Why Clinical Supervision is Essential for Counselors Who Are Trauma Survivors
By Kristen Dammer
Even though I’m both a therapist and a clinical supervisor, my story is not unique. I experienced childhood trauma and did not understand how this trauma negatively impacted my life course. When in college, I reached out to a therapist for the first time and began my road to healing.
Making Sense of your Traumatic Experiences
When I finally connected with a trauma specialist (not all therapists are trauma specialists), my world made sense. I was able to stop blaming myself and recognize my trauma responses. Throughout my own journey of healing, I realized that I wanted to help others with parallel experiences. Many of us become therapists for similar reasons. We want to give back because therapy lifted the dark curtain of trauma to a place of feeling enlightened in our lives, so we feel better equipped to help others.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if trauma just disappeared once “the work” was completed. Unfortunately, trauma’s intensity can decrease with therapy, but the possibility of emotion dysregulation from new or old triggers lurks in the distance.
How Clinical Supervision Differs From Therapy for Past Trauma
Because complex trauma is so insidious, clinical supervision for yourself as a therapist is recommended. Clinical supervision can help you process transference and countertransference that WILL occur in sessions. Even if you are fully licensed and have years of experience in the field, clinical supervision offers you a chance to continue to grow and understand how your unprocessed trauma can harm clients.
No longer is therapy for therapists stigmatized. Most therapists have their own therapists. Therapeutic sessions help to process any stuck points related to your unprocessed “work” that can pop up in your clinical sessions.
Here is an example of how trauma can show up in therapy sessions: Your trauma history involves domestic violence, substance abuse and childhood neglect. You have completed EMDR to target this trauma (good for you!) and spent years in therapy, understanding how to change your Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Style.
Now, you have a new client that disclosed past domestic violence from a current boyfriend. This boyfriend has not offended for several years with the help of consistent sobriety, but the client discloses patterns of recent emotional abuse from boyfriend and sometimes thinks about leaving. You realize most of your sessions lately involve you persuading her to leave. Clinical supervision can help untangle your trauma from the clients, so as not to damage the relationship and stay within the ethics of our profession.
How Clinical Supervision Can Support Your Clinical Work
Supervision from a trained and experienced clinical supervisor can assist you by pointing out unhelpful patterns, so you are able to recognize countertransference in the “here and now” of your sessions. You can begin to peel apart you from your client(s), use grounding techniques and turn your unbiased focus back to the client.
Yes, being a trauma survivor catapults you to an inside connection with clients. On the flip side, therapists need to constantly be aware of the delicate complexities of having empathy and understanding, but also, remembering that our clients’ experiences are unique.
All too often, therapists “fill in the blanks” of client stories using their own personal experiences and this information might not be accurate. Therapists cannot assume they know how the client is feeling because they too felt a similar sense. Clinical supervisors will guide you back to the basics of counseling. Reflection statements and asking open ended questions is the best way to gather the client’s unique perspective, keeping the session focus open and curious.
Your Clinical Supervisor is not Your Therapist
It is important to note that clinical supervisors are not your therapist. A good supervisor knows how to balance this fine line, using it to guide you to self-discovery, and referring you back to your own therapy when needed.
Countertransference happens just like trauma responses can return. New life stressors, a low support system, and decreased self-care wreak havoc on our nervous systems. We can all find ourselves in that perfect storm from time to time. Having compassion for yourself and from your clinical supervisor allows the wave of trauma to decrease in frequency and intensity. Client interactions can lead us to continued layers of our own growth and healing.
Past Trauma Can Make You a Great Therapist
Please do not be embarrassed by noticing patterns of countertransference or triggers when working with certain clients. You are a human with a complicated past and deserve kindness. Discussing these occurrences openly in supervision will help you to continue to grow as a therapist. Your supervisor can even direct you to certain strategies to use in sessions when triggered, so you can stay present with your client.
How can we help
Working with a supervisor who understands trauma can guide your therapeutic skills to a higher level, helping you feel empowered and confident in sessions. If you’re interested in getting clinical supervision or consultation with me, I am a past trauma survivor, licensed therapist, and Approved Clinical Supervisor. I can help!
Kristen Dammer is a clinical supervisor, therapist, and blogger with Firelight Supervision and Catalyss Counseling. Kristen specializes in trauma, ADHD, and perinatal counseling with adults and is trained in EMDR. Kristen enjoys providing clinical supervision and consultation to beginning to advanced clinicians in private practice, hospital, and agency settings.