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Helping Clients who Have Suffered Betrayal Overcome Emotional Volatility

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post written by Steven Stosny, PhD, author of Living and Loving After Betrayal: How to Heal from Emotional Abuse, Deceit, Infidelity, and Chronic Resentment

It is rare to see clients who have suffered intimate betrayal –abuse, deceit, or some form of sexual, emotional, or financial infidelity—who will not go through long stretches of emotional volatility. Experienced therapists manage these well for the most part, except when the outburst happens near the end of a session. Swift emotional swings near the end of sessions are likely to occur in the early part of treatment, as imminent separation stirs the fear of isolation that betrayal exacerbates in most clients.

Fear of isolation is not the same as loneliness or a dread of being alone, or even fear of abandonment. Fear of isolation is an overwhelming sense that no one cares how you feel or understands the depth of your hurt or the resonance of your emptiness. The inclination for therapists is to over-validate these feelings, to assure the client we “get” her and, just as important, care about her. Certainly we have to do that; but we must also empower the client to manage these abrupt emotional maelstroms when they occur outside the office. In fact, if they happen near the end of a session, they are more likely to get triggered between sessions, when we are not there to validate, reassure, and stabilize.

The technique “Rescue a desperate child” is a vehicle of self-empowerment that trains overwhelmed clients to self-regulate. It can be taught in just a few minutes.

When practicing it with clients, I take both their hands and ask them to imagine a frightened three year-old, cowering in the corner of the room. “No one is here to help the child but you. Even though you are terribly upset right now, if you saw a desperate child, all alone and terrified, I know you would go to that child—crawl to her, if you had to—to help.” This usually puts a floor under the anguish by breaking the self-obsession of intense distress, and opens a window for guided imagery. “Close your eyes and feel yourself comforting this frightened child. You’re hugging her, rocking her, whispering to her, encouraging her. You’re trying so hard to comfort her that it takes a moment to realize how well it’s working. She’s calming down, holding tightly onto you, her head on your chest. You can smell her hair; you can feel her heart beating with your heart. She feels soothed, peaceful, and good because of you, your caring and your compassion.”

Although some clients resist at first, I’ve never had this technique fail. I urge them to practice the exercise daily, until the transition from helpless victim to empowered protector becomes automatic. This is the foundation of an eight-pronged enhancement of core value outlined in Living & Loving After Betrayal.

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