Helping Therapy Clients Push Their Limits

Embracing the Client's Capacity for Resilience and Recovery

Michele Weiner-Davis

I was doing a workshop in the Midwest and, as is often the case when I travel, I spent a great deal of time with the person who organized the training. We ate meals together. We talked. We became fast friends. Over dinner one night, she shared a story about her life—one that stuck with me for years and would affect my life and work in profound ways.

A vivacious, single, 35-year-old woman, Sally had a passion for running. One day, the unimaginable happened: when she returned to her apartment after a run, the door closed behind her and there stood a man in a ski mask with a knife in his hand. Sally quickly told herself that she might get raped but would somehow survive the ordeal. And in fact, that’s precisely what happened.

The rapist ordered her to remove her clothes and have intercourse with him as he held a knife to her throat. She complied.

After listening to her report, the police officer said, “Lady, I don’t get it. You were just raped at knifepoint and you’re telling me the story so calmly. How is that possible?”

Sally looked the police officer straight in the eye and without a moment’s hesitation replied, “You don’t think that I’m going to let 15 minutes with that fucker ruin my life, do you?”

Sally’s reaction took my breath away. I wanted to stand up and applaud. I wanted to scream, “Yes!” I was in absolute awe of her strength and fortitude. Sally became my new hero.

She had no post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), no nightmares, no sexual hang-ups, no depression, no anxiety. She needed no therapy. Nothing. Her rape did have one lasting effect, however. For years, she volunteered at rape crisis centers to help other women who’d been through similar experiences.

Despite my fascination with Sally’s courageous response, I distinctly recall wondering, “How could Sally have triumphed over adversity so quickly, so masterfully, so completely—without therapy? Was she in denial?”

The answer was no. Sally wasn’t a “survivor” or a “rape victim.” Sally was thriving. Here’s what I learned that day: knowing what’s happened in people’s lives is a lot less helpful than knowing the meaning they’ve ascribed to their experiences. It’s what people tell themselves about their trials and tribulations that dictate how they respond, react, and recover.

As therapists, we’re taught to take in-depth psychosocial histories. And when we learn that clients have experienced tough childhoods, sexual or emotional abuse, or significant losses, we often make immediate assumptions about their current struggles and the kind of treatment they require. In many ways, the information we gather about problematic pasts biases and blinds us. Because we’re empathetic to the challenges certain clients have endured, we’re less likely to nudge them beyond their comfort zones. After all, we wouldn’t want to trigger them.

However, we do our clients a great disservice when we think we grasp who they are simply because we’ve gathered some facts about their lives. Human beings are far too complex to assume that we know how any single person assimilates his or her experiences. But since having assumptions that influence our work with clients is unavoidable, why not assume resilience? Why not trust people’s abilities to rebound from adversity? Why not focus on their resources, rather than look for pathology under every rock?

Marie and Justin

Recently, memories of Sally came rushing back to me when I began work with Marie and Justin, a couple in their 40’s who came to Boulder to do a two-day intensive with me because their marriage was in deep trouble.

When I asked about the purpose of our meeting and what they were hoping to accomplish in our two days together, I learned they hadn’t had sex in 12 years. Overall, they loved each other, collaborated in everything they did, and enjoyed each other’s company. The problem was that Justin no longer wanted to be in a sexless marriage. He was ready to get out and wasted no time in telling me about his deep sense of hurt and rejection due to Marie’s unwillingness to be responsive to any of his sexual advances. He sobbed loudly and uncontrollably as he spoke about it.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” he cried. “I adore Marie, but the pain I feel lying in bed next to her each night is unbearable. When I think about my life without her, I don’t assume that I’ll be happy or find someone else. I just know that I can’t live with this rejection anymore. I’d rather die. I have to leave if nothing changes.”

In turn, Marie told me that she definitely wanted to save her marriage. She couldn’t fathom a life without her best friend and partner, and said she wasn’t going to let that happen.

Marie’s reluctance to have sex made me curious about her past sexual history. She admitted that she’d slept with many men when she was in college and attributed it to the fact she’d been sexually abused for two years when she was a preteen. And now things were coming to a head.

If Marie truly wanted to save her marriage, I realized, she was going to have to become proactive in revitalizing her sexual relationship, regardless of her abusive background. Justin simply wasn’t going to stay otherwise. I decided it was time for tough love.

This blog is excerpted from “Knowing When to Push". The full version is available in the March/April 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Couples | Anxiety/Depression | Trauma

Tags: depression | ED | emotion | loss | michele weiner-davis | post-traumatic stress disorder ptsd | psychotherapy | PTSD | rejection | resilience | sex | stress disorder | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | traumatic | traumatic stress | traumatic stress disorder | Psychotherapy Networker | marriage | stress | clients | recovery

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1 Comment

Friday, April 24, 2015 6:35:10 AM | posted by tobyl2
Thank you for this article! This is an important point that isn't emphasized enough. Resilience and moving forward are powerful tools that can even prevent PTSD. It is a tight rope to walk in treatment as we don't want to overlook denial either. A side point: wondering with recent brain research if the onset of PTSD is correlated with that moment of decision making at the time of the trauma. In this case, she was after a run (high endorphins+other positive chemical reactions) and her decision was based on saving her own life, this was her being proactive, not in a predominantly powerless mode. We know that PTSD is based on what the person felt they 'didn't do' in the situation, what they did do builds their resilience. In my practice, I see this making a big difference in the recovery of rape victims. Any ideas where I can find research on this?