When I first began counseling as a teenager, I often did not connect with the clinicians sitting in front of me. They lectured me. They told me what I could and could not do. They told what I should and should not feel. Needless to say, that approach was not effective.
But when I was 23, I started working with a psychiatrist who had a different style. She provided me with information about my condition, and then she would ask how I related to that information, what I felt, if that made sense or if I was connecting with it. She didn’t tell me what I could and could not feel or what I should and should not think; she just allowed me to be myself.
This different approach allowed me to make a lot of progress. She was the first practitioner to diagnose me with bipolar II disorder because she was the first one I felt comfortable telling about my earlier manic episodes (which I later learned are actually hypomanic episodes). I felt like I owed her a lot because of how much she helped me during therapy.
During one of our last sessions together, I thanked her for all she did for me and told her how she had saved me and changed my life. She stopped me and said, “I didn’t save you; you saved yourself. You’re giving me credit I haven’t earned. Give the credit to yourself. You’ve done the work, you’ve taken the knowledge and made change with it, and you’ve made a difference for yourself.” Her words in that session have always stuck with me even as I now sit in the therapist’s chair working with my own caseload of clients.
A humble helper
I too have clients who thank me at the end of counseling for the difference I have made in their lives and for saving them, but I always remember to do the same as was done for me. I do not take credit for my clients’ triumphs and successes because it is not mine to be had. I take extreme joy when I witness clients have revelations and make progress, but I do not hold it as my success. It is theirs; they have rightly earned it. As a clinician, my role is to provide clients information and the tools they need to be healthy. I have modeled empathy for them by being a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen, which made them feel heard. So many who have come my way have not felt or had empathy in their life for the longest time. But I am not the one doing the work, making the choice to change and putting behavioral change into place, so I cannot take credit.
As clinicians, we are not saviors. Instead, we should strive to be helpers. We do not enable clients or have them so reliant on us that they cannot choose or change for themselves. Instead, we work with our clients to help them move toward self-empowerment. I love being a counselor; I am blessed to be able to do it each day because seeing changes in clients’ lives unfold before me is a powerful experience.
It is important for clinicians to remain in a humble mindset and give clients credit for their successes. I see many clinicians who take this path and clients are more thankful for it. I once had a client, who after I told them it was not my credit to take, turned back to me and said, “Thank you. I do need to give myself credit when it is earned and stop giving my credit and my power away to people.” The client patted themself on the back and walked out the door. We worked together for several more sessions, and the client’s confidence continued to bloom to the point they no longer needed counseling, and I was thrilled to witness their success.
When clients gain courage, confidence, strength and self-esteem in counseling, they are able to apply those skills outside the session and continue to have success even after their time in therapy ends. It will also better prepare them to face and overcome challenging moments and disappointments and move back toward living and thriving. Roy Baumeister and colleagues’ research, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2003, shows that people with high self-esteem are better able to overcome challenges. Encouraging clients to take credit for the success they have while in treatment is another way clinicians can work to increase a client’s self-esteem. In turn, helping clients increase their self-esteem allows them to make greater strides not only in treatment but also after they leave a clinician’s care.
If we work from a belief that we are “saving” clients, then we are stripping them of their ability to be empowered. Empowerment is a key aspect to any mental health treatment. The strengths-based approach in counseling, created by psychologist Donald Clifton, works on the premise that focusing on a client’s strengths, rather than their faults, allows them to see all they are capable of and develops their belief in themselves and therefore their success. Helping clients see the capabilities that lie within is the essence of clinical work.
Moreover, if a clinician assumes the role of a savior, the client’s setbacks and successes becomes theirs as well. This belief makes it the clinician’s fault if they do not “save” a client. Clinically, we cannot make clients put actional and behavioral changes into place. We can help them learn how to make changes, but they have to want and choose to do so for themselves. So, when a client does not choose healthy actions, clinicians should not blame themselves, and at the same time, when clients do choose healthy actions, we should not take the credit for being their savior. We can rejoice with our clients for making healthy decisions that will help them progress and grow, but it is not fair to take away the client’s empowerment and say we saved them.
I do not think that clinicians who take on this savior mentality are trying to strip clients of their empowerment. They are excited when they see clients have success, but when they assume this “savior” frame of mind, they get caught up in the wins and lose sight of their role in empowering the client. We as clinicians must constantly remember the importance of empowering the clients, not ourselves, to improve our work and therapeutic relationship with clients.
As clinicians, it is our role as to encourage, empower and guide clients as they begin to make changes and healthy life choices. We walk beside them on their journey to remind them of all they are worth. When clients are able to walk ahead in their journey because they have grown and changed and no longer need us by their side, it is something they earn themselves.
When my psychiatrist taught me to give myself credit, it allowed me to further my successes because I realized I was capable of empowering myself. If she had just said “thank you” when I gave her the credit, then I may still believe that she alone is responsible for my progress and not recognize the hard work I put into those sessions to help me develop a healthy frame of mind that now allows me to help others. Her assuming the role of a savior would have done more harm than good. What do I mean by this? I have seen how detrimental it can be to the recovery of clients when clinicians take on the role of savior. Clients in this situation become dependent on the counselor and believe they won’t be able to progress without that clinician. They may even think they are only able to make progress with the help of others rather than believing in their own ability to change.
By assuming the role of helper, we can help clients learn to do things for themselves and give themselves proper credit. They grow in their self-esteem and belief in their own capability, rather than relying on yet another person telling them how to live and function. Clinicians need to work to remove the role enabling has played in many of our clients lives or the low self-esteem that has created the belief of not being able to do for themselves. When clients are enabled, often by clinicians and others in their lives, it leads to clients not taking responsibility for their good or bad choices. In addition, enabling often leads to lower self-esteem because clients do not feel like they are in control of their own lives. As clinicians, it is not our responsibility to “fix” people but to help people recognize all the wonderful pieces that already lie within.
Am I helping or saving?
Maybe you are asking yourself, “Am I helping or am I saving? How can I even tell?” To answer that, you first need to explore your underlying motivations by asking, “Do I rejoice in my clients progress because I am excited for them or because I think it makes me look good?” If any part of you is saying because it makes me look good, then that is a good sign you are assuming the role of the savior.
The truth is that much of what counselors do is not about looking good. As an addiction counselor, I walk away from a lot of my sessions not feeling all that great because in addiction treatment, it is more common for clients to relapse or leave therapy against medical advice than for them to complete treatment and go on to celebrate 10 years of sobriety. At times, it does cross my mind, “What am I doing wrong? How can I fix it?” In these moments, I need to meditate and remind myself that I am no one’s savior, and I am there to help clients when they are ready to do their own work to make change. I have to constantly remind myself not to assume this role of savior because it’s easy to feel pressure to “fix” people and think you are responsible for their success.
Another way to determine if you are saving or helping is to think about how you respond when a client thanks you for helping them. Do you remain humble and appreciative and then remind them of all the work they have done for the success they have earned? Having clients thank me for the support I show them is always a wonderful part of my job, but every time a client thanks me, I remind them of my motto, “This is credit I have earned, don’t give my credit away.” Within a week of working with me, my clients can easily repeat that motto, which helps them realize they are the ones who deserve the credit because they are the ones doing the work.
I also do not want to diminish the work that counselors put into their sessions. Our work is hard and a labor of love. We watch every day as people grow, change, regress, learn, experience heartbreak and so much more, so it takes a lot of our own strength to do what we do. We deserve credit for our part as well, but clients should not be the ones to pay us that credit. It is essential clients build their own credit when working with us. Our validation should come from our loved ones, supervisors and bosses, so we can focus on helping our clients and not make the session about us, which is unethical. We cross boundaries when we look to clients to validate us, and this is another reason to wholeheartedly allow clients to have the credit for their own growth, which is 100% theirs.
Early on in my counseling journey, I had many clinicians who assumed the role of the savior, and it led me down a path of believing that I needed others to save me. It wasn’t until several years later when I had a clinician point out that I earned the credit myself that I was able to take the first step toward the empowered road I now walk. I am able to accept and ask for help when I need it, but I am also empowered to save myself and know how worthy I am as a person. Knowing my worth each and every day is the best gift I have ever allowed myself to receive, and every client out there deserves the same. As a counselor, I am now in a position where I can pass that message on to my clients and show them their credit is theirs to keep. It is a great honor to work in a helping profession, and it is important to always remember that we are helpers not saviors.
Caitlin C. Regan is a 35-year-old mental health and addiction counselor in Juno Beach, Florida. She has been living with a mental health diagnosis since she was a teenager, and through electroconvulsive therapy and daily self-care, she has been successfully living with it for over eight years. As a teacher and counselor, she has over 13 years of experience helping those with mental health and addictions. Her passions include helping others, mental health, seeking social justice, and spending time with her friends, family and two dogs. Follow her on Instagram and Pinterest @caitlins_counseling_corner or on her YouTube channel at Caitlin’s Counseling Corner. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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