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Can Collaborative Therapy Heal Trauma Safely?

man fishingDear friends,

GoodTherapy.org received an email today from a therapist concerned about one of the principles of good therapy [1]: collaboration. I was surprised at first, but after reading her email I could see the validity of her concern and how she could be led to it by the way the definition was written. She was concerned that working collaboratively might retraumatize a person. I believe she was equating collaboration with total nondirection.

I wrote back to her to clarify. I thought I would copy my email here so others with similar concerns could be reassured, and so we could have a forum for discussion about it if people would like. Below is my email and a better approximation of the spirit of collaboration. I hope you will add your wisdom to the discussion.

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Hi anonymous therapist,

Your email is a gift to me. … I can see how the idea of collaboration as written on GT might mislead people into thinking that collaboration is something it is not. I hope this email will begin to clarify to you what collaboration means for me and for others who work similarly. Although I have not had anyone else contact us with a similar concern, there may be others, and so perhaps I will update the definition on the website. Or actually, I may add another principle which I’ve been meaning to for a long time: safety. Collaboration does not preclude safety, as you are concerned about. … Anyhow, my thoughts are a bit scattered tonight as I’m tired from a long day. But I know if I don’t respond now, other things will preoccupy me.

I, too, guide people through the process of healing sexual, emotional, and physical trauma [3]. I work collaboratively and I help people to heal from the worst of the worst and to heal safely. I have been taught to heal collaboratively by a number of wise and experienced mentors. My definition of collaboration is, at best, only a poor reduction of their wisdom and of what I see occurring in the therapy room.

The spirit of collaboration is about helping a person to access their own Self (the calm, curious, compassionate, wise, and clear center) and, once “in” Self, it’s about trusting the Self of the client to take each and every gentle step toward caring for the parts which have been wounded or, perhaps, appreciating the ones which protect. In the same way that most of us know in our hearts what to do for the distressed and sad child who runs to us for help, we can also learn to open our hearts to our own inner wounds. So, it’s much different from the therapist providing all the care and wisdom (which teaches the client to continue searching outside herself for redemption). Collaborative work is like teaching one to fish for themselves, as opposed to feeding one a fish. Once in Self, a person can do most of the work as the therapist helps, here and there, to keep it going on track. So you can see that teaching one to fish is not directionless. If we do not trust the client’s Self to know how to attend to a part or care for a wound, then we are not allowing the healing process to happen. I believe that without the presence of Self, healing is only simulated.

The client’s Self will not lead them to places they are not ready to go. Parts of the person might do that, but not Self … and this is one of many reasons it’s useful to help a client to access Self. I have seen that working without collaboration can raise a client’s defenses/resistance (and rightly so), can rush and retraumatize, and can lead people to places that are not relevant to healing. Collaboration, in my estimation, is the safest way to heal trauma. I did hear your concern that if a therapist works collaboratively the client will lead themselves prematurely and unsafely into the trauma. This is not true in my experience. It’s actually quite the opposite.

For more information on collaboration, Self, and parts, I recommend checking out The Center for Self Leadership [4]. I believe that the model described by Richard Schwartz [5] is one of the most comprehensive and safest ways to heal trauma, and it is done collaboratively. I also believe that any successful healing, regardless of the model, is collaborative … for collaboration is the spirit of the healthy client-therapist relationship (or any other kind of relationship) you describe.

I hope this helps. I’m open to dialogue about this, if you like. Also, I’m thinking I may add this to the blog as way to open a forum about it. I look forward to hearing from you, and thanks again.