The Victim’s Role in Overcoming Trauma

A reader writes: I certainly don’t deny the idea that it’s important to change false beliefs and implement correct ones, as you emphasize in your books and writings. However, I submit that this picture is insufficient. It leaves out any recognition of how deep the problems which begin in childhood can go, and how difficult such problems can be to counteract.

What, for instance, of children who are severely traumatized by parental abuse early in life, even before they’ve learned to talk? Are they just ‘moaning and groaning’ (i.e., indulging themselves in useless complaints) if their psyches have been wounded in ways which resist amelioration? I think not. And do such problems require more than verbal techniques? I think yes.


Dr. Hurd responds:

First of all, you presume that early childhood trauma necessarily ruins people for adulthood. You take this as an undisputed fact, implying that no proof is required. I hate to break the news to you—but proof is needed here.

It’s not necessarily true that people are as ruined by their childhood experiences as you seem to assume they are. I know plenty of people who rose above their childhood traumas; and many others who simply don’t remember them, and don’t care to do so. They’re doing just fine.

Secondly, you state that more than verbal techniques are required to help psychologically heal people. I take this to mean that something other than reason— something other than the thinking, introspective mind—is needed for resolving internal conflicts. Exactly what do you propose in its place? If you are a therapist, exactly what do you do to help your clients heal? Primal screaming? Finger-crossing? You need to state explicitly just what you propose in place of a psychotherapy based upon thought, common sense, and observation of reality.

Please don’t say that people need to ‘work through’ their childhood issues. This vague, overused term has no meaning unless you define it concretely. Are people who were wounded psychologically in childhood moaning and groaning simply by acknowledging the fact that this happened? By saying it aloud, perhaps for the first time? By refusing to pretend any longer that what is wrong—sexual or physical abuse, for example—is indeed wrong? Of course not. But they are moaning and groaning if they keep stating these truths over and over again, subtly (or not so subtly) making it an excuse for failing to take responsibility, set goals, and live life to the fullest in the present.

It’s interesting that I rarely hear my clients ask to spend a lot of time focusing on their childhoods in therapy. This is almost always the therapist’s idea— not the client’s. In my practice, I promote the concept of ‘Solutions, Not Excuses.’ People often tell me this is exactly what they want and need. Many of my clients see me after previous efforts using traditional psychological approaches—centered on re-living childhood and almost nothing else—have failed at everything, except perhaps putting a pool in their therapist’s backyard.

Most criticism of my ideas comes from fellow therapists and humanities intellectuals in general. They hear the way I think, and they say, ‘It can’t be that simple. You’re leaving out the
complexity.’ But they never identify exactly what the complexity is. You don’t, either, in your question. You say that childhood is often wounding and painful. Of course this is true, and some objective viewing of the past certainly can be helpful. But how do you justify the extent to which most therapists take this? Who actually benefits from the years and years of openended focusing on the past with little or no feedback about how to change ideas, feelings, and behaviors in the present?

Some people think because I (and similarly minded therapists) hold the psychologically damaged adult responsible for changing his self-defeating beliefs and actions, that we are somehow ‘blaming the victim’ for injustices perpetrated against him by his parents or others. This is simply not true, and there’s no basis for thinking it.

I don’t blame the victim for what the victimizers did. All I do is accept the fact that what’s done is done, and the only person who can do anything about your life is you, in the present and in the future. Furthermore, don’t extend the injustice by spending the rest of your life seething in hatred and anger about what the victimizer did. Move on, rise above it, and try to keep in mind that the best revenge is living well.

To some, it feels uncomfortable to hold individuals responsible for the improvement of their own psyches. I actually believe it’s more respectful and dignified to do so. A therapist who has confidence in the potential of human beings, as well as confidence in the power of reason and thought, can do much to help a suffering person. The same can’t be said for a therapist who ‘helps’ his clients to stay victims forever.