I’m going to get real about helpers today. Helpers can come in many forms. They can be therapists, life coaches, energy workers, EFT practitioners, mentors and more. All of these professionals have the potential to help trauma survivors.
But these relationships have the potential to get off track, to cause harm, to re-traumatize. In social work school, I had one professor who had us frequently repeat the mantra, “Don’t sleep with your clients.” It was sort of tongue and cheek and it sort of wasn’t. But I am not talking about the obvious stuff today.
The stuff that throws us off guard is the stuff we don’t see coming. Maybe we don’t see it because it is subtle. Or maybe we don’t see it because we are repeating our unconscious patterns and haven’t developed awareness yet. Either way, we can be thrown off our recovery path when we repeat patterns with our helpers. So here is my list of what not to do if you are a helper or a help-seeker.
- Don’t deny a self-diagnosis. When a client is exploring whether a particular mental illness describes them, don’t dismiss it. Your clients might have a tendency toward “catastrophizing” or even hypochondria, but examine it with them. Explore the possibilities. I find this to be especially necessary with dissociative identity disorder. We have seen the Hollywood version of D.I.D. and we assume this means we would know immediately if we met someone with this disorder. But that’s not true. It can be very subtle. Parts are great at disguising themselves, especially in front of helpers. If you are thinking, “my client is not messed up enough to have that”, allow the exploration anyway. You might be surprised.
- Don’t tell a client to avoid memory recovery. Let me put it another way. Don’t tell a client they can heal without recovering their memories. They can’t. They locked those memories away with their emotions, and to fully heal, they have to recover the memories and feel the emotions. Do they need to examine every minute of their childhood? But they need to know the truth about what they went through and how that has impacted their belief systems. So you may feel the need to advise a client against memory recovery for a variety of reasons, but don’t tell them they can heal without that work.
- Don’t tell a client to think positive to feel better. While managing thoughts are helpful in stopping the cycle of emotions feeding thoughts feeding emotions, thinking positive when we feel like crap is putting lipstick on a pig. It is a mask and it doesn’t heal anything. Allowing our traumatic emotions is the best thing we can do for our own healing.
- Do your own work. When we are invalidating our pain, we are likely to project that invalidation on to our clients. If we haven’t allowed ourselves to feel the deep pain of our own past traumas, we can’t guide our clients through it. I work with many helpers as clients. I am proud they made the choice to go deeper. I know they will heal more people because of their own healing. There are many degrees you can get in the trauma field, but the most important expertise is your own healing experience.
- Don’t put your helper on a pedestal. Helpers are people too. Fight the urge to see your helper as a savior of any sort. This has happened to me a few times and it never ends well. Your love seeker has been looking for someone just like your helper to create an unhealthy attachment to. And you need to fight that urge. When you place responsibility on another person for your happiness, you are being unfair to them and the relationship is spiraling toward disaster. What happens when you no longer feel happy? That’s right. They become responsible for your unhappiness too. Of course, it is the responsibility of the helper not to encourage this pattern, but you can build awareness to stop it on your side too.
- Don’t hide things from your helpers. I am not talking about things you don’t know yet. If your parts are hiding things from you, you can’t tell your helpers about them. But if you feel ashamed of past events and you trust your helper (at least a little), try to talk with your helper about them. This will help to break the shame-cycle that is caused by isolation. There is nothing more healing than knowing you are not alone.
- If your helper triggers you, tell them. This does not apply to reckless re-traumatization. If they are acting irresponsibly, it might be best to walk away. But if it was a slip-up and they have not invalidated your triggers in the past, speak up about it. Calling out your triggers to a safe person is incredibly helpful in breaking old relational patterns. More than likely, your perspective and your helper’s perspective are different. I can’t tell you how beneficial it was for me to work things out with my therapist in a healthy way. Honestly, I had no idea you could work things out in a healthy way.
- Don’t try to fool your helper. You will have parts who are all about the mask. They will invalidate your most pained parts. They want to come across in a certain way and they aren’t about to be vulnerable in front of anyone, not even a helper. You might catch yourself wondering what they want to hear. You might catch yourself minimizing the impact of certain events in your life. Try not to do that. Try to put it out there for your trusted helper, so you can heal.
So let’s work to help each other in the best way possible. When we can come at these relationships from an aware perspective, we can heal on a deeper, more powerful level. And when we deeply heal, we bring that healing to others on an exponential level. And that changes the world. So have the courage to heal deeply, help others to heal deeply, and change the world.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW