1. PUTS SAFETY FIRST

After having left a number of appointments with previous counsellors, psychiatrists and CPNs feeling very unsafe, it was a great relief to have our counsellor monitor our level of distress in sessions, and check we were always safe to leave. No longer do we suddenly get asked about a previous session’s trigger, or find ourselves trying to think far enough ahead in a conversation to be able to stop it before we get retraumatised. When we are too low or unsafe to work therapeutically, we can just talk about life outside therapy, and building a safety plan. On the worst days she helps ground us, and asks what we plan to do after the appointment ends; annoyingly, very annoyingly, this prompts us to hastily come up with an alternative to our usual intended plan of heading to the shop to buy something harmful (how did she know?!)

2. PUTS US IN CONTROL

We decide what to work on each session, and who will come out. Everyone is welcome and our system decides what to cover each session. On the days when I don’t know is our only idea, I don’t know is our only answer to how we feel, and I don’t know is our only answer to what has been happening lately, then our counsellor always has ideas for us to choose from and resources to help us work out our thoughts or feelings.

3. ESTABLISHES MUTUAL TRUST

I can’t describe how much of a surprise and honour it was when our therapist first lent us a book, which we later realised was out of print, and had been dedicated to her by the author. To be lent such a treasured possession showed us that she had faith in us, when we had none in ourselves. We are able to ask to see notes at any time, or to ask for notes not to be taken; and we are trusted to feedback on how things are working for us in therapy.

4. BUILDS OUR SELF-RELIANCE

When one of us needs help, we want to turn straight to our carer (partner) or counsellor. But instead we have learned that the first step is to check inside: what do others alters/parts think? Can they help? Is there another alter/part who can offer support to the one who is struggling? Who do others believe the guilt and shame feelings really belong to? Are there other people who can become part of our support system?

Although we would love to have our counsellor on call 24/7, that would lead to increasing dependence and difficulties moving on from counselling. By teaching us how to manage difficult times ourselves, we can be independent, and gain confidence and self-esteem.

5. PLAYS WITH THE EMOTIONALLY YOUNGER ONES

The younger ones find that play helps to begin building a relationship with our counsellor, and safe play helps establish trust and security before the difficult discussions begin. Young ones are encouraged to bring cuddly toys or whatever comforts them, and are never pressured to talk about details of trauma. They feel a sense of safety without the need to meet any expectations from our counsellor. Our counsellor has a gentle way of making sure that play is time-limited and therapeutic, although many of the younger ones would love a whole session of play!

6. ACCEPTS ALL OF US UNCONDITIONALLY

Everyone is accepted equally – no matter what bad things we have done – and our counsellor does not abandon us or show any disgust when she hears of the absolute horror and shocking acts that many of us have taken part in in the past. Her acceptance helps us reduce our shame at perpetrating horrors on others, and helps us accept ourselves more. When our protectors are consistently late for counselling or write hate-mail to our counsellor, she shrugs it off, and tells them how wise they are to be careful and cautious in trusting her. She helps the others understand and value our protectors’ role, and her positive reaction discourages them from continuing their disruptive tactics.

7. MODELS HEALTHY BOUNDARIES AND EMOTIONS

Our counsellor tells us what support we can expect between sessions, including any variation in this (for example holidays), and she always maintains the same boundaries. We know what to expect and what isn’t realistic, leaving us less at risk of feelings of abandonment. It is upsetting not to be able to contact her exactly when we want, or not to get a response on the same day that we send a message. But in the longer term it shows us that we can also say no to people, and that does not make us a bad person. We learn that it is also helpful to keep our own boundaries consistent, and that we do not need to always meet other people’s emotional or practical needs. We can learn not to take responsibility for other people’s emotions.

In safely expressing emotions when appropriate, she shows us that no emotions are unacceptable, and that expressing anger and rage can bring positives.

8. AVOIDS EASY ANSWERS, OR TELLING US WHETHER SHE BELIEVES OUR MEMORIES

We have to make our own judgements, and decide things for ourselves. When we hit denial, our counsellor asks us to look at our dissociative symptoms, to analyse whose memories we believe and to what degree, and to think about what may be triggering denial. We can either work through denial, or work on daily life until the denial passes. By making our own decisions and choices, we can reassure ourselves that we aren’t taking on someone else’s beliefs – we aren’t being brainwashed.

9. ENCOURAGES PSYCHO-EDUCATION

By learning about the principles and logic behind dissociation, we are able to make sense of the reactions and emotions that didn’t make sense before. We are able to understand our system and each other more easily, and use the knowledge and some educated guesswork to develop better co-operation and support between each of us. In noticing and analysing ourselves, we can gain a better understanding and some emotional distance for ourselves from things that are too painful and overwhelming. It’s such a relief to be able to change my view of myself/ourselves from “totally messed-up” to someone who is just struggling with affect regulation!

10. STAYS POSITIVE AND HOPEFUL

No matter how awful we feel, no matter what horrors are in our mind or how confused we are, our counsellor amazes us with her ability to remain positive. She has hope for us when we have none for ourselves. Her quiet, positive approach gives us confidence that perhaps things aren’t quite that bad. Perhaps we really aren’t a hopeless case.