How to invite trauma clients into self-protection with just one word

Many of our clients have histories that result in a felt loss of the ability to self protect. In this article, I want to look at one way we can invite clients into an experience of enforcing boundaries and protection.

I will cover:

  • A core breach of trauma
  • Mismatching with no
  • Moving safely from yes to no

A core breach of trauma

A core breach in trauma is that of safety. When people experience trauma, their safety has been compromised. More than that, their ability to protect themself is compromised too.

There is both danger and a diminished ability to defend oneself from danger. This only adds to the trauma. Think of the child who has no way to solve the scary situation around them. Or to fend off someone invading their space.

Similarly, one of the body’s natural responses to overwhelming danger is to freeze. It is a useful response as it numbs pain among other things. But it also freezes the impulse to move in one’s own defence.

Sometimes, it is simply too dangerous to respond. It would make a bad situation more damaging. Some were physically restrained way making such self-protection impossible.

For many of our clients, huge portions of their childhoods were lived in this reality. It was scary, yet the impulse for self-protection would make it even worse.

These experiences mean that the person lives life feeling unsafe while assuming that self-defence is not possible. It is a desperately fearful combination.

How many clients do you see who face this ongoing struggle?

It is no wonder that so many of our clients live in a state of chronic anxiety or chronic shut down. Their experiences have robbed them of their willingness to set and enforce boundaries. They live life as if undefended, vulnerable and open to any potential threat.

mismatching with no

As therapists who understand the transformational power of memory reconsolidation, we seek to set up mismatch experiences for the client.

When a client needs to rediscover their boundaries and ability to self defend, there is one word that we can use to generate such experiences. That word is no.

In therapy, we are often building rapport with our clients. We want the client to understand that we understand. We want them to feel heard and validated. So we often seek the word “yes.”

We may reflect on something the client has said.

Client: “And when he looks at me like that, even though I know logically he doesn’t mean anything bad by it, I just shrivel up.”

Therapist: “Right. So even though you know he’s not Dad, you see Dad’s look, and you feel just the same as you did back then?”

“Yes.”

We love the word yes. For good reason. The client is heard and understood. “Yes. You understand. Thank heavens!”

Yet when a client has learned not to protect themself, the word “no” is the mismatch.

moving safely from yes to no

When we say “yes” it is an act of agreement, compliance or commitment. Not a bad thing necessarily. After all, we may be agreeing or committing to something wonderful. But it’s not a mismatch experience to say yes.

When we say no, it is a protection. As such it mismatches their sense that it is not safe to self-protect.

As therapists, we can gently invite the word no from our clients by how we ask our questions.

It may seem a risky thing to do on the face of it. After all, we don’t want to jeopardise the relationship and rapport. We don’t want to generate a relational breach simply to engineer the word “no.” Such a “no” would come at too high a cost.

How can we invite “no” from clients without trading away the relationship or losing their sense that they are being seen and heard by us?

The answer is to ask the same questions, but differently.

Let’s see the earlier exchange between therapist and client again.

Client: “And when he looks at me like that, even though I know logically he doesn’t mean anything bad by it, I just shrivel up.”

Therapist: “Right. So even though you know he’s not Dad, you see Dad’s look, and you feel just the same as you did back then?”

“Yes.”

Now let’s repeat it with the aim of inviting the client to experience the protection of “no”, with them feeling heard just the same.

Client: “And when he looks at me like that, even though I know logically he doesn’t mean anything bad by it, I just shrivel up.”

Therapist: “Right. So let me see if I’ve got this. I’m thinking that even though you know he’s not Dad, when you see that look, I’m guessing that you feel just the same as you did back then. Have I got that wrong?”

“No. You’re spot on.”

And there it is. Heard. Validated. And “no”.

Often, when working with clients who have lost touch with their power to self-protect, I’ll phrase questions in this way.

Likewise, when I have an insight myself and want to share it with the client, I’ll invite the no.

“Am I barking up the wrong tree there?”

“Have I got that wrong?”

“Am I way off?”

Not only do I want to give the client permission to reject it if it doesn’t land. I do that by expressing my own doubt rather than certainty.

But I want them to have the repeated experience of using the protection of “no.”

Typically, when I ask questions this way, I will hear the word “no” or the word “no” followed by clarification.

Either

“No that’s exactly it!”

or

“No, you’re not barking up the wrong tree so much, but it’s more like this…”

Conclusion

The point here is not to get a torrent of “no” and never get a “yes.” But the word no can fall out of use or at least be underused.

With clients who want to claim their power to set and enforce boundaries, no is a mismatch. It is an experience of active self-protection.

The same questions get the same therapeutic connection just by phrasing them for “no” rather than “yes.”

We don’t need to phrase all questions that way, but there are times when we can use it more than we do. Every time the client says no, they are drawing the boundary. A mismatch experience.

It may even be something we choose to bring into dual focus at some point. For instance:

“I love the way you’ve said no to me during this session. I wonder what that is like for you. On the one hand to have that old belief that it’s not safe to protect yourself. And on the other hand to use the word ‘no’ so powerfully in our session together?”

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