Good counselling and bad counselling
Many women who have experienced abuse have sought help through a variety of counselors. Sometimes counseling is helpful and sometimes it is not. At its worst, counseling or advice giving can be dangerous if it disconnects you with your voice, your wisdom and your experience.
For example, one woman was told by her counselor to burn a gift her husband had given her. This counselor thought this would send the man a “clear message” about how inappropriate the gift was. The woman knew that, or order to stay emotionally and physically safe, she needed to accept the gift, not burn it. The counselor judged the woman severely for not taking the counselor’s advice. The advice was not only dangerous but the woman lost the support of the counselor when she was not willing to do what the counselor told her to do. This would be an example of extremely bad counseling. First because it involves putting the woman at greater risk and second because it undermines the woman’s wisdom and does not see her as the expert on her own life.
Good counseling should have your physical and emotional safety as its main priority. It is hard to trust yourself and disagree with a professional, but remember you are the expert on your own safety. The best way to decide if a counselor’s suggestions are worth trying is to determine whether the counselor is thinking about how to change something in you, or how to increase your safety. If they are trying to change you, they might not really understand your experiences of abuse and how important it is that you keep your focus on your safety. They may not understand that your choices are extremely limited; that your partner takes away all the good choices.
Good counseling should also help you to hear your own voice and your own wisdom more clearly. If you come away from a counseling session feeling listened to, affirmed and clearer about the negative impacts your partner’s abuse is having on you, this is a good sign. If you come away more confused, doubting yourself or feeling weighed down, it would be good to question whether this counselor is right for you.
It may be helpful to know that counselors are not generally trained about the dynamics and realities of abuse. If you would like to find a counselor to do one-one one work with, look for someone who has specific training in woman abuse. Your local women’s shelter should know how to access these services. Opening yourself up to someone who does not have training in this area is a bit like asking a car mechanic to do open heart surgery on you. You are going to get hurt!