Tag Archives: Counselors Audience

Counselors Audience

Bringing mindfulness into your counseling practice

Andrew Peterson February 1, 2012

Sometimes the easiest tasks can be so difficult to perform.

Mindfulness meditation has always fallen into this category for me. I struggle so much to get myself to sit down and meditate on a regular basis, even though I know from experience that when I sit in meditation for even a few minutes in the morning, my entire day goes better.

The practice itself couldn’t be simpler:

  • First, relax your body.
  • Next, draw your full attention to your breath as it moves in and out of your body.
  • When your mind wanders (as it’s guaranteed to do within 3.5 seconds), notice that mental activity and give it a name (worrying, planning, lusting, etc.). Then, with compassion, bring your attention back to your breath.
  • Repeat this process for a few minutes. Then go about the rest of your day.

A growing body of research demonstrates that regular meditation practice heightens our immune functioning, improves the quality of our interpersonal relationships and helps reduce subjective states of suffering. And as authors such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel have documented, mindfulness meditation is a powerful adjunct to counseling because it strengthens the very skills that lead to positive outcomes in psychotherapy: the capacity to observe and attend to our thoughts and feelings, the ability to stay present to those thoughts and feelings even when they’re unpleasant and the ability to describe and label our mental activity with words. That’s why I teach meditation to nearly every client who comes into my office these days.

But at the same time, I remain puzzled about why I find it so difficult to get myself to sit and meditate in the morning. It makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite as I persistently encourage my clients to develop a meditation practice of their own. Who am I to be preaching the benefits of meditation when I seem to be the world’s worst meditator?

This dilemma was in the back of my mind one morning as I finally managed to sit myself down on my office floor to meditate for a few minutes before my first client arrived. As I turned my attention to my breath, I felt a familiar sense of calm. Then, as inevitably happens, a thought came crashing into my head.

If only I could remember how good this feels, I’d definitely do it every day.

As I knew I was supposed to do, I tried to direct my attention away from this thought and back to my breath. But the thought was persistent.

Why can’t I hold on to the way this feels so that I can use this feeling to motivate me to sit down and meditate next time?

I tried once again to direct my attention back to my breath. But the force of my thoughts was more powerful than my will. I found myself barreling headlong into a series of insights that would fundamentally shift the way I worked with mindfulness in both my counseling practice and my personal life.

First, I recognized that I was struggling with the same fundamental issue that I was trying to help my clients with every day: I wanted to change my behavior. But then I found myself asking a question I’d never fully considered before. How was I going about trying to make that change happen?

In contemplating this question, I realized that my method, though not uncommon, was faintly ridiculous. I was trying to change my behavior by forcing my behavior to change.

The more I thought about it, the more absurd this seemed. It was like trying to teach a dog to sit by repeatedly forcing it into sitting position. It’s not that you can’t make a dog sit that way, but the change in behavior isn’t meaningful or lasting because all the dog has learned is how to be made to sit.

The real question, I realized, was this: How do you make a dog want to sit?

And the answer seemed clear: You have to start by changing its mind.

So as I sat meditating on my failure to meditate, I asked myself a new question.

How is it that we change our state of mind?

And I realized that meditation itself holds the answer. The calm state of equanimity that meditation promotes is the result of detaching from the flow of our internal experience, separating an “observing” part of ourselves from the “experiencing” part. It’s this shift in state of mind that allows us to step back and make constructive choices about our behaviors. Without this shift, it’s unlikely, if not impossible, to achieve lasting behavioral change.

But a catch remains: How do we get ourselves to engage in the behaviors that lead to a change in state of mind that then allows our behaviors to change?

To put it another way, I still hadn’t figured out how to get myself to sit down and meditate!

As I struggled with this question, I began to consider the various ways I’d been able to successfully enter into a self-reflective state of mind in my own life. Not just the times when I literally meditate, but also the times when I’m able to be mindfully present in my everyday life.

It occurred to me that I’d actually developed a highly effective mindfulness practice that I use regularly in my everyday life. It’s a mental game I play whenever I’m in situations that are inherently boring, repetitive or tedious — standing in line at the DMV, for example, or washing the dishes. I identify a small element of that scenario which I would usually do without awareness — taking a single step forward, for instance, or placing a cup in the dishwasher. Then I ask myself an absurd question. How would I teach this activity to someone who had never done it before? I next come up with simple instructions for performing that activity. Then I follow my own instructions. I try to take a single step as if I were doing so for the first time in my life.

I’m not sure how I developed this habit, but in addition to entertaining me, it never fails to bring me into a focused, present-moment awareness. Try it for yourself right now with whatever materials are at hand. What instructions would you give, for instance, to teach a person how to turn a page in a magazine? Spell out the steps in detail, then try turning the page by following your own instructions. Notice how different this routine experience feels when you do it this way. Notice the shift in your state of mind.

It began to dawn on me that I’d been thinking about mindfulness in much too narrow a way — and I’d been inflicting this narrow view on my clients as well. It occurred to me that a casual, lighthearted approach to mindfulness could be very helpful to my clients who, like me, struggle to sustain a traditional meditation practice. So I set to work writing a series of playful five-step exercises to help others cultivate a mindfulness practice that could be done within the nooks and crannies of their daily lives. Some of these exercises were based on my personal experience, some were based on therapeutic techniques and some evolved during my work with clients. In turn, these exercises became the basis for my book, The Next Ten Minutes: 51 Absurdly Simple Ways to Seize the Moment.

The best way to describe this process is by giving an example of one of the exercises.

The Exercise: Procrastinate

Make use of the secret technique that all therapists learn on their first day of training: In situations where there is no imminent danger (i.e., nearly all of the time), doing nothing will cause no harm.

What you’ll need

A pressing task from your daily life.

How to do it

1) Choose a task. Identify whatever feels like the most stressful thing that you should be doing right at this moment. It doesn’t have to be an objectively important task. Ideally, it will be something that you feel external pressure to do, but what matters most is that it is creating stress in your life. It might be an apology you know you need to make. Or bills that need paying.

2) Focus on the task. Don’t try to ignore it or put it out of your mind. (That is an advanced step that can come once you’ve mastered the basic technique.) Feel all the pressure that comes with the task and all the emotions that come from not doing it. Imagine your loved ones all around you, looking on with disappointment, clucking their tongues, lovingly scolding you.

3) Vigorously fail to do the task. Refuse to do it.

4) Pause. Take a deep, slow breath. Notice whatever thoughts and feelings rush in. Notice what happens in your body. Say to yourself: “I will do it in 10 minutes.” Repeat this phrase as often as necessary, continuing to focus on the task that you aren’t doing.

5) Go about your business. It is irrelevant to the success of this exercise whether you return to the task or whether you ever actually get it done.


Embracing the stress

Plenty of people out there will tell
you that the art of procrastination is an antidote to the stresses and pressures of modern life. In general, the idea is that you should give yourself permission to delay doing things without guilt, let
yourself indulge fully in a sense of
lazy relaxation. This approach to procrastination misses the point. It’s like telling someone who’s depressed that they should just try to be happier. If you are able to truly avoid thinking about things you’re supposed to be doing, then it’s not
actually procrastination.

To experience the true benefits of procrastination, you’ve got to really embrace the stress. Because procrastination isn’t about “doing nothing,” it’s about not doing “something.” Ten minutes of procrastination is good for you not because it’s relaxing, but because you’re acknowledging the reality of your life and acknowledging your power to act … or not.

Variations: Other ways to not do things

Experiment with distractions. The natural impulse when going about our daily, usually unconscious practice of procrastinating is to try to avoid awareness of the thing we’re supposed to be doing. The basic version of this exercise intentionally eliminates distraction to heighten the experience of procrastinating. Once you have mastered the basic exercise, however, it can be very enlightening to reintroduce distraction. Do the first two steps of the exercise as described above, then at step three, try to force yourself to think about a subject that has nothing to do with the task at hand. Start with easy distractions — food, sex and money. Then move on to more boring, and thus more challenging, distractions. Are you able to distract yourself from an important task by focusing on balancing your checkbook?

Use visual aids. (For advanced practitioners only.) These are the big guns of procrastination, and when we’re trying to put something off, we usually go for them first: computer games, the Internet. Using these things to procrastinate is like taking heroin to cure a headache. They work so effectively that they don’t give us the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of the procrastination experience. Using these sorts of tools to procrastinate will call on all your skills, so make sure to master the basic techniques first.

Do it … but only half-heartedly. A final way to vary this exercise involves harnessing your capacity for passive-aggressive behavior. Don’t procrastinate, but don’t do it well either. We all do this at times, but usually we do it more or less unconsciously. Try bringing full awareness to a task while you’re doing a half-assed job on it. Can you stay focused on your refusal to do the task well even as you are doing it?

Counselors will undoubtedly recognize the therapeutic strategies embedded within these instructions. I’m using a classic paradoxical intervention — “prescribing the symptom” — to put the reader in a therapeutic double bind so that regardless of whether she continues to procrastinate, she will have been tricked into recognizing that the responsibility for making this choice is hers alone.

But the point of this exercise is not to help the individual solve the problem of procrastination … any more than the point of meditation is to actually empty your mind. Rather, the point is to slow down our mental activity and observe ourselves in a habitual behavior so that we can use the behavior itself to strengthen our capacity for mindfulness.

In actual counseling practice, I weave mindfulness practices and techniques into the give-and-take of therapy itself, allowing “exercises” to evolve spontaneously, creatively and collaboratively in the flow of the therapeutic conversation. The target is usually a problematic behavior that the client brings in. But the exercises inevitably direct the client’s attention away from the behavioral concerns themselves and toward a mindfulness practice about the behavior.

For example, I recently started working with a man who complained that his wife was always asking him to do things for her that she could do perfectly well for herself. He didn’t know why she did this, and it drove him crazy. He knew there were times when it was appropriate for him to say no to her requests, but he just couldn’t make himself do that. Instead, he found himself repeatedly doing things for her that he didn’t want to do.

Rather than making a plan to try to change (or even to understand) his behavior, I asked him to continue doing exactly what he had been doing, but to experiment with a simple mindfulness exercise as he did.

“Every time you find yourself in this situation,” I told him, “I want you to notice it. And when you do, I want you to say to yourself: ‘I’m doing something that I don’t want to do.’”

He looked at me like I was crazy. But he was willing to give it a try. When he came in the next week, something clearly had shifted.

“You know,” he told me with a smile, “I think I’ve been giving too much of myself away. And I think that isn’t healthy for me in the long run.”

Over time, he did in fact wind up changing the behaviors that were troubling him. But that change came not from focusing on the behavior itself but rather through the mindful observation of his own thoughts and feelings. Now when he feels a moment of marital stress approaching, he has taught himself to do a quick mindfulness practice that keeps him from becoming overwhelmed and allows him to remain grounded and to assert himself appropriately. He even came up with his own term for this particular form of mindfulness practice. The term reflects his background in  business: “just-in-time meditation.”

I’m convinced our universal task as counselors is not to change our clients’ behavior but rather to help them learn how to change their states of mind. No matter what our theoretical orientation, we all (even the most strict behaviorists) ask our clients to do a version of the same thing: move from an immersion in the flow of their experience to a reflective observation of that experience. It’s this shift in perspective that leads to meaningful behavioral change.

I still teach the formal technique of mindfulness meditation to nearly every client who walks in my door. But I no longer worry about whether my clients are actually able to sustain a formal meditation practice. In fact, I have more and more compassion for how strangely difficult the “simple” practice of meditation can be.

At the same time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that just-in-time mindfulness practices — which can be extremely brief, silly or even badly done — can be just as beneficial as an adjunct to counseling as “proper” meditation. Because in the end, the goal is not meditation itself but rather the shift in perspective that meditation facilitates. Mindfulness might be a single destination, but there are innumerable paths leading us toward it.

“Knowledge Share” articles are adapted from sessions presented at past ACA Annual Conferences.

Andrew Peterson is a psychotherapist, composer and author of The Next Ten Minutes: 51 Absurdly Simple Ways to Seize the Moment. He maintains a private practice in Missoula, Mont., and teaches graduate counseling classes in ethics and diagnosis at the University of Montana. Visit his website and blog at thenexttenminutes.com, and contact him at andrewpeterson@thenexttenminutes.com.

Letters to the editor:


Why counselors make poor lovers

Doug Shirley

Counselors are good at relationships, or so they say. As folklore would have it, counselors are the “knowers” of all things relational and, therefore, can and should be “masters” when it comes to their own personal relationships. But is this really the case?

As a counselor, I thought I was good at relationship until I met and married my wife, who is also a counselor. Together, she and I quickly learned that, although we were each quite good at the craft of counseling, neither of us was all that good at establishing intimacy in our personal relationship. Our clinical training had taught us to rely on (if not hide behind) the role of counselor to find stability in the shifting sands of relationship building and maintenance. We had been taught to counsel rather than to relate. Ultimately, I would argue that this is true for far too many counselors.

Within our Western culture, taking on the post of counselor proffers one a certain amount of power, intended or unintended. One such mantle of power pertains to that counselor’s hermeneutic, or the lens through which that counselor sees the world. Just as lenses can come in various forms of tint, so too can hermeneutics be informed by a vast array of contributants. For many counselors, our entry into the field was informed by a quest to heal a past hurt. As counselors, we’ve entered a profession that gives us access to the hurts of others and allows (even requires) us to focus on or name the “stuff” of others. What is more, our profession can grant us a certain measure of (therapeutic) distance in relationships, wherein we can give without necessarily receiving. Add this all together and it is apparent why our relational sight can be encumbered by the tint of our profession-endorsed hermeneutics.

Can you relate? If so, I think you — like me and like many other counselors throughout the profession — are susceptible to a hermeneutic or relational stance that might be prohibitive to the intimacy we seek with the ones we love outside of our counseling offices. It is here that I see Western culture and its introjects informing the images of “counselor” that reside in each of us.

We as counselors end up holding the mixed bag of messages that our culture affords. We sit in and with dissonance. At times we feel great about ourselves and the work we do. At other times it seems as if we’re a receptacle for others to use for their refuse. And so it goes that we bring said dissonance into our personal relationships, trying to get a handle on who we are and how we are to operate in and through these relationships.

What a mess! We can leave our counseling offices and expect to find the same level of acknowledgment at home. When our partners or our children don’t hang on our every word like our clients seem to, we begin to think our family members are the ones with the problem (how could they be so ungrateful?). Or when our partners begin to question us, we may find ourselves prone to interpreting their apparently exhibited defense mechanisms, loading our relational cannons to shoot down the perceived threat that our relational partners represent to us. In this, we learn to use our skills to hide and defend.

Moreover, counselors can become quite sophisticated in terms of their defensive relational frameworks. Our professional training can keep us entrenched in seeing the patterns of thought and behaviors in others (“You seem to do this” or “You seem to think that”). Having been handed the constructs of transference and countertransference, it becomes hard not to see our partners as just one more person looking to work out their own unfinished business on us and our tabula-rasa backs. In other words, we can stop seeing our partners for who they are and begin responding to them and their behaviors as though they are clients coming to us for “care.”

I find it remarkable that although I’ve been practicing and teaching counseling for well over a decade, it is still surprisingly hard at times for me to be open with my wife about what I am feeling. As a counselor, I have become a wordsmith, and I have become very effective at hiding behind my words when I want to. I can add a proviso such as “It seems like …” or “It feels like …” to my sentences to lambast a loved one or to take inventory of them in a way that is ultimately uncaring.

In his text Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg reminds us that a phrase such as “I feel like” doesn’t actually serve as an indicator for a feeling to follow. Such a phrase can be duplicitous in that feelings don’t need warm-up phrases. Hence, a statement made with an opening qualifier ends up being nothing more than an intrusion on my relational partner’s boundaries.

To this end, I would call myself a recovering co-dependent. In fact, many of the counselors I know would fit that category, regardless of whether they espouse such a descriptor. Our profession is one supposedly steeped with boundaries. If clients transgress and cross a boundary, they are called on it, whereas if counselors do so, it is often seen as therapeutic.

For instance, when was the last time you named something in your client? Did you do so with humility and a willingness to be wrong, or was your pronouncement emphatic and delivered with a triumphant edge? If the latter strikes a chord with you as it does for me, then I think we run the risk of taking this type of energy or engagement into relationship with those we love. With our partners, children, friends and other loved ones, we can make pronouncements that we think should garner applause and usher in healing and growth. And I’ll say again, when this doesn’t happen, we’ve been taught to view this dynamic as the other being full of resistance.

Ultimately, I’m trying to speak to my belief that we’ve been set up to fail relationally. So what is a counselor to do? I believe our skills and our attempts at containment, which can seem to get us somewhere in the office, are the very things that can dismantle our interactions with loved ones. We’ve been left with a tool kit of really expensive gadgets that oftentimes have little pertinence to our needed relational repairs. And here’s the kicker: We think we should know better.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the following thoughts when interacting with someone in my personal life: “I should know how to handle this” or “I should know what to do here.” I mean, after all, I am a counselor, right? Aren’t counselors supposed to know how to handle complex relational moments?

think Carl Rogers was on to something when he claimed it is the personal that is most general (à la On Becoming a Person). A dilemma I face as a person is that I don’t often grant myself the luxury of being just that — a person. No, I think because of the work that I do or the degrees on my wall that I should have it all figured out and should offer pristine love and encouragement to all who come in contact with me. When I am unable to fit this bill, I take it out on myself and cower in shame. I choose to disengage rather than staying present in the moment. I retreat, look for cover and hope for a moment wherein I can get back on solid ground.

A helpful reminder: Maybe there is no such thing as solid ground in relationship. Maybe that’s the point of relationship. You’ve probably heard it said that someone can have enough information about something to be dangerous. I think this is true for many counselors and therapists in their personal relationships. We’ve been given diagnostic and interpretive categories, therapeutic skills to hone and a professional frame in which to hold it all. When push comes to shove, however, very little of this plays outside of the counseling office. Outside of my office, I am faced with the same personal struggles that my clients face: to engage openly and honestly with the people I love.

So what’s the take-home message here? Don’t assume your clinical training will serve as an asset in your personal relationships. In fact, anticipate that it might act as a liability at points. Listen to yourself talk, and allow your use of language to inform you of your more deep-seated, hermeneutical leanings. Practice receiving care from others, especially from those who know and love you best. Ask for feedback; our places of work should not be the only avenues by which we engage in “performance review” processes. Seek out entitlement and/or power-laden energies in the ways you carry yourself both personally and professionally, and allow that voice of entitlement lodged within or the power plays you display to point you toward unmet needs of your own that are very much worth stewarding.

And above all, let’s stop taking ourselves so seriously. If we render ourselves “knowers” of the human condition who “should” know what to do, say, think or feel when it comes to our personal relationships, I believe we exponentiate the likelihood that we will promulgate loneliness in those relationships. Let’s allow ourselves to be who we are and where we are and be willing to chuckle at our foibles, our failures and our good-intentioned but ill-advised attempts to get our own needs met. In so doing, we might just become better lovers.

Doug Shirley is a practicing counselor and chair of undergraduate programs at Argosy University, Seattle. Contact him at dshirley@argosy.edu.

Letters to the editor:

Making your next move

Lynne Shallcross January 1, 2012

It’s been said that the only constant in life is change. Counselors aren’t exempt from that rule, as anyone who has made the transition from graduate student to new professional, from one job setting to another, or from practicing professional to retiree can attest.

Sometimes the change is exhilarating, as when landing a long-sought-after position or graduating with a new degree. Other times change is difficult, such as when starting over after a job loss. Although each person’s transition is different, counselors say change regularly offers both challenges and opportunities.

In 1973, Nancy K. Schlossberg left a position with Wayne State University to move to Washington, D.C., to become the first female executive of the American Council on Education. It was a great move for her professionally and one she very much wanted to make. So Schlossberg admits she was confused when she arrived and felt a little “discombobulated.”

Schlossberg, now professor emerita at the University of Maryland Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, couldn’t figure out what was upsetting her. She was intrigued by her feelings, however, and that intrigue led her to conduct multiple studies of people in transition over the next 35-plus years.

Schlossberg, who developed what she says is the original transition theory and has authored nine books on retirement and other transitions, believes people need to be reminded that change naturally causes discomfort, even if the change is one they desired. “People always wonder, ‘Why am I feeling some unease when this is what I wanted?’” says Schlossberg, who is also a past president of the National Career Development Association, a division of the American Counseling Association. The reason, she says, is because anytime a person’s roles, routines, relationships and assumptions change, it is a little jarring. It takes time to establish a new set of roles, routines, relationships and assumptions, she says, and that’s what the transition process is — the period of time during which a person gets a “new life.”

What makes the transition process unique for each person is something Schlossberg deems the four S’s: situation, self, supports and strategies. Situation refers to the person’s situation at the time of transition and whether other life stressors are involved, she explains. Self alludes to the “person’s inner strength for coping with [the] situation,” she says. Supports have to do with the amount of support a person has available to him or her during a transition. Strategies refer to the coping resources one uses. “The more someone can use lots of strategies flexibly, the better one will be able to cope,” Schlossberg says.

After years spent studying the topic, Schlossberg advises those going through transitions that there are no shortcuts to a quick adjustment. “Don’t give yourself a hard time,” she says. “You will get your new life. It just takes time.”

Counseling Today recently asked four ACA members to share what they experienced and learned as they faced professional transitions common to many counselors.

The move: From student  to professional





Stephanie Adams

Stephanie Adams credits her supervisor with giving her the advice she says has been most helpful in making the transition from graduate student to professional counselor: Respect clients’ abilities to heal themselves and control their own lives.

Adams, who graduated with a master’s degree in counseling from Dallas Baptist University in 2009, says one of the most daunting aspects of transitioning from graduate student to counselor intern to professional counselor was worrying that she might let a client down or fail to say the “right thing.” Her supervisor, Carol Doss, told Adams that counselors must believe in the power of their clients. “We don’t have all the power,” Adams remembers Doss telling her. “We’re not God. We’re just here to help as best we can, and if we do that, that’s all we can do.”

That view not only is empowering to clients, Adams says, but also takes some of the pressure off of her as a new counselor. “I’m grateful to have learned that I get to help but [that] I’m not all-powerful,” she says. “I can’t control whether someone gets better. People who like to help put the burden on themselves to fix everyone. [But] it’s not all about me and what I can change.”

If she didn’t see clients as capable and competent enough to overcome their own obstacles, Adams says, then she would worry all the time as a new counselor, constantly agonizing over her decisions and her clients’ problems. Counselors must have faith that clients can handle whatever it is they’re facing, Adams says. “[Seeing it that way] frees me to be the best helper I can be,” she says.

Adams, who is in the process of self-publishing The Beginning Counselor’s Survival Guide, which she co-authored with Doss, has spent the past two-plus years building up her reputation and skills as a professional. Upon graduating in 2009, she continued working as an intern at a family counseling center in Fort Worth where she had done her practicum during graduate school. Soon after earning her license as a professional counselor this past April, Adams relocated to College Station, where she opened a private practice in which she works with clients in Texas online or by phone. She currently works with approximately five clients per week, but her goal is to build that to 10 to 12 clients per week minimum.

Making the transition out of school was scary, Adams says, “because it’s all new and it’s the first time you’re practicing without a net, so to speak.” Adams felt fortunate to have Doss as a great supervisor to lean on and to learn from, acknowledging that it can be nerve-wracking for a student-turned-professional to start making decisions concerning clients on his or her own.

Having experienced firsthand that making the move from student to professional can be daunting, Adams and one of her colleagues, Diana Pitaru, started a group for new counselors called Counselors and Psychotherapists Network of North Texas. The group meets monthly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to talk about issues, struggles, questions, problems, successes and more. Adams also started a beginning counselor’s social networking site (beginningcounselor.webs.com) where newer professionals can help each other by sharing ideas and concerns.

One of Adams’ biggest hurdles in moving from student to professional was feeling unsure of herself and her abilities as a counselor. The only way to conquer that, she maintains, is practice. “[The feeling] never completely goes away, but certainly the knowledge that you’ve successfully handled a certain problem or certain kind of client before gives you added confidence,” she says. “Giving it time to see [the] benefits you have helped a client achieve makes a difference, too. When you can see for yourself that something you said made a difference for a client, it gives you immense satisfaction and confidence.”

Figuring out the practical aspects of starting a career as a counselor was also challenging, Adams says, including how to sign up for the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification and how to locate and secure an internship. Once again, Adams says she was fortunate to have a supervisor who helped her find her way.

Both in her internship and now in her work as a private practitioner, finding clients has been part of the job, Adams says. The noncounseling aspects of business, such as putting a listing on Psychology Today’s online therapy directory and seeking clients in a variety of other ways, can seem difficult at first, she admits. To sharpen her skills, Adams read multiple books and attended numerous webinars on marketing. She points to books by Lynn Grodzki and David P. Diana and blogs from Deborah Legge and Tamara Suttle as particularly valuable in getting started as a counselor.

Through her social networking site, Adams says she hears stories of beginning counselors getting discouraged when they hit a bump in the road. She advises students transitioning into professional practice not to take their slight incapacities or areas of needed growth and blow them out of proportion, allowing these relative “weak spots” to define them. “Don’t give up and think you’re not suited for the field,” she says. “You’re here for a reason; there are people you’re supposed to help.”

Adams also encourages those who are feeling stressed during a professional transition to draw on their resources as fledgling counselors and take the advice they would give to clients. “If you’re having an anxiety attack, sit down and deal with it and think of what you would tell someone else to do,” she says. “That’s part of being who you say you’re going to be. You’re not going to be perfect [at it], but try your best to be a representative of a healthy mental lifestyle.” She says this effort involves taking care of yourself and dealing with any issues that arise instead of attempting to suppress them.

Adams offers a few additional pieces of advice for students-turned-professionals:

  • Allow yourself to make mistakes, and don’t assume that a mistake is a sign that you’re not meant for a career in counseling.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people, both inside and outside the counseling profession.
  • Allow yourself some flexibility, but have an idea of what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Don’t expect things to resolve themselves as quickly as you would like them to be. For instance, Adams says, it can take eight to 12 months for a counseling practice to reach full capacity.
  • Don’t ignore any potential networking connection, whether it’s someone who can offer business advice or a seasoned counselor who can offer wisdom from experience.

With future clients, Adams expects she will be able to draw on the perspective she gained while navigating through this transition. She will feel confident in assuring clients going through their own transitions that it is OK if they don’t have all the answers right away — that they will find the answers as they move forward. Adams also learned during her transition from student to professional that when she found herself avoiding a task, it was usually due to a fear of failure. She discovered that the more she did related to whatever it was she was afraid of, the easier it got.

The biggest payoff in her new role as a professional counselor, Adams says, is feeling the satisfaction that comes from working with clients. “Working with clients is the reward for all the book work,” she says. “That’s what we get into counseling for. That’s what we love.”

The move: From agency work to private practice: Kimberly Leandre

Kimberly Leandre already had a dream of going into private practice. But when the agency where she worked as a counselor closed because of economic difficulties and budget cuts, she was nudged toward that dream a little sooner than she had planned.

For almost eight years, Leandre worked for the Southern Rhode Island Collaborative, where she counseled adolescents in an alternative learning program. In the fall of 2010, her job was cut from 40 hours a week to 12 hours a week. Then this past June, the agency closed completely. Before her hours decreased and again before the agency closed, Leandre explored a variety of employment options: fee for service, community mental health agencies, group practice, teaching at the local community college and private practice as a sole practitioner. She began a limited practice in June 2010 and continued to work part time at the agency throughout its final year. When her job at the agency ended fully, she weighed the pros and cons and chose to put her efforts into a full-time practice.

“My practice is going well and the schedule works great [with] having a husband and three very active kids, ages 9, 11 and 15,” says Leandre, whose practice is in East Greenwich, R.I. “I went from having no clue what ‘CAQH’ (Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare) meant to now being on several insurance panels. My transition has been successful, and it’s largely because I focused on the silver lining in the clouds.”

Leandre is currently seeing between 20 and 25 clients a week while continuing to build her client base. She admits it’s very different from her previous agency schedule but says she’s making her private practice work by offering office hours on weekdays as well as on two weeknights each week and on Saturdays.

Leandre has some background in running a small business — her parents owned ice cream stores, which she managed as she was growing up. Her parents still serve as a sounding board for some of her business ideas. In addition, Leandre belongs to the Rhode Island Mental Health Counselors Association and attended the organization’s seminars on starting a private practice as she was getting her business going. Topics ranged from billing and marketing to the pros and cons of insurance panels.

Leandre also says she read The Complete Guide to Private Practice for Licensed Mental Health Professionals by Robert Walsh and Norman Dasenbrook from cover to cover more than once. She started a website for her practice through TherapySites, got Healthcare Providers Service Organization (HPSO) liability insurance through ACA and has a profile on Psychology Today’s online therapy directory.

In addition, Leandre reached out to a childhood friend who works nearby as a counselor in private practice. Leandre met with her to bounce ideas off her and to go over intake documents. Leandre also keeps the clinician on her referral list in case she can’t take a client who calls in.

The initial process of getting clients offered a bit of a hurdle, Leandre admits, in part because it took her a little while to adjust to marketing in a therapeutic manner. Leandre recently printed brochures, which she began dropping off, along with her business card, to area psychiatrists and other doctors.

There is added pressure when running a business to make ends meet because you’re solely responsible for your own paycheck, Leandre says. Addressing the issue of no-shows can be tricky, but Leandre decided to implement a no-show fee because she knew she had to make her practice financially viable.

It takes time to learn the managed care billing process, she says, but it’s necessary to have the patience and make the time to navigate insurance panels. Leandre does all her own billing directly through an online billing clearinghouse system that she uses to organize her client information and notes.

Leandre says the results can be gratifying for counselors who are open to dealing with insurance companies, doing the billing, coordinating the scheduling and handling all the other responsibilities that go along with running a private practice. She touts not only her increased schedule flexibility, which she can adapt based on the needs of her family, but says it’s also rewarding to reap the financial benefits of her own hard work instead of working for someone else.

As she was starting out in her practice, Leandre says she often wondered if she was doing the right thing. Her parents, who were very supportive of her efforts and could draw on their own business experience, told her that new businesses needed to be given five years to succeed. “I would say in the beginning I was nervous, but now I am sure I did the right thing,” Leandre says.

When asked what advice she would give to other counselors considering a move into private practice, Leandre responds, “Read and seminar yourself to death.” She says she remembers walking out of one seminar thinking she hadn’t learned anything new. At that moment, she knew she was ready to start her practice. “It wasn’t that the [seminar] information wasn’t great,” she says. “It was that I had all the information already.”

In addition to attending seminars, networking and talking to colleagues in the field, Leandre recommends securing a good accountant and lawyer, purchasing private practice insurance and getting supervision. Keep professional development at the forefront of your brain as well, she adds.

Finding the right location for your practice is another important element of success, says Leandre, who works in a building with two chiropractors, a massage therapist and an acupuncturist. Although they don’t typically refer clients to each other, being in close proximity to other like-minded professionals who have a passion for health and wellness raises awareness of the range of services offered in the building and increases client traffic, Leandre says.

Among Leandre’s other pieces of advice for those wishing to transition into private practice:

  • Have confidence in yourself and your skills. “Have faith in yourself that you can do this,” she says.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t rush in without first doing all your research and homework.
  • Invest in an informative website. Research shows that letting clients see the environment before they come in can ease anxiety, so Leandre includes a photo of herself and her office on her website.
  • Maintain a list of other practitioners to whom you can refer clients if you can’t take them.
  • Be prepared to handle any hurdles that come your way, such as having the confidence to follow up with an insurance company if it rejects a claim. “There is no problem that is unsolvable,” Leandre says. “You just have to figure out how to solve it.”

Losing a job and being forced to carve out a new career path can be stressful and anxiety-producing, but Leandre says she succeeded because she chose to focus on the positive. That lesson is something she says she can recommend to her future clients. “I really do feel like when one door closes, another opens,” Leandre says. “You have to try to find what good can come from something that feels negative at first. It’s looking for that and staying positive.”

In her case, Leandre couldn’t be happier about the end result. “I feel like I’m living the dream,” she says.

The move: From agency work to academia





Ellen Carruth

Ever since graduating in 2008 with a doctorate in counselor education from the University of Tennessee, Ellen Carruth had been actively pursuing a position in academia. But when her persistence finally paid off this past year and she landed a position as coordinator for the master of arts in counseling psychology program at the City University of Seattle, Carruth admits she was nervous.

After graduating with her doctorate, Carruth and her family relocated from Tennessee to Seattle. Although securing a position at a university was her goal, the economy was struggling and academic openings were far from plentiful. So, Carruth ended up taking a position as a clinical case manager with a local community mental health agency, where she and her colleagues provided medication management, case management, substance abuse treatment, counseling and a variety of other services to mostly low-income clients.

When Carruth reached out to Counseling Today in September shortly after beginning her position at City University of Seattle, her feelings were bittersweet. “While I am finally where I have strived to be, I feel lost,” Carruth wrote in an email. “I have spent the last year managing a caseload of 100-plus severely mentally ill adults. I spent my time making sure they had medications, food, shelter and basic necessities. I worked with a group of the most fantastic professionals I’ve ever come across — they were boisterous and loud, but their passion for their work and their clients was contagious. They were my family for 12 months.”

“Now, I will build a new family,” Carruth continued. “I am slowly securing my footing in this new world, learning about the unique aspects of this school and learning the culture of these people. As I move into this role, I am aware of the internal anxieties I feel, my tendency to almost fall into the ‘imposter syndrome’ and the incredibly steep learning curve ahead of me.”

Fast-forward a few months, and Carruth’s outlook is decidedly steadier and more confident. She says she feels like she has found her footing. She has begun developing relationships with other faculty members and is receiving positive feedback from her students.

Looking back, Carruth admits that when she first arrived on campus, she felt there was a pre-existing expectation that she knew exactly what to do in her new role simply because she possessed a doctorate. “Over time, I realized it’s up to me to ask the questions I need to ask and to be a little more assertive,” she says. “Part of my transition was learning how to get what I need from the people around me. It was also a matter of pushing through my insecurities [and] realizing that I’m here because I earned the position.”

While Carruth was working at the community agency, she didn’t give up her hopes of finding a job in academia and kept her ear to the ground. “Persistence was key — staying on top of openings and jumping on them when they popped up,” she says. “I applied for several but, finally, [with City University of Seattle], the time and place was right.”

Much of Carruth’s final month at the agency was spent ramping down her work and ensuring that her clients were assigned to new clinicians so no gap in services would take place. Carruth also met with her supervisor at the university in the month before starting there to find out what the expectations were for her position and to begin preparing for those expectations. Carruth’s position is largely administrative, but she is also teaching one lecture class and supervising two sections of practicum. She’ll also be taking on the role of internship coordinator.

Although Carruth felt an overall sense of excitement upon starting her new position, she admits it was initially a challenge to get to know and understand her new environment. She found herself trying to figure out the culture of her new workplace, how people interacted and where she fit in to the existing dynamic.

However, this transition ended up being easier for her than her previous transition from graduate school to the agency, Carruth says. Upon graduation, she explains, she held the expectation that with a doctorate, she would be immediately hirable for the jobs she desired in academia. When she took the position at the agency, it meant adjusting her expectations. But Carruth is careful to point out that although she didn’t realize it initially, the experience she gained at the agency was invaluable. “I don’t regret spending the time there at all,” she says. “It prepared me in a lot of ways to do the job I’m doing now. With hands-on experience working with clients with severe mental illness, I’m able to relate the course concepts through the experiences I’ve had.”

So Carruth offers other professionals a different perspective on not getting what they think they want right away: Although she felt like she was taking a bit of a step back when she accepted the position at the agency, in hindsight, she says the experience was priceless. “It might not feel like it’s where you want to go at that particular moment, but stick with it, and there’s probably a lesson to be learned,” she says. “Be open and aware to how you can develop professionally.”

Carruth, who serves as the community mental health liaison for the Washington Mental Health Counselors Association, says participating in professional activities and networking helped connect her with opportunities during her job search. “It can be a competitive thing to find a job in your neighborhood,” she says. “Be persistent, and that will pay off. Don’t give up — that’s my advice. If you want it, go for it.”

And when you land a job, Carruth says, persistence is still important. “Approach the new situation with a bit of humility,” she advises. “You don’t know everything you need to know about coming into a college or university setting at first. It will take time and persistence to learn how things work.”

In pursuing and landing the job at her university, Carruth says she learned that no one will chase you down — it’s up to you to go after what you want. And once you arrive at your destination and realize that the transition is ongoing, it pays to remain confident. “For me, it’s remembering that I’m trained to do this work and I have the skills and abilities to do what I was hired to do,” Carruth says. “It’s taking that leap of faith that I will be successful.”

The move: From professional to retiree





Charlene Kampfe

Charlene Kampfe loved her job. She had spent more than 20 years as a faculty member in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona, and at age 66, it wasn’t in her plans to retire.

But the university was offering a tempting deal to tenure-track professors who had worked at the university for a decade or longer and who were 65 or older. Any qualifying professor who was willing to retire would be given a year’s salary in exchange.

“It only made sense to me to take advantage of that,” Kampfe says, “but I loved what I was doing and I was worried I would lose my meaning in life. I loved working with students and I loved feeling like what I was doing was important. And I was afraid I would lose that feeling of doing something important.”

After a lot of careful deliberation, Kampfe decided to accept the offer and retired from the university this past May. Despite her initial worries, by the time her retirement date arrived, Kampfe says she had thought through the decision and had grown to be at ease with it.

Although technically retired, Kampfe hasn’t slowed down that much. She has contracted with ACA to write a book about counseling older people, is working as a consultant, has published several articles and has a few upcoming lectures planned. The university also gave Kampfe emerita status after she left, which allows her to retain a bit of connection to that community and a sense of pride about her contributions there, she says.

The biggest hurdle in transitioning into retirement, Kampfe says, was the amount of preparation involved. “When you retire, the number of things you have to deal with is overwhelming,” she says. The preparation wasn’t so much psychological, Kampfe says, but instead rather basic. It meant investigating Medicare, Social Security, how to manage her money in retirement — even things as mundane as what to do with her sick leave.

Kampfe says her area agency on aging offered a variety of resources, including monthly classes open to anyone planning to retire, counseling services and individual consultations. In addition, Kampfe and a handful of university colleagues who were also retiring formed a group, meeting once every three weeks to share ideas, ask and answer questions, and troubleshoot.

Time to process the transition psychologically felt lacking, Kampfe says, because there was so much to do from a practical standpoint, from making benefits decisions to finishing up her classes to cleaning out her office. But because she was worried she would lose her sense of meaning in life, Kampfe did seek personal counseling, which she found helpful.

Counselors or any other professionals considering retirement should first examine their priorities by asking themselves some questions, Kampfe says. “What do I want? What is meaningful to me? Do I have enough money that I don’t have to work anymore, or do I need to continue? Do I want to work because I love working?”

If a decision is reached to retire, Kampfe says people must then determine at what speed their retirement will run. She suggests that people ask themselves whether they simply want to ramp down in terms of the hours they work or whether they want to stop working completely and just focus on “play.” For Kampfe, the answer was a mixture of new work as a consultant and author along with a healthy dose of play.

“If someone can’t wait to get out and play, then follow your bliss,” Kampfe says. “But if you’re going to miss being a counselor, then find things to do.” Those options might include consulting, grant writing, volunteering or a variety of other alternatives, she says.

In considering retirement, Kampfe says she anticipated the most difficult aspect would be maintaining her sense of self after leaving her job. So it came as a surprise to her when her worry didn’t become a reality. Instead, she has found that transitioning into a consulting role and writing the book have kept her fulfillment needle high. She also maintains contact with some of her students and is working to finish up a few writing projects she had started with students before her retirement.

On the flip side, Kampfe says, the barrage of information and decisions that had to be made involving retirement were surprisingly challenging. One of the best ways she devised to cope with that process involved creating a calendar of tasks and due dates that she updated weekly to keep herself organized and feeling in control.

The biggest payoff of her transition into retirement is having the time to choose what she wants to do, Kampfe says. In fact, she has established a couple of rules for herself in retirement. First is to say yes to any fun activities that people ask her to participate in, and second is to decline any offers of work unless she gets paid and unless the work sounds like fun.

One consideration Kampfe wants to pass along to other counselors approaching retirement is that they should take the time to figure out what they want, determine what holds meaning for them and then figure out what they need to do to experience that meaning. “Make some decisions about that and then try to follow some of [your own] guidelines, but don’t be too stiff about it either,” she says.

Among Kampfe’s other tips:

  • Know what you have to get done in terms of paperwork. Understand the guidelines, the rules and the benefits involved.
  • If you have a partner, make sure that he or she is also doing OK with handling the transition.
  • In determining how to make life meaningful in retirement, Kampfe suggests that people ask themselves the following question: Where is your joy?
  • Be open to opportunities, but also know your boundaries.
  • Lastly, for those in preretirement, Kampfe recommends saving early and saving often.

Kampfe’s own advice for herself in the future might just be, “Don’t worry, you’re more flexible than you know.” Although she was worried about the transition beforehand, Kampfe now happily realizes she’s truly enjoying her time in retirement. “That says to me that I’ve been able to make the transition without too much heartache.”

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.


Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org


The benefits of forgiveness and gratitude

Lynne Shallcross

When Willie Nelson crooned “Forgiving You Was Easy” in the mid-1980s, the song briefly reached No. 1 on the country charts. Despite the tune’s appeal, however, even Nelson’s biggest fans would probably be lying if they claimed to agree with the sentiment expressed in the song’s title.

People struggle with hurts both big and small throughout their lives, and some counselors contend that what stands between many clients and a happy life is the often-elusive process of forgiveness.

Although the act may not come naturally to all of us, research through the Stanford Forgiveness Project has shown that learning to forgive lessens the amount of hurt, anger, stress and depression that people experience. Frederic Luskin, a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University and director of the forgiveness project, writes on his website that people who learn to forgive also “become more hopeful, optimistic and compassionate. … Forgiveness has physical health benefits. People who learn to forgive report significantly fewer symptoms of stress such as backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches and upset stomachs. In addition, people report improvements in appetite, sleep patterns, energy and general well-being.”

Despite all the potential benefits, forgiveness is something with which many clients struggle, says Sandy Walker, a member of the American Counseling Association who runs a private practice in Miami. In her years as a lay counselor before earning a master’s degree in mental health counseling, Walker says she found again and again that the “blockages” people struggled with in their lives were linked to some sort of issue for which they needed to forgive someone. “The process of forgiveness is very often the key that unlocks that obstacle or removes it,” says Walker, who self-published the book Freedom Through Forgiveness: The Power of Forgiveness Can Change Your Life in September.

Whenever clients are carrying negative emotions or a negative self-concept, Walker tries to help them get to the root of it, and very often, she says, those feelings are tied to an issue of forgiveness. But what’s interesting, she says, is that clients rarely realize that to be the issue. For that reason, Walker included specific exercises in her book to help clients tap into the information or memories needed to uncover the real source of their hurt.

Mary Hayes Grieco, director and lead trainer of the Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training, has taught the process of forgiveness to counseling professionals in the United States, Ireland and Germany. Grieco and her colleagues offer three programs: a general workshop open to the public, a daylong professional training and a nine-month self-mastery program open both to mental health professionals and the public.

Grieco says it’s important to note that forgiveness isn’t about the other person or about making someone else apologize or change — it’s about setting yourself free. “It’s about releasing the impact of a loss or a disappointment or an upset, releasing it from ourselves so we can go forward and not be continually reminded or triggered about this upsetting thing,” says Grieco, author of Unconditional Forgiveness: A Simple and Proven Method to Forgive Everyone and Everything, which was published by Simon and Schuster in December.

Walker agrees. “Not forgiving creates an emotional prison,” she says. “It ties you to a person or an event that usually you’d rather forget [but] you’re unable to. So you think in your mind that you’re holding a grudge or making them pay, but in effect, once you finally forgive, it’s like you’re unlocking that prison door and you realize the person being released is you, not the other person. When you carry a grudge, they don’t suffer — you suffer.”

By practicing forgiveness, Grieco says, people are better able to accept and love life as it is and accept others as they are. “It’s a life skill and a health habit that I think everyone needs because we will regularly be disappointed by people and circumstances,” she says. Learning to forgive means developing resilience instead of adopting a conditional approach to life in which we can only
be happy if certain things happen, Grieco says.

“In fact, life is going to do what it does. We don’t have control over a lot of things,” Grieco says. “We have to be able to roll with things as they are. It’s not to say we don’t have to try to have boundaries and create what we want, but sometimes we don’t have control. Forgiveness gives the ability to say, ‘I was expecting this, but this happened, [and] I have to release that expectation in order to have a happy day.’”

When people don’t forgive someone or something, it keeps them “stuck,” according to Grieco. She says she often hears something along the following lines from Midwest Institute clients: “I’m just so sick of this story. I’m so sick of being mad at this person.” Not forgiving keeps alive a level of stress in people’s systems and invites physical symptoms that include stomachaches and backaches, Grieco says. Walker adds that people who don’t forgive often deal with tormenting thoughts as well.

Grieco recalls one client who was going through a divorce and finally decided to forgive her ex-husband. She had been suffering with a digestive tract issue for 16 years, which was exactly how long she’d known the man. The day after she forgave her ex-husband, she was surprised to find that her chronic symptoms seemed better by half, and during the next six months, the symptoms cleared up completely. Until that happened, Grieco says her client had not connected her physical symptoms with the anger she harbored against her ex-husband.

Letting go

Both Walker and Grieco use multistep forgiveness processes designed to help clients let go of hurt, forgive, and find peace and happiness in their lives.

Walker’s process, which she developed, consists of three steps. First, clients acknowledge the pain they feel. Next, they recognize who was responsible for causing that pain. She suggests that clients say out loud who did what to them and how it made them feel. If clients feel emotional at this point, Walker encourages them to let those emotions out. Finally, Walker says, clients must choose whether to offer forgiveness as an act of their own free will.

The process Grieco uses, which was first developed by her mentor, Edith Stauffer, and then refined by Grieco, involves eight steps. First, clients must decide to make a change and, second, have to let their emotions out. The second step might take clients 10 minutes or it might take them a few sessions, Grieco adds. Third, clients release the expectations they had and, fourth, restore their boundaries. The fifth step involves clients opening up to the universe to get their needs met in a different way, she says, which leads to the sixth step: receiving healing energy from a “spirit” or higher power. In the seventh step, clients send unconditional love to the people who injured them and “release” them from the unrealistic expectations that the clients held for them. This also involves clients releasing the unhealthy attachment they previously maintained concerning how the other person behaves. The last step, Grieco says, involves recognizing the good in the person or situation.

Both Grieco and Walker emphasize that the process must start with the client’s will to forgive and let go. After completing the process of forgiveness, Grieco says clients often feel more content, more tolerant, more at ease, less in need of control and more like their old selves. Walker concurs, saying her clients regularly report a sense of relief, peace, calm and lightness. “It seems to have lasting change,” says Walker, who follows up with her clients. “No one has called me and said, ‘Oh, I feel bad again. It didn’t last.’”

As for whom or what clients are attempting to forgive, each situation is different. Oftentimes, Walker says, the person in question is someone who was close to the client once upon a time but then ended up hurting the client. Sometimes, clients are actually struggling to forgive themselves, Walker says. And in still other cases, clients are wrestling with a need to forgive God. For instance, she says, if a child prayed to God that his sick mother would be healed but she still died, the person might hold God at fault, even into his or her adult years.

In some cases, the person the client needs to forgive is already dead. Even so, Grieco says, it’s important for the client to offer that person forgiveness so the client can release the negative feelings that remain on his or her mind. If the person is still alive, Grieco says, clients must decide whether to continue the relationship or even to restore a relationship with that person. “Is it worth it? That’s what the person has to decide,” she says. In an ongoing relationship, Grieco says, forgiveness can often improve the dynamic. The client might choose to communicate his or her boundaries and wishes to the other person, Grieco says, but then let it go and be prepared to forgive the person again down the road if need be.

Grieco doesn’t subscribe to the idea of forgive and forget. Instead, she contends, we need to forgive and remember. “Remember who people really are, remember what we can and can’t expect of them, and remember how stuck we feel when we hold on to unrealistic expectations,” she says.

Walker emphasizes to clients who are in ongoing relationships with the person they’ve forgiven that trust and forgiveness are two different issues. “Forgiveness doesn’t magically make everything better,” she says. “Forgiveness is for the client’s benefit. It’s for them to feel better, to let go of the emotional baggage and the turmoil. Just forgiving doesn’t instantly give you the ability to trust [the other person]. Trust is something that takes time. It’s basically the accumulation of positive experiences with that person that allows you to trust them.”

If forgiveness truly offers such positive benefits, why do people so often hold out on granting it to others? “The misconception is that you are somehow hurting the other person by holding on to [a grudge or hurt], that you’re making them pay,” Walker says. “Once people realize that, ‘You’re right, it’s hurting me,’ that usually lowers their resistance, and they’re willing [to forgive].”

Grieco says people don’t know how to forgive until they learn, which should offer hope to counselors and their clients. “Forgiveness can be taught like any other life skill,” she says. And the best news is that once this life skill is mastered, it can help clients to move on and find fulfillment in their lives.

A grateful heart

Thanksgiving is Ron Cathey’s favorite holiday. Not because he loves mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie, but because for the past 40 years on that holiday, he has taken time to think about someone who has made a difference in his life. And each year, he writes a note to let that person know how grateful he is for his or her influence.

Cathey, the director of counseling and career services at Louisiana Tech University, was president of the Louisiana Counseling Association in 2008-2009. Each president picks a theme for his or her year in office, so Cathey chose gratitude. As part of the LCA conference that year, he asked Robert Emmons, a psychologist who researches the effect that gratitude has on people, to deliver the keynote address.

What began as a theme to Cathey’s presidency transformed into a gratitude project that’s still ongoing. Cathey’s idea was to approach gratitude from the perspective of how it could improve clients’ lives, counselors’ lives, the profession of counseling and the community at large. During his year as LCA president, a task force was formed that subsequently put together a PowerPoint presentation for the LCA conference. The presentation included information about how the practice of gratitude benefits health, attitude and relationships, as well as guidance on how to build gratitude in a person’s life. Cathey encouraged members to take the presentation home and use it in their work.

Cathey also worked with LCA members to develop a format for leading a gratitude group. Designed as a five- to six-week group, counselors have since offered gratitude groups in prisons, nursing homes and schools statewide. The groups are ongoing, and Cathey is still receiving evaluations and feedback from counselors who have led the groups.

LCA still maintains an ad hoc committee called the Gratitude Project, Cathey says. The committee’s future plans include creating a Spanish-language version of the original presentation, adapting another version geared toward elementary-age children and looking into the possibility of running a gratitude ad campaign on TV or billboards in Louisiana.

Gratitude shouldn’t be shrugged off as a superfluous, feel-good idea, says Cathey. He points to research showing that gratitude can improve physical health, mental health, life longevity and interpersonal relationships. Cathey isn’t just spreading the message to other counselors, either. He says he’s taken the focus on gratitude personally and tries to incorporate it into his own life and work.

One change Cathey has instituted is that he now makes a point of visiting each counselor in the counseling and career services office almost every week to tell them how much he appreciates something they have done or contributed. This doesn’t require a long, drawn-out process, Cathey says. “I can do it in 10 or 15 seconds sometimes,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be beaten into the ground.” Even so, Cathey has noticed this action has made a noticeable difference in his relationship with each counselor and in the overall atmosphere among the staff.

‘Watch for an opportunity’

To put gratitude to use in their work with clients doesn’t mean that counselors ignore client issues and problems, Cathey says. “But at some point in time, after I’ve built the relationship [with the client] and I think he or she knows I will encourage, love and support him or her, one of the things I might do is ask, ‘How are things with this particular issue? What about the relationship is getting better?’” Or he might prompt the client by saying, “When you think back on this past week, tell me three things that you’re thankful for.”

“It’s amazing the conversation we move into,” Cathey says. “And it won’t be unrelated to their life or problem.” At times, he even asks clients how something or someone they’re thankful for made a difference in their ability to solve a problem or get through a hard time. “I don’t push it down every client’s throat, but I try to watch for an opportunity,” he says.

Recently, while working with a client who was suspended from school over a university judicial issue, Cathey asked if the student saw anything for which to be grateful as the result of an otherwise difficult experience. The student told Cathey he was grateful for the friends, some of whom he hadn’t even realized he possessed, who stepped up and supported him. He also expressed gratitude for maturing through the experience and learning to think more before acting. “And now, being out of school for two quarters, it made him hungry to come back to school with a different attitude,” Cathey says.

Gratitude can go a long way with couples and families as well, Cathey says. For example, he says, counselors might suggest to couples that each night before they go to sleep, they make a point of sharing one reason why each partner is grateful for the other. In doing that, Cathey points out, their perspectives shift because they are actively looking for and taking time to notice something good their partner does each day. “The other person is going to try to feed that, doing something good so that the other has something good to say. Just a little thing like that can shift the dynamic in relationships,” he says. “It’s not a cure-all, but it’s one of those things that can begin to shift the system a little.”

Cathey also runs a leadership group with young men in the fraternity system and is working to teach them how to use gratitude in their leadership. “I’ll ask them, ‘Who are three people who have gotten you to where you are today? Who helped you be successful and influenced you?’ And then I’ll ask, ‘Will you be that for someone else, and how will you do that?’”

But practicing gratitude isn’t just meant to make a difference in clients’ lives, Cathey says. Being grateful can also improve counselors’ personal relationships and well-being and help them focus on looking for and embracing the uniqueness of each client. In fact, Cathey credits a focus on gratitude with helping him become more client-centered in his own work. He says cultivating gratitude opens counselors up to appreciating what each client has gone through, searching for each client’s strengths and acknowledging the courage each client displays in choosing to sit and share his or her story with the counselor.

Cathey is a believer that everyone can benefit from weaving gratitude into his or her life in almost any situation. As he advises his student clients, gratitude can even have an impact on something as seemingly unrelated as a job interview. “I tell them, in an interview, if you don’t know what to say, stick out your hand and say, ‘Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.’ It might break the ice. It might turn your whole attitude around, and it might turn the attitude of the interviewer around,” Cathey says. “An expression of gratitude is never wrong, and I don’t think it’ll ever hurt you.”

For more information or to contact Sandy Walker, visit destinysfreedom.com. For more information or to contact Mary Hayes Grieco, visit forgivenesstraining.com. To contact Ron Cathey, email rcathey@latech.edu.

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her atlshallcross@counseling.org.


Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

License portability: One counselor’s journey across state lines

Thomas J. Sherman

As an existentially oriented counselor, I am well versed in the absurd, but I was not quite prepared for how far my ability to accept it would be stretched when I moved three hours away and across state lines. I graduated with my doctorate in counselor education in May from a well-known university and, following graduation, moved to join my partner who had received an outstanding job in another state. Being a licensed counselor, I assumed it would be easy for me to follow her and get a job practicing counseling. How wrong I was.

In light of the 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling initiative’s “Principles for Unifying and Strengthening the Profession,” I felt compelled to share my story. The fourth principle is “Creating a portability system for licensure will benefit counselors and strengthen the counseling profession.” Through writing about my experience, I hope to help other counselors anticipate some of the difficulties of transferring a license from one state to another and help counseling boards understand the impact of restricting the portability of licenses.

When I graduated with my master’s degree, I moved to a state that did not require a license to practice but did require unlicensed counselors to be under the supervision of a licensed professional. In three years, I completed the 4,000-hour clinical residency, which included 2,000 hours of direct client contact and 200 hours of supervision required for licensure in the state. In June 2010, I passed my state licensure exam while enrolled in my doctoral program. In April 2011, when my partner and I knew we would be moving to a different state, I began reviewing the requirements for transferring my license to the new state.

I was informed that the licensing structure where I was moving was modeled after the state’s social work license, which required even recent graduates to have a graduate license to practice. The requirement for transferring a license is listed as either two years of practice as a licensed counselor or 2,000 hours of clinical professional counseling experience. Despite these requirements being listed twice on the licensing forms, I called the state counseling board to confirm that I met the requirements and was completing the correct forms. After outlining my experience, I told the person at the counseling board that I had held my license in the other state for only one year but that I possessed well over 2,000 hours of clinical experience. The person with whom I spoke at the board notified me that, given my clinical experience, I should be able to transfer my license.

By the end of May, I had gathered the required signatures from my professors and former supervisors, collected transcripts from all of the schools I had attended, written the required check to the board and mailed a license verification form to the state counseling board where I currently held my license so it could sign and return the form to the new state to which I was moving. After waiting several weeks into June, I called the counseling board in the state to which I was moving to see if it had received my licensure verification form. I was told the person with access to the files was on vacation and would “be back sometime next week.” The next week, I called several times before reaching the person with whom I needed to speak, only to be informed that the form had not yet been received. This person also told me that if the form was not received by July 15, I would have to wait until Aug. 15 for the counseling board to review my application.

Having this information, I called my former licensing board to inquire about my licensure verification. A voice mail greeted me, informing me the board had a high volume of applications and instructing me to leave a name and number, which I did. The following day, having not received a return phone call, I called several times until finally reaching an actual human whom I could ask about the status of my license verification. I told this person the check for the verification fee I had sent with the form had been cashed in June, but as of July, my new counseling board had not received the form. This person told me my former counseling board met only once per month and had already convened in June prior to my request being received. I inquired as to when the counseling board would meet next. The response: “Sometime in July.” The person could not provide a date when the board would meet to sign my form.

This raised a second concern for me. Because I had submitted all of my forms in June, I had allowed my license in my former state to lapse at the end of that month, not seeing the benefit of paying for and carrying two licenses in different states. I attempted to call my former licensing board again to determine if this lapse would affect the verification of my license because the board would not be reviewing it until July. Once again, I was unable to reach anyone, so I left my question on voice mail. I never received a phone call. Instead, on July 15 I received an email indicating the board had mailed out my licensure verification. The email didn’t address my question of whether my license was still valid.

After waiting another week, I called my new counseling board to confirm receipt of the licensure verification form. It was at this point I was notified that I did not meet the requirements for transferring my license because I had not held my previous license for two years. I told the person at the board I was getting different messages and asked if I could speak with someone higher up. I was given the number of the board’s director. I reviewed my previous conversations with the director, indicating that someone at the board had confirmed my understanding of the state’s licensure requirements. The director said the expectation was that if an individual had a counseling license for two years, he or she would also have 2,000 hours of clinical practice, meaning that a person was required to have both, not either/or, despite the wording on the forms. I shared that the state where I previously had been licensed required 1,000 more contact hours and 100 more hours of supervision than did my current state’s licensure requirements. I was told I had two options: I could wait for the board to review my application in September and inform me of its decision in October, or I could send in another check, complete a different set of forms and mail back in the application for regular licensure — and still wait until October.

Exasperated, I communicated to the director that I had been unemployed for three months while following the instructions provided by the board to get my license transferred. When told the earliest I would hear whether my forms were correct would be October — another three months away — I asked how the board could justify the delay in responding given that a license is required to practice. The director told me that even if the board had received my application materials in June, they still would not have been reviewed until September. In May and June, the director explained, the board reviewed disciplinary issues that kept its members from approving licensure applications, and then the board was on recess through July and August, despite what the person at the counseling board had previously told me regarding the board’s meetings. For four months (fully one-third of the year), the counseling board did not review applications, and when it would review them, it would take 30 days to respond. Following a response, applicants must still sit for a counseling law exam and/or a licensure exam. I finally asked if I could speak to someone on the licensing board who might possibly give me some concrete answers. The director said she could make the request but added that the board did not usually honor such requests.

As of mid-August, I still had not received a response from the counseling board. In the meantime, I renewed my license in my previous state. It took five minutes to do online, and I received my paper license in the mail within a week. I accepted that, at least for a while, I would have to commute across state borders if I wanted to continue practicing as a counselor.

In October, I finally received my letter from the board indicating that I could sit for the licensing examination within a week. The letter indicated I would need to bring a license to confirm my identity. On the letter, my name was incorrect. When I attempted to contact the person listed on the letter to follow up, I reached her voice mail, which informed me she would be out of the office until after the date of the exam. Through the counseling board’s main number, I was able to reach a person who could correct my name. Finally, at the end of October, nearly six months after I began the licensing process, I received my counseling license in the new state. I am currently working in my former state, but I am going to keep my new license active so I can avoid having to go through the licensing process again just in case I want to take a job in my new state.

As counseling continues to grow as a profession, we need to work on developing common licensure standards. Common standards will help ensure the quality of counselors, protect the public and move us toward developing a shared body of knowledge to foster a unique counselor identity. These common standards will also improve the portability of licenses across state lines. I have a few recommendations from my experience that I hope will help prepare other counselors planning to transfer their licenses.

1) Prepare well in advance of a move, especially given the current economic climate. It was hard having to turn down jobs because my licensure application had not been approved and not applying for other openings while I waited.

2) Make sure that you’re talking to a director or some other officer at a licensing board when transferring your license. Although individuals who answer the phones at licensure boards can seem helpful, they are not always familiar with the intricacies of licensure.

3) Make sure to maintain a record of all of your practice and supervision hours in case you need to resubmit the information if you are unable to transfer your license.

I encourage the continued development of common licensing standards that will increase consistency for insurance panels and assist in legislation efforts regarding counselors. Common licensing standards would help strengthen the counselor identity and continue to validate counseling as a cohesive profession, while also making it easier for counselors to continue to do their good works.

Thomas J. Sherman is a clinical supervisor with the Military OneSource program providing support and resources to active-duty, National Guard and Reserve service members and their families. He is also an adjunct professor in the counselor education program at McDaniel College. Contact him at tom.j.sherman@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org