It’s hard, if not impossible, to have a truly close, intimate relationship with someone you don’t trust. Most of the couples work I’ve done has involved, at some level, a breakdown in trust, and a desire to explore if it can be rebuilt. With individuals, the subject often comes up around trusting themselves, friends, partners, or family. It would be wonderful if everyone felt safe to be themselves, to express what matters most to them, with those they are closest to.
Counselling and Trust
I believe counselling can help with the many issues around trust. Whether that’s about continually trusting people who let you down, not trusting people who want to support you, or perhaps you’re struggling to trust your own thoughts and decision making.
I’m also aware there can be a hurdle in the way of getting that help or support. If trust is, or has been an issue for you, how can you trust the counsellor who is offering to help? There’s an old expression, “trust is earned”. It can feel like a huge leap of faith to sit in front of a stranger and answer the question “what brings you here?”
How important is trust?
As a counsellor, I’m regularly entrusted with people’s most intimate secrets. Thoughts about themselves or others they’ve barely acknowledged, let alone said out loud to another person. It is a tremendous honour to be in this position, and it’s one I take very seriously.
And I’m aware this can only happen if the client feels they can trust me to hold what they’re telling me. If the room itself feels like a safe, secure space. This is backed up by research. Study after study shows it’s the quality of the relationship formed between therapist and client that best predicts successful outcomes.
How can trust be built?
Counsellors are aware of the possible chicken and egg situation when it comes to creating a trusting relationship. And there are steps that we take aimed at helping with this.
In my case, at the heart of everything I do is the belief it’s the client’s choice of what to bring to our sessions. I will adapt how I work to fit what it is they need or want from me. In my experience, clients know when it’s the right time to talk about more difficult material. That might be early in the work, or much later. Either is absolutely fine.
Also important for building trust is the contract. It might seem odd to be handed a contract almost as soon as you’ve come into the room, but there’s a reason for this. Contracts will vary between counsellors, but all should contain some key points. The most important is around confidentiality. The contract will spell out what does and doesn’t happen with the information you bring. The counsellor is agreeing that what you tell them stays in the room, and any possible exceptions are clearly spelled out (such as legal requirements around child safety, serious crime etc). The contract should be following the guidelines from the professional body the counsellor is registered with. Mine, for example, follows the BACP’s ethical framework (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, www.bacp.co.uk ). Any concerns you might have can then be raised and discussed before you’ve said anything about why you are there.
Another important element of the contract is establishing what you are or are not committing to. Most counsellors offer at least an introductory session with no obligation to book further sessions. I continue to work in an open ended way, meaning clients can choose when to finish rather than committing to a minimum or maximum number of sessions. Some counsellors or services might offer a fixed number of sessions so that is something to be aware of.
Given the importance of the relationship you form with the counsellor, it’s absolutely okay to decide the one you’ve met with isn’t right for you. This could be for any reason. You have no obligation to explain why you don’t want to continue, or to make a decision in the room in that first session. Every experienced counsellor will know they can’t be the right choice for everyone, and will be fine with you continuing your search. That’s the reason most offer introductory sessions.
Another area the issue of trust can come in, is when deciding whether to work with someone local to where you live or work. Some people feel uncomfortable about the possibility of running into their counsellor while out and about town. Or the possibility they might know some of the same people. Unfortunately, this can lead to people not seeking help at all. It can be hard enough to find time for counselling without adding in lengthy, possibly expensive, travel. The easier it is to fit into your schedule, the more likely you are to both start and continue with counselling.
I’m very much aware of those concerns. In the first session I discuss what happens if we do run into each other outside of the therapy room. My default is if you smile and say hello to me, I will smile and say hello back. Otherwise, I’ll just carry on doing whatever I was doing as if we don’t know each other from the counselling work we’re doing. Whatever the client is most comfortable with. Either way, I believe it’s very important that the therapy room is a boundaried, safe and contained space. Even if there’s nobody else around, I never discuss the work we do together outside of that room.
Who do you know?
When it comes to possibly knowing some of the same people, I don’t work with my friends, or their partners or close relatives. Beyond that, I don’t personally see this as an issue. Along with the confidentiality mentioned above, I’m also aware of the highly subjective way we all experience the world. This might sound like a strange thing to say, but when I’m describing someone, or events that have happened, I’m simply describing my own personal experience of them. That experience is unique to me. Others will experience those same people or events differently. That’s perfectly normal. So if you’re describing someone I’ve perhaps met before, or might meet in the future, I simply take what you say for what it is, your personal experience. That is what we work with.
Trusting the process
Ultimately, I believe there are often very, very good reasons why someone might find it difficult to trust other people. For some clients, learning to trust may well be the goal of counselling, rather than something that needs to be established near the start. I know a blog like this can only really scratch the surface of what is a very complex topic. But I hope this might help a little in trying to break the circle of how counselling can help with issues around trust, while issues around trust can block some people from accessing counselling.