There is a tightrope being walked when we commit to open up in a therapeutic relationship. Like most relationships, we test the waters to see if it is safe to wade in. If there has been a lot of damage to the heart and soul, it is done carefully over time at a pace we can tolerate. Each of us, therapist and client, bring our own emotional baggage into the room. We try to remain objective, but because of our human weaknesses we are subject to triggers that can open old wounds and create in us anxiety. It is what we do with this anxiety that matters.
We can ignore that our emotional baggage is sitting in the room or try to cut out all awareness of it. We can even ignore it, but that has a way of coming back when we least expect it. Our body tenses or we distance from the other. It is obvious something is off-balance, out of kilter. For those clients who have been abused, they have become skilled in picking up differences in tone of voice, body movement, facial gestures, and are able to sense incongruity. A problem is apt to occur if a client tries to ferret out what the other person is actually feeling, thinking, or meaning. That is why feedback is so important to the therapeutic relationship from both sides. To distance and remain silent gets us no where.
It is only through communication that we reach the heart, mind, and soul of another through verbal and nonverbal cues. The therapist takes on many roles: compassionate listener, safe person, teacher of skills, explorer of inner worlds, mediator, coach, one who confronts, initiator of growth, and others too numerous to list. The therapist has to be aware of inner emotions and responses and yet stay focused on the client’s needs. The well-being of the client comes first.
Walking a tightrope occurs when issues of dependency are addressed. One must first learn it is safe to rely on someone. This is done through repetition. We all do it. It is how we learn to trust. A problem is likely to occur if the client or therapist has anxiety around this issue. The therapist is anxious that dependency might occur, last too long, etc. The client most likely has taken care of herself for most of her life and so is highly sensitive about achieving trust, not being a burden, not having someone understand what it is like to go through life with no one to trust and rely on. The goal is to build interdependence in the client. She can rely on someone when she needs to, but is also able to take care of herself most of the time. So a dance begins, between therapist and client, to sort out and deal with the obstacles that get in the way of that goal without triggering feelings of abandonment. Patience is the key.
Whether or not to focus on past, present, or future issues is also like walking a tightrope. There is so much to cover, so much to be done, and what do you do first? Whatever is most pressing for the client is a good place to start. Trauma needs to be processed. feelings need to be addressed, negative thoughts about self have to be looked at and changed, and dysfunctional interaction patterns need to be understood and dealt with. It is also important to address one’s hope for the future, a purpose for living, a way of building joy in one’s life, so living becomes attractive. The goal is always growth, stretching one’s limits, learning to love one’s self again, making good relationships with others, feeling productive in society, and meeting spiritual needs when the client wants to address them. It takes courage on the part of the therapist and client for progress to occur. The therapist has to know when to push and when to let the client rest, regroup, or have space. It’s like walking a tightrope, but most rewarding when the Therapeutic relationship is a good fit for both therapist and client.