finding the right counselor for you

Finding the Right Counselor for You

The idea of sharing personal stories and emotions can be scary, especially if you’re still feeling hurt or vulnerable from a breakup. Delving into these difficult feelings can ultimately be one of the most helpful ways to cope and move on. That’s where counseling comes in. Talking with someone one-on-one in a safe space is a great option for anyone who may need support.

To learn more about the process of starting counseling, we met up with licensed clinical psychologist and motivational speaker Martha Ramos Duffer whose work is centered on trauma treatment, empowerment and personal growth. She provided us with incredibly helpful information on how to choose a counselor.

What are the differences between a counselor, therapist, psychologist and psychiatrist? Who would you suggest for someone who has left an abusive relationship?

That’s an important place to start. The words psychotherapist, therapist and counselor are all used interchangeably. These are people who have received master’s degrees in counseling, social work or psychology. Psychologists have more training because they are doctorate level therapists. Any of these professionals can do a great job providing therapy.

On the other hand, psychiatrists have a doctorate in medicine. In most states they are the only ones who can prescribe medicine and most don’t provide therapy. What most often happens is that somebody who needs medication will see a psychologist or other licensed counselor for therapy and see a psychiatrist for medication.

It’s important to make sure the professional you decide to speak with is a licensed mental health professional. Terms like “licensed professional counselor” are legally regulated, so not just anybody can call themselves that. Words like “counselor” or “coach” are not regulated, so anybody can call themselves that.

What are the steps to take in order to find the right counselor?

The first thing to think about is financial access. Will you try to use insurance to pay? If not, will you pay out of pocket and do you need sliding scale fees? Some therapists offer varying prices based on the client’s income level.

Some communities also have local mental health centers with low fees. If you’re just leaving an abusive relationship and you don’t have access to funds or insurance, see if one of these exists in your area.

If you have insurance, call and request a list of mental health care providers. After you have a list, you can begin to ask around to see which of these professionals are recommended by others. If you’re coming out of a shelter, ask the people who work there for recommendations. Ask friends and family if anybody has seen a mental health professional who has worked well for them.

If your friends and family members haven’t used mental health professionals, there are other options. Ask for recommendations from other health professionals in the community, like your physician or even other psychologists. Psychology Today is also a useful site where many mental health professionals advertise, allowing you to read doctors’ bios and research more options in your area.

Call several different therapists and talk with them before setting up an appointment. This lets you determine how comfortable you feel and how responsive they are. Ask if they have expertise working with clients who have experienced trauma and domestic violence.

What are some red flags that indicate that a therapist may not understand domestic violence or aren’t a good fit for you?

If a therapist gets defensive when you ask them if they have experience with trauma and domestic violence, then it is likely that they are not well trained in that area.

Another huge red flag is if a therapist wants to begin by looking at your role in the relationship and treats the abuse as a mutual-fault issue. That doesn’t mean that in complex ways we don’t all play a role in every dynamic but that’s not how to treat a survivor of domestic violence. If they start to discuss the situation as if it was a traditional marriage or relationship issue and try to explore your own role in triggering or participating in the abuse, this is a clear sign they don’t understand domestic violence.

If a counselor recommends couples therapy or marriage therapy, this is also a red flag. This is not recommended when there’s battering and violence in a relationship.

How do you know a counselor is a good fit for you?

A good match between therapist and client is one of the most powerful healing factors in a therapeutic relationship. Look for someone who makes you feel heard, understood, safe and comfortable.

If you don’t feel this way, it makes sense to look for someone else. However, it’s important to first ask yourself what is making you uncomfortable. Is your discomfort coming from how difficult it is to talk about this? Of course you’re going to feel badly as you start to talk about what happened. There are all kinds of things that can make a first session not feel good, and you need to discern if your discomfort is because starting the process is difficult, or because you don’t feel heard and understood by the counselor.

Check the blog on Wednesday for the second part of our interview with Martha.

what is consent

What Is Healthy Consent? What ISN’T Consent?

Consent. This one word draws a line between acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviors. This one word helps define whether an experience was sexual assault or not. Was the action wanted? Was the act agreed upon by both people?

For as important as consent is, we don’t talk about it enough. In the wake of so many high coverage media cases of sexual assault in which much of the coverage shifted the blame to the victims who were somehow “asking for it” or “didn’t say no,” it’s important to reevaluate what consent is and how we can give it or withhold it. It’s also essential that we understand what it looks like when our partners give — or don’t give — consent.

First, we need to change how we think about consent. The old idea of “no means no” is not a good approach. It puts the responsibility on one person to resist or accept, and makes consent about what a partner doesn’t want, instead of what they do want.

Consent can be sexy. It can be a moment for both partners to openly express to each other what they’re looking for and what they do want to experience. The saying “yes means yes” can be empowering and useful in thinking about what consent is.

Consent is ongoing. Both partners should keep giving, and looking for, consent. Just because you’ve given consent to an act before, doesn’t mean it becomes a “given” every time. This idea also relates to new relationships — just because you’ve given consent to something in a different relationship doesn’t make it “automatic” in a new relationship.

Consent is not a free pass. Saying yes to one act doesn’t mean you have to consent to other acts. Each requires its own consent. EX: Saying yes to oral sex doesn’t automatically mean you’re saying yes to intercourse.

Your relationship status does not make consent automatic. If you’re married to someone, friends with someone, or dating someone, it doesn’t mean they ‘own’ your consent by default. Or that you own theirs. Also, consent can be taken back at any time — even if you’re in the midst of something and feeling uncomfortable, you always have the right to stop.

There’s no such thing as implied consent. The absence of a “no” does not equal a “yes.” What you or a partner chooses to wear doesn’t mean that you or they are inviting unwanted sexual attention or “pre-consenting.” The same can be said for flirting, talking, showing interest or any other actions.

It’s not consent if you’re afraid to say no. It’s not consent if you’re being manipulated, pressured, or threatened to say yes. It’s also not consent if you or a partner is unable to legitimately give consent, which includes being asleep, unconscious, under the influence of conscious-altering substances or not able to understand what you’re saying yes to.

Nonconsent means STOP. If anyone involved isn’t consenting, then what is happening is or could be rape, sexual assault or abuse.

Here are some red flags that your partner doesn’t respect consent:

  • They pressure or guilt you into doing things you may not want to do.
  • They make you feel like you “owe” them — because you’re dating, or married, they gave you a gift, etc.
  • They react negatively (with sadness, anger or resentment) if you say “no” to something, or don’t immediately consent.
  • They ignore your wishes, and don’t pay attention to non-verbal cues that could show that you’re not consenting (EX: being reluctant, pulling away).

How to practice healthy consent: 

  • Talk about it! Communication is one of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship. Establish boundaries by explaining what things you and your partner are comfortable with and what things you may not feel comfortable with. Always ask first. Try phrases like:
    “Are you OK with this?”
    “If you’re into it, I could…”
    “Are you comfortable with this?”
  • Be aware of the physical and nonverbal signs of consent as well. If your partner seems uncomfortable, talk about it and discuss it. Don’t assume that silence is them saying yes.
  • Remember that giving and receiving consent is an ongoing process.

Further Reading

The Good Men Project has an amazing article about how to teach consent to your children, breaking down the ‘methods’ and ideas into what would be most appropriate for each age group.

The post “Drivers Ed for the Sexual Superhighway,” is geared toward teens but relates to any relationship.

The Consensual Project focuses on partnering with schools and universities to teach students about consent in their daily lives.

National Domestic Violence Hotline Blog

From Survivor to Mountaineer

By Kathleen Schmidt

My name is Kathleen Schmidt, and I’m a survivor of domestic violence and abuse. I fled for my life over 15 years ago from extreme emotional and physical abuse, and created a new life for myself.

When I was living in a shelter for battered women, I kept telling myself over and over, “I have a brain, two hands, two feet and I know how to work; I WILL make my life better.” I chose to become a victor instead of a victim.  Books became my source of education and inspiration, and not only did I work on my own healing, I also had to find a way to earn a living. Not shy of hard work, I at one point sold pictures out of the trunk of my car. My efforts paid off, and it won me a trip to the Bahamas that allowed me to dive with sharks (I learned how to scuba dive while living in the shelter).

I entertained the idea for a very long time, since I lived in the shelter, to write my story. So finally, after many years needed to grow and heal, I wrote my little blue book “Escaping the Glass Cage: A Story of Survival & Empowerment from Domestic Violence.” It isn’t a big book, but something a woman in crisis can read and find encouragement in. I wrote it for women in shelters, but my hope is that it also helps those on the outside get a basic understanding of domestic violence and its effects.  But getting my book published didn’t feel like enough.

I wanted to find a way to reach more people on a global scale. So I created “Project Empowerment,” a blog talk radio show dedicated to empowering survivors of domestic violence and abuse, as well as others. I truly believe we each have a voice, and if people are able to listen to another’s story, it can help them make different choices and empower them to live a better life.

My guests have included Betty Makoni, Top 10 CNN Hero of the Year for 2009 for her humanitarian work rescuing rape victims in Zimbabwe. I’ve also interviewed actress/author Mariel Hemingway, as well as the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Operations Director, Katie-Ray Jones. My guests have also included many shelter directors from all over the world, authors, psychotherapists, counselors and survivors, each sharing their story, their passion and the work they are doing to make our world a better place. We talk about the tough subjects, and at the end of each show we share our ideas of solutions to the issues discussed, such as why the victim stays, where do abused men get help, how a can victim get help to rebuild their life, and how we can empower the children.

It is humbling to be contacted by listeners from all around the world, to learn the vital resources shared and how their sheer willpower helped them gain the strength to leave their abuser. My dream to build “Project Empowerment” into a global resource tool is coming true.

But again, I felt there needed to be something else to raise awareness. So I am very excited to announce “Climb for Empowerment,” with the mission to empower survivors of domestic violence and abuse … one step at a time. I will be climbing Mt. Rainier September 1–3, 2011, in honor of all those who have struggled to start their lives over.

It is by choice, to take one step after another. My dream is to show the world that if I can make a new life, so can you, one step at a time. I know how hard it is to rebuild a life. It takes a lot of courage to start over, learn how to live again and grow through the pain. So this climb is a symbol of that growth. It takes time, training and a lot of determination to do this, and I will need your support. Donations will be shared between Girl Child Network Worldwide and The Pixel Project. Both are global initiatives working very hard to help end violence against women.

I truly believe that all healing and empowerment begins from within. And for us to have peace in our world, we must first have peace within our homes, within ourselves. If you can find that spark, that driving force that pulls you in the direction of doing something bigger than you, listen to it. We each have a voice, we each can make a difference in the world, and it all starts with us.

To learn more about my work, Project Empowerment, Climb for Empowerment and upcoming Empowerment Workshops (New!), you can visit my website at