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Getting comfortable as a counselor with “not knowing”

By Samantha McMorrow March 14, 2016

As graduate students, we are excited about getting out there in the real world and making a difference. After all, we have spent the last several years in classes reading and role-playing situations. We are prepared, excited and full of hope.

You could add that although we feel prepared to make a difference, we do not always know how that is going to happen. Amy H. Freadling and Louisa L. Foss-Kelly found in a 2014 study of recent graduates that they are not always sure of what to do. There is a strong sense of how to do it but not always what to do. For example, the new professional knows how to build rapport and has practiced photo-1438480478735-3234e63615bbthis a thousand times over with peers and during internships, but given a certain situation or circumstance, does he or she know what interventions to use?

This fear of not knowing what intervention to use is a normal part of becoming a counselor. “You must get comfortable with not knowing.” This phrase was repeated throughout my graduate experience. At the time, I took it to mean that I needed to be OK with not having all the answers, with not being the “expert.” I believed that I understood this and even appreciated it, although I did continue to feel the pull to have all the answers and to be the expert that parents, teachers and clients could turn to with their needs.

When a young mother comes in with her child who is behaving in distressing ways, she often wants the counselor to tell her what to do. She has come to you as the expert and wants the answers. When a teacher comes and describes disturbing classroom behavior, he is looking to you for the answers. These sorts of situations happen all too often and can put pressure on the counselor to act the role of expert rather than collaborator.

The new counselor, in particular, may not be comfortable with not having or not providing an answer. The not knowing sits hard with the new professional at these times. It can lead to doubt about how prepared the counselor really is to meet the needs of a diverse population. This doubt can be used to prompt the counselor to continue with his or her professional development.

Over time and with experience, counselors grow and change in their professional identity and skills. Donna M. Gibson, Colette T. Dollarhide and Julie M. Moss found in a focus group study in 2010 that counselors move from an external locus of control to an internal one regarding their professional development. Meaning that as graduate students and new counselors, there was a reliance on external teachings and knowledge acquisition. Later, as counselors became more seasoned, there was a move toward a more internal responsibility for their own professional growth. Instead of seeking new pieces of knowledge, experienced counselors want to gain their own understanding of it.

That has been my progression in “becoming comfortable with not knowing.” I originally took this phrase at its surface value. I heard my professors’ words of being comfortable with not knowing and applied them to my immediate situation without further consideration. Words can have so many meanings though, and context, experience and understanding can change the same phrase to mean something completely different.

With 10 years’ experience behind me now, I can much more comfortably sit with not knowing the answers as I assist a client to do the work. Whether it is from gaining this experience or transitioning in my professional identity development to the next level of my developmental tasks, I have begun to question my understanding of not knowing. Whereas previously I accepted this as not knowing what interventions to use or not knowing the perfect approach to a situation, now I see that there is no perfect approach.

Counselors use their experience, training and clinical judgment to select interventions with no guarantee that they will work. Counseling is a process that you, as the counselor, join in with the client — a journey that is walked with them but not for them. It is not a service in which clients come in with a situation and you apply an intervention to remedy all their concerns. Coming to that new understanding of what counseling is and, more important, what my role is in the process, allowed me to question whether “not knowing” was as simple as I had originally taken it to mean.

Of course, not knowing can mean not knowing the answers to a particular client’s dilemma, as it so often did in my early years of working in this field. But it can also mean not knowing how it all turns out. Counselors are not alone in wanting to know how it ends, how things have turned out. That is a common response to being invested in a process or with a person. You want to know if she left her abusive husband, or if he worked through the trauma of his childhood, or if she had any further relapses. We want it tied up all nice and tidy, with a happily ever after.

Unfortunately, that is just not going to happen. The truth is that clients drop out of services, they move, they lose insurance, they get into new relationships and don’t feel the need to continue with counseling, among a host of other reasons that might arise to take them out of your office before you feel there is resolution.

But even if the client stays in services until the counselor and client both agree that goals have been met and services are no longer needed, that doesn’t mean the counselor will know when the next thing happens with the client. Counselors may want to believe that they have transitioned their client out of services so elegantly that if a need arises in the future, the client will naturally return. This may be the case, but it may not be either, for all the same reasons previously stated about why clients drop out of services.

Of course, there are other reasons too. The client may now want couples counseling, which is not the original counselor’s specialty. Or the client may want a specific type of intervention, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which is not one of the techniques practiced by the original counselor practices. There are a host of potential reasons too large to explore fully here.

The point being, we may not know when other things come up for the client, just as we may not know how certain issues turn out. As long as clients are living, we do not know what the ending is for them, and I am starting to become OK with that. Who knows, in another 10 years, I may have reached a whole new understanding of what it means to “not know.”




Samantha McMorrow is a practicing school counselor with K-12 endorsement, a licensed professional counselor, a national certified counselor and certified in Alaska as a chemical dependency counselor. She currently serves as an adjunct professor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the Counseling Department. Contact her at


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