How to start the process of healing from trauma – some basic guidelines to support you getting help by Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PHD.
The very first step in healing from trauma is getting help. You can’t heal alone. Healing from trauma requires leaning your weight on the support of a therapeutic relationship in order to let the traumatised parts of yourself heal. The trauma most people experience happens between people – the nightmares of people perpetrating violence and terror on other people: war, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence. Most psychological traumas are repeated relational traumas. And relational traumas must be healed in relationship.
One of the biggest roadblocks in healing from trauma is the idea that “I don’t need help, I can do it myself.” Here is the common refrain: “I don’t need a therapist or a group – I have my friend (wife, husband, children…)”
Why? Seems like they could, right? They love us. We feel good with them, safe with
them. In fact, it feels like they should be the ones to heal us. They can listen to our
problems, and often do. They often listen non-judgmentally as we recount our stories. They often have advice for us, and certainly tell us they love us. They can hold us tightly and kiss us good night. Why isn’t it enough?
We expect our friends and our spouses to be on ‘our’ side. When we feel bad, we want
them to help us feel better, not hold us accountable to change. It’s funny, people
automatically understand the need for a couple’s therapist when a couple is having a
problem. Friends know that they can’t say what they need to both parties and still be
‘loyal’ to their friend, or not be seen as ‘taking sides.’ A healing relationship is like a
couple’s therapist for both sides of the self: the self that wants to change, grow or
heal – and the part of the self that wants to stay the same, the part that is afraid of, or
unable to change. A therapist’s role is to hold both of these realities – to not take sides, but rather to support both sides by creating an environment in which both sides can grow and integrate.
How do I find help? What kind of help is best? There is no ‘perfect’ guide. When people ask me what to look for I give a pretty basic answer – what you want in a good therapist or guide or consultant is what you would look for in a good parent. You want someone who can be consistent, patient, hopeful, and who knows that this journey is about you and your growth, not their needs or success. You want someone who knows about trauma or is willing to learn. You want someone who can laugh at themselves and who can tolerate their emotions and yours. You want someone who is willing to let both of you make mistakes and who can have a conversation about it when it happens. You want someone you can respect. You want someone whose basic premise is: whatever it is, we can talk about it. And, you want someone who is a good match for you – where you feel safe, and where you feel like you will be understood and heard.
Finding the right person or group is mostly a matter of trial and error. You have to ‘try
them on for size.’ You have to see if they are a good match and the only real way to
know that is to meet with them and talk with them. That being said, sometimes you don’t get a lot of choice. Depending upon your healthcare coverage, and where you can obtain help, sometimes there are limited options. But limited options doesn’t necessarily mean poor care. Almost all therapists I know have spent part of their careers in system where they were the only option for people getting help. And this situation is not much different than other aspects of your healthcare. If you go to the emergency room, you don’t generally interview doctors.
What you need to do is to see if the person or group you seek out will be a good match
for your healing journey. Can I work with this person? If I have differences of opinions
or have doubts about their capacity, can I ask about them?
Here are some questions for you to consider as you seek help:
- What do you hope to get out of treatment?
- What is the most difficult thing about coming in today?
- What would help you to talk?
- What gets in the way of taking care of yourself?
And here are some questions for you to ask your potential therapist:
- How long have you been working in this field?
- What do you enjoy about it?
- How do you typically work with clients?
- What happens if we disagree?
- What are your expectations of clients?
- Have you worked with clients who have a trauma history before?
These questions are just a start, and you are free to ask them anything that would help
you feel more comfortable working with them.
About: Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD is a licensed psychologist, trained as a Harvard Medical School Fellow. She is a trauma survivor, who has worked for twenty-five years with the complex issues of trauma, integration and behavior change across every level of system from individuals, to groups, to large systems and countries.
Gretchen Schmelzer’s book Journey Through Trauma is due for release on 6th February, further information can be found on her website.