When a Client Says Something Hard to Believe

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

DSC03983Clients tell therapists some pretty unusual things. Consider the following scenarios:

  • A middle aged woman in average shape claims that she is a professional soccer player
  • An older woman in poor shape reports that she is routinely offered $30,000 for sexual favors
  • A man swears that he does not feel at all guilty about refusing to see his 10 year old sons to spite their mother, despite the fact that they live nearby and beg to see him
  • A college student who has been injured and sexually assaulted while black out drunk repeatedly in the last few months knows that they do not have a problem with alcohol and they will not discuss it further
  • A graduate student tells her therapist that she missed her most recent session because she has had possums infesting her house and as a result contracted a rare infectious disease which threatened her life and landed her in the hospital

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“Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” Pt 3: Myths About Victims

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH


This week, After Trauma will feature a 3 part series on intimate partner violence. Each post will cover one of the three actors in domestic violence: the abuser, the victim/survivor and society. Today’s column focuses on the victim/survivor.

The stereotypical domestic violence victim: the abused woman who for some unfathomable reason just won’t leave.

There are two myths in that profile. One is that many victims are men.  The other is that most women (85%) in an abusive relationship do leave, or at least try (sorry, guys, no stats for you). However, physical abuse is usually part of a more complex pattern of behaviors and interactions and it is important to understand how these play out in any abusive relationship, stereotypical or not. Psychological aggression is, unfortunately a very common for people of all genders and the signs don’t always feel obvious when one is in the middle of it.

Psychological Aggression

Psychological aggression is split into two alliterative categories: emotional aggression and coercive control.

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“Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” Pt 2: Surprising Facts About Abusers

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH



This week, After Trauma will feature a 3 part series on intimate partner violence. Each post will cover one of the three actors in domestic violence: the abuser, the victim/survivor and society. Today’s column focuses on the abuser.

Why do abusers abuse?

Donald Dutton, PhD, author of The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships and author of numerous studies on the batterer personality, has identified a consistent set of identified traits in batterers. He differentiates between “impulsive” abusers, who are more likely to be responding to situational stressors but aren’t facilitating a pattern of control with the partner and “instrumental” abusers, who fit the description that we usually think of, use violence as a method of control and are more likely to have a personality disorder and a history of trauma. He has also found that in his studies of male abusers that they tend to have greater anger, greater insecurity and fear of abandonment, and higher levels of trauma.

He argues that oppression of women is not the driving factor in most abuse cases, at least in Western Countries like Canada and the United States. A number of community samples in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada have found that women, particularly in younger populations, can be physically abusive more often than men, and they self report that it’s not due to self-defense or retaliation. However, before you completely throw out your understanding of domestic violence (or rush to the comments section), read on…

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“Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” Understanding Domestic Violence

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH
Hearing about a DV incident is like seeing a small portion of a picture.

Hearing about a DV incident is like seeing a small portion of a picture.

This week, After Trauma will feature a 3 part series on intimate partner violence. Each post will cover one of the three actors in domestic violence: the abuser, the victim/survivor and society. Today’s column focuses on us, the observer, because the way society perceives and responds to interpersonal violence is important.

A reflexive response

Why doesn’t she just leave? I cannot count the number of times I have been asked this question. More striking than the words is the tone: disgust, impatience, derision all balled up into five common words. It’s hard to hear, and yet when working with clients in a relationship where there has been an escalating pattern of violence and listening to them rationalize and deny what’s happening, I have found myself confronting this very impulse and having to step back and observe this before I can move forward.

Why do we as a society blame the victim?

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A New Look at Self-Destructive Behaviors: Interview with Lisa Ferentz

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH
lighter newest headshot
Lisa Ferentz, MSW, LCSW-C, DAPA is a nationally recognized expert on treating self-destructive behavior (a full list of her accolades and achievements are below).  However, when you meet her, what is the most striking is how warm and affirming she is.  This really comes through in her books, and her latest one, Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors is coming out this week. Read on to learn more about how her work with clients who have self-destructive behaviors and what she wishes all clinicians knew about this population.

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What’s the Worst Thing That Could Happen?

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

DSC00224As a clinician, I tend not to rank experiences—there is no this loss is worse than that loss. Pain is pain. Experience and evidence both show that the type, duration and repetition of trauma event experienced can lead to some variation of outcome: interpersonal trauma is more likely to lead to PTSD than say natural disasters or accidents, chronic childhood abuse is more likely to lead to fundamental changes in attachment, trust and emotion regulation. However, on the individual level, the fact is that some people get PTSD, others don’t, and even within those groups people have different symptom severity, needs and coping strategies. Many people with more events of a more life-threatening, betrayal of caregiver nature are doing better than many people with single incidents. We don’t really know why.

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Got Self-Destructive Behaviors? Try This Instead

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

DSC02232What do I mean by self-destructive behaviors? For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the definition from Lisa Ferentz, which is broader than some: she includes any self-directed act that is “addictive, destructive acts that are punitive, are harmful, hurt the body or compromise physical safety.” She operates from the understanding that there is a strong correlation between abuse neglect and self-destructive behaviors, and that often these behaviors serve to both regulate emotion and also to communicate pain. We’ll learn more about her work next week but this post covers her CARESS model for assisting clients with self-destructive behaviors first substitute these with healthier behaviors that serve the same purpose as part of the recovery from trauma.

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Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

1387245111_cf42ed3372_zChristopher MacDougall says “Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up and it knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.”   This actually isn’t true. Gazelles are herd animals. Any given gazelle in the herd doesn’t have to be faster than any lion—it just has to be faster than the slowest antelope.

Comparing ourselves to others makes a lot of sense from this evolutionary perspective. Being found wanting by fellow people can result in either getting kicked out of the herd or being eaten. We are hard-wired to constantly be comparing ourselves to others.

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Recent Comments
  • slarsit: Good post. All the discussion about community gives people an opportunity to talk about abstract reasons for...
  • Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH: Hello A., There is plenty of understanding and help out there. If you think you have...
  • A. Douglass: Wow what a great article, I especially like that you are willing to Hear the patient and side with them!...
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