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A Trauma Survivor's Guide to Being a Great Trauma Therapist

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As a person with a significant trauma history, I am very sensitive to nuances and inconsistencies in people. I feel unsafe pretty much everywhere. I know I’m not alone in this feeling, despite how it feels.

In trying to heal, trauma survivors need to feel as safe as possible, and being a great therapist and creating a safe therapeutic environment definitely can help.

Tips on how to be a great trauma therapist:

1. Follow a routine.

Routine is safety. Routine means I know what and in what order you will do things every time you do them. Routine means I know where to stand, where to sit and where to go. Routine means I know where I stand in the process so I don’t get yelled at or belittled… or even hit.

2. Be consistent.

Doing what you say, every time you say you will. Being where you say you will be, every time. Consistency is responding to the same inquiries the same way, every time we ask. Consistency means you will show up for me as stated every time; it’s one less thing for me to worry about.

3. Be predictable.

Predictability is responding with the same open arms and heart every time we try and fail. Predictability means you won’t surprise me with new boundaries or blurred old ones. I know what to expect and that I won’t be hurt.

4. Have clearly defined boundaries.

Knowing exactly when I can contact you and approximately when you will respond. Saying exactly what you will do and will not do and sticking to those boundaries. Defining your abilities and knowing them yourself. Knowing clearly where you stop and I begin so I know what I have to do on my own and what I can ask for help with. Boundaries mean I know exactly where the lines are so I know if I am overstepping them.

5. Show you are human.

Be able to admit that sometimes you make mistakes. That there will be times you can’t devote time to me outside of a session — be honest and real about it. Being real about your own limits and emotional boundaries within the context of my treatment, i.e., saying, “not now, I need time for me.” We need someone who can model what it’s like to make mistakes and not fall apart.

6. Be honest.

Honesty means being 100% truthful. We know when there are truths withheld. Be real with us, no one else ever has been and we need to know what it feels like. We need to see that you will not lie to us. We need to see we can trust you with the things we have been holding on to all these years.

7. Be humble.

Be able to say, “I don’t know what you are feeling, but I want you to try to help me understand.” Be aware that you will never truly see and feel what we feel, that you may know what emotions feel like to you, but you don’t know what they feel like to us. Know that there is a life lived outside the therapy room that you have no idea about.

8. Be knowledgeable.

Do research often. Go to conferences. Be prepared. Know your stuff.  If you don’t know, say so. “I don’t know, but I can find out or here’s where you can.”

9. Be willing to learn.

Ask peers for real-world scenarios. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from supervisors of one sort or another. Collaborate. Listen.

10. Be forgiving.

We’re going to screw up. We’re going to step on toes and lines and boundaries and nerves as we try things out and find out where we fit in this relationship. It will be an ongoing process so tell us when we hurt you and forgive us for the flailing.

11. Be willing to ask for forgiveness.

Admitting shortcomings and mistakes keeps it real. You will make mistakes, I guarantee it, but modeling mistakes can be overcome through asking for forgiveness and changing behavior is a very valuable lesson for someone who often needs to be forgiven.

12. Be accommodating.

If you are missing a session, ask if it can be replaced. If I mention vacation on a therapy day, and the possibility exists, ask if you can be available earlier, later or another day for me.

13. Be invested in my healing journey.

Want me to heal. Want to see the process work and be willing to invest time and energy in my journey, even when I’m not sure I want to heal. Be willing to hold the space for healing, even when I try to walk away.

14. Listen to understand.

Don’t predict or think you know how something happened. Don’t assume you know the details before they are told. Hear what I am saying, not what you think I am saying. Listen to the things I am saying and the things I am omitting. Listen to body language, pauses and silences, internal battles, eye movements, sighs, breathing and don’t assume you know why something is happening. Ask.

15. Don’t have an agenda about my healing.

Know I’m the boss of my healing. Know that if I don’t want to, it won’t happen, no matter how much you try. Be willing to leave one subject for another if I want to. Understand that sometimes things will be left unfinished for a long time because they simply hurt too much to process all at once.

A good therapist is great, but a great therapist is incredible!

For more on what to expect in trauma therapy, see this article from our community.

Photo by Spencer Backman on Unsplash

Originally published: January 19, 2021
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