By Jamie Sedgwick, LCPC, NCC
EMDRIA Approved Consultant
Five years ago, I made the decision to get trained in EMDR therapy as a way to treat PTSD as a certified trauma specialist effectively. When I signed up for EMDR training, I viewed it as a potential tool to add to my therapist toolbox that I could pull out when needed. Instead, I received training in a modality that completely changed my treatment approach regardless of the diagnosis.
As an EMDR therapist that works primarily with complex trauma, I have learned to conceptualize my role as the therapist in a very different way than I had previously. I am no longer expected to have all the answers or be the expert. However, this does not mean how I show up in the therapeutic relationship has lost value. I have come to realize there are three trauma specialist traits that every trauma specialist should bring to the therapeutic relationship.
Unconditional positive regard, the acceptance, and support of a client regardless of their words or actions is likely not a new concept to most therapists. However, this concept took on somewhat of a new meaning for me after becoming an EMDR therapist.
As an EMDR therapist, this is more than simply accepting and supporting a client regardless of what is said or done. It is also about seeing strengths where others (including the client) may see weaknesses. This functions to build therapeutic rapport and create a space where the client can share and process whatever thought, emotion, or sensations comes up for them without fear of judgment. This is critical for good trauma work.
A good trauma therapist should also possess the skills we hope to build in our clients throughout the healing process. Two skills or traits that come to my mind are affect tolerance and ego strength. You are likely not alone if you are wondering what one or both of these are. These were new concepts to me after I learned EMDR and embarked on becoming a trauma therapist.
Affect tolerance is a fancy way of saying a person can tolerate all negative and positive emotions. As much as we recognize this is an indicator of healing and treatment progress in clients, it is also essential for a trauma therapist to have strong affect tolerance. A trauma therapist must be able to sit with and tolerate all emotions at all levels of intensity to help a client reprocess and heal from past traumas. Trauma significantly impacts how emotions are stored and experienced, and a client needs to be able to process through this to recover. If a trauma therapist cannot tolerate big emotions in themselves, they likely will not be able to handle big emotions in clients. They will block or interfere with the client’s emotional reprocessing experience due to the therapist’s personal affective blocks.
Ego strength may also be a new concept. Ego strength refers to an individual’s sense of self. An individual with strong ego strength knows who they are in the world. As much as we want our clients to be able to identify a sense of self, it is also an important trait for all trauma therapists to possess. When a trauma therapist can maintain and model strong ego strength, it creates a therapeutic space where clients can share and process without fear or concern for the therapist.
Additionally, being a trauma therapist is not easy work. Regardless of the treatment approach, trauma therapists often hear about horrific events and sit with big feelings. To practice self-care and avoid burnout, a trauma therapist needs strong ego strength to keep them rooted in who they are regardless of the traumatic material they sit with and walk through with clients.
Finally, a trauma therapist needs to have good boundaries and communication skills. It is not uncommon for clients to need support in learning and implementing healthy boundaries and communication skills, especially when working with complex trauma. If a client does need support in these areas, it is likely to show up in the therapeutic relationship. The trauma therapist must be able to utilize immediacy within the relationship to model healthy boundaries and communication skills to avoid boundary violations and potential ethical violations, but also to serve as a model for the client. Having good boundaries also helps the therapist maintain the boundaries necessary to practice self-care and avoid burnout.
If it is not already evident by the traits identified, a trauma therapist should do their own therapy at some point. I became a much more effective EMDR therapist when I began engaging in my own regular EMDR and trauma therapy. Not only did it give me a genuine appreciation for the process of healing from trauma, but it also allowed me to increase my affect tolerance and ego strength and develop good boundaries and communication so that I could bring those traits to my work as an EMDR therapist.
If you are a trauma therapist considering getting trained in EMDR therapy, be sure the training you choose is EMDRIA-approved. You can find EMDRIA-approved trainings by going to emdria.org. Trauma Specialists Training Institute (TSTI) is an EMDRIA-approved training provider that offers EMDR Basic Training, Advanced Training, and ongoing consultation options. Check out our website for more information.