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 to expose 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 – even if you can’t right now, just the possibility for the future is enough. Take all the time you need to build trust in your therapist.
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
As and when you’re ready, it may be fruitful to explore what made you vulnerable to entering into an abusive relationship in the first place. This certainly doesn’t mean that you asked for it, deserved it or created it, but is simply to help you avoid similar relationships in the future.
If it is a mutually abusive relationship, it may be useful for your therapist to appropriately support you to find non-abusive alternatives to conflict resolution. After all, you may well want to have a healthy, satisfying, and loving relationship in the future, and it is important that you are able to relate to others in a way that makes this possible for you.
Do note though that 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 potentially therefore be understood in part as a response to living in a coercive, abusive and maybe even dangerous environment.
Understanding and unpicking your reactions should increase your ability to choose these responses, which is an important part of creating the life that you want to live.
Should I stay or should I go?
Often this is presented as a binary choice. However, for some there will be choices about different levels of contact that can be worked towards, or contact with different boundaries. Equally, for others it truly will be as black and white as stay or go.
Whatever choices life has presented you with, I feel that these are decisions that, ultimately, only you can make.
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 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 not unusual and can even be a sign of progress. It is not uncommon for this to particularly happen when you first access unexpressed feelings and experiences that are very painful or raw.
However, you should experience relief too, and connection, and feelings of being understood. So, if you do leave your therapist feeling bad about yourself, or needing something that you’re not getting, you can use this as a good opportunity to talk to them about what you would like from them.
Exploration such as this can be an incredibly fruitful exercise in terms of deepening your relationship with your therapist, and also for what it can illuminate about your own trauma and relational patterns.
However, if it happens repeatedly and there feels like there’s no resolution, it might be worth thinking about whether this relationship is the right one for you. Sometimes a therapist’s style of relating is not compatible with yours, and you would do better with another style of relating.
If you do decide to change therapists, do think about what it was that felt triggering or difficult for you, and talk to your new therapist about how they might approach this in a way that feels more helpful for you.
(Although on a slight side note, if you do find yourself moving from therapist to therapist, 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.”)
Trust your gut; even if the therapist 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.