Counselors are not immune to trauma — in fact, far from it. Many practitioners say that personal or familial experience with trauma or mental illness actually spurred them to become professional counselors.
The connection between personal experience and the pull to become a counselor is something that is hard to quantify, but “in my personal experience, I encounter it pretty frequently,” says Allison Pow, a licensed professional counselor in North Carolina and adjunct professor at both Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “For a lot of people, past experience draws them into the counseling field, and trauma can play such a pivotal part in someone’s life. It’s a common thing that we see as supervisors and counselor educators.”
Past trauma can be either an impairment or a kind of “benefit” for counselors-in-training, depending on how much the person has worked through and processed the effects of trauma, say Pow and Amber Pope, a licensed mental health counselor and program chair of the clinical mental health counseling program at Hodges University in Fort Myers, Florida.
Counselor educators and other professionals in the field who have close contact with counselors-in-training should keep an eye out for red flags that may indicate that a person’s past trauma is interfering with their growth as a counselor or, in a worst-case scenario, has the potential to cause harm to clients.
“Just because you’ve been through trauma doesn’t mean you can’t become a counselor. You can become a great counselor if [your trauma] is processed correctly,” Pope says.
Pow and Pope co-presented a session, “Wounded healers: How to support counselors-in-training who have experienced trauma,” at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco. The term “trauma” can encompass a wide variety of experiences, from an acute event to yearslong, developmental trauma, Pow explains.
People who have processed the effects of past trauma — often with the help of a therapist of their own — can become excellent counselors, Pow says. Posttraumatic growth and healing from the experience can foster empathy and strengthen coping skills.
“Going through trauma is a very unique experience [through which] you understand the way your brain works and your body reacts. That is hard for someone to understand who hasn’t gone through that,” Pow explains. “I have had some students who were very resilient because they have been forced to cope [in traumatic situations] in the past.”
“The reason a lot of people become very, very good counselors is their life experience,” Pow adds.
However, people who haven’t fully processed the trauma in their backgrounds can run into trouble as professional counselors. For example, in client sessions, they risk becoming triggered by topics that clients bring up and may be unable to regulate their own emotions or other behaviors in response. These reactions can harm the delicate balance of trust between practitioner and client.
“They may unwittingly be using their role as a counselor to work through their own unprocessed material or to recapitulate an unhealthy power dynamic to feel that they’re in control,” Pow says. “Control is often something that people seek after going through trauma. It may come from a lack of self-awareness.”
Interactions with classmates and colleagues might be one of the best indicators of whether counselors-in-training have a trauma history that still needs to be worked through. During moments of vulnerability, do they become aggressive or reactive or express other strong emotions? In general, a lack of self-awareness, such as oversharing in class or being unaware of how the people around them are feeling, can be an indicator of unprocessed trauma, says Pow, who has a private practice in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Also watch for attachment issues or signs of avoidance, such as skipping classes or evading one-on-one contact with a professor or authority figures, Pow says. It can also be indicative of a trauma background if students do not generally have themselves together, including missing assignments or being late to class repeatedly, Pope says.
Other indicators can include:
- Poor boundary keeping: This may manifest as oversharing, attention-seeking or disruptive behavior in the classroom, or an unhealthy preoccupation with relationships with classmates or colleagues.
- Low self-confidence: Students with unresolved trauma may demonstrate low belief in themselves regardless of past successes. They may feel like they can “never do enough,” Pope explains. These students may lack motivation or even self-sabotage, such as missing a deadline even though they are capable of meeting it.
- Rigidity in thinking: If students aren’t open to receiving feedback and unwilling to take constructive criticism, it can be a major indicator of past trauma that hasn’t been resolved. This attitude can stem from a black-and-white way of thinking in which the student categorizes things as “all good” or “all bad” with no in between, Pope says.
Everyone has bad days now and then that can set them off. However, if a student is repeatedly unable to regulate their emotions, such as becoming reactive or upset in class, it is a red flag, Pope says.
“When a student is so set in their values or way of thinking that they try and impose it on others, that can stem from trauma. If they can’t become more flexible in their thinking process or relationships with others, then they’re going to have a difficult time with clients,” she explains.
When it’s time to intervene
It is beneficial, for any number of reasons, for counselor educators to get to know and connect with the students in their program, Pope says. If a particular student seems to be struggling with challenges that could keep them from becoming a proficient counselor — such as issues related to unresolved trauma — it is better to intervene sooner rather than later.
Be prevention-focused instead of reactionary, Pope suggests. The longer a student continues in a graduate counseling program, the harder it will be to check their behavior or make decisions about their future.
“Don’t let students waste time and money if they’re not going to be a good fit,” she says.
Counselor educators who identify students raising red flags should pull them aside after class or ask them to stop by the counselor educator’s office, Pope advises. The first interaction with the student should be kept informal and light. Let them know that you have noticed some patterns and indicators in their behavior that require some attention, and ask them what supports they need to help them make improvements, she says. If appropriate, other professors or colleagues who know the student can sit in on this initial informal meeting to offer support, Pope says.
Check in with the student frequently during class breaks, supervision meetings and other opportunities. Ask how the student is doing and how they are practicing self-care. This conveys to the student that the professor wants them to succeed and grow, Pope says.
Pope emphasizes that this method should be applied only to counseling students who haven’t committed an egregious offense or intentionally gone against the ACA Code of Ethics. In those cases, a swifter and more formal response is necessary.
If a student does not begin to change their behavior after a first informal meeting, consider meeting with the counselor-in-training again to create a formal written behavior agreement. Spell out which behaviors aren’t acceptable, why those behaviors aren’t acceptable and what they need to do to continue in the counseling program. Be specific and include a timeline of when the expectations must be met, Pope advises.
If the student meets the requirements in the behavior agreement, they should be allowed to continue on with graduate school. If not, suggest that they take a semester or other time off to get the help they need, or leave the program entirely.
“When a student is given feedback and continues in their behavior patterns and doesn’t make any changes, that’s showing me that the student isn’t ready to change or do what they need to do to grow professionally,” Pope says.
Throughout the process, Pope says, she would recommend that the student attend counseling. There is some debate within counselor education as to whether it is ethical to require students to attend personal counseling . In the case of recommending a student to personal counseling, a counselor educator can request the student to provide proof, in the form of written letters from a provider, that they are attending therapy sessions and making progress to demonstrate their willingness to comply with their professors’ recommendation.
“We’re very open, telling students that we [their professors] have all attended or are attending counseling, and that it’s important to be as healthy as you can be, [to] take care of yourself mentally and emotionally,” Pope says.
Although sometimes uncomfortable, this process is also an opportunity for counselor educators to model what a healthy professional relationship should look like, Pope notes. It shows students that you can give critical feedback while caring and maintaining empathy.
“You can give suggestions and guidance while keeping professional boundaries. They may not have had that [example] in their life before,” Pope says.
“In my classes, I make a point of being very transparent with my expectations and predictable. I have a standard of which behaviors I respond to and which I don’t,” Pow agrees. “For a student who has gone through trauma, it’s not our job to be their counselor. But a lot of times their lives haven’t been predictable, and they haven’t had a safe base. We can be that predictable, safe base. We can talk openly about their struggles, getting help and that it’s not a bad thing that you’ve had some challenges in your life.”
Gatekeepers and guides
Counselor educators must strike a fine balance between acting as gatekeepers for the profession and serving as mentors and guides for those who need extra support, Pope says.
“When it comes to student trauma and challenges, for me, an ideal situation is when I can have enough conversations with a student so they can come to their own conclusions on whether the field is right for them or not,” Pow says. “Part of effective trauma treatment is creating choice and putting decision-making back into the person’s hands. That may be the choice to take some time off and return to the program. Emphasize where they have agency in things.”
It’s OK for a student to come into a graduate counseling program with unresolved trauma issues. They just have to be willing to work on it, self-process and accept help, Pow says. Students who are open to self-reflection and constructive feedback can experience a tremendous amount of growth, she says. “It’s unreasonable for us to expect, as educators, that people are going to come into these [graduate] programs having processed everything that has happened to them and be completely self-aware,” she affirms.
Processing and rising above trauma builds skills that are the hallmarks of a good counselor, including a strong sense of self-awareness, empathy and sensitivity. Counselors who have successfully processed their past trauma can become models for clients struggling with similar issues, Pope says.
“If you heal from a trauma, you really have to engage with the most vulnerable parts of yourself. It’s a depth that people who haven’t been through trauma may not fully understand,” Pope says. “That’s what creates really great counselors — [to be able to] engage with others at that level of vulnerability and intimacy. Knowing that going through something so challenging, you can become more whole, and in turn become a safe place for others. As a counselor, you’re better able to serve your clients.”
- For more on supporting counselors-in-training through the supervision process, see the feature “Guiding lights” in the June issue of Counseling Today.
- From the Counseling Today archives: “Gatekeepers for the profession”
Want to learn more on this topic? Pow and Pope suggest these titles:
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk
- Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds by Susan M. Johnson
- The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation by Stephen Porges
- “Attachment Theory and Affect Regulation: The Dynamics, Development, and Cognitive Consequences of Attachment-related Strategies” from the June 2003 issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion, co-written by by Mario Mikulincer, Phillip R. Shaver and Dana Pereg
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.