When you’ve been betrayed and hurt by those you had to trust the most, trusting a therapist with your deepest feelings isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do!
And, even though you might know in your mind that you’re safe with your counselor, your feelings may be giving you entirely different signals!
Here are 6 things that my clients and I have done to build a sense of safety. Find the ones that resonate for you, and bring the ideas/techniques into your own therapy!
1. Honor the part of you that’s learned to be vigilant to potential safety concerns. I’ve learned that, when a client of mine has been betrayed, especially when it’s happened over and over again, that there’s usually a part of her that watches me pretty closely. That part sometimes might pressure a client to be late, to test boundaries in therapy, or to miss appointments. I always tell the client to honor the part of them that’s looking out for their safety. Once that part knows that I get that she’ll be watching me closely, we’re often able to work much better together. I invite a client’s protective parts to challenge me outright if they don’t like or are scared by something I say, do, or suggest. Some clients I’ve worked with say that one of the biggest changes they make in therapy is learning to listen to and appreciate the part of them that’s so watchful. It’s good that a part of you has learned to protect you and to watch out for you.
2. Let yourself pay close attention to what happens in session. When you’ve been through lots of bad stuff, it makes sense that, when you feel uncertain, you might automatically “zone out” or “check out” or feel disconnected from what’s happening for you. The problem is, if you disconnect from what’s really going on, it also makes it more likely that fearful parts of you will stay stuck in the past. In order to find out if it’s safe now, you need to take the risk of connecting, at least a bit, with what’s happening in the moment.
In order to do this, let yourself look around the therapist’s office. Notice anything on the walls. Look at the books on the bookshelf. Feel the floor or the rug under your feet. Let yourself notice the chair you’re sitting in. Letting yourself stop to notice what’s really happening will let your body get the signal that you’re safe. And, as it feels safe, notice your therapist’s reactions to you too. You may find a caring or a humor or something new there, something that helps you to feel safer if you let yourself notice it. Cultivating this awareness of the present moment also help you to notice anything that makes you feel less than comfortable so you can speak up or get out of anything that’s not good for you!
3. Bring an object that helps you to feel safe. Some of my clients like to always bring a beverage. (I also have coffee, hot chocoate, and cold water in my waiting room, and clients sometimes find a cold or warm beverage to be helpful to them.) You might bring a stuffed animal (A friend of mine brought a favorite stuffed animal to therapy with her for years, but kept the stuffie out of the therapist’s sight in her purse. It was her own private comfort object!). or a blanket or anything that feels right for you.
4. Record your sessions. I have clients who like to record our sessions on their phones, and this helps in a few ways:
- It allows them to have a record of everything that happened in session, which is especially helpful if you have dissociative barriers or sometimes don’t remember things well. Their ability to record our sessions and to then review them and ask questions helps them to feel safe with me, and to know for sure what happened in our time together.
- Clients can listen to useful sessions over and over again, and this helps to reinforce the good stuff that’s happening. It solidifies their feeling that I care about them, because they hear that caring over and over again, in multiple ways, throughout the recording.)
- It lets clients take in feedback and suggestions at their own pace. Some of my clients do some of their most major work in secret, away from my eyes! And that’s okay. They can always thank me for a suggestion, and then decide later, in the comfort of their own homes, whether they want to consider it or try it!
When you find ways to feel safe in therapy and find a therapist who honors your needs to build this sense of safety, your newfound sense of safety will extend outside the therapist’s office, and that will lead to more feelings of safety and connection for you, both inside and outside your therapy.