Working with high risk populations that have survived intergenerational trauma taught me to answer the question behind the question, understand the intention behind the mal-adaptive behavior, and give voice to the inner hurt, years of pain and suffering that lead to delinquent charge. 

“You see my face, but don’t know my story, so don’t judge me!”

The criminal justice process is directive and clients are told what needs to be done, where they need to go, what they need to do and within certain amount of time. All the parties and systems involved have expectations and can impose sanctions for lack of compliance and adherence to court demands. The client’s sense of autonomy is taken away and “doing” overrides “being” in their mind.  In addition, all the systems involved are constant “souvenirs” and reminders of the mistake clients made and can evoke shame and guilt within their psyche. This ongoing interaction with souvenirs and reminders bring forth the defense mechanisms. 

Mindful of Defense Mechanisms

Working with survivors of trauma in active addiction taught me to be mindful of the two common defense mechanisms that arise when clients feel threatened, exposed or vulnerable: Wall or war tactics. These tactics and reactions tend to come up when they are triggered and do not know how to manage themselves or situation. 

Wall: shut down, shrugging of shoulders (non-verbal “I don’t know” response), or complete avoidance. This tactic is used when the conversation or theme is so uncomfortable that its triggering unpleasant and unwanted emotions that are outside their window of tolerance. They have experience with silence to protect, to shut down, to avoid discomfort. 

War: verbal/hostile aggression. Opposite of the wall, the client engages in hostile interaction as they feel threatened and need to stand guard to protect themselves at all cost. They will go “down with a fight” and try to be one up to avoid being shamed or vulnerable. As professional these tactics should never be taken personally as it is being done out of survival, since they have not developed a safe space to process/explore triggers yet. 

Creating space to be

As a professional working with clients involved in the criminal justice field, the realm of law requires structure, consistent, and diligent accountability; however, in the realm of psyche, order is needed as a rule of law. We need to have a safe space in order to tend to the violation, faux pas, and make it right. We need to have a space to be with our thoughts, pain, emotions, insecurities, and hurt to know what needs to address and rectified. This is a process that as humans we all yearn and desire to have. Asking for it might expose or bring forth an uncomfortable and foreign sense of vulnerability, so we need to be attuned to the client’s and listen attentively, actively, with a humanistic and empathetic ear. Listen for what’s not being said.