Monthly Archives: June 2022

The effects of gender socialization on boys and men

By Suzy Wise, Matthew Bonner, Michael P. Chaney and Naomi Wheeler June 15, 2022

This piece is the final of a three-part series for CT Online. It is the result of the work of ACA President S. Kent Butler’s Gender Equity Task Force. The first article, “Breaking the binary: Transgender and gender expansive equality,” was published on April 4, and the second article, “Counseling girls and women in the current cultural climate,” was published on May 5.

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In this article, we shine a spotlight on how boys and men are impacted by gender equity and how counselors may apply this knowledge in pragmatic, clinical ways. Because gender equity is often conceptualized through a privileged, Western lens, we weave in an intersectional perspective to underscore boys’ and men’s diverse experiences and identities.

As we learned in the second article in the series, girls and women continue to be marginalized by gender-based oppression, so it is not surprising that gender equity issues have historically been associated with them. However, what is often not discussed is how boys’ and men’s well-being may also be negatively affected by the patriarchal system that benefits them.

Readers may wonder what these issues have to do with professional counselors and the counseling profession, given that gender-based terms and conversations often have political connotations associated with them. Counselors whose clients do not present with overt conflicts around gender and gender socialization may avoid direct inquiry on this part of the client’s identity and could miss one or more ways that male clients adapt to the world around them, and thus, how gender has shaped them as people.

Consider that in 2020, an estimated 11.3% of men in the United States sought counseling, despite a greater need for it. Socialization practices for men include such things as stoicism, rugged individuality and solitary problem-solving. These can be very positive characteristics and behaviors, but they can also create isolation, sublimation of emotions and self-blame. It is imperative that we explore the influence of gender equity in the lives of boys and men and reduce the societal stigma impeding their help-seeking processes.

Broadening our perspective on masculinity

Research shows that, compared to girls and women, boys and men face disproportionate rates of harsh discipline in schools, academic difficulties, insufficient education, higher rates of completed suicides and higher rates of substance use and dependence. The counseling profession often overlooks boys and men as a specialized group, in part because of their inherited positions of male privilege and power, as if that privilege automatically erases the presence of potentially debilitating problems.

Professional counselors may be more effective in working with boys and men if they hold a flexible conceptualization of masculinity as diverse, multiple, and intersectional, to form a more inclusive view of how boys and men exist in the world.

One helpful way to understand this is to see boys and men representative of multiple and complex expressions and identities of unique personhood, rather than as a monolith or archetype — one version of masculinity. This is referred to as multiple masculinities. As we additionally layer in the cultural experiences and backgrounds our clients represent, we can take an intersectional perspective. As an illustration, we explore three of many types of masculinity and manhood: traditional masculinity, “toxic” masculinity and precarious manhood.

Traditional masculinity can be thought of as the possession and expression of prized Western characteristics, such as being white, heterosexual, and cisgender, as well as being the person who provides for and protects a family or group. This type of masculinity is commonly seen as holding a lot of power and privilege in society, and it typically rejects or excludes men who embody stereotypically “feminine” characteristics like empathy, caring and softness. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the men’s movement sought to connect men with their intrinsically masculine nature through retreats in the woods, rituals of manhood and initiation ceremonies. The movement appealed mostly to white, heterosexual, upper-class men to the exclusion of other cultures, classes and sexual/affectional orientations.

“Toxic” masculinity is a colloquial term that includes those traits of masculinity that are oppressive, such as interpersonal violence, shaming, bullying, gang involvement and self-entitlement. This view of masculinity is controversial because some see it as an attack on masculinity and because of the belief that there is inherent toxicity in being a man. Research indicates that toxic masculinity is the result of boys and men feeling insecure and then acting from that insecurity against those seen as weaker than them.

Related to the concept of toxic masculinity is precarious manhood, defined by psychologists Vandello and Boson as a felt sense of manhood that is “hard won and easily lost.” It is elusive, requires achieved status, and is confirmed by others through one’s demonstrations of manliness. It is so tenuous, however, that just one unmanly action or behavior can call one’s manhood into question, regardless of the attempts to prove it. Attempting (and failing) to prove oneself according to stringent societal and systemic norms creates an unstable sense of one’s manhood, which may in turn incite toxic behaviors to restore balance.

While these are just three examples within a multiple masculinities framework of many types, we recommend above all that counselors take an intersectional approach that will give space for our clients to bring all of themselves to the therapy room. This necessitates an awareness of cultural and subcultural influences of how unique relationships to manhood are formed.

Understanding the gender role characteristics of machismo as well as the influences of acculturation and socioeconomic status can be beneficial in counseling Latinx boys and men. When counseling African American boys and men, understanding the “cool pose” as resistance to indignities and inequality is helpful from a contextual perspective. Counseling Indigenous men will encourage self-examination and connection to community and needs to include decolonization practices toward healing and authenticity. Transgender, gender expansive and nonbinary people express masculinities that usually do not conform to the narrow, rigid and heteronormative nature of traditional masculinity, and they have often been damaged by the behaviors of toxic masculinity.

Diverse and multiple masculinities have persisted and evolved despite traditional masculinity’s pervasiveness in society, and it is important for counselors to recognize and affirm and help their clients to know that there is more than one way to be a man.

Masculine identity socialization

Very early in life, young boys learn patriarchal language and what it means to work and provide for the family, as well as how to operate in the world as a man. They also learn the consequences of not evidencing these lessons. Through overt and covert behaviors, implicit and explicit messages, and a system of rewards and punishments, early caregiving environments reinforce ideas about how men and boys should embody and express masculinity to avoid reproach by others.

Appearing or performing in less masculine ways than expected may trigger early and continued rejection experiences, especially when boys demonstrate what are regarded as feminine traits like sensitivity, compassion and kindness toward others. These boys may be shunned by other boys and looked down on by men they may look up to, or idealize, for the very characteristics they are expected to possess. These experiences can trouble a boy’s internal sense of self and the way he interacts with the external world, which often includes a desire for peer acceptance and connection.

Some of these learned characteristics include being logical, engaging in visible conflict and adventure, attaining wealth and status at work, being self-confident, being a quick and resolute decision-maker, striving actively for power, exacting concrete results and tangible rewards, and being invulnerable, competitive and strong. All of these and more create an image of the “ideal man” — one that is not real but ideal, an image to which boys and men should aspire but which they will never realistically attain. Because of how gender socialization is structured, this model and these characteristics are taught and reinforced by both men and women in the home, school, church, work, social and other environments. Boys and men who cannot easily develop, maintain and expand on these qualities may frequently feel an impending sense of failure to live up to their expectations.

Paradoxically, power is one of the privileges that men are automatically afforded by the patriarchal system in Western society, yet they rarely feel that they realistically have this power. They instead feel a lack of power, which is further threatened when historically marginalized groups seek power of their own. This may contribute to a sense of insecurity, insufficiency and a concomitant need to enact power-related behaviors on those around them, as reinforcement of their inherited position.

Joseph Pleck, a prominent researcher on gender role socialization for men, described three consequences for men’s seeming inability to live up to the roles prescribed for them:

1) A man’s long-term failure to perform expected behaviors and traits may lead to low self-esteem and other potential mental health consequences.

2) A man may be successful at performing and attaining desired masculinity, but only through a traumatic socialization process (e.g., hazing, bullying, sublimation, rejection, isolation), which may create negative side effects such as poorer mental health outcomes.

3) A man may be successful at performing and attaining desired masculinity, but this comes with negative side effects because of the rigid characteristics themselves (e.g., low family involvement, reinforcement of traditional gender roles at home, negative health consequences typical for men).

The pressure to perform traditional masculine behaviors can lend itself to a restricted range of adaptive or healthy coping strategies, which has clear implications for the overall health of men and their help-seeking behaviors. When men come to counseling, they rarely offer presenting concerns related to explicit problems with their level of gender role adherence, but instead they seek help for substance use issues, anger management, work conflicts or interpersonal distress, and usually at the insistence of a spouse or partner rather than of their own volition.

Gender equity and boys’ and men’s health

Gender equity has a significant influence on boys’ and men’s health and well-being. Studies show that men who recognize and affirm gender equity have better mental health, more satisfying relationships, reduced mortality, and engagement in other prosocial behaviors that bolster healthy living, such as increased physical activity and decreased substance use.

However, in general, there continue to be significant gender disparities whereby boys and men experience greater health-related repercussions. One such example is life expectancy. In 2020, the life expectancy for men was 75.1 years compared with 80.5 years for women. The disparities become more salient when intersecting factors such as race are considered. Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any group and on average live six years less than white men. These patterns are also seen in suicide rates of boys and men. A 2021 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that although suicide rates among white men and women dropped by 5%, suicide rates increased among 10- to 24-year-old Black (23%) and Latinx (20%) boys and men.

The COVID-19 pandemic further highlights a significant health issue influenced by gender equity. According to the CDC, men are 1.6 times more likely than women to die from COVID despite a similar number of confirmed cases in both sexes. Death rates from COVID for Black and Latinx men are six times higher than those for white men. These disparities are partially explained by the fact that the immune responses of men tend to be lower. This, in combination with gendered practices and behaviors typically associated with masculinity, such as smoking, drinking, not following preventative public health recommendations (i.e., mask-wearing, handwashing), avoidance of receiving health care, and higher rates of co-occurring health issues (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, hypertension), contributes to the high COVID death rates among men.

One explanation for why many boys and men experience gender-based health discrepancies is due to restrictive and prescriptive socially constructed masculine gender norms. One such masculine norm is their supercilious attitudes about their health and well-being, which often lead to unhealthy behaviors.

Boys and men are socialized to be independent and autonomous, leading many of them to think they can rely solely on themselves to solve their own problems and health issues. Given that researchers have found a negative correlation between self-reliance and help-seeking behaviors, it makes sense that boys and men may often not speak up, seek therapeutic assistance or get medical care until it is too late. Because traditional masculinity rewards boys and men who disguise their health-related needs, ailments and sufferings behind an armor of self-reliance, aggression and physical toughness, their health can be negatively impacted.

Barriers toward help-seeking behaviors

Young boys are often socialized in ways that promote risk-taking and rugged independence, restrict emotional expression and prioritize demonstrations of physical prowess, reinforced by the generational attitude that “boys will be boys.” These factors may contribute to greater stigma for boys’ and men’s mental health help-seeking, and the lower rates of mental health treatment, because counseling support is seen as a weakness and not a strength.

Counselors may consider intentional efforts to engage boys and men in counseling services and to assess appropriate levels of care more effectively. Counselors often adapt their practices to meet their clients’ particular needs, so to with boys and men — activity-based work in sessions, behavior-influenced theories and adventure therapy may encourage men to participate more fully. Counselors should also consider developing strategic community partnerships to support mental health education efforts for boys and men.

Programs such as Brother, You’re on My Mind, a National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities initiative aimed at engaging African American men in discussions about mental health, often include counselors who can demystify the counseling process and contribute to shifts in common misperceptions about the mental health of boys and men. Similarly, there are school and community-based programs tailored for boys and men that develop positive definitions for masculinity and support healthy sexuality and relationships. Whether through community partnership or direct discussion in session, counselors can explore the role of masculinity in boys’ and men’s presenting concerns, their coping, and resources for social support.

The importance of relationships and a trauma-informed approach

Socialization of masculinity also influences how boys and men engage in relationships. People’s relationships with others, from birth through adulthood, influence how they construct ideas and behave regarding gender expression, sexuality/affectionality and healthy relationships. Research shows that rigid ideas about masculinity can influence heterosexism (homophobia) and cissexism (transphobia), unsafe sexual practices and even aggressive forms of initiating romantic and sexual encounters.

As previously described regarding precarious manhood, boys and men may feel pressured to demonstrate their manhood in unhelpful or unhealthy ways as an indicator of their masculinity or to maintain their social position. This felt pressure also relates to shame and lower rates of reporting/disclosing when a boy or man experiences abuse, trauma or relationship violence.

For instance, although gender-inclusive campaigns for relationship violence are rare, one in 10 men will experience relationship violence in their lifetime, and one out of every 10 rape victims is male. Intimate partner issues (e.g., divorce or separation, loss of child custody) and relationship violence also increase the risk of suicide, especially among men ages 35 to 64.

Therefore, counselors need to be aware of the risk as well as the protective factors associated with mental health challenges for men and the tendency for many men to underreport symptoms.

Research shows that men uniquely benefit from positive relationships with others, such as from being married or partnered and engaging in reciprocal social activities and endeavors.

Meaningful attachments in men’s relationships and friendships significantly reduce the negative influence of childhood adversity and traumatic life events and enhance their mental and physical health.

A wide body of research also supports the effects of father involvement on healthy child development. Fathers often play, communicate and parent in different ways than mothers. As a result, father involvement has significant influences on child well-being, including school readiness and behavior, cognitive development, self-confidence, secure attachment and development of empathy. Finally, men may play critical roles in family discussions about how to treat girls and women and challenge stereotypes associated with masculinity and femininity.

Intersectional counseling practice

The Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies describe an essential first step for professional counselors to engage more deeply in their self-understanding of their knowledge, beliefs, skills/abilities and responsibilities for advocacy with clients. This process centers the client-counselor relationship and encourages an authentic exploration of the client’s place in society, how systems of oppression and privilege have affected them, and how the work of counseling connects to client advocacy.

Given the strong and systemic gender socialization in society and the way boys and men are often caught in the traditional masculinity trap, counselors should take time to assess the many diverse psychological, affectional, cultural, ethnic, religious and economic contexts in which their male clients exist.

If counselors have not first engaged in their own self-awareness and reflexivity work, they may continue to view the world from their own vantage point rather than the client’s. For instance, if a male client comes to counseling presenting with anger/aggression and repetitive violent behaviors, the counselor could potentially disempower or harm the client by assuming the client “is just an angry person” or that the client embodies a toxic form of masculinity. Both assumptions may foreclose on the possibility of deeper issues, such as past traumas, repeated discrimination and oppression, or maltreatment, and could forestall the client’s potential for growth and development.

Instead, the counselor may recognize that the client’s emotions and behaviors may be justified because of the contextual circumstances and the tools and resources he possessed at the time. The client might have felt he had no choice in how he behaved because of the constraints placed on him by society. The counselor could explore the client’s relatedness to strict gender socialization patterns as well as the emotional effects this brings. The counselor could affirm the client’s characteristics of being strong, powerful and courageous, and help the client develop alternative forms of expression and problem resolution to avoid negative outcomes. And if the client should choose to, he can learn to channel these characteristics toward gender equity and advocacy for disempowered groups.

Inquiring about men’s early patterns of gender socialization and uncovering what was expected of them when they were boys, as well as discovering what the consequences were for not meeting these expectations, will give counselors important insight for the counseling process.

Counselors should listen for how tightly male clients tie their self-worth to their masculinity, as any disruption in their understanding of themselves and their manhood can cause deep internal conflict and potentially negative external behaviors, such as through sexist, homophobic or transphobic actions. Counselors can help male clients envision a broader sense of themselves and a more complex view of manhood — one that embraces self-acceptance and affirmation, interdependence and relationality, and which values positive expression of emotion.

Counselors can also contribute to reexamination of gender stereotypes, social pressures and sexual misconceptions in session through the use of gender-specific group psychoeducation programs such as Time Out! For Men (applied in tandem with substance use treatment to explore gender role stereotypes and how they influence relationship factors such as communication skills and sexuality) or the Men’s Trauma Recovery Empowerment model (applied to help with trauma healing and posttraumatic growth). Research seems to suggest that the treatment effects are comparable in terms of client outcomes regardless of whether a gender-specific approach is utilized. However, for some boys and men, representation in gender-specific mental health services may help reduce internal barriers to help-seeking.

In addition to building a strong foundation of therapeutic rapport, which will also contribute to men’s mental health outcomes, counselors should inquire about male clients’ sources of social support and how their personal ideas of masculinity influence their well-being and relationships. This may provide male clients a safe space to work through both the challenges and positive contributions of what it means to be a boy or man in society.

Conclusion

Professional counselors are in a unique position to support boys and men to achieve gender equity as it relates to their health and well-being.

First, counselors can empower boys and men to advocate for their own health and well-being by educating them on the relationship between self-reliant attitudes and poorer health outcomes.

Second, counselors acknowledge the diverse intersecting identities of boys and men and how these identities may predispose certain groups of boys and men to adverse health experiences.

Third, counselors can help young boys and adolescents examine existing gender norms and roles and how the adoption of these norms may impede healthy living. This focused conversation may allow important space for child and teen clients to identify their authentic beliefs, values and forms of gender expression as they continue their growth and development.

Fourth, counselors should recognize that boys and men are not a homogeneous group and that there are many subgroups of men with diverse and varied ways of expressing masculinities that are validated and affirmed in the counseling space. Counselors should strive to be creative and flexible in their counseling approaches with boys and men to best meet their treatment goals and objectives.

Finally, counselors are encouraged to work with boys and men to explore and debunk the negative gender stereotypes that contribute to maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that thwart their health and well-being.

 

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Find out more about ACA’s Gender Equity Task Force at acagenderequity.weebly.com.

 

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Suzy Wise is a licensed professional counselor in Illinois, a national certified counselor and an assistant professor and core faculty in the clinical mental health counseling program at Valparaiso University. Suzy’s participation on the ACA Gender Equity Task Force included chairing the Boys and Men subgroup and being a contributing member of the Transgender and Gender Expansive subgroup. Contact Suzy at Suzy.Wise@valpo.edu.

Matthew Bonner is a licensed clinical professional counselor and an assistant professor of counseling at Johns Hopkins University. He is a member of the ACA Gender Equity Task Force. His research interests include multicultural issues, assessment in counseling, and human services models of treatment. Contact him at mbonner6@jhu.edu.

Michael P. Chaney is a licensed professional counselor in Georgia and Michigan and an associate professor in the Department of Counseling at Oakland University. He is co-chair of the ACA Gender Equity Task Force, a member of the ACA Ethics Committee and editor of the Journal of LGBTQ Issues in Counseling. Contact him at chaney@oakland.edu.

Naomi J. Wheeler is a licensed professional counselor in Virginia, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida, a national certified counselor and an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education at Virginia Commonwealth University and coordinator for the Couples and Family Counseling concentration. Contact Naomi at njwheeler@vcu.edu.

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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.

Past, present or future: Where do you usually live?

By Madhuri Govindu June 10, 2022

Your monkey mind wants to live in either the painful past or the anxious future. It doesn’t like to stay in or savor the present moment.

This mental habit of ruminating over what has happened or what will happen can make life a miserable journey. Many people are unable to control their mental chatter and continue to suffer. But there’s hope if you can learn to tame your mind to stay in the present moment.

Life happens here and now

Life exists in this present moment. Not in the past or future as most of us are accustomed to. As a mental health counseling student, living in the present moment has been my anchor in a life filled with unexpected ups and downs. Undoubtedly, living in the “now” has served as a saving grace for me as we all continue to battle the darkest days of our current realities.

When I was younger, I couldn’t understand why “the past” would be a crucial part of someone’s life. I constantly pondered why adults ruminated about things that happened decades ago. This quest to understand people’s mindsets led me to quit my corporate job as a training and development manager with Accenture, a multinational company in India. Thereafter, I pursued my passion for counseling psychology, which brought me to the United States in 2018. Currently, I am a graduate student at Penn West University (Edinboro University of Pennsylvania) and will graduate with a mental health counseling degree in 2023.

Early on, I wanted to build a platform that would help those struggling with issues such as depression, anger, fear, past trauma, bullying and an inability to find a solid direction in life. Soulful Conversations, an in-person platform, allowed people to have heart-to-heart discussions and helped thousands of individuals cope with past traumas and future anxieties. This journey taught me that living in or thinking too much about the past is nothing but a disease — one that afflicts millions of people today.

Ruminating over what happened, why it happened and “how could it happen to me?” has become an irresistible habit for many individuals. Through the Soulful Conversations community, I started to understand better the workings of the human mind. For the first time, I questioned my audience: “Ask your mind, what is its next thought?” Interestingly, the moment you ask your mind this question, it goes blank, as if it has been put under a spotlight and its auto-running mode has been caught.

After trying this technique, my audience found a sense of relief to experience a much-needed pause in their uninterrupted mental activities. As people created even a 10-second gap between their reckless past and future thoughts, they found immense respite in their inner stillness. They discovered deep peace within that emanated from shutting the endless chatter of their untamed monkey minds.

Are you in the present moment?

As a counselor, it is vital to be aware that living in the present moment can help us reduce stress, stay more focused and better understand the repetitive patterns in our lives caused by our compulsive habits. When you are in the present moment, you are not waiting for the next moment to be fulfilling or happy. This is because you are not unhappy in the “now,” subject to unpleasant clingy thoughts from the past, empathy fatigue or any other distraction.

You are now more present with your family and friends. You are livelier, content and stress-free because you refuse to entertain past experiences or future anxieties related to health, money, family, work, etc. It may be helpful to have a phone wallpaper featuring the NOW clock or a gemstone that reminds you that everything you are experiencing exists only in the present. Don’t forget: Memories are just thoughts in your mind, quite similar to your thoughts about the future.

Gratitude changes everything

Many times, we carry stressful work situations or unsatisfactory client encounters with us in our minds. We repeatedly replay them in our minds to analyze and dissect how that meeting could have been better. Often, this stress spills into our personal space as well. We carry these feelings of resentment while we are spending time with family members and friends.

We forget that we have the right to “choose and appreciate” whatever the present moment brings to us. So instead of ruminating about past and future worries, we can choose to drop all fears and swim in the magic of the present moment. With practice, the ability to stay in the present moment can be mastered.

The present moment brings an opportunity to offer gratitude, which makes life more livable and joyful. Gratia, the Latin word for gratitude, means grace or gratefulness, and even a small act of thanking the present moment — appreciating what you see, feel, hear and sense around you — deepens that awareness. This helps you leave the perennial stream of unconscious mental chatter, which is eventually the root cause of myriad problems.

Tame the monkey mind 

The monkey mind can hop in and hop off from one branch to another within seconds. It can scuba dive into the ocean of sorrow and bring you back into the sky of happiness in a matter of

Stephen Tafra/Unsplash.com

seconds. As counselors, we must try to bring ourselves to the present moment and erode the old conditioning by doing simple things consciously.

These activities can retrain our monkey minds to see the beauty in the present moment. The racing mind is like a galloping horse without any direction. It feels as if the mind is unstoppable, and you are helpless because you simply have no idea how to tame the unruly mind. In such situations, the easiest way to bring your mind to the present moment is to bring your attention back to your breath. Ask yourself, “Am I breathing consciously?” This question helps you to step outside the compulsiveness of identifying yourself with your thoughts.

So how do we build awareness? How do we become aware of our mindless mental chatter? Some of the simple ways such as chewing food slowly, washing hands consciously, taking occasional deep breaths, and setting alarms for present-moment reminders can be very helpful. Furthermore, the regular practice of meditation can help counselors in de-weeding the garden of their minds.

Even 20 minutes of meditation can help us observe everything the mind holds on to and help us see the workings of the mind more clearly. We can then navigate through the mind’s workings and ensure that we do not attach to any of the weeds that slowly creep into the subconscious mind. Hence, a regular practice of de-weeding through meditation is important.

Suffering and counselors

No one is immune to suffering in this world, not even counselors. Like all humans, they have their own professional and personal challenges to deal with. Also, navigating from one client to another, counselors often help others deal with afflictions such as addictions, trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder and so much more. Counselors try their best to help their clients, but this leaves them with very little time for their own recovery and self-care.

However, the good aspect is that counselors are well equipped to understand the unnecessary problems and conflicts created by the mind. So if we can leave the client stories behind, meditate for five minutes before each session, and then step into the next one, a lot of our projections will disappear. It is important to note that the moment you realize that you are not living in the present moment, you are immediately transported back to the present moment. Isn’t that wonderful?

We must understand that the countless voices in our heads will never be silent. At times, it even annoys us, and this inner dialogue makes us miss most of life’s present moments because we are never in the NOW. So, realize that you are not the voice in your head — you are the conscious being who has the power to observe this voice and still not believe in it.

Mind full or mindfulness?

One mindful step at a time can help us embrace inner peace. I personally have trained my mind over the last two years to consciously bring it back to the present moment. As counselors, our work involves welcoming clients from diverse cultural backgrounds and helping them hold their inner peace. This doesn’t leave us with a lot of buffer time to recover, rejuvenate and refocus on the next client.

Hence, it is extremely important for counselors to focus on their mental movements and understand if there is an underlying stillness. A simple practice of five-minute meditation can help counselors embrace the present moment between sessions. The art of practicing self-observation to identify your intrinsic motivations, projections and deflections can help counselors go into tiny mindful retreats and hold their inner peace.

Judgment detox

If counselors can continue to observe their own minds in a nonjudgmental way, then they will be more effective in their profession. The present-moment awareness practice can help in increasing focus and alertness, having a relaxed state of mind, being more mindful with clients and not getting distracted easily.

Being fully aware of the counselor-client relationship can lead to building deeper connections, being more efficient as a counselor, embracing self-compassion and living a fulfilling professional life. What’s more? It will be easier for counselors to bounce back from intense sessions as they continue to deepen their present-moment practice. Random mind wandering is common, and being aware of how often your mind wanders and leaves the present moment is a great indicator of your happiness and mental well-being.

How often have you found yourself unhappy while having sex, exercising, watching your favorite show on Netflix or taking a warm shower? It is the presence of thoughts, drifting mind and past woes or future anxieties that jeopardize your present-moment happiness. A moment of pause, deep breathing in that pause, and being aware of the pause can soothe your nervous system immensely.

With consistent practice, there will be a significant reduction in your thoughts and a more focused approach at work, and an absence of worry and rumination can help you become happier. Another interesting creative approach is using mandalas, which are visual diagrams that can help one become more mindful of the present moment. These intricate patterns allow one to dive deeper into the drawing and deepen one’s relationship with the present moment.

Conclusion

I hope counselors will feel more conscious of their mental chatter and be more confident in helping themselves with some of the present-moment techniques that I have shared. It is fulfilling to know that we deserve to take mental breaks, focus on self-care and refuse to succumb to the cessation of endless mental activities.

In one of my Soulful Conversation sessions, I had mentioned, “Don’t take the time, effort, patience and mental health of counselors for granted. We sacrifice a lot to maintain a peaceful and positive demeanor while underplaying some of our inner challenges. We believe in our own ability to impact the lives of others in a positive way and create a culture of wellness by touching the lives of others mindfully, one day at a time.”

 

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Madhuri Govindu is a counseling psychology graduate student at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Her work was featured in The New Indian Express in 2018 when she began to invite individuals from all walks of life to embrace the present moment through her open social change platform titled Soulful Conversations. Contact her at madhurigovindu23@gmail.com.

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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.

Embracing the realities of retirement

By Chris Morkides June 8, 2022

In the 1977 song that would become an unofficial anthem for his legions of fans, Jimmy Buffett famously sang about “wasting away in Margaritaville,” “searching for [his] lost shaker of salt” and doing many of the things that people contemplating retirement expect to do when they leave the full-time workforce behind and dive into their golden years.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that Buffett, now in his mid-70s, has a retirement community in Florida that was named one of Where to Retire magazine’s “50 best master-planned communities in the U.S.” in 2019.

It turns out that retirement is about master planning. And maintaining social networks. And finding meaning. In other words, it’s about many things that professional counselors can help to guide clients through, whether these individuals are contemplating retirement or already retired.

Retirement as a developmental stage

“People are living longer and retiring earlier,” says Louis Primavera, a licensed psychologist who co-authored The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire with Rob Pascale and Rip Roach. “And it means that retirement has changed from a short-term event to another developmental stage.”

Before writing The Retirement Maze in 2012, Primavera and his co-authors surveyed 1,500 retirees and 400 people of retirement age who were still in the workforce to see how the two groups compared emotionally, to look at the expectations of prospective retirees and judge whether those expectations were realistic, to uncover problems encountered by retirees and, finally, to put those problems under a microscope and determine how best to deal with them or avoid them altogether.

The first issue Primavera, Pascale and Roach had to resolve before disseminating the survey was to formulate a definition of “retirement.” Coming up with a definition was not easy because many retirees still work to some extent. What distinguishes them from people who work full time?

“Working retirees,” Primavera and his co-authors wrote, “tend to be less emotionally invested in their jobs and have more say as to the terms of their employment, such as the types of tasks performed, or the number of hours worked. Also, retirees think of themselves as retirees.”

“Retirement is no longer seen as the complete end of work after a career of full-time jobs,” they added. “Instead, work is now seen as one potential element of the retiree lifestyle.”

Retirement is a process. Some individuals adjust well to retirement within months. For others, the adjustment takes years. Primavera, Pascale and Roach wrote that three elements are key in a person’s ability to adjust: health, financial stability and subjective well-being. Subjective well-being, simply, is a person’s happiness. That happiness is affected by productivity, self-esteem, a feeling of being in control, a sense of purpose and a sense of being connected to others.

Retirement, then, isn’t as easy as deciding to spend more time with the grandchildren. In fact, as many retirees experience firsthand, it can be very hard work.

“People start out flying when they retire and they’re doing well,” says Primavera, who estimates that 40% of people who retire aren’t fully adjusted within one or two years. “Then, things change. There’s confusion. What am I going to do with my time? How am I going to structure my day? When people first retire, they might get up late, they might not change their clothes. They’re on vacation.”

All vacations end though. Which leads to a question that retirees and prospective retirees routinely ask themselves: Now what? 

Although workers might spend a portion of their days lamenting how much they hate their jobs, work provides structure. But with no imposed structure after retirement? With a gap in meaning that was previously filled by work — even if that work could also be a source of anxiety? Now what?

The importance of structure

“Structure is the most important thing in all this,” Primavera says. “You take people who are seriously mentally ill. One characteristic, no matter what the diagnosis, is that they’re totally unstructured. It’s the same for everybody. A lot of people have had trouble through the pandemic, for example. What structure was there? A lot of people have been flying by the seat of their pants.”

The quality of the structure is also significant.

“Structuring your days so that you’re including exercise and social activities and not just staring at a TV is important,” says E. Christine Moll, a counseling lecturer at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of the American Counseling Association. “Maybe you’re going out for coffee every day. Maybe you’re volunteering one or two days a week. Maybe you’re having meals with family, meals with your neighbors. That’s structure.”

Professional counselors can discuss the importance of structure and ways that their clients can implement it. The goal is not for clients to know what they will be doing every second, minute or hour of every day; it’s that they will understand the importance of doing something.

Structure isn’t something that most people who work full time find it necessary to consider. They typically wake up to an alarm, make breakfast, and hustle out the door with a cup of coffee in hand to go to a job that they may or may not like. They follow this routine the next day and the next day and the next day, relax on the weekend, and the cycle repeats itself when Monday comes around.

But when there isn’t a job to go to, structure is no longer a given. It’s up to retirees to create their own structure. 

“People need a reason to get up in the morning,” says Deborah Heiser, founder of The Mentor Project and co-editor of the book Spiritual Assessment and Intervention With Older Adults. “That doesn’t change when you retire.”

‘Piecing’ together retirement

No matter how much planning and counseling are conducted beforehand, many issues can crop up and surprise clients once the initial euphoria of not having to report to the office wears off.

Take, for example, the social piece.

“If you examine it, 40% of your social network [is] people you work with,” Primavera says. “So, you’re losing a big part of your social network.”

“People might be having problems at work, with obligations, with other aspects,” adds Heiser, an adjunct professor of psychology at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. “But work still gives us an opportunity to socialize with each other.”

For “the client who lives alone, the social piece is very important,” says Sharon Givens, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in career counseling and heads the Visions Counseling and Career Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. “They don’t have co-workers they can engage with on a daily basis. They can volunteer, take on part-time positions, anything that keeps them in contact with other people.”

Getting involved in new activities is one way for retirees to meet other people. Reestablishing connections with old friends and family — many of whom the retiree may have unintentionally neglected due to responsibilities imposed by work — is another way to satisfy the need for socialization.

“The person you might see three times a year, increase the number of those contacts,” Primavera advises. “There’s someone I know, Bob, he’s retired, and we have lunch every three or four weeks. He has lunch with other friends. We all have friends we probably don’t see often whose company we enjoy. If you’re retired, it’s easier to see them.”

There is also the meaning/identity piece to consider as it relates to retirement. Go to a social gathering, and one of the first things people ask is what you do. It’s an easy answer when you’re working: “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a doctor.” “I’m a truck driver.”

The answer isn’t as easy after retirement, although it still exists. It just might take some time finding it.

“You can get meaning by volunteering in something completely different than your career or by giving back by using the skills you learned in your career. You know, like financial people volunteering to do financial work at a senior center during tax season,” Moll says. “You can do Meals on Wheels. You can do anything that gives you purpose. And that changes. It’s not for me [the counselor] to say what brings purpose. It’s for the person to find out.”

There is also the couples and family piece. Both members of a couple might work or only one may be employed. Whatever the situation, it changes when one partner decides to retire. To minimize potential problems, it could be a good idea to go through couples or family counseling before one of the family members drops out of the workforce.

“The client should have conversations with the family about what they’re planning on doing, what it might mean,” Moll says. “You might want to talk about … what happens to the family dynamic after retirement.”

And what if a client decides they want not only to retire but also to move in the process? True, people can connect via the internet, and friends and relatives can visit retirees in, say, Florida. “But I don’t know if absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Moll says. “That’s something that can be discussed in counseling beforehand.”

Surveying the horizon

Givens uses what she calls the SWOT approach when counseling clients who are considering retirement.

“It’s about discussing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats a person might encounter,” she explains. “What new opportunities could retirement open up? What problems could retirement present? Is the person ready financially? Emotionally?”

To get clients to think about post-retirement life, she asks them a question: “What will you do that you couldn’t do because you’ve been working?”

Kimberly Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor in New York and program director for clinical mental health at Touro College, now works primarily with frontline workers navigating the coronavirus pandemic. But she has counseled people navigating life transitions, including retirement, throughout her 25-plus years as a counselor.

Johnson remembers one client who came to her initially to work on other issues. But as Johnson counseled her client, she realized that much of the client’s angst stemmed from her job.

“The environment at work had come to a place where she just didn’t feel like she wanted to stay anymore,” Johnson says. “She already was vested. She was going to have her pension. She probably would have stayed if the environment was better.”

The problem for Johnson’s client, who was in her late 50s, was that she felt that she was being forced out. Johnson wanted the client to look at the situation differently. “A lot of it was about having her think that she made the decision rather than the decision being foisted upon her,” Johnson says.

What did Johnson do to help her client get to a good place emotionally? “First, we role-played how she would confront her supervisor,” Johnson says. “And we tried to visualize what it would be like after she left and how she could prepare for it. We talked about potential feelings that might come up when she was gone.”

It all was about turning negative thoughts about retirement into positive thoughts. “She started to look at it not as an end but as a transition in life,” Johnson says. “She did a little bit of her own writing describing what her life would be like after leaving her place of employment and the kinds of things that she could look forward to. It was about not getting caught up in the grieving of this transition but also celebrating what was on the horizon.”

The result? “She did go through some grieving but was able to process that and move on to new activities,” Johnson says. “She found a way to kind of reinvent herself. As far as I know, and I haven’t seen her for a while, she is in a positive place.”

One size does not fit all

How does Moll counsel clients who are considering retirement? She says it depends on the client because — as in other areas of counseling — one size does not fit all.

“I do think that there’s sort of disenchantment that happens with work, like ‘I’m tired of this job. I’m ready. I’m ready to be done with this. I’ve given what I can give,’” Moll says. “It’s important as a counselor to work through that emotion and maybe ask, ‘Is it time to retire?’

“I might open up the conversation with what has to happen before you step away. To really have a conversation about, I guess, two to three areas of life — what needs to happen, what needs to be put into place so that the person can leave as seamlessly as possible from that position?”

Moll encourages clients to consult with financial advisers, and she emphasizes the impact that a person’s retirement will have on the rest of the family. “You should have conversations with your partner,” Moll tells clients who are considering retirement.

Heiser discusses the importance of clients finding purposeful activities such as Habitat for Humanity and talks to clients about redefining their purpose. “Your purpose could be your grandchildren. It could be gardening. It could be pickleball,” she says.

Heiser also stresses the importance of therapists being supportive of clients who are considering retirement. “Tell your clients that it’s OK to change [their] mind. It’s OK to take a part-time job. It’s OK if retirement isn’t exactly what you thought it would be. Tell clients that a lot of people are going through this at the same time,” she says.

Primavera emphasizes structure, which he contends is the single most important thing for someone to maintain in retirement. The form of the structure can change, however.

“You plan, but you also have to be flexible,” he says. “Be willing to try different things. Be open to new ideas.”

Primavera recounts a story about a person who was surveyed for The Retirement Maze.

“We interviewed a CEO who loved to play golf when he was still working. Every opportunity he got to play, he was out on the course,” Primavera says. “He retired a year later, and we asked how much golf did he play. He wasn’t playing anymore. 

“We asked, ‘Why not?’ He said golf was a distraction when he was working. When he retired, it became his job. So, the things you think you may want to do, you may not end up wanting to do them.”

Be flexible

This is where flexibility comes in. Work and golf and pickleball and all sorts of factors are intertwined. One factor changes — a person retires — and it has a ripple effect on everything else.

“The point is that we all have to figure out what is best for us,” Primavera says. “And the only way you do that is to experiment. You research and experiment. If I had a client who said, ‘I’m unhappy,’ I would say, ‘Well, what makes you happy? Let’s go out and try a few things.’”

Some of those new things might even turn into work.

“Retirement is a funny business,” Primavera observes. “People often will retire from a job and then go back and work part time. It’s not unusual. Or they’ll find another job [that] is like what they were doing. We call it a bridge job. We interviewed one guy who actually ended up working more hours after he retired than he did when he was working. We asked him why he considered himself retired. He said, ‘Because I can quit anytime I want to.’”

Primavera doesn’t want to leave his job as dean of the School of Health Sciences at Touro College or stop being a therapist or an author. He says he enjoys his work too much. And, besides, “I love talking about retirement.”

Moll tried out retirement once before after spending 33 years as a professor at Canisius College. Today, she is a lecturer in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University and doesn’t plan on retiring again anytime soon.

“I still love teaching,” she says. “I’m happy being me and doing what I enjoy. And when I don’t enjoy this anymore, that’ll be my sign that I need to retire and maybe sit on the beach with some margaritas.”

insta_photos/Shutterstock.com

 

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Chris Morkides is a recently retired therapist trying to navigate the retirement waters with the help of his wife, Alisa, daughter, Kina, and two cats. Contact him at cmorkides@aol.com.

 

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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.

Journeying through betrayal trauma

By Allan J. Katz and Michele Saffier June 6, 2022

Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com

“Cathy’s” life has just been turned upside down. She picked up her husband’s cellphone only to discover a loving message from his affair partner. Cathy’s brain is spinning, and her emotions are all over the map. She feels embarrassed and alone, disconnected and detached from reality. She questions whether her entire relationship has been an enormous lie. She questions her attractiveness, her sexuality and her ability to ever trust anyone again. She feels as if she were just pushed out of an airplane and fell with no parachute.

As a certified sex addiction therapist and a member of the American Counseling Association, I (Allan) have seen firsthand that betrayal trauma is real. The shock is debilitating for betrayed partners and can last for years. Their lives are broken to pieces, and they are overwhelmed with shame, often thinking, “How could I be so stupid not to realize what was happening right under my nose? I’m such a fool for trusting him/her.” They feel they are going crazy. 

But these feelings are all normal because in all likelihood, this is the most shocking and confounding crisis they have ever experienced. After all, they thought they knew their partner and never thought their partner would cheat. The reality of the situation rocks the foundational values they have believed in and based their lives on. What is perhaps most disturbing is that they were going about their daily routine in the safety of their own home, and, in an instant, a discovery upends their world. It happens through answering a knock at the door, reading a random text, picking up a ringing telephone or — the most common form of discovery — turning on the computer to check email. 

The shock for the betrayed partner is so profound in the first moment, the first hour and the first day that it is hard to comprehend. It feels surreal, as if it can’t be happening. It feels as if you are suddenly outside of yourself watching a movie, seeing yourself react and not feeling connected to your own body. 

International trauma expert Peter Levine explains that when we are confronted by a situation that our brain experiences as frightening, we automatically go into a freeze response. We are thrust into a primal survival strategy commonly referred to as being “like a deer in headlights.” It is the state of being “beside yourself.” Betrayed partners describe it as being frozen, numb or in an altered state. Being lied to in such a profound manner by your partner, lover, sweetheart and beloved feels wholly abnormal. For many betrayed partners, there is no precedent for the experience. 

Answering the ‘why’ question

The “why” question is what betrayed partners find themselves coming back to over and over again. Why did you engage in this behavior? Why did you lie … repeatedly? 

Betrayed partners often feel that they can’t move on and find closure without knowing the answer to the “why” question. The painful truth is that there is no good reason and, for the betrayed partner, no right answer. The “explanation” can be challenging for betrayed partners to hear and can take time to process fully. Although they may not understand the “why” behind the behavior, betrayed partners can gain answers that help provide clarity and make healing possible for them and the relationship.

“Daphne,” a heartbroken partner, described her “why” questions as follows: “What were you thinking? Was I the only one longing to share my life with you? What makes you think you can take a stripper and her child to Disneyland, tell me and then expect me to stand for it? How could you use my faith and religion against me by saying, ‘Aren’t you supposed to forgive? Judge not lest you be judged,’ and, most offensive, ‘I think you were put on this earth to save me.’ Why did you even marry me? Why did you stay married to me? What does love mean to you? You obviously have no heart. How could you look me in the eyes and see how much pain I was in and how unloved I felt and continue giving our money to your girlfriend? Why did you promise me that you would never cheat on me as my father did to my mother? How can you say, ‘It’s not about you’? You admitted to me that you never considered my feelings. Why? You acknowledged that you lied to your family about me, portraying me as a horrible spouse so that you would feel justified to continue your affair. Why did you need to go that far?”

These are the types of questions that every betrayed partner asks. Betrayed partners believe that they cannot heal unless they know why their beloved cheated on them. But in the case of chronic betrayers, their reasons lie deep below the surface, much like the iceberg that sank the Titanic. The question becomes, “Why would someone who appears to be functioning well act against their morals and values?” Are these folks actually addicted to sex, or is sex addiction an excuse for bad behavior? 

In her “What Your Therapist Really Thinks” column for New York magazine on May 11, 2017, Lori Gottlieb responded to a letter from a reader wondering whether their husband might be having an affair. Gottlieb mentioned that whenever someone comes into her office to discuss infidelity, she wonders what other infidelities might be going on — not necessarily other affairs but the more subtle ways that partners can stray that also threaten a marriage.

In his book Contrary to Love, Patrick Carnes said his research indicated that 97% of individuals who were addicted to sex had been emotionally abused as children. These individuals were raised in unhealthy or dysfunctional homes with parents who did not give them the care essential to their healthy growth and development. Poverty, mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, violence and crime are among the many reasons that individuals turn to sexually compulsive behavior as adults. As a result, people who are sexually addicted have negative core beliefs about themselves. They feel alone and afraid and believe they are unworthy of love; they believe that no one can truly love them because they are unlovable. Therefore, they learn from a very young age that intimacy is dangerous in real life and that they can trust themselves only to meet their needs. 

In an article titled “Can serial cheaters change?” at PsychCentral.com, psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist Linda Hatch discussed two reasons that people cheat, both due to deep insecurities. Some who cheat feel intimidated by their spouse in the same way that they felt threatened in their childhood homes. A real-life connection is terrifying to someone who was not shown love as a child. In response, they seek affair partners, watch pornography or pay for sex to avoid these real-life connections. 

Carnes’ second book, Don’t Call It Love, is aptly titled. Acting out is not about love or sex; instead, acting out numbs the overwhelming agony of being loved by a real-life partner.  

The root of addiction and the brain science

At the root of addiction is trauma. Trauma is the problem, and for some, sexual acting out is the solution — until the solution fails. And when it fails, it results in more trauma. 

Deep wounds suffered when young cause a level of pain that overwhelms the child. Because human beings are built to stay alive, the brain banishes the ordeal’s worst feelings and memory. It locks them away to keep the child alive. 

Understanding the brain science of trauma and addiction enables the betrayed partner to see the big picture. The acting out had very little to do with the relationship or the partner.

Many mental health professionals do not believe that sex addiction is a legitimate disorder. Therapists often think that the betrayed partner is the problem because they’re “not enough” — not attentive enough, not available enough, not sexual enough, not thin enough, not voluptuous enough. Sex therapists (not to be confused with sex addiction therapists) believe that sexual expression is healthy — regardless of the behavior. Understanding the science that drives the addictive process is vital for the betrayed partner’s wellness, lest they take responsibility for their betrayer’s acting out. Knowing the brain science that causes a process addiction is essential to understanding how something that isn’t a chemical substance can be addictive. 

In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, Dr. Gabor Maté described childhood adversity and addiction, noting that early experiences play a crucial role in shaping perceptions of the world and others. A 1998 article by Vincent J. Felitti and colleagues in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine explained that “adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs (e.g., a child being abused, violence in the family, a jailed parent, extreme stress of poverty, a rancorous divorce, an addicted parent, etc.), have a significant impact on how people live their lives and their risk of addiction and mental and physical illnesses.” 

There are two types of addictions: substance and process (or behavioral) addictions. Process addictions refer to a maladaptive relationship with an activity, sensation or behavior that the person continues despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to maintain mental health and function at work, at home and in the community. Surprisingly, an otherwise pleasurable experience can become compulsive. When used to escape stress, it becomes a way of coping that never fails. Typical behaviors include gambling, spending, pornography, masturbation, sex, gaming, binge-watching television, and other high-risk experiences. 

Process addictions increase dopamine. Dopamine is a naturally occurring and powerful pleasure-seeking chemical in the brain. When activities are used habitually to escape pain, more dopamine is released in the brain. The brain rapidly adjusts to a higher level of dopamine. The “user” quickly finds themselves on a hamster wheel, seeking more exciting, more dangerous, more erotic or more taboo material to maintain the dopamine rush. The brain has adapted to the “new normal.” The brain depends on a higher level of dopamine to regulate the central nervous system. It quickly becomes the only way to reduce stressors; the person struggling with addiction ends up doing and saying things they will soon regret but cannot seem to stop on their own. Carnes aptly refers to this as the hijacked brain.

Once the brain is hijacked, the downward spiral of craving more and more dopamine affects higher-level thinking and reasoning. 

Let the healing begin

Healing for the betrayed partner begins with a formal disclosure process, ideally guided by certified sex addiction therapists. Betrayed partners often have difficulty making sense of their reality on their own. There are so many unanswered questions, and each question has 10 questions behind it. 

Betrayers are reluctant to answer questions because they fear the answers will cause the betrayed partner more harm and therefore will cause them harm. However, withholding information is what causes harm. Betrayed partners report difficulty getting the whole truth on their own. Even if their betrayer does break down and answer questions, they will not get the entire story because the betrayer is in denial — they are in denial that they are in denial! 

A formal disclosure process led by a certified sex addiction therapist is the best way to get the information necessary so that the betrayed partner can make the most important decision of their life: Will they stay in the relationship or leave? 

Partners who continue to be consumed with seeking information are tortured — not by the behavior but by their unrelenting quest to uncover all of the lies. Initially, information-seeking helps decrease panic and the horrible loss of power experienced after discovery of the betrayal. However, searching for information or signs of acting out quickly becomes all-consuming. Without intervention, intense emotions lead to faulty thinking, which becomes a force from within that fuels anger, rage and revenge. The powerful energy inside can be like a runaway train gaining speed until it crashes.  

Betrayed partners learn that betrayers live in a state of secret destructive entitlement. Education about the conditions that led to the betrayer’s choices and deception is essential for the betrayed partner’s healing. Still, it is in no way a justification or vindication of the betrayer’s egregious behavior.

It is complicated to understand that there are two truths for people who struggle with sex addiction: they love their partner (in the way they know love) and act out sexually with themselves or others. Betrayed partners come to understand that addiction is a division of the self. 

Reflection and reconstruction 

Betrayal trauma causes a fracture in the foundation of a relationship and the foundation of the self. The secrets, lies, gaslighting and deception throughout the relationship are a silent cancer that consumes the infrastructure. The most devastating aspect of discovery is that the entire system that holds the relationship together begins to collapse into itself.  

For the betrayed partner, healing involves self-reflection. Although they didn’t create the problem, their mental health requires them to face aspects of themselves that have been affected by infidelity and deception. During therapy, both partners face reality and let go of the illusion that theirs was a healthy marriage/relationship. They grieve what was lost and learn to let go of anger. Letting go creates space to build inner strength and accept love back into their hearts.  

Forgiveness

Healing of the mind, heart and soul can happen regardless of the magnitude of the deception. But in the absence of a healing/recovery process, the betrayed partner’s anger intensifies and can cause them to be further traumatized by sifting through emails, texts and conversations, asking for every minute detail of the affair. As anger ferments, it can lead to rage. Rage can wreak havoc on the body, leading to health problems. 

The solution is forgiveness. Many partners worry that they will be expected to forgive their betrayer. But forgiveness is not about forgetting nor is it about condoning bad behavior. Instead, forgiveness is a process of opting out of anger and the need for revenge — forgiving the human qualities that lead people to act in terrible ways. To be clear, forgiveness frees one’s heart from the prison of anger. Forgiveness is a decision that is made daily.

Release and restoration

After discovering a beloved’s infidelity and deception, and after accepting their own call to action, the betrayed partner turns inward and begins their own hero’s journey. This journey requires courage, loyalty and temperance. Each phase of the journey involves purifying, grinding down, shedding and brushing away unhealthy attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. The hero’s journey brings the betrayed to a state of purity and clarity. 

Eckhart Tolle described the “dark night of the soul” as a collapse of the perceived meaning that the individual gave to their life. The discovery of infidelity, deception and trickery causes a shattering of all that defined the betrayed partner’s life. Their accomplishments, activities and everything they considered important feels like they have been invalidated. 

At the bottom of the abyss, however, is salvation. The blackest moment is the moment where transformation begins. It is always darkest before the dawn. The only way to heal is to head straight into the fire toward restoration. 

The restoration phase is all about finding meaning in life again. This doesn’t mean the betrayed partner will no longer have any feelings of sadness or longing. But they will also have moments of happiness again. 

There are two tasks in this last phase of the hero’s journey: reclaiming their life with a new story that includes the bruises and scars bound together with integrity and pride, and restoring one’s self to wholeness. Before putting it all back together, partners must find their meaning in their own personal hero’s journey. To accomplish this, partners must discover how to make meaning out of suffering. 

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, asserted that even in the worst suffering, having a sense of purpose provides strength. He contended there is no hope to survive if suffering is perceived as useless. Finding purpose transforms suffering into a challenge. 

Frankl believed that in the worst of circumstances, there are two choices: 1) to assume that we cannot change what happens to us, leaving our only option to be a prisoner of our circumstance or 2) to accept that we cannot change what happened to us but that we can change our attitude toward it. A more potent, resilient, and positive attitude allows us to realize our life’s meaning. Through their hero’s journey, betrayed partners learn that their brokenness can lead to wisdom and deeper meaning in their lives.

 

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Allan J. Katz is a licensed professional counselor and certified sex addiction therapist. He is products co-chair at the Association for Specialists in Group Work and has written five books, including Experiential Group Therapy Interventions With DBT. Allan is the co-author, with Michele Saffier, of Ambushed by Betrayal: The Survival Guide for Betrayed Partners on Their Heroes’ Journey to Healthy Intimacy. He can be reached on his website, AllanJKatz.com.

Michele Saffier is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified sex addiction therapist and supervisor. As clinical director and founder of Michele Saffier & Associates, she and her clinical team have worked with couples, families, betrayed partners and people recovering from sexually compulsive behavior for 24 years. As co-founder of the Center for Healing Self and Relationships, she facilitates outpatient treatment intensives for individuals, couples and families healing from the impact of betrayal trauma. She can be reached at her website, TraumaHealingPa.com.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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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.

Behind the scenes with a counselor-in-training

By Allison Hauser June 2, 2022

I put my phone down then put my hands on my head. What wasn’t my loved one getting about me being too drained to listen or utter a reply, much less give my input?

I sighed, resourced and breathed. Then, I put those same hands on the keyboard. In the engine I searched, “What it’s like to be a therapist-in-training.”

No results.

OK, “graduate student therapist … what to expect?”

Nothing.

OK, how about, “day in the life of a therapist … real experience.”

Nothing.

Oh, come on.

The resounding collective silence made my internal ruckus clang that much louder.

I had spent my entire day attuned to clients’ emotional, physical and spiritual mise-en-scènes, translating their output through my being to churn out guidance. I was out of processing. Feedback loops fried. I really needed someone else to come through for me. Please, just take one look at me and paraphrase my inner experience in a simple way. Show me you understand that I come as I am and, oh, while we’re here, if you don’t mind telling me where it is that I am …

But who will “therapize” the therapist? Typically, it’s another therapist (and then that therapist sees their therapist, who sees their therapist, and so on, until maybe that therapist sees the original and the ouroboros ingests its tail).

But my therapy appointment was on Friday. Plus, therapy requires talking, feeling and thinking, and like I said, I’m fresh out of all of that.

So, where was that quick listicle online that I could point to like, “Yes, that. That’s what’s going on”?

No processing. Just a gentle whoosh of the paper plane “Share” button and I could go night-night.

That listicle wasn’t anywhere to be found. No whoosh. (I went night-night anyway.)

The next morning, sheer frustration, chutzpah and divine guidance kicked in and wrote that article for me … and for you.

If you’re a counselor-in-training, licensed clinician or healer looking for an article to share when you’re too tired to explain to a loved one what’s going on for you, here’s that link.

If you’re a client, future counselor or that loved one … maybe this will provide insight into what’s going on for us behind the scenes.

I’m a year and a half into my master’s in counseling training. Here’s what it’s really like to be a counselor-in-training.

 

1) It really is training. Consider graduate school an initiation. I have sat in Indigenous, shamanic ceremonies and heard stories of their rigorous apprenticeships. It’s like that, but a Western version. You will be matched with a site supervisor, a school supervisor and many other supervisors as your guides. You will attend your own therapy. You will sit present with clients for hundreds of hours. You will have to sit with yourself for thousands.

2) There will never be any real “time off.” Even in the moments in which you say, “All right, this is it! My day to relax! Time to chill …” you will notice with keen sensitivity all the ways in which you can’t relax and don’t know how. Then you will process this, deep dive into your family of origin and cultural programming, and before you know it, instead of watching a dumb show on Netflix (nothing emotional, please!), you will find yourself Googling the unconscious mechanisms that fostered your patterns. Super relaxing.

Seahorse Vector/Shutterstock.com

You will finally log off of Zoom client calls for the day, only to start analyzing your housemate’s behavior based on a theoretical orientation you just learned. This will be hard to turn off and will be discomforting. I can’t unsee it, but am I really seeing what I think I am? Try on a different lens and the story changes … can’t unsee that either.

You will crave turning off your emotions. You will see all the ways in which you try to escape them. You will long for an hour of laughing with people who do their own inner work and won’t tell you anything that they need or are working on emotionally.

You will shudder when someone randomly approaches you for “free therapy.” Please, no, anything but that! You will be taken aback when you understand a friend’s patterns with greater insight yet incur mental jet lag when you’re still not quite sure what to do with said insight.

3) Be prepared to be called out. Confronted. Often. All the time. By supervisors, clients, textbooks, yourself — and then in relationship with partners, the earth, the cosmos. As you learn to deeply listen without reacting, you will become like an empty vessel. You will become detached from the self to observe You. You will assess yourself as if you were a case conceptualization. Am I, too, a clinical summary? Who is this captured on the page? This will feel dissociative and healing all at once.

Be prepared to knock your ego down by all of the notches. You will undergo ego death often, in the psychological and spiritual senses. Your core beliefs of who you are will be revealed to be an illusion, a veil you picked up somewhere but to which you have no authentic attachment. What even is this belief, and why is it in the back of my psychic closet?

There will be periods of absolutely no connection to something bigger, then times in which you can understand it all. Then, times in which you understand absolutely nothing again. If you can laugh at this, good.

You will begin to find ways to surrender — and see all the ways in which you don’t. You will question how you do everything. And I mean everything. How you react, communicate, talk, move, why you give, why you resent. Anything you do can and will be used (by you) to analyze you.

4) Relationships may require adaptation. You will sometimes log off of client calls and not be able to make eye contact with your family. You will need to learn to take a walk after work to clear your head and, realistically, sometimes you won’t be able to. Hi, uh, does my soul still shine through my bleary eyes?

Your loved ones may not understand why you can’t take their calls. Ugh. Or why you’re cold. Oof. Or why you’re tired beyond measure. Oh my. This can be isolating, but you also have such a deep understanding of others that you empathize with them too. Sure thing. Yet you can’t reach over that gap and extend yourself any further. You may feel powerless to show love when your cups (your capacities) are not filled. I’m sorry, not right now. We are experiencing an unusually high call volume. Please leave a message.

You will sometimes not have time for other relationships. You will think you have to focus on work and clients, but then you realize you can take clients only as far as you have gone. Your breakthroughs personally will carry over to your work professionally. The only way out is through — with everyone.

You will suddenly have very little capacity to hear of toxicity in others’ relationships. You will also stop coaching them through it and tell it to them straight or nod and stay in your lane. You’ll discover your limits and an enormous amount of reserve you didn’t know you had.

You will crave non-counselor-client interactions. You will cling to anyone with a light energy. You will want so badly to be friends with nontherapists, yet therapists will be the only ones who understand you in a certain way. This will be confusing and bittersweet and insular, but brilliant.

5) You will need to find new, stronger ways to self-care. You will feel frustrated when you rigorously tend to your cups and yet another client, assignment or shadow pings you into another learning lesson. You will feel like you can never fill your cups back up. This will feel daunting.

Sometimes you won’t be able to laugh or cry or respond to text messages. You’ll crave the simple things — being barefoot in dirt, the wind of spring, the blooms on the tree outside. Mother blooms, good day to you. You will stare and talk to the flowers and water the bushes. Nurture me as I nurture you. You will deepen your sense of connection to Source (God, Higher Power). Thank you.

You will have to learn what it’s like in your body to feel infiltrated by unfamiliar energies — those emanating from others both past and present, and from their past and present. You’ll have to learn how to clear those energies out of your system daily or hourly. You’ll have to remember what it’s like to feel your own energy and not get swept away in others’ emotions and stories. You’ll have to come back to yourself before you can approach friends, family and partners or you will transfer that energy onto them unwittingly. I won’t be perfect, as this is a practice.

6) Expect transformation and lots of it. If you used to undergo spiritual ceremonies, you will realize that you may no longer “need” this in the way you once thought. Every day will be a journey. Every moment carries potency and preciousness. You will also realize that I am the medicine. As you move through your own stuff, your desire for duty will expand. It is time to pay it forward — and backward.

Your grittiest shadows will emerge with a vengeance. This will be a daily confrontation, and you will need to learn to perceive this activation and flooding as “grist for the mill.” You will need to befriend any and all parts of you so that you can show up with minimal reaction and bias. Hello, demons, my old friends!

Sometimes you will fail at this and react “at” a client. Prepare to fail often. Practice being comfortable with failure. Perk up your ears the way you would with a client when your reactions to failure arise. As you evolve, listen for how these reactions change over time from hissing to droning to cooing.

They will tell you to trust the process, but the process will feel long and harrowing and may grow darker before lighter. You will cling to your faith, self-resourcing and anything that gives you center. Sometimes those things will stop soothing, and you will feel lost. Time to find other ways to come back to my inner home. There will be times when you no longer have any pacifier to ease the fuss. I accept everything I am feeling, including the lack of any current or future promise of relief. I am here with me, with it all. If you let it, this is where your power emerges in full.

There will be moments of immense breakthrough. This can be just as overwhelming as the breakdowns. You will find a newfound sense of joy, hope, peace and contentedness within. You may also suddenly see all the ways in which you were previously stuck for so long and mourn that. But then you will be filled with an immense pride for your commitment to tread and gratitude for all of your teachers, including the so-called stuckness. Sometimes you will go through periods of breakdown and breakthrough 10 times in the same day. This vacillation will ooze into your dreams, which you will record and analyze to the nth degree before reaching a point of humorous acceptance. Maybe there’s no meaning to those burnt pieces of toast I forgot to put jelly on before high school math class in space after all.

7) There will be times where you want to quit — don’t. This would be doing you a disservice. You know too much now about how and when and why you wish to quit. Learning to sabotage the self-sabotage will be next level. No subterfuge permitted within the self. This will make you impermeable to any kind of manipulation. Yet you will have to watch that you are too good at seeing, and sometimes (rarely) you will see things that aren’t there. A mirage or my intuition? You will have to remain flexible to understand that not everything is a pattern or a pattern that you have seen before. In yourself included. Wise, yet wise enough to be open to the new.

You will have periods of feeling inside-out. You will have moments where you absolutely cannot under any circumstances go any further. You will have crushing days yet accept that this is your path regardless of the weight. There will be days of endless criticism and then days of affirming gratitude for your skills. There will be days where your clients cling to you, or hate you, or make you the villain in their story. Go ahead and do what you need to do. You will feel invincible when you understand that it’s not about you and terrible when you take it to heart when you know that you “shouldn’t.” You will find compassion for yourself in all moments, the same way you do for clients.

You will start to see this work pay off in your own relationships. You will carry yourself with a more confident, happier energy. You will heal yourself and others. This is the work, and the work will ripple onto itself. You will feel a sense of mastery in “moving through” in all your messy glory. I know with my entire being who I am and what I am capable of. Always have and always will be. You will integrate this grace. I trust that I can navigate all types of waters.

You will feel freer than you did before you came here to training. You will understand that you have always, already been on this path. You will understand that there is no deviating from destiny.

As healers, we heal ourselves, but we also heal each other, together. The “You” here is really me. And the me, you.

Whoosh.

 

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Allison Hauser (she/they) is a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling with Northwestern University. At the time of writing this, they are completing their master’s-level internship and are set to graduate in 2023. In addition to being a counselor-in-training, consultant, speaker and writer, Allison walks the lifelong paths of professional international artist, healer, spiritualist, activist and musician. Find their work at allisonhauser.com, connect with them on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube, and contact them at allisonhauser2023@u.northwestern.edu.

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