Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Psychological Platitudes: It's not your fault.

One of my first experiences in the counseling profession happened in 1992. One of my final courses in college was a practicum--I arranged to volunteer at a local rape crisis center. Things didn't start off well for me. A social work intern from a local graduate program said "men do the raping, women do the healing. You don't belong here." Suffice it to say, we agreed to disagree.

I had all sorts of experiences there. I did an extensive volunteer training. I went out on hospital calls. I sat in my office and did my best to support people. I helped a group of college aged men set up a support group for male survivors of sexual abuse. I got to carry a pager--that was exciting--I felt like I was someone important.

Only important people had pagers. Well, important people, drug dealers, and people pretending to be important.  I know for sure I wasn't a drug dealer--it's unclear if I was important to just trying to look important. I'm getting distracted from my point.

I learned language of a rape crisis center well. I learned that a supportive person was supposed to say "it wasn't your fault." I learned it so well I stopped thinking about it. I said it over and over to countless people. "It wasn't your fault." I told a lot of people that it wasn't their fault. I was following a script I learned well--a script that is taught in psychotherapy programs across the country. It wasn't your fault.

Then I had to go pay attention to what I was saying and everything changed.

A couple of years ago I started listening to myself. I started listening very closely to what my clients were saying to me. I started listening very closely to their experience.

Nearly every single client that I have worked with that has experienced sexual or physical abuse has blamed themselves  Maybe it has been every single one of them. I told every single one of them it wasn't their fault. While I was so busy telling them it wasn't their fault I was ignoring all the ways in which they felt like it was. Worse yet, I was invalidating their experience.

I was wrong to do that. I'm deeply sorry that I've made this error with each of my clients.

My error was a very basic one. It is one that I find almost unforgivable. I got away away from the experience of my client and said something political. I said something that I wanted to believe. I said something that I wanted to help. Saying "it wasn't your fault" isn't something we say for clients--it is something we say for ourselves. It made me feel better--I doubt it really made anyone else feel any better.

Each time I said "it wasn't your fault" I made an inhospitable environment for a person to talk about how they felt it was their fault. Each time I uttered that particular therapeutic platitude I invalidated the experience of another and closed the door on an important part of their experience.

I learned something else while I was at the rape crisis center. The director had said that people need to do what the need to do in order to get through an experience--they need to do whatever is required to survive. Some fight. Some check out and dissociate. Some cry. Some might even pretend that they like what is happening.

What an awful situation. The only choice someone having in these particular situations in one in which someone can willingly do something shitty and feel shitty or unwillingly do something shitty and feel shitty. That's no choice at all. At least it doesn't seem like a choice. It seems like an impossible situation.

My clients have shown me this shitty situation over and over. Sometimes I've been so busy ignoring them saying "it wasn't your fault" that they've had to find creative ways to help me experience this shitty situation so I'd listen to them and understand their experience.

Once I stopped with the quasi-therapeutic political platitudes my clients started taking about all the different ways they felt the trauma was their fault. They started to talk about the most absolutely horrific and harrowing situations in which they had to choose to willingly do something shitty and feel shitty or unwillingly do something shitty and feel shitty.

I went off the reservation and started being a maverick (at least in most rape crisis and therapy circles). I started listening to clients and their experiences of blame, shame, and impossible choices. I started helping create a place where people can experience more of their experience rather than less of it.

I think it is in that very place--confronting the impossible choice of willingly doing something shitty and feeling shitty or unwillingly doing something shitty and feeling shitty--that everything begins to change. An experience is given its full voice. An individual can confront, mourn, and move forward. An individual can make a new choice.

What do you think? Am I off the reservation? Are you going to chase me down with flaming torches and pitchforks? Some have said that the this choice--willingly doing something shitty and feeling shitty or unwillingly doing something shitty and feeling shitty--"perpetuates victimhood... it perpetuates shame."

What do you think?

I think rather than perpetuating shame, it can birth a sense of radical acceptance and liberation. I think that confronting that shitty dilemma allows us all to confront a reality--and give us the space to become fully alive.


  1. I dunno about fully alive, Jason, but I believe the adage perpetuates victimhood rather than empowerment. Right around the same time, I was having a similar experience. I, too, was a Rape Crisis Program volunteer in 1992... and for a few years after. One of the most difficult things for me was to reconcile the adage that "it's never the ‘victim's’ fault" with the idea of becoming more aware of one's surroundings and beginning to believe that one is worth protecting and thus changing one's behavior.

    I always thought it was so patronizing and devaluing of a woman's self-efficacy that the Rape Crisis culture would not allow room to acknowledge that, in fact, for many women, it's a dangerous world and we ought to take precautions, and while it's never a person's fault when someone willfully hurts us, we can learn to be aware of situations that might be dangerous to us, and take heed. It ain't fair, but it's real. AND, the other observation that I had was that many, many of the women that I counseled had been raped or otherwise traumatized previously. I think I didn't meet one rape survivor for whom this was the first experience of sexual abuse or trauma. At the time, I wondered how it could be that the rape statistics seem to be clustered amongst specific segments and members of the population. I know now that many of them had long ago learned to disregard their own perceptions and internal locus of control, and if we, as clinicians continue to support that, we likely contributed to continued victimization.

    But, hey, the culture likes women that way, anyway. As long as they stay in therapy, trying to figure out what's wrong with THEM, we’ll pat’em on the head and tell’em it’s not their fault. And though they may not feel better, or learn anything but self-loathing, we’ll feel better.

  2. BK,

    If you are the BK I know--I can't believe we never connected around our shared experiences at a rape crisis center while we were in our two year class together. If you aren't that BK, welcome.

    Fully alive with one comment -- no. But the potential the potential to see there are choices (shitty and otherwise), and there is agency, and there is an internal locus of control. Just maybe.

    Thaks for joining in!

  3. I'm writing here today because I have an assignment to criticize the professional-client relationships when compared with traditional and modern approaches. In 2 movies that are to be included in the assignment are The Unsaid and Good Will Hunting, in both movies at the very end both therapists use those words too 'it's not your fault' and at first I felt like the repeating of the same phrase reduced the client so much that eventually broke them. However I think that that might be a way to help maybe certain clients to break the wall of denial and eventually like you said, be able to move forward. I'd like to hear your view about this and thanks


    1. Hi Charlot,

      Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment. What class are you taking?

      Movies need to show us how a story line progresses, and I often think that therapists are used as a storytelling tool to move the action along in an exciting fashion. It's not, however, how therapy usually works. I think a good therapist is a bit like a hiking guide -- we point out different paths (and interesting things along the path) to those we are guiding. We shine a strong light on what's on the road ahead for our clients to see -- but we don't push them and we don't try to break people. We give them the tools to make their own informed choices while also allowing them the dignity of risk (whether that means not moving forward, not looking at something, or making "wrong" choices in general, as long as those are informed wrong choices).

      That's my two cents at least.

  4. Yes I'm sure movies will always be portrayed in a way to seem more interesting. In those 2 movies I mentioned, the boundary violations were pretty clear and in reality therapists are probably more cautious. I understand a bit the idea of kinda 'pointing' the way and providing the tools and also the dignity of the risk seems very interesting and the art in the therapy (I assume) would be to find the certain way to do it with the certain type of clients. Thanks again, I'm in my first year doing Bachelor in Psychology.

  5. Thank you so much for saying "It wasn't your fault" doesn't help. My current therapist kept saying that and it just made me feel very distant and unsupported. I am looking for another therapist now. I really want to be able to express all of my feelings. Logically, I know it wasn't my fault because I was just a child but the feelings are still there and I need to fully express them.

    1. I'm so sorry that you weren't able to experience being able to have all of your feelings and experiences in therapy, and am glad you are looking for a therapist that is open to helping you create a different environment. Have you considered talking with your current therapist about your experience? Sometimes we therapists can make mistakes that we don't realize we are making, and when our clients call us on them we both can grow in powerful ways. Sometimes therapists aren't able to hear this, of course, so seeking someone who is a better match might also be the perfect choice.