellor's point of view is probably that the counsellor should not impart their belief system and that the best way for the client to be able to protect herself from future abuse is to listen to their inner voice. Also, if you keep telling a client what to think, isn't that like the abuse? But what about a client with complex trauma who really sometimes has no baseline for these things? I guess the answer would be that it's the client's feelings that matter. And maybe asking these things is sort of like a pure O OCD thing where there's checking involved, in a way. But it's not like I'm asking the same thing every time. I don't even usually bring it up because I know she won't answer me. I actually understand the strategy, but it doesn't fit with my emotional needs a lot of the time, although maybe it would in the long run.

I just wondered if this is a common approach to trauma therapy or how I would know if this is not actually a recommended approach. If it is proven to help people, that would help me through this. (Oh, good grief, just in asking this question I start to wonder if this is just a new flavour of "Is it normal? But, seriously, I have never heard of this approach in therapy and, while it makes sense to me, it doesn't feel very good - growth doesn't always - and I just wondered if it is an effective approach. I haven't been able to validate this stuff for myself and my counsellor actually told me in the last session that she has no idea how to help me do that, which, honest, smashed me to bits.) When I step away from how awful that was and look at it rationally, I think her approach makes sense. But it doesn't feel very good right now and it doesn't line up with how my friends' therapy has gone and I don't really know how I would know if this is the right approach or not. I'm someone who likes to do stuff that is science-based, so if this is actually a "thing", that would help.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In counselling for trauma:
My counsellor does give affirmations, and it totally helps. These are usually along the lines of "Wow, that must have been really hard," or "That's a lot for a kid to have to deal with", rather than a more formal delineation of what is or isn't trauma.

I've done a fair bit of reading about trauma & treatment, and I've definitely never heard of your counsellor's approach to this as being recommended.
posted by ITheCosmos at 4:03 PM on July 21, 2014

OMG. I never had this experience and it sounds hugely unpleasant. For me, behavior like that would feel like reabuse. It would trigger too many childhood memories.

I admit I'm not up on every single therapeutic school, but it doesn't ring any bells.

If you feel like you aren't getting what you need out of your relationship with the therapist, you can go elsewhere. You might want to ask her about his/her approach and/or beliefs. If you feel comfortable that is. If not, go elsewhere and talk to your new therapist about this.
posted by kathrynm at 4:04 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had a therapist in the past who would never let me get into details about Events that had happened; his thought process was that it doesn't really matter what happened to make you respond in the way that you do, what's more important is to retrain how you react and respond.

Afterward, I had a therapist who encouraged me to delve into my trauma in excruciating detail and work through it, and she provided feedback and validation that I had never, ever received before. She was considered to be a therapist who specialized in trauma, sexual assault specifically.

I think that either of these approaches can be "right" for a particular person; I don't think my first therapist's approach was wrong, and in fact I got a lot of help from him. I did however make much MUCH better progress with the second therapist.
posted by lilnublet at 4:05 PM on July 21, 2014

Response by poster: No, I haven't told her yet. She did seem concerned about me when I left our last session. I would say I was traumatized by the last session. I'm trying to work through a bit of this before I go, because I'm have traumatic reaction to what happened and it's confusing because I thought that, when I asked for help in feeling okay and safe with being there, she would help me do that, not tell me she had no idea how to help (after all this time!) and that she'd tell me I had to go somewhere else if I want that affirmation. She seemed quite furious with me, like she was bottling it up, though. So maybe it was her own frustration. She has always been great and I've got into stuff I could never get into in 10 years prior with other counsellors.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:20 PM on July 21, 2014

Time to get a new therapist. My therapist was more than happy to validate my experiences and I found it SO helpful!

Trust your instincts on this. You need someone who will validate your experiences and who will help you find the skills to understand what's okay and not. This therapist doesn't sound like a good guide for you.

Therapists have their methods, Jungians, Adlerians, Skinnerites, Freudian, it's all relative. Find someone who is more in tune with your needs.

You can just tell your current therapist, "I believe that we've gone as far as we can with your technique thanks for everything." Then bounce.

Good luck, it's a process.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:22 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know what is common practice for most therapists, but from having been on the receiving end of trauma therapy (with perhaps 7 or 8 therapists over the last 23 years--maybe 2 of which were truly, truly helpful) for very complex trauma extending back into parts of my life before I had the ability to verbalize what was happening, I have never encountered a therapist who refused to validate my experiences. Some of them would tell me that they had seen a lot of the type of effects that I was experiencing. Some of them would say that they hadn't necessarily seen the effects, but had read about or studied it. Some of them would even say that they understood how trauma could create that effect in/on me, even if they had no direct experience in their practice. My point is, it seems unnecessarily cruel for a therapist to refuse or even so systematically resist validating your experiences. There is gray area, yes, but some abusive/traumatic things are decidedly not in that gray area and if you have no baseline and need one, your therapist should, imo, be providing one. If my therapist responded like yours, regardless of how much progress I had made, I would feel very unbalanced. It would most likely lead me to find another therapist.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 4:24 PM on July 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Sure, therapists do that and it can be helpful in getting you to see that you have the power in your life including the power to define your own experiences. That is something really hard to know deep in your bones, and asking someone else to validate you and your experience is like giving your power away. Does it feel bad and scary? It did for me. I had tons of fights and angry moments with my therapist. But it pushed me to see that I do have power, I learned skills to comfort myself, and I took on the work of validating my own experience. I'm sorry for your pain, keep on talking and listening.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:30 PM on July 21, 2014

Response by poster: I'm just going to add this and then try not to thread sit. My previous counsellor told me that I had not experienced abuse (just about everyone else I've ever talked to has blanched when I've explained the abuse) and it caused me a huge amount of trauma. So I think she may be trying to get me to not rely on others for guidance, so I can protect myself. But I don't understand how I'm supposed to self validate when I don't know what some of this stuff was. Or how I'm supposed to make myself feel safe in therapy. Telling her I needed help feeling safe was actually scarier than anything else I've ever told her and then she responded as above, which blew me apart.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:34 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not working with a therapist right this moment, but one of the things I've really relied on them for in the past is being an objective set of eyes to help me work through whether something's reasonable or not. Now, in many cases that does mean they shouldn't just come out and tell you that X is okay or not okay--but in that circumstance they should actively be helping you walk through whether it was okay or not okay. Not just telling you that they can't make a judgment. If you're the only person who can help yourself, what good is the therapist? The therapist is supposed to be helping you. If I always listened to my inner voice, I'd be a mess. I had to learn how to question my inner voice and actually work through things in a more objective way, and would not have appreciated just being dumped in the deep end like that.
posted by Sequence at 4:35 PM on July 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

Mind games? She's playing mind games to help you "think for yourself" or whatever?!?!!

Lazy. Gross.

Darlin', just bounce.
posted by jbenben at 4:36 PM on July 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

It sounds like something really big happened in the most recent session - you took a big scary risk of asking for support and her response made you feel like she was angry/rejecting. Since overall this has been a very helpful relationship, I would suggest that you hold off judgement until you see her again.

One possibility is that having had time to think about, she would now be able to explain to you what she is doing and why she believes it is helpful.

Another possibility is that she messed up. If she is a good therapist and she sees she messed up, she should be able to own that and talk about it with you, allowing you to share how her behavior affected you and the end result might be extremely therapeutic - you get to be in a relationship with someone who cares about you, messes up and then the two of you can repair the relationship.

Of course, the third option is that you come out of the next session feeling even worse than before, in which case you should seriously consider if you want to work with a different therapist going before. But don't make up your mind which possibility is true until you have a chance to talk to the therapist again. If she's been great up to this point, there is a good chance that you might be able to work this out with her in a positive way.
posted by metahawk at 4:44 PM on July 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Both the current counselor and the previous one (who told you that you had not experienced abuse) don't sound like they're a good fit for a trauma survivor. Trauma and abuse can be so distorting for survivors. Many survivors need affirmations to counteract and correct the distortions. There are counselors who will be far better fit out there for you. Please go find one of those. Nothing about this approach sounds healing or strengthening. You can learn to trust your inner voice and think for yourself while also being validated by a trained therapist. You don't need to endure a tough-love, withholding approach. You are not the only one who can help you. A good therapist can also help you. That's why people go. Good luck and I hope you find someone who can guide you through the next step in your healing.
posted by quince at 4:58 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't understand whatever approach she is using at all, especially when you are in a vulnerable position, just by nature of sharing what happened to you, and when you tell her you need help feeling safe, she basically stonewalls you. Maybe she has not had a lot of clients who are coping with abuse or trauma and is inexperienced, but that seems to me one of the most unempathetic responses one could give.

I saw a counselor for a few months for help coping with abuse I had experienced and, I too, had a lot of questions of "Was this normal?" I remember at one of our first sessions, she mentioned letting me "come to conclusions myself" or something of that nature. I kind of froze up because the reason I was there in the first place was because I was feeling so mixed-up about everything. One of the next sessions, I confided in her about one of the events and I told her, straight-up "I know this sounds silly, but I can't even tell if this is something you should expect or not." And she got a little wide-eyed and said "no, it absolutely isn't." She was a Master's student intern at the organization I went to and I feel like maybe the "default setting" is for therapists to try and instill confidence in that way (unless their client is too genuinely confused yet to be at that point). It was very, very valuable to me to hear someone say: "It sounds like that would be a very confusing situation. But to answer your question, no, that was not normal."

It sounds like this therapeutic relationship is causing you more anxiety than healing, if not in general, at least lately. I think one of the main purposes of therapy is to just have someone who can provide support, and perhaps a little guidance when needed. It seems like your therapist is saying "nope, chart your own course" whenever you ask for those two things from her. Do you feel like you are getting what you need from your current therapist? If the answer is no, it would likely be beneficial for you move on and find someone else.
posted by sevenofspades at 5:11 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can see it both ways. My therapist dopes and has used logic to help affirm safty. We are in my office, there is a buzzer, your abuser lives 1000 miles away. That helps me to some extent. However a feeling a safty long term does come within. But for me allot of that safty feeling came from repetition that I'm actually safe.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:43 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I remember my last therapist, who was really pleasant and down to earth. I said, "X seemed this way," and then she gave me some stuff to do, and when I went back, she said, "yep, I looked it up and you are right!" And she read some items out of a book that validated my assumptions. I found it enormously helpful, and it made me trust her more when she gave me tasks and exercises to do at home. I had a psych eval and the good doctor said, "whelp, keep doing whatever she says, because you look good to me!"

The one before that was also very nice, but a bit more like forced empathy, and after I had been beaten and fled to my parents' house, she said, "now make sure you mail me the $9 you owe me." And I was like, wtf? I didn't remember the $9, as I was paying her cash anyway, but you know, I sent her that $9 fucking dollars.

The one before that was a screamer and lecturer, she seemed very bitter and controlling. After 3 sessions, she started yelling at me that if I weren't willing to tow the line, she didn't think she could keep me as a client.

One way, way back, she was good at explaining relationship dynamics and how parental stuff influences you, which I was interested in because I'd written a paper on Freud. But when I brought up abusive stuff (from my relationship, not my parents), she basically laughed it off. So I ended up going to a guy, who said, "hey, you don't have to stay with this guy if you don't want to, I give you permission to leave." And he was also very down to earth, as was that first lady.

I don't know what methods they followed, the ones who I jibed with, but they were very practical, I don't think either of them necessarily encouraged dwelling, but they both gave me some excellent advice during times of trauma and some PTSD. I have also gotten validation by being on a closed email list of others in similar situations (but that can backfire, especially if it's anxiety-related, because it seemed to feed on itself, reading about everyone else's anxiety's, so I mean just a few friends who may have had similar experiences). It's kind of a relief, you know, to say, blah blah and someone says, "Yes! I hear you!" And that is what helped me move on and I never think about my ex anymore except, "oh yeah, that asshole." And I don't even think in terms of hatred or anything like that. It doesn't bother me at all. And I think I have my girlfriends and that lovely down to earth lady to thank for it (as well as myself!).
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:09 PM on July 21, 2014

It genuinely doesn't matter if anyone else on the planet thinks it's abuse. In your mind, it's abuse. Therapy is exclusively about treating your mind.
posted by Neekee at 6:22 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Therapists have been successfully sued in cases where their clients, during or subsequent to therapy, have accused others of abuse.

I'd say your therapist is acting as if she fears that could happen to her if she gives you the validation you are asking for.

If that's true -- and the fact that she was furious with you for asking and putting her in that position strikes me as a strong indication that it is -- I think you should indeed find a new therapist, because this one lacks the personal courage and steadfast dedication to the welfare of the client above all else that real trauma work requires.
posted by jamjam at 6:38 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had a therapist like this and she is a nice person and would also try to point to how I was making some progress and whatever with all the talking, which is true. But gradually I realized that I was going into the sessions every time thinking to myself, what are the magic words to make her actually respond in a way that would be validating, instead of challenging me to think about it differently, which was generally her approach? I thought maybe one day I'd find the magic words and she would finally say, okay, I don't need to tell you to think about that in a different way, that was traumatic and here is what you can do to heal.

Sometimes I felt like I was dealing with some kind of zen priest who was messing with me on purpose and if I kept going back enough times I would reach enlightenment with it. But there weren't any magic words or enlightenment, so I had to gracefully end things and find a new therapist. I really don't get how this kind of approach to therapy would be all that helpful for abuse and trauma survivors, to be honest. It has been my experience that a lot of effects are trauma are physical and if you have stuff like bad anxiety and insomnia, I would recommend hard exercise (cardio), yoga (stick with it - I'm serious), and finding a new therapist who specializes in trauma/abuse.
posted by citron at 8:01 PM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I had a therapist like this. After about a year of working with him, I thought we were both going nuts. He refused to validate my perceptions, implied that I was hypersensitive or perceiving negative reactions and abuse when it wasn't there. In some cases he took the side of the person who had abused me. I walked out of his office a couple of times, and when I came back I knew we had to discuss what was going on between us.

So I said to the guy, "In many ways you've helped me, and I like a lot of things about your approach. But what I can't feature is the fact that you seem to have trouble identifying with me. Why are you unable to identify with me? Is this some kind of tough love thing you're doing? If you're doing a strategy, I can respect that - but I've got to tell you, it isn't working for me. If you're not doing a strategy, then please stop antagonizing me, because I think it's getting in the way of our work together."

He denied anything was wrong between us at first. This gave me a bit of a laugh, because in doing this he was TOTALLY invalidating me. I persisted in trying to get through to him, and at one point it seemed that some light was dawning. He tried to improve - I'll give him that - but I came back for successive sessions, and he didn't change. I suspect he was dealing with some major personal issues and it was getting in the way of his ability to see me.

So yeah, it's a pain to have to start all over again with a new person. But in your case, you really need to do that. I was very much struck by your term "re-abuse." Once therapy itself becomes abusive, you need to protect yourself and get the heck out.

Good luck, and you will find someone better. Good therapists are out there :)
posted by cartoonella at 8:48 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful answers. It has been almost healing in many ways to read them.

I feel a little more like myself tonight and like I've been able to blow through some of the traumatic feelings. I thought about things and realized that my counsellor quite possibly melted down on me in the session and probably didn't have a clue what was going on for me. She probably knew that having her tell me that she wouldn't just give me affirmations would be upsetting. But something must have been really wrong for her to tell me that she had no idea how to help me and for her to get so terse and so on. I've probably seen her for more than 200 sessions and I've probably had 2 bad sessions and one not so hot one in all that time. And it's not like they were all in a row or even anywhere near each other - like several years ago, a year ago, now. When I read some of the stories of therapists above or even think of my former counsellor, I cringe. I would not say that this counsellor is like that. And, if I was being retraumatized as this happened, I may have brought in parts of the previous trauma, although I feel pretty comfortable with my version of what happened.

So I'm going to go into my next session with an open mind and see what happens. I'm worried about talking to her, because I'm worried she's going to fire me or that she already did. And I'm worried that the therapeutic relationship is broken.

I think it was how she delivered things and not so much that she won't tell me if it was/wasn't. When I think about it, I never needed any previous counsellor to tell me that. I think she really screwed up on how she handled this latest session and that she maybe had a meltdown of sorts and should have held back and even just grounded me. If she'd said something like, "It sounds like you're feeling like you need more support here" or "We can work together on some strategies to help you figure out what will help you be able to feel okay here", rather than telling me she had no idea what would help me, I think it wouldn't have been so bad. I mean, I really can't imagine that, when we started the session she thought she had no clue how to help me. She seems like a pretty ethical person and I think she would have referred me on or told me before. Although maybe that's what she's going to do this week. I guess I'll come update the thread, if that's okay with folks.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:16 PM on July 21, 2014

It's obvious you are a truly empathetic being. However. You are intensely overly concerned with this person's experience.

I was with you through the first part of your update. But you lost me when you started reading into her side.

She's a trained professional you are paying for a professional (degreed, licensed) service.

Her words to you were beyond the pale for someone in her role, no matter how flustered she became.

Plus, the bigger picture is that 200 sessions is a lot for dealing with trauma. Not too much! Even though everyone is different in their process, you are unintentionally describing a lack of progress with this treatment. I've been there.

Everything else you're about in on point. You keep doing you!

Just remember this is about your goals. It's about you.

Anyway, this just could be a sign that this person has assisted you as far as she can on your journey. Nothing is "broken," rather, it's time to find someone to take the next steps with.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 11:58 PM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I am not worried about how she's doing. I think she screwed up. A lot. But I think how things proceed will help me determine whether this was complete incompetence or something we can try to work through.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:27 AM on July 22, 2014

My therapist validated and affirmed my experiences all the time ("that must have been horrible"), but stopped short of applying an objective label ("that was wrong"). I was yearning for her to name what I went through, but realised that the label would have been a little box to put myself in - a short-term comfort, and a limiting one, that would have been put there by as much by her judgement as anything. It's better to help you decide these things for yourself.

In other words, it was fine that I saw something as being wrong, but her job wasn't to make it officially A Wrong Thing; her job was to treat what I felt as valid and real, give me the tools to make sense of it myself, and to bring as little of her own stuff to the table as possible, and to let me calibrate normal or not for myself.

But from what I can tell you have the right instincts about what your own therapist just did - your calibration is pretty good, it turns out!
posted by cogat at 8:22 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I saw my counsellor. I'd left her a very brief message to tell her I thought I had trauma. She was very kind and compassionate and she must have validated everything I said about the last session. She didn't minimize my experience and she was so supportive. It was a really rewarding experience and we got into a lot of stuff I probably couldn't have told her (about the therapeutic alliance) otherwise. I think, in some ways, we might move forward faster now. I could tell you more, but I probably don't need to write it all here. She said I was very brave to come back in and talk to her when I was so traumatized and that most people would have walked. I said I thought I'd had very few opportunities in my life where there was an upset and the other person tried to repair things and I wanted to see what would happen, as I felt there was the opportunity for it to be positive. I could tell she felt devastated that I'd been traumatized by what happened and also by my past trauma coming in. It turns out that had only been 10 minutes of the last session. "But, for you, that was the whole session," she said.

We didn't get into the piece about the validation, as we agreed that, right now, we needed to talk about the delivery or process of last session more than the content. But she assured me we will collaborate in finding a solution. That being said, I'm not sure entirely about that piece - the validation piece - and I may be back with another question or two here.

Thank you all for your kind words and support. I used the replies from every one of you over the past couple of days. I still need to recover, but you were all very helpful.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:30 PM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I just wanted to come back to this thread. It's been almost a year. Twice, in the past couple of weeks, I've asked my counsellor about whether things were abuse or not. She's been tentative about doing it, but she's clarified it. It was a great relief not to have to instead focus on my distress tolerance, so that I could instead understand an approach she was taking. It's clear to me I still need to do more work to know whether it's abuse on an emotional level (I can talk all I want about it - there's a disconnect). But not having to tailspin was really helpful.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:28 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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