How safe is counselling?
How realistic is a sense of complete safety? Say it is a time of peace and prosperity, yet all the while the tides of history are turning and, before we are aware, calamity strikes. Or, say even if yours is a life with no previous trauma, it is just a normal day, you are crossing the road, looking both ways, but you cannot account for the reckless driver.
Once the worst has happened, it is not easy to relax. As human beings we are built to be ready to protect ourselves, and who and what we love. Once the need to activate this level of protection has been switched on, it can take a lot of convincing for our systems to calm, even in situations where we are essentially safe. We need a certain amount of confidence, of living in the moment, to get through life and enjoy it where we might.
So, say you are at home, it is evening and getting dark. You hear a sudden noise and pause. Your light is on, your door shut, you remember that your fridge likes to crack at times. You relax, forget, and get on with whatever you were doing. The next time the fridge cracks you barely notice it. There is enough that is safe in your situation to help you remain calm. But if a lack of safety has plagued your life, that noisy fridge could be the start of an evening of jitters, checking doors, or making calls. You know it is the fridge, but somehow it has reminded your system of what it is like to feel uneasy, to be unsure that you are safe.
Counselling can be a place to ask the question, how can I feel safe enough to live my daily life? But walking through a counsellor’s door can be a milestone. You may feel ready, as well as anxious about facing your fears. It is OK to pause for a moment to ask yourself, how do I know that the person sitting opposite me in the counsellor’s chair is a safe person for me, and what does that even mean?
Counselling offers a safe space
As counsellors we often say, on our training courses, our websites, to each other and to clients, ‘Counselling is a safe space’. After a while, clients may feedback to us, too, that they did, indeed, feel safe in their sessions. They knew they could express themselves without fear of judgement, that they would be heard and that their counsellor could cope with whatever was discussed.
To begin with, though, the counsellor is an unknown quantity to whom you are making yourself vulnerable, putting some trust in her qualification, her membership of a recognised association, her directory entry or the recommendation of a friend or professional. From the very first impression to your experience over time, while your counsellor will be helping you to take some risks, your sense of safety must be paramount.
What does feeling and being safe in counselling involve?
Your counsellor will be interested in what you have to say. She will communicate that she is pleased to meet you and that she has time for your session together. Though there may be times when she does some of the talking, the session will be yours, and she will be alongside you as you explore your experience.
A suitable pace
Your counsellor will not hurry you. If anything, you may at times feel that things are going too slowly, but in any case, your counsellor will be OK with talking about the pace of your work.
If something proves too unsettling, she will know how to help you calm and find your ground again and reflect with you on the experience. She won’t be interested in taking you to uncomfortable places just for the sake of it. Neither will she avoid going there if that is what will help. She will help you put in some groundwork first so that you can work together in a way that feels safe to you. And she will recognise your goals and celebrate even those baby steps.
A genuine interest
Your counsellor will be interested not only in what you have to say but in you as a person. She may invite you to describe your experience in a way that could prove helpful to you and the work you are doing together. You may well be curious to know more about each other, but your counsellor will keep her focus on building a relationship that helps you with what you are meeting to do.
Offers and suggestions
Your counsellor will never tell you what to do. She may make suggestions, but she is not there to give you advice. Suggestions may include a different way of thinking around an issue, a new perspective, a creative exercise to help you go deeper into what you are exploring. To all of these, it is always OK to say no. It is also OK to make your own suggestions as to how you might like to use the counselling session.
Your counsellor will go over an agreement with you in the first session. This could be called a contract. It lays out the circumstances under which counsellor-client confidentiality may be broken, whilst asserting the privilege of confidentiality that will exist between you during and after your work together. It provides terms of expectation regarding appointments and payment so that you both have something to refer back to as therapy progresses.
This is an essential component of a first session and you will be invited to share your thoughts on what is offered and to lay out your own expectations and questions about your counselling. The agreement will also refer to the end of counselling, in a way that respects your right to cease at any time whilst still being mindful of how to work towards a constructive end in due course.
Recognition of your strengths
Your counsellor will be alert to your qualities and resourcefulness, even if you are feeling anything but strong and resourceful. As a counsellor, one of the great joys of the work is meeting people and getting to know them for who they are. A belief in the value and the resourcefulness of every human being marks the humanistic counselling approach. Your counsellor will listen to you around your growing edges without criticising and with a belief in you as a person.
Your counsellor will do the obvious. She will listen, and in such a way that you could find it becoming easier to listen to yourself as well.
Coping with mistakes
Your counsellor will make mistakes. Some of these may remind you that she is human, too, in a way that is refreshing. Yet she may make mistakes that get in the way of the work and what you are wanting to do in your counselling. Your counsellor will realise her mistake and own it, whether of her own volition or as you point it out to her, if you choose to give her that chance.
Mistakes like this will be rare. If they are not, perhaps your counsellor is not a safe person for you just now. Safety in counselling around mistakes involves the counsellor’s openness and sense of responsibility for her part in whatever has got in the way of your work together.
A sense of complete safety may come and go with circumstance, but where counselling is a genuinely safe space it will increase our confidence, make us stronger because we know we are not alone; and enable us to give ourselves some credit, for having got this far and for learning new ways to cope when things get tough.