By Mike McMahan
Kudos to Lady Gaga, star of stage and screen, for being willing to come forward as a sexual assault survivor. While she has been open about her past for some time, just recently she gave an interview to Billboard in which she put her emotions on full display. As I've written before, coming forward can be a challenging experience.
According to the article, she was struggling with the same type of emotions that many survivors wrestle with. However, she was preparing to perform a song calling attention to the issue that night on the Academy Awards before an audience of millions, something most other survivors don’t have to face. A group of other survivors was scheduled to appear on stage with her, and she met with them, showing how nervous she was about performing. One of the other women told Lady Gaga that she wanted to get matching tattoos with her to express solidarity. The idea was embraced by all of the survivors who appeared on stage, something that will no doubt remind them of the power of the experience.
Being a part of the group and getting the tattoo may have provided the survivors with two things that can also come about during psychotherapy. The first is a feeling of validation, which comes when a client is heard by the therapist and feels that his or her point of view has been taken seriously and credibly.
The second feeling is one of normalization, which is a feeling a client gets when they feel they are not alone, “weird,” or abnormal and that other people feel the same way, especially if they have faced similarly adverse conditions. The most powerful example I have seen occurred when I observed a group at the Childhood Bereavement Center. One of the things they do is have a dinner with the children and families in which staff is present. A counselor greets the group and welcomes everyone and reminds the kids present that everyone has lost someone close to them. Though no other formal therapeutic activity occurs during dinner, it seemed clear to me that kids could be helped to know that other kids lose parents (for example) at a young age, though they may not have friends or classmates that have to struggle with this as children.
I believe Gaga may have provided the survivors with a similar experience.
So, if these were clients, where would they go from here? Well, the experience with Gaga might be the beginning of a new narrative in which they are people who have triumphed over a very challenging situation. Though trauma can be obviously difficult, many people find themselves to have transformed into stronger people as a result of having survived and worked through the experience.
Maybe the survivors that Gaga highlighted were already there, and the tattoo is a reminder of how far they’ve come on their journey. Or maybe some are just starting that journey. Or maybe someone in the audience started that journey as a result of Gaga’s gesture. That’s how helping is… You put the seeds out there and hope they find fertile ground and take root.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture