Therapy with survivors of narcissistic Abuse: Part 4 The Client’s Key Traumas

In order to understand how a client may use therapy to achieve their goals it is important to understand the specific adversities they’ve had to cope with that have led to them feeling like their goals have been out of reach to date.  In this post I’m going to discuss the definition of trauma from a Control-Mastery Theory (CMT) perspective, the kinds of traumas that clients may have suffered, and how understanding a client’s key traumas helps you infer the client’s goals and interfering pathogenic beliefs.

This post is the first in a series on CMT and how you can learn to apply this theory in your own clinical work.  It’s a 6-part series that covers these topics:

Part 1 Overview of Control-Mastery Theory

Part 2 The Client’s Goals

Part 3 The Client’s Pathogenic Beliefs

Part 4 The Client’s Key Traumas

Part 5 How Clients may Test Pathogenic Beliefs

Part 6 Five steps to case formulation

This series is about CMT in general.  If you want to learn more about how to apply this form of therapy specifically to survivors of narcissistic abuse then check out my 3-hour online course on the topic.

My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in the treatment of survivors of narcissistic abuse.  I work from a form of therapy called Control-Mastery Theory which prizes the client’s efforts to overcome the trauma of narcissistic abuse and realize a fuller and richer quality of life for themselves.  If this topic interests you then I encourage you to learn more by getting my free e-book on ‘Effective Therapy with Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse: The basics of Control-Mastery Theory’

What is a key trauma?

CMT defines trauma as any event or context that exceeds an individual’s coping resources at that particular moment.  Another prominent theorist and researcher in CMT named George Silberschatz splits traumas into two categories:

  • Shock traumas: these are singular events that are catastrophic in nature. Examples include car accidents, war, terrorism, and/or the sudden loss of a loved one.
  • Stress traumas: these are contexts that exert significant strain on the individual for long periods of time. Examples include a child in an abusive or neglectful relationship to a parent, getting bullied at school, being the scapegoat to a narcissistic parent.

Of course someone may suffer different types of traumas but the ones that are labelled ‘key traumas’ by CMT are those that led to the client adopting a pathogenic belief in order to cope with them.  Recent research on pathogenic beliefs, in fact, has shown that it is not the extent of traumas that predicts post-traumatic suffering but whether the client adopts a pathogenic belief to cope with traumas.

Another prominent theorist and researcher in the CMT field Francesco Gazzillo has emphasized that traumas typically only lead to pathogenic beliefs when the sufferer determines that it is the pursuit of a healthy developmental goal that led to the trauma.  This understanding speaks to the child experiencing the stress trauma of having a psychologically compromised parent.

Let’s take the case of Sarah who was introduced in part 1 of this series – you can find the link in the description box below – to see how her father’s depressiveness became a key trauma for her.  We might assume that Sarah as a young child would have looked to her father to show life, energy and happiness.  As he appeared listless in front of the TV, she could have been gravely disappointed and scared that he seemed so unreachable to her.  This would constitute a stress trauma of her father being emotionally unavailable to her due to his depression.  Let’s also assume that Sarah did not have an adult or older sibling to talk to and make sense out of her father’s behaviors.  She was essentially on her own to figure out her feelings and try to avoid the trauma of her father feeling unreachable to her.  As she learned that her father would respond to her efforts to cheer him up, she reasoned that it was her interests and goals that took her away from cheering him up that were the problem.  This is where her father’s depressiveness became a key trauma for Sarah – because she identified the root cause of this trauma to be her own healthy developmental goal of putting her happiness first.

One way of learning what a client’s key traumas were is to ask them to name 3 of their favorite and least favorite memories from childhood.  This kind of question is open-ended and affords the client discretion in how they might choose to express themselves.  Sometimes a client’s key trauma may even be unknown to them – particularly when they faced psychological and/or emotional neglect and/or abuse.  In these instances the may not have had a different frame of reference to know that their parent’s treatment was traumatic and abnormal.  I work with such clients by listening closely to how they describe typical interactions with a parent who I suspect may have been psychologically compromised.  If the client reports – often in an offhanded way – a pattern of going unresponded to, punished regularly or harshly, and/or being treated as though their needs were less important than the parent’s needs then I might ask them a lot more questions about these instances.  If the client reports patterns that were typical but seemed to be neglectful and/or abusive towards them then I will often freely share my reaction as such.  Often this reaction is extremely useful to clients because it affords them a needed frame of reference to know that the way they were habitually treated by the parent was damaging and undeserved.

This post was about key traumas generally but there are more specific forms of key traumas that can occur for survivors of narcissistic abuse.  I discuss these traumas in great depth in my 3-hour online course on effective therapy for survivors of narcissistic abuse.  It’s a very reasonably priced course, in my opinion, because I want to make the barriers to entry accessible enough to generate a thriving community of helping professionals who are committed to developing tools to best help this type of client.  As such, I have an accompanying private facebook group to come together with other professionals and discuss clinical challenges, successes and ideas related to this topic.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

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  1. Just wondering which category getting punched in the face by your father falls into; you listed abusive relationships in the STRESS category, but isn’t an unexpected blow to the face a shock (especially the first time)?
    I’m also wondering about bullying, where you cite it being at school, but what about an older brother that physically and verbally bullies a younger sister, especially when the mother and father know about it but just ignore the whole thing? And an older sister who’s allowed to express her hatred of the younger sister, verbally and in her tone of voice and general attitude, while the younger sister gets told (at age 4) that, after telling her older sister’s friend that her puppy can’t be in the yard in case it poops in the yard, the mother tells her (in front of the friend whose now crying and the elder sister who finally comes to the door where it happened) that if she doesn’t learn how to “talk nice” to people she won’t have any friends when she grows up? Btw, I am that younger sister, all these things happened a long time ago, and as for why I said what I did to my elder sister’s friend (about her puppy) I can’t remember what prompted me to say it, although my mother often complained that none of us could have a dog because they were “filthy” animals, describing reasons why (which she emphasized with disgusted facial expressions and in her manner of vocal delivery, besides being a germaphobe in general).

    Still Wondering Why After All These Years (and Still Not Allowed To Talk About These Things With Family Of Origin)