Occasionally clients feeling the effects of a traumatic past come to me who express negative associations with counseling. Either they didn’t have a great experience or they heard about someone who didn’t. Arms crossed and brows furrowed, they hesitate to trust me and the process. That being said, they’ve walked in the door, and so, they must be feeling at least a shred of hope. That crack in the armor invites me to show them that therapy has so much to offer.
If someone asked me for a list, here is what I would say to look for in a therapist, particularly if you have experienced trauma (and, colleagues, help me by adding to the list in the comments!):
- Solid Education. There are many healing modalities that can deepen awareness. That being said trauma responses are physiological and not psychological, so if you are using solely a cognitive technique or positive thinking, it is likely to fall short. Make sure the therapist you see is licensed and trained in some form of trauma work.
- Attunement. Is the therapist capable of becoming fully present and tuning into you fully? Attunement can’t be faked. It is an ability to align with the client and notice nuances and pick up on cues in order to respond so that the client feels heard.
- Meeting Goals. If you came in specifically to work on a fear of spiders and that gets resolved, it’s up to the therapist to check in with you about new goals of therapy. Inevitably, many fears are related to a traumatic past, and it’s important to acknowledge the past to release what is held in the body that may be the source of the issue. But when that gets done, it’s helpful to check in with one another again to discuss objectives moving forward.
- Personal Work. Hopefully, the therapist has done and is doing their own transformative work to remain effective and attuned. Counter transference – or being triggered by a client – inevitably happens occasionally; however, hopefully the therapist has done plenty of work to act as witness to his or her clients’ pain and transformation.
- Finally, in the words of Carl Rogers, father of humanistic psychology: Unconditional Positive Regard. Counselors develop the understanding that people are driven to behave out of their past programming and physiological reactions. More often than not, they do not have an intention to hurt others or themselves. And if they’ve come to counseling, they want to heal. That in itself enables a compassionate counselor to care for a client no matter what that individual has done. We hold the space for a profound healing to take place in the brain and body of a client.
I could have added “experience” to the list, but what I have found is that if people exhibit all of the above qualities, generally, whether a counselor has 6 months or 30 years under her belt, progress can be made. I’m sure I’m missing some important qualities, but these seemed a priority to me when I’m working with clients.
People never cease to amaze me. They are resilient and so brave to enter a counseling process that is not easy at first. It moves me to watch them shift out of fear and into relief, developing self-acceptance, possibility thinking, and confidence. I celebrate with them as they watch reactions turn to intentional responses; as they learn to draw healthy boundaries and take better care of themselves; as they step into a new job or relationship that helps them to find meaning and thrive.
I have the best job on the planet and I’m grateful to all of my clients: graduated or in progress (and for those clients coming in for an occasional tune-up).