Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Counselors as human beings, not superheroes

By Bethany Bray September 23, 2019

I’m only human after all

I’m only human after all

Don’t put the blame on me

Don’t put the blame on me

These lyrics played over and over on radio airwaves in 2017 as the rock-and-blues-infused single “Human,” by British singer-songwriter Rag’n’Bone Man, topped the charts.

Given the role they play in helping others to overcome challenges and live their best lives, professional counselors are sometimes assumed to themselves be impervious to life’s challenges. But in truth, they’re “only human after all,” not superheroes. The personal and intense nature of professional counselors’ work can spill over into their lives outside of the office — and vice versa. And the very skills and instincts that make them good counselors, including a passion for helping others, can leave them vulnerable to “what if” thinking and even burnout if left unchecked.

“One of our strengths is also one of our weaknesses. We have a lot of emotion and empathy, and we have to channel it. It can be like a river that overflows its banks,” says Samuel Gladding, a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and a past president of the American Counseling Association. “It’s kind of like water and a spigot. If you don’t turn off the water in your house, you either run out of water or pay a very high price to the water company. If you don’t cut off your thoughts about clients, you also pay a very high price.”

Clinical counselors may routinely second-guess whether they are doing enough to help clients or wonder how a client who is no longer under their care is now doing. If left unchecked, such thoughts can become all-consuming and impede on a counselor’s personal relationships and overall wellness.

Neither are counselors automatically immune to the problems with which clients struggle, from anxiety and depression to grief, trauma and unhealthy coping behaviors. Holding a counseling degree or license also doesn’t guarantee that practitioners will make all the right decisions when it comes to their own personal relationships. A misunderstanding with a spouse or partner or a discipline issue with a child can seem all the more frustrating for a professional counselor who works on relationship building and communication with clients on a daily basis.

Learning to manage such issues often comes with time, as counseling professionals gain experience. But it also takes a measure of intentionality, from consulting with colleagues and engaging in professional development activities to practicing good self-care and setting boundaries, Gladding says.

It’s also helpful to accept that it is not a matter of if: Personal and professional issues will intertwine, and challenges will crop up throughout a counselor’s career. The key, Gladding says, is recognizing them and being open to growth — the same mindset that counselors use with their clients.

“We, as counselors, have our struggles,” he says. “If we’re wise, we acknowledge them, are aware of them, and work with others to resolve them and open up. Like Albert Ellis said, we’re fallible human beings. We’re not going to be perfect, and we’re going to make mistakes.”

Blurred lines

It’s likely that counselors will face a personal crisis, loss or upheaval at some point (or at various points) throughout their careers. Counselors are no strangers to mental health disorders, divorce, trauma, addiction problems, and other issues that bring clients to therapy. In most situations, however, it is not feasible for counselors to stop working until their personal issues resolve.

The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics does not address this scenario directly. However, it does caution against practitioner impairment (see standards C.2.g. and F.5.b. at counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics). Professional counselors are called to “monitor themselves for signs of impairment from their own physical, mental, or emotional problems and refrain from offering or providing professional services when impaired.” At the same time, the ethics code urges counselors to help colleagues and supervisors recognize when they are impaired and to “intervene as appropriate to prevent imminent harm to clients.”

This begs the question: How does a counselor know when he or she is becoming impaired? Self-awareness and honesty — with self and with colleagues — are imperative, Gladding says. Warning signs will be different for each individual but might include feeling hesitant or reluctant to go into client sessions or experiencing intense emotions, including anger, during and after sessions.

“Just like we would report a client who is a danger to themselves or others … when we see our colleagues or fellow counselors being impaired or not doing well, we have a responsibility to confront them, talk about it, and offer them help,” says Gladding, a licensed professional counselor (LPC).

Practitioners need to know their own boundaries and to be able to recognize when they are “tiptoeing on boundaries” that can signal impairment, says Jessica Lloyd-Hazlett, an LPC and an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Being able to admit that you’re impaired as a counselor is difficult but vitally important.

Lloyd-Hazlett experienced the depths of grief after her mother passed away in June 2018. She continued teaching through the summer, but that fall, she found herself feeling irritable, becoming easily overwhelmed, and “struggling to simply show up to class and be in front of students.”

She could still push herself to do what needed to be done, but on most days, she struggled, Lloyd-Hazlett recalls. It was then, through a combination of self-awareness and some gentle intervention and support from friends and co-workers, that she realized she needed to take a step back and seek counseling herself.

“The things that you want to sweep under the rug, those are the hardest and are the things that are going to come back and bite you,” says Lloyd-Hazlett, a member of ACA. “Realize that. Recognize when you’re trying to sweep things away.”

Although it is vital to have a support system in place, Lloyd-Hazlett says no amount of preparation will fully shield counselors from situations that can cause professional impairment. That’s why it is important for counselors to be able to recognize when they’re in over their heads and to be willing to seek help.

“In our profession, one of our responsibilities is being well so that you can bring yourself [to clients and students] authentically,” she says. “My mom’s death was a huge experience, but we have little ones all the time that give us a chance to practice self-care and self-reflection. Have an ongoing willingness to practice what we preach. [Self-care and self-reflection] can be buffers prior to coming into something severe. At the same time, there’s a measure that you can’t prepare for. It’s going to be hard and nasty. It’s important to have those skills and practices to be able to come back to, and [to] seek outside help.”

When helpers need help

Lloyd-Hazlett had assumed she was ready for her mother’s death because she and the rest of her family had so much time to prepare; her mother had been ill for more than 20 years with multiple sclerosis. When she visited her mother in hospice for the final time, they were able to share a special connection and say goodbye, even though her mother had lost the ability to speak.

Cognitively, Lloyd-Hazlett understood grief, both from her counselor training and from having personally counseled clients who were grieving. But when her mother actually passed away, Lloyd-Hazlett found that she wasn’t as prepared for it as she had thought. She describes the experience as a “ripping open,” as something that shook her to her core.

Lloyd-Hazlett was in a work meeting when she got the phone call telling her that her mother had passed away. Despite her mother’s many years of declining health, the news still came as a shock to Lloyd-Hazlett. She recalls returning to the work meeting and trying to function until a co-worker pulled her aside and urged her to take some time for herself to process the news.

Lloyd-Hazlett recommends that counselors dealing with personal issues make a point of identifying the “safe people” in their lives who won’t shy away from talking with them about tough topics and personal struggles. Determine who can “help you recognize what is going on and be there with you — not try and fix [you], but provide hope,” she says, adding that she learned that recommendation in a grief support group.

Many factors have played a role in bolstering Lloyd-Hazlett through her grief, but she says the most important was making the decision to seek individual and group counseling for herself. It was freeing, she says, to participate in group work simply as “Jessica, who is grieving her mom,” instead of “Jessica, the counselor.”

In addition, the experience of being guided and cared for by another practitioner helped her let go of nagging thoughts and feelings of “I should be able to do this,” she says. It was liberating to accept that she did not have answers at that time in her life, she adds.

Another aspect of Lloyd-Hazlett’s healing process has been learning to label her struggles as grief instead of shortcomings. After the death of her mother, Lloyd-Hazlett initially felt a sense of shame that she was somehow slacking or falling behind in her work as a counselor educator. Supportive co-workers suggested to her that she might want to rethink and adjust the schedule of classes she had set for herself. After seeking help and attending counseling, Lloyd-Hazlett came to realize that her need to lighten her workload now and then was a symptom of grief, not a personal failure on her part. In the months that followed, she canceled classes on a couple of occasions or had someone else fill in for her when she needed a break.

Lloyd-Hazlett says the experience of processing her mother’s death while working has taught her that personal struggles “are going to happen in our lives and our careers as we develop and grow.” It has also allowed her to experience the full length and depth of the grief that often brings clients to counselors’ doors, while giving her greater appreciation for the supports in her life, including her co-workers, friends and loving husband.

In addition, it has sparked an interest in providing grief work or hospice counseling to clients at some point in the future. For now, however, Lloyd-Hazlett knows she has more grieving of her own to do before she is ready to help those going through their own seasons of loss.

“The human experience is hard. It’s OK, and it’s good and beautiful,” she says. “There’s going to be loss and change [during a counselor’s career]. It’s going to be part of the process. There’s a reason why our code of ethics talks about these things. It’s not that you’re a bad counselor; it’s that life intersects.”

Challenges at home

Counselors need to remember that, as Irvin Yalom has written, counselors and clients are “fellow travelers,” says Doug Shirley, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) with a private practice in the Seattle area. “It’s important to tear down the model that helping professionals are healed and well. We are all on a healing path and have needs and vulnerabilities,” says Shirley, an assistant professor of counseling at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.

One of the vulnerabilities that can easily throw counselors for a loop, says Shirley, is when challenges arise in their personal lives that also fall directly in their professional wheelhouse. That might include a discipline issue with a child, struggling to connect with a spouse during a disagreement, or missing the cues that a loved one is sliding into substance use or mental illness.

Counselors might find themselves frustrated, thinking, “Why can’t I figure this out?” notes Shirley, who wrote an article for Counseling Today in 2012 titled “Why counselors make poor lovers.” The skills that practitioners hone to become good counselors — such as keeping a professional distance from clients’ emotions — can actually hinder their ability to make personal connections if they’re not careful, he says.

Adding to the issue is that counseling professionals typically spend their workdays seeing clients (or teaching students) who are paying — even clamoring — to hear their thoughts and feedback. It can be jarring to come home and find that they aren’t capturing their spouse’s full attention or that their teenage son or daughter views them mainly as a conduit to obtain permission to play video games or go out with friends, Shirley notes.

“We’re all people before we’re professionals. But sometimes the cart gets before the horse — sometimes the professional comes before the personal — and it keeps us from the more advanced and sophisticated work of being human,” says Shirley, a member of ACA. “We can amass a lot of head knowledge about people, psychology, health and wellness, but it doesn’t necessarily help us to attend to our own wounds.”

Shirley met and married his wife, who is also an LMHC, when he was in his late 20s. They had both spent years building their professional careers and developing their counseling skills before they met each other. However, the couple soon discovered that their counseling skills did little to help them find intimacy and connection. In fact, they were often a hindrance, Shirley remembers. As a result, they had to unlearn some of the boundary setting that their counseling training had instilled in them.

What has helped, Shirley says, is counseling, both individually and as a couple. Shirley and his wife have continued to see counselors throughout their 15-year marriage and are “doing better than ever,” he says.

Shirley recommends that counselors find a practitioner who has experience with or specializes in working with helping professionals. “We [counselors] all have this defensive structure that makes us a lousy client,” Shirley observes. “So often I’m sitting there [in counseling] and thinking, ‘Oh, I know what he’s doing here,’ wink, wink. Will I answer his question honestly [or play into his technique]? We need a therapist who understands that and won’t defer to that.”

Similarly, if counselors don’t learn to step out of the “head knowledge” gained in a graduate counseling program, it can detract from their personal interactions, Shirley asserts. “We become very top-heavy. We have all of these facts and theory, but it’s not wisdom and patience and vulnerability. Those aren’t typically the things of graduate training programs,” he notes. “For me, as an intellectual, it doesn’t always help me when I’m talking with my wife or my sons. If I have information that should help me navigate the situation and I don’t allow myself to not know [that information], I overreact and walk away with some sense of guilt or shame.”

Shirley says his best interactions with his family happen when he shuts off his counseling skills and intentionally works to “know better.” This was the case in a recent conflict with his 12-year-old son, during which Shirley’s initial reaction was to turn to discipline. But a family trip to see the new Lion King movie, where Shirley watched the father-son dynamics of the story’s main characters play out on screen, sparked a realization that allowed him to take a step back from his professional knowledge.

“As a dad, I was inclined to be too firm, too reactive, before connecting relationally and personally with my son,” Shirley says. “There needs to be a resonance between parent and child that is palpable to the kid, and that’s what was [missing] with my son. I was reacting instead of knowing better and practicing what I preach.”

Shirley appreciates the reminder he often hears from his own counselor to take “three steps back” — a call to be an observer in personal interactions. “Because counselors have set ourselves up to be knowers, we’re not very good at allowing ourselves to receive. Often, the hardest work is to be willing and able to receive,” he says. “In our personal relationships, we need to remember that all of our work is to receive from others. I’m a much better husband when I can hear and listen and receive from my wife, as opposed to feeling that I know all the answers and know what’s going on. It’s being open and taking a step back when needed.”

Leaving it at the office

“It’s so easy to go home and think about a session you just had and what you can suggest next time, the tools you can use, and how to best help [a client],” says Ashley Waddington, a provisionally licensed LPC who works in a private group practice in the Columbia, South Carolina, area.

The challenges that counselors’ humanity can bring — concern for clients who have left their caseload, second-guessing themselves, “what if” thinking, empathy fatigue — often have no black-and-white answers. Professional community, personal therapy, boundary setting and self-care become all the more important when work begins spilling over into the personal realm.

The counselors interviewed for this article cite the following ideas and techniques as being particularly helpful when it comes to counseling professionals wrestling with their humanity.

>> Connect with peers: Waddington, an adjunct instructor in the counseling education program at the University of South Carolina, is a big proponent of supervision, not only for the hours required by graduate programs and state licensure boards, but across one’s entire career. She currently has three supervisors and finds it vitally important to talk things through with professionals of various perspectives. “Counselors are lucky to have the practicum experience. Not every profession gets that,” says Waddington, who recently served as co-chair of the ACA Graduate Student Committee and co-presented a session on “survival tips” for graduate students and new professionals at the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo. She also finds support via a Facebook group for counselors in private practice, where members bounce ideas off of one another, ask questions, and share tools and techniques.

Shirley also recommends that counselors debrief with other counselors via regular consultation. He is part of a long-standing professional consultation group that meets regularly in his area, but he also seeks additional input if challenges arise between meetings. He believes it is important for counselors to consistently pursue consultation, even when things are going well, he says, to gain perspective and to benefit from the rhythm of meeting regularly with fellow counselors.

In a similar vein, Gladding recommends that counselors attend professional development events such as ACA’s annual conference to stay up to date and to seek feedback from peers on challenges that are unique to the profession. For counselors who aren’t connecting naturally with their co-workers, or for those who work alone or in a setting dominated by colleagues from other professions, Gladding shares a little advice (via lyrics from Gloria Estefan): “Get on your feet, get up and make it happen.” Counselors need to be more intentional about finding community, he says, whether online, through travel to state or regional conferences, or by other means.

“Don’t let yourself be in isolation,” Gladding says. “That almost [never leads] to good mental health. We learn from others and thrive when we’re social. We’re not lone wolves; we’re gregarious. That’s how human beings are.”

>> Write it down: Transferring one’s inner thoughts to the page can help counselors process what they’re feeling, quell rumination, and spark self-reflection. “I keep a journal, and I would be the first to say there’s research out there that [maintaining] a journal helps keep us healthier in the short and long run,” Gladding says. “It helps us be more attuned to how we’re doing and how we’re living.”

Journaling can also spur deeper thought about what is and isn’t under a counselor’s control, Gladding says. “We can check up on [clients], but if we can’t, we let it go. In the end, we don’t have complete control over people. They’re not robots,” he says.

The same process applies to people and events in counselors’ personal lives. “My oldest son and his wife are teaching French in Casablanca, Morocco. I can’t obsess about that too much, even though it’s such a long way away and a land with different customs and culture,” Gladding says. “I have to trust that they can do that and do it well.”

>> Shake it off: Maintaining a schedule of back-to-back client sessions, each with the potential to bring intense and heart-wrenching issues to the table, can be draining, both mentally and physically, for counseling professionals. Clinicians who are intentional about resetting themselves between each client are more likely to keep sessions from blending together and may be better positioned to head off burnout.

Waddington had a supervisor who kept a feather duster in her office so that she could figuratively dust herself off after each client. The ritual helped her visualize closing the prior session and preparing herself for her next client, Waddington explains.

In between clients, Waddington often steps outside, stretches, or even lays on the floor of her office to reset and clear her mind. She also finds that leaving her office and finding another secured area to record client notes after an appointment helps her find closure and “finish” the session.

It can also be helpful, Waddington suggests, for counselors to take a shower once they get home, not necessarily because they’re dirty, but to “wash off the day.” They can visualize rinsing away the heavy topics and client issues they have been wrestling with all day.

“By simply using the basic cognitive approach of reviewing our day, picking out the emotions we felt, and using them to uncover our dysfunctional thinking and belief systems, we can address them so the day’s detritus can be left at the office and not remain in our head,” says Robert J. Wicks, an ACA member, professor emeritus at Loyola University Maryland, and author of numerous books, including The Inner Life of the Counselor. “When you go to the bathroom in a restaurant, there is a reminder [to wash your hands]. The same can be said metaphorically of counseling. We need to psychologically and spiritually decontaminate ourselves before returning to the rest of our lives.”

>> Get by with a little help from your friends: While professional connections can be a vital part of a counselor’s support network, connections with friends who aren’t helping professionals can be equally as valuable and refreshing, Shirley notes.

Spend time with “those who will stick with you through the bad and good and tell the truth,” he says. “Friends who aren’t counselors are key. These are the people who will keep us sane and give it to us straight. They often have their feet on the ground more than we do.”

Wicks agrees, asserting that counselors need “a robust and balanced circle of friends” to be able to thrive. He goes into more detail on this topic in his book The Resilient Clinician. Practitioners can benefit from encircling themselves with a variety of personalities, Wicks says, including friends who will challenge their thinking; be sympathetic and supportive; keep a counselor from taking themselves too seriously through good-natured teasing; encourage a sense of wonder; provide guidance without giving answers; and spur them to be their best.

>> Take care: The introduction to Section C of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics urges counselors to “engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities.”

When it comes to self-care, it’s important to have a plan in place before challenges arise. Not only will the methods that counselors find effective vary from practitioner to practitioner, but a self-care routine will also need to evolve to meet changing needs throughout a counselor’s career.

Gladding suggests that counselors be intentional about spending time engaging in hobbies that help them decompress and find connection. Perhaps that’s singing in a choir, playing golf, watching birds — whatever piques their interest, he says.

Wicks advocates for alone time and spending time in reflective silence and solitude. As she has navigated her grief journey, Lloyd-Hazlett has found yoga helpful, as well as trying new things such as entering some of her paintings into a local art show. Waddington recharges through reading books on mental health topics in her personal time (she recommends Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy and The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman).

Shirley emphasizes the importance of wellness, including nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep, and drinking enough water. These elements are often the first things to go when counselors get stressed, he notes.

Finding spiritual community is also essential, Shirley adds. The community doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious one; it can include spiritual connections found through group yoga classes, volunteering in the community, or other means, he says.

>> Keep it real: Professional boundaries must be maintained, but occasionally, “being human” in interactions with clients or students can be a powerful way to connect, Lloyd-Hazlett says. When it comes to self-disclosing to clients or students, such as mentioning that she is struggling with a loss, Lloyd-Hazlett says she lives by the philosophy “less is more.” However, self-disclosure, when done appropriately, can also serve as an example for others to be honest and open about their own struggles.

“The question needs to be, is this going to benefit my client? What is my motivation for wanting to disclose?” Lloyd-Hazlett says. “Being a human and having a human experience is so important to the counseling relationship. We can do that through different ways, including self-disclosure. When you’re struggling, just showing that and acknowledging that can be very powerful. What that disclosure looks like depends on the client or topic and where you are in your process.”

Counselor training teaches practitioners to remain professional and keep an emotional distance from clients while in session. However, Waddington urges counselors not to hold back if they are connecting with a client during an intense moment in session.

She recalls one client who was grieving the loss of her sister, who had died tragically in an automobile accident. The client’s pain was so raw that she couldn’t bring herself to say her sister’s name out loud. Waddington found herself with tears streaming down her face in session and apologized to the client for losing her composure.

But in their next session together, the client thanked her. “She said, ‘I’ve never had someone cry with me like you did. That was the first time I felt really heard, and [I knew] you understood what I was saying,’” Waddington recalls.

>> Know that you are enough: Waddington leaves notes for herself in her office with positive messages such as “You are enough” and “You just need to show up today.” These simple reminders help her curb overthinking and the urge to come into sessions with a mindset of fixing clients. “You don’t have to have this crazy technique to do with a client. Showing up is enough. … It’s not [our] job to fix them but to show up and work with them where they are,” Waddington says.

It’s a lesson Waddington has learned over time. She recalls one client who was severely depressed and unable to work. He left his house only to come to therapy once per week. Initially, she worked with him on big goals to improve his situation, including applying for jobs.

Waddington finds it helpful to check in periodically with clients in session to see how they are feeling about their work and progress in therapy. During a check-in with this client, he gave Waddington feedback that served as a reality check for her: You can do less for me. The client was feeling guilty about his lack of progress, and his self-esteem was taking a dive as a result.

After some self-reflection, Waddington changed her approach, working with the client on smaller goals and steps that could help him feel better day to day. In turn, his quality of life improved, she says.

“One thing I’ve had to learn and practice myself is that you don’t have to have all the answers and be the solution [for clients],” Waddington says. “[That’s] not our job. It’s our job to show up and listen.”

When self-doubt kicks in, Shirley urges counselors to remember that they’re part of a bigger picture. “When we get hung up on ‘Did I do that right?’ remember that we’re all in this together and doing the best we can do. Rumination and anxiety are really common when we’re in the messy business of helping people. Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing the best we can do. And, quite frankly, sometimes that is enough. And when what we have to offer isn’t enough, we need to go out and get extra support through referral or consultation, etc. That’s not a reflection on us as people, it’s just information.”

Boundary setting off the clock

Years ago, when Gladding was a new practitioner with a young family at home, a couple he was counseling called him on a Sunday afternoon with an urgent request to see him for an emergency session.

“I agreed to see them — and soon realized that they weren’t in crisis. They just wanted to blame each other for some things,” Gladding recalls. “I learned from it and [eventually] said, ‘I’ll see you during office hours, but I can’t see you now.’ That was a mistake on my part.”

It wasn’t the last time a client would contact him outside of working hours. In one instance, a client even showed up at his home on the weekend. While it’s certainly possible for clients to spiral into crisis situations at any time of day or any point of the week, Gladding says he has learned the importance of prioritizing boundaries. If clients contact him outside of working hours, he makes sure they’re stable, ensures they have crisis hotline numbers, and agrees to see them at the next possible opening during business hours. “I don’t want to downplay [clients’ pain], but boundaries have to be there, or we don’t do anyone any good at times,” Gladding notes.

The same goes for family members or friends who approach him for advice because he is a professional counselor. Gladding says he typically uses humor to diffuse the situation and redirect their questions. There is a reason that ethics guidelines urge against counseling family members and friends — because counselors simply cannot be objective in those situations, he says.

If Gladding notices an issue going on in the lives of those he knows personally, he says that he might make a gentle observation to them about what he’s seeing — without engaging in a counseling intervention — and offer to connect them to another counselor.

“I have a colleague who is always saying, ‘Check yourself before you wreck yourself.’ I like that because we can get into trouble if we get too much into something that’s happening” in the lives of family or friends, Gladding says.

Waddington sees such situations as opportunities to coach family members and friends on the benefits of professional counseling, and then supporting them through the process of finding a counselor clinician.

“When anyone knows that you’re a therapist, the floodgates open,” Waddington says with a chuckle. “People will start sentences with, ‘In your professional opinion …’”

In those situations, Waddington has a phrase that she responds with: Do you want my ears, do you want my advice, or do you want me to step in?

“Then, I am clear about what they really want from me. Often, they just want me to listen. I can listen all day, but it’s not my job to be your therapist, and I don’t want to be,” she says. “Often, I will say, ‘Let me help you find someone to talk to.’ … It’s not my job to help my cousin get through this [problem], but it is my job to help them find help.”

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

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