How Energy Workers Can Harm Clients When They Aren’t Trauma Informed
TRIGGER WARNING: Detailed discussions of trauma (medical, sexual, religious)My partner’s father passed away a few weeks ago suddenly, unexpectedly, and rather horribly after an emergency colectomy for undetected, advanced colon cancer. The healthcare situation in his home country made the entire ordeal far more traumatic than it had to be. I’ve long been a believer in death with dignity, but this situation made me even more resolved about it. Some of the trauma on the family’s end could have been avoided with proper education and support from someone like a grief counselor or a death doula, but those were not services offered by the hospital nor even suggested.
At any rate, the event was very triggering for me. When you have a lot of trauma (as I do), it’s very common for it to compound as you get older. The c-PTSD from childhood trauma can be easily triggered through situations later in life with authority figures where one’s autonomy and freedom of choice is removed or overpowered and this can cause retraumatization (don’t confuse a trauma trigger with simple emotional discomfort as many new agers and coaches do), especially when those authority figures are not trauma informed.
I have a not insignificant amount of medical-related trauma due to an experience I had about ten years ago where I had an appendectomy without proper education or full, enthusiastic consent to being cut open and having a part of my body surgically removed (potentially unnecessarily). While the situation with my partner’s father wan’t exactly the same, it was similar enough to remind me of my own experience and why I don’t completely trust the medical establishment.
Grief is another big trigger for me, and I was immersed in it as I spent three weeks with my partner and his family while they watched his father slowly wither away. I’d already had one panic attack the day before his initial surgery, and I had another the night before I flew back home. When I finally got back home and had some time to myself, I started to finally process my own feelings. That’s when the daily anxiety set in.
A couple of months prior, I’d asked for a gift card for my birthday to a local wellness “spa” that I’d found online that was in the same building as my aesthetician. The website had a variety of services including massage, facials, and the like. Some of the massages were labeled “intuitive” and energy work was also on the menu, but others were normal spa services. I decided to use my gift card on a lymphatic drainage massage because it’s been a potential health concern for a few months and I now had a newfound health anxiety the likes of which I had not experienced before. This particular service was not labeled as intuitive.
I missed the red flags.
There were a number of things which should have alerted me that this experience wasn’t going to go well, the least of which was that the website was clearly self-created and somewhat confusing. The entire “spa” was just one person, even though her whole site used “we” as though there was a full staff. This was not disclosed anywhere and there was no transparency about who the owner was or where and how they were credentialed.
When I arrived, there was no intake process – no questions about my health or health history that might inform a bodyworker of potential concerns or things to avoid. I signed literally nothing, filled out zero paperwork, and the only question I was asked prior to beginning my session was the bizarrely irrelevant “If you had all the money in the world and didn’t need to work anymore to survive, what would you do instead?”
It’s hard to think clearly or behave normally when your nervous system is activated.
Under ordinary circumstances I probably would have noted all of these things and erred on the side of caution, but that’s the thing about trauma: when your nervous system is in an actively triggered state, your capacity for critical thinking is significantly lowered. Your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders because you’re in survival mode. You’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other and it’s difficult to think 10 paces ahead.
It’s also extremely difficult to function the way you would in an ordinary situation because you slip into automatic, habitual trauma responses. My most common trauma responses are freeze and fawn when there’s no easy opportunity for me to flee without creating conflict. Fight is always an absolute last resort, which is a bit of a shame because it would provide me with the assertiveness I’d needed to tell this woman to mind her fucking business, stop the session, get off the table and walk out after what happened next.
Being an intuitive does not give you a license to go poking around in people’s trauma without their informed consent.
I want to preface this story with the fact that I’ve worked with a number of energy workers over the last 10 years, many of whom are my actual friends and almost all of whom I’ve had some kind of personal relationship with. I also dabble in energy work myself and while I don’t do it professionally, I’ve worked on friends and loved ones from time to time in addition to myself.
In each of those instances, my friend were either getting their own certification and needed hours of practice and asked me to be their guinea pig, or I actively sought them out for energy work, and in the case of people I worked on, I offered the service and they consented to it. Sometimes those services involve psychic readings and all affected parties were aware that this was the case and that it was a feature of the service. This is what informed consent is.
I was given no opportunity for informed consent with this service provider.
After the session had begun, the practitioner told me, “I sense some sadness. I know you came here for a lymphatic massage, but these things just come to me. I can’t help it. I sense it so I say it.”
She wasn’t even asking me how I felt, she was telling me how I felt – or at least her interpretation of it, and then I would have to correct her. Then she started asking me probing questions about it which became increasingly more personal as the session went on. Mind you, as with any massage, I was naked on a table under a blanket during this service and this woman had her hands on my body as she was saying these things.
At one point she asked me about my relationship with my parents, specifically my father whom I am estranged from for very good reasons. She asked me what my therapist told me about it as if its any of her business what I discuss in therapy, which is legally protected, private health information! I had to explain to her that that’s not how therapy works – therapists don’t tell you about yourself (the way she was telling me how she presumed I felt), talk therapy is just your therapist holding space while you process your feelings, offering support and validation and occasionally reframing things.
And then… then… she asked me, “What do you think your dad thinks about you?”
I haven’t spoken to my dad – a textbook narcissist complete with delusions of grandeur about being able to cure people from cancer through faith healing and being chosen by god himself to usher in Jesus’ return – since he ambushed me in a public parking lot, put his hands on me and tried to exorcise an imaginary demon from me while speaking in gibberish.
“I think he thinks I’m a demon,” I replied flatly and sarcastically, which only resulted in more questions about my father and my relationship with him, a conversation which ended with her telling me that I needed to “make peace” with the man who lied to me and my family, stole from me and my family, manipulated his own children and family members, disinherited me for having a vagina, and potentially committed negligent homicide, and that I should be grateful to him for giving me life.
I bit my tongue, but I so badly wanted to blurt out, “Nobody chooses to be born and particularly not to people who mistreat them, and therefore, we are not required to be grateful for something we did not ask for and which ultimately made our nonconsensual existence that much more difficult.”
The one silver lining I have in my life – the thing that I can cling to when I feel most alone in the world – is that whatever I lack in my life from familial deficiency, I have found in friendships with kindred souls: my chosen family who understand me deeply, see me completely, and still accept me because they have also experienced the same things I have. And she even found a way to shit on that by telling me that they will never be able to replace my family.
Not only is triggering to a very deep abandonment wound, but it also triggers other past traumas where people that I considered to be my chosen family were forced out of my life. Nothing incenses me more than when someone attempts to dismiss, devalue, invalidate, shame, or otherwise pry away the feelings of love which are so fleetingly rare in my life and thus, deeply meaningful to me.
This energy worker energetically raped me and had absolutely no awareness that she was doing it.
In addition to having c-PTSD and a traumatic experience with a charismatic Christian version of energy healing, I also have PTSD from sexual assault which is yet another form of physical bodily violation of consent in addition to the medical trauma. Now I had this woman touching my body while I was lying immobilized, naked on a table – not dissimilar from rape or surgery – violating me emotionally and energetically while I was already emotionally raw from the events of the previous three weeks.
Is it really any wonder why I found my experience with this woman to be so triggering that I began shaking on the table? At one point she noted that my face was flushed. That’s what happens my nervous system is in an activated state and I informed her that only happens when I’m anxious. She never made the connection that she was the cause.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
And very well-meaning people are actively harming trauma survivors just as often, if not more so, than people intentionally doing harm.
Throughout the entire session, this woman kept telling me, “I can help you with your panic attacks. I healed myself from mine.” I believed this to be her way of attempting to turn me into a repeat client, but it was also a sign that she was projecting her lived experience onto me and invalidating my own experience in the process. This typically happens when people have very self-centric and thus limited ideas about the human experience.
An energy worker with no personal experience of c-PTSD and who hasn’t done any research to understand the conditions which give rise to it will make many assumptions about a traumatized person’s personal experiences, many of which will be wrong. For example, during the session, she told me that anxiety was fear of the future but that things that already happened don’t repeat themselves. And yet, the very definition of complex trauma is being trapped in inescapable situations where you are exposed to trauma repeatedly and many of the coping mechanisms developed to survive those repeated traumas also ensure that you end up in similar situations over and over again in the future:
Complex PTSD can make it difficult to trust others. Some people stay in unhealthy relationships because the situation is familiar. If their trauma involved abuse, their feelings about their abuser may be complicated.
It also causes you to stay in unhealthy situations because you become desensitized to your body’s alarm signals, and in particular if you’ve been exposed to any kind of abuse that involved gaslighting or dismissing or invalidating your emotions, you may have internalized it and dismiss, invalidate, or minimize your own thoughts about the danger of the situation because you no longer trust your own experience.
That’s exactly what I did when I showed up to this appointment. I was alarmed at the lack of professionalism but I told myself I was just being judgmental. Instead, I was actually ignoring a litany of red flags. And consequently, this woman’s invalidation of my lived experience mirrored and thus triggered my past trauma.
I’ve done enough trauma work at this point in my life to know that I should not blame myself for “getting into this situation.” Any energy medicine practitioner should know and understand the power dynamic that comes with that position and they should subsequently take the brunt of responsibility for ensuring that they are creating a safe environment and experience for their clients.
As an intuitive, unless you are really really good, you may be able to pinpoint someone’s feelings, and a little bit of what it’s tied to, but you don’t have the full context of the situation and certainly not enough to have the audacity to tell someone what they should do about it.
And here’s another thing: in my own experience doing energy work on other people, I can feel when I’ve made them uncomfortable vs. when they feel safe and secure, when they trust me and when they don’t. I can feel how they react to what I say to them. If I feel someone recoil or freeze at something I’ve said, that’s my cue to pull back. If you’re an “intuitive” and an “energy worker” and you can sense someone else’s energy blocks but you can’t sense their energetic reaction to you…are you really that great of an intuitive?
People who engage in psychic readings and energy work in the way that this woman did, through probing deeply into very vulnerable areas of that person’s energy body and trauma without consent, think that the way you heal a bruise is by poking it. That’s what it is. It’s the emotional equivalent of carelessly poking a bruise. Also, don’t fucking ever ask someone what they talked about in therapy! It was so clear that this woman had never been to therapy because she thought a therapist did what she was doing: telling the client what should do.
And to be clear, it wasn’t even necessarily the deeply personal questions that this person was asking me that was triggering. I talk about deeply personal things all the time online. It was the fact that this was:
- inappropriate for the service
- there was no trust or rapport with this person
- done without consent
- she was energetically violating my privacy and boundaries
- this was all done while I was laying naked on a table and could not easily stop the situation or leave
- ^ that removed my autonomy and agency in the situation which was deeply triggering because it mirrored my past traumas
All of those those things I just listed would have been avoided had this person had a modicum of awareness about working with people with trauma. But instead, I left her table shaking, crying, angry, and so activated that it took me three days to come back to a semi-regulated state. Incidentally, she asked me how I felt when the session was over and I told her, “activated.” She had no idea what I meant and thought it was a good thing, and then asked me to leave her a Google review.
I recognize that I’m very emotionally raw right now. It’s been an incredibly difficult month. I’m all around triggered, I’m anxious, and I’d already had two panic attacks. But that’s why I went to this woman. I was trying to engage in self care to help me recover, but instead, she made it worse, it took me three days to recover and I had a third panic attack a week after this experience.
It’s taken me all morning to write about this. Literally five hours. I’ve had to take breaks to calm myself because recounting it all causes emotional flooding and anxiety. But it’s worth it to me to relive all of this if it means that any coaches or practitioners reading about it is having any kind of awareness about how they might affect people with their words and actions or it inspires someone to seek out more information on trauma-informed care or join a training from a reputable, qualified trainer.
One resource to get started with this is my online course, Ethical Entrepreneurship, which has an entire module dedicated to trauma awareness and harm reduction in your business, along with a number of additional resources for additional training. I have the knowledge to understand what’s happening to my body and why, and the language to express it, and I still found myself in this situation. Most clients don’t and won’t, which is all the more reason why everyone who works with humans (and even animals) can benefit from this information.
Thanks for being here,
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