The Power of Bearing Witness

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Over the past week, I have been reflecting on the article Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness: The Problem of Helpfulness in Encounters with Torture Survivors by Dick Blackwell (1997). In the article, Blackwell (1997) explores the role of the therapist in supporting our client’s wants and needs in therapy, especially with respect to survivors of  torture. He declares that therapy provides “an opportunity for people to discover who they are and what can do for themselves” (Blackwell, 1997). Blackwell continues to analyze the role of the therapist, entreating therapists to not strive for “helpfulness”, but rather create spaces to hold, contain, and bear witness to the client’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. As therapists, it is essential to provide a holding environment in which we recognize how our consistency and acknowledgment of “who the person is and what they feel” is an emotional space for nurturing, similar to how a mother holds a child. In addition to holding, the concept of containing emphasizes the client’s dialogue around their emotional environment. Thus, “containment takes place in a dialogue which seeks to find words for hitherto unspeakable feelings and experiences as they are projected into the sounds” (Blackwell, 1997). In sessions with our clients, by providing a space for holding and containing, we can collaborate with them to re-integrate the parts once difficult to recognize. 

Furthermore, Blackwell (1997) continues to expand on the extent of the therapeutic relationship and the importance of the therapist not being “helpful”, but rather a companion on the client’s journey of “truth”. By bearing witness to their journey and not trying to “help” them feel better by assuaging their experiences in the moment, we are able to be a testament to their histories, the effects of these experiences, how they adapted, and how they view themselves. Although bearing witness may make the client and therapist feel worse in the short term, “this helpfulness is in the long run of little real significance” (Blackwell, 1997). Blackwell (1997) continues to explain that “bearing witness is a personal and a political activity. It is to constitute ourselves as some sort of testimony to the history with which we are engaged.” Especially with individuals who have experienced trauma due to political violence, their experiences with political processes and institutions need to be addressed in order to re-integrate the parts that may have been ruptured due to political actors and to work towards the recovery of their sense of being a “whole person”. 

In conclusion, this article caused me to reflect on the power of bearing witness to our client’s experiences and how therapists should orient ourselves in our therapeutic alliances by honoring our client’s histories. It is an honor and privilege to be a support for our clients on their journey of transformation, and I hope we can be present with our clients without our personal need to be helpful. Even though the article is oriented towards survivors of torture and political violence, this statement holds  true with all our clients. In building our therapeutic relationship with our clients, it is vital to hold a space for truth, honesty, and connection to empower our clients to live fully. Ultimately, therapy creates a space for growth and supporting “the pursuit of truth within a human relationship” (Blackwell, 1997). 



Blackwell, D. (1997). Holding, containing and bearing witness: The problem of helpfulness in encounters with torture survivors. Journal of Social Work Practice, 11(2),81-89.

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Holly Wollesen

Holly received her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 and is currently pursuing her master’s in social work at the University of Chicago. Before attending graduate school,… Read More