Monthly Archives: January 2013

Bringing abortion aftercare into the 21st century

Trudy M. Johnson January 1, 2013

abortion“The tipping point,” a concept presented by Malcolm Gladwell in a book by the same name in 2000, occurs when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire. I believe helping women process the grief they experience after an abortion choice is an idea whose time has come. Currently, very few venues exist in our culture where women have permission to grieve an abortion loss. It has been 40 years since abortion was legalized throughout the United States with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (January 1973). Yet, in my opinion, most mental health professionals are not informed or equipped to serve an extensive population that is confused by and disenfranchised with their abortion grief.

Dr. Christiane Northrup, a noted author and gynecologist, speaks about the topic of grief after abortion in her newly revised edition of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (2010). A former abortion doctor herself, Northrup takes the bold step of agreeing that women need a chance to grieve a voluntary pregnancy termination.

She writes, “Since the first edition of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, many women have written to me expressing their gratitude that I have addressed this issue [processing abortion grief]. And they have written about how their willingness to tell the truth about their abortion experience has healed them.” She goes on to say that during the many years she performed abortions, she observed that “not having fully grieved a pregnancy termination can be a setup for pregnancy problems in the future” because of the unresolved feelings surrounding the choice.

Disenfranchised grief

Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore! We have spent decades arguing whether abortion “should be.” While we argue, we lose sight of the fact that abortion “is.” According to the Guttmacher Institute, the statistical gathering arm of Planned Parenthood (a good, reliable source of abortion statistics), around 1.36 million women have abortions each year in the United States alone.

Our culture views abortion as a political, moral and legal issue. In doing so, society does not acknowledge the natural grief that many times follows an abortion choice. One of my past clients said the following: “There is a conspiracy among the sisterhood not to tell each other about the sadness they feel about their abortion. We don’t discuss our grief after abortion because it can be so gut-wrenching. The depth of the grief goes to the core of our beings. Our society doesn’t talk about abortion because it is legal. We are not allowed to grieve our loss because there is an implication that we should buck up and get over it — it is legal, don’t complain, that is that.”

It is normal to assume that the abortion provides closure. This is a false sense of resolution, however. At some point after the procedure, most women are caught off guard with a sadness that is often unavoidable.

It is at this stage of the abortion experience that women need a safe place to talk about their decision. Many times, even the most well-meaning professional scrambles to help the client validate the abortion choice. Unfortunately, in doing this, the client’s grief is not acknowledged. Additionally, there will be no pause to consider the abortion as a loss.

The reality is that after an abortion, many women experience grief that is disenfranchised. As with any sort of grief that goes unacknowledged in cultural norms, this can be the deepest, most painful kind of grieving because the person is so alone in it.

In his book Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for Practice, Kenneth J. Doka defines disenfranchised grief as a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, socially validated or publicly mourned. Doka states, “The person experiences a loss, but the resulting grief is unrecognized by others. The person has no socially accorded right to grieve or to mourn it in that particular way. The grief is disenfranchised.”

Disenfranchised grief, whether connected to the loss of an ex-spouse, a gay partner, a pet or even an abortion, can have a profound effect on an individual. Forty years after the legalization of abortion choice in our nation, it is time that mental health professionals get onboard with learning how to respond to a woman experiencing grief after an abortion.

Abortion grief and fear of disclosure

According to a statistic provided by the Guttmacher Institute in 1998, it was expected that 43 percent of women would have an abortion by the time they were 45. Despite this large demographic, women very seldom admit a choice decision to another person. However, choice decisions affect every level of our culture, every race and every religion.

Professionals need to understand how hard it is to self-disclose an abortion choice. Because of the fear of judgment or disenfranchisement over the sadness they feel, women often walk alone in processing their grief after abortion. It is my experience in working with women in this area that it takes an average of nine hours of therapy before they will admit an abortion choice.

Northrup states, “A century and a half of rhetoric designed to make women feel guilt and shame surrounding abortion and the choice of self-development over motherhood (at least for a time) leaves little wonder that abortion is not an easy issue for women to talk about freely. Yet if every woman who ever had an abortion, or even one-third of them, were willing to speak out about her experience — not in shame, but with honesty about where she was then, what she learned and where she is now — this whole issue would heal a great deal faster.”

“Secrets kill” is a therapy concept I refer to often. What I am seeing from my clients is the existence of an intense loyalty to the abortion secret that is driven by an incredible sense of fear of disclosure. With decades of guilt and shame as an emotional backdrop, many women never adequately process the deep grief aspects of abortion. As long as the cloak of shame surrounds this issue in the hearts of women, they will stay loyal to their “dirty little secret.”

Being healthy in mind and spirit means all of us must work through the grief issues of our past. If our human souls do not take this journey into grief in all areas of our lives, we will spend our future days simply managing our sorrow. This can manifest itself as anger, depression, alcoholism, eating disorders and other serious emotional and behavioral problems.

In his writings, Doka says “disenfranchisement is an injury that blocks the possibility of mourning; self is turned inward, wishing repair, but instead it repeatedly attacks itself with its worthlessness.”

Disenfranchised grief should be an important consideration in the lives of our clients, even in cases of abortion. Counseling professionals should be knowledgeable of how to approach this topic with their clients. These clients need to know their grief matters to someone who will safely share in the pain of their loss.

Changing the labels

I believe the best way to create a paradigm shift in processing grief after abortion is to change the labels. Professional therapists can be the trailblazers in the area of abortion grief. We have an opportunity to be part of something bigger than we can ever imagine by bringing abortion aftercare into the 21st century for thousands of women sitting in silence about their grief.

Once you say the word abortion, the conversation gets polarized, paralyzed and/or politicized, inciting passionate emotions on every side. Doka says it best when he notes, “The ideological and political divide between those who accept abortion and those who do not complicate disenfranchisement.”

I began experimenting with changing the labels some years back in my own private practice. In assessing client history, I noticed clients would rarely self-disclose a past abortion. I remembered my own past experiences filling out forms in physician offices. I never checked the box that said “abortion.” One day, I began asking clients if they knew what the “A-word” meant. Surprisingly, most did. It was in simply changing the terminology to A-word that women began to self-disclose.

Eventually, I came across the term voluntary pregnancy termination as a possible way to talk about the A-word in session. After some time, I began using the shortened version, VPT. This process led me to the revelation that the terminology had been causing the glitch in disclosure. I now refer to the procedure as VPT in sessions with my clients and have found it to be a successful way of separating the politics from the issue
of grief.

It is my opinion that professional therapists must lead the way in changing the terminology if we are to bring this therapy model into our culture. Given the guaranteed confidentiality processes we have in place, the professional therapist’s office should be the obvious place for women to go to process their grief after abortion.

The need is great

Given the number of women who need confidential dialogue about their abortion experience, I developed a new counseling model for professionals called Choice Processing and Resolution (CPR) therapy. I presented this model at a Learning Institute for the American Counseling Association Conference in San Francisco in March 2012.

Before adding CPR therapy to your counseling practice, however, there are several things to consider. First, make sure this is a subject that interests you. VPT aftercare, being so specialized in nature, is not for everyone. Also, therapist gender is not necessarily important. I believe both male and female counselors can lend support to clients processing abortion grief.

The main consideration should be whether you are a safe and nonjudgmental person for your clients when it comes to this controversial topic. Taking honest self-inventory, if you cannot separate the procedure from the issue of grief after abortion, then you should not get involved in this caring field. Additionally, if you have your own unprocessed abortion grief and hold your own judgment or are suffering your own pain, you have the potential of doing more harm than good for these clients.

On the other hand, you are the right person for this work if you have a natural heart to help clients who are suffering from secret shame and grief and can receive their stories with compassion and grace.

I once had a licensed professional counselor inform me that none of his clients had ever had an abortion. Looking at the statistics in place, this was an ignorant observation. I also had a pastor of a 3,000-member church tell me that no one in his congregation had ever chosen abortion. Realistically, considering the statistics, it is likely that at least 500 of the women in his congregation were secretly struggling with abortion grief.

As a professional counselor, please understand that if you assess for an abortion per se, your client will probably not self-disclose. However, if you note low levels of depression or unexplainable sadness in your clients, you can eventually introduce the possibility of a VPT in their history. Again, changing the labels is the way to assess. Asking clients to self-disclose an abortion will probably get you nowhere.

My journey of helping women in abortion aftercare spans almost two decades now. My own path to healing and helping other women has been my classroom for instruction. Because this is such a specialized topic, it is important to have a very clear understanding of the multifaceted aspects of processing grief after VPT. The combined elements of disenfranchisement, fear, shame and confusion make this a topic worth studying so that counselors will be informed.

Ways to help

Once you have determined that a client is experiencing disenfranchised grief about her choice decision, the best place to start is by offering a safe place to dialogue about her actual experience.

Begin safe dialogue: Just let the client do as much self-expressing as she wants about her entire experience — including before the decision, the procedure itself and after the decision. The mere fact that you are allowing her to share her deep dark secret in a place of safety and nonjudgment will help her release a lot of the grief. I can’t emphasize enough that changing the terminology from “abortion” to “VPT” will be a turning point for clients to share their stories.

Consider this grief therapy: Begin the grieving process by normalizing the grief your clients may feel. Instead of talking about the procedure and focusing on validating their choice to have a VPT, let your office serve as a place of validation for the natural grief that many times follows a VPT, even years later. Explain that attachment is very normal in a pregnancy. The process being interrupted by a VPT doesn’t necessarily stop the feelings of natural attachment that can occur. This simple paradigm shift gives your clients permission to label their experience as a loss. Validation and permission are what every client needs in a disenfranchised grief situation. Therefore, your main focus in therapy will be offering validation of the client’s grief and permission for the client to express needed pain over her loss.

Develop your companioning skills: Companioning is about honoring the spirit, not about focusing on the intellect. It is about respecting disorder and confusion, not about imposing order or logic. Companioning is about being present to another’s pain, not about taking that pain away. The person skilled in companioning will offer a safe place for women to share their secret of a VPT.

John Welshons, in his book Awakening From Grief, says it best: “You should think of yourself as a listening friend that teaches your clients the meaning of compassion. There are no experts in this line of work, only compassionate listeners. Since everyone truly does process their grief differently, it is important for you to let your client be as they walk the valley
of sadness.”

Process the emotions: I have found the best way to help women is to allow them to attach all the emotions to the event of a VPT. Going through the entire experience and letting women label the emotions can be very freeing for them. Supporting clients in writing letters to the people connected to the event and encouraging clients to give full expression to how they felt then and how they feel now can be very helpful in releasing hidden emotions.

If you are serious about adding help for VPT grief to your practice, I offer some free downloadable intake sheets on my website at missingpieces.org/professionals. The intake sheets can serve as a template to walk you through dialoguing about and processing VPT grief with your clients.

In summary, normalizing the grief and giving permission to label the experience as a loss are important components of this therapy. In addition, labeling the emotions will help bring resolution for your clients. Professional therapy offices should become the obvious venue for abortion aftercare in the 21st century.

Trudy M. Johnson is an American Counseling Association member and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She is also the author of C.P.R.: Choice Processing and Resolution, a self-help workbook that professionals can use to assist clients in processing their grief after a voluntary pregnancy termination. In addition to her private practice, MissingPieces.Org, Johnson consults and educates professionals on the topic of grief after abortion. Contact her at missingpieces@
gmail.com
.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

Overcoming the schism between spiritual identity and sexual orientation

Robert A. Dobmeier, Summer M. Reiner, Elaine J. Casquarelli & Kathleen M. Fallon

SpiritualTyler is coming to see you fearing his secret could be revealed. He is an 18-year-old European-American male from a small Midwestern town of fewer than 1,000 people. His father is the minister of a local evangelical Christian church. His mother divides her time between church commitments and family life at home. He has a 20-year-old sister who is married to the church’s youth minister and is a stay-at-home mother to their one child. Tyler grew up in the church, is active in the youth ministry and has cultivated a deep sense of personal faith. Since childhood, Tyler has felt different than other men who spoke of marrying women and raising a family. The feelings boys had toward girls — courting them and proposing marriage — Tyler felt toward other boys. He dreamed of growing up, falling in love and raising a family — but with another man. He feels torn between his personal faith and his belief that he was born feeling attracted to other men, especially when hearing the position of his church through his father’s sermons and the regular broadcasts from Christian media sources. His father preached many times about the need to live a pure life in accordance with the teachings of Scripture. Both of his parents have taught Tyler and his sister how important it is for a minister’s family to be the model of purity and holiness and that a sinful life could lead others down a path to damnation.

Tyler began a secret relationship with a young man he met at a summer youth retreat. The two have been corresponding via email and writing letters as their relationship deepened. Although Tyler feels in love with this young man, he hates himself because he believes he is impure and sinful for wanting a relationship that his religion teaches is outside the covenant between God and His people. Tyler hides his feelings, terrified his family will reject him if they learn his truth. Tyler heard about another young woman in his church whose parents found out she was gay. The parents received counsel from Tyler’s father, and the young woman was sent to a residential treatment facility to cure her homosexual desires. On the basis of these concerns, how will you work with Tyler?

Like many lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) clients, Tyler experiences a sense of schism between his sexual orientation and his faith. Indeed, a parallel experience may exist for counselors who feel a disconnection between their own faith systems and the ethical draw to counsel LGB individuals seeking help. The spirituality of some counselors may support embracing the client’s sexual orientation. They may struggle with anger toward Tyler’s faith tradition, instead wishing he would move to accept his sexual orientation. Other counselors may see an LGB sexual orientation as sinful. They may feel a close alignment with and support Tyler’s sense of shame and encourage him to consider exploring reorientation therapy.

In both cases, a counselor may feel torn about how to reconcile his or her own values systems with the client’s presenting issues. In this article, we invite you to reflect on the degree to which you might struggle working with Tyler. We explore the ways in which counselors can experience and work through values conflicts, consider relevant supervision and consultation issues, and ultimately contemplate how counselors can embrace — for themselves and for their clients — both the tension and possibilities of integrating faith and sexuality.

Counselor values

Counselors could experience a range of values conflicts when working with Tyler. Some would feel comfortable addressing religious and spiritual values in counseling but would struggle with Tyler’s sexual orientation. Others would be comfortable addressing his sexual orientation but not his religious beliefs. Some counselors would be uncomfortable with both.

When counselors value religious beliefs that view homosexuality as sinful, they often struggle with addressing sexual orientation in counseling. In their eyes, homosexuality may go against God’s wishes and expectations for humanity, and for these counselors, the greatest value is living according to God’s will. The struggle with sexual orientation may also exist among counselors who do not ascribe to any faith tradition but strongly value only heterosexual intimate relationships. In an effort to work in ways that are consistent with their values, some counselors have employed reorientation therapy techniques, which aim to help clients live a heterosexual lifestyle irrespective of their sexual orientation. But such counseling approaches have no empirical or scientific foundation and may amplify the anxiety, pain and self-hatred that Tyler already experiences. (Note: In 1999, the American Counseling Association’s Governing Council adopted a statement opposing the promotion of reparative therapy as a “cure” for individuals who are homosexual.) Alternatively, some counselors may refuse to work with Tyler altogether, sending the message that there is something inherently wrong or sinful about him.

A values conflict can arise on the opposite end of the spectrum as well. The religious, spiritual or humanistic values of some counselors might conflict with the religious beliefs of Tyler and his family. In other words, some counselors want to work with Tyler in a way that helps him integrate his sexual orientation into his developing identity, but they have difficulty incorporating his faith into counseling conversations and activities. Counselors have reported feeling anger and rage at a faith system that, in their eyes, has wounded Tyler and other clients like him deeply and unnecessarily. Addressing sexual orientation to the exclusion of Tyler’s faith negates a critical element of his identity, however. Once again he receives the message that he is flawed in some way or that a part of his identity is unwelcome in the counseling relationship.

Finally, some counselors may not have a values conflict with either Tyler’s sexual orientation or his religious beliefs. Instead, they might evaluate themselves as lacking the skills to competently address sexual orientation and religion in counseling. If this is the case, they may decide to refer Tyler to another counselor who has more experience working with these important elements of identity. Arguably, a more ethical alternative would be to seek professional development and supervision to learn how to integrate these important concerns into counseling.

Fortunately, the ACA Code of Ethics provides counselors with guidelines for working with Tyler. Counselors are asked to develop awareness of “their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors and avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals. Counselors respect the diversity of clients …” (Standard A.4.b., Personal Values). However, given the deeply held religious, spiritual and/or humanistic values of some counselors, it can be a struggle to abide by these guidelines, even when there is a wish to uphold them. Therefore, assistance is often helpful when developing 1) self-awareness of one’s own values, 2) knowledge about sexual orientation and religion and 3) clinical skills in integrating sexual orientation and religion/spirituality into counseling. Counselors challenged to address spiritual issues, sexual orientation issues or an integration of the two are wise to seek supervision to manage any countertransference.

Exploring counselor and supervisor values

Supervisors also need to explore their values and knowledge of integrating sexual orientation and spirituality into counseling. The supervisory relationship can be viewed much like the Russian nesting dolls. Tyler may be attempting to resolve the schism between his faith and sexual orientation, while the counselor is addressing his schism between the teachings of his spiritual tradition and a sense of responsibility to respect the client’s sexual orientation beliefs. Meanwhile, the supervisor may experience her own schism between her spiritual beliefs and professional responsibilities. Supervisors may fall short of providing good supervision if they are unaware of their own biases regarding spiritual LGB individuals. Furthermore, supervisors may also experience personal conflict when exploring the counselor’s beliefs about spirituality, sexual orientation or both. Thus, supervisors may lose their objectivity when working with supervisees through the supervision process.

Efforts to resolve the “nesting” rifts between spirituality/religion and sexual orientation for Tyler, the counselor and the supervisor can be approached through a variety of self-awareness exercises. Each party, through spiritual genograms and sexual orientation genograms (visual linear depictions of generational relationships), can explore how their families of origin influenced their spiritual and/or sexual orientation values and beliefs.

A spiritual timeline and a sexual orientation timeline can be constructed to reveal one’s personal developmental process. The spiritual timeline can identify how one’s spirituality developed over time and how one draws upon his or her spiritual beliefs when addressing life issues. The sexual orientation timeline may include ages when an individual was first attracted to people of the opposite gender, same gender or both genders; realized that he or she was heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual; had his or her first sexual contact; had same-sex sexual contact and/or opposite-sex sexual contact; had an intimate relationship with persons of the opposite gender and/or same gender; and first told a family member about a romantic interest or relationship. Other related events can also be added to the timeline, such as “experienced hate crimes and harassment,” which may have affected one’s sexual orientation identity development. Reflecting on one’s sexual orientation development is helpful for recognizing the sexual orientations of others as normal (for more, read “Counselor Preparation: On Becoming Allies: A Qualitative Study of Lesbian-, Gay- and Bisexual-Affirmative Counselor Training” by Frank R. Dillon, Roger L. Worthington, Holly Bielstein Savoy, S. Craig Rooney, Ann Becker-Schutte and Rachael M. Guerra in the March 2004 issue of Counselor Education and Supervision).

Journaling is another helpful tool for clients, counselors and supervisors as they process their self-awareness journeys. As each person explores his or her beliefs, values and biases as they relate to sexual orientation and spirituality, strong emotions may arise. Furthermore, counselors and supervisors may experience countertransference. Journaling, in addition to supervision, can be helpful in recognizing the signs of countertransference. Even those who intend to be nonjudgmental and open in counseling and/or supervision may engage in microaggressions (for example, attributing all issues to the schism between sexual orientation and spiritual/religious beliefs or, alternately, minimizing and even avoiding the impact of sexual and spiritual/religious orientations).

Thus, self-awareness and evaluation of one’s values, beliefs and ability to integrate sexual orientation and religion/spirituality into counseling is an ongoing process both for the counselor and the supervisor. Through counseling and the parallel process of supervision, the supervisor, counselor and client each grow and, it is hoped, achieve compassion for self and others. Ideally, the counselor and supervisor are able to provide support in a nonjudgmental environment, which allows Tyler to achieve his goal of reducing the schism between his faith and his sexual orientation.

Steps toward resolution

For counselors committed to understanding the integration of spirituality and sexual orientation, and to counseling clients striving to achieve this integration, professional guidance is available. A 2005 white paper by the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, a division of ACA, proposes that human beings have a spiritual nature, which has ramifications for human development and personal identity. Counselors are urged to respect the need for the client to accept and integrate each of his or her essential identities, including those related to spirituality and sexual orientation. Competency 6 of the ASERVIC Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling (aservic.org/resources/spiritual-competencies/) states that “the professional counselor can describe and apply models of spiritual and/or religious development and their relationship to human development.” Discovery of sexual orientation is an essential component of human development. Competency 12 recommends that “the professional counselor sets goals with clients that are consistent with the individual client’s religious and/or spiritual perspectives.” Empowering clients to determine their counseling goals is a core value of the counseling profession that supports the individual’s need to reconcile his or her sexual orientation with his or her faith.

The Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling Competencies for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Clients propose that competent counselors “understand that biological, familial, cultural, socio-economic and psychosocial factors influence the course of development of affectional orientations and gender identity/expressions.” Furthermore, ALGBTIC, a division of ACA, offers that identity formation and stigma management are lifelong developmental tasks for LGBT persons, who are often in search of well-informed counselors. The ASERVIC and ALGBTIC competencies complement the ACA Code of Ethics in providing guidance for professional counselors facing a schism between faith and professional responsibility.

Counselors, clients and supervisors conflicted by the teachings of their spiritual traditions about homosexuality while being supportive of LGBT identities might look to their spiritual traditions for deeper messages about those identities. The same traditions that view homosexuality as sinful also offer other views about the treatment of marginalized persons (keep in mind the higher rates of depression, suicide and stigmatization that LGBT persons suffer). Christian Scripture teaches its followers to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31); to “not judge, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); and “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Matthew 25:35). Followers of Judaism see themselves called to bring peace and salvation to the nations. Muslims practice almsgiving to those in need. Hindus practice the path of love, while Buddhists strive to establish right relationships with others. Native Americans teach care of others in the belief that all life is sacred. Thus, profound values consistent with the ACA Code of Ethics’ emphasis on respect for diversity are available to professionals and clients in the same spiritual traditions that reject homosexual behavior and, in some instances, homosexual persons.

Whereas the ACA Code of Ethics promotes justice by ensuring that client needs are kept foremost in the counseling relationship (Standard A.1.a., Primary Responsibility), Christian faith traditions emphasize moral teachings from the Bible based in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. … Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:5 and 5:7). Where is the gentleness and mercy advocated by Jesus when the LGBT person is unable to be open in his church or even with family members about his most basic inclinations of sexual orientation? Jewish people follow the Torah, the Book of the Law, which commands to “protect the alien among you” (Ex 22:21). Hindus and Buddhists recognize in karma that one’s acts of kindness and unkindness return to the actor. Rejection of Tyler in his need yields to my being rejected in my need.

Not every professional counselor has the interior freedom to question values assigned by religious systems. The schism between faith and ethical responsibility runs deep. It is incumbent on the professional counselor to recognize that aligning with values that render one closed to Tyler, a client who seeks openness and wisdom to assist him in his search to integrate his spirituality and sexual orientation, ends in rejecting him. The openness and wisdom that allow professional counselors to bring healing to Tyler are accessible to counselors in their professional codes and in those deeper levels of their spiritual traditions that share the noblest aspects of human life with those codes. How will you work with Tyler when he enters your professional world?

“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at American Counseling Association Annual Conferences.

Robert A. Dobmeier, Summer M. Reiner and Kathleen M. Fallon teach in the Department of Counselor Education at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. Elaine J. Casquarelli is a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Rochester. Send comments to the authors at rdobmeie@brockport.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Who’s taking care of Superman?

Lynne Shallcross

SuperCounselors are fond of telling clients that a drowning person can’t help others to get out of the water safely without first saving himself or herself, says Jane Myers, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

But do counselors walk that talk? Not as often as they should, contends Myers, who, along with Thomas Sweeney, co-edited the book Counseling for Wellness: Theory, Research and Practice, published by the American Counseling Association in 2005.

“This is a matter of us taking our own advice,” says Myers, the executive director of the international counseling honor society Chi Sigma Iota and a past president of ACA. “When we experience challenges to our own wellness, when we are distracted with our own stress, anxiety and unresolved relationship issues, it becomes difficult or impossible to be fully present to our clients.”

Paul Hard, an associate professor of counseling at Auburn University at Montgomery who served on ACA’s Task Force on Counselor Wellness and Impairment almost a decade ago, agrees. The altruistic mindset that most counselors possess when coming to the profession, while certainly admirable, can also become their own form of Kryptonite, Hard says. Counselors often feel they should be Superman or Superwoman, he says, bearing the heavy responsibility of caring for others, while harboring the belief that life’s bumps and stressors don’t — or shouldn’t — affect them the way they do everyone else.

“Much of the professional literature suggests that counselors can see themselves as invulnerable to stress and impairment,” says Hard, who currently chairs the ACA Branch Development Committee. “We are client-centered. We are caregivers by nature, and this altruism may work against our self-interests.”

“At times, life situations, work and individual issues, and the counseling process itself can become overwhelming and challenging,” says Virginia Magnus, an associate professor in the counseling program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). “Therefore, self-care is an essential component for counselors.”

Self-care becomes even more important when you take into account that counselors and counselor educators are often working with clients or students who are experiencing some kind of distress, says Magnus, who presented on self-care at the 2012 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco. “The very nature of counseling places [us] in a position to listen to others’ hurts, grief and distress. Therefore, self-care is necessary not only to function at full capacity but also to deliver competent services to clients and students alike,” she says.

The act of self-care requires that counselors regularly turn their attention inward and reflect on their own wellness, Myers says. “Counselors spend so much time working with and on behalf of others and thinking about others that it is easy to lose track of our own needs,” she says. “Sometimes we feel selfish when we are not available to persons in need because we are taking time out for ourselves. We are challenged to reframe the meaning of self-care as something we do to make sure we are always at our best in terms of our ability to be helpers. Just as we are intentional in learning the scope of knowledge required to practice counseling, we need to be intentional in learning and practicing the behaviors that allow us to approach each client with an openness and sense of hope and optimism. That sense of hope is for our clients’ ability to experience their strengths and choose to grow and change, and for our ability to help them see their strengths and develop a vision of themselves that will help them grow toward wellness.”

Maintaining equilibrium

Myers can think of many times she has needed to take self-care more seriously. “When I find I have lost my smile, that my mirth response is gone, I need to step back, take stock and something has to change,” she says. “That might be when I find myself at home with friends or family not fully listening or not being fully present [because] I am mentally recounting a client’s story and reconnecting with their predicament and their pain. When others around me are smiling and having fun, and I am ruminating and wanting to get back to the office or check out the Internet for some intervention ideas or to answer my emails, that is a time when I know change is needed. If I cannot leave my clients’ concerns at the office, I need an intervention for me. Typically, that would be supervision with a trusted counselor friend or colleague who can help me sort out my priorities and reconnect with my own self-care.”

Most people enter the counseling profession out of a sense of compassion for others and a desire to help, Myers says. “As we listen empathically to the stories of our clients, it becomes impossible not to enter their world and experience their pain. Empathy means feeling with others, and that carries the risk of what we call empathy fatigue or compassion fatigue. We enter so fully into the realm of our clients’ feelings that we have trouble separating ourselves and leaving those feelings at the office. Heading for home with a heavy heart and feelings of pain for the pain that our clients feel is not uncommon. To engage in self-care means to be able to put those feelings aside — to be compassionate when needed but to reclaim our own inner selves as we leave our offices behind and return home to others who need us in other ways.”

Self-care involves learning how to manage stress, whether personal or related to work, making healthy decisions and participating in behaviors that help maintain equilibrium in daily life, says Magnus, a member of ACA. It is important to ensure that a self-care regimen includes physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects, she says.

Proper self-care also means drawing boundaries when necessary, Hard says. “We have to learn where our limits are. We have to learn to be able to say ‘no’ for no other reason than it’s going to be contrary to taking care of [ourselves], which, for a lot of us, is a challenge because we find it difficult to be selfish.”

Take, for example, the case of a counselor getting ready to take a vacation, Hard says. The counselor works doubly hard to cram clients into the schedule the week before leaving town. In doing so, the counselor isn’t truly getting a break from work. He or she is simply packing two weeks’ worth of work into a single week. Unfortunately, this might be a typical scenario because, according to Hard, counselors have trouble saying, “Work will be here when I get back, so I won’t make myself crazy trying to fit it all in before I leave.”

Myers agrees. “As a counselor educator, when I find myself telling the kids and grandkids to go to the movie without me because I need to finish an article or catch up with my email, that’s a time someone needs to hold up the self-care sign to remind me that work will always be there.”

Wellness as a lifestyle

Self-care is a favorite talking point for many helping professionals, and the concept is not complicated, but the counselors interviewed for this article say it takes intentional effort and real determination to turn that talk into action. “We have been hearing about self-care for decades and it sounds so simple, yet it is difficult to begin or to maintain a self-care plan because it requires time and resolve,” Magnus says. “We live in a world of instant gratification. Therefore, [we] expect self-care to be something that [we] can plan and implement and then consider it completed or accomplished. However, self-care is a lifelong journey and a consciously chosen lifestyle.”

It is easy for common life circumstances to interfere and quietly nudge counselors’ self-care efforts aside, Magnus says. “For example, we say to ourselves, ‘I am too busy this week’ or ‘Things at home are hectic right now,’ so [we] do not take the time for self-care. While that may be true, this is when we should be more aware of and dedicated to self-care. It is very easy for most of us to find reasons not to [go to] the trouble [of consistently practicing] self-care. Before we know it, our self-care plan has slipped away altogether. Let me reiterate here — self-care takes time and resolve.”

Hard thinks another reason more counselors don’t practice proper self-care is because of the way it is presented to them — as yet another add-on to their already lengthy to-do lists. For example, he says, in reviewing the litany of things that counseling students need to remember to best serve their clients, some counselor educators simply load self-care on top of the pile. The key to making self-care an integral part of more counselors’ routines, Hard believes, is to present it as part of a lifestyle, not simply as another add-on. It’s the difference between making time to incorporate wellness into your daily routine versus trying to squeeze a yoga class into an already packed weekend just because you feel you have to, he says.

The economy presents another hurdle to self-care, Hard says. He studied caseloads in community mental health settings in Alabama and developed a template for limiting caseloads to prevent counselor burnout while allowing counselors to effectively meet client needs. Hard acknowledges, however, that in a swamped community clinic or in a private practice in which the number of clients seen directly affects the bottom line, limiting counselors’ caseloads may simply not be possible, even if it would free up time to practice better self-care habits.

The reality is that incorporating self-care into an already busy life is never going to be easy, Myers says. Just because counselors know intellectually that self-care is important doesn’t mean they will automatically uncover ample time for self-care and magically achieve balance in their lives. Instead, counselors must embrace wellness as an intentional process, Myers says. “Taking talk into action requires a commitment, support from someone or ‘someones’ close [to us] to remind us of our promises to ourselves, effective time management and the ability to say no,” she emphasizes.

Myers suggests counselors find at least one “flow activity” — something that brings them such joy that they lose themselves and all sense of time while involved in it. “This could be reading, meditating, gardening, walking, playing a musical instrument — whatever we immerse ourselves in so deeply that nothing else matters but being in the moment with ourselves,” she says.

Holding each other accountable

Counseling students at UTC learn about self-care and develop a wellness plan the first semester they enter the program, according to Magnus. The topics of self-care and wellness are discussed throughout the program, she says, with the hope being that the continual emphasis will carry over once students graduate and become professionals.

This past semester, Magnus and her nine internship students developed a group plan for self-care, setting a goal as a group to walk or run 500 miles by the end of the semester. “No specific number of miles was set per person per week,” Magnus says. “Each week, we logged how many miles each person had completed. Some students accumulated more miles than others did, but rather than make those of us who had not done as well feel defeated, it spurred us on to do better the next week. As a result, we completed the 500 miles with a few to spare.”

Setting goals, writing them down and collaborating with others in an effort toward wellness — all of which the UTC counseling students did — are a few ways self-care can become more achievable, Magnus says. She also emphasizes that goals should be realistic.

Hard wishes more graduate counseling programs would replicate UTC’s commitment to self-care. He would like to see self-care incorporated into the curriculum and into supervision more widely. “Supervisors and mentors in the field need to place a focus on self-care to make it an expected aspect of the profession rather than an afterthought,” he says.

All counselors could play a role in furthering the practice of self-care by teaming up and holding one another accountable to put the focus back on their own wellness, Hard says. As the clinical director of a community mental health center in northern Alabama a decade ago, Hard experienced the death of a client by suicide. In the wake of the client’s death, Hard tried to carry on as normal, but in reality he was struggling. Fortunately, one of his colleagues came into Hard’s office, shut the door and asked how he was doing. “She refused to accept the easy response,” Hard remembers. Instead, she took responsibility for Hard’s wellness, both as a colleague and as a friend. Hard believes this is an example that more counselors should follow in watching out for one another.

When looking out for his colleagues’ wellness, Hard pays particular attention to those individuals who are coming in on weekends to do extra work or extending their client hours and those who seem needy for client approval. Peer supervision circles can also be helpful in self-care efforts, Hard says, because they encourage peers to keep each other accountable.

Staying alert and self-aware

Counselors who don’t take self-care seriously are putting more than their own well-being at risk. “Lack of self-care can lead to exhaustion/fatigue, negatively affect an individual’s work and colleagues, [and] affect the overall functioning of an organization and the quality of services provided to clients and/or students,” Magnus says. “It can influence the way a counselor acts and interacts with clients, family and friends.”

It isn’t always easy for counselors to recognize when they are in need of more concentrated self-care, Magnus says, but a variety of assessments are available. She also provides a partial list of possible indicators that self-care has been compromised:

  • Feelings of powerlessness or helplessness
  • Skepticism
  • Irritability
  • Loss of meaning, purpose and hope
  • Lowered concentration
  • Impatience
  • Somatic complaints
  • Low morale or motivation
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety

In his own work, Hard, who runs a very limited private practice, says he stays alert for feelings such as wishing certain clients wouldn’t show up for their next session. “That’s danger territory,” he says, explaining that those and similar thoughts can indicate that impairment is creeping in and that a counselor hasn’t been attending to self-care.

Every counselor should keep a list of his or her own self-care needs and triggers, Myers suggests. “We each need to know the signs that tell us we are out of balance,” she says. “A wheel out of round does not roll smoothly. When we are out of balance, there are lots of little signs that tell us we need a course correction: ‘I have too much on my plate. I wish I had said no.’ For me, it is when I fail to smile and someone tells me. It is when I am asked to spend time with others and I say, ‘No, I have work to do,’ that I have to stop myself and ask, ‘When I look back, what [would] I like to be able to say about how I used the gift of this day?’”

The goal is incorporating self-care into a daily routine, these counselors say, although that often means navigating a host of challenges. Waiting until the weekend or the next vacation or the end of the semester to incorporate wellness and self-care into life doesn’t work, at least not for Myers. What does work is making time each day to practice the behaviors that Myers says keep her well, such as spending time alone or with her favorite people, focusing on breathing, enjoying a good meal or spending time in nature. “I have learned that I cannot feel centered, calm or present to others unless I take time daily to remind myself of who I want to be and practice those things that help me be that person.”

To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

In working with clients, listening to their stories and empathizing with their situations, counselors put themselves at risk for vicarious trauma and threaten their own wellness. Counseling Today asked Victoria Kress, professor and coordinator of the clinical mental health and addictions counseling programs at Youngstown State University, to explain the nature of vicarious trauma and how counselors can combat it. Kress, the president of the international counseling honor society Chi Sigma Iota, has both presented on the topic of vicarious trauma and written about it for the Journal of Counseling & Development. To contact Kress, email victoriaekress@gmail.com.

 The other side of empathy

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma (VT) involves reactions that counselors have secondary to exposure to clients’ traumatic experiences. VT involves changes in core aspects of the counselor’s self and can include disruptions in the cognitive schemas of counselors’ identity, memory system and belief system.

Why are counselors specifically at risk for experiencing VT?

VT is often rooted in the open engagement of empathy or the connection with clients that is inherent in counseling relationships. These repeated exposures to clients’ traumatic experiences can cause a shift in how counselors perceive themselves, others and the world around them. These shifts in the cognitive schemas of counselors can have significant effects on their personal and professional lives.

What are some of the detrimental effects of VT, both professionally and personally? How does it actually affect the counselor?

Counselors experiencing VT may feel there is no safe place or haven against real or imagined threats to personal safety. Higher levels of fearfulness, vulnerability and concern may be ways in which this disruption in safety needs is expressed. Counselors suffering from VT may be overly cautious regarding their children or take extra measures related to being physically safe.

The exposure to repeated client trauma shakes the trusting foundations on which the counselor’s world rests. Counselors experiencing VT are vulnerable to self-doubt and inhibited self-trust, often prompting them to question their ability to judge and effectively help clients.

Counselors experiencing VT may feel inadequate and question their own abilities to help others. Esteem for others can be compromised as counselors are faced with the ability of people to be cruel and for the world to be unfair.

VT may cause intimacy issues and cause a counselor to push away or become increasingly dependent on significant persons in his or her life.

How can a counselor work to actively prevent VT?

  • Maintain a diverse caseload and be aware of not being overwhelmed with many clients with trauma issues.
  • Training focusing on traumatology is important for trauma counselors and can decrease the impact of VT.
  • The impact of VT can be decreased when counselors maintain their wellness and balance.
  • Research suggests that counselors with a greater sense of meaning and connection are less likely to experience VT. Maintaining a healthy sense of spirituality and understanding what we can and cannot control can prevent VT. We all need to connect with our sense of spirituality in our own unique ways. Organized religions, meditation and yoga, and community service are just a few examples of activities that may deepen our sense of spirituality.
  • Peer supervision and regular consultation can help prevent VT and normalize VT experiences.

Are certain types of counselors more at risk?

People who work with victims of interpersonal violence are especially at risk, for example, those who work with child and sexual abuse victims or victims of interpersonal relationship violence and sexual assault.

Why is this an important topic to talk about and address?

  • Not addressing VT can result in serious ethical violations, which may harm clients.
  • Disruptions in cognitive schemas may lead to counselors compromising therapeutic boundaries. For example, counselors may forget appointments, not return phone calls, have inappropriate contact, [consider] client abandonment, and [risk] sexual or even emotional abuse of clients.
  • Counselors may begin doubting their skills and knowledge and potentially lose focus on clients’ strengths and resources.
  • Counselors may avoid discussion of traumatic material or be intrusive when exploring traumatic memories by probing for specific, unnecessary details of the client’s abuse or pushing to identify or confront perpetrators before the client is ready.
  • Counselor irritability, decreased ability to attend to external stimuli, misdiagnosis and attempts to “rescue” the client [are possible].

Read an online exclusive Q&A with Mark Stebnicki, professor in the East Carolina University Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation, on the topic of empathy fatigue.

 

Making life work

Lynne Shallcross

intertwinedWhat sets counseling apart from the other mental health professions? In many cases, the lines between the different helping professions can be blurry, causing even counselors themselves to debate the correct answers to that question.

But one truly distinguishing feature of the counseling profession is its roots in career development, says Spencer Niles, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education at Pennsylvania State University. “It is the cornerstone of the profession. It’s something unique to counseling and counselors. It separates us from others,” says Niles, who has written multiple books about career counseling and also serves as the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development.

In fact, Niles contends it is crucial that counselors not only stay mindful of the unique role of career development within the profession but also realize that career is a topic that can — and should — be addressed in almost every counseling setting. “My perception is that general career counseling is undervalued, [especially] when we realize how important and essential it is to having a sense of hope in one’s life,” says Niles, who is a past president of the National Career Development Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.

“Everyone has a career, and everyone is connected to people who have careers,” he continues. “There is no escape. As Freud noted, love and work are critical life tasks that must be managed effectively for life to be satisfying. So, because there are few things more personal than a career choice, every counselor will encounter clients or students with career challenges — whether they are the need to address normal career development tasks or career challenges emerging out of crisis situations such as job dislocation. Moreover, every counselor will encounter clients who are part of a network that contains people with career challenges that must be addressed. We know that when career situations go awry, mental health issues increase. Thus, having at least a basic awareness of career development processes and interventions is essential regardless of [a counselor’s] work setting.”

NCDA President Rich Feller likewise believes that issues related to career can find their way into any counseling setting. “The changing nature of work, learning and family leads counselors within any specialty to explore the connection among personal, career and well-being issues,” says Feller, professor of counseling and career development and university distinguished teaching scholar at Colorado State University. “Positive psychology and attention to social justice issues — long advocated by career development — are now center stage among all counselors and advocates regardless of title or training.”

The number of counselors completing NCDA’s career development facilitator training suggests to Feller that counselors increasingly see that personal and career issues are tightly interwoven. The concept of career means finding meaning, satisfaction and choice in all of one’s life roles, Feller says. “Career counselors understand that you can’t separate one’s vocational role from other roles, that career transitions are not on schedule and that learning is lifelong.”

Thomas Ayala, president of the National Employment Counseling Association, a division of ACA, says professional counselors have a responsibility to be competent in as many areas as possible, including employment counseling and career development. “The role that work plays in people’s lives varies greatly. Therefore, the types of issues people seek counseling to help them manage are likely to include aspects of their working life,” says Ayala, who runs a private practice in Lebanon, Ore. “As many [counselors] who are in private practice know, the nature of our next call is undeterminable. I am certain many of my colleagues who are members of NECA would suggest career development and employment counseling proficiency should be compulsory for all counselors.”

Two or three decades ago, Niles says, there was a dichotomous mode of thinking when it came to career counseling versus personal counseling. But that thinking has changed. “What happened is we turned the century and we experienced massive downsizing,” he says. “People are realizing there are few things more personal to them than career choice.”

There is a subjective nature to every career choice, Niles adds. “This makes career development personal in that people seek to make meaning out of their life experiences and translate that meaning to a career direction that they find purposeful.”

Niles agrees with Donald Super’s concept that career choice is the implementation of one’s self-concept in an occupational role. “If that ideally is true, what you believe to be true about yourself matters relative to what you decide to do occupationally,” Niles says.

What people believe to be true about themselves can be positive, hopeful and functional, Niles say, but it can also be fractured and influenced by challenging life situations. “I think that counselors increasingly encounter people who have career concerns no matter what setting they work in,” he says.

Ayala agrees. “Counselors need to know about employment counseling just as much as they need to know about the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], trauma interventions, anxiety or any other issue that has the potential of presenting in their office,” he says. “Employment counseling should not be considered in a different light than any other type of mental health counseling. When we consider Adler’s individual psychology, we understand the need for people to be productive and make worthy contributions to our community.”

A hope-based intervention

In the past, career interventions were very objective and rational, Niles says, and were most commonly focused on standardized, formal career assessments. Now, he says, the focus includes engaging clients in a meaning-making process. The idea is to take what has happened to clients, make meaning out of it and turn that into a career direction, he explains. However, both the world of work and one’s self-concept evolve over time, which means that making choices and adjusting are continually required, Niles says.

For students and adult workers alike, being able to see connections between current activities and future possibilities fosters a sense of hopefulness about what the future can hold, Niles says. “That’s where career counseling comes into play — making those connections,” he says. “It’s a hope-based intervention.”

With career counseling, Niles says, neither the past nor the present has to dictate the future. He gives the example of a college student who meets with a career counselor because the student is not doing well in school and is on the verge of being dismissed from college. His performance in school might be suffering because he chose a major that doesn’t relate to his interests, skills or values, so he is struggling to remain engaged and motivated. “Part of what a career counselor can do is help students look at the possibilities that might be more meaningful, more in line with who they are, therefore helping them to develop more hope and engagement relative to academic pursuits and future possibilities,” Niles says.

Niles also subscribes to Super’s idea that career development reflects the total constellation of life roles that a client participates in over the course of a lifetime. A holistic view of career counseling takes into account how each person combines all of these life roles into a life that he or she finds meaningful, Niles says.

In Western cultures, Niles says “tremendous expectations” exist concerning what work can provide, from financial support to human interaction to a sense of purpose. But not everyone will find all of those things through work, Niles says. By taking a holistic view, he says, counselors can explore how a client makes decisions about work not just for the sake of work but also for the sake of allowing that client to create the sort of life structure he or she will find meaningful.

For instance, he says, some clients might want to work a 60-hour week, leaving themselves time for only a few friends and hobbies. Other clients might regard that as a life sentence and would gravitate toward a 30- to 40-hour workweek, leaving themselves more time for other life roles such as being a parent or spouse. “Work doesn’t hold the same level of importance for everyone,” Niles says. “We can’t assume that we know how important work is for a person’s overall life structure.”

If work and other life roles are intertwined, it stands to reason that a problem in one area will spill over into the other, Niles says. “If a relationship is causing stress and it’s not going well, you bring that to work with you” and vice versa, he says. For that reason, Niles suggests that when a client is having a problem in one area of life, the counselor should also explore the effects that problem might be having on other areas of the client’s life.

Another consideration today is that the economy is creating some level of anxiety for almost everyone, Niles says. The old social contract that said your employer would take care of you if you were loyal and hardworking no longer exists, he says. As a result, more people are taking another look at their life roles and considering whether they need to reorient. “As people are dislocated from their work involuntarily, they become less willing to sacrifice everything for their employer when their employer is so willing to sacrifice them,” he says. “Rather than living to work, many people are working to live and seeking fulfillment in life roles other than work.”

Niles contends that counselors in every setting need to understand the meaning of career in clients’ lives, including what their values are and what gives them a sense of purpose. After that, he says, counselors can focus on the types of activities those clients can move toward to help them fulfill those needs.

Niles also points out that a person’s self-concept evolves over time, making career choice and adjustment continual processes throughout the life span. “With each interaction with your environment, you learn more about yourself and your environment, [and] adaptive learners use this new information to inform their sense of self as well as their place in the world relative to work. Moreover, the world of work evolves over time, making choosing and adjusting continuous requirements. You must be a lifelong learner and stay abreast of the evolving requirements within the workplace as well as the emerging skills needed to perform your work effectively.”

Looking forward to the future

What is the best predictor of both career success and job satisfaction? It might be optimism.

Surprised? So was Roberta Neault when she uncovered that finding while conducting doctoral research about 13 years ago. Neault, a private practitioner in Aldergrove, British Columbia, was at the time earning her doctorate while also consulting at a corporate career center during a time of widespread downsizing throughout North America. The company with which she was working was in the telecommunications industry, which had been particularly hard hit. Studying approximately 180 managers at that company, Neault looked at a broad range of factors in trying to determine what helped them find career success and satisfaction, regardless of whether they remained with the company or were laid off. The attribute of optimism came out on top.

“Working [with clients] on hope or optimism is not just nice to do, but in fact, it makes a measurable difference. At least it did in my research,” says Neault, a counselor educator at a number of Canadian universities and a member of both NCDA and NECA.

Neault, who co-authored the 2010 book Career Flow: A Hope-Centered Approach to Career Development with Niles and Norman Amundson, says some people use the terms hope and optimism interchangeably. She is unaware of any research that has measured them differently and tested for them in the same study. Neault and her co-authors write that “optimistic people tend to have faith in the future, a sense that things will work out. They tend to believe in their industry and organization; they also believe in themselves.” In the book, Neault, Niles and Amundson also link hope to positive psychology, encouraging people to pay close attention to and build on their hopes and the positive elements in their lives.

Neault continues to research optimism because she views it as a foundational piece of career development and a vital factor in building resilience. If, for example, a student can’t envision a positive future for herself or can’t see herself getting a job, that will affect how she approaches applying for jobs or whether she thinks it is worth it to seek additional education, Neault says.

“Likely, hope and optimism are both important in any era or economy,” says Neault, a past editor of NECA’s Journal of Employment Counseling. “However, most of what the news covers about work these days is doom and gloom, whether it’s about downsizing, economic crises or high unemployment. Also, the job search cycle is, on average, more often repeated than in previous times. Most people realize their current job isn’t a ‘job for life’ but rather that they’ll need to find other jobs at some point in the future. If people focus on the negative aspects of this — future unemployment, a possible need for retraining, competition for ‘good’ jobs — they may lose hope, become pessimistic and either settle for a less-than-suitable job or lose motivation to continue growing their career. However, instilling hope and optimism can reenergize job seekers and, due to that renewed energy and positive attitude, contribute to their future career success and job satisfaction.”

Beyond the state of the current economy, a variety of life situations can cause clients to lose hope in their career futures, Neault says. For example, a client in a rehabilitation counseling setting who has been injured on the job might find that the future he once pictured no longer seems realistic. Or a client who has just come through a divorce may need to determine how she is going to support herself from now on. Another client might have recently taken on the responsibility of caring for aging parents, causing him to turn down a promotion and interrupting his career. In all of these cases, it could be easy for the client to lose hope, Neault says.

Returning to the example of the student about to enter the workforce who looks at her future and feels that she won’t find anything because of the economy, Neault says she would start by helping the student look for exceptions to that perception. “Even if the unemployment rate is 10 percent, that means that 90 percent of the people in the labor force are working,” she says. “I’d encourage my client to investigate who is still working or finding new work in this tough economy and why.”

Neault would also help the student access relevant labor market information to find where skill shortages and “hot jobs” are located, encourage her to do some informational interviewing about how to get a foot in the door and possibly urge her to explore nonstandard work as an entry point. If she can’t find a job with a salary of $50,000, can she find two part-time jobs at $25,000 each? Alternatively, can she find a “survival job” that pays the bills but leaves her with some free time to accept part-time work when it is available in the industry the client is targeting?

The key to resilience

Hope and optimism are key elements of the flexibility required of people to select and manage their careers in today’s world, Neault says. “Things aren’t as lockstep as they used to be. People optimistic about the future are more likely to be resilient and roll with the changes when they need to,” she says. Someone without hope is locked in a “dark place,” she says, and an unexpected change in career, such as a layoff or a reassignment of duties, can become the last straw for that person.

In fact, Neault had a client for whom that was the case. He had been laid off, and Neault remembers that he looked distraught. He told her that getting the news about the layoff was worse than if he had been told he had terminal cancer. “As a counselor, [that] was terrifying for me to hear,” Neault recalls.

The first thing Neault did was to assess for suicide risk, staying with the client until he seemed stable and safe. Later that day and the following day, she checked in with him and was happy to find that he had been making calls and exploring job options. This was Neault’s first indication that the client retained a glimmer of hope.

“I encouraged him to attend workshops at [his former corporation’s transition center], where he had the opportunity to work with others in a similar situation. They supported each other, normalized their experience and feelings, and kindled a bit more hope that a positive outcome was possible,” she says. “I encouraged him to set some short- and midterm goals, to celebrate small successes and to write a résumé that highlighted his accomplishments. I also encouraged him to get written references. Reading them fostered a bit more hope. Eventually he chose to start his own business. By taking control of his career in that way, his goal was to ensure that he would never again be in the position of being involuntarily laid off. This, too, contributed to his increased sense of hope.”

When counselors keep optimism in mind, they are more likely to look for interventions that will strengthen and bolster that attribute in clients, Neault says. Importantly, Neault emphasizes that optimism is something that can be strengthened in clients, not an attribute that people are born either with or without.

One way counselors can build optimism in clients is to have them look for other instances in their lives when they dealt with a struggle or challenge but managed to stay hopeful, Neault says. Counselors can then encourage clients to draw from that example of previous resilience. Another approach is to use the concept of story with clients, sharing examples of others in similar situations who ended up being successful. It is important to use appropriate examples, however, Neault warns. For example, a happy, upbeat story isn’t appropriate for a client who is feeling particularly low.

Neault also offers the following tips that counselors can use to build a sense of optimism and hope in their clients:

  • Help clients to envision their dreams.
  • Help clients to set measurable, achievable goals.
  • Help clients to identify small action steps.
  • Help clients to create opportunities for success.
  • To ensure that clients maintain hope, prepare them for the unexpected.

Neault says she isn’t entirely sure why optimism supports career success and satisfaction, but she thinks that when people feel hopeful, they are perhaps a bit braver about looking at the future. “They’re not turning away from it. They’re embracing it with the sense that something good can happen,” she says. “That means that they’re more likely to perhaps take reasonable risks, be positive and enthusiastic in networking and making career contacts, [and] invest in their own learning or career development activities because they feel there will be some sort of payoff. [Optimism] helps them engage in the activities that will, in turn, make them successful.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who feel low and lack optimism might find it hard to get off the couch and engage in the types of activities needed to find success, Neault says.

It behooves all counselors, regardless of setting, to be aware of the client’s career development and level of optimism, Neault says. “I see an individual’s work integrated with all other aspects of his or her life. Whether or not one is engaged in meaningful work that pays sufficiently to meet one’s needs [and] within a workplace with a positive and respectful atmosphere will impact self-esteem, personal relationships, mental and physical health, life satisfaction and the ability to achieve other life goals. Counseling without attending to career-related issues leaves a very important aspect of one’s life out of the conversation. Research has demonstrated that optimism is the single best predictor of career success and job satisfaction. Therefore, it makes sense that enhancing optimism and hope will positively impact the client’s job satisfaction and career success and, in turn, positively impact other key areas in his or her life.”

The next stage of life

Seventy-eight million. That’s the number of baby boomers in the United States, according to an article on Bloomberg’s Businessweek.com. And each day, the article notes, 10,000 baby boomers are reaching age 65.

As a counselor, if you aren’t paying attention to the career needs of the baby boom generation, you need to be, says Cheri Butler, associate director of the career center at the University of Texas at Arlington and past president of both NCDA and NECA. Being fully prepared to work with these clients is important for a number of reasons, Butler says, not the least of which is the sheer size of their generation.

Butler says the significantly smaller size of Generation X means that a workforce shortfall is approaching as more baby boomers retire. It is important for career counselors to know this, Butler says, because they can communicate to baby boomer clients that their experience and knowledge are still needed in the workplace. “Career counselors should be aware of these demographics, particularly when working with clients who have been forced to take early retirement as part of a downsizing,” she says.

Also important for career counselors to recognize, Butler says, is that although substantial numbers of boomers are nearing retirement age, many are finding themselves financially unable to retire fully, in large part due to the recent recession. Although some baby boomers can and will continue in their current jobs, many others have been laid off and forced to find something new instead of retiring, she says. And still others who need or want to keep working desire a new challenge instead of doing what they’ve always done.

Regardless of why baby boomers are reassessing their career options, Butler says career counselors need to help these clients realize that they still have something to offer. “Help them bust the myth that they’re too old. Help them see the value in their maturity and be able to sell it,” she says.

Career counselors should also help baby boomers explore what something new or different might look like, Butler says. “Use questions like, What did you play when you were young? What were you doing the last time you lost track of time? Do you have a passion about some cause? What demographic of people do you like to be around? What do you want people to remember about you when you are gone?”

As a group, Butler says baby boomers possess a positive work ethic. They are generally regarded in the workplace as dependable, competitive, hardworking and optimistic, she says. They also like their success to be visible and often feel defined by their jobs. That is important to know, she says, because if a counselor is working with a baby boomer client laid off after 35 years on the job, that client will be grieving the loss of identity that was tied to that job and organization.

Butler recalls working with a 65-year-old client who was essentially forced to retire. As they talked, it became clear that the client had never found closure. Butler said to the client, “We have to come to the realization that you are a human being, not a human doing. You need to separate yourself from your previous title. How could we do that?”

Butler and her client planned a ceremony in which they burned all of the client’s old business cards. Butler then told him, “You’re no longer that title. You’re you. So how are we going to redefine you?”

Eventually, the client was faced with a decision concerning how he wanted to move forward. He was presented with an opportunity to get back into the traditional workforce with another company, or he could travel with his wife across the country in their RV, working odd jobs at national parks.

“We discussed how both [choices] would feel and the pros and cons [of each], but the telling activity was a simple one,” Butler remembers. “I gave him a quarter, and we said, ‘Heads, you go back to work, and tails you get in the RV.’ He flipped the coin and it came up heads. I immediately asked him, ‘It says go back to work. How do you feel?’ He said, ‘Yuck!’ That feeling said it all, and he got in the RV.”

‘Boomers don’t sit in a rocking chair’

The baby boom generation spans roughly 1946-1964, putting these clients between the ages of 49 and 67. That age range encompasses a large variety of life stages and decisions, Butler points out. A person who gets laid off at age 50 will likely be looking at much different options than someone who gets laid off at age 60. Butler calls 50 a “pinnacle age” in life at which clients might be thinking about going back to school and pursuing a complete career change. “They might look up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not where I want to be [in life],’” Butler says. “I find that group in my office all the time.”

At age 60, some clients might be looking at ramping down their careers, Butler says. “Maybe they’re old enough to take retirement from their 30-year jobs, but they want to do something else to feel relevant. They might not want a full-time, 80-hour-a-week job; they might want to do something fun.”

At 70, many clients are looking to wind down to something slower, but what that will be depends in part on the individual client’s financial situation, Butler says. Those who are able might want to fill their time with family, travel and volunteer work, while others might need to keep working at least part time. Either way, Butler points out, “Boomers don’t sit in a rocking chair.”

Even for those baby boomers planning to ramp down into retirement and who aren’t likely to be transitioning into another new job, a career counselor’s input can be helpful, Butler says. As opposed to a financial adviser who discusses money issues surrounding retirement, a career counselor can talk with these clients about time, Butler says. “Questions to ask may be, ‘Do you want to slow down with what you have been doing or do something entirely different and fun? How much time do you want to commit to these activities? What other activities do you want to pursue?’”

In general, Butler says, baby boomers are introspective. So, in helping them determine what might be next in their careers, asking questions about why they chose a career path originally and whether they would follow the same path over again can be illuminating, Butler says. Those details can then be used to move forward with the client. Boomers also like career assessments, which produce tangible results and information, she says. In addition, they like to know that the person working with them possesses solid credentials, so Butler recommends that counselors share details of their professional background early on.

Butler also advises career counselors never to assume that a client’s life stage or preferences can be pinpointed strictly on the basis of age. Rather, she suggests asking probing questions related to the individual’s demeanor, interests, enthusiasm and passions to find out his or her “virtual age.” For example, with a 60-something client who is as energetic and passionate as a 50-something client, Butler might suggest seeking certification for a new career rather than discussing the pursuit of a fun part-time job.

More widely, Butler says, counselors shouldn’t make assumptions. “Don’t assume that a 70-year-old doesn’t have the energy to work. Don’t assume that a senior isn’t computer savvy. Don’t discourage someone from going in a direction that you think wouldn’t be a good fit. Suggest that they try it out rather than steering them away from it.”

Career counselors must also keep up with workforce trends to truly provide informed guidance, Butler adds. For example, a career counselor might see a 50-something client with a background in manufacturing who was recently laid off or who is looking for a way to beef up his or her skills. If the career counselor knows that one of the current trends is increased demand in logistics and supply chain management, Butler says, the counselor can discuss this with the client, determine if that might be the right direction to head toward and help the client see how to market his or her maturity and experience. “We [as career counselors] need to have good listening skills just like a [general] counselor, but we also have to have that additional layer of knowledge of what the trends in the industry are,” she says.

Writing life stories

In Pamelia Brott’s view, career counseling in the 21st century is about much more than simply finding a job. It is about career well-being, which she says encompasses clients finding their purpose and looking forward to each day.

Brott, an associate professor in the counselor education program at the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Center, believes a narrative approach offers clients a helpful path for finding that career well-being because it provides them with a natural way to share the stories of their lives. That is why she has developed what she calls the “storied approach.”

With the storied approach, each client is the editor of his or her own life story. “You can write your future story as you want,” says Brott, a member of NCDA and the immediate past president of the Virginia Counselors Association, a branch of ACA. Framing career counseling from a narrative viewpoint allows clients to feel more control over their lives, Brott says, whether they want to change career paths or continue in the same direction they have already been traveling. “By uncovering the patterns, themes and significant people and events that have occurred in previous chapters of the life story, the client identifies preferences for future chapters across [his or her] life roles,” she says.

Using her storied approach, Brott sees a person’s life story broken down into five life roles:

  • Relating, such as relationships with friends and family members
  • Learning, which includes both formal and informal learning
  • Pleasuring, including play, activities and hobbies
  • Working, which includes employment, home and classroom duties
  • Valuing, which Brott calls the “center of personality” and one’s authentic self. “The valuing life role is how choices are made for one’s career well-being,” she says.

Employment over the life span can naturally include unexpected twists and turns, and the bleak economic landscape in recent years hasn’t helped. Brott says shifting the focus solely from employment to all of life’s roles, and to clients’ strengths across those roles, can help clients find satisfaction and fulfillment even if they aren’t landing the exact job they want. “Helping clients identify what is ‘good enough’ for now can be a chapter that bridges the story and provides hope in what may be extremely trying circumstances,” Brott says. For instance, a client who is unemployed might find that while he is searching for a new job, he can also focus on his “relating” role by spending more time with his children. The goal of career counseling, in Brott’s view, is to make clients feel more empowered in their lives.

Using the storied approach, Brott says counselors can work with clients through the dynamic interplay of coconstruction, deconstruction and construction. Co-construction guides clients in celebrating past chapters of their life while finding themes across symbiotic life roles. Deconstruction opens space to articulate future dreams. Construction of future life chapters is centered on achieving those dreams on the basis of the clients’ strengths, relationships and passions.

As part of her approach, Brott uses three exercises — a lifeline, life roles circles and a goal map — that assist clients in telling their stories and planning out future chapters. “In coconstructing the chapters of the life story, the client and counselor collaborate and develop the narrative language that has meaning to the client,” she says. “Early memories are sketched on a lifeline as the client tells the story, and the counselor illuminates the chapter by reflecting meaning and feelings. Clients are able to see the reoccurring patterns in living a life and begin to articulate those patterns that [they] want to change and those patterns that need to be part of future chapters. Life roles circles are drawn to represent current functioning and then drawn again for a future point in time — a future chapter — which begins the process of deconstructing to open up space in the story and uncover preferred ways of being. A goal map is used for constructing a future chapter based on these preferences so that the client can identify the goal, initial steps in constructing the next chapter, obstacles that may get in the way and resources to use for overcoming those obstacles.”

The idea Brott wants to drive home with her peers is that career counselors can help people not only advance and excel in their working roles but also identify and move toward the total life they want. “We need to have a more dynamic definition when we say ‘career,’” she says. “It isn’t just about the job you have, it’s about the life you lead. You get to write your life story.”

To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Navigating the road to a successful career

Bradley T. Erford

Bradley-TI love to drive! Recently, looking at a map of the United States, I realized that, without ever having established a goal, I have driven in 49 of the 50 states. (Look out, Alaska, here I come!) I grew up driving on rural (and pothole-laden) Pennsylvania roads and didn’t drive on an interstate highway until I went on a college visit. I was impressed by the entry and exit ramps, dismayed at the detours and construction zones, and chagrined at how if you missed an exit, you had to either go miles out of your way to get back on the correct path or choose an alternate route. And there were no Garmins or smartphones back then, only maps.

Driving across varying terrain in different parts of the country is a perpetual reminder that we are immersed in a cultural experience filled with local norms and customs, some of which require substantial adjustments, and that we must make many choices to complete the journey. Have you noticed that in Washington, D.C., cars sometimes start to honk the millisecond that the light turns green? In New York City, the traffic signs seem more like “traffic tips” or “traffic suggestions.” The most laid-back drivers seem to hail from the Midwest, while the most genteel drivers I have encountered reside in rural Virginia, where the interstate traffic sometimes slows from highway speeds to a near stop in order to let a driver merge from an on-ramp. In many places that would never happen. Ramps in some cities seem more like launch pads. I find myself adopting different styles of driving in different locales to adjust to different norms.

Driving in other countries is also a fascinating cultural immersion. I was born to drive the German Autobahn: fast, efficient, safe! In India, a two-lane paved road is packed with people, bicycles, ox-drawn carts, electric carts, cars, trucks, farm equipment and animals, all passing, bobbing and weaving to miss each other while trying to get to their destinations at break-neck speeds. India is a beautiful country with wonderful, warm people. It also has the highest per capita traffic fatality rate in the world. I white-knuckled it every minute I was in the car in India — and I was a passenger! No matter where you are, driving involves a journey and serves as an interesting metaphor for the journey of life and career.

This month’s Counseling Today cover story focuses on career counseling and the important role that career and life planning plays in our profession and in the lives of the clients and students we serve. The roads to success — our professional journeys and the journeys of the clients and students we serve — have many detours, construction zones, on-ramps and off-ramps, even if the miles seem to fly by at times. The challenges and obstacles we have all faced have guided us toward, and sometimes diverted us away from, important lifestyle and career opportunities. As reflective beings, we are mindful of how we are treated and how we treat each other. As counselors, we advocate for and promote client and student access to career opportunities and choices. Are people cut off or courteously welcomed onto the road to success? Are barriers to success removed so that clients and students have control over which on-ramps and off-ramps they take?

One of the most personally meaningful career counseling concepts is John Krumboltz’s “planned happenstance,” which essentially means that unpredictable events and social factors influence our career and life journeys. In other words, we become who we are because of the opportunities we encounter and pursue. Sometimes the “accidental detours” we take lead to the most profound change opportunities. As I grow older, I am becoming ever more cognizant that time really is the only variable of importance. We cannot control time; we can only control our actions with respect to time by choosing what we do and do not focus upon, and to what we dedicate our energy and spirit. And the miles keep flying by.

Finally, it is important for us and our clients and students to understand that mistakes or unintended consequences happen, sometimes altering the course of our lives, even if only for a short time. A resilient person will identify the new opportunities offered as a result of the mistake. We cannot change the past, but we can help our clients and students make today a new beginning that will forever change their lives. Counselors are planned happenstance in action.

So, the next time you hit the road, as the miles and time pass by and as you encounter those detours, construction zones, on-ramps and off-ramps, think about the challenges that lie ahead as opportunities. Enjoy the journey — wherever it may lead.