As an author and advocate for those abused by therapists/clergy, I have heard from hundreds of victims over the years. While our stories vary in their details, the overarching themes remain surprisingly consistent. One such theme that appears over and over in these abusive relationships is how abusers manipulate victims, using the lure of being special to reel in their prey.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines special as: (1) not ordinary or usual or (2) especially great or important, or having a quality that most similar things or people do not have. We want to be special in our therapists’ eyes. Making ourselves vulnerable to them week after week, we want to know that we matter and more importantly that we matter to them. Gordon L. Flett and Marnin J. Heisel refer to mattering as “the feeling of being important to others in ways that give people the sense that they are valued and other people care about them.”
This idea of mattering to another human being is essential to our health and well-being. Several researchers have found that among adults, a stronger perceived sense of mattering predicts less depression and greater self-esteem (e.g., Elliott et al., 2004, Marshall, 2001, Schieman and Taylor, 2001, Taylor and Turner, 2001) Gordon L Flett, author of The psychology of mattering: Understanding the human need to be significant states: “Mattering is a vital construct and a key psychological resource that is central to the human condition; indeed, the individual person who lives his or her life devoid of a sense of mattering to others will lack the basic sense of personal significance, human connectedness, and social acceptance required to thrive and flourish.”
So what is mattering exactly?
Brown University sociologist, Gregory Elliott describes the three components of mattering as:
Awareness: Do people pay attention to you or walk right by you?
Importance: Do you have people who take a real interest in your well-being?
Reliance: Are there people who would come to you for help, support or advice?
This idea of being significant or special is fostered in childhood. Unfortunately, many of us are robbed of this vital piece of our development. The destruction this causes is especially evident in teens. “In a landmark study of 2,000 adolescents in 2009, Elliott found that as teens’ feeling of mattering in their family decreased, antisocial, aggressive or self-destructive behaviors rose. Conversely, if you believe you matter to your family, you are less likely to go astray. A 2003 study examined media reports of the writings of 10 mass shooters. A consistent theme, Flett says, could be summarized as ‘I have been made to feel like I don’t matter, but I matter more than you people realize.’”
And our psyches are not the only thing affected. Feeling like we don’t matter, that we aren’t special to anyone can make us physically sick. Taylor’s 2018 study uncovered a strong correlation with physical health. “He and his colleagues Michael McFarland and Dawn Carr conducted in-depth psychological interviews of 1,026 Tennessee residents, ages 22 to 69, followed by a battery of physiological measurements such as blood pressure, cortisol levels and hip-to-waist ratio. The research team found that allostatic load—the general wear and tear of stress on the body over time—increased with age, and those who did not feel a strong sense of mattering to others had significantly greater allostatic load. ‘Even minute variations in mattering are stronger predictors of physical and mental health than social support,’ he says.”
So what about this matter of mattering and why does it matter?
It is important because predators throw this gift of mattering out like bait, and victims almost always bite. I don’t know of any therapist/clergy abuse victims who were not tricked into thinking that they were special to their abusers. And all of them, myself included, had a difficult time walking away as a result.
As humans, the more vital the need the more susceptible we are to having that need exploited. It’s no wonder then that predators have honed this particular tactic to seduce victims.
How can this knowledge benefit our understanding of therapist/clergy abuse victims and the grooming process that ensnares them?
- All humans share the basic need to matter or to be significant to another person, so victims are not unique here. We are all susceptible to skilled predators.
- If the feeling of mattering is necessary for our very survival, having this need does not make us weak or gullible.
- At the same time, needing to feel special or matter to a significant other in our lives does not make us needy or defective. It merely makes us human.
- Making their subjects believe that they matter to them is one of the most powerful manipulation tools predators have at their disposal.
- Making victims feel special is also one of the most common manipulation tactics predators employ when trapping victims.
- Therapist/clergy abuse victims across the board report being made to feel special. Victims almost always believe that the special relationship they shared with their abuser was unique. Part of the healing process is to acknowledge that it was not.
- If we did not have this crucial need met in childhood, we are at even greater risk of manipulation as adults.
- When a predator makes a person feel special, it is like being given a taste of a drug. It is extremely challenging to walk away from. Victims need to understand that this was a big reason they were unable to leave. Again, this is not a flaw but a natural human response to having a critical need met.
My Healing After Therapist/Clergy Abuse
I beat myself up for years after being taken advantage of by my therapist. One of the reasons was that I detested this need I had to feel special. I thought this desire was unique to me and to those of us who were somehow defective, needy, pathetic. I now know the truth.
I am no different than any other human being that walks this planet and not receiving the message that I was important and valuable as a child put an additional target on my back. I no longer feel shame for having a basic human need, and I refuse to take responsibility for not receiving that message as a child.
What I do take responsibility for as an adult is this—I can better my sense of mattering. I can do something about it so that I am not easy prey to sadistic predators. And the good news is that despite the messages we received as children, a sense of being special is something that can be learned. Gordon Flett points out that people can learn to engage with others in a way that vastly improves their sense of mattering.
Protecting Ourselves from Predators
If the need to feel special or to matter is one of the most powerful tools in any predator’s arsenal, then one of the most beneficial things we can do to protect ourselves is to work on this need in ourselves. I realized the most critical stage in my recovery, the one that would have the most impact on me and the world around me was to recognize that I mattered. To believe that I mattered to the world at large, to myself, and to my God. How can we do this?
We were harmed in relationship and we will find healing in relationship. After all, in order to know we matter to significant others in our lives, we must form deep and meaningful connections with them. So, walling ourselves off after a betrayal like this will only perpetuate our pain. We must decide to trust again. I did this by finding another therapist, an ethical one, who acknowledged my worth without exploiting it.
I also reached out to other victims and found commonalities in our stories. Giving and receiving help in the survivor community helped me to see how much my story, my strength, and my ability to empathize made a difference in others’ lives. I learned that my experience and how I recover from it matters greatly to other survivors.
Those are some ways to see we that we matter to the world at large, but what about how we matter to ourselves? This one proved trickier. I needed to forgive myself for staying in an abusive relationship with my therapist as long as I did and to do that I needed to know what happened. I wrote down everything I could remember and as I did, a pattern emerged.
As the sinister scene unfolded before me, I could see how I had been tricked and held captive. Next, I needed to educate myself on abuse of power, and I did this by reading and hearing others’ stories of abuse. It’s easier to see the abuse through others’ experiences, and once we can see abuse of power playing out in another person’s life, we can begin to accept it for ourselves.
Finally, I needed to know I mattered to God. I searched my Bible for scriptures that spoke of God’s love for me, but as wounded as I was, the words fell flat. So I wrote. I wrote love letters to myself from God and told Him all the reasons I should not be loved or should not be forgiven for what happened to me. I told Him that something bad in me caused the abuse and that I was beyond repair.
I spoke/wrote back to myself as I knew God would based on scripture and not based on how I felt. My feelings at that stage were not to be trusted. I was full of self-hatred and shame. I continued to combat my self-deprecating feelings with God’s word until I could sense a shift.
As the self-hatred lessened, something began to form in its place. It was as if God’s love for me became a living breathing thing that enveloped me crowding out every bit of self-loathing. This is not a one and done process. Whenever those lies try to creep back in, and they will, we have to capture them, rebuke them and speak truth over them until they dissipate.
Despite the healing I have under my belt, I know that I will never be totally immune to predators as they are masters of their trade. But I do have an ace up my sleeve now. Although I would want any therapist whom I formed a bond with to see me as special, my worth wouldn’t hinge on it. Instead of feeling like a life-saving drug, it would simply be nice.
Why? Because I know I matter. I matter to the Creator of the Universe, and that’s all that really matters.