Tuesday, February 14, 2012


by Lundy B.

At co-counseling class last night, our theme was learning to ask for help,. Here are some of the points we touched on:

• We live in a society that places a high value on self-reliance, and promotes the idea that we shouldn’t need anyone, that we should be capable of doing things all by ourselves. So we have to struggle against that conditioning,.

• Many people are eager to help. It therefore can be a gift to another person to allow them to help us.

• People are especially willing to help if the following things are true: 1) We are appreciative of the help we are given, not taking it for granted; 2) We use the help to make things happen in our lives that need to happen (in other words, we move forward and take steps, so the person doesn’t feel like we keep asking for help with the same things over and over again); and 3) We give back on other days, so that the people helping us feel that the help is mutual and rewarding and exchange is kept somewhat equal over time.

• Let’s do some examining of what comes up for us regarding asking for help, including feelings we have, perhaps from our earlier experiences in life, that make it hard to ask for help. (And we did a little of this exploring together in the class.)

I then encouraged people in the class to pay attention over the coming days and weeks to places in our lives where we need more help, whether logistically (concrete help doing things) or emotionally (love and support from friends and co-counselors). And let’s work on asking for more help where we need it.

We agreed in the class that self-reliance – being able to do what needs to be done without help, especially when reliable help just isn’t available – is a great strength and skill to have. But we want to work toward not having to fall back on self-reliance as often as we do currently.

Some of the counseling techniques we worked on tonight included:

• Reflecting reality – by telling the client what we believe to be true about her, to help counter the impact of negative voices

• Using physical movement – asking the client to try using her body in the session in ways that could help her feel her power and release distress

• Encouraging the client’s laughter and working on ways to move more into that laughter

There is much more to say about these techniques, but we got a start.

After class, I got to thinking about applying the night’s theme to myself as the teacher, and thought about ways I might ask for more help regarding the class. Specifically, I would benefit from getting a volunteer before each class to come 15 or 20 minutes early and give me a co-counseling turn, to help me feel clear and supported as I go into teaching the class. So I’m going to practice what I preach and reach out for help in that way.

On a slightly different theme, I decided that I’m going to encourage people to take turns writing a couple of paragraphs for this blog after each class. Writing is a powerful process, and often a loaded one, so I think it makes sense to all be sharing the risks and rewards that are involved. And that way we all get the benefits of hearing each other's thoughts in writing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Co-Counseling Helps You Change Your Negative Beliefs

by Susan S.

We don’t see ourselves the way others see us.

We feel awkward. Inadequate. Unlovable. And we continually beat ourselves up, saying we should be funnier, smarter or nicer. If people criticize us or yell at us, we believe them. We analyze everything we say and do, and use it as evidence that we should feel bad about ourselves.

What if we had a way to begin to see ourselves as other people see us? What if we could start to challenge those negative beliefs?

As you begin co-counseling, you can gain insights about yourself by listening to others. You’ll hear your “client’s” negative beliefs about herself, but you as the outside observer will know them not to be true.

Your client might say, “no one likes me, and I’ll never have any friends.” You know that your client is actually a very loving, caring and funny person whom you enjoy talking to. As counselor, you’ll support your client’s need to be heard about these beliefs, while reassuring her that it isn’t the way you see her.

Meanwhile, the wheels may begin turning in your own mind. You might think, “If this wonderful person has such an untrue view of whether she is a worthy friend, maybe my own thoughts about being unlovable aren’t entirely accurate either?”

These negative thoughts can run very deep, especially if we were rejected or treated poorly by family, friends or spouses. When others we love or admire put us down, their words can leave a scar that never seems to heal, and we seldom pause to ask whether what they are saying is true.

At the same time, we have a tendency to blame ourselves if others treat us poorly. We use this as further evidence that we are bad people. We are conditioned by society that “it takes two to tango.” If we see someone yelling at another person, we find ourselves wondering what the recipient did to deserve it. But no one deserves this type of treatment, and we should not blame ourselves.

I first began to understand this when I heard a person talk about feeling unloved by his parents. As the outside observer, I know this person to be very deserving of a parent’s love. It dawned on me: How his parents treated him had absolutely nothing to do with his worth as a human being.

Once I had this realization, others followed. What I have thought about myself has never been true, and if others treat me poorly it doesn’t mean I deserve it or that I’m a bad person.

It’s not an easy or quick process to reconsider your deepest beliefs. But by hearing the disconnect between what others think about themselves and what you think about them, you can begin to see the truth about yourself.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Whether we are fundamentally happy people or chronically troubled – or somewhere in between the two -- many of us find ourselves feeling that important pieces are missing from our lives, and that there is another level to human experience that we are craving. We define this longing in different ways depending on who we are; we may experience

a wish for a deeper spiritual life
a desire to feel part of a more cohesive community of friends
an urgency have a greater impact on the world
a dream of living a more challenging life
a wish to feel deeply content more of the time

Pursuing fulfillment for these cravings involves dealing with a complex set of challenges, both internal and external. In particular:

1) We struggle to overcome internal obstacles, such as fear and discouragement, that keep us from making needed changes or taking important risks. We face questions such as, “Why can’t I get myself going?” or “Why am I afraid to put myself out there?”

2) We face the challenge of finding practical, applicable solutions to some very thorny problems, both in our personal lives and on a wider scale. We ask ourselves, “What on earth am I going to do about this mess? Where do we go from here?”

3) We seek ways to have more internal serenity, to be able to feel happier and more at peace even as we strive to grow and make things better. We wonder, “How could I start to feel better right now, even if I can’t solve all of the problems in my life and in the world?”

We also may face binds; for example, we may feel too busy to find time to figure out how to make ourselves less busy, or we may feel paralyzed by loneliness in a way that makes it hard reach out to people and break our isolation.

Three critical factors tend to govern whether we feel discouraged and stuck in the face of these challenges, or whether we feel a sense of hopefulness and forward motion despite the difficulties:

1) Whether we feel deeply and solidly loved, supported, and thought about by the people in our lives.

2) Whether we feel part of a common effort.

3) Whether we succeed in finding ways to heal from the painful and constricting effects of the serious emotional injuries that we have accumulated over the course of our lives.

The Co-Counseling Alliance is a system for building structured loving support into our lives, and for steadily expanding our skills at helping each other toward deep emotional healing. Many people find co-counseling to be the most powerful healing approach they have ever been involved with.

The core of co-counseling is the process of “splitting time,” where one person acts as the listener or “counselor” for the first half of the session, while the other person is the speaker or “client,” and then the two participants switch roles for the second half of the session. A typical co-counseling session is two hours in length, so that each participant gets a turn of 50 or 55 minutes, with a few minutes break in between. However, co-counselors also learn powerful ways to use shorter blocks of time, including periods as short as ten minutes (five minutes for each person).

Playing the role of counselor in a co-counseling session involves much more than listening, and therefore the beginning training is extensive, typically involving at three to four months of weekly classes, or three full weekends. The training includes such elements as:

• how to structure and pace a session to increase effectiveness
• how to use an array of techniques to assist each other to experience and express feelings
• how to assist each other to achieve deep laughter, crying, raging, and other innate emotional releases that heal internal distress and promote clarity and confidence
• how to help each other achieve clarity about life goals and take decisive steps toward bringing those desires to fruition
• techniques for rising out of painful issues at the end of a session, so that we are not left overwhelmed and can return to our lives with optimism and energy
• how to take effective leadership in a session when you are the counselor while still ensuring that the client remains the ultimate authority on what should occur
• how to show proper respect for personal boundaries, both physically and emotionally

Alliance co-counselors thus develop a high level of skill and sensitivity and learn how to play both the counseling role and the client role successfully, in order to be able to work deeply and move toward both emotional freedom and powerful action.

A key to the power of the Co-Counseling Alliance is its success at developing ways for participants to increase their access to cathartic, inborn healing releases. Deep, prolonged, visceral releases are among the most transformative experiences available to human beings, and are innate in their functioning. Babies are born with these healing processes already functional; no training is needed for a child to automatically remove the negative effects of painful emotions through laughter, crying, angry storming, trembling, and yawning. Unfortunately, these natural processes remain largely untapped, and in fact are typically interfered with or outright prohibited. Through the specific training offered in Co-Counseling Alliance classes and workshops, participants learn to re-open these innate cathartic channels for themselves and for others.

After the cost of taking the beginning Co-Counseling Alliance training, participating in co-counseling sessions is free for the rest of your life; counseling is exchanged, rather than money.

Besides its high effectiveness and low cost, the Co-Counseling Alliance approach has the additional advantage that all participants are seen as equals, avoiding the sense of hierarchy or power imbalance that some people find bothersome in professional therapeutic relationships.

After completing the beginning training, participants have access to a network of Alliance co-counselors with whom they can share co-counseling sessions in person and by telephone. After trying one or two sessions with a number of different people, co-counselors often settle on one person who is a good fit for them and develop a regular ongoing co-counseling partnership. Trained Co-Counseling Alliance participants also have the option of participating in ongoing support groups, advanced skill trainings, and teacher-certification courses.

If you would like to receive announcements about upcoming opportunities to be trained in Alliance co-counseling, please send an email, including your name, city, and state, to the email address below.

(The Co-Counseling Alliance is not affiliated with any other organization that teaches co-counseling. Our approach to co-counseling is unique, though it contains some basic elements in common with other practices.)

Lundy Bancroft
The Co-Counseling Alliance

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Fastest Path to Healing is a Two-Way Street

by Susan S.

Have you ever had a friend who never opened up to you about herself? She might have been a wonderful listener and might have been very supportive, but did you really feel close to her? Walking a one-way street is a lost and lonely path.

Co-counseling is the opposite. The premise of co-counseling is making sure to split time equally, to share the load and to become partners in life’s journey.

I didn't understand the map at first. When I began learning about co-counseling, I thought if one person were having a very tough time, then we shouldn't split time that night but instead should let one person take all the time. Clearly the person in the client role needed to talk more that day.

But what we were told about co-counseling is that the troubled person would actually benefit from being in the counselor role as well. In other words, healing doesn't only take place when it’s your turn to talk. It takes place the entire time.

When you switch roles, when you know that you have been a guide on another's path to healing, your scars fade, too. Besides just sharing in each other’s struggles, when you help someone, you feel good about yourself. It’s why people find volunteer work so rewarding. And each co-counseling session can bring that feeling. At the same time, you have someone volunteering to help you, too.

When I first experienced this, I couldn't believe how much better I felt while playing the counselor role. I felt a human connection that I've not had in traditional therapy or with friends who remained very private. I felt valued. I belonged. The two-way street took me exactly where I needed to go.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How Will Learning Co-Counseling Affect Traditional Therapy?

by Susan S.

Going into co-counseling training, I was excited to begin learning techniques to be a better listener and to better validate other people's feelings. As someone who also has been in traditional therapy, I found it interesting to learn more about how to structure an effective counseling session and how to support someone in distress.

What I did not expect to gain was insight into how I could make traditional therapy more effective as well.

Co-counseling teaches us several important basic guidelines such as confidentiality and the concept that "what's said in co-counseling stays in co-counseling." That is, the person in the role of counselor should not bring up what is said during co-counseling outside the session, or even in a future session. It makes perfect sense. If a counselor brings it up, the client may not be ready to discuss it and could be negatively triggered. The client alone should bring up a topic.

A light bulb went on in my head: If I want to talk about the tough stuff, then it is up to me.

For some reason, I had assumed that if I "should" be talking about something in counseling, my therapist would bring it up. I figured the therapist knows a lot more than I do about psychology and mental health. But, looking back, I realized that the therapist has always let me set the topic -- and often I've avoided the most painful ones.

Having control over the topic also means that I'm ultimately responsible for which wounds I heal. If I'm going to confront the worst of the worst, if I'm going to give a voice to the wounded soul so carefully locked away in darkness, it's my choice. No one is going to force me.

Many of us have been deeply hurt by people who were close to us, so it is understandably and justifiably scary to trust someone. And we should be cautious when we meet someone new or if someone is pressuring us to discuss issues before we're ready. But now I know the power for me to heal is in my hands.

Healing From Childhood Sexual Abuse

By Rythea Lee
copyright 2011 all rights reserved

In my 17 years experience counseling survivors of childhood sexual abuse and also being a survivor of sexual abuse, I have discovered the reality of how our society handles and thinks about abuse. The fact is, American society as a whole has so much distress about childhood abuse that there is little to no resource for people who have lived through it. Moreover, the general societal thinking around abuse blames the victims of abuse instead of holding society or abusers responsible. Incest in particular has a kind of archaic silence around it, leaving victims to fend for themselves in an environment that breeds shame, loneliness, and self-hatred. Failure of the tribe hits inconceivable heights when it comes to listening, believing, and supporting survivors of childhood sexual abuse through the healing process. If you think my perspective is an exaggeration, take into consideration that the recent statistic states that 1 out 3 girls and 1 out of 7 boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. If you really wrap your head around this statistic, the implications are staggering. Something has gone terribly wrong.

I am someone who learned about co-counseling early in my abuse recovery. Through the years, I found many counselors to exchange time/attention with. I also taught groups of friends how to co-counsel and we have been supports for each other for years. If I hit a tough spot in my day, I have up to ten people I can call who are excellent counselors, who know how to counsel me on my abuse issues. I am someone who can report that healing is possible, that facing abuse is one of the hardest things a person can tackle and it is worth it. Healing the trauma of abuse clears a path for a life full of joy, creativity, and close relationships. There is huge freedom that comes from facing the feelings and patterns that get created through sexual abuse.

It is also clear to me that healing is not possible alone. We need to have a substantial group of people who understand abuse, to counsel us in loving, educated ways about the abuse. I believe this is the only way for survivors of abuse to heal fully within our culture. Having to do it alone or with one therapist for support is not good enough. There needs to be enough community and tribe for survivors to correct a broken sense of belonging, to feel part of a societal context that acknowledges that abuse is wrong and healing is possible.

Though I have had a very unusual path of healing with the help of many people through co-counseling, I still find that being a conscious survivor of abuse is very lonely in the larger context of the world and society. I still look at the patterns of our world and see abuse and trauma expressed everywhere without awareness. I see TV and media portraying the sexualization of children everyday. I am aware of child prostitution and pornography and the complete lack of caring our society demonstrates towards these atrocities. I witness sexism and patriarchy asserting themselves in most aspects of regular life, perpetuating the powerlessness of women, children, and the less privileged. I read about children bullied in schools and know that many targeted kids are already being abused at home, and the bullies themselves have clearly suffered in ways that make them act out. I personally talk to large groups of survivors who have been shamed, blamed, and rejected by therapists, friends, co-workers, and family members. Examples of societal ignorance and oppression are endless. We have barely begun to face the issue of childhood sexual abuse as a culture, and yet, we need to start with ourselves.

Co-Counseling Survivors

It is essential when counseling survivors of abuse to hold two truths:

1. This person is perfectly intact and ok. He/she is untouched by the abuse and can heal completely.
2. This person has gotten very, very hurt. I need to believe them, be with them in their pain, and not try to fix it. My only job is to care, to empathize (!!!) and to believe what they are saying.

As I continue with this article, I will refer to the person who is giving attention as the counselor and the person receiving attention as the client. In co-counseling, these roles switch so that each person gets a turn to be both the client and the counselor.

Memory and Support

Most survivors find that very few people have attention for or have the ability to handle the details of their sexual abuse memories. Often, much of their life has been a dance of making their stories palatable for others if they even talk about the memories at all. Survivors end up taking care of everyone else in order to not be rejected, and this is exactly what they had to do as children. People in general get so disturbed by the reality of what happens to children that they see the survivor as too much, too intense, and too upsetting. This is how survivors get hurt after the abuse and into adulthood,as their tribe fails them far beyond the actual abuse. They get perceived as the problem and thus, have to carry the ugly, horror of what happened all alone, again.

A good counseling ally is able to help survivors work directly on memories, encouraging the client to feel free to share whatever is coming up. The counselor should let the client know, “I want to know what happened, I’m not scared of it, I can hear it.” Sometimes a counselor needs to ask several times “Do you want to tell me what happened, I really want to know” before a client will begin to let the counselor into their reality. The counselor can say, “then what happened?” when it looks as if the client is withholding the details or trying to minimize the hurt. If the counselor shows caring, alert interest, it will contradict the memory of no one caring about what happened.

The most important aspect of counseling survivors is showing empathy. Survivors of abuse are used to talking about or referring to their abuse without showing feeling in order to spare others (and themselves) from feeling the pain of what happened. Also, they are used to people having no empathy when hearing some of their story and then being told things like “it’s important to forgive” or “the past is in the past, why dredge it up?” This is very common because it is a way to quiet and silence survivors so that the listener doesn’t have to feel the pain/horror/helplessness/grief of the abuse. These reactions leave the survivor alone again and again and ultimately blame the survivor for being upset about being raped, molested, and tortured, etc. A very good way to show empathy is to say, “I am so sorry that happened to you” and mean it.

Most people have no experience holding a loving space for this level of horror and so they understandably want to shut down, shut the other person down, or run away. Being able to stay, listen, and respond means being able to resonate with your client while they display numbness, crying, raging, shaking, dissociation (leaving the body), and hiding (showing shame). If you, as the counselor feel unable to be present with this release of emotion, it means you need a session too! It means you need to be able to have your feelings about what you are hearing, about what it brings up for you from your life, or the world in general. A counselor can most likely only encourage the direction of full disclosure of memories if he/she gets sessions on whatever it brings up to listen to this kind of abuse. It is a great opportunity to mine the depths of your denial or ignorance so that you can be more awake for yourself and your clients. Even if you did not suffer the same kind of abuse, it can still bring up lots of feelings about places in your life where you were powerless, abandoned, betrayed, or left alone with terrifying feelings.

Patterns to Work With In Co-Counseling Sessions

There are distress recordings that are very common among abuse survivors. The more you counsel someone on abuse, the more you see the lies and false beliefs that get programmed through this kind of trauma. Below I have listed the false beliefs or distress recordings that commonly surface when people try to talk about abuse. The second list shows the contradictions or truths that work to undo the false programs.

Survivor of sexual abuse common distress recordings:

It's my fault this happened
I wanted it (often told by the perpetrator)
I made it up
I made it up because I just want attention
I'm damaged
No one wants to hear my story
I'm too much
I'm too intense
I'm too needy
People are unsafe
I'm inherently bad
I'm toxic
I can never tell anyone
I must be crazy
It's because I was too promiscuous
I'll never have a healthy relationship
If anyone found out, they would hate me
No one would believe me
I should get over it (this is a major one!!!)
There is no point in dredging up the past
It didn't affect me
It's not as bad as what happened to other people
I'm gross
I can't remember the details so I'm probably making it up
I'm totally alone
No one will ever love me
I feel nothing/numb about it
Who cares?
I can’t trust anyone
I’ll never be safe
Men are unsafe
Women are unsafe
There’s something horribly wrong with me
I can’t keep myself safe


In co-counseling we use contradictions to help our clients release feelings. A contradiction is a statement that shakes up or calls attention to an underlying pattern. It can be done by the client or the counselor saying the opposite of the pattern, for example, someone who is feeling alone might benefit from saying “I feel so connected to everyone.” This might give the client some space to laugh, cry, or shake in response to such an opposite idea. Or if a client body language is shy as they talk about something, you might want to have them open their arms or shake their fists or say something like “I can kick anyone’s ass.” You can play with different contradictions until you find the one that really makes the client discharge feelings, it’s ok to try a few and learn about your client this way.

The below list shows possible directions you can give your client if you hear these distress recordings. These are just some ideas to help you start to think of your own contradictions. You can ask your client to say the contradiction, for example, they are talking about feeling unsafe, you can have them say out loud “in this moment I am safe” and see if that helps them to feel some emotions. You can, as the counselor say the contradiction to your client, such as “you are safe right now” and see how that feels for them. It can come from you or them and you can play with what seems the most helpful.

Contradictions are aimed to help people release some feelings, even tiny feelings, like a deep breath, or quick laugh. The person does not have to be sobbing or raging loudly to be getting some release. They could just be shaking a little or looking in your eyes and seeing you witnessing them and that could be very important. It is good to know that you don’t have to try too hard to get the person to feel, you only need to show loving interest, be present, and do your best.

Contradictions you can say or invite the client to say:

The Distress --- The Contradiction

It's my fault this happened ------- It's not my fault, I was innocent
I wanted it (often told by the perpetrator) ----- I never wanted it
I made it up ------ I believe myself
I made it up because I just want attention ----- I wanted love, not abuse
I'm damaged ----- I did not break
No one wants to hear my story ----- I want to tell you my story, or counselor says,
"I really want to hear your story"
I'm too much ----- It's safe to feel this, people around you can handle this
I'm too intense ------ It's safe to feel this, and it was that intense when it happened
I'm too needy ------ Counselor says to client, "It’s safe to need me"
People are unsafe ------- Client says to counselor, "I trust you," or counselor says
to client, “You can trust me”
I'm inherently bad ------ I am good, or counselor can say, "I see how good you
I'm toxic ----- I am not the abuse, or counselor can say, "I see how good you are"
I can never tell anyone ------ I'm speaking up! Or counselor says, "I want to
I must be crazy ------ They were crazy (the perpetrator and colluders), I was
never crazy
It's because I was too promiscuous ----- It's not my fault, counselor can say this
too, "It wasn't your fault"
I'll never have a healthy relationship ------ I can take a chance, I can love again
If anyone found out, they would hate me ----- I have allies, counselor says, "I'm
so glad you are telling me, " and, "I like you more for telling me"
No one would believe me ----- I have allies, counselor says, “I believe you, I
totally believe you”
I should get over it (this is a major one!!! )----- It takes as long as it takes, or, I
have a right to my feelings, or, I guess I’m not over being raped/molested yet
(this one is meant to show how valid it is to still be upset).
There is no point in dredging up the past ----- The abuse still affects me,
counselor says, "Let's get into it" "Let's dig deep" “Let’s dredge!”
It didn't affect me ----- It hurts like hell, or, Ouch, it still hurts
It's not as bad as other people’s experience ----- It was that bad, or counselor
says, "Tell me how bad it was”
I'm gross ----- I am innocent, he was gross, or she was gross (the perpetrator)
I can't remember the details so I'm probably making it up ------ My body knows
the truth, I can trust my feelings
I'm totally alone ------ I am not alone anymore, counselor says, "You are not
No one will ever love me ------ There is love all around me, I am love, counselor
can say, “You are so lovable”
I feel nothing/numb about it ------ It's safe to feel, counselor can say, “You don’t
have to feel anything,” or, “Sometimes people who feel nothing are actually
pissed off”
Who cares? ------ Counselor says, "I care! I really care!”
I'm exaggerating ------ I got hurt, it hurts
It wasn't that bad ------ I got hurt, it hurts
I can’t trust anyone ------ Some people are trustworthy, counselor says, “You
couldn’t trust your abuser but you can trust me”
I’ll never be safe ------ Counselor says, “In this moment, you are safe”
Men are unsafe ------ Counselor says, “Some men remind you of your abuser”
Women are unsafe ------ Counselor says, “Some women must remind you of your
There’s something horribly wrong with me ------ Counselor says, “All the abuse in
the world could not touch how good you are”
I can’t keep myself safe ------ Counselor says, “You can trust your body, your
body knows what is safe.”

The Importance of Anger

Survivors of abuse often have a hard time getting angry because it was not safe to show any anger or resistance during the abuse or after or ever. They found they got hurt much worse if they had a reaction or put up a fight. So when your client can express some anger, it is an important step towards breaking the silence and the powerlessness. Also, many times people got abused in a context where the abuser was acting angry so in the present, when the survivor starts to feel or express anger, they feel like they are being like their abuser. It’s very helpful to reassure the client that they have every right to get angry and that it is not hurting anyone.

Good contradictions are:

I'm fucking pissed off
Fuck you
Fuck off
Get the fuck off me
You hurt me and I’m mad
It’s not okay

The client can say these phrases while possibly (if it feels right) hitting pillows at the same time. The counselor can encourage the client to express healthy anger and rage by staying close and saying “yes!”

The counselor can also say contradictions or punch pillows while standing up for the client, showing his or her outrage at what happened to this client. The client can shake, cry, or release other feelings while watching this. Seeing someone stand up for you can be as powerful as doing it yourself.

The counselor can encourage and support anger sometimes by using the power of understatement, having the client say something like:

Sometimes rape/violation kind of makes me mad
Or the counselor can say, “Sometimes when people get raped/violated, there is a little bit of anger.”

When the client hears the underplay of the idea of anger, he or she might start to shake or laugh at the idea of it. The smaller mention of anger can help move the feelings along.

The Counselor as a Safe Person

When abuse survivors are given attention, there is a deep need to have the sense of un-safety and aloneness validated and contradicted. The counselor can validate the client’s experience by saying "Of course you don't feel safe." "Don't trust me until you feel safe with me!" "You don't trust me because you don't know me yet, take your time, I have to show you that I am safe." “You have to be the one to decide if I am safe.” “What do you notice, do you feel safe with me?” “Why or why not?” "How will you know when you are safe?” “What makes you feel safe?" "It must be tiring to always have to be so vigilant, what would feel safe to you, so you could let down your guard?" The burden of proof is on the counselor, not the client. The counselor needs to get their own sessions on what it feels like to not be trusted, so that they can be open, loving and present with the whole issue. If they take it personally and get triggered because someone doesn't trust them, then just covering that over with "trust me!" is not going to work. When would it make sense for the client to work on trust? When s/he begins to feel safe! Just telling a survivor that they are safe can be a good contradiction, but it can miss a treasure trove of material. The counselor must consider the whole assumption of trust. The survivor, who persistently doesn't feel safe with you, might need a different approach. Recognizing that people have not been safe so they learned not to trust, and that in some fundamental ways mistrust was part of getting safe, is important. Counselors can stay curious without assumptions by asking questions, like, "Tell me about a time you felt safe and it was true that you were." Or, "Tell me about a time that someone told you that you were safe, and you weren't." Or, "Tell me about the kinds of things that make you feel safe and the things that make you feel unsafe." “How will you know when you are safe?” Empowering the client is more important than making him or her see you as safe. If you as the counselor can stay open and curious, you can help the client explore his or her needs, boundaries, and intuition in regard to building trust.

Though I am hoping this is obvious to all counselors, it is not ok to try to date your client or send them sexual energy. This is imperative with survivors of sexual abuse even if they get confused (especially if they get confused). Many survivors have sexual feelings come up as they explore old memories and feelings and having a loving person witness them can bring that up even more. Crossing a sexual boundary would be a violation on many levels and confirm the terror that person is working so hard to heal. If you as a counselor get confused about your feelings and/or boundaries, then you need to get a session with someone else about this issue until you feel clear. If you are unable to get clear then it is best you do not counsel this client anymore.

In Closing

There is so much more that could be said about how to support a survivor of sexual abuse. There are boatloads of information on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as trauma in general. Though it is great to get educated, it is ok to learn through the experience of becoming a good counselor. Listen to your client and ask for feedback. Ask what you could be doing or saying that could be helpful. Let yourself learn, make mistakes and try again. Don’t hold back because the discouraged side of the survivor already expects people to be overly careful and to be afraid to really engage. He/she expects you to pull away and stop trying. He/she expects you to give up connection because the intensity is too much. If you hang in there and don’t get distant or timid, you will be providing a great contradiction.

One thing I have seen over and over is that survivors of trauma are remarkable people. They are resourceful, creative, smart, courageous, and full of mystery. This is because they had to grow so fast and furiously in order to survive. If they have survived, it is because they are remarkable. Becoming an ally and a good counselor for abuse and trauma is worth it…for you…for them…and for the planet.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Co-Counseling Principles Can Help Repair Strained Relationships

by Susan S.

One technique of co-counseling is to let people know what you like about them or why you appreciate them. I can't ever remember hearing a therapist tell me that I was caring or generous, but at the Level One Training, I heard these phrases again and again from other attendees.

I wondered if this technique would be able to ease the hurt between my mother and me. She and I aren't close; we haven't been close in more than 15 years. And over the years, each additional hurt has added to the divide between us. Then my father's sudden death forced us to face each other. There was tension in every interaction, and each of us took away new hurts where none was intended. Before I left for the training, I told her, "Mom, you think I hate you, and I think you hate me, and I don't know where we go from here."

Now I am back, trying to fix more than a decade of problems with a 10-minute conversation. The self-doubt begins to creep in as I think about what I want to say.

I wait until we are alone. "Mom, I have some good things to tell you that might make you cry. Can you sit on the couch?" I pull up a chair.

"I'm getting nervous," she says. "What can be good that would make me cry?"

I sit across from her. I take her right hand in mine and place my other hand on top. Her small hand feels fragile.

"Mom," I say, "one of the things that is very difficult for me about Dad's death is that I never got a chance to tell him how much I appreciated him for what he did in my life. I don't want to miss that opportunity with you, and I want you to know how much what you did for me when I was a kid meant to me."

I look in her familiar brown eyes and share my list. She begins to cry, and squeezes my hands tight. I continue telling her my favorite childhood memories, the times I always cherished but never spoke of.

When I finish, she says, "I'm so glad you told me that. I never knew you felt that way. I always thought that I embarrassed you."

"You never embarrassed me, Mom. When you're a kid, you have to act cool with your friends, but I always thought you were an amazing mother."

I go on to tell her how real her hurt is for the loss of my father, and that it isn't fair that he's dead. She begins sobbing, but forces herself to stop like we've all been conditioned to do. "I'm sorry I'm crying," she says. "It's just ... "

"Mom, I really feel like crying, too. Crying actually is a really good way to heal. Would it be OK if we cried together?"

She nods, and I curl up on the couch next to her. She holds me, and we cry.