As a counselor and counselor educator, I am often pondering the recent trend of developing professional identity and what that means in applicable terms. Professional identity development has been heralded as involvement in professional organizations, legislation, mentoring, continuing education and supervision. These are effective ways to develop your own personal identity as a counselor, but how do we develop the identity of counselors as professionals?
In my experience as a counselor, I have on occasion been asked to provide a professional opinion and subsequently encountered one of two very different experiences. If others agreed with me, I was heralded as an expert; if others disagreed, I was no more than a feeling practitioner who could be dismissed. I have witnessed fellow clinicians treated in the same fashion and yet have seen other clinicians’ opinions treated with deference.
The difference, I discovered, was not in the education of other professionals I might encounter but in the manner in which I represented myself as a counselor. The manner in which I treated my own professional experience determined the manner in which it was received by others. I had to learn to speak with authority.
Although there is no direct research on this topic and its relationship with the field of counseling, there are continuing conversations throughout professional organizations in fields such as business, medicine and law. It appears the need to demonstrate authority is a part of most professional identities.
Authority is not to be confused with arrogance. Personal opinion and conjecture have no place in the determination of appropriate services and treatment of mental health disorders. However, making this determination on the basis of data provided by the client, in combination with research and experience, is what counselors are trained for and work to do so in a manner that is professional in all aspects. So why do counselors struggle with this concept?
Authority is a skill to be developed and harnessed, but it is not necessarily discussed or taught directly in counseling programs. In an attempt to leave room for the individualization of experiences, we (as counselors) may have skewed our view and ability to communicate professional opinions with authority. In our attempts to be open to all ideas and concepts, we may have inadvertently watered down the validity of our observations and work with clients.
The trouble may lie in the role we must engage in as clinicians. The role we establish to work with clients is a hat we continue to wear outside of the therapeutic process. We listen, we understand, we may even lightly challenge, but we do not engage in full on conflict and we encourage others to form their own opinions. This makes us excellent clinicians but, at times, it also makes us lousy ambassadors for our profession.
As counselors, we engage and collaborate with many other professions depending on the level of care being provided. Judges, lawyers, police officers, social workers, physicians and probation officers can all be part of a team approach in community mental health and may all turn to us to be the mental health expert while attempting to fulfill their own specific roles. This can lead to varied opinions that, in my experience, rarely wish to overrule counselors. Rather, they work to convince counselors to change their opinions, not as an act of malice but as an attempt to find middle ground. The problem occurs when we, as counselors, defer our professional opinions to the point that they are no longer supported by the data we accumulated and thereby appear to be personal opinions.
How can we as a profession speak with the same authority that we witness in other professions? In terms of social sciences, our profession is relatively new and still works to demonstrate valid and reliable data results. The tools of our trade — diagnosis, assessment, symptom observation, client self-report and behavioral patterns — are the data points we use to understand, treat and advocate for those struggling with mental health issues. These tools require training to be used appropriately, and it’s time we remember this as counselors.
One observable obstacle is the language counselors use to represent themselves and the profession. Although we work to assist our clients with healthy communication, in part by using “I feel” statements, this does not portray expertise to other professions. Lawyers do not win simply by arguing what they “feel” is right; their arguments need to be based in the law. Many would run from a surgeon who “feels” that surgery might be needed; an exam or some test is first warranted. Yet counselors state diagnoses, goals and treatment recommendations with “I feel” statements, inadvertently representing a personal opinion and thereby making it easier to dismiss. As counselors, we do not “feel” a diagnosis; we base it on tangible identifying markers and symptoms.
One concern that is often discussed in the field is the concept of omniscience. A counselor who thinks he or she knows everything has at that moment made a major mistake. Speaking with authority is not having the correct diagnosis, treatment plan and prognosis; it is about having the diagnosis, treatment plan and prognosis supported by the data. If the data change, it supports a change in all of these areas. The data are where professional opinions stem, and they do not include the personal. This makes it easier to adapt, alter and evolve in a manner that is more consistent with client experience.
Recognition of and utilization of our authority as counselors not only assists the profession as a whole but also places us in a better position to advocate for our clients as necessary. Authority as counselors is ours if we desire it, but it must resonate from each of us. Counselors will only be considered vital professional contributors if we conduct ourselves in that manner.
Robin Switzer is a licensed professional counselor and counseling core faculty in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix who has a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. Email email@example.com with comments about this article.