Sadly, far too many victims of narcissistic abuse report experiencing secondary traumatization from the response of the church or other Christians. In this series, we’ll unpack issues in the Christian community that complicate a victim’s healing from narcissistic abuse and discover tangible ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus as we journey with survivors toward wholeness.
Safety in Counseling
Many people in the church want to be used by God to bring His hope and healing to others. As we watch Him free people and restore broken relationships, our faith in His transformative power increases. At this point, it’s easy to adopt a particular perspective about the process of healing based on what we have seen help.
Some refer people dealing with personal or relational issues to the church’s counseling or healing ministry. In other churches, the pastor or lay leaders do most of the mentoring and counseling. Sometimes the church recommends a counselor that the pastor personally knows and trusts. A few encourage members to focus solely on Bible study and spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, communion, etc.) for emotional healing.
The needs of a victim of emotional and narcissistic abuse are unlike anything else the church is likely to encounter. The impacts of being in a long-term relationship with a narcissist (spouse, parent, sibling, mentor, friend, etc.) are similar to those of a victim of long-term captivity. What a victim is dealing with is profoundly different than a challenging relationship or a betrayal in marriage.
However, despite the differences, there is a need that all people in need of healing have in common:
When we encounter a real or perceived threat, our bodies instinctively redirect massive amounts of energy to the parts of our body responsible for reacting to danger and finding safety. This movement of energy essentially leaves parts of our brain “offline” until we feel safe again. Some of these “offline” parts play a critical role in our ability to heal from emotional pain and trauma. For this reason, a healing environment needs to be a safe space, so the parts of our brain that help us heal and recover are fully functional.
Narcissistic abuse creates a unique set of threats that must be accounted for in the structure of the counseling relationship.
In general, narcissism produces a system in which a whole cast of characters (flying monkeys, rescuers, enablers, etc.) can threaten a victim’s sense of safety. If there are “lions, tigers, and bears” (even well-intentioned ones) roaming around the counseling settings, victims will remain on alert and unable to come out of their protective state and heal.
It’s essential to understand that it isn’t a sign of a victim’s weakness when being around the influence of an abuser or their cast is problematic; it’s simply the very nature of things.
For example, if there is a black widow spider in someone’s bed, they won’t be able to relax enough to fall asleep. Remove the spider, and then they can hopefully sleep. However, if they think the spider might have spider friends or family members around, every itch or movement of the covers will stimulate a fight or flight reaction that will prevent sleep.
Sadly, when victims prioritize their safety, the narcissist or cast members will often view them as weak or running from their problems when it’s just the opposite. Victims display incredible courage and strength when they stand against accusations, relentless pressure, toxic people, and harsh judgments so that they can create the safe environment they need to heal.
An essential part of a healing environment is ensuring the counselor isn’t connected to a victim’s family, church, job, or social networks. This boundary doesn’t discourage those close to a victim from playing a supportive role.
Simply, the primary counselor shouldn’t be someone the victim, the abuser, or any cast member knows.
Some counselors may insist that others won’t influence them; however, this is a red flag indicating that the counselor may indeed overestimate their abilities or undervalue their client’s safety needs. I regularly hear heartbreaking stories from retraumatized victims of narcissistic abuse who have had well-meaning pastors, ministry leaders, or counselors contaminate or fail to adequately protect their client’s safe, healing space. Worse yet, some victims are blamed for being too sensitive, unteachable, selfish, or too slow in their healing when the reality is that the environment isn’t safe enough for deep healing.
Victims and their counselors must be vigilant about building and maintaining protective boundaries around the healing environment.
The following are some techniques to be aware of that abuser or their cast members use to influence or penetrate a victim’s safe counseling space:
“It’s secular counsel and based on evil psychology.”
“They don’t have Biblical views on relationships.”
Often narcissists and their cast members will want a victim to seek counseling only from someone who will encourage the victim to stay positioned within the narcissist’s reach. They then may vilify the counseling hoping that the victim will quit or see someone else they think will better suit their manipulative, controlling purposes. For example, I’ve had clients whose counseling was labeled as “secular” or ”ungodly” by abusers and their minions who didn’t even know the person they were counseling with or anything about the counsel they were receiving.
“To work this out, you have to talk with someone who can hear both sides of the story.”
“You can’t reconcile the relationship if you aren’t working on it together.”
This tactic can be an attempt to gain access to the counseling setting, so they can peddle a deceptive narrative (likely that they too are a victim in some way) and regain control of the victim. In reality, an abuser’s “side” isn’t necessary for a counselor to identify the victim’s wounds that need healing.
For example, when my husband and I walk, he loves to identify the various animals that have been where we are walking. Even though he didn’t see them there, he knows which animals have been present by the tracks they left behind. The impacts of narcissistic abuse create a particular print on the lives of victims. Even without meeting the abuser, victims will bear the wound patterns of having experienced prolonged emotional abuse.
Similarly, a therapist experienced in treating narcissism doesn’t need a victim’s side of the story to work with an abuser. A narcissistic abuser needs foundational (not just behavioral) change. Once they can honestly “look under their hood,” they need time to address the deficits and develop the required capacities to be in a relationship that doesn’t harm the other person. This work doesn’t require the involvement of the victim in any way.
Sadly, many narcissists continue to play games instead of investing their energy into recovery. Some might claim they didn’t get enough information from their victim to know what they did wrong or need to work on. Others might play the victim role by labeling the victim’s new boundaries or flight to safety as mistreatment. Many claim they can’t work on their healing if it’s not alongside their victim. They will employ any number of tactics to keep others’ focus off the fact that they are looking to skip over genuine repentance and healing and jump straight into a reconciliation process.
Victims might hear phrases like these designed to pressure them to begin the “reconciliation” process and allow the abuser into the counseling arena.
“It’s time to forgive and move forward.”
“There needs to be a restart.”
“It’s been like this for a while. How long do you plan to go on like this?”
“Remember the Bible says, ‘forgetting what lies behind.’”
“How will you know they have changed if you aren’t in a relationship or counseling with them?”
“You are not the only one that is hurting. They are hurting, too!”
Both abusers and sometimes cast members can prioritize their desires over a victim’s safety. An abuser wants to get a victim back under their control. While this is the goal of some cast members, others will be genuinely upset by the relational problems. They are uncomfortable with what is occurring, so they may pressure victims to do certain things, hoping it will ease their own discomfort.
The following are things to look for to identify abusers and cast members with unsafe or unhelpful advice.
Watch out for someone who is:
➢ harassing victims about their choice of a counselor
➢ badgering victims to counsel with an abuser
➢ treating victims as weak, flawed, ignorant, or cowardly (or weak in faith) when they seek a safe and protected environment
➢ focusing on reconciliation with an abuser above creating and maintaining a safe, healing space
➢ pressuring victims to engage in an unsteady, unsafe relationship where there is a chance that the destructive impacts to every part of the victim’s life will resume
➢ pressuring victims to assume any responsibility for the abuser’s healing process (It doesn’t work or help, anyway.)
➢ asking excessive questions about the counselor or the counseling process
➢ pressuring victims to counsel with their pastor, leader, or church member
➢ focusing primarily on forgiveness of the abuser over watching for them to demonstrate genuine repentance and undergo a long-term restoration and healing process
Remember, physical and emotional safety is foundational to healing.