As therapists, it’s our job to be in charge of the safety of our patients, particularly around talking about traumatic experiences. Because we take this role seriously, we’re aware when others exploit these vulnerabilities such as the multi-level-marketing company turned alleged sex cult NXIVM, which has garnered increased attention due to the HBO docuseries The Vow. Our Senior Therapist Kelly Scott was recently featured in INSIDER, using her expertise to analyze how NXIVM twisted elements of psychotherapy in order to exploit and physically, emotionally, and sexually abuse its followers.
Under the guise of self-help, NXIVM’s leader Keith Raniere’s methods were designed around his needs (e.g. followers, ego, power, sexual gratification) rather than the needs of the person seeking help. He wasn’t concerned with his followers emotional (or physical) safety and instead, pushed them to put themselves in unsafe situations. And yet, in the article, Kelly explains how some of Raniere’s teachings manipulate hallmarks of psychotherapy, including, as writer Julia Naftulin articulates, “the idea that a person’s past experiences affect their current decision-making and how they move through the world.” “So much of therapy, at least the way that I practice, is exactly that,” observes Kelly. “It’s looking at what brought you into the door for therapy. What’s hurting right now? What’s the problem? And then panning out and recognizing the cluster the data points create, and understanding the origin of those patterns that are causing so many problems in your life.”
In particular, Kelly cites similarities between Raniere’s EM (exploration of meaning) sessions and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which both involve discovering how a current negative belief was developed or reinforced through specific traumatic memory. In real therapy, this is done with an awareness of safety, privacy, and trust between a therapist and patient. However, NXIVM coerced followers into sharing their more intimate, shameful, and traumatic moments in front of an audience of strangers.
Moving up in the organization was also reliant on how much participants exposed themselves. There was quite literally a vulnerability level or count that determined advancement. The more participants allowed themselves to be exploited, the more value they accrued. Kelly says, “I think there is a way that that group absolutely fetishizes vulnerability. Actually, the more accurate way of saying that is they fetishize exploitation.” In contrast, vulnerability in therapy is something co-created, protected, and treated with the utmost respect and thoughtfulness.
While not discussed at length in the article, it’s worth exploring what made NXIVM so dangerous as defined against the safety of real therapy. As Kelly asserts, “The fact [Raniere’s method] has some elements of very valid theory, that makes it so dangerous because it’s something that feels reasonable on the surface…”.
In NXIVM, there was no pacing and no scaffolding (meaning building supports–a container–to ensure safety like the therapist-patient relationship through trust-building, moving at the right speed, and regulating exposure). There was also no protection for people to keep themselves intact. We all have internal structures that protect us from falling apart and these structures are essential for us to function, even if they are distorted or counterproductive. When processing trauma, these structures are even more important because traumatic experiences challenge our understanding of who we are and our experience of safety in the world. What Raniere did was knock the legs out from under the stool in a reckless and harmful way, knowing that people would turn to him and his philosophy as the substitute legs. This increased their reliance on him and strengthened his ability to influence and exploit them.
Conversely in therapy, we’re conscious that many patients struggle to maintain appropriate and self-protective boundaries in their lives, which results in them being harmed. It’s our job to not only be aware of that, but actively work to not repeat or participate in that pattern. That can sometimes look like telling a patient to slow down or even stop talking about something if we aren’t ready to talk about it yet. It’s not that we don’t want to talk about it, but have a responsibility to make sure it’s talked about in a safe way that won’t further exploit a patient.