Trauma and the movie “Whiplash”

I was riveted when I first saw the movie “Whiplash”. The story line involves a young talented drummer who goes to one of the most prestigious music schools in the country, and goes to excruciating lengths to be “chosen” by a music teacher who can make or break a young musician.

Watching the movie the first time, I experienced a sense of emotional whiplash myself. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

People say this is a movie about artistic talent, or about the music industry, or about the “symbiotic relationship between student and mentor”.

I say it’s a movie about brutality and abuse. It’s a movie about gaslighting. It’s a movie about trauma, specifically about attachment trauma.

Attachment trauma: that’s the exploitation of the need human beings have for attachment, connection, respect, belonging

The main character in “Whiplash” is set up to be vulnerable to such horrendous trauma and to be enthralled to his abusive teacher through childhood experiences:

  • His mother leaving when he was a baby
  • A family that doesn’t appreciate his talent, focusing their affections on other members of the family
  • A family where each member is driven to gain acceptance through being “the best”

And probably other things as well.

If you grow up in a home where your basic needs for connection, recognition, and belonging aren’t met, you can become vulnerable to abusers, to cults, to dogmatic leaders.

The guy in the movie was talented. Enormously so. He got so devoted to his teacher’s affection partly because the teacher skillfully used manipulation tactics to put his students in a constant state of frenzy and euphoria and terror combined. And partly because he had a longstanding need for validation, to be the best.

His need to be “chosen” by this abusive teacher was a huge liability for him. It left him open to mistreatment, abuse, and it could have led him to his own death. His rage at his teacher alternated with a deep need for this teacher’s acknowledgement.

Although I don’t usually see people caught in this extreme of situation, I do see lots of clients who have some unmet needs. “Childhood needs become adult needs.” The need my clients feel, for love, for connection, for validation, have sometimes been shut out.

Or they’ve sometimes taken over my clients’ lives in ways that lead them into relationships that aren’t right for them.

Either way, these kinds of empty spaces inside can leave you vulnerable. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

The good news about attachment troubles like this is that they’re really just normal human needs — human needs that haven’t been met yet. The needs we have for connection and belonging are beautiful. What’s tragic is when these needs are taken advantage of. Cults take advantage of basic human desires and needs. But good therapy helps you to embrace your humanity, notice your needs, and to get to know the parts of you that have felt empty or alone. And when that happens, you’re much much less vulnerable to people like the teacher in “Whiplash.”

“This may sound weird or crazy, but….”

Potential clients often say something like this to me in our first meeting. They say, “This will maybe sound crazy, but….”

  • I both love and hate the person who hurt me.
  • I’m not sure if my trauma is “bad enough” for me to get help.
  • I think I can read auras.
  • I’ve possibly had paranormal experiences that I don’t understand and I don’t tell people about.
  • I have sexual fantasies I’m ashamed of, but I can’t stop them.
  • Sometimes I miss my abuser.
  • I think I may be gifted, but I’m afraid to talk about it because I don’t want to sound full of myself.
  • I feel like I’ve been through trauma, but I don’t remember anything like that ever happening to me.
  • I’m afraid to talk.
  • I’m afraid to slow down or stop talking.
  • I think I may have been through some kind of organized abuse.
  • My spirituality means everything to me, but I’ve been having second thoughts, and I’m feeling guilty and confused about my church/faith.
  • I sometimes feel like I’m two people or something like that, because I have such different thoughts and feelings at different times.
  • I do weird things that no one else knows about when I get to feeling scared.
  • I have feelings that I’ve never told anyone about.


People say “I think this might sound weird or crazy.” And it usually doesn’t sound weird or crazy to me!

When you say, “This may sound weird,” here’s what I hear:

  1. People have made fun of my thoughts and feelings before.
  2. What I’m about to say is very important. It’s so important that I can’t even tell you directly how much this means to me.
  3. I’m afraid to be misunderstood.

And that’s why I’m often interested in the “crazy” or “weird” things people have to say.

Here’s what I want you to know about that “weird” thing you’re thinking of talking about:

It’s probably important.

Even if it doesn’t make sense to you or to your counselor at first glance, or even if it isn’t literally true, there’s something that’s worth noticing.

(This feels like a good time to mention straight out that I don’t diagnose or treat mental illnesses. I pretty much assume that my clients are “normal,” given the stuff that they’ve been through. Your behaviors and thoughts make sense, at least if we understand the context. I am not trained to look for “disorders,” so I don’t! That means that, if you’re concerned about a potential diagnosis of mental illness, it’s important to see your doctor.)

I like it when clients let me in on a “weird” thing, because it very often means that they’re letting me know something that matters profoundly to them. They are taking a  risk, and if they can find understanding from me, if we can together look at the “weird” thing, they’re a step closer to resolution. And it also means they’re not bearing the burden alone anymore of what has often become a secret.

So if you feel like telling your counselor about something weird, it’s a good sign. We’re just not meant to hold onto “weird stuff” alone, and getting it out and finding understanding makes a big difference! And, often, once you mention the weird thing, you find out that what you’re talking about is not uncommon.

Sometimes weird experiences and perceptions take some time and patience to unravel. But it can be done, and having an ally in working through the weird stuff really helps.

How to Cope After You’ve Been Abandoned/Rejected

You opened your heart to someone. You felt like, at last, it was safe to share your deepest feelings, your tears, your laughter, your secrets. You let someone in.

And you’ve been abandoned.

Your feelings are a roller-coaster.

You wonder what you did wrong — you might even question if you’re worthy of love.

You revisit all your most recent conversations with the person who left you, everything over the time you were together that may have led them to give up on your relationship.

You rage at them — How could they leave you? After you gave so much to them, after you trusted them, how could they? You feel like there’s something wrong with them to leave you.

And then, back to pitying them — or doubting yourself.

You think over all the loving conversations you had, all the promises they made you, all the things you said you’d do together: How could this have happened? It must be a nightmare. This can’t be real.

Maybe you look back to times that you felt somewhere in your gut that something wasn’t quite right. You start reviewing how you got into this relationship in the first place. You wonder, “What about my intuition? I thought I knew how to read people. How could I have read this situation so wrong?”

Abandonment creates such a deep sense of loss, and of anger — and there are few places to turn with these feelings, of grief, of rage, of confusion.

So what do you do? Where do you go?

There are some things my clients have found to be useful. Maybe one or more of them can help you to find your next step forward:

1. This may be the most difficult, and the most important one. The other advice will be easier to follow once you can get this one: Avoid abandoning yourself. When you’ve been abandoned and betrayed, it’s typical to feel like you are to blame, and to try to numb out your feelings or avoid your own feelings, your own company. The deepest pain stems not from another person’s rejection of you, but from your rejection of yourself. Maybe you made some mistakes in your relationship. We all do. In order to learn from those mistakes, in order to heal, it’s essential that you find ways to come back to yourself and stay present to your own feelings. This may take work and time — but keep working, again and again, to extend kindness and compassion to yourself.

2. Give yourself time and space to grieve in your own way and time. Make room for the different feelings within you — whether they’re grief, rage, relief, joy — make a space to feel those things with a minimum of self-judgment. If you have someone to vent these feelings to, all the better. It will help to talk to someone who won’t moralize, judge you, try too hard to get you to “cheer up,” or harshly judge you or the person who left. You need space for all those feelings.

3. Journal. Some people use poetry or music as a way to express feelings that don’t seem to find their expression in simple words. Journaling can help you to find a space for your feelings, and clarity is likely to emerge when you least expect it.

4.  Keep on moving forward with life. I know this one is easier said than done. You might want to hide under your covers, eat a pint of ice cream, and imagine a life of solitude. But this is an important time to both give yourself space to grieve, and give your life space to grow.

This is an important time to notice any support you have, and to expand your support network if you need to. (Especially if lots of your support was tied up with this other person and their activities and friendships!). Studies of grief and how people moved through it showed the process called pendulation to be most effective. Here’s how pendulation works: You put some focus on your grief. Then you put focus on resources you have in your life. You move your focus between moving forward and looking back. By giving yourself new good experiences, you build the resources and strength inside to cope with and move through your grief.

These principles have helped my clients. They can help you.

And, perhaps, this is a time that you could use some more help. You’re in a process that often moves through predictable stages, but if you’re stuck on one feeling, can’t seem to move forward with your life, or this loss has triggered a lot of other feelings, memories, or beliefs about yourself, it might be time to talk it over with someone who can help to navigate you through the next phase of your healing. This is also true if you notice that you’ve been repeatedly abandoned. This kind of cycle can be healed.

If you’re feeling stuck, know that it doesn’t have to stay that way. And reach out for support if you need it.



“What types of clients do you work with?”

After a talk I gave recently, a woman approached me and said, “I never realized before this talk just how much counseling can help with lots of things — not just the stuff people think of as ‘really messed up.'”

She was right! In general, folks who come to counseling are actually higher functioning than people who don’t seek help. More people you know are in counseling than you think, and some of the most “together” and caring people you’ve met seek help. They’re confident enough in themselves to know when it’s time for help, and they’re able to ask for it.

My clients can usually speak at length about other people’s needs, hurts, and fears. Some of them are healing professionals who have devoted their careers to helping others.

When I get clients together in a group, their intuition and care for one another is palpable. Their ability to connect with others and to empathize propels the healing of other clients. The room is full of caring, and laughter. It’s a safe place for tears too, and that’s largely because my clients make it that way.

My clients  have persevered, sometimes through very difficult circumstances.

Some of them don’t know at the beginning of therapy just how resourceful they’ve been. They minimize their struggles, underestimate their gifts, and understate the depth of who they are.

My clients are people, people I like.  They’re often people who want to give to others, who want to heal in ways that impact not just their lives, but their relationships, their communities, the people they come to care about and help.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to really ponder who I work with.

It makes me realize anew how deeply I respect the people I come into contact with every day. It is a gift to get to make an impact in their lives, and to really get to know who they are.

It’s more wonderful still when my clients themselves reach the realization of who they are. Often, a client will say something like, “You know, I’m finally coming to really know myself — and even starting to like me!”

I like my clients, and my clients come to like themselves. And that enriches their relationships, deepens their giving, and lets them reach out in new ways that open new opportunities for themselves and the other people in their lives.