We do the best we can for our clients. We care. We learn. We improve our skills so we can help them better!
But perhaps, as important as learning and training to become better experts in doing client work, is sometimes our ability to go above and beyond what we were taught!
Here is an example of what I mean from my practice:
My client, Annie, was quite depressed when she first came to me. Apart from her depressed mood, there was also:
- a scattered mind
- foggy thinking
- not seeing much meaning or purpose in life
- feeling demotivated
- not sleeping well
- not eating well
- not feeling like getting out of bed most days a week
The common way of looking at these challenges in therapy circles would be to say that Annie suffers from…say, depression. And then focus on treating that depression.
But what if there is another way of looking at this? What if there is a larger context to what, on the surface, looks like depression?
After listening to Annie talk, the context began to materialize itself in front of my eyes fairly fast. The past few years of Annie’s life were marked by one catastrophe after another. Relationship losses, as well as financial losses, health challenges that never went away, several abusive relationships, loss of her home along with some beloved pets…and last but not least, a loss of identity after this hell that broke loose kept dragging on and on for years!
If I were to go through what Annie went through, I don’t think I’d feel any different! So much loss and so much extreme, ongoing stress! If anything, I’d probably feel worse…because, in my eyes, Annie was not just depressed. She was traumatized! And her depression was just one of her traumatic symptoms!
Before she came to me, Annie got herself into therapy. As it turned out, her therapist was the follower of the school that believed that, in order to make progress, Annie needs to “change her patterns of thought”. Challenging patterns of thought that limit the client, is a fairly common way of treating depression in therapy. And Annie tried to apply herself to the best of her ability…
I trust that the therapist had nothing but good intentions with Annie. She did what she was taught to do and she did it well. She was taught to tackle the client’s limiting patterns of thought and she really went after them with Annie. Session after session. Homework after homework. Exercise after exercise.
But eventually, these therapy session, would make Annie feel worse than before. She couldn’t keep up with the exercises, beliefs-challenging processes, homework and assignments. In fact, one of her challenges was an extremely scattered, foggy mind.
The lack of mental, cognitive clarity was actually one of Annie’s main concerns. It would often lead her to making terrible decisions, having very porous boundaries without noticing, subjecting herself to abuse in relationships because she “just couldn’t see things clearly” or because she “just didn’t have the energy to make sense of things and make good decisions”.
Annie started to feel guilty for not being able to do the work suggested by her therapist. She felt even more overwhelmed since all of her therapy sessions that revolved so much about all the whys and reasons behind her decisions. She barely had the energy to get herself through the day in one piece, let alone analyze the whys! Annie started to think that something was wrong with her when, in the middle of her sessions, she couldn’t answer questions like What is your bigger purpose in life? or What are your most favorite hobbies? (hell, sometimes I don’t know what my bigger purpose in life is).
Annie’s depression was getting worse and she eventually decided to talk to a psychiatrist so that she could get herself on antidepressants. But her therapist was not happy about this. She said to Annie that “meds won’t change her patterns of thought”. She told Annie that she had a “victim syndrome” and predicted that “if she doesn’t start making good decisions, she won’t move forward with life”.
Once again, I believe that the therapist was trying to do what she believed was best for Annie. Because it is true that in therapy, coaching or counseling, there will be times where in order to help our clients heal and grow, we may need to challenge their ways of thinking and perceiving things. And that is usually not an easy task to do! Especially because the result doesn’t depend completely on you or your skills, but also on your client’s willingness to change, grow…to assume responsibility for their own healing.
In this respect, Annie’s therapist may have needed to summon some courage before sharing her insights with Annie. Because it does take courage to tell the client something they don’t want to hear if you truly believe that by doing that, you’re acting in their best interest.
Being aware of how trauma shows up in all its different forms and ways, expands our horizons and eventually makes us potentially more efficient in helping our clients. For example, understanding that Annie was dealing with traumatization and her depression was just one of her traumatic symptoms (rather than looking at her case as depression alone), might help us see that changing Annie’s patterns of thought could be a lesser priority at the beginning of her healing journey. And that helping her body feel safe might be a more ideal place to start.
Even with the best intentions, it can be hard to break our own patterns and go above and beyond what we were taught to be right and helpful! The Gentle Trauma Institute aspires to bring an expanded way of looking at trauma and healing from trauma for those who want to expand their skills and expertise.
Here are some strategies we believe would be optimal and healing for working with clients like Annie:
- Understand that there is a wide array of traumatic symptoms (physical, emotional and cognitive) and learn to recognize them in your clients.
- Find out what traumatic symptoms are present in your client and what core events from their life are possibly hiding behind these symptoms.
- Clear the traumatic memories of core traumatic events so that the client’s body can turn off the fight-flight-freeze response related to these traumatic events.
- Clear traumatic emotions that hijack the client from time to time and teach the client how to do it for themselves when needed.
- Focus on the here and now such as How was your sleep this week? rather than having the client ponder big life questions such as What is your bigger purpose in life?
- Take special care in building a therapeutic relationship with your client. The better the therapeutic relationship, the deeper the long-term healing for your client.
- If you need to challenge the client’s patterns of thought, reserve that work for a later stage of your work together.
- Don’t overwhelm the client with processes, exercises or assignments during or after sessions.
- Give simple assignments (they are already overwhelmed by their trauma as it is).
- Know that not every session needs to be heavy! Lighten things up on a consistent basis where appropriate.
These are just some of the suggestions that have proven themselves to be powerful and utterly healing for traumatized clients…All of this and so much more is taught in detail in our signature Gentle Trauma Release Method Certification Training. See if it resonates with you!
Izabela Viskupova, L.L.M., M.A. Psychology is the founder of the Gentle Trauma Release Institute and the author of the Gentle Trauma Release Method designed to get clients a deep and long-lasting trauma release in a way that is applicable to coaching, counseling, and therapeutic settings. Izabela is the Lead Professor in the groundbreaking Gentle Trauma Release Method Certification Program run several times a year to teach this innovative, powerful trauma-release method to students from all over the world.