How to Support Loved Ones in Therapy

Someone you care about is in therapy. Your support can make a huge difference in how well it works and how rapidly she heals. Someone who doesn’t have a good support system suffers a double whammy, enduring the pain of her own process and simultaneously trying to deal with the pressure, negativity, or shame that her friends and family may be inflicting on her. So how can you support her without making an already challenging process even more difficult?

People seek therapy for many reasons. Some feel stuck at a crossroads and just need a map to point them in the right direction. Some are like rockets on a launching pad, needing a boost to get off the ground and into orbit. Others are like houses that are basically sound but in desperate need of a new bathroom because the toilet is old and funky and is overflowing down the hall and into the living room. And others are like caterpillars spinning a chrysalis, painfully dissolving into mush, hoping they won’t die before they can emerge into something new and beautiful.

Remodeling the Bathroom

When someone needs a map, a boost, or even a new bathroom, being supportive is fairly straightforward. You encourage; you listen; you cut her or him slack for occasional sleepless nights and bad days; you tell her she’s not alone; you be an anchor of kindness and common sense as she loses her old bearings and develops healthier ones; you acknowledge her courage and hard work; you allow her the time she needs to do the work; you tell her she can count on you, and then you actually follow through.

Don’t send mixed messages. Be authentic, she will know the difference. If you say you support her but your actions and words reveal that you are irritated, then you make the whole process more difficult for her. The hard truth is that it takes time and money to do this work, that she will feel painful feelings and remember painful memories, that she will change unhealthy patterns, that she will feel vulnerable and maybe a little crazy before she feels better. When you remodel a bathroom it’s a big mess before it becomes functional and beautiful. The sink and the toilet don’t work for a while. Many partners want the beautiful new bathroom but can’t tolerate the mess.

The most important thing you can do is to let her do what she needs to do and feel what she needs to feel. Let her cry, let her be angry, and let her wrestle with really nasty emotions. She must deal with that funky toilet at some point. You can help with the mopping up, but you can’t fix it for her. If you are the sort of person who is uncomfortable with other people’s sadness or anger, then do your friend a favor and take a long vacation to Madagascar. You will not help her, because she will stifle the feelings she needs to feel so you won’t be uncomfortable.

Building a New Foundation

Other people have a beautiful coat of paint on the outside, i.e., they look okay and function well, and maybe even over-function, but as they begin working it becomes obvious that the entire house is riddled with termites, in danger of collapsing, and needs a whole new foundation. This is major work. This is blood, sweat, and many, many tears. These people have usually had severe trauma in their childhoods. All of the above still applies, but there is another whole level of support that these people need and seldom get. This work challenges not only the survivor, but also her or his support system. In my experience, very few friends and family members understand how difficult, painful, and incapacitating this sort of process can be. Even though it’s impossible to understand the depth of what she’s going through you can do something extremely important: support her with unconditional acceptance and boundless patience.

Our culture admires those who get hit hard and can shake it off. This works for a football player, but it doesn’t work for a little child who is molested or raped. In a way, these soul wounds are worse because the scars don’t show. People don’t understand why she can’t just get over it and move on. They don’t understand that the trauma (even relatively “minor” trauma) has damaged her mind, body, and spirit, her sense of self, and her trust in the world.

She many look okay but her appearance is an illusion. The unseen “reality” is that all the bones in her body are broken and she’s in a full body cast, in traction, in the hospital. In other words, she’s helpless to do much of anything for herself. This is difficult for many family members to believe. The sad truth is that they’re willing to support her therapeutic process as long as she continues to function normally and take care of them the way she always has. When she feels too vulnerable, anxious, or depressed to take care of them, they get angry and impatient. They want to know why it is taking so long. They may suggest that therapy doesn’t seem to be working and a change is in order. This can devastate her. She is working harder than she’s ever worked at anything in her life, feeling vulnerable, learning to tolerate painful feelings, clawing her way through old muck in order to reach open air and feel free, and instead of getting applauded for her efforts she gets criticized and judged. All of this makes her work much harder.

Why is it taking so long?

So what is going on in her therapy? Often old memories are emerging into her consciousness, some for the first time, some in disjointed pieces. Some of these memories are horrific. She is trying very hard to make sense of terrifying flashbacks, put them in perspective, and not fall apart. What makes it so hard is that she is not remembering these things as an adult looking back on old history. She is feeling overwhelmed by that little girl’s terror and vulnerability, which has been locked away in a split-off part of her brain and is now opening up.

The goal of therapy is to rescue that traumatized little girl. We need to be with her, listen to her story, open our hearts to her, build trust, and bring her out of that terrifying place into a safe place so the adult really can, authentically, move on. Her deepest pains and fears are gently and gradually being witnessed, and the little child is being comforted. Depending on the severity of the trauma, the age at which it occurred, how long it lasted, and the nature of the support system she had at the time, this can be a slow, painful, vulnerable process. There are many levels of the work, many ups and downs. Some days or weeks are better than others.  It is not easy and not quick, and that’s just the reality of it. Would you hire a contractor who said, “Oh sure, I can rip out the old foundation and slap up a new one over the weekend”? This is not bricks and mortar, this is the human soul.

As this work gently and gradually builds a stronger internal foundation and heals the mind, it shakes everything down to the core. The survivor must slog through a painful process of feeling excruciatingly vulnerable. The old coping strategies (overeating, overworking, alcohol, drugs, perfectionism, pleasing, isolating, gambling, etc.) have been breaking down and are not working anymore. No matter how many medications she takes, no matter how good she is at pleasing others and being perfect and staying in control, the anxiety and depression are leaking out and overwhelming her. She is finally feeling the unfiltered fear, shame, and pain of her childhood.

Others can’t see that internal pain and don’t understand her experience. Even though she wants to live a more normal life, she is stuck in this other painful place. At times she may question what she started and wish she could go back to her old life, but she can’t stuff the memories or the feelings back in the box. The truth is that it often gets worse before it gets better. She is like that caterpillar entering metamorphosis. Once the process begins, it’s irreversible. The old ways of thinking, feeling, and being are all painfully dissolving, and something new and beautiful will eventually emerge, but in the meantime it’s a mess. Therapy is a lonely process, it requires a lot of energy, a powerful dedication to one’s self, and a significant internal focus. It requires a lot of time to think, feel, and process. To others this looks like she is “doing nothing,” but the truth is that she is working extremely hard.

Her subconscious core beliefs are also being revealed. These beliefs connect to extremely vulnerable feelings and keep her stuck in destructive patterns and behaviors. These beliefs include things like, “I can’t trust anyone; I’m worthless; if I’m not perfect no one will love me; life is too painful; I don’t want to live; if I don’t please everyone around me they will abandon me and I will die; if I let anyone get close to me they will hurt me; there’s something wrong with me; if people see who I really am they will be disgusted,” etc. These are not rational adult beliefs; they are the terrors of a child. They are frozen way below the level of rationality, and logical argument has no effect on them (have you ever tried being logical and rational with a terrified two year old?).

When these feelings and beliefs, and the memories they are connected to, are opened up it can feel very threatening. Facing and feeling these beliefs in order to transform them is a heroic effort, not only for her but also for those who support the process as it unfolds. She needs your ongoing encouragement to stay hopeful as she traverses the dark places and occasionally gets discouraged. To support her you must stay focused on the present and be an anchor of hope and safety.

The Difficult Issue of Sex

Be very sensitive about sex with a partner who has been abused. This is extremely important. While she heals she may find it difficult or even impossible to continue having a normal sex life for a while, even with a partner she loves and trusts, and there’s no way of knowing how long it will take. Sorry, that’s just the reality of it. It’s not your fault, and it’s not her fault either.

For someone who has subconsciously shut out the abuse for many years in order to survive, the difficulty is magnified. When memories begin emerging, she may feel devastated by the feelings associated with the abuse. The pain and fear invade her waking hours, her dreams, and her body. These feelings flood her, feel unbearable for a while, gradually subside, and then intensify again whenever a new memory surfaces. Her adult mind knows logically that she is safe, but she feels like a little girl who is being touched, beaten, humiliated, raped, or choked right now.

If you are a partner it is understandably confusing when she or he suddenly can’t tolerate sexual touch or maybe even any touch at all. You naturally want to comfort her, hold her, and prove to her that you are safe and sex can be good, but the difficult reality is that any sort of touch may trigger terrifying memories for her. The wounds don’t show, and she looks okay, so it’s hard to understand how threatening touch can be for her.

Many partners can support this for a while, but eventually, when it goes on “too long,” they get angry and feel cheated. But if she were in the hospital, in traction, would you be angry at her? If all her bones were broken would you be pressuring her to hurry up and get over it so you could have sex again? If she were being raped right now would you make her feel guilty for not having sex with you? Consider the unspoken messages you send when you pressure her to be intimate even though it feels so threatening. Your disappointment is understandable, but your unspoken messages of disappointment, anger, and judgment damage her self-image and your relationship.

So how do you support her?

Ask her to tell you if something you’re doing is triggering her. Listen if she wants to talk about it. Be compassionate, even if she can’t talk about it. Practice saying, “How can I help?” Don’t touch her in any way that feels uncomfortable to her. Be willing to take care of yourself in other ways for a while (I’m told there are little “pink elephant” things that work pretty well).

Remember that she’s “in traction,” and is unable to function normally, even though she wants to. Don’t take her revulsion about sexual touch personally; it’s not about you, and you can’t fix it. Let her have the time and space she needs to do the healing she needs to do. Don’t pressure or manipulate her into having sex. Remember this is her journey, not yours. Find a support group or a friend who is willing to listen, to help you put this into perspective, and to support you. Remember she is working hard, and that her goal is to live a more fulfilled, safe, and joyful life. In the end this will benefit you as well.

Don’t make her feel guilty for the time and money it takes to heal. She’s the one suffering here, not you, and she’s working as hard as she can to be well. Her work is to bring the compassion and perspective of her deep heart to her traumatized child, validate her, and rescue her. Getting close to a traumatized child that has been frozen in these memories may take some time. It’s like trying to help an abused puppy that is hiding under the bed and is terrified of people. You can’t just order it to come out of there; you must have the patience to sit down on the floor by the bed, speak to it gently and quietly, bring it food, and give it time to build trust.

Don’t judge her. Don’t ever imply that she is at fault for any of this; she had no power and no choice. If you believe that she is “damaged goods” then you join the ranks of her abusers. It is deeply hurtful and is not true to anyone who sees with the eyes of love. Her mind and body were wounded, but her heart and her soul are pure.

Beware of feeling angry toward her abusers. This is her battle to win, not yours. Your strong feelings will interfere with the work she needs to do, even if your intentions are good. Showing compassion and open-heartedness towards her and the whole messy process is more helpful than fighting the battle for her.

Don’t tell her how important it is to forgive those who hurt her. Yes, of course it’s important to forgive in order to be free, we all know that, but there are some very important things she must do first (like acceptance and self-forgiveness and changing those core beliefs), or it won’t be authentic and won’t be healing. Encouraging someone to forgive before they’ve done that vital work is like stitching up a dirty and infected wound that hasn’t been cleaned out yet.

Don’t shame her for needing time, money, and support. Don’t tell her she’s selfish just because she doesn’t have the energy to take care of you the way she used to. Don’t shame her for being unable to shake it off and move on. Survivors are hypersensitive to blame and shame, and are often tormented by the feeling that they are burdening and disappointing others. If that gets unbearable they may start to believe that this world is a better place without them.

Don’t tell her what you think she ought to do in order to heal. Believe me, you don’t know. Don’t tell her what God thinks she ought to do. You don’t know that, either. Please be careful with this. I have worked with several clients for whom this kind of spiritual abuse has triggered intense guilt and shame that has been very damaging.

Instead, do this really radical thing: listen to her. Believe her; don’t minimize her memories. Accept her unconditionally. Ask her how you can support her. Ask her what she needs from you instead of focusing on what you’re not getting from her. Respect whatever she thinks she ought to do. Amazingly enough, deep down, she knows. Or she soon will, because she’s working hard to develop her own internal clarity and confidence, and the courage to face her fears and tell the truth. She’s learning to tolerate painful emotions, take care of herself, and set healthy boundaries. When supermom starts taking care of herself her family often gets angry. Don’t shame her for being selfish; she is becoming a strong, healthy human being instead of a Stepford Wife. She is learning to love and care for her friends and family from an open, loving heart rather than from fears of being criticized, rejected, and abandoned. She is learning to listen to her own authentic voice.

And she will become a strong, healthy human being. It takes time, but she will rescue those traumatized little children that have been locked away in her subconscious mind and help them feel safe, comforted, and playful. She will build an inner strength she never thought possible. She will feel free. She will feel connected to her body, her feelings, herself, and other people. She will feel joyful.

 

 

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