December 11, 2008
What is therapy? What is a therapist? And how can you tell if they’re any good?
In my experience, therapy is about speaking the unspeakable. It’s the telling of things that you haven’t had the safety or the opportunity to tell before. It’s expressing your deepest feelings without have to edit or omit or pretend for the sake of someone else. It’s exploring within yourself to find who you are, and who the other parts of you are. It’s looking at the painful truths of your life, coming to grips with even the most shame-filled realities of the ways you were hurt and the ways you hurt others—and then being able to move ahead with a greater peace, more resolve, a quiet solidity, and an acceptance of what has happened in years gone by. It’s the process of facing the past while also allowing it to fade away, becoming free from it, instead of being consumed by it or chained to it or terrified of it. It requires seeing and knowing some very harsh realities, but helps you find a way to be solidly ok with yourself anyway and to live a full and happy life despite the horror and pain.
A therapist is a listening person who can hear what you have to say and help you to process your experiences and move beyond them, a companion in your pain and a witness to your truth.
A safe trauma therapist is one who can contain your feelings and experiences, however intense, and remain themselves, present in the room with you. It is one in whom you can have the confidence of knowing they are on your side, as well as the reassurance of knowing they are their own confident person who will not be easily steamrolled, bullied, or deceived. Your listening person can’t be fooled by denial, manipulated by fear, scared off by anger, or accepting of projections. They must be strong enough to handle your pain, your emotions, your truths, without falling into their own emotional traps, and yet they need to be gentle enough to provide genuine compassion and comfort. Your listening person must be kind, but firm. Flexible, but unwavering. Provoking, but protective. Accepting, but honest.
Trauma therapy is not just about the recovery and processing of memories. It is also about learning to think and act in different and better ways. Emotional fallacies, cognitive distortions, controlling manipulations, and psychological defenses all have to be addressed. In therapy, your greatest wounds and your worst behaviors both will be exposed, examined, and engaged. Ouch—that’s really hard to do. No wonder therapy hurts.
Therapy is an enormously difficult personal challenge. It requires courage and willpower by the bucketful. Beyond that, it also takes a great personal commitment on your part to hold on to the therapeutic alliance through the difficult times. Sometimes this persistence can mean going against what feels “right”—so many of you have learned through hard experience that trust is a myth and caring is a painful lie.
And although healing therapy is desperately sought out by trauma survivors, and although it can be a life-saving, heart-warming, and incredibly powerful process—within each and every trauma survivor, there will also be long lists of reasons, recognized or unrecognized, conscious or deeply hidden, why therapy is not ok, not necessary, or not helpful for them. So it can be all too easy, when the going gets particularly tough, to turn from the onslaught of truth and from the therapy that has unleashed it. It is too easy, sometimes, to deflect the truth onto someone or something else, discard that person or thing from your life as you no doubt wish you could do with the truth and just keep running.
Your commitment to therapy will be tested again and again. I commend each and every one of you who daily move forward on blind faith, against what feels like your better instincts, to find true healing.
Externally, there may other challenges to face. There may be others in your life that don’t want you to move forward. Maybe your family likes the status quo, and they don’t want you challenging their norm. Maybe your perpetrators don’t want you to realize the truth of what happened, or maybe they don’t care if you remember, as long as you blame yourself for their crimes. Or maybe someone is invested in controlling you now. They certainly wouldn’t want you to learn healthier ways of thinking and feeling.
It is crucial that you are willing to be honest with yourself in your healing—about yourself and about others in your life—even when painful truths are revealed. As hard as it is to do, facing the truth is the only way to achieve full healing.
Kathy Broady, LCSW