One of the hallmarks of effective psychotherapy is that clients feel safe. If safety is not in place, it is very unlikely that a client can really address their vulnerabilities and pain, because part of them is going to be busy watching out for danger, and protecting their soft spots from possible difficulty. This may be the pattern clients bring in as part of their way of being in the world, and therapy is one way of transforming it.
The question is, how is therapeutic safety best established, and what is it for? It would be easy to imagine that it is the job of the therapist to keep the client feeling safe, and that by doing so they allow the client to process what they need to and then to go happily on their way.
However, this approach has a problem. It builds dependence. It’s of little use to any of us to only feel safe when we are with our therapist or with anyone else in our life we use as an external to self safe place. That would mean that we need that person in order to feel OK, and by ourselves we would not feel safe.
The role of therapy is to enable the client to build a sense of safety within themselves. One way of doing this is for the therapist to take on the role of safe person for a period to enable the client to take this in, and in time to then provide this safety to themselves internally. This mode of working is important, but in my view it is not the only way forward.
We have in our toolkit many ways to work proactively with clients to help them experience internal safety much more directly and in a shorter period of time. Psychotherapy will sometimes still be a progressive, evolving long term process that unfolds over months or years, and this also means that we can work to establish a felt sense of safety in shorter time-frames than could be imagined without these techniques.
Once a strong working alliance is in place so that there is perceived safety in the room to work, practitioners can help clients to begin to embody representations of safety within themselves. This can be through accessing what is already there that they are disconnected from when symptomatic, or by supporting clients in taking in safety from imagined resources and making it their own. It may be that we use trauma resolution strategies like Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing to enable clients to release stuckness that prevents feelings of safety, or that we work to realign family constellations to create new possibilities for relationships. These are just a few of the possible approaches, different psychotherapists and counsellors will have different skills and expertise to bring to bear.
The important thing is that the only sustainable way of enabling experiences of safety is for them to be located within our own bodymind system. This gives us the options of independence and interdependence, and open up our world to operate beyond constraints of fear.
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