It is All in the Message

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In our approach to trauma-focused batterer intervention, we ask people to become responsible for two things:  1) The first is to be accountable for the cruelty that they have used against others; and 2) The second is to become responsible for healing the impact of the cruelty that was done to them long before they could do anything to prevent it.  The cruelty they experienced as a child can never be their fault, but they must take on the responsibility to heal the impact of those experiences. To show how these two components are linked, let me give you an example of how it plays out in routine conversations in our group room.

During a topic about emotional abuse, “Greg” begins to complain that his partner is the one who emotionally abuses him.  Greg explains that she is always nagging and critical.  Greg finally ends his comments by saying, “she is always pushing my buttons!  A guy can only take so much before he has to strike back.”  In my early years as a facilitator, I would be quick to point out how Greg is "blaming" his behavior on his partner. This would usually create more defensiveness, with some group members joining in to collude with him. I've learned I can be much more effective if I enter into a conversation about “message”, as this message is a link between Greg’s cruel behavior and the cruelty he experienced in the past.

In my early years as a facilitator, I would be quick to point out how Greg is "blaming" his behavior on his partner.

As Greg continues to rail on his partners behavior, the facilitator might ask, “When you feel like your partner is nagging at you and pushing your buttons, what does it seem like your partner is saying about you?" Greg responds with, “It is like she is calling me a piece of shit, like I am worthless or something.” This "message" is a doorway that links cruel behavior to cruel experiences. The facilitator can follow this with a question like “Who do you remember as the first person who gave you this message of being worthless?” There is usually a pause, and then Greg will begin reflecting his experiences at the hands of a person who was significant in his life when he was a child.  He might share the cruelty that his step-father imposed on him, or his drug addicted mother, or his absent father. Many times, participants will begin a response by saying, “I have never told anyone about this before, but…”.  It can be incredibly moving to hear how Greg endured and survived extreme cruelty long before he was ever cruel toward anyone as an adult.   This process helps Greg to enter a conversation loaded with adverse feelings that is critical in our trauma-focused approach.

To bring the conversation full circle, the facilitator asks Greg again about the shadow message.  A question like, “Greg, if the message was not true that you are worthless, what would be true about you?”  Greg might respond with, “Well, if I was not worthless, I suppose I would have value.”  The facilitator might respond with, “Yes, and if you knew you were valuable, how would you react to someone who was nagging or seemed to be pushing your buttons?”   Greg responds with something like. “Oh, I would be far more patient and understanding.  I would recognize that I am not perfect and that she gets overwhelmed sometimes and needs to vent." 

Many times, participants will begin a response by saying, “I have never told anyone about this before, but…”

Mastering the ability to connect participants to "the message" is a valuable skill for any facilitator. It is not difficult to help participants navigate through defense systems, like blame, by asking a few questions regarding the message. Be advised that shadow message questions can activate adverse emotions that may need to be processed and supported. However, many times, by helping participants learn about their own shadow message, the first step toward lasting change can be taken. 

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