Tuesday Talks:  The Shark Cage  – a metaphor for those who have suffered abuse.

On Tuesday Talks  31 March 2015,  Satu Meyer shared  a bit of her story of domestic violence.  Today I would like to introduce you to the Shark Cage model of Psychotherapy.  This model can be used for both men and women.  This is a really valuable tool to learn if you are a parent because we can teach our children good strong boundaries so that they don’t become entangled in abusive relationships in later life.  

Created by Ursula Benstead, a Melbourne-based psychologist, The Shark Cage concept offers a model of care for people to help defend themselves against potentially abusive people. Benstead has used the Shark Cage concept to facilitate group therapy and training and has watched it grow in popularity.

“The framework is instantly relatable across the board for women despite any difference between class, education and ability. I think it’s the imagery, the archetype of the shark that makes it easy to understand.”

People aren’t born with strong boundaries.  It is the people around us when we are young that help us build strong boundaries, strong shark cages. Our parents, our  primary caregivers.  If we have had abusive caregivers as a child then its highly likely that we do not have good boundaries and that is why the evidence shows that children who have suffered abuse will most likely suffer abuse as an adult.

Children can be taught at a very young age to build shark cages and this will help them identify as well as keep off predators in life. Some develop strong, impenetrable cages that allow them to live healthy, happy lives. Others are not so fortunate. These unfortunate ones may never build up enough bars to keep them safe from “sharks” or along the way, may lose bars when danger has presented itself (Hettwar).

weißer Hai vor Käfig
“Think of each bar of the shark cage as a boundary or a basic human right.  If we are taught that its not acceptable for people to shout at us or call us names, that is one bar in the shark cage..if we are taught that its not acceptable for people to hit us, then thats another bar in the shark cage.  If we are taught in words and actions that it’s not acceptable for people to touch us in ways that make us uncomfortable, that’s another bar”.

Building a shark cage after we have grown up allowing sharks to bite us, or thinking that it’s okay, makes it very hard.  Some of our shark cages have missing bars because our teaching was incomplete or we have been in a feeding frenzy and faced some damage.  Thats okay.  We just need help repairing and re-building our cage.

“By using the metaphor of the cage, I’m trying to externalise it outside about them,” explains Benstead. “It was created by external forces. People don’t have a choice about the shark cage built for them but once you’re an adult you can work out what you want the shark cage to be. That’s where it’s empowering.”

If we have suffered abuse we need help from professionals to help us build and repair our cages.  We have to know and learn what bars to put in.  Each bar represents  an important boundary for emotional, physical and sexual safety.

Ursula reminds us that we also have to be able to recognise when our cage has sustained a hit.  An alarm system needs to be installed.  You need to be able to listen to your gut, to your instincts, your intuition.  Do you feel uneasy?  Uncomfortable, unsafe?  

These are your early warning alarm systems going off.  Unfortunately if you have grown up not understanding right boundaries your sensitivity to situations can often become disconnected or dissociative.  Good counselling and therapy will help you to reconnect to and recognise these feelings.

You also need to be taught how to respond to a potential shark attack.  To learn how to become assertive and to stand up for your rights. All of this takes time and patience.  Some of us need help to recognise sharks because that is all we have been surrounded by.
The framework seeks to help women recognise and push back against abusive behaviour.
“This is not just applicable to men, it can also apply to families.  Families can condone an interpretation of events that reinforce breaching a woman’s human rights.”
Personally I have seen this time and time again where whole families are sharks and or live with sharks.   Or the matriarch protects the shark or feeds the shark.   This makes is extremely hard for victims to get help.  By recognising they have rights that deserve protection, people can begin to build a strong shark cage.  
Weißer Hai im tiefblauen Wasser
“If you’ve got a good shark cage, you can protect yourself”, Benstead says. “If you don’t have a good shark cage, they can grab a hold and pull you further under.”
I hope that this has been helpful.
To this day I’m still learning how to assert myself and respect my instincts.  Getting healthy takes time but it is so worth the effort and the work.  We owe it to ourselves and to the next generations to stand up and say no to abuse.  To learn how to recognise the sharks and understand that their behaviour is unacceptable.
Love Lisa

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Love Lisa


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Benstead, U. (2011).  Psychotherapy IN AUSTRALIA PSYCHOTHERAPY IN AUSTRALIA • VOL 17 NO 2 • FEBRUARY 2011
Gray, Amy.  (2013).  Shark cage idea helping empower women – Daily Life
Hettwer, T.  (2014)  Domestic Violence.

2 Comments on “Tuesday Talks: The Shark Cage

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