The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Finding a Therapist

Finding a therapist can be a frighting undertaking for adult survivors of childhood abuse.

Someone recently asked me how I found good therapists:

After a couple of bad therapeutic experiences, I learned that it was essential for me to find a therapist who specialized in recovery from severe childhood abuse/trauma.

But how?

I've used three avenues to find a professional specializing in abuse recovery:

1) Community referral - My aunt is a therapist (non trauma issues). She has been a good source to find "highly recommended" trauma recovery therapists where I live. If you know of a therapist with an excellent reputation in another area of analysis (or know someone else who does) ask if they can refer you to someone well known in the field of trauma recovery.

I have given referrals to other survivors in my area for therapists who have been helpful to me. If you know other survivors in your area, this would be a good resource.

2) Local University Psychology Department/Hospital Trauma Department referrals.
This is another successful avenue I have used.

3) Insurance Company Referrals. If you have medical insurance with "mental health" coverage, they may be able to recommend a professional who deals with trauma recovery.

Next: The Interview

I ask a list of questions pertinent to me:

1) What is your background and education?
2) What types of clients to you see?
3) Describe how you see the therapeutic relationship?
4? What are the recovery principles you adhere to and methods you use and why?
5) Are you comfortable with strong emotions, i.e..denial, anger, terror, etc...
6) How would you solve a situation if one of your own personal issues clouded your objectivity with mine?

I ask this question because once, during therapy, I told my therapist that I thought he'd lost his objectivity. He said, "You're right. We are in an area where my personal issues have clouded my judgment and frankly, I don't think I can get it back."

While I was grateful for his honesty, I was sad that I had to find another therapist. I was also afraid that if I invested a great deal of time and energy in a new therapist, I could have to start all over again from scratch.

My new counselor told me that it is not uncommon for a therapist's issues to become "tangled" up with a client during the therapeutic process - especially as we delve very deep. Therapy is an emotional journey and they are only human.

He did say however, that when this happens, it is a wonderful opportunity for the therapist to do "their own work." This could mean, one of many things:

  1. The therapist didn't know he or she was "reacting" from his or her own issues until the client pointed out that something was "amiss" and is then able to make a quick adjustment.
  2. The therapist could have an open discussion with the client and "own" their stuff.
  3. The therapist may feel this issue is substantial enough to seek individual help (apart from the client) from another therapist.
  4. Or even have a third-party therapist help "untangle" the issue between the therapist and the client (if this is a longstanding relationship that "hit a bump."

In any case, I want to know "up front" how the therapist would handle this sort of situation. To say it couldn't happen would be a red flag for me.

Next: Establishing the Relationship

1) Trust - this is a huge issue for survivors. As I said, after a couple of bad therapeutic experiences and a lifetime of family abuse and betrayal, trust was a big issue for me. When I met with my first "abuse recovery therapist," I flat out told him, "I don't trust!" He said, "That's okay, we'll build trust!" He was right.

2) As we get to know one another, I ask myself, "Am I comfortable with this person?"

3) I'm looking for someone who listens well, asks questions, suggests exercises, and offers examples of psychological theory to consider, rather than giving answers or telling me what I should do.

4) Validation. To me, a good therapist can validate my feelings, "bear witness" to my trauma, and ask thought provoking questions that invite growth.

5) A good therapist provides a safe environment to discharge anger and other strong emotions.

6) A good therapist provides a safe environment for me to talk about my experiences without fear of blame or judgment. Nor will he/she try to "rescue" me from my pain - but allow me to be "present" with my feelings in order to learn to deal with them.

7) A good therapist has good personal boundaries.


Just Be Real said...

Great info Nancy, thank you, especially the "trust" factor and the lost of objectivity.

Michele Rosenthal said...

Great overview and advice. I'm Tweeting about it.... :)

healandforgive said...

Thanks Just Be Real and Michelle!!!!

Marj aka Thriver said...

Hey, Nancy, this is really good. I've experienced much of this myself, but am not sure I could articulate it and organize it this well. Thanks! know what I'm going to say...this would be a great post for The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse. If you want to submit it now, I'll just save it for the next edition.

healandforgive said...

marj said, " know what I'm going to say..."

Okay, that was enough to make me giggle :)

Say no's on its way!!!


LauraJ said...

Thank you for the thoughtful evaluation. I'm still feeling burned from former unsuccessful therapies, and have been reluctant to try again. This list helps find a way to take some of the power back for myself.

healandforgive said...

Hi LauraJ,

It is hard after we've had a bad experience.

I'm glad this helps. We need to feel empowered enough to be responsible for our own recovery process!

Thanks for your comments,

Child Person said...

This is a wonderful gift for so many...especailly those who may just be beginning the journey to healing! Thank you for sharing it through Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse.

Patricia Singleton said...

This is full of valuable information. Trust is probably the most important for me when finding a therapist. Learning to trust does take time. Great post. Thanks.

healandforgive said...

Thanks Child Person and Patricia.

Trust...I agree...a biggie!

Rick Belden said...

My experiences with therapists have also run the gamut from great to harmful, and everything in between. During my very first visit with my very first therapist 25 years ago, I took the risk of talking about my panic attacks (information I'd never revealed to anyone). Her eyes got real big and she exclaimed, "I've never heard of anything like that before!" I was, of course, horrified and spent the rest of the session feeling like the biggest freak on the planet.

It took me four more years to build up the courage to see another counselor after that first dismal experience, but fortunately I found the help I needed the second time around. I also found that, as in any profession, some therapists are outstanding, some are average, and some are ... well, I'll just say a bit lost and/or over their heads when it comes to childhood abuse and survivor issues. Or maybe too scared to get into it.

In any case, thanks for this post. It's concise and it takes some of the "magic" out of the process of choosing and working with a therapist. I'm going to keep it in mind as a reference, both for myself and for others for whom therapy and therapists may be as mysterious as they were to me that very first time.

healandforgive said...


Thank you for your insightful comments and for sharing your therapeutic experiences - one that so closely mirror those of other survivors!

My first therapist (when I was 13) told me to "stay out of your step-fathers way," which of course left me feeling responsible for my own abuse.

When I took the risk of sharing some of the details of my abuse to my next therapist (when I was in my mid-twenties), she pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs as she sunk down in her chair and said in a meek voice; "I don't know how to help you!"

It took years for me to enter therapy again - yet, I'm glad I did. Therapy has been invaluable to my recovery. The trick was, finding someone who specialized in trauma, and had all the qualities I mentioned in my post.

So true Rick, there are good and bad in every profession.