Kim shifts uneasily on my couch.
She pushes a strand of hair behind one ear and looks at me uncertainly. Last week in session Kim told me that her mother had essentially done nothing when 10-year-old Kim revealed that her grandfather had abused her for years. Instead, the abuse was allowed to continue until Kim grew up and left home.
“I noticed that it was hard for you to hear me say that I thought your mother’s response was inadequate,” I say.
Kim is quiet for a moment before nodding decisively and saying, “Yes. Because she did the best she could. But I guess it’s ok that I made you angry by telling you about it.”
I am momentarily speechless. Then I say, “You didn’t make me angry. I wasn’t angry with you. I was angry about what happened to you.”
Kim reacts as though physically impacted by this. She leans back, looks at me, and utters a sound that is both sigh and exclamation: “Huh!”
We went on to have several useful discussions based on this material. No doubt my response could have been better, more refined, more thought-through. But, as you can tell, I was swimming deep in a sea of countertransference and struggling to keep my head above water.
I do feel angry when I hear about a parent – particularly a mother – failing to protect her child. This is obviously a personal trigger – I had a punitive mother; I am a mother. As a therapist, I understand how wounded people become wounding parents.
As their therapist, I strive to hold a non-judgmental posture toward a parent who is unable to protect their child. But when I am the therapist for the grown-up child of inadequate parenting, is it clinically useful to allow myself this feeling of anger toward their non-abusing but enabling parent?
I first started working with sexual abuse survivors as a Rape Crisis counselor, 20 years ago. That was a very different context, and one where anger helped the sadness, pain, and powerlessness we felt as bearers of a culturally-denied truth about families, churches, schools.
To some extent that pervasive social silence has now been broken, but I do wonder if my original coping framework still affects my therapist-self today.
More importantly, I’ve had the experience of my anger being helpful to some survivors, who were gratified to have someone acknowledge that it sometimes takes a complicit village to hurt a child in that way.
My interaction with Kim made me stop and think carefully about all this; is my counter-transferential anger clinically useful? I should add that I did not articulate my emotional response to Kim: she picked up on it. Is my job to process and eliminate it from the room?
Like other childhood incest survivors I have known or worked with, Kim struggles with a hideous dilemma: as an adult, she knows her mother let her down and exposed her to harm. But she continues to invest emotionally in the mother she had as a child, the one who was evidence at the time that she had something resembling a “normal” family.
Kim’s fantasy mother proves her childhood terror was not the sum total of her childhood experience. At the same time, alleviating her mother of her responsibility for protecting Kim allows the child in Kim to continue to believe that the abuse happened because she, little Kim, deserved it.
Where in all these violated boundaries do I use my counter-transference? Should I focus on constructing, and holding true to, a relationship that does not impinge on Kim’s sense of self?
Or is there a place for an external, validating judgment, which knows absolutely that what happened to Kim was not her fault, could have been stopped, and should have been? Is there something specific about work with sexual abuse survivors that makes these questions about how to manage or use counter-transference different to other clinical situations?
In Kim’s case, we have progressed into discussions about her current relationship with her mother, which is enmeshed and uncomfortable for her. We have not begun to touch the edges of her grief.
I am striving to keep my emotions entirely out of it, in order to give her the space I think she needs to decide for herself what to do going forward. But I do continue to have an opinion, and I do continue to wonder what place that opinion has on this issue in general, in the context of a social-justice-informed, feminist, awake, engaged psychotherapy practice.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
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