“You Get It” – 3 Tips for Civilian Therapists Working with Military Clients


I’ve worked closely with members of the armed forces, honored as they handed me their trust, sometimes reluctantly.  While humbled they would allow me in to their world by way of painful disclosures, I find myself especially so (humbled) when one says to me, “You get it”.  I graciously say ‘thank you’ and embarrassingly admit to myself an uncertainty about exactly what they meant. What do I “get”?  It’s important for me to know so I can recreate this space for the next one to venture into much needed healing.

I overheard a colleague once say, after meeting with a group of soldiers just home from deployment, “I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to help them.  Their experience is not like any other”.  She was intimidated by their unique set of circumstances and its emotional residue.  Her comments made me even more determined to be clear about what I was doing so I could help my fellow civilian mental healthcare providers create healing opportunities for our military community.  For various reasons, warriors may find themselves seeking therapy from civilian providers who’ve known little of their unique experience.  Here are a few tips to remember when a warrior asks for help from a civilian therapist.

  • Respect the uniqueness of their life while finding the shared human experience.  In the past decade, it is estimated that less than one percent of America’s general population is actively serving at any one time.  I’ve had to agree with soldiers when they say to me, “You can’t understand. You’ve never done what I’ve done”.  They’re right.  I’ve never been trained for or participated in war.  However, I’m a person who’s been through stuff.  My goal then becomes to build a bridge between my knowledge of life with theirs by helping them see our shared experience as fellow humans – the one that includes the similar reactions our bodies, minds, and souls may have in response to horrific events in our lives.  Despair, sorrow, feeling lost in one’s own skin – these are a part of the human condition depending on the paths we’ve walked.  While the particular steps may vary, there is common ground in the journey.
  • Reframe any seeming resistance.  I’ve been auditioned as a therapist by many a service member’s initial (and only seeming) resistance to the therapy space.  In the military, warriors are specially trained for reconnaissance missions.  Their job is to be the eyes and ears for command while on the battlefield.  Most warriors are very familiar with the mission.  They gather information in order to help the unit know how to proceed.  You and I function in similar fashion.  We move forward in new spaces and relationships with some level of caution until we’ve gathered necessary information that lets us know if it’s safe to step forward.  It allows us to build trust in ourselves and our surroundings so we can function effectively.  Military/veteran clients do not lay those skills down when they enter therapy.  In fact, they may begin counseling with a heightened sense of awareness because it is foreign for them.  In conversation with a wary battalion commander, I was reminded that while encouragement to disclose is at the cornerstone of therapy, for a warrior disclosure of “intel” could lead to danger.  It may take time for them to understand that this premise doesn’t translate into the therapy dialogue.  Reframing this posture as a protective device rather than an opposition can help send a message that they are safe with you, respected and understood.  Your military client has been conditioned to withhold information in unfamiliar spaces.  It is not resistance. It is survival.
  • Be unafraid of tapping in to your own humanity.  I’m not suggesting as therapists we do much self-disclosing to clients.  The therapy space is reserved for the client’s story, not ours.  I am suggesting we be willing to access our own experience as fellow humans so we can express authentic empathy – fully understanding the intense levels of fear, uncertainty, and moral or spiritual warfare often gripping the souls of these men and women.  We need to access and understand the psychological space inside us that sometimes resist help, that puts up a wall to any effort made to encourage a brave and full disclosure to another person.  We must allow our own intimate awareness of what effectively lowers the walls around a hurting and cautious soul so that healing can take place.  Show the warrior client you’ll walk with them to the darkest places of invisible wounds without falter and with reverence.

As global relationships change, so do the requirements of our military community evolve in response.  Our education about advances in warfare that beckon new responsibilities for service members is never-ending.  Respecting the battle-mind of a warrior requires dutifully educating ourselves on the mindset that is forever embedded in them for survival.  The military community truly does have its own culture, language, and cognitive framework.  Pursuing in-depth understanding of their world (life as a warrior), while maintaining excellence in pursuit of best-practices in ours (therapy) will help us and our warrior clients make the best use of time together in healing.  They deserve our efforts and we can surely gain by learning what they have to teach us about survival and the human spirit.  If you don’t yet “get it”, build a bridge to get there.

For free education on helping our military community, go to PsychArmor Institute.

About chris cannida

I am a psychotherapist, trainer, and consultant hoping to help others find a peaceful and meaningful sense of self, while improving the quality of their lives. My background includes extensive work with post 9/11 active duty service members and veterans. All writings on this site are currently dedicated to the mission of helping our military community remain mission-ready and resilient.
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