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Ensuring Your Safety
In this section we will focus not on the victim, but on the batterer. We will discuss strategies for ensuring a supervisee’s physical safety when working with a battering client, as well as the burnout that results from a supervisee’s fear for safety.
I have decided to introduce the topic of safety in the transference/countertransference section, because the supervisee’s internal safety level may not only be governed by the reality of his or her client, but by percieved reality based on earlier unresolved and unconscious experiences. To make the unconscious more conscious, you might consider using the following exercise with a supervisee dealing with the battered or the batterer.
Exercise for the Supervisee Regarding Countertransference and Safety
At what level have you felt that your safety was threatened while working with a battering client? How did you react to this feeling? Did you find it more difficult to maintain your emotional distance and perspective when you felt your safety was at risk? Did you do anything in the future to avoid a similar situation? As you know, simply avoiding a client population that is threatening, such as battering men, is not the only way to maintain feelings of personal safety.
Many therapists believe that when a batterer seeks treatment, he is genuinely looking for help, and harming his partner is not on his mind. However, as you well know, violence can get out of control. How do you structure your supervisee’s environment for safety before the threat of violence becomes dangerous? I have found that I can strategically use both my environment and self to ensure my personal safety when working with battering clients. Here's some basics you may be currently overlooking that could decrease your supervisee’s stress and countertransference with clients.
4 Strategies for the Use of the Environment
As you are probably aware, the placement of furniture and people can prevent the escalation of danger in a therapeutic setting. Ask you read through these 4 strategies, imagine you are talking to your supervisee, and try to imagine how they would respond. If you think it would be helpful, you might also discuss these strategies with your supervisee in your next session, to confirm how he or she would respond.
Environment Strategy 1: Easy Exit
Does your office design enable an easy exit for you, should you need it during treatment? This easy exit and pathway to a door should never be blocked from you. When you conduct an anger-management group, where is your chair positioned in relation to the exit door? Do you need to reconsider repositioning your chair?
Environment Strategy 2: Telephone Access
Aside from an emergency escape path, a telephone within easy reach with an uncomplicated method for calling for help is also a great stress-reliever for myself in creating personal safety. Once, when co-leading an anger management group and a client started to become agitated, I envision myself walking over to the phone and dialing 911 as a safety valve for myself to relieve my stress, knowing I have a possible course of action. To date, I nor my co-leader has had to resort to calling emergency.
Environmental Strategy 3: Setting Limits
Obviously, prior to a client outburst, rules are initially set that clients will not be allowed to attend a group if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Also, rules regarding communication and acceptable group behaviors are set.
Environment Strategy 4: Distance
A therapist can use the environment to ensure personal safety from a battering client by sitting far enough away so the client cannot reach the therapist without taking several steps. I have found a desk or coffee table between the client and therapist can serve as a barrier. Also, chairs set in a large circle serve the same purpose.
Do you already use these four environment strategies of an easy exit, telephone access, setting limits, and distance, to create a safe personal environment when treating a batterer? Perhaps you can consider implementing a strategy we have overlooked during your next session. One or more of these environmental issues may be preying on your unconscious, creating stress and adding to your burnout level.
Strategic use of Self
In addition to using environmental strategies, I have also found strategic use of self to be helpful in creating personal safety. I can diffuse the situation by telling the batterer how his expression of anger is making me feel. I stated to an angry battering client in a session, "The way you are expressing your anger makes it hard for me to understand you. Can you calm down? I want to understand". As you can see in this example, I gave honest feedback to show respect for the battering client and to make clear that I as the therapist had his best interests in mind.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bennett, K., & Clark, E. (2021). Crossing guardians: Signaling and safety in queer and trans therapist/patient dyads. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 38(3), 216–222.
Carsky, M. (2020). How treatment arrangements enhance transference analysis in transference-focused psychotherapy. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 37(4), 335–343.
Westerling, T. W. III, Drinkwater, R., Laws, H., Stevens, H., Ortega, S., Goodman, D., Beinashowitz, J., & Drill, R. L. (2019). Patient attachment and therapist countertransference in psychodynamic psychotherapy. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 36(1), 73–81.
What are four environmental strategies that a therapist can use to ensure personal safety when working with a battering client? To select and enter your answer go to .