A breaking news story reported by the Boston Globe speaks of allegations against Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, best-selling author and world renowned expert on trauma.
The mental health community has been rocked by the idea someone like van der Kolk who has made it his life’s work to study trauma and help heal those who have been traumatized would in turn be accused of harming others.
When I heard the allegations, I thought immediately of the dark history of psychology and the many misuses of power so frequently glossed over. I also thought of the traditional role of the therapist, as a removed and somewhat aloof expert whose life (complete with struggles and joys), emotions, and personality remain a mystery to the patient. This dynamic, whether created intentionally or unintentionally, sets in motion a inevitable power imbalance.
The lack of training about the use of authenticity and humanness in therapy can cause therapists to fear being real with their patients. And rightly so, as understanding how to be vulnerable with patients is a highly advanced clinical skill that requires much more than training to achieve. It requires a depth of personal growth, self-introspection, and self-awareness that isn’t demanded in a therapist’s typical training or by the licensure process.
However, when therapists remain veiled behind this wall their personal lives and relationships can be in chaos, they may experience feelings of helplessness and loneliness, or they might use the power derived from appearing they “know what is best” or “have it all together” to mistreat or abuse others. And all of this can happen isolated from the eyes of the world.
I believe many modern gurus, which include new age healers, doctors, therapists, and yes, even horse trainers, are naturally set up to misuse or abuse their power. Frankly, it takes a special kind of person to know how to handle being in the spot light, and always being asked (and expected) to be the “expert”. The pressures of this role are immense, and the internal desire for greatness sometimes overrules all else.
I have been witness to many abuses of power in the equine world over the years. I myself have fallen victim to the powers of a trainer whose need for perfection placed my horse and I in an impossible and life-threatening situation. The idea that I would have stood up to him, me, a 14-year old girl who desperately wanted to “make it” in the big leagues, was unthinkable. So I pulled myself up off the ground for the second time, blood streaming down my face from a broken nose and no idea where I was or what I was doing (due to a concussion). I stumbled across the arena to walk up behind my shaking, frightened mare. I touched her, and she kicked. It wasn’t her fault. It was his fault. He over faced her. He asked her to do something she wasn’t ready to do. And I couldn’t tell him no. So she kicked. On that day I experienced a great miracle. For that I suppose I can be grateful. I laid dead on that arena ground for over three minutes. Those minutes changed my life.
One of the lessons I learned that day was how to stand up for myself and those I love. Even to gurus. I learned to listen carefully and be mindful that even well meaning people might not always know what is best for me. I learned to gratefully accept what I can from the wise ones, but never become swept away by their fame or their name or their power. They are, after all, just people.
But, that being said, with great power comes great responsibility and it is up to these “gurus” (including us therapists) to do better. Although we all must learn to “speak our truth” even in the face of greatness, it is clear to me that whoever holds the power must be even more aware, and create safe opportunities for others to confront and provide feedback that is taken with respectful gratitude.