Choosing a counsellor when dealing with issues of abuse
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Jo Baker
12th February, 20180 Comments
We know from a number of studies that the right therapeutic relationship is vital to healing in counselling. This means that it is important to find the right person, both in terms of personality fit and relevant experience.
All the usual sensible guidelines for choosing a counsellor apply; you should look for someone that is non-judgemental, appropriately challenging, deals with you fairly and ethically and is upfront and clear in dealing with any questions or concerns that you might have.
In addition to this, you may also want to consider the following areas. There are some things that you may want to question your therapist about at the beginning, and others to simply think about for yourself.
The dynamics of abuse
Coercive control is at the heart of all abusive relationships and abusive systems. Your therapist should understand abuse as a way of gaining and maintaining a position of power and control within intimate relationships.
Are you believed?
Do you feel believed and supported when you talk about the abuse that you have sustained? Or do your experienced feel minimised, invalidated, judged, or not trusted?
It is fine to test out your therapist too; you can share less tender experiences to start with, and move into the more sensitive stuff when you have gained a sense of them and whether they will respond in a way that feels helpful to you.
Can you be honest?
Shame and self-blame are very common responses to abuse, and an important part of healing is often exposing these dark corners of ourselves to the light of compassion and understanding. We can only do this in a relationship where we can see ourselves being able to be deeply, truly honest at some point.
Take the time you need to build trust in your therapist, but you should feel that authenticity is at least a possibility in this relationship in the future.
Blame and responsibility
Who does the therapist hold as responsible for the abuse?
Spoiler: the abuser is responsible for their own actions and choices.
You did not ‘provoke’ it, ‘trigger’ it, and it was not a response to your actions. Even if you have cheated on your spouse (for example), they still have a choice about how they deal with their feelings.
Watch your therapist’s language: they should use language that holds the abuser accountable and not divert responsibility onto you or other external factors.
If you are an adult in an abusive relationship
If and when you’re ready, you may wish to explore what made you vulnerable to entering into an abusive relationship in the first place, but this should be done in a way that does not hold you accountable for the abuse.
If it is a mutually abusive relationship, it may be helpful for your therapist to appropriately support you to find non-abusive alternatives to conflict resolution, but equally you should also not be held accountable for the other’s actions.
Furthermore, in adult relationships, we often see a ‘primary’ perpetrator; one partner is often more scared or more controlled than the other. If you are scared of your partner, you are almost certainly not the primary perpetrator. Your actions can therefore be understood in part as a response to living in a coercive, abusive and potentially even dangerous environment. Understanding and unpicking your reactions should increase your ability to choose your responses.
Should I stay or should I go?
If this is something you’re thinking about, I deeply feel that it is a decision only you can make. Sometimes, there will be choices about different levels of contact that you can work towards, or contact with different boundaries, but sometimes it truly will be as black and white as stay or go.
That doesn’t mean that your therapist won’t have their opinions, but therapy should be a ‘safe-enough’ environment for you to explore all your options and to take the time that you need to make that choice.
If you feel judged, try to explore this with your therapist if it feels appropriate, but also know that you do not need to continue in a therapy where you feel judged for your life choices.
(Although on a slight side note, if you do find yourself moving from therapist to therapist because you feel repeatedly judged, it may be worth sticking with a ‘good enough’ therapist to see if you can get a little closer to what this is about for you. As someone once said to me, “twice can be coincidence, but three times is likely to be a pattern.”)
If you want to figure out strategies (for dealing with distress, or with people in your life), are they comfortable and happy to work them out with you?
Does your therapist leave you feeling bad?
Therapy can be challenging, and there will undoubtedly be times where you leave feeling churned up or in distress. This is normal when you’re processing painful, usually old, undealt with, untalked about experiences. It can also be a sign of progress.
However, you should also experience relief too, and connection, and also feelings of being understood.
If you consistently leave your therapist feeling bad about yourself, or needing something that you’re not getting, a good therapist should be open to talking about it. This can be a fruitful exercise, not only for the therapist's own personal growth but also for what it tells them about their client’s world.
However, if it happens on an ongoing basis and there is no resolution, or your therapist continually shuts you down, it might be worth thinking about whether this relationship is the right one for you.
Trust your gut; even if the therapist seems to absolutely understand abuse and has all the qualifications and training you could possibly want, if it doesn’t feel right, absolutely trust that.
Keep looking until you find someone that you feel you can talk to.
Good luck. Go at your own pace. You’ve got this.
About the author
An experienced UPCA registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, Jo specialises in individual therapy for women. She has worked with survivors of domestic and sexual violence for a number of years in various projects, and now works from her private practice in Lewes, East Sussex and for a low cost counselling service in Brighton.
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