When Victims Victimize Others

Some Clients Challenge our Capacity for Compassion

My grandchildren often call me a dinosaur as I stumble along through the 21st-century digital world they navigate so easily. I pretty much like being a dinosaur, attached to my old-fashioned ways of doing things—except for the part about being extinct. Nevertheless, that’s sometimes how I feel when the therapists I supervise start talking about all the new trauma treatment approaches they’re learning, as if relationship-based verbal therapy is no longer relevant.

At the core of my work is the ability to connect with clients and form a bond grounded in compassion, empathy, and close attunement to the unfolding of the therapeutic relationship. That’s something that most therapists find relatively easy to do with the usual trauma clients—hyperaroused people who don’t have much difficulty communicating their vulnerability and emotional sensitivity. But it can be a lot tougher to remain nonjudgmental and receptive with dissociative clients, who are quick to challenge, criticize, diminish, and resist the clinician’s attempts to be helpful. Such individuals may appear void of tender emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety, and especially love. And then there are some even further out on the extreme of the human spectrum: deeply troubled, unattached people, who victimize others and may have done horrific things that test the capacity of even the most openhearted therapist’s ability to extend compassion and acceptance. But it’s in working with this population that we can learn…

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