Why Power Should be Shared in Therapy

October 17, 2018


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Working as a volunteer Emergency Department Rape Crisis Counselor was the first time I became painfully aware of power dynamics in clinical settings.
This volunteer position required that I meet with a sexual assault survivor directly after their power had been violently snatched. It was emphasized throughout my training that my role was to assist survivors in regaining their sense of power back. And although I understood this concept on an intellectually level it CRYSTALLIZED when I was in a room with a teenage boy, covered in bruises, hunched over on the examining table, his sobs causing his fragile body to shake uncontrollably. In that moment I knew in the core of my being that this teenage boy had just had his power stolen from him.

Lessons such as this resumed whenever I was called into the ER to serve a sexual assault or domestic violence survivor. For many sexual assault survivors (like that teenage boy), the forensic exam was particularly difficult. In this exam survivors are asked to give access to places on their bodies that were JUST violated. A typical exam took about three hours to complete and was quite invasive — filled with swabbing different orifices (if you would like more information about forensic exams/rape kit click here).

These experiences taught me that being an agent of empowerment for survivors isn’t about grand gestures. I didn’t need to throw on a red cape and declare myself their rescuer in order to help. In fact doing just that was unhelpful and dis-empowering. Instead, helping survivors to re-establish empowerment was achieved in small, simple acts like: asking survivors if I could enter the room, if I could walk towards them, or even sit down. It was explaining to them ALL of their options (even the ones I would prefer them not to use), and deferring to them as experts of their own experiences without judgment. It was me trusting in this person’s ability to know what they needed (even if it was to be left alone), as well as helping them to locate themselves in the midst of this tragedy.

As a Mental Health Counselor now who primarily serves survivors of trauma, all of these skills still very much apply.

As helping professionals we must understand that our clients are also experts in their own experiences. If we are truly to engage in social justice therapy then we must come from the perspective that traumatized people have something worth listening to and trusting in. Sometimes it can feel easier to take the reins and make decisions for them because we believe something. This is dangerous because we can end up taking on the role that their abusers once did. We become another person in their lives that reinforces helplessness and powerlessness. That is not an outcome I want or one that you should accept.

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