In our continued outreach for our documentary, Boys and Men Healing from childhood sexual abuse, we engage our audience by offering blogs written by leaders in the field related to the film’s topic. In today’s post we’re grateful for the opportunity to share a Q & A interview about spirituality for survivors with Dr. Mic Hunter.
Dr. Hunter has held Minnesota licenses as a Psychologist, and Marriage and Family Therapist, and as an Alcohol and Drug Counselor. In addition to articles, he is the author, co-author, or editor of numerous books including: Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse, Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse In America’s Military, Joyous Sexuality: Healing From The Effects Of Family Sexual Dysfunction, Child Victims & Perpetrators Of Sexual Abuse, Adult Survivors Of Sexual Abuse: Treatment Innovations, The Sexually Abused Male Volumes I & II, The Ethical Use of Touch in Psychotherapy, Back To The Source: The Spiritual Principles Of Jesus, and, Conscious Contact: The 12 Steps As Prayer. See below blog for additional credentials.
Q&A Interview: Dr. Mic Hunter
In all your years working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, have you found spirituality is an important aspect of the healing process, and if so can you illustrate?
The undergraduate psychology program I completed, like most others at the time, ignored the topic of spirituality. I began my career as a counselor in a treatment program for alcoholics and other drug addicts; since clients were referred to 12 Step-based fellowships (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.) issues related spirituality had to be openly discussed. I became convinced that a client’s spirituality could be an important asset or a crippling factor in his or her recovery from addiction.
Whereas most religions tell members who to believe (dogma), people who attend 12 Step-based fellowships are encouraged to identify and cultivate their own relationship with a power greater than themselves. Some people use the phrase, “the God of my understanding,” when discussing this power, while others view the collective wisdom and traditions of the fellowship as their higher power. Some members of 12 Step-based fellowships find that their spiritual beliefs overlap with the teachings of a particular religious tradition and that the rituals associated with that religion helpful.
How specifically can spirituality can be helpful in healing childhood sexual trauma–what impact can it have on the healing process?
As I continued my education (eventually earning three more degrees) the topic of how to utilize a client’s spirituality continued to be disregarded by the professors. If it was mentioned at all, the advice was to, “refer them to a clergy person.” Of course such advice for those who had experienced childhood sexual abuse at the hands of clergy was of no help. I find this lack of attention to a client’s spirituality tragic in that spirituality addresses the big questions, what is the meaning of life in general, what is the meaning of my life in particular, why was I abused, what does it mean about me that I was abused?
Then there is the f word-no not that one, the other one-forgiveness. Most religions encourage forgive. I am a fan of forgiveness. I see the peace it can bring a person. In the past when I was asked what I do for a living I used to say, “I work with people who were sexually abused as children and grew up to be drug addicts and/or sexually compulsive.” People looked at me with pity. Now I say, “I facilitate shame reduction, and forgiveness of self and others,” and they respond, “what an interesting and rewarding job!” It is the same job, just a different description.
What has given forgiveness a bad reputation is when those who have been sexually abused have been pressured to forgive those who abused them. Forgiveness is a process, not an event, and an important aspect of that process is being angry. Sexual abuse involves being forced to do something against one’s will, and nobody ought to be pressured to forgive.
I am often asked why those who were victimized would forgive those who perpetrated the crime. Well, since a person is three times more likely to be sexually abused by a family member than a stranger the fact is that a majority of sexual abuse survivors have an on-going relationship with their perpetrator(s). They see them at family events, and interact with them. I’m not saying one has to have an on-going relationship, but if one is going to, then it is much easier to do so after forgiving. Some people believe that forgiving someone means what was done was acceptable–it doesn’t. Or that forgiveness makes the person more vulnerable to further abuse-I don’t agree with that either.
Can you recommend spiritual practices that might be helpful for a survivor?
My two most recent books, Conscious Contact: The 12 Steps As Prayer, and Back To The Source came about as the result of discussion with people on how to create their own practical spirituality. It is important that whatever a person does is meaningful–that it has a positive effect. I suggest talking to others about their spiritual practices to get ideas as to what works for others and then choosing those that make sense for oneself. If going to a religious service is meaningful then do that. But don’t go because you “should” go. Do what works, whether that is a sweat lodge, a walk in the woods, creating art or music, a silent retreat, whatever gives you peace. Run some experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. Stick with what works.
For clergy abuse survivors, spirituality is a difficult issue since they’ve been betrayed by abusers claiming to be representatives of God. Can you comment about your experiences in working with clergy abuse survivors, and ways you might help them return to their spiritual selves. Do you have any examples of a clergy abuse survivor who found a safe way to express spirituality, and how it can be helpful in their healing process.
I am fortunate to know clergy members who are willing to meet with my clients to listen to their descriptions of sexual abuse. Sometimes what the client wants is the clergy person to validate what happened was indeed sexual abuse, or as a representative of that religion to offer an apology to the victim. I have written an article about one man’s experience which you are free to include in your blog. ( request article here)
Some survivors also have addiction issues. How can the 12-step programs be helpful as a spiritual practice. Didn’t AA start from a spiritual perspective?
The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop a particular behavior (e.g. alcohol use), so if a person says he or she is a member then he or she is a member. The Twelve Steps are described as “suggestions” rather than requirements. One can join with or without endorsing any particular religion or even without a belief in a god.
Twelve Step groups provide a physical place, a support network, and a program to identify and practice one’s spirituality. Just as it is usually easier to keep up with a physical exercise plan if one has a workout buddy, it is easier to stick with a spiritual practice when one has the support of others.
How might service providers, therapists and counselors guide the survivor to embrace their spiritual selves?
I have worked with client from many faith traditions, Catholic, Evangelical Christians, Jewish, Hindu, as well as those who describe themselves as, “spiritual, but not religious.” I don’t think it is my place to tell someone who to believe or not believe, and I can work with a client’s belief system even if I don’t personally share those beliefs. I do workshops for mental health providers on including spirituality in the treatment plan. I am amazed at how many providers never ask about a client’s spirituality and balk when I suggest they ask if the client has spiritual resources that can be utilized. I frequently hear, “Oh, I would never ask about a client’ spirituality; that’s too personal!” Discussing the client’s history of sexual abuse is appropriate, but the topic of spirituality is too intimate? I ask about spirituality in the first session; “Do you have any spiritual resources you would like to use as a part of your treatment plan?” If the client doesn’t have any or doesn’t want to use them that is fine, but by asking I am giving them permission to use all their resources.
We appreciate when you share your comments!
Dr. Hunter has been sought out by the print and broadcast media for interviews over 150 times including Oprah, CNN, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He has spoken to mental health professionals and the general public over 300 times in America, Mexico, Mongolia, and England. He has served as a reviewer for The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, The Journal of Men’s Studies, The Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and Violence Against Women. He is a recipient of the Fay Honey Knopp Memorial Award, given by the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization, “For recognition of his contributions to the field of male sexual victimization treatment and knowledge.” In 2007 the Board of Directors of Male Survivor announced the creation of The Mic Hunter Award For Research Advances. Dr. Hunter, for whom the on-going award was named, became the first recipient. It was given to him for his, “ceaseless pursuit of knowledge about male sexual abuse in all its occurrences, of the eloquent dissemination of new knowledge in this area, and of the stimulation for further study and concern about revealing, treating and preventing male sexual abuse.”