Monthly Archives: August 2022

Counseling Connoisseur: Fostering female mentorship in counseling

By Cheryl Fisher August 31, 2022

My cell phone lights up with a text from my 15-year-old client. He is mad at his parents who are constantly arguing and often use him as a pawn, and he has skipped school to make a point. He took his bike and rode to a local convenience store. His text says, “I will show them!”

In the process of calling my client, I get another call: It is his father. The call goes to voicemail, and he leaves a message saying that he is worried because his son left a note that he is running away. He has called the police and wonders if I have heard from his son.

I am torn. I want to maintain the trust of my client, but I also recognize that he is a minor and could be putting himself in harm’s way. His parents are extremely dysfunctional and are no doubt blaming each other for their son’s disappearance.

I take a deep breath and then pull up the phone numbers of three women who have served as my professors, clinical supervisors and now dear friends. I text, “I need a consult now. Are you available?” Within seconds my phone lights up again. When I answer, I hear the calm voice of one of my mentors. I summarize the situation and my concerns. She reiterates that my client is a minor and regardless of how dysfunctional the estranged parents are, they need to know the location of their son. After processing with her, I decide to call the father and provide him with the son’s location. I also point out for the 100th time that he and his ex-wife need to seek counseling to better navigate co-parenting because the current situation is too stressful for their son. The father thanks me and hangs up.

I immediately call my client to let him know that his father is on his way to find him and to give the client space to diffuse from the morning’s event. I apologize for the breach of his confidence and remind him that as a minor he could be in harm’s way by running off. I validate his frustration. And I ask for his forgiveness. He pauses a moment and then says, “Yeah, I figured you’d have to tell my parents. I am mad … but not at you. We’re good!” Then he sees his dad’s car pull into the parking lot and says, “I guess I’ll see you in session.”

I let out the breath that I felt like I had had been holding since my client’s initial text and call my mentor to thank her for the consultation and support.

The benefits of mentorship

Mentorship is when a more experienced person provides guidance to a less experienced person. The relationship may be formal (e.g., programs for emerging leaders) or informal (e.g., naturally occurring relationships that may develop between student and faculty). In a 2011 article published in Counselor Education and Supervision, L. DiAnne Borders and colleagues found informal mentoring relationships to be more “visible, meaningful, comfortable, individualized, effective, and long-lasting.”

Stephanie Maccombs and Christine Bhat, in 2020 article published in the Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, identified two areas where mentorship relationships can be most impactful: career development and psychosocial development. In addition to providing a way for the mentee to make connections in the industry, research consistently finds that engaging in a mentoring relationship is associated with positive outcomes for both mentor and mentee. For example, people who receive mentoring are more likely to experience career satisfaction and advancement. Additionally, students in mentoring relationships are more likely to complete dissertations and take advantage of professional leadership and research opportunities. This is especially true for female students.

Women in counselor education

Currently, there is not much data on women’s leadership in higher education. Ashley Gray, a senior analyst for the American Council on Education (ACE), studies leadership patterns in higher education and recommends that a deeper dive into the intersectionality of identities and experiences are needed to inform policy and practice of higher education (see Gray’s article in the 2021 edition of ACE’s International Briefs for Higher Education Leaders).

Although there are more women enrolled in higher education and appointed to junior faculty roles, too few female leaders exist in counselor education. Female leadership styles have historically been found to emphasize collaboration and teamwork which tend to promote innovation, and we need more innovative and transformative leadership to help navigate the existing challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.


Systemic barriers

Women in higher education must often navigate competing efforts. These include balancing family and work responsibilities, navigating pregnancy and childbirth with the tenure time frame, and establishing relational networks that may be diminished by a patriarchal social structure. The pandemic further highlighted and exacerbated gender inequities: The increase in virtual learning brought the classroom into the home and caused women in higher education to navigate remote work and child care.

In their article “Only second-class tickets for women in the COVID-19 race. A study on manuscript submissions and reviews” (published in PLoS ONE in 2021), Flaminio Squazzoni and colleagues used the term “she-cession” to describe the disproportionate gender disadvantages created by the pandemic. Women submitted fewer manuscripts, participated in less research and applied for fewer research grants during the pandemic. However, there appeared to be an opposite impact on men in higher education, with more men publishing academic works during the pandemic.

Challon Casto and colleagues noted in their 2005 article published in the Journal of Counseling & Development that female counselor educators often lack the inside knowledge of internal structures and politics across department and university structures. This places women at a disadvantage in traditional “good old boy” systems that thrive on strong networks. The authors recommended creating a formal and informal system that connects female graduate students and marginalized students with mentors to help navigate the unspoken rules of graduate school and advancement.

Women’s Inclusion Mentorship Framework

Maccombs and Bhat created the Women’s Inclusion Mentorship Framework (WIMF), a model of mentorship specifically for women in counselor education programs. The WIMF provides mentorship opportunities and leadership development to any interested female student or faculty member. Based on their extensive review of research of higher education and mentorship in counselor education, Maccombs and Bhat identified four areas emphasized in the WIMF approach: (a) a relational-cultural focus, (b) quality mentors and mentor-mentee matches, (c) vision and plan development and (d) mentoring interventions specific to counseling and women.

A relational-cultural focus

Research consistently finds that mentorship relationships in counselor education contribute to psychosocial and clinical growth and, as noted by Maccombs and Bhat, to “a sense of empowerment, increased insight, increased self-efficacy” that results in mutual respect and empathy. Therefore, Maccombs and Bhat recommend that mentorship relationships are fostered between mentor and mentees who self-identify as women. Women mentors emphasize nurturing the relationship and encourage interconnectedness and the sharing of empowerment and authenticity. Interventions in line with this approach include self-reflection, self-care, connection to groups (such as in group writing) and recognition of the collective accomplishments of other women in the academic community.

Quality mentors and mentor-mentee matches

Quality mentorship can be challenging. Faculty are inundated with responsibilities and even the most well-intended mentor may fall short if they do not have the time to commit to the relationship. Additionally, incompatible pairing can be frustrating to both mentor and mentee. Mentors need ongoing training and support to be effective and sustainable. Maccombs and Bhat suggest that female mentors actively recruit other women in counselor education programs to a meet-and-greet event at the beginning of the academic year. This approach allows for an informal connection to occur organically between mentor and mentee, as mentors and mentees exchange information regarding research interests and academic and leadership experiences. And it also reduces the chances of incompatible pairing.

Vision and plan development

Maccombs and Bhat also recommend that that counselors outline the expectations of the mentorship relationship. Research indicates that clear expectations are associated with a more effective and satisfying mentorship experience. Additionally, mentees are encouraged to identify clear indicators of their academic and career vision. These could include increasing industry networking or scholarships such as publications or conference presentations. In addition to performance indicators, leader attributes and behaviors can be explored in a more measurable approach by using Chi Sigma Iota’s Principles and Practices of Leadership Excellence or the Dynamic Leadership in Counseling Scale — Self- Report (developed by W. Bradley McKibben and colleagues).

Mentoring interventions specific to counseling and women

Maccombs and Bhat encourage counselor education departments to consider allowing two to four hours of dedicated mentoring time a month. A flexible meeting schedule that works best for the mentor and mentee will be more successful. Additionally, a family-friendly approach that allows for child-care options or virtual meetings will be supportive of female mentees and mentors who may be caregivers. Service, research and teaching success include learning how to navigate these demands and other obligations. During pre-enrollment interviews, I encourage student applicants to approach their graduate degree as a “family degree” by recruiting the support of their partners, friends and family members in a variety of ways, including outsourcing some tasks and setting healthy boundaries. For example, family members can help with setting timers for lunch breaks on the weekend when the graduate student is immersed in research and writing papers.

According to Maccombs and Bhat, additional strategies around research and service include “being persistent, … avoiding personalizing the barriers, staying true to one’s personal plan or vision, and engaging in self-care.” It also helps if you are surrounded by a support system who can cheer you on during challenging times, such as dissertation editing.

Focusing on service activities that align with your areas of expertise or personal interests can create an extension of your personal worldview. My research interest in nature therapy, for example, has led me to be more engaged in sustainable ways and serve as the Green Office Ambassador for my counseling program. In this role, I helped the department identify ways to be more responsible with resources and sustainable in practices.

Finally, creating an environment of collaboration will aid in accessing the resources and knowledge to be successful in scholarship, teaching and service. Recently, I identified an area for growth at my university around research support for online faculty, who are mostly women in my department. I met with executive leadership and discussed my observations and suggestions. This resulted in plans to form a student and faculty clearinghouse for resources (e.g., research projects, grant opportunities) and a forum for trainings and mentorship on research development, implementation and publication.


Research indicates that mentorship relationships promote growth and satisfaction, professionally and personally. Women are often disadvantaged by historical academic and professional structures. But the WIMF provides one approach to capitalize on the mentorship relationship between women.

I have been fortunate in my career because I have always been surrounded by wise and empowered women. Women who dared to offer their secrets of success and wisdom in mentorship. They have shaped me professionally, informed me clinically and ultimately transformed me personally.

Whether it was providing me with feedback to hone my clinical skills, observing and ever so gently illuminating countertransference observed in a session, or simply bearing witness to my struggles of navigating work, family and graduate school, these women crafted a web of support as well as strategy that continues to sustain me as a clinician, counselor educator and administrator of a counselor education program.

I am forever grateful to the wise women who not only taught me how to be a strong clinical counselor but also guided me into my role as a counselor educator so that I may also mentor women entering the field of counseling.


In appreciation to my mentors, Sharon Cheston, Gerry Fialkowski and Rev. Anne Stewart.



Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and associate professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online master’s in clinical counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at


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.

Breaking the silence around the childhood sexual abuse of Black men

By Lisa R. Rhodes August 30, 2022

In October 2019, Tyler Perry, the multimillionaire writer, actor, and movie and television producer, shared painful details from his childhood in an interview with People magazine. “I don’t think I ever felt safe or protected as a child,” Perry recounted, as he explained how his father, who he later learned was not his biological father, routinely beat him with a vacuum cord.

In addition to the physical abuse, Perry disclosed that by the time he was 10 years old, he had been sexually abused by three different men and a woman — all of whom were known by his family. 

“It was rape,” Perry said in the interview. “I didn’t know what was going on or the far-reaching effects of it.”

Perry is not the only Black male public figure to reveal that he was sexually abused as a child. Other Black male public figures, such as gospel singer Donnie McClurkin, have come forward to reveal the harmful impact of this early trauma. Despite these public disclosures, the silence that surrounds the childhood sexual abuse of Black men is deafening. 

“In many homes and social circles, the topic is still avoided — it’s taboo,” says Robin D. Stone, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. “In some cases, men haven’t shared with anyone that they’ve had this experience, that they have this history.”

The fact that it is taboo means that Black boys who have been sexually abused rarely, if ever, tell anyone that they have been violated and the silence continues into adulthood. Stone, a member of the American Counseling Association, says the impact of childhood sexual abuse on Black men leaves them with psychological wounds that they learn to “pack away” for years.

The silence surrounding this issue makes it difficult to know how pervasive it is. According to a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 boys in the United States were sexually abused before age 18. And the Children’s Assessment Center acknowledges that race and ethnicity are key factors, with Black children being almost twice more likely to experience child sexual abuse than white children. 

Rebekah Montgomery, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Dove’s Heart Counseling LLC, a practice with offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Detroit, agrees that sexual assault and any form of sexual abuse are rarely discussed in the Black community.

“You can learn proper coping skills, you can reframe your brain, but it is still going to be something that can trigger later in life,” says Montgomery, an ACA member who counsels Black male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “When you awaken those sexual feelings as a child, especially before puberty, you develop unhealthy ideas about what sex is and what’s appropriate and not appropriate.”

Building trust and safety

The counselors interviewed for this article all agree that to build rapport with Black male clients, counselors must be willing to engage in direct, honest and open communication, which creates an environment where the men feel safe enough to trust the therapeutic process. 

“I feel when they come [to counseling], they want to say something [about the sexual abuse], but you have to build their trust because they live in a country where — because of the color of their skin — they don’t trust because things have worked against them in very purposeful ways,” says Damion Davis, a licensed professional counselor in Addison, Texas. 

“In some cases, African American men don’t trust counselors who are of a different race than they are because they assume that there won’t be a cultural understanding,” he adds. “If there’s not a cultural understanding, then they don’t feel comfortable disclosing things.” 

Davis focuses on creating a strong relationship with his clients. During the first session, he works to establish trust with his clients by asking them about their family connections, where they went to school or college, and where they grew up. He also allows clients to ask him questions, such as about his credentials and educational background. And he keeps a photo of his wife and daughter in his office to remind clients that he is human.

“It’s about mutual transparency,” says Davis, an ACA member and founder of the Davis Counseling Center PLLC. 

Montgomery says a personal connection is also important in her efforts to build rapport with clients. She discusses the ethics of counseling, confidentiality and her responsibility to ensure a client’s physical and emotional safety with every client who comes into her office. She also lets clients know that during therapy they can express whatever thoughts or feelings they may have.

“My office is a judgment-free zone. All thoughts and emotions are welcome,” Montgomery says. “I like the office to feel comfortable enough for you [the client] to feel the way you need to feel, at least for that hour.”

Montgomery says she is also open to clients asking questions about her credentials and counseling experience. “They want to know they’re in good hands,” she says. “They need to get to know me just as well as I need to get to know them.”

Counselors should also acknowledge if there’s a gender or racial/ethnic difference between the counselor and client, advises Stone, owner and founder of Muse and Grace Mental Health Counseling Services in New York City. Acknowledging any differences upfront can help create a safe space for male clients to share their experience or to ask the counselor questions, she explains.

“If there’s an elephant in the room, talk about it,” she says. “It’s there whether you name it or not.” 

Montgomery recommends counselors “take on the role of an expert learner” when providing treatment for clients of diverse backgrounds. “You have to be aware enough to listen and learn and apply your therapeutic techniques on a case-by-case basis,” she says. “It has to be an equal exchange of awareness, growth and learning to make it comfortable and [to] help them feel comfortable in the therapeutic environment.”

Disclosing the abuse

The results of this early trauma can lead Black men to seek counseling — but for reasons other than sexual abuse. Montgomery says some of the reasons why Black men come to her practice include anger management, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunctions. Clients may come to counseling because they were caught looking at pornography while they were at work and are in danger of losing their jobs or because they’re having intimacy problems with their wives, she adds. 

Although these symptoms can often be traced to childhood sexual abuse, many men are often unaware of the origins of their problems, Montgomery notes. “During the therapeutic process, experiences with sexual assault emerge and often get identified as a feasible cause of their mental and emotional concerns,” she says.

The counselors interviewed for this article say a client’s reaction to the realization of childhood sexual abuse can result in a tacit attempt to accept the trauma, conflicted feelings about the experience, doubts about their intrinsic worth or concerns about their sexual orientation.

“Sometimes it’s a confirmation,” Montgomery says. “They’ve already been kicking around the idea. They never thought of it [the trauma] as being [sexual] abuse, but after we confirm that they were sexually abused, they say, ‘Yeah, I kind of figured it.’”

Montgomery says confirming childhood sexual abuse often starts with asking clients how the experience made them feel. “Most Black men recognize that the sexual abuse can cause conflicting feelings,” she says. “At the time of the abuse, they may have been conflicted by their physical enjoyment and the emotional toll the abuse left.” 

“Most men never disclose their sexual experiences, so we explore the unspoken rule of keeping the abuse a secret,” she continues. “We explore [state] laws that define sexual abuse/assault, including the age of consent, the difference between molestation and rape, and [the] potential consequences for someone who sexually abuses children.” 

Davis, a clinical assistant professor of counseling at Southern Methodist University, says he is often the first person his clients have told about their abuse. “It’s really hard [for them] to accept the fact that the abuse happened because it leads to feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacies and, of course, anger,” he notes. “They feel this way because being sexually abused for them is very emasculating. It makes them question their manhood. A lot of people, but definitely Black men, like to feel a sense of control.” But when the abuse happened, they felt they had no control over their circumstances, Davis says. 

It’s OK to express emotion 

Counselors may first have to help Black men understand that they are allowed to have feelings and emotions about the experience. Stone, author of No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, notes that boys, particularly Black boys, are raised to believe that expressing emotions and anything other than the binary feelings of anger/happiness or weakness/strength is not allowed. 

The taboo about childhood sexual abuse is so persistent because “many boys continue to be socialized in ways that leave them little room to be vulnerable and to express vulnerability,” Stone says. “If they aren’t able to access their feelings, they struggle socially and grow up to be men who struggle socially.”

Montgomery notes that hiding or suppressing emotions has been a survival strategy for African Americans, especially boys and men. Historically, expressing feelings or emotions carries a serious threat of violence and death — from lynching to being shot or killed by the police, she says. 

Montgomery learned that Black men can put up a wall of defense against feelings and emotions when conducting research for her doctoral dissertation, which explored connections between the low use of professional mental health services by Black men in the inner city and their exposure to chronic trauma.

“I was pretty shocked by the results,” she says. All 10 of the men she interviewed for the study recognized that they had experienced some form of trauma, such as police brutality, violence and the implications of racism. But they did not consider how being guarded toward others, expressing pent-up anger, being defensive or declining to address mental health issues such as depression or anxiety can be a problem, she says. 

Montgomery says the men responded to the trauma by developing a “coat of protection” that served as a valuable tool for survival. And she says she sees this same “coat of protection” in Black men who have survived childhood sexual abuse. Her study reinforces the importance of helping this clientele to express and process their feelings and emotions. 

When clients have a hard time expressing how they feel about the abuse or don’t know what word or words may fit what they are thinking or feeling, Montgomery asks them to do a Google search for “feeling words” on their smartphone, and then together they explore educational websites (such as that list different feeling words, along with charts and pictures, to help them define the word or words that best describe their emotions or feelings. 

Some clients have a limited vocabulary to describe their feelings, Montgomery says, and this exercise helps them overcome that by increasing their vocabulary and awareness about the complexity of emotions. For example, they learn that sadness can also be described as disappointment, and someone who is mad may be resentful. And it reminds clients that “they have emotions and feelings and its OK,” Montgomery adds.

“We spend time identifying emotions and giving them a name,” she continues, “and we try to find the word that best fills in the blank” of how they feel about a situation or experience.

After selecting a word from the list, discussing its meaning and talking about whether it matches their emotions or feelings, clients can say, “I’m feeling disrespected right now” or “I’m feeling jealous right now.” And once clients can correctly name what they are feeling and understand its meaning, they will “always know what that feeling is in every situation,” including experiences from their past, Montgomery says. 

Monkey Business Images/

She also recommends using trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) with this population. Although TF-CBT is typically used with clients who are under the age of 18, she says these techniques can also be beneficial for Black men who have experienced childhood sexual trauma because it will help them learn healthier ways to cope with the trauma. This approach allows them to process their feelings and emotions rather than avoid them, reframe thoughts and behaviors resulting from the trauma, develop new behaviors and skills that bring a more desired or healthier outcome, and create healthy relationships, she explains. 

Stone says that incorporating poetry and bibliotherapy into treatment can also help survivors process emotions. She often uses James Pennebaker’s expressive writing framework with clients who have experienced trauma. “His research shows that expressive writing helps to ease psychological and physical symptoms related to trauma and other disturbing experiences,” she notes.

This framework asks “the client to write their deepest emotions and thoughts about a disturbing experience for 15 to 20 minutes a day over four days,” Stone says. “I then invite them to reflect on what they wrote (not necessarily to share it with me) and to consider how what they wrote makes them feel, where they feel it in their body and what, if any, changes they may want to make in the way they think or in the way they are living.”

To help clients connect to a fuller spectrum of feelings, Stone also has clients practice connecting their experiences to feelings and then their feelings to bodily sensations. She uses a feeling wheel, similar to the one developed by Gloria Willcox, to help clients explore what their body feels like when they experience certain emotions such as insecure, embarrassed, bored or proud. This helps the client identify feelings and “become more fluent” in expressing how they feel, Stone explains.

Davis recommends counselors normalize clients’ feelings of anger, shame, guilt or embarrassment about the abuse. Normalization, he explains, helps to break down the stigma  associated with being a survivor of child sexual abuse. “It helps them to know that they were victimized, but they are not victims,” he says.

Counselors need to affirm these clients, Davis says, and let them know they can work through the trauma of the experience and deconstruct some of the negative stigma that is tied to being a Black man who was molested. 

“I tell them [clients] how they feel is appropriate because someone has taken advantage of them and together, we’re going to build them up from there,” he says. “I let them know they’re not the only man who has gone through this. … I remind them that the worse part of what they’ve gone through is over. They are in recovery mode.”

Reframing the narrative 

Davis uses narrative therapy to encourage clients to tell their own story about the abuse. This approach, he says, can help clients “define the trauma in their own words and control the details of it.” He says it’s not necessary for him to know the exact details of the sexual act, but it is important to hear the client’s story because survivors attach meanings to the experience and to the abuser.

“Many times, they don’t realize that the meanings they have attached are very negative and they assign it to themselves. They don’t assign it to the abuser,” he notes. So he works with clients to help them explore the meanings they have attached to the experience, and together they begin to pull away the layers so clients can see what happened to them without assigning negative thoughts and feelings to themselves.

Davis also encourages clients to “think about their thinking” and “put negative thoughts on trial.”

He once worked with a client in his 30s who was molested by another man when he was a teenager. When disclosing the abuse, the client said, “I should have known better.” 

Davis helped the client put that thought on trial. They discussed how the client felt sad, embarrassed and angry at himself because he thought he should have known how to prevent the abuse. Davis then asked him, “What evidence do you have that this thought is true?” 

Davis also asked the client to image a child who is the same age he was when the abuse occurred and if he would blame that child for being sexually abused by someone they trusted. The client said he wouldn’t blame that child. So Davis asked, “But you blame yourself?”

Reframing the issue in this way, Davis recalls, helped the client consider alternative truths about his own abuse and realize he was being unfair to himself in his thoughts and feelings about the abuse. 

Montgomery says she tries to reframe unhealthy behaviors in her work with clients who have been sexually abused. One client, in his late 40s, came to see Montgomery because he was angry and didn’t know why he felt this way or how to process those feelings. The client did not recognize that he had been sexually abused as a child or that his feelings of anger were due to the death of his abuser, she says. 

This particular case was complex, Montgomery continues, because the client grew up in an environment wherehe was exposed to women in the adult sex industry, and from the time he was a teenager, some of these women routinely had sex with him. Crime and violence were also a part of his environment, which compounded the trauma, she adds.

Montgomery learned that he had also been abused by a female family member, but he viewed all of these sexual experiences as a “rite of passage” into manhood. Montgomery says the client told her that he’d had sex with “hundreds of women,” but he did not recognize that legally he had been violated by his female sex partners. 

Black men often have a hard time seeing being abused by a woman as sexual assault or rape, Montgomery explains. “If you’re sexually abused by a woman, it’s like, ‘Congratulations! Good for you,’” she says. 

Hypersexual behavior can be a response to the trauma of being abused as a child and it can lead to unhealthy behaviors if not addressed, Montgomery notes. This particular client did not understand how years of indiscriminate sex with multiple partners as a youth was an unhealthy behavior that posed a danger to his well-being, she says.

Montgomery used psychoeducation with him to discuss the risks of hypersexual behavior, such as sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, emotional baggage from multiple partners and problems with true intimacy in relationships.

Montgomery and the client also focused on harm reduction in session. She says they discussed what needs the client felt were being met when he had the desire to have sex with multiple partners and how he could meet those needs in another way. The client decided that when he felt the need for attention or to be loved, he would choose to have sex with only one or two partners rather than multiple women, go the gym or shooting range, or spend time with his children. 

The goal, she says, was to redirect the client’s energy from unhealthy behaviors to more positive choices. “We tried to help him tie his emotions to his behavior,” she explains, and to change that behavior so he wouldn’t cause harm to himself or others. 

Counselors may also have to help Black men who were sexually abused by a man process their feelings and emotions around their own sexual orientation. Because of negative stereotypes associated with homosexuality within the Black community, some Black men “may feel like their manhood was tainted because of what happened to them,” Davis says. Cognitive restructuring and psychoeducation about sexual orientation, he notes, can help clients articulate what their sexual desires are and learn that they, not the sexual abuse, define their sexuality. 

He also tells clients, “An experience that happened to you, that was not your choice or free will, doesn’t define your sexual orientation.” 

Reclaiming power 

Disclosing childhood sexual abuse can also result in victim blaming or self-blame, Stone notes, and blame can even come from peers or family members. There’s often the belief that the survivor “should have done something” to prevent the sexual act or in response to the abuse, she says. 

Stone advises counselors to help clients think about what it meant to be small and/or vulnerable and how much “social capital” they or the people who perpetrated the abuse had in their family or community. “I use ‘social capital’ to speak to the extent that one is known and trusted and has influence in a social dynamic, such as a family,” she explains. 

Boys are most often abused by someone who has social capital in the community, such as a coach, minister or family friend, Stone says. She suggests counselors discuss how much power or social capital the client thought they had in the situation by asking them, “Who do you think would have listened to you? Who might have taken you seriously? Who do you think would have been on your side if you had told them what had happened to you?”

Counselors can also acknowledge the strength it took for the client to survive the sexual abuse and to seek counseling, she adds. “It’s a radical act of self-care” to seek professional help, Stone notes, and counselors need to say so.

Davis says the low self-esteem that clients experience can also lead to feelings of fear and anxiety. “You feel you’re always on pins and needles because you’re waiting for the next thing to happen to you,” he explains. 

Davis uses imagery exercises and reframing thoughts to help men break from a victim mentality and reclaim their power. Approaching it this way allows clients to learn to “separate themselves from what happened to them,” he says. “I have them imagine who they were when the abuse happened, and I have them imagine who they are now, standing by that person.”

He also helps clients understand that because they were children when the abuse occurred, they couldn’t protect themselves. He then asks clients, “What are you and I going to do now to protect that 12-year-old you?” This question, Davis says, can lead to a discussion on ways the client can create healthy boundaries and a sense of safety so they aren’t afraid they will fall victim to sexual abuse again or be taken advantage of by others. 

“Many times, when a person experiences trauma, they get stuck there,” Davis says. “But I help them by reframing their thoughts and [bringing them] to the present day.”

Reaching out to black men

The counselors interviewed for this article all agree that the profession can do more to encourage Black men to come forward and seek mental health treatment. Montgomery suggests that counselors of diverse backgrounds and specialties advertise the fact that they treat people from marginalized groups and that they specifically treat men who have survived childhood sexual abuse. 

The Black men she interviewed for her doctoral study suggested some possible ways to improve the Black community’s access to mental health support services that she says can also apply to outreach efforts concerning sexual abuse for all Black men, particularly boys. These solutions include promoting the idea of positive mental health services in elementary schools; normalizing discussions about mental health, sexual abuse and other traumas; providing interventions for coping with and calming emotions early in life; and encouraging and normalizing help-seeking behaviors.

Counselors need to be “in places where Black men are,” Davis stresses. He plays in a basketball league with other Black men, and because many of them know that he is a counselor, they sometimes ask questions about mental health issues. When they do, he connects them with other mental health professionals who can help them. Davis also suggests clinicians reach out to universities and colleges, Black Greek fraternities and Black churches to find and connect with people who may be in need of counseling services. 

The counseling profession should reach out to Black men, he says, instead of waiting for this clientele to “reach out to us.”



Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


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.

Shawn E. Boynes: The right leader at the right time

Counseling Today August 29, 2022

ACA CEO Shawn E. Boynes

The American Counseling Association welcomed Shawn E. Boynes as the new chief executive officer on July 20. Boynes comes to ACA with more than 25 years of experience as an association executive. He spoke with Counseling Today and shared his leadership style, his vision for ACA and his excitement about the future of the counseling profession. 


What do you want ACA members to know about you?

I’m openly gay, approachable, easy going, authentic, transparent and a great listener who is solutions oriented. I also appreciate feedback because many years ago, I learned from a former manager that feedback is a gift. I’m open to it and I welcome it. We are embarking on creating the next life cycle for ACA, and in order to do that, I want members to fully engage in charting the course. This is your organization; I, along with staff, am a steward of it. 

What is your leadership style?

My leadership style and philosophy are best summarized as embracing innovation, creating positive change, being open to calculated risks, inspiring others to achieve the best outcomes and being transparent — all while exuding humility, sincerity and authenticity.

What skills do you bring to the CEO role?

I’ve spent over 25 years in the association management profession working for a broad variety of mission-driven organizations. Given my rich and diverse leadership experience, I’ve honed skills to identify opportunities for maximum impact. In my CEO role, that translates to listening more and using data to make informed decisions. Associations collect so much data from members, but unfortunately, they don’t often do a good job of applying that data across the organization, from the volunteer leadership to the staff levels, to help advance their goals. 

Another area I’m passionate about is amplifying the voice and great work of people who represent an industry or profession. It’s important to be bolder, louder and unrelenting in this current turbulent environment filled with noise and disruption. Why should anyone care about the work of an association and the members who belong to it if they don’t fully understand the impact both have on society. 

But the most important skill that I will bring to this role is support for the people who do the work on behalf of the members. I know how to create a collaborative environment and build teams that thrive. 

What will your first six months at ACA look like?

I plan to acknowledge the past, celebrate the present and prepare for the future. Specifically, my first six months at ACA will focus on immersion and discovery. I have already started my meet-and-greet “listening tour” to learn as much as I possibly can about ACA from Governing Council leaders, staff, stakeholders and other key partners. This also includes an organizational assessment to get up to speed on operations, financials, contracts, governance, and the overall portfolio of program and service offerings. 

What do you think is important in a successful organization?

Without question, transparency! People belong to associations because of shared interests and a strong belief in the mission. Meeting the myriad needs of people who choose to belong can be daunting but listening to and keeping your finger on the pulse of what those needs are will help the organization maintain a strong value proposition. Likewise, successful organizations must unequivocally embrace change. We all navigate change in different ways, but to remain relevant, you can’t keep doing the same things expecting different results, especially now. 

What does work-life balance look like for you?

This has taken me a really long time to figure out and I’m still a work in progress, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is to set and maintain boundaries. I work hard and give 100% because I enjoy what I do; however, I know there’s a point of diminishing returns. Working more doesn’t necessarily give you greater output. 

People are always shocked when I tell them that I’m an introvert because I project something different professionally. I am more talkative and outgoing at work. It’s a learned behavior that I leverage for career success and maximum effectiveness as a leader. But because it isn’t my natural disposition, I retreat at the end of too much social interaction.

I’m still learning how to adequately rest. In our “hustle” culture here in the United States, I don’t think we embrace rest enough. Being busy or always on the go has become normalized. It seems odd to say but I still struggle with moments when I don’t have obligations or anything to do. But if I’m not my best, recharged self, then I can’t give my best to my work and to those I support and serve. 

Exercise and travel are two ways that I maintain a work-life balance. Physical fitness is important because it helps relieve stress and keeps me healthy. Plus, I enjoy it. I’m also intentional about taking vacation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I would always take two weeks off during summers and travel internationally to a different country with friends. Quality time and shared experiences are unmatched when you’re with people you enjoy being around. 

What is something you learned on the job that you will take with you in this new role? 

Professional patience and empathy are both critical leadership skills that can’t be undervalued. Good leadership is knowing how to influence decisions and actions but that means meeting people where they are and sometimes it takes a while to move the needle and see progress. I’ve worked on significant projects that took years to come to fruition. The impact was still powerful; it just took longer than I wanted it to. But if I had not been patient, many of those projects would have stalled to the detriment of the organization and those who engage with it. 

Empathy became a necessary power skill for all leaders in 2020 when George Floyd was murdered and many of us were still struggling with the pandemic’s disruption to everyday life. Leaders also needed to be more vulnerable and many struggled to do so. But those who took the extra step to connect with their colleagues on a basic human level are better for it. As leaders, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable and leading with more emotion than what we’re used to. 

What are you most excited and nervous about in this new role? 

I’m most excited about leading a mental health organization in this moment when the world desperately needs the expertise of licensed professional counselors. Unlike any other time in modern history, mental health is at the forefront of overall human wellness. That’s a powerful statement but I know that ACA is primed to rise to this monumental challenge. To do so, we must create strategies, build capacity and foster collaborative relationships with the other mental health organizations in the community. 

I’m not really nervous about anything because I firmly believe that I’m the right leader for ACA at the right time. However, I know that following a long-tenured CEO is a tall order, but I’m ready!


Counseling a broken heart

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2022

Romantic breakups can be a painful process that often involves feelings of loss on many levels.

According to Jessica Rizk, a licensed professional counselor and supervisor who owns a private practice in Northern Virginia, initial feelings of loss after a breakup can occur in two phases, the first of which is the loss of routine. A person may acutely feel the loss of activities that brought them comfort and connection such as phone calls and texts from their partner, watching their favorite TV shows together or their usual morning coffee time.

As the breakup begins to sink in, the person may feel loss over what could have been, Rizk continues. This second phase may bring painful feelings about unmet expectations and the absence of a future with their partner — either one they imagined or one they discussed and planned as a couple.

These multifaceted feelings of loss can intertwine with anger, disappointment, vulnerability, regret, shame, betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness or even relief. In short, there can be a lot to unpack in counseling.

Rizk, a member of the American Counseling Association whose practice focuses on helping clients with relationship issues, recommends counselors start by offering empathic listening, which, she says, these clients need first and foremost. There is healing in being truly and completely heard, she notes.

“Clients may not feel they have the opportunity to get it all out to friends and family without judgment,” she explains. “Having an opportunity for the client to speak completely unfiltered is my main goal. Counseling is about talking about pain without judgment — even if they need to talk about something over and over.”

Although post-relationship heartbreak is not uncommon, Rizk aims to treat each client who seeks counseling after a breakup as if they are going through a new and unique experience. This includes prompting them to share how they met their ex, what drew them together and other details of the relationship, including its end. It’s important for clients to talk through the breakup — when they are ready — so they don’t get “stuck” in feeling angry and relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, she says.

As clients share, Rizk says she tries to stay as neutral as possible and reassures the client that they will not feel the sadness, anger or any other feelings they are experiencing forever. She often needs to gently explain to clients that they may never know what caused a breakup.

“Depending on how vulnerable and open the client is, some of them are coming to counseling to figure out the why. Others are unhappy with being single or are looking to figure out why it [painful breakups] keeps happening and they jump from relationship to relationship,” Rizk says. “I try and listen to their stories and pull out threads to bring into sessions and gently process together. … Each client will cope in a different way, and my desire is to walk alongside the client as if I’ve never heard this pain before.”

Wondering why

Clients sometimes come to counseling after a relationship ends to seek closure, says Kelly Weber, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who sees individual clients at her private practice in Phoenix, Arizona. They are often looking for help to move through a painful period that is full of difficult emotions and unresolved feelings about the relationship and its end. It can be a confusing and hurtful experience, she notes.

This can especially be the case, Weber says, if the breakup was unexpected, such as the discovery of infidelity, or the other person ended the relationship without much explanation. Inadequate closure — that feeling of having the rug pulled out from underneath you — can cause a person to replay scenarios over and over in their mind, wonder what happened, and question if it was their fault, she says.

For clients with a preexisting mental illness, a breakup can exacerbate their symptoms, especially rumination, self-doubt, intrusive thoughts and overthinking the “what-ifs,” Weber says. For some clients, this can lead to depressive episodes, trouble sleeping, weight loss or gain, isolation/withdrawal and distress to the point where it interferes with daily life. She has seen clients get to the point where their thoughts about the relationship and breakup are all-consuming and they are unable to get out of bed or meet their work responsibilities.

As with any client who is experiencing intense distress, Weber says that it’s important to ask clients who are experiencing a breakup about suicidal thoughts, including hopelessness or feeling like they can’t go on without their partner. In her experience, it’s not common for clients to answer in the affirmative, but “it’s important to ask the question,” she says.

Marquita Johnson, an LPC with a solo private practice in the greater Atlanta area, also notes that many of her clients are seeking closure when they come to counseling after a breakup. She reminds them that closure doesn’t have to be about getting answers from their ex; closure is for them, she says. 

To keep this focus, she often suggests that clients who are looking for answers about why a relationship ended write out their thoughts and feelings in a journal or compose a letter or email to their ex that does not have to be sent. She prompts them to reflect on what did and didn’t work for them in the relationship.

Johnson also provides psychoeducation on how clients may regress when they are triggered by contact with an ex or by something that reminds the client of the relationship and the time they spent together.

“They need to understand that it can be a roller coaster,” Johnson explains.

Johnson adds that clients may also need psychoeducation on how social media can trigger and worsen negative thoughts if a client continues to follow or look at an ex’s posts. She often spends time explaining that although it’s tempting to keep tabs on their ex’s life through social media, seeing their ex’s posts can prolong post-breakup pain and cause them to compare themselves or jump to conclusions on whether their former partner is happy or remorseful.

Working through loss

Kristyn Macala, a licensed professional clinical counselor at a trauma therapy practice that offers online counseling to clients in Ohio, stresses that these clients need a supportive and gentle approach. If a counselor tries to put a positive spin on the breakup, prompting the client to identify good things that came out of a relationship before they are ready, they are likely to stop coming, she says.

Instead, Macala tries to create an environment for these clients to “feel however they need to feel” after a breakup.

“For me, the most important thing is creating the space, the rapport and the connection [with a client], so they feel comfortable and know that we can take our time, and that’s OK,” says Macala, who specializes in sex and couples counseling.

Macala uses psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief model with clients experiencing heartbreak. When describing this concept to clients, she refers to these five stages as “tasks of mourning” because even though their ex is alive, they are still mourning the loss of a person they loved. Kübler-Ross’ model can help them accept the reality of the loss and the pain that comes with it as well as come to terms with a world where they are no longer a partner to that person, Macala explains.

“If the relationship was a ‘first’ in some way (e.g., first relationship, first relationship with a partner with a certain identity or characteristics, first sexual partner or committed partnership), the loss may be particularly painful because they likely had expectations and dreams that were unfulfilled and made personal sacrifices to invest in the relationship,” says Naomi J. Wheeler, an assistant professor and director of the Family and Relational Stress and Health (FReSH) Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It can be tempting for a counselor to try to make a client feel better after a breakup, but the best support is the kind that honors all feelings as valid in the process of healing and taps into the client’s own internal wisdom, says Wheeler, an LPC in Virginia and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. This includes the ups and downs of vacillating between hating a former partner and loving them, feeling lost and lonely, or feeling free and empowered.

Rizk often prompts clients to describe and explore their feelings of loss by asking them to tell her the story of their relationship, from beginning to end. This gives counselors an opportunity to listen for “sticking points” that may need further attention later in therapy, she explains. In fact, the language they use to describe their situation often provides a lot of context, Rizk says. For example, she listens for phrases such as:

  • “I don’t know what’s next.”
  • “I don’t know what to do with myself.”
  • “I feel like I’m never going to find anyone else.”
  • “I’m going to throw in the towel and stop dating.”
  • “I have never not been with someone.”
  • “I don’t know how I’m going to bounce back from this.”
  • “I don’t know how I’m going to tell my family.”
  • “Without my partner, I’m not strong enough.”

Clients who use this type of language often need to focus on their identity and self-worth in addition to grief work in counseling, Rizk notes. It may also indicate that they struggle with a fear of loneliness or have previously relied on a partner to find happiness or fulfillment. These feelings may be further complicated if a client comes from a culture or family system that places value and importance on marriage or couplehood over singleness, she adds.

“There can be a sense of confusion on ‘what now’ or ‘what’s next.’ They invested so much in the relationship that they forgot to invest in themselves,” Rizk says. “There is a lot of grieving, but how they grieve can be very telling of how they view love, [including a reliance on] external love instead of self-love.”

Quelling negative thoughts

It’s easy for clients to fall into negative thought pattens and ruminate on the what-ifs after a painful breakup. So helping clients become aware of this inner “script” is a vital first step in counseling, Macala says, as well as equipping them with tools to stop and reroute intrusive thoughts. When left unchecked, unhealthy thoughts can intensify other mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.

“When those [negative] thoughts are swirling in our brain we can really get down on ourselves,” agrees Kasie Morgan, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor at a practice in Mount Holly, North Carolina. She’s noticed that clients often respond by questioning themselves and asking, “What did I do? What doesn’t this person like about me? Why does this always happen to me?” The first thing she helps clients do is redirect the focus by telling them, “This is not about what is wrong with you; it’s about what happened to you.’”

Morgan also finds that helping clients to forgive themselves can be an essential part of healing. A person’s self-talk often defaults to “should” statements, such as “I should have known the other person was going to hurt me or treat me poorly.” These clients often need to hear (sometimes repeatedly) from a counselor, she says, that nothing they can do will control or change the behavior of another person — all they can do is focus on their own actions and thoughts. 

“That is a hard concept to work through,” Morgan admits. “A lot of times when we talk about a breakup or dismantling a relationship, there’s a lot of talk about forgiving the other person. But we forget to talk about forgiving ourselves for our shortcomings and our patterns. Part of the process is letting go of the things within yourself that have driven you to a place of not liking yourself. Being kind to yourself is vital.”

Morgan uses acceptance and commitment therapy techniques with her clients to help them build resiliency and learn to separate fact from fiction in their thought patterns and emotions. She asks clients to identify the residual feelings they have from a past relationship (e.g., despair, sadness, relief). Then she helps clients put those feelings in context by pointing out a positive fact or aspect that came out of the relationship. For example, she may note that the client devoted a lot of time, energy and emotion to this person and relationship and prompt them to explore it further by asking themselves, “What are the facts about me that have come out of this relationship?” 

Rizk also says that cognitive reframing techniques are her go-to for clients who are spiraling into negative thought patterns after a breakup, including feeling that they have somehow failed or are “not enough.” She supplements this work by prompting clients to make a list of things that they are good at or have been successful at outside of their love life. Clients can also ask supportive friends and family to help them identify some positive qualities and accomplishments that they can add to the list, she says.

When Rizk discusses the client’s list with them in session, she emphasizes that they are worthy of love and have a lot of be proud of. Positive aspects of a client’s life, such as work accomplishments or valued friendships, can often be forgotten or put aside when a client is in a romantic relationship, especially one that is falling apart, she notes.

The language that clients use when describing their negative thought patterns can also uncover core beliefs that need to be explored and challenged in counseling, Macala says. This includes catastrophizing or making generalizations such as “bad things always happen to me,” she adds.

Macala says she gently broaches these conversations about core beliefs, and she doesn’t delve deeper into the issue with the client until after they have moved past their initial emotional response to the breakup, are stabilized and indicate they are ready to discuss these beliefs further. She begins by talking about what core beliefs are, giving examples such as “I am unworthy” or “I am helpless,” and explaining that some of them can come from negative things we’ve heard in our formative years. She then asks clients, “Does any of this sound familiar? Does it resonate with you?” And she says they often respond “yes.” 

“I don’t challenge them right away,” says Macala, who estimates that one-third of her caseload is struggling with some kind of relationship loss or grief. “This person has believed that two plus two equals five their whole life and I’m telling them that two plus two equals four, and it’s upsetting. … Sometimes it takes a lot of work to exchange them [core beliefs] for something more helpful.”

Macala says that the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing, which is strengths-based, can be particularly helpful for clients who disclose catastrophizing thought patterns and beliefs such as “I can’t do anything right.” 

Exploration of core beliefs and reframing helped a male client that Macala once worked with who came to counseling after the end of a long-term relationship. His partner had cheated on him, and the client was navigating a lot of pain, denial and a need to mourn the loss of the relationship and the long-term plans he had imagined with his partner.

His presenting concern was depression, she recalls, but as they began to work together it became apparent that the breakup was exacerbating not only his depression but also his substance use.

Initially, Macala worked on thought stopping techniques with this client to quiet his rumination and equipped him with healthy coping mechanisms, such as positive affirmations and gratitude journaling, to turn to instead of substance use. Once he was stabilized, they began to focus on his values, and it became clear that undergoing childhood abuse and abandonment by his mother had caused him to believe that he was unlovable, Macala says.

She challenged this belief by asking the client to write out a list of his values. For each value that had a negative connotation, she asked him to think of a positive one to match it. From there, she suggested the client put the positive values on a vision board to look at and remember each day.

“Negative beliefs focus on what isn’t there,” Macala says, “and reframing flips it to focus on what is there.” 

Rediscovering self

We often invest a lot of our time and resources in our relationships, and as a result, we can wrap much of our identity and sense of self into a significant relationship or partner,” says Wheeler, an ACA member who specializes in family and relational stress. “So, when the relationship ends, a person may grieve the loss of the partner, the loss of the life built together, as well as the future they had imagined, and begin a process of rediscovering themselves outside of the partnership.”

Wheeler and the other counselors interviewed for this article emphasized that clients can benefit from counseling work that guides them to explore and reconnect to their identity after a painful breakup. A first step can be to ask the client to identify hobbies, interests and social supports — including those which they had abandoned during their relationship — that they want to connect or reconnect with.

For Weber, this focus on reconnection to self often comes after she’s done grief work with a client and they have moved forward from an initial state of vulnerability and sadness where, in some cases, they’re crying all the time. She often explains this concept by describing it as “working on version 2.0 of themselves.”

Weber finds that dialectical behavioral therapy techniques can be helpful to give clients a new perspective after a breakup and boost confidence. In particular, she uses role-play to build communication skills and to help clients better express their needs.

Morgan also recommends counselors help clients who are going through a breakup identify and explore their core values and beliefs, including values that come from their family of origin. There are numerous values worksheets available at that are helpful in this realm, she notes.

She advises counselors to help clients identify what values they want to closely examine and how those values affect their ability to be a romantic partner. “It’s important to identify not only [clients’] current values but also what they want them to be,” she says. “For example, I might want to have creativity in my life but right now I’m working at a job that isn’t creative.” 

“A lot of values are generational, so it can be helpful to see how they impact your life and play out in your own values,” she adds.

Johnson specializes in counseling the millennial population, especially with dating and relationships, and often spends a lot of time helping clients to identify and strengthen their identity and values after a breakup. She created two sets of cards related to relationships that she often uses in session with clients recovering from a breakup. The first set of cards prompts conversation on what a client wants for themselves in a relationship, with questions such as:

  • What did your mother or father teach you about relationships?
  • If your relationship was a traffic light, would the signal be green, yellow or red, and why?
  • How do you know you feel safe in a relationship?
  • If you had the relationship of your reality, what would that look like? (Johnson says she purposely uses the word “reality” here instead of “dreams” to keep clients from imagining or dwelling on a false reality.)

The second deck of cards contains a series of relationship affirmations for counselor and client to repeat together and talk through. Some of the affirmations include: 

  • The success of a relationship is a shared responsibility, based on trust and vulnerability.
  • Healthy control is having both self-control and the remote control. (This affirmation interjects a little humor and usually sparks a laugh before diving into the heavy topic of self-control, Johnson notes.)
  • When I’m in conflict with my partner, I am actually looking to connect with them.

In addition to the card prompts, Johnson also has clients identify and write lists of negotiable and non-negotiable aspects that they value in relationships and areas they are working on (e.g., self-confidence) to track and discuss in counseling. 

Having clients focus on themselves during this phase of therapy, Johnson says, often reveals the need to work on skills such as communication and assertiveness, as well as the need for psychoeducation on the different types of attachment styles and how that can influence a person’s romantic relationships.

Johnson notes that these conversations can also prompt wider discussions about what the client views as a healthy relationship, when and how they feel safe to become vulnerable with a partner, and what they’ve learned and internalized from their own relationships as well as others’. And it shifts their focus to realize that they have the power to set boundaries for the choices they make with romantic partners in the future, she adds.

Making meaning

With their relationship in the rearview mirror, an important part of the healing process is for clients to reflect and create meaning from the experience. However, “there’s no easy way to do that,” Macala admits. “We have to approach it from the perspective of putting ourselves in the driver’s seat. We get to decide what we are going to take from it [the relationship].”

Although this is an essential part of counseling after a breakup, it should come after a client has processed the loss and is ready to reflect on the entire relationship, including its painful end, Macala says.

The ultimate goal should be to guide the client as they identify what was good and healthy in the relationship. “Then, we discard whatever was unhealthy and what we don’t need anymore,” Macala says. Take, for example, a client who experiences a bad breakup with someone they have a child with; rather than thinking about the negative parts of the breakup, the client could choose to focus on the fact that this relationship also gave them something positive: their child.

One approach that Macala uses to prompt these discussions is to have the client make a list of things that were red and green flags in the relationship. Clients are often familiar with the idea of red flags in a relationship, such as jealousy or controlling behavior. Conversely, green flags can include things such as finding a partner who enforces healthy boundaries in their life or has good social supports. Macala suggests clients make meaning from their past relationship by expanding their thinking to include both the red flags they want to avoid repeating in their next relationship and the green flags they’d like to seek out.

Weber agrees that a counselor can help clients make meaning from the good and the not-so-good aspects of an ended relationship. She finds it helpful to spur these conversations by having the client draw a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper. On one side, they list all the things they will miss about the relationship, and on the other side, they include all the things they won’t miss.

“Through the grieving process, we are able to recognize both sides of that piece of paper,” Weber says. “We do not want to romanticize it [the relationship] or put it on a pedestal but have a realistic view of what happened.”



The need for self-love

Clients who are healing from a painful breakup often ask their counselor when they should start dating again. There is no “right” answer to this question, and a professional counselor shouldn’t advise a client on what they should or shouldn’t do, but it’s an important topic to talk about, notes Kelly Weber, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Phoenix, Arizona. Weber uses the question as an opportunity to explore why — or why not — a client feels they are ready to date again. 

Jessica Rizk, an LPC who owns a private practice in Northern Virginia, says that clients’ questions about when to start dating again often have some underlying reasons. If it’s because they are uncomfortable with being single, they may benefit from unpacking those feelings in therapy.

Rizk has worked with clients who dove back into dating and relationships soon after breakups because they were unable to tolerate feelings of loneliness and vulnerability and struggled with self-love. These feelings can stem from abandonment or negative experiences in their past, including childhood, she explains.

“They are attracted to feeling loved by someone,” Rizk says. “The reality is that they’re trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it. It’s not their partner’s responsibility to fix their bucket.”

Rizk helps clients work through these issues, explaining that a relationship is doomed if one of the partners is seeking connection to meet a need, such as self-love, that only they can meet themselves.

Clients may avoid talking about a breakup or blame others for relationship problems because they fear loneliness or feel they are unworthy of love — all of which can be processed in counseling, adds Marquita Johnson, an LPC with a counseling practice in the greater Atlanta area.

“Their identity is often enmeshed with being a part of a couple,” Johnson says. “I tell clients, ‘A single dollar bill still has value even though it’s alone. It is not valueless if it’s not with other bills.’”

She sometimes assigns these clients “homework” by asking them to do an activity by themselves (e.g., eat in a restaurant or attend a social gathering alone) and then write in a journal to process the experience. She prompts them to think about how they felt during the activity and, in turn, what value can be found in being single and doing things on their own.

Kasie Morgan, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor at a practice in Mount Holly, North Carolina, agrees that a counselor’s role can include helping a client explore their thoughts and feelings related to relationships after a breakup as well as whether they are ready to begin dating again and take on the “heavy work” of being in a partnership.

Entering another relationship “is a heavy thing and they need to work through their connection to self before” they’re ready to date again, Morgan says. “Until they are happy with where they are in life, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find a relationship and be fully committed to that person.”



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


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.

Voice of Experience: The search for intimacy

By Gregory K. Moffatt August 17, 2022

Humans are social creatures, no doubt. But we run the spectrum from the intensely introverted (like I am) all the way to the expressly extroverted (like the rest of my family). Isolation is often a necessity for introverts who need to recover from the energy-draining, crowded workdays.

But for extroverts, being immersed in their work and sitting at a desk all day, even if they are surrounded by people, requires them to seek out social time. All three of my adult children are like that. After a long day at work, they still want to go out to museums, clubs and parties. It exhausts me to think about it.

But what we all have in common isn’t just our social nature, varied as it is. Intimacy — a component of our social nature — is what we really seek.

Erik Erikson brought the term “intimacy” into our clinical vocabulary in the first half of the 20th century with his eight stages of psychosocial development. The sixth stage of his theory teaches us that we reach a critical juncture in our 20s: We either learn to be intimate or we find ourselves feeling isolated until we do. Some people, according to Erikson, remain stuck in this stage, doomed to live out their days feeling empty.

A shallow reading of his theory might lead one to suppose he only meant romantic relationships. I am sure that was a part of what he had in mind, but intimacy is so much more than that. Intimate relationships encompass both platonic and romantic relationships, and they are ones where individuals are free to bare their souls and to know that their secrets will be safe and understood.

The most satisfying marriages are intimate marriages, but intimacy isn’t just physical. In fact, any sex therapist could tell you that people often substitute sex for intimacy. But sex can be safer than intimacy because it doesn’t allow one to be as easily hurt or betrayed.

Robert Sternberg, an American psychologist, helps us understand the difference between intimacy and sex even better in his triangular theory of love. This theory teaches us that the most loving relationships are those that balance intimacy, passion and commitment. Intimacy is the sharing of self, whereas passion is the physical attraction of a relationship.

A relationship can have a passionate physical life yet be devoid of intimacy. Clients often say, “My spouse never talks to me.” When I want to test for intimacy, one of my quick go-to questions is, “What is your spouse most afraid of?” If the client can answer that question, they have at least some level of intimacy.

Think about the many ways we demonstrate our need for intimacy. We take pictures, not just to remember the moment but to share them with others. We are saying, “Look at what is important to me. Do you understand me?”

We touch. Holding hands, a pat on the arm or a high five are all ways of being intimate. We are allowing others into our space or moving into other peoples’ space for the sole purpose of letting them know, “I see and understand you.”

We tell stories and jokes. With this exchange, we are trying to illicit a response from the other person. We want them to notice what we enjoy or find funny.

If you don’t believe me, think about the last socially awkward moment you had where someone didn’t care about a picture you shared, didn’t appreciate your touch or didn’t laugh at your joke. I bet it left you feeling empty — just as Erikson said it would.

Navigating intimacy is a lifelong task. Our biggest fear is being rejected — having someone betray our risk of intimacy. Dysfunction occurs when we don’t know how to be appropriately intimate or we stop trying.

So many clients have passed through my door struggling to repair damaged relationships or contemplating divorce. “I’ll never marry again,” they often say, and I know in that moment, they believe it.

But I also know that feeling may pass because being completely isolated will not fulfill their need for intimacy. People don’t have to remarry or even date for that matter. But when one is hurt so deeply, it is easy to generalize pain and avoid intimacy with anyone. And that, my friends, is the antithesis of being human.

As counselors we often need to help our clients discover intimacy in healthy ways. Pornography addiction, affairs, substance use and careers can be substitutes for intimacy. People with calloused hearts who are afraid of being hurt may pretend they don’t need anyone else, but we know better. That kind of self-protection is understandable, but it robs one of their humanness.

Everton Vila/



Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at


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.