Who can you trust these days – in public life or relationships?
With almost daily news about alleged or actual breaches of confidentiality, and the undermining or abuse of professional boundaries and ethics by public figures, organisations and agencies, trust in a therapist or counsellor becomes even more important. They are a total stranger we know next to nothing about, and yet we tell and entrust so much of our most private and intimate world to them.
What does trust actually mean? How does it feel? A look at the dictionary comes up with some definitions. I believe the following are most relevant to relationships in general and the therapeutic setting in particular:
Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something;
A charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship;
Something committed or entrusted to one to be used or cared for in the interest of another.
What does it feel when you trust someone or something? Do you feel assured, certain, confident, relaxed, supported, not alone? And on the other hand, what does mistrust feel like? Do you feel anxious, doubtful, unsure, uncertain, suspicious, niggling? This takes energy.
As human beings we want to relate and need to be related to. A lot of our problems go back to relational experiences which were disappointing, where we felt let down or worse. Understandably, this results in caution and potential mistrust in forming relationships. We are on guard, to protect ourselves from further discomfort, hurt or damage. On another level we can also internalise experiences of broken trust. We turn this on ourselves by doubting our sense of judgment.
The experience of trust (either in trusting ourselves or another, as well as the experience of being trusted - for another to trust us) is very central to the relationship we form with a therapist or counsellor and how we feel about the sessions we have. Naturally, trust takes time to establish.
How does the therapist contribute to a trustworthy setting? This goes beyond sitting and listening. Transparency, honesty, integrity, predictability, professional boundaries and continuity are all important ingredients in establishing trust. Most practitioners will work in accordance to Ethical Guidelines (e.g. those of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, BACP), and they will tell you.
Another (related) area is the ability to tell another (including a therapist or counsellor) when we did not feel understood, or did not like something that was said or done (or not said or done as the case may be). The ability to make one’s views and needs heard goes back to feeling confident and able to assert oneself.
Therapy and counselling is intended to be a non-judgmental setting, where we can feel free to speak our minds. But do we (all of the time)? What if we assume that we will be disappointed; what if the therapist reminds us of someone who has disappointed us before? This is all grist to the therapy and counselling mill. It is interesting and really valuable - and indeed helpful - to allow oneself to get over the initial hurdle and fears of saying what is on our minds. Relating can sometimes be difficult and involves clarifying and negotiating.
The therapeutic setting (also called therapeutic relationship or process) is intended to offer us the experience of being treated with respect and to experience safety and trust, so that we can take a chance and speak our minds. If you do not feel that you get that, then it is your right and choice to talk about it with your therapist or counsellor. You never know, you might be surprised what comes of it. Facing up to relational difficulties in the therapy room has more often than not strengthened trust and the working relationship.
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