How Do I Bring Up Trauma to My Therapist?

I just started therapy and I really like my therapist so far. Also, I have had trauma in my life that is pretty bad. I want to know how you can tell if it is a good idea to bring up trauma with your therapist. How long should I wait? I don't want her to think that's all I am. I also am worried what if I get upset if I tell her? What if I had a flashback while I was there? What if she cried or something? - Working on Healing
Dear Working on Healing,

Thank you for these fantastic questions. I am going to answer each question individually, as you bring up quite important issues; but before I get to your questions, I’m going to ask you one. Does your therapist have specialized training in working with survivors of trauma?

This is a critical question for you to find the answer to and here’s why. The vast majority of therapists are competent, capable and genuinely caring individuals but not every therapist knows how to work with trauma. Unfortunately, it is possible to have a wonderful and generally effective therapist make unintentional and damaging mistakes with regards to a survivor of trauma.

Therefore, my recommendation would be to ask your therapist if she/he has training in working with trauma, is knowledgeable about this type of healing, etc…. When asking this it is appropriate to share that you are a survivor of trauma and would like to work on this aspect of yourself. If your therapist does not have a high level of specialized knowledge regarding trauma, then feel free to talk with your therapist about your desire to find someone who does have this expertise. Keep in mind that your therapist wants what is best for you and will not be upset, angered or disappointed if you need to connect with an alternate therapist for awhile or for good. Therapists recognize that we are only one piece of someone’s healing journey. We tend to be grateful for the segment of the journey that we share with our clients and trust that our clients will find other healers and avenues for healing as they journey through life.

So, assuming that you are working with a therapist who has specialized knowledge in trauma, here are some of my thoughts.

“How can you tell if it is a good idea to bring up trauma with your therapist?”
You own your life story and this includes the trauma(s). You and you alone have the right to set the agenda of your healing. If you feel safe with your therapist, trust him/her and desire to share about your life having trauma, then by all means feel free to do so. If on the other hand you would prefer not to share this, then know you also have the right keep this information private. You also have the right to bring up the fact of trauma and express your desire to not delve into the healing. A trauma therapist will understand that you are not being resistant, evasive or avoidant and will honor the courage it took to share as well as the trust you are showing by sharing.

“How long should I wait?”
This is 100% up to you. I have had clients who have told me about trauma in the first session. I have had clients who waited months and I have had everything in between. Once again, you have the right to claim your history – your therapist understands that the choice to disclose is your choice and a part of your healing. Your therapist will not be offended if you wait a long time to share and your therapist will not be overwhelmed if you share early on.

“I don’t want her to think that’s all I am.”
A key principle in psychology is that people are complex, more than meets the eye, and not equal to one life event or type of experience. Your therapist understands that you are a multifaceted individual and will try and define you based on your experience of trauma(s).

“I also am worried what if I get upset if I tell her.”
It is understandable to be worried about becoming upset, but rest assured that being upset in therapy is totally normal and to be expected. Your therapist will know how to help you soothe and calm your upset. If your therapist does not help you soothe and calm, then talk about this with your therapist. You have every right to require that the therapist you work with knows how to effectively handle emotions and knows how to teach you to navigate your emotions.

“What if I had a flashback while I was there?”
Pacing and timing are two important issues when healing from traumatic life events. Here’s an analogy, if you were to run a marathon, your pace would be how quickly you run each section of the race while your timing would be when within your training regime you actually run the race. In terms of healing (healing being the marathon), pacing has to do with how quickly and deeply you share about the trauma(s) while timing has to do with when you share. If you were preparing for a marathon, you and your coaches(s) would jointly make decisions about pacing and timing so that you push your body to achieve its potential while maintaining safe and achievable expectations. Once again, the analogy is apt – with regards to healing, you and your therapist jointly make decisions about pacing and timing. It is your therapist’s job to help you pace your disclosure so to minimize the chances of a flashback and if one does occur it is your therapist’s job to help you get out of the flashback as quickly as possible. The ability to recognize and manage a flashback are part of a trauma specialists skill set and makes this one of the prime reasons why working with a trauma specialist is vital.

What if she cried or something?
For many survivors of trauma, there is a deep fear that they are toxic, damaging and will inflict intolerable pain on those they share their histories with. Generally, the fear of one’s therapist crying is rooted in this fear. Due to your therapist’s training in trauma, she/he will know how to express compassion, nurture and healing in a way that teaches you that you are not damaging, toxic or the inflictor of intolerable pain. If your therapist does cry and this does overwhelm you, know that you can talk about this with your therapist.

Finally, feel free to bring up each and every one of these questions with your therapist. I know I speak on behalf of countless therapists when I say that we welcome your concerns, thoughts and worries – we believe that you are important and therefore believe that your questions are important too.

Kind regards,

Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist based in Enscondido, California, where she specializes in posttraumatic stress/trauma. She has worked both abroad and within the United States, where she has applied a collaborative approach in helping trauma survivors grow and heal.
  • Leave a Comment
  • David Ca

    July 8th, 2012 at 6:56 PM

    My touch with my therapist is much closer, we seem to be more like brothers than like a client patient relationship. Does anyone know if this is typical or are we getting to close? I enjoy the sessions but I am not sure if we are getting where we need to with my family problems.

  • Jillian

    August 21st, 2015 at 12:51 AM

    Those last few paragraphs are very poignant. Have you written anything else on the fear abuse victims have of damaging others with their story? Do you know of any other good writings on the subject?

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