Domestic Violence During the Pandemic (4/5): Therapist Personal Characteristics
What are the qualities needed to engage effectively with victims of domestic violence? Dr Jeannette Roddy is a counsellor, author and academic specialising in this area. In the fourth of a five-part weekly blog about working with victims of domestic violence during the Covid-19 crisis, she also reflects on the role of therapist self-care in guarding against emotional withdrawal from painful material.
Domestic violence counselling can be challenging work and it is important that therapists have the resilience to deal with whatever emerges from a session. Clients may want to bring examples of horrific human behaviour and will be aware of how this may impact others. Initially they may bring one or two stories at a lower level of abuse, watching carefully to see how the therapist responds. Experiencing a therapist who is clearly shocked and troubled by an initial disclosure is problematic, as the client will want to work with someone robust enough to hear what is coming next. A therapist who can listen, accept what has happened and respond authentically and in a balanced way, suggests that, perhaps for the first time, more can be shared.
Sometimes clients will reveal their part in the abuse, or behaviours they have adopted to survive, which feel shameful. Having a counsellor who genuinely cares for them, whatever they reveal, is helpful, providing a different relationship to that with the abuser. Clients often minimise the extent of the abuse but may not be aware that they are doing so.
Beginning therapy is about building trust and facilitating the client to explore and voice those experiences. Challenging the client perspective of what happened, such as they felt responsible for the abuse, may be done gently at first, recognising that the abuser may still have influence over the client and trust in your perception is not yet established. As a therapist, being confident in your ability to work appropriately with whatever the client brings, being patient and caring, and holding hope for the client whatever their situation, are key personal characteristics for this work.
Self-awareness and self-care
It is also important that counsellors are self-aware and good at self-care. Listening to traumatic stories, looking out for ‘harm to self and harm to others’, and considering when or if confidentiality should be broken (particularly if there are children involved) means the work can be stressful. Therapists need to seek their own support through supervision and personal therapy when needed, to ensure they process any stress, or vicarious or secondary trauma.
When we engage at depth with clients, the client is aware of that connection too. If we begin to protect ourselves from the material, it can result in us withdrawing. For clients who have already experienced the emotional withdrawal of their partner, friends and family, this reduced connection can be noticed immediately and have a negative effect on the client and therapeutic relationship, with therapy termination possible. The client needs to know that the therapist can listen and be able to cope with whatever is brought into therapy and sees withdrawing as a sign of not coping. Hence, counsellor self-care is not only about looking after the therapist themselves, but also about looking after the client and the therapeutic relationship.
During the lockdown period, it is likely that remote counselling will be focused on processing the events perpetrated during this time. Successfully building the therapeutic relationship will mean a greater chance of the client continuing with therapy after this period of social isolation, hence being truly who you are during this time is just as important now as it would be face-to-face.
This section has explored the importance of counsellor self-care for the benefit of therapist and client. However, there are risks of increased psychological harm through social isolation and physical harm (if the client is still living with their abuser) during the current pandemic. The final blog next week will consider the importance of contracting and safeguarding in this work.