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"I Was Too Ashamed......."

by Nancy Blake(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 188 - November 2011

The bullied school-child, the victim of domestic abuse, the rape victim....how can we make sense of the fact that it is so often the person at the receiving end of teasing, criticism, bullying, violence is the one who feels ashamed? Too embarrassed to speak up, to let anyone know? How does it happen that the shame and guilt which an objective observer would say the perpetrator should feel so often is taken on by the victim? It doesn't make sense - we think about such an event and feel angry at the perpetrator; we see the perpetrator as the bad person and the victim as innocent of wrong-doing.


child-bully

Of course such situations are complex, and in many cases one can understand that abuse generates abuse - it is usual in our schools and our work-places to see the victim as the person needing help, and often, as the problem. Recognition that the bully is the problem, and needs to be both called to account, and have the reasons for the behaviour understood and addressed is much rarer. Victims blame themselves, and too often, society reflects this.

The guilt of the victim can present a serious challenge to those trying to heal the damage done by any form of abuse. How can we understand it - how can we release it?

The first point can be illuminated if we consider the situation of the human infant and young child. We are the most completely helpless and dependent on others, for the longest period of time, of any species. Our physical survival depends absolutely on our being able to gain the attention of some other person, who has the intelligence and competence to provide for our needs, and who cares enough about us to do so. ('Attention-getting behaviour' does not deserve its bad press - for the first years of our life, our very survival depended on how successful we were at 'getting attention'.)

From very early in infancy, we are intimately attuned to the other humans who take care of us. We learn that certain ways of behaving will get us the attention and care that we need, although this is a slow and long-term project. However, in our helplessness, we will cling desperately to any form of behaviour that appears to have some effect over our carers, we need to feel that we have some measure of control over what happens to us. By the time we are toddlers, we will have begun to develop 'conscience' - an awareness that some of our behaviour is considered 'good' and some 'bad', with positive and negative consequences which can vary from moderate to extreme.

In early years, we cannot conceptualize that our carers may be unable to care for us, or do not love us. If either of those situations existed, our life would really be endangered. The less frightening way open to us to understand neglect or abuse is that we have not been 'good' enough. By thinking of ourselves as to blame, having done something to deserve our mistreatment, we cling to the illusion that we might be able to exercise some control - we might find a way to be 'good' enough to be treated better. Certainly victims in situations of domestic violence often to say that it was their own fault, they should have known how to prevent it. - how to be 'good enough' not to arouse their abuser.

Society often supports this perspective: women are to blame for being raped because they were wearing provocative clothing, or walking alone at night. Violent partners are 'driven' to their actions by their victim's behaviour.

The younger we are when we have negative experiences, the more severe they are, the longer they go on, the more likely we are to have formed a belief, first, that our behaviour is 'bad', and, eventually, that we 'are' bad - and often our persecutors will tell us so.

How can we best help clients who are in this situation, who have formed beliefs about events - that what happened was their fault - and beliefs about their own nature 'I am a bad person.'

Most traditional forms of therapy, at least since the early years of psychoanalysis, accept the view that our client can be helped by remembering their negative experiences clearly, 'going back' to them, 're-living them', and that somehow in this process, healing can take place. This way of practising is understood to be potentially dangerous - a client can get into an intense emotional state which can be frightening or even damaging to both client and therapist. Accurately re-lived, such experiences can generate the same level of distress, sometimes even dissociation, as the event itself. A belief that the event is the client's fault can be reinforced, rather than dispelled. As a therapist practising in a traditional way for years, I felt I had to be extremely careful not to allow my client to 'go' anywhere in their mind, in their mental/emotional experiences, where I was unable to protect them. This could mean glossing over events and issues rather than running the risks of a potentially dangerous re-exploration.

This is a point at which Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy takes a controversial diversion from the path of traditional therapies. Rather than inviting our client to re-associate into painful early memories, we encourage them to keep out of them. Our first instruction, when such a discussion seems imminent, is for our client to stay firmly anchored in the present, in their most resourceful adult/parent state. We ask that they keep firmly in mind where they are, that they are safe, and adult, possibly a parent, who has experience and competence to judge and deal with situations as an independent adult. We draw their attention to their physical environment - what are they seeing, hearing, feeling, here in the room with me, now, at this date and season.

This draws on the area of NLP known as 'submodalities'. Our minds have linked ways of representing our experiences. Think about the different emotional impact of looking at a small photograph of an event, perhaps faded over the years since it was first printed - and looking at the moving images in a cinema, on a huge screen, with loud surround sound, enlarged, brightly coloured, clearly focused images. Our mental images, our mental pictures of past or anticipated events, can be in black and white or in colour, clearly focused or fuzzy, be perceived as large or small, close to us ('in our face') or further away. We speak of memories 'fading', of putting events 'behind us', as a commonly understood way of overcoming the emotional impact of a remembered event.

If we want our client to be able to re-evaluate an early experience, to address adult judgement to it rather than the reactions of a frightened child (or the reactions of an adult embroiled in a complex, love/hate relationship), we need to help them to 'see' the picture in a different way. We want them to re-view it, not re-live it.

We can approach this process carefully, as we teach the client to become aware of the different ways they may remember past events, and demonstrate that they can change the nature of their mental images - you can, mentally, turn the colour down, move the image farther away or closer, make it bigger or smaller. Likewise, you can change the sound quality in a memory, or in your own thoughts. You can remember or imagine sensations - the wind on our faces, the lovely feeling of getting into a warm bath. Smells and tastes can be particularly evocative - pulling you right into re-experiencing an event, so perhaps working with these should be linked with positive memories.

Submodality work can, in fact, be very effective in helping a person gain the benefits of positive experiences re-lived, or in providing motivation towards learning new things or completing projects.

In working with victim guilt, however, we want to use every possible means to help our client stay in a resourceful, adult state, and only 're-view' the past negative events, seeing their younger self in those images - watching their younger self from the perspective of their older, more experienced current state.  (Sometimes it can be helpful to learn whether there are any particular TV dramas or soaps that our client watches. When we are watching such programs, we always know who the good guys and the bad guys are, when it's going to work out and when it's going to end in tears. This state, of all-knowingness and clear judgement may be just what our client needs, and sometimes it can be straightforward enough as suggesting that they imagine the past negative event is an episode in their favourite soap which they are watching.)

In my work I tend to compress a number of submodalities by suggesting that my client, once firmly 'anchored' in their present, adult state, begin to 'watch' the troubling past events as though they were being shown on a small TV, right across the room, just big enough to see what is going on. This helps to ensure that the image is small, distant, and has a border around it, as well as showing the client's younger self in the image, the age they were - and the size they were - when the negative events occurred. These submodalities, including being dissociated from the memory, rather than 'in' it, all will tend to reduce the emotion aroused by the memory. What we want is for our client to have the feelings that anyone watching these events would have - sympathy for the victim, anger at the perpetrator(s). The question to ask is 'how to you feel towards the 'you' in that memory?' And 'who is responsible for what is going on there? Who has the power? Was there anything the 'you' in that event could have done to change what was going on? Who should be feeling guilty about this?'

It is very important throughout this process to be paying very close attention to your client. Things are often not straightforward; as a therapist you cannot assume that things will go a particular way. You need to watch for signs that your client is associating into the event, and getting upset because of it - you may have to remind them that they are in the present, in the room with you, safe and OK. Also the event or events themselves may be more complex than they have been portrayed. If there is some element for which self-criticism would be appropriate, it would be important to validate this - if such a reality is acknowledged, it can actually facilitate our client sorting out appropriate guilt from inappropriate guilt. (If your client has been unfaithful to their partner, he or she is justified in being angry about it, but not violent. If, on the other hand, your client has been beaten up because of having arrived home ten minutes later than expected, then guilt is not appropriate.)

Sensory acuity is almost the first thing taught in courses on NLP, and acute awareness of slight changes in skin colour, small movements, elements of facial expression will help you to keep track of points at which it may be important to check with your client about what is going on for them.

When your client looks at the event and concludes that they can see that their younger self was not responsible, and feels appropriately sympathetic, as well as appropriately angry towards the perpetrator(s), then an important first step has been taken, as you invite them to fully experience and explore the implications of those new feelings and judgements.

Discussion of further stages in this healing process will be continued in my next article.

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About Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake BA CQSW, has worked in mental health settings since 1971. She served as Chair of the ANLP PCS (now the NLPtCA), on a National Working Party developing postgraduate standards for Psychotherapy (NVQ Level 5), and contributed to the document which led to NLP being accepted as a therapeutic modality by the European Association for Psychotherapy.  She has presented workshops at UKCP Professional Conferences on an NLP approach to working with victims of abuse, and in psychoneuroimmunology.  Recovering from ME since 1986, she is the co-author, with Dr Leslie O Simpson, of the book Ramsay’s Disease (ME) about ME, as well as A Beginner's Guide to ME / CFS (ME/CFS Beginner's Guides). Both titles are available both in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Nancy was previously enrolled at Lancaster University in a PhD doctoral program; her thesis topic was Conflicting Paradigms of ME/CFS and how the Psychiatric Paradigm creates its Influence in contrast to the Medical Model. She may be contacted via alternatives@alternatives.karoo.co.uk  http://nancyblakealternatives.com/ Her books are available to purchase at www.amazon.co.uk/Nancy-Blake-BA-CQSW/e/B0089NS0RK/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

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