As I work with trauma survivors, we frequently discuss relationships. In the very first session with a client, I’m asking her to identify a few people who are ‘safe.’ My definition of a safe person is someone who listens before speaking, who comes toward her with compassion, and who can point her toward wisdom without judging self-righteously. This is a quick and narrow definition – just enough to help her identify who she might gain support from as she does the healing process of counseling. But as we continue, I flesh out that definition even more.
As a Christian counselor, I’m always thinking about how the gospel informs relationships and how God leads us in the way to form healthy bonds with others. If my client is a Christian, I want to talk with her about what God intends for healthy relationships. But even if she’s not a Christian, these truths shape how I care for her along the way. My goal is to guide her into the truth of what loving relationships are, based on Scripture, thus helping her to gauge whether the relationships in her life are healthy, unhealthy or abusive. Often trauma survivors have not developed good definitions for these categories, so part of the work is to define our terms correctly.
I’d like to share with you the way I talk about this with clients. Hopefully this will give you some tools for these same discussions with your friends, loved ones, clients, parishioners and mentees. No matter what role we play in the life of another, we need helpful categories so that we can guide and be guided into relational flourishing.
I created a tool called “Concentric Circles of Safety.” In this tool I show clients three concentric circles. The “Inner Circle” includes people who know us deeply and have our trust. This circle is built over time and may be fairly small. The “Intermediate Circle” includes people who somewhat know us and have limited trust. This circle is usually larger and may include co-workers and fellow members of a church or community group. The “Outer Circle” includes people who know us in a very limited way. This group may include acquaintances and those with whom we interact only on social media, so there is little or no trust developed.
I show the tool to clients and ask them to complete a worksheet to list which relationships are Inner Circle, Intermediate Circle, and Outer Circle. Then I ask clients to talk me through the reasons a person is listed in a particular category. The conversation might go like this:
Beth: “I noticed you put Sarah in the Inner Circle. What makes her a good candidate for that circle?”
Client: “She is my oldest friend.”
Beth: “What has she demonstrated that indicates she is trusted to be in the Inner Circle?”
Client: “Well, she always responds when I text her. I can tell she cares about me for who I am.”
Beth: “That’s important. Do you feel safe to share difficult feelings and circumstances with Sarah?”
Client: “Usually. Sometimes she has quick answers for me when I talk about hard things.”
Beth: “Can you give me an example?”
Client: “When I told her I was thinking about separating from my husband, she very quickly told me it’s wrong to separate from my husband.”
This dialogue demonstrates the complexity of categorizing our relationships. No one is safe all the time. So when someone does something that makes us feel unsafe, do we have to stop trusting them? Trauma survivors can often create rigid categories, making it difficult for someone to leave one circle and go into another one. What I want to do in counseling is to help them become more flexible in areas where rigidity has caused flourishing to be limited, while at the same time helping them to set healthy boundaries in cases where a relationship is unhealthy or abusive.
Often this conversation leads us into discussing how the client views God. Is He safe? If He doesn’t seem safe, what are the reasons for this? Survivors of trauma sometimes believe that God has punished them or is cruel in trying to teach them a lesson through their suffering. If this is a deeply held belief, the survivor may struggle to come toward God and allow Him into the “inner circle.” We spend time discussing the fact that trusting God provides strength to take healthy risks in building strong relationships with other people.
Once the client shares about the people in each circle, we discuss some more detailed definitions of trust and safety in relationships. Here are some helpful determining factors for the Inner Circle.
A person in my Inner Circle:
- Listens attentively
- Offers compassion and support
- Steers clear of quick advice and self-righteous judgment
- Points me toward wisdom
- Doesn’t assume she knows what I need
- Challenges me in my own growth with love and encouragement
- Wants me to be myself
- Willingly asks for and receives forgiveness when harm occurs
- Seeks to repair relational damage
I work hard to remind the client that no person will do these things all the time. When someone harms us or makes mistakes in human weakness, we must learn to determine how to respond wisely and lovingly. When someone continually harms and does not seek forgiveness, this is an indication that they may not need to be part of our inner circle.
I also talk frequently with clients about whether a person could possibly move from our Outer Circle to our Intermediate Circle, or even from our Intermediate Circle to our Inner Circle. Many trauma survivors struggle to take that risk, so we discuss ways to healthily do this. For example, someone may have demonstrated the qualities of an Inner Circle person, but the client hasn’t yet allowed her into the Inner Circle. I might recommend that the client take that person to coffee and share something a little deeper than she has before, allowing trust to build more deeply.
On the other hand, some clients have let too many people into the Inner Circle. In those cases we discuss setting healthy boundaries with people who might not need to be in the Inner Circle. And finally, I tell clients that no person should ever jump directly from the Outer Circle to the Inner Circle. Trust takes time to develop, and we need to move slowly enough to see the signs of health.
CTHN has a webinar recording available for purchase called Building Healthy Relationships After Trauma. In this webinar these concepts are discussed in detail. In addition, CTHN Members receive the graphic above in downloadable form, as well as a worksheet to use with clients for listing relationships in the three categories. If you are not yet a member of CTHN, we encourage you to join by clicking HERE.