I am reading Christine Courtois and Julian Ford’s, Treatment of Complex Trauma: A Sequenced, Relationship-Based Approach (Guilford Press, 2013). I won’t be blogging through each chapter but I do recommend it for those working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, especially those who are new to “complex trauma.”
The first two chapters give an overview of complex trauma reactions and diagnoses. If you want to know more about complex trauma, see this post about another edited book by these two authors. Chapter three, “Preparing for Treatment of Complex Trauma” begins the meat of the book. In this chapter they take up the ever important issue of empathy, safety, and respect as foundation to therapy. They emphasize the need for,
safety within the therapeutic relationship with a therapist who is empathic and respectful yet is emotionally regulated with appropriate and defined boundaries and limitations. (54)
Challenging Counselor Safety Is Common and Good?
This empathy and trust relationship is both foundation and method of treatment (59). But while the therapist is responsible to see that at safe therapeutic relationship has been built, it requires the client to be involved in building such an environment. The truth is that the client’s role in building safety in the counseling office is by passive and active testing of limits. Most counselors tolerate suspicious questions the first or second time. But, it is important for counselors to,
being prepared to patiently and empathically respond to active or passive tests or challenges to trustworthiness as legitimate and meaningful communication that deserves a respectful reply in action as well as in words. (60, emphasis mine)
If the therapist understands and does not take mistrust as a personal affront, the therapeutic relationship can evolve gradually. The client can begin to recognize that the therapist actually “gets” why he or she is initially skeptical, self-protective, or “realistically paranoid” and does not pressure the client to be a “happy camper” but instead works to earn trust by being honorable, reliable, and consistent. This also implies a view of the client’s initial mistrust as expectable in light of the client’s history–that is, as a strength rather than as a deficiency or pathology. (63)
Sometimes clients can present in an opposite way–to be entirely deferential and affirming the counselor before a track record can be developed. Therapists with these clients need also to be prepared to encourage a healthy level of distrust.
What is not helpful is “artificial neutrality or passive and intellectualized detachment on the part of the therapist…” (64). It is my sense that we usually do this when we are afraid of the client. Not so much afraid of being injured, but afraid of failing or being consumed by the trauma. Or, we get consumed by our own history. A healthy therapist must stay emotionally present yet aware of own internal machinations. A healthy therapist must be able to predict some of the angst that arises in treatment of complex trauma and able to prepare self and client for this inevitable distress.