The topic of self-disclosure in the mental health field is pretty taboo. It seems like there’s a lot of anxiety around the idea of sharing a part of yourself with your clients. It makes sense that we’re cautious, though. We don’t want to be self-serving in session. We don’t want our self-disclosure to become about us. Boundaries are incredibly important. I can’t stress that enough.
My opinion regarding self-disclosure has changed throughout my time as a student and as a professional. In school, I was basically taught that under no circumstances do you disclose. That stayed pretty consistent throughout my time in the world of academia. When I started volunteering and interning, that changed a bit. I noticed that the subject was mentioned more frequently and people had a variety of unanswered questions and unexpressed opinions. People talked about their experiences with self-disclosure both as a therapist and as a client. I felt inclined to share my own thoughts on the subject and for once, it felt safe to do so.
What I’ve learned is that self-disclosure doesn’t have to be blatant. As a helping professional, there’s no need to go into detail about a specific experience in order to relate to your client or build rapport. In fact, I’ve found the most effective self-disclosure to be the kind that is subtle and often times, silent. For me, self-disclosure has been as simple as expressing solidarity in a nonverbal way. Sometimes I nod, sometimes I soften my eyes. Other times, it’s as simple as a vibe or a feeling that gets put out into the room. That may sound silly, but people are intuitive and they can feel when you just get it. Not just as a therapist, but also as a human.
I’ll give you an example of a time I self-disclosed when I didn’t intend to at all. I have a tattoo of serotonin on my forearm. I don’t go out of my way to try and cover up my tattoos at work because luckily, I work for an organization that doesn’t make me feel like I have to. I usually end up wearing sweaters because my office can get cold, but on this particular day I didn’t. One of my past clients who struggles with depression saw it and said something along the lines of, “What is that symbol on your arm?” I hadn’t been asked about it yet, so I was a bit taken back. I told him that it was serotonin and he said, “That’s what I thought”.
For a second after that interaction, we just looked at each other and I could feel my eyes soften. I could literally feel a slight shift in the room. During the session, just before this interaction, we were talking about his tendency to isolate because he doesn’t feel like the people around him understand what it’s like to be depressed. He talked a lot about how alone he felt and how often times, it’s just easier for him to stay in his room and play video games.
After a couple semi-panicky seconds filled with a million and one thoughts, I said, “People experience depression differently, but just remember that you’re not alone. Depression doesn’t discriminate.” In a subtle way, I self-disclosed. He had already come to some sort of conclusion, but I felt the need to address what just happened. I didn’t feel comfortable saying, “Oh, I have depression too”, but I felt like I could utilize the moment to wrap up our session while simultaneously building rapport.
If you really think about it, we all self-disclose in one way or another. If you’re a therapist, you do it through the art on your wall, the pictures on your desk, and the books on your bookshelf. You express a part of yourself through the way that you dress and through the jewelry that you wear. All of that allows your clients to see a small piece of who you are. This just goes to show that there are so many different types of disclosure.
Every situation is different and every client is different. What’s appropriate with one person may not be appropriate for the next. That’s where clinical judgement and your gut come into play.
When I think about how I want to utilize self-disclosure during session, I keep these things in mind:
The topic of self-disclosure was brought up during group supervision at work and to be honest, without that conversation, I probably wouldn’t be writing about this. I’d be too ashamed and anxious. Luckily, it was normalized during group. We were having an open discussion filled with different experiences and tips. I found that a lot of people have some sort of opinion about the topic and more often than not, they feel just as anxious about it as I do. It really helps to have a safe space to be transparent and inquire about what to do during these very real moments.
At the end of every day, I take some time to think about why I do what I do. I check myself and try as hard as I can to learn from my experiences. I firmly believe that in order to reach fulfilment, we need to learn from our mistakes and continue to grow and transform. That being said, I’m always open to feedback. That’s why I recommend talking to someone in your profession that you feel comfortable with about this topic. There’s so much to learn from the people around you.
Also, I have my own time and place where I process my personal experiences as a human. My time isn’t during a client’s session. That’s their time. I’m standing with them wherever they are. I’m just doing what I can to walk the line between human and therapist. Sometimes I stumble, but I’m willing to get back up, admit I messed up and try again.
As always, thanks for reading.
With love and light,
Self-disclosure. It’s not something I’m “for” doing. I was taught that it’s unethical and makes it about us, not the client. But I’m also a huge advocate for sharing power, sharing space, and breaking the divide between the “I vs. Thou” myth. So, then, how does walking this line work?
Is there a line?
And if there is, is it subjective? Is it relative? I guess all of the above can be true depending on your role. For instance, a peer advocate has the word “peer” in their title, unlike the ever-fancier term psychotherapist. I think there are definitely considerations to be had in order to really determine what is best for our clients. Because that’s what matters in the end: our clients. These people we’ve been entrusted to care for. And sometimes trudge with. But let me get to that later.
No matter what, I 100% feel that getting regular supervision from a qualified professional is of the utmost importance. I don’t care if you’re an overnight shift shelter worker or an MD. YOU NEED SUPERVISION. If you think you don’t, then either you’ve never had the opportunity to or you’re awfully pompous and need to take yourself down a few notches. Just saying. No one knows everything.
First off, I understand that sometimes self-disclosure is unavoidable. I’m thinking of small communities, particularly rural, where dual relationships are just a part of life, and you deal with it. I also understand that some professions encourage it. For instance, substance abuse counselors often incorporate self-disclosure regarding their own recovery, if this is something they have experienced. But even then, I know I have an opinion on that. Regardless, su-per-vi-sion.
My theory is the outer-inner model. Yup, just made that up. What I mean is that our outer traits that are visible outside of clothing are exposed, and our inner selves and mental health are not; and we must take responsibility for how we own this. Scars, burns, tattoos, injuries, hair dye, you name it. Some things just show. And sometimes we just don’t want to hide them because we’re proud of them and what they represent. Sometimes we’re also ashamed of them, or they bring us pain. There are so many emotional relationships we have with these traits, and as helping professionals, we must consider how we represent them around our clients.
The inner stuff, not necessarily as visible. Losses, deaths, break-ups, traumas, our own mental health. Struggles. Joys. Beliefs. I’ve already talked about countertransference, so I’m not going over that this time. When it comes to sharing experiences of struggle and pain, my opinion is don't do it. At least not in the obvious way.
I acknowledge that there are so many considerations to look at. For instance, if you’re field-based, inpatient-based, street/outreach-based, project/apartment-based, office-based, shelter-based, etc. It really just depends, and I’ll be the first to say that I can’t know what that’s like unless I’m actually there doing it.
For me, when it comes to these experiences, I put myself in the client’s shoes. If I were them, what would I think? When I’ve BEEN in their shoes, what have I really been trying to get at? And the answers are usually one of three things:
The thing is- what if “what we would do”, doesn’t work for our clients? Same experiences are not same experiences. And we are not supposed to be everything to our clients. We’re supposed to guide them to these things, these figures, these experiences. We’re supposed to outwardly ponder the dynamics and the themes, not tunnel-vision on the specifics. We should be grounded, insightful, and humble enough to validate and strengthen, not comfort and rescue. And lastly, we should recognize when our own stuff comes up that needs more TLC, specifically when we want to answer personal questions because we want them to know.
I’m not saying any of this is wrong or shameful. When I say “we should”, I mean we should be working toward this headspace. And honestly, it just takes a lot of practice, experience, invested supervision, and always therapy. This way, we can empower our clients, instead of filling in the spaces for them. That’s not sustainable, and it’s not helping them learn their own strengths. For example, if I have a client who feels alone, I’ll help them find a support group, community, or way to take their interests and do them with others.
I’ve had a client ask how my large tattoo is any different than the infected scars on their arm that they had carved in the day before. I’ve had clients who’ve asked me if I’m married, in a relationship, or have kids (but, really, who hasn’t been asked this?). I’ve had clients ask if I believe in God when they see my college diploma, what my religion is, where I live, what my sexual orientation is. And in the big scheme of things, these are totally normal questions for people to ask. Especially in relationships where one person knows almost everything about the other, and the other becomes curious about us.
So please, don’t treat this as unnatural and respond in an uncomfortable way. It just makes it worse. We’ve all been there. I know I have. Instead, normalize it, and acknowledge the bizarreness of our clients not really knowing anything about us. And then ask what that’s like for them.
Because, really, sometimes these questions aren’t really about the question you hear. Sometimes they’re about the question/s you don’t hear:
Can I trust you?
Can I look up to you?
Am I alone?
What I said to my clients who’ve asked about my religion, I’ll normally smile and answer with, Hm, that’s a good question. I wonder, what would it mean for you to know that? When it’s about non-mental health or non-value-related questions, I’ll normally give a simple generalization-type of answer. I’ll answer if I’m from here or not, that my large tattoo is to honor my heritage, that I don’t have kids, but I do have a four-legged fur child. And that’s the thing- I’ll add humor!
The rare exceptions for me are usually when it has to do with culture, and I will usually INSINUATE it with how I choose what language I use. If I have a client who talks about being queer or bicultural, I’ll say certain things that only someone with lived experience might say (or at least someone with insane empathy). Otherwise, if it’s someone who has the same mental health diagnosis/es as me, or the same trauma/s, I’ll tap into that same language of knowing, without saying it. Does that make sense?
I ask myself: is this about me or them?
If it’s them, I’ll lean toward this and pull. If it’s me, I’ll acknowledge it, file it back for later, and re-focus on what my client is telling me- or insinuating to me- what they need.
Ultimately, I pay attention to what comes up. If I’m finding my response is to share my experience, then I tell myself that maybe I need to connect with people (not clients) and do something that will let me share and connect, whether that’s writing, joining a club, starting a blog...you get the picture. If we don’t do this, we leak. And it just gets everywhere. Including on our clients.
Recognize when you’re leaking. When you’re wanting. When you’re fighting back the urge. Because those are nudges that are coming up to tell you that you need more support and more opportunities outside of work to explore them. Otherwise, it can develop into an unintended abuse of power and control. Because like it or not, we are in positions of power and privilege when we have clients. Period. Live to deserve it, not take advantage of it. And I know if you’re reading this, you obviously care and want to do right by the inspiring, resilient people whom we serve.
This is a reminder that you are human, you are worthy of self-care, and slipping up is always a learning experience, not a failure.
Own what you have, both inner and outer stuff, and consider the impacts of them on your clients and how you want to approach these things when they come up for you. Even if you have some major experience under your belt, it’s better to consult and process first, before taking it upon yourself to wing it.
Here’s to our clients, whom we have the honor of moving through life with,
Such a scary, intimidating, big word.
To be honest, I never really heard of or experienced it until graduate school. Once I started my second year internship at the trauma center, I was smacked in the face by it and my experience as a therapist changed forever.
I’ve experienced countertransference numerous times in a variety of settings. I’ve felt it in my office, in the field, in a meeting, you name it, and I’ve felt it. If you would have told me even 3 years ago that I’d be this quick to admit that, I’d call you a liar. I was struck by so much shame when I realized how impacted I was by countertransference as an intern. It was scary, it was life-altering, and it made me question my worth as a clinician.
I remember the exact session when I felt countertransference in full force for the first time. Let me describe this person during this particular session:
Living in a world full of either love or hate. That’s it. Seeing things as one way or the other with absolutely no in-between. The constant push and pull. The incessant need for validation. Living impulsively, destructively, and without any boundaries.
It all felt so familiar. It was eerie. I kept myself as grounded as possible during the session. But after I walked the client to the waiting room, things changed. I felt heavy. I felt my stomach drop. My heart was pounding and my mind was racing. I felt frustrated, confused, sad, and unsure of what to do next. Luckily, I had an awesome supervisor (*wink wink*) and amazing co-interns who I could confide in and debrief with.
I realized that I’ve felt this way before. I’ve been around people who exude the same personality traits. Every time I was around this type of energy in my personal life, I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t do anything entirely right. I was always lacking something, or at least that’s how I felt. No matter how much I gave, they always needed more. No matter how much I loved them, one wrong move, and I was public enemy #1. Boundaries were never not a thing. I’d watch them act recklessly without thinking twice. It was always really hard to watch and be around and unfortunately, I hadn’t quite dealt with the aftermath and lingering feelings (understatement of the year).This first memorable experience with countertransference pushed me to deal with my shit and for that, I’m eternally grateful.
After a lot of sharing and processing, I realized that I was feeling the same way in the room with my client. I felt like nothing I was doing was “right”. I felt less than, unsure of my place, and at a loss for words. I found myself running around in circles in my mind trying to come up with a way to help them. Trying to find the perfect words to say. I was working 10x harder than they were. I felt like I wasn’t enough. But you know what I finally realized, I was feeling some type of way because of my issue, not theirs.
I was told over and over again by that point that countertransference wasn’t a bad thing. It wasn’t something to be afraid of and instead, I needed to lean in. I needed to process the thoughts and feelings that came bubbling up. I needed to work on myself and learn healthy coping skills and self-care practices.
Above all, I needed to be kind to myself. I needed to remind myself throughout this entire process that I’m human, just like they are.
For me, being a therapist is a parallel process. I hope that my clients learn as much from me as I learn from them. I want to remain open, curious, and nonjudgmental. The one thing I learned throughout graduate school was that this specific type of personality is believed to be birthed from trauma. We all have our defense system ready to go, ready to protect us at all costs. I sought further knowledge and eventually, that led me to feel a deeper empathy that touched me to my core.
In case you’re wondering, I worked really well with this particular client and I was actually able to meet them where they were at and also sit with them in their pain and discomfort. I checked myself before and after every session and I felt able to properly engage with them.
This is not to say that I haven’t experienced countertransference since, because I have. But, I have a deeper understanding of what these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings mean. I’m really grateful for my experiences as a therapist because they’ve made me a better person both professionally and personally.
So remember, you’re not alone and you’re most certainly not a bad therapist if you feel triggered by your clients, things that they say, or ways that they act. You’re human, you’re going to be okay. But in order to move forward, it helps to look at countertransference as a teacher. I recommend finding yourself an empathetic and understanding supervisor and/or mentor and some nonjudgmental friends.
As always, thanks for reading. Wishing you all love and light.
I think countertransference is one of the best teachers. And yet it’s the one that gets the most flak. I think it’s because people (ironically teachers, most of the time) often equate relating and humanity to weakness and unprofessionalism. This is such a shame to me, because acknowledging likeness and experiencing humility are so important (and precious, in my opinion).
But that’s not to say it’s always easy.
As a therapist/social worker/supervisor, I’ve seen my fair share of countertransference: in clients, supervisees, and co-workers. One of the questions I always ask in interviews is what made you get into this field, and what makes you want to work with this specific population? If the person’s answer doesn’t include something about relating to the population, whether that be from personal experience, vicarious experience, and/or extreme empathy and compassion, I don’t even bother trying for the remainder of the interview. That might sound harsh, but that’s just me. Our clients aren’t guinea pigs for us to experiment on to try and learn clinical interventions we’ve heard about in school. They’re real people, and they need someone who’s willing to be real with themselves.
Because if we can’t get real with ourselves and reflect on our own relationships, then honey, we’re not ready to support people in their relationships.
Okay okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now and quit stalling.
I have one person who has repeatedly shown up in clients I meet. We’ll call him Rowan. Rowan is someone I met while in college during my junior year and first year as a social work major (super-senior pride, baby). We met at an AA meeting I went to as part of a class assignment, and ended up dating on and off. I was definitely young and naive, and to me, he was the beautiful boy with the tortured, dark past. In other words, every hero I’d ever read about in my world of novels.
He was really the first survivor of complex trauma I’d ever met. Or at least whose trauma I knew about. He had a beautiful soul and just so much loss, so much pain. And his body had gone through so much as a result of addiction and a lifetime of battles, ones that no one should ever have to face. I think that’s why he left such an impression on me. He was the first of many things. But most especially, the way his energy both allured and challenged me at the same time.
To me, this person is the epitome of who falls through the cracks and who society fails the most. All the little checkmarks on your intake form would probably have a note next to it, accompanied by the “yes”. And the fact that he is male just makes it an even deeper cut, since I see so many boys and men barred in their conditioning and sexist social constructs from accessing, let alone seeking, mental health services.
I see his eyes with their intense, dark, beautiful gaze peering out sometimes through clients’ eyes. Mainly clients who are male and latino or hispanic. Also if they are using substances or are in recovery. Especially if they’re survivors of complex trauma. That’s my achilles heel. Add a history of being homeless, and I’m a goner. Hook, line, and sinker.
I don’t mean this in a creepy, sexual way. I mean that there’s an immediate, personal draw and resonance; an even deeper empathetic connection. Because I feel like I know them. And to be honest, I want to save them.
I hate saying that.
Especially since I am so ANTI the whole “messiah complex” thing. You know, people who get into this field because they want to “save” people or “fix” them. I hate that! I got into this field because I don’t want anyone to feel alone, and I want to sit/stand/walk/run alongside them on their journey. Supporting them with any other tools is merely a cool benefit. But really, I’ve always felt that my clients and I learn from each other equally. And I love that. Equality.
But, back to what I was saying. I want to save them. I KNOW there are a lot of you who resonate with this. For me, it comes from seeing people not make it out of the trauma or other hardships they’ve experienced. Seeing them not have access to resources or not having people in their lives at the most impactful times in their lives when they should have had them most. And that’s how I’ve felt/feel about Rowan.
He’s like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Tough, brilliant, scrappy, in your face, and hurting so much it’s raw and scarred on the inside.
Of course, there are other people in my life who have appeared in clients I’ve worked with, but Rowan has been the one who’s showed up the most, which is why I’m focusing on him. As far as what I do when this happens, it’s definitely been a journey! When I notice myself seeing Rowan or someone else in a client, it’s not something I judge myself for. I use it as a learning opportunity. What made me think of Rowan? Was it simply a physical similarity or behavioral characteristic? Or was it my gut telling me there’s something more this person has been through and that I should give them even more time and space to feel safe enough to “go there”?
I do need to be mindful of giving more time to someone like this than I would to my other clients. Talking about it in supervision has been really important. And when I’ve had supervisors that I didn’t feel comfortable telling this to (let’s face it- you can’t talk about countertransference without talking about your personal experiences), I’ve talked to people I’m close to and trust. Talking about it helps. Sometimes it’s not even necessarily to get feedback, but just to process it outloud to myself with someone to witness it who isn’t going to judge.
Because countertransference doesn’t have to be something we admit. It should be something we explore.
Our work with humans is based on relationships, and we can’t ignore that. Relationships are relationships. We can’t categorize them into a) personal, b) professional, c) client, d) romantic, e) platonic, f) family, blah blah blah. They’re all relationships. Period.
So how can we judge ourselves, or others for that matter, for being stirred by nuances of other relationships we’ve had?
For me, it’s led to awesome realizations and has strengthened my abilities as a clinician so much. Countertransference has been a great indicator of when I need to process something more, to honor it and give it the space it deserves. And sometimes it’s something that can be digested easily, sometimes it’s something that needs more space to formulate during my own therapy. That’s amazing to me. And I’m so grateful for it.
Because we’re only human. Our professional hats don’t replace our personal ones. They layer on top of each other, so both are present. And they need equal attention. It will only make us better practitioners and better human beings. We owe that to our clients and to ourselves.
We gotta deserve to talk to the talk by walking the walk.
Here’s to walking alongside each other,
I had some trouble starting this post. I found myself wanting to analyze my friendships and how each of them have been impacted by my work. I’m sensing some avoidance…? I guess I’ve never allowed myself to fully consider how much being in the trauma field has impacted my relationship with my husband.
My husband and I have been together since we were 18 years old (we’re 28 now, just to put things into perspective). Our marriage and my work as a therapist in the trauma field began a little over a year ago. The timing of everything was trippy. I was in grad school, interning as a trauma clinician, getting married, and experiencing one of my first severe bouts of depression and anxiety as an adult. I don’t attribute my mental health struggle to any one event during that time. I really believe it was a mixture of things being fueled by avoidance and a lack of self-care/self-love/self-respect.
I remember facilitating practices such as prolonged exposure (google it, it’s the shit) and how I felt at the end of each day after hearing hours of trauma accounts. I noticed myself driving home from my internship in silence (it’s not like me to not immediately open Spotify when I start my car). I remember feeling angry, frustrated, sad, and helpless. My thoughts and feelings were too loud and couldn’t be drowned out by music or anything else for that matter. How can some people be so resilient, amazing, kind, and strong while others are filthy, hateful, and just all around crappy? How can one person go through so much and still remain standing? Why do some people experience chronic trauma while others don’t? All of the whys, all of the time.
If I said I didn’t take some of that home with me, I’d be lying. I’d come home and begin to question EVERYTHING. Honestly, I found myself feeling guilty. I felt really guilty about my relationship. Believe me, my relationship is far from perfect and we’ve faced our fair share of obstacles, but even in our darkest moments, I’ve always felt loved. Everyone deserves to feel safe and respected and the stories that I was hearing were full of the exact opposite. Many of my clients were terrified to go home and that was something I wasn’t able to comprehend.
I realize now that this really did impact my relationship. I pushed away. I didn’t walk in the door, kiss him, and ask about his day like I usually did. Instead, I came inside, went straight to the shower, and then sat on the couch and zoned out. In addition to being plagued by guilt (thank you, depression), I kept thinking about all of the unhealthy relationships that I had with men prior to the age of 18. How much I needed affection, no matter what came before or after it. Any attention was good attention. That part of my life sucked and I’d never want to go back. I felt like I was being forced back there to relive my past traumas and it was easier for me to just shut down.
Looking back, I think my reaction had a lot to do with how I was treated in previous relationships. How things always seemed fine until BAM- absolute chaos. Respect always flew out the window and I was left feeling insecure and alone. Maybe a part of me was feeling insecure all over again. I can admit at this point in my life that I was afraid. Even though this fear was warranted, I was still holding on to my own traumatic experiences. I was being triggered by my interactions with my clients.
Obviously, when I first entered this field, I was stuck in a negative headspace that forced me to question everything about myself and the world around me. People became either good or bad. My exes became either good or bad. My husband became either good or bad.
Some people might think that they’d hold onto their loved ones extra tight if they were exposed to the same thing day after day. Fair enough. I didn’t react that way. I was just turned off from intimacy and was focused on doing what I could to push the memories, guilt, and fear down.
This is really tough to admit. It actually really sucks because I notice myself feeling guilty again. Guilty that I felt the way that I did. But, I’m here to be open and honest- so that’s what I’m doing.
Time went on, I got more comfortable with my job and I sought help. I’m human, so I’m definitely still impacted by my work, but it just looks different now. I’m communicating my fears and needs in a way that is clear and well-received.
I will say that being immersed in the trauma field has taught me that healing is possible. Survivors have taught me that I deserve respect, love, openness, and appreciation. I’m constantly learning how to utilize my experiences in a way that makes me a better, more empathetic clinician. For me, it’s not about avoiding triggering situations, it’s about giving myself the space to process them with people that I respect and love and who feel the same way about me.
I hope this post made sense, I kind of feel like I was all over the place. It was hard to start and then it all just came rushing out. I made a lot of solid realizations and I’m feeling extra vulnerable/excited to share them with all of you.
As always, I’m wishing you love and light.
Ah, relationships. I think I need a glass of red for this one, lord help me. I have been in three major relationships in my life. One okay, one hard, and one devastating. Safe to say that when it comes to the work I’ve done with my clients, I’ve always been skewed (but aren’t we all?). *enter nervous laughter*
Even before getting into the trauma field almost nine years ago, I was still pretty awkward with the whole relationship thing. My first relationship that lasted more than a month was when I was in high school, and it was the first time I thought about my relationship with my body. Because prior to exactly one year ago today, I was completely transparent about my feelings, but definitely had a very disconnected, unhealthy relationship with my body.
It’s really interesting to me that I chose to go into the very specific field of sexual violence, since I grew up being taught to deny and shame my own body and sexual desires, as well as to shame and cast judgment on those whose “lifestyles” were “wrong” or “sinful”. Doesn’t take a genius to see a connection there.
Because as different as violence and brainwashing are from one another, they also have many similarities. They can both be insidious. And also extremely conflicting. Especially when the people perpetuating it genuinely believe they are right and have good, pure, and loving intentions. Because when this is the case, it doesn’t feel like “brainwashing” in the moment, and you become defensive of anyone not in your world who disses it. And by you, I mean me.
I’ll be straight with you. What I’m getting at is that I grew up being thrown into every abstinence-only class that existed within a 10-mile radius. I grew up going to Sunday school every weekend and bible camp every summer. I even went to an evangelical university! Terms like righteous, homosexual, sin, adultery, sacrament, virgin, and temple were very commonplace, and I grew up saying them too. So when it came to intimacy within relationships, I already came into the trauma field with some pretty heavy baggage.
It wasn’t until I interned at a rape crisis center that I began to reflect on women’s experiences with their bodies, sex, intimacy, choice, and consent. The center was (and still is) a feminist, multicultural agency that took pride in actively advocating for consent and empowering women to explore their sexuality. As someone who experienced internalized shame, I know now that this placement was “meant to be”.
Ultimately, what I’m noticing as I’m writing this (and you may be too) is that when I sit down and think about relationships, my mind automatically goes to sex. After doing much self-work and processing on this, I’ve come to discover that my knowledge and awareness of sexual health, sexual empowerment, and exploration were never things that I was allowed to talk about growing up; and so now, in my late 20s, I’m really discovering them for the first time.
Same with love.
Combine that with being a trauma therapist and advocate for freedom of choice, this can’t not impact my romantic relationships. And my internalized shame is certainly something that I still struggle with occasionally, because that’s just something that takes a long-ass time to detox from. Can I get an amen?
I would say that shame has impacted my mentality of sex. My professional experience with domestic violence, combined with my last relationship, has impacted my mentality of relational dynamics and TRUST, above all else. The moment I begin talking to someone I’m interested in, I’m already assessing them:
Do they seem entitled? Are they lying? Is this just a ploy to get me into bed? Are they married or already in a relationship? Are they asking me enough questions or are they just talking about themselves? Did that text seem sketchy? Was that time they got irritated the beginning of the cycle of violence? Are you going to get tired of me and cheat on me with someone else? Are you secretly a sex trafficker? Are you covertly part of a gang that’s going to traffick me? Is this for real? What are you really trying to get at? Am I feeling too much? Is it healthy to be this in love with someone? Are you going to hurt me?
Fwew. You catch my drift. Paranoid much?
I’m a trauma clinician. Of course I’m paranoid.
I’m exposed to sexual trauma every single damn day. And yes, I choose to, because it’s in people’s recovery and the power of bearing witness that I love. And yes, this has consequences. Like occasional intrusive thoughts of rape, of sensory experiences that my synthesia holds onto (did I mention I have that?). It’s all part of the job. That’s me processing. And as normal as it is considering what I do, OF COURSE it’s annoying AS FUCK sometimes. Especially when you’re...you know.
Thank god for therapy.
And now that I think about it, my last two relationships have been with people who have experienced trauma (and in very different ways). My last partner’s family was heavily in the gang life, and they had a past history of physical aggression as a youth. My partner before that was an active veteran, and they were deployed while we were together; although this was approximately their third deployment. And they had seen it all, especially torture.
So, with these individuals, all of our quirks, our trauma-induced habits, were very normal. Backs to the wall in restaurants, dislike of crowded spaces, unable to focus on a conversation with other people around due to taking in every. single. detail. Totally “normal”.
And you know what? I’m not gonna lie. There is a thrill in it for me. Always has been. Of being with someone “with a past”. Because let’s face it- MOST people in the helping professions like to “save” or “rescue” people, to take care of others, to correct what was done to them.
And let’s not forget that the media (and novels, in my case) ROMANTICIZES this. Dark past, tough exterior? Hot. Hot. Hot. Stable past, kind exterior? Not. Not. Not. And bor-ing. How sad is that? And if you’ve experienced any kind of relational trauma, the person who is kind automatically brings up the suspicion of them hiding something or playing you.
So, yeah, my dating and relationship experience is sort of tinged and complex, to say the least. And I’ve been burned, unfortunately. Like many people have, even more unfortunately. To be frank, it’s hard for me not to be paranoid and/or suspicious. And I’m much more cautious with my emotions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And my body shame? Much better, though still a long way to go. It’s easier to get in touch with my sexuality and not be as paranoid or suspicious when drinking of course, but as my previous therapist said, “Once you get in touch with your sexual self while you’re sober, you won’t need to only bring her out when you’re drinking.” And she’s right! I’d like to think that I’m growing in that area. Ovaries to the wall.
Being in the trauma field has been harrowing at times, but it’s been more empowering than I thought possible. I’m not afraid “to go there” in conversations. I’m not afraid of talking about death, about rape, about domestic violence, about institutional abuse and systemic oppression. No, these aren’t bubbly topics to bring up on first dates, but the conviction and confidence I’ve derived from owning them is invaluable. I’ve needed it my whole life.
And you know what? I’ve discovered that people are secretly thirsty to have REAL conversations. I’ve seen it.
Being in this field has also connected me with people who are powerful, courageous, and equally deep in their emotions and experiences of the world. And just as deep in their ability to love fiercely. It’s in their company that I have really found myself. And my tribe. I’m allowed to be 100% unapologetically me, and more importantly, I’ve allowed MYSELF to do that.
I reject right and wrong. I embrace life as it is: grey, complex, and deep.
I’m proud of who I’ve become, because I’ve fought so hard to get here. And each year I feel like I’m getting closer to digging through my internal muck and rescuing that artist child inside who just wants to play, to love, and to experience joy.
It’s the trauma field that’s helped me do that. And I don’t think any other field could.
Because without darkness, there is no light. The darkness has helped me to see what I want. What I value. What I cherish. And that I refuse to settle for anything less.
Maybe that’s why I’m not really a dater. I don’t do casual. I do depth. I’m a bottom-up kind of person, and that’s okay. It’s okay. Cause once I connect with you at the bottom, I have trust in you to be vulnerable and free at the top. Some people may say that’s “too intense” or to “lighten up”, but I don’t really care anymore. I accept my desires and how I connect.
I accept me.
And whoever I choose to be with next will not only understand that, but will love it too. R-E-S-P-E-C-T baby.
Here’s to being our undeniable, beautiful, fallible selves,
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