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Eagleville Therapist Heather Walton is Passionate About Her Work with Eagleville Clients

Eagleville therapist Heather Walton is passionate about her work with Eagleville clients. While no two clients are alike, she spends a lot of time and energy cultivating the authenticity and openness that her clients need in order to benefit most from group and one-on-one sessions.

Heather spoke with us about maintaining these dynamic and ever-changing relationships with clients in recovery, and what that means for her own mental health and her fellow therapists.

Heather, how do you personally define a healthy therapeutic relationship?

In my opinion, a healthy therapeutic relationship, is one that promotes growth—whatever that means for the client. This relationship comes down to three main components: genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. All three of these things have to be present.

First, as therapists, we have to be genuine. That means being comfortable enough with our clients that we can challenge them on difficult topics. Being genuine allows them to see us as people, too.

Unconditional positive regard is next. That means there’s no judgment or bias, which creates a space for trust in the relationship. I treat my clients as the experts in what they’re going through, and part of my job is to ask them questions that help them grow.

When you have both genuineness and unconditional positive regard, then you can have empathy, which is the third component of a good therapeutic relationship. Whether I’m passing a client in the hall or sitting down with them for a session, we’re truly equals. Our job as therapists is to help them get somewhere they want to go, and we can’t do that without them.

In the context of addiction and recovery, why is it important for your clients to build a healthy therapeutic relationship with you?

Whether they’re actively using or not, most of the people who come to therapists in the context of addiction have strained relationships. Humans go through developmental stages when it comes to our cognition, our bodies, and our emotions, and using drugs heavily at any age can hamper that development. For example, it’s not uncommon to see child-like behavior in someone who began using at the age of ten. When we think about building healthy therapeutic relationships with our clients, part of that is helping them develop the ability to regulate emotions.

Beyond that, many people in recovery have been hurt by others in the past and have difficulty trusting new people. And other clients are trying to build healthy relationships while experiencing emotions they once managed by using a substance. That’s why the components of a healthy therapeutic relationship are so important and why therapy is such a dynamic and complex process.

Given that it can be difficult for people in recovery to develop new relationships, how do you build rapport with your clients?

I acknowledge where my clients are and bring it to their attention. For example, I had a patient today who was very anxious; I noticed that he couldn’t stop fidgeting and shaking his leg. In a group session I wouldn’t point that out, but individually I addressed it. Often, that kind of “here and now” approach is very helpful because it shows that I’m real and they’re real and we can address what’s going on.

How does having a healthy relationship with a therapist model future relationships?

Before they’re discharged, our clients will set up an appointment with their new therapist. Whether they go is up to them, but they’re more likely to continue therapy if they had a good relationship with previous therapists.

When it comes to working with that next therapist, we encourage clients to trust the process. Some of the discomfort with a new therapist might be instructive. For example, if you’re apprehensive in the first sessions with a new therapist, maybe that’s a sign that you’re apprehensive about change. Maybe life transitions are difficult for you. Maybe you have a hard time trusting new people.

As a therapist, how do you maintain your mental health while remaining present for your clients?

One key to self-care is setting healthy boundaries with clients. Not only does that protect us, but it creates a model for what a healthy relationship looks like. We can still be supportive, nurturing and accepting with boundaries in place.

Professional mentorship is also important. In the state of Pennsylvania, therapists working toward their license have something called clinical supervision. It requires reflecting in both the group setting and one-on-one, under the supervision of a licensed therapist. The goal is to discuss what’s influencing our counseling skills and sharing what we’re going through in our practice.

I also see a correlation between my personal self-care and my professional competency. My self-care includes things like waking up earlier, playing sports, making healthier food choices, and taking time for myself. As therapists, we need to keep our engines going.