A Helpful Metaphor for Clients with Trauma

psychology trauma training

The following is an excerpt from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder & Trauma-Related Problems by Robyn Walser, PhD, and Darrah Westrup, PhD.

Individuals with PTSD experience a great deal of pain. They have survived something horrific, the effects of which they feel to this day and throughout their lives. Prior to entering therapy, they have engaged in many unsuccessful attempts to make this different. Why, then, would they be reluctant to embrace the possibilities of willingness?

Therapists working with clients who have been victims of interpersonal trauma often speak of how some of these individuals seem to cling to the victim role. It is a paradox—these clients are clearly in a miserable place, and yet they seem to want to hang out there. Therapists often struggle with how to point this out without sounding invalidating to the client.

In the course of doing this work, the corpus delicti metaphor offers a powerful yet compassionate means to tackle this issue, one that clients are able to accept. When the therapist is presenting corpus delicti he should always take care that this is not about blame, but rather the cost of remaining in the role of the victim. The ensuing discussion can help clients shift into a stance of willingness and ultimately committed action.

Therapist: Do you know the Latin phrase “corpus delicti”?

Client: (client looks blank.) No.

Therapist: Do you know the saying “Without a body, there’s no murder?”

Client: Yes.

Therapist: Corpus delicti is Latin for “the body of the crime.” It is also a legal term for the material evidence in a homicide, such as the corpse in a homicide case. Without the body, there’s no murder.

Client: Hmm.

Therapist: Corpus delicti is often a very important concept for survivors of trauma.

Client: Really? How is that?

Therapist: For very understandable reasons, trauma survivors tend make sure there is a body for the crime, as a way to make sure there is evidence that something wrong has happened to them.

Client: What do you mean?

Therapist: If something bad happens to someone, if the person has been a victim of something terrible, the person seems to need evidence for this. It’s as though this evidence is the only way to show that something bad has occurred, and if there’s no obvious evidence, it’s as though the thing never happened. The easiest way to do this is to be their own evidence.

Client: Their own evidence? You mean that I am the evidence for my assault?

Therapist: You were attacked and raped. You were injured physically and emotionally—this is not okay. It would make sense that you would want to somehow demonstrate its “not okay-ness” by being the evidence that something bad happened to you. Especially if you weren’t listened to or were otherwise invalidated at the time of the trauma, it makes sense that you would need to show somehow that something terrible really did happen to you.

Client: Hmm. (thinking it over) How have I been the evidence?

Therapist: Well, what would you say? How do you demonstrate that you were hurt by the trauma?

Client: Well … I started drinking right afterward, started fighting with my family…

Therapist: How do you demonstrate it now?

Client: (slightly surprised but thinking it over) Well, I have a lot of problems. I’m angry all the time and can’t hold a job. It’s hard for me to trust people, and I haven’t been in a relationship for years…

Therapist: How would you say that is the corpus delicti for what happened to you?

Client: Well, I wouldn’t have these problems if it hadn’t happened.

Therapist: So if you were able to be in a relationship one day, or if you weren’t so angry, the assault didn’t actually happen?

Client: Well, no…

Therapist: People who have experienced trauma often feel that if they continue on and live good lives, it’s as though the trauma didn’t happen, or that it wasn’t really so bad. It’s as though your perpetrator is sort of off the hook if you have a good life despite the trauma.

Client: Yes! I get that. I do feel as though I need to keep saying “this was wrong!”

Therapist: And in the meantime, life passes you by.

Client: Yes. (seems almost tearful)

Therapist: You know, what happened will never be okay. You know that, you know that what happened wasn’t okay. Even if you went ahead and lived the most fabulous life, that wouldn’t change, it wouldn’t make what happened to you okay.

Client: I see that. What’s that saying, “Living a good life is the best revenge”?

Therapist: Exactly.

Help Guide Clients to Real and Lasting Change at Introduction to ACT in Trauma Work.