Taking in Trauma: The Therapist’s Experience

One question I hear regularly from people who come to see me is what it’s like for me to hear so many stories about people’s trauma. Generally behind this question, I think, is a concern with how I will handle listening to their own stories of trauma. People want to know I’m going to be strong enough to handle hearing the story they need to tell. They may have experienced others in their life (whether friends, family members, or previous therapists) who weren’t able to handle hearing these stories or who reacted poorly in some way.

When I’m answering this question for a new client of mine, I try to do my best to assure them that it is ok to share their stories with me, that I will be ok. I usually say something like, “It’s part of my job to hear these types of stories from people, and I want you to know that I will do what I need to take care of myself. You don’t need to worry about taking care of me here.” This seems a satisfactory answer for most and so we leave it at that. But after getting the question so many times, I have begun to wonder if people may be curious to know more about the experience of therapists who listen to such stories on a regular basis, so I’d like to try and offer a window into my own experience for those who are interested. I want to be very clear that this is just my experience and other therapists may have different ways they experience and process the stories they hear. I by no means speak for all therapists nor am I attempting to make myself into a standard for how other therapists should think about and process their clients’ stories.

Exactly how I experience hearing someone’s story of trauma can actually vary quite a lot. It depends on many factors, including the content of the story, the way in which the person I’m sitting with tells their story (for instance, emotionally distraught and tearful or matter-of-fact and detached), and my own mental and emotional state at the time or what’s going on for me in my personal life. However, there are some commonalities I can share for myself in how I hear and process someone else’s more painful stories.

I have feelings about what I hear.

I am very human. Yes, I am a trained therapist and so I have certain expertise or skills that come from the particular training processes I have gone through, but at the end of the day, I’m human just like everyone else. When I hear a story of harm that has happened to someone else, I feel some feelings about it. Sometimes the feelings are strong, sometimes they are more subtle, but there are always feelings I experience when I hear about the traumatic things that have happened to someone else.

I have the benefit of some distance.

Therapy relationships are different from other relationships in many ways. There are many rules and guidelines that structure the therapy relationship and give it boundaries. For instance, therapists aren’t allowed to be friends with their clients and therapists and clients often only see each other during pre-scheduled times with set beginning and end times. These and other rules (often referred to as the therapeutic “frame”) help me maintain a certain level of distance from the stories I hear that I wouldn’t have if I were hearing the same story from a close friend or family member.

By saying I have some distance from my clients and their stories, I do not mean that I don’t care or am not emotionally impacted by the things they tell me (see my previous point, I do have feelings about the stories I hear, I am very human!). What I mean is that these boundaries serve as a natural separation that allows me to continue to function in my own life while hearing stories of trauma. Mentally, I know there is a time and place where I will be able to see and care for my clients, and that helps me to not become overly worried or concerned about my clients the rest of the time. I’d also like to clarify this is true¬†most of the time but not all of the time. Sometimes, especially if a client of mine is going through something really hard, I do have a hard time getting this distance. When this happens, I may spend some time reflecting on what this is bringing up for me personally or I may bring this up in my own personal therapy or consult with another therapist to gain some perspective.

Self-care is non-negotiable.

Even with the built-in distance I get by being a therapist, hearing about trauma is really hard. Sometimes I’ll feel it in my body after a day of sitting with people and hearing their stories as a tense stuck energy. Sometimes I’ll feel just so exhausted and sad that all I want to do is crawl under a blanket and hide at the end of the day. Being a therapist is hard emotional work, so I see it as a professional and personal necessity to prioritize taking care of myself. This means taking care of my physical body by giving it the food it needs, making sure it stays active, and putting it to bed on time as well as taking care of my emotional self by doing my own therapy, spending time with close friends, making time to relax, and doing fun things too. The book Trauma Stewardship¬†by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk is a great resource on self-care for those in helping professions and offers some helpful framework for thinking about self-care for those who are interested in learning more.

I’d love to hear from you

What thoughts do you have on this topic? If you’re someone who has considered therapy for yourself or who is currently in therapy, have you wondered about how therapists deal with listening to so much trauma? If you’re a therapist, how does this fit your experience and where does your experience differ from mine? You can leave a comment here or reach out to me using the contact form on this site with any questions or comments you may have.

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