Tag Archives: Counselors Audience

Counselors Audience

New maternal mental health certification available to counselors

By Bethany Bray April 25, 2019

It’s estimated that 1 in 9 American mothers experience peripartum depression.

Because maternal mental health issues are so prevalent, many counselors’ caseloads include clients who are struggling during the first weeks and months of motherhood. However, few practitioners are well-trained enough to fully understand the unique needs and risks this population presents, says Birdie Meyer, the director of certification for Postpartum Support International (PSI), a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit established to raise awareness of and connect people to resources for maternal mental health issues.

“There are a lot of nuances to this stage of life,” says Meyer, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in counseling. “You can really do damage if you send someone to a therapist who doesn’t know perinatal mental health … [And] There aren’t enough providers out there.”

Worse yet, a practitioner who treats perinatal clients but hasn’t completed comprehensive coursework or trainings in this area can risk doing harm to mothers at a vulnerable time of life. In her decades working in perinatal mental health, Meyer says she’s witnessed horror stories of women being reported to their local department of social services by a practitioner who mis-read the symptoms of peripartum distress – which can include feeling ambivalent toward a new baby or, in severe cases, thoughts of harming the baby or themselves.

“The despair that comes with [peripartum depression] feels like life will never be better, never be the same again. Many times, women seek help but don’t get someone [a practitioner] who understood, or the woman didn’t know where to turn,” says Meyer, who recently retired as coordinator of the perinatal mood disorders program at Indiana University Health, a large hospital system based in Indianapolis.

For this very reason, PSI has begun to offer a certification for helping professionals in perinatal mental health. It’s a project that has been three years in coming, and Meyer was closely involved in the certification’s development and launch.

PSI’s new Certification in Perinatal Mental Health became available in August to counselors, social workers and other mental health practitioners, as well as prescribers (medical doctors, psychiatrists), doulas, midwifes, lactation consultants and other affiliated professions. So far, 130 practitioners have become certified but hundreds more have begun collecting the hours of coursework required to qualify to take the certification exam, Meyer says.

Before a practitioner can list PMH-C after their name, they must pass a rigorous exam and have at least two years of experience in their field. They must also show proof of completion for 14 hours of continuing education in a subject related to maternal mental health. Finally, applicants must participate in an intensive, six-hour training that PSI offers in locations across the U.S., or a pre-approved course equivalent.

PSI has partnered with Pearson VUE, a company with testing centers across the U.S., to proctor the certification exam. The cost to sit for the exam, a test of 125 multiple choice questions, is $500.

PSI developed and refined the certification exam with several teams of subject-matter experts, including professional counselors, Meyer says.

“The test is rigorous,” says Meyer, “but if you’ve had the training that is required you should be able to pass.”

In order to keep up the PMH-C certification, a practitioner will have to complete at least six hours of continuing education each year, she adds.

Meyer believes that the PMH certification will ensure that more and more practitioners are qualified and available to give parents get the help they need in a most critical and vulnerable time of life.

The certification came to fruition after the family of Robyn Cohen, a woman who passed away as a result of a maternal mental health issues, donated to PSI to fund the project in her memory.

 

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Find out more about PSI and the Certification in Perinatal Mental Health at postpartum.net

 

Email questions about the PMH-C to certification@postpartum.net

 

Listen to an extended interview with Birdie Meyer on the Mom & Mind podcast (episode 104): drkaeni.com/podcast/

 

 

 

Related reading: For more on the unique mental health needs of peripartum clients, see the feature article “Bundle of joy?” in the April issue of Counseling Today.

 

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

 

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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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.

 

 

Grieving everyday losses

By Laurie Meyers April 24, 2019

As a society, we think we know what loss is: the death of a parent, partner or child; the destruction of a home through disaster; the shattering of finances through bankruptcy. These are tangible, recognized — sanctioned, if you will — losses. But counselors know that in reality, life brings myriad losses, many of which go unrecognized, unacknowledged and, most importantly, unmourned. The damage caused by these accumulated losses — sometimes referred to in the popular lexicon as “emotional baggage” — often brings clients to counselors’ doors wondering why they’re in so much pain.

In 1989, American Counseling Association member Kenneth Doka, who has written numerous books on grief and loss, established the phrase disenfranchised grief, which he defines as grief that is experienced by those who incur a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported. Disenfranchised grief may result from the loss of a relationship, the loss of identity or ability, pet loss, or even the loss of “giving up” an addiction.

“This unrecognized loss can be happening all around us but, because of the lack of acknowledgment and support, we wouldn’t know about it,” says ACA member Barbara Sheehan-Zeidler, a licensed professional counselor in Littleton, Colorado, whose practice specializes in grief and loss.

She gives the hypothetical example of a woman who is about to move to a thriving new town to start a higher paying job with great benefits. The woman has spent the past 20 years raising her family and creating a great life for her children, but now she is ready to move on. She is excited about entering this new phase in her life and meeting new people. At the same time, the woman is experiencing a lingering and persistent sense of sadness that she can’t explain.

What the woman is experiencing, Sheehan-Zeidler explains, is disenfranchised grief, which can affect clients in numerous ways:

  • Physically: Headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia, pain and other physical symptoms
  • Emotionally: Feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety or guilt
  • Cognitively: Obsessive thinking, inability to concentrate, distressing dreams
  • Behaviorally: Crying, avoiding others, withdrawing socially
  • Spiritually: Searching for meaning or pursuing changes in spiritual practice

In the example, the woman was not recognizing the losses of community, familiarity, social status and spiritual support from her local church that would come with moving, Sheehan-Zeidler explains. Once the woman actually identified and named those things as losses, the counselor was able to validate and explain her symptoms of insomnia, guilt, absent-mindedness, crying, indecisiveness, pervasive sadness and avoidance of social situations. This allowed the woman to grieve her losses and settle into her new life, Sheehan-Zeidler says.

“When we do not process unrecognized or disenfranchised losses, we run the risk of creating a narrative that is tainted with unprocessed feelings and unresolved grief,” she says. “Their Weltanschauung, a German word for worldview, is corrupted with an emotional burden that influences their beliefs and ability to connect. Consequently, they may be limited in projecting self-confidence needed to secure a new job or challenged to join a new social circle due to feelings of depression or unworthiness.” Unrecognized grief from the loss of a job, health or lifestyle can also cause secondary losses, such as damage to one’s self-esteem, a sense of shattered dreams, and lost community, she adds.

Sheehan-Zeidler helps clients process their grief through a variety of rituals. “I invite clients to create a special time, maybe 5 to 15 minutes daily, for the purpose of ‘being with’ their emotions and thoughts,” she says. “During this dedicated time, I suggest clients find a comfortable and private place to sit, journal their feelings and thoughts, light a candle, have soothing music, enjoy a cup of tea, and maybe have a special shawl or blanket to be used during these ‘time-to-mourn’ moments. Or maybe the client is more active, in which case I’d invite them to mindfully walk in a calming place where they can be with their thoughts and feelings as they reflect on their loss.

“The purpose of this time-to-mourn ritual is to create comfort around you and encourage the feelings to come forward in a planned way so we lead the dance with grief and mourning, and not the other way around. Additionally, as grief can come in unexpected waves, if we have a ritual in place, then we can put the ‘surprise’ grief aside, noting that we will visit with it the next time we are sitting or walking in our special place dedicated to honoring and processing the grief and mourning.”

Sheehan-Zeidler also recommends that clients drink plenty of water and get adequate sleep — taking naps if needed — as their minds and bodies process the loss. Finally, she reminds clients that their grieving process will include bad days, but also good ones.

Losing my addiction

“Put simply, disenfranchised grief is grief that is not acknowledged or valued by society,” says Julie Bates-Maves, an ACA member and a former addictions counselor. “Losses that are not seen as legitimate or worthy of our sadness or grief fit here.”

Addiction may be the king (or queen) of losses that are not typically viewed as legitimate or worthy. “Some people … don’t think that losing something ‘bad’ should hurt, but it does,” Bates-Maves says. “If we think about the functions of an addiction — that is, what they can provide for people — you start to see how hard they would be to give up.”

Bates-Maves notes all the ways in which addictions can fulfill people’s needs, albeit in unhealthy ways. “Addictive patterns often bring pain, but it’s a pain that’s familiar,” she notes. “They bring routine, even if it’s an unhealthy one. [It’s] the illusion of power and control over one’s body and mind: ‘I want to feel or think differently, and I know how to accomplish that.’”

Addiction can also provide companionship or escape from a sense of loneliness, whether through friends who also use, through distraction, through numbing (both physically and emotionally), or through the sense of energy and excitement that using substances can provide, Bates-Maves explains. “Losing any of that would be, at best, uncomfortable [and], at worst, unbearable,” she asserts.

“In my own clinical work and in speaking to other counseling professionals and clients, I have noted little discomfort or objection to exploring the negatives of an addiction with clients,” Bates-Maves says. “Notably, I have encountered hesitation or overt avoidance of the ‘positives’ of addiction, [such as] ‘don’t speak of the glory days’ or ‘don’t encourage clients to focus on what they miss; instead focus on what they have to look forward to in recovery.’ Consider this though — what if the ‘glory days’ are the only time the client felt powerful, or safe, or noticed, or admired, or skillful?”

When entering recovery, clients not only contend with the addition of a new set of behaviors, thoughts and feelings, but also an absence of “glory,” Bates-Maves continues. She believes that talking about the “positives” of addiction can help clients in recovery tackle challenges such as reestablishing a sense of their own identity, learning how to connect with others, and filling in any social skill deficits.

“Inviting reflection on the ‘glory’ of it all is a chance to observe a client reminisce about a time when they felt more worthy,” she explains. “If self-worth is centered on the addiction or a component of it, we need to know so we can help them redefine and reconstruct who they are, not just what they do. Losing an addiction is not simply losing a substance or behavior. It’s losing a way of surviving that our body and mind have become settled in. It can be a tremendous loss.”

As Bates-Maves points out, losses can occur anywhere along the addiction and recovery spectrum: prior to addiction; during addiction; during detoxification, treatment, initial, mid- or advanced recovery; prior to a lapse or relapse; and after a lapse or relapse. Some losses, such as a negative alteration in personal appearance or losing custody of children, may be the direct result of the person’s addiction. Other losses, such as the death of a parent, may happen separately from the person’s addiction but will still affect a client’s addiction or recovery, Bates-Maves emphasizes.

Other experiences common to people working to move from addiction to recovery include:

  • Loss of comfort: The person can no longer rely on his or her addictive pattern as a coping mechanism.
  • Loss of power: Choices are often restricted in recovery, and it’s not always OK to make a “bad” choice.
  • Loss of identity: The person may wrestle with the question, “If I’m not an addict, who am I?”
  • Loss of pain relief: The person may ask, “How am I supposed to manage my pain now? I don’t know any other ways that work as well as _________ does.”
  • Loss of perceived choice: Because substance use is no longer an option, the person has to find another way to live, cope and function.

“It can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, and some can flounder in the absence of the structure of an addiction,” Bates-Maves says.

“Also consider the more commonly talked about losses, like loss of lifestyle or [loss of] ‘using’ friends,” she adds. “While it may be healthy to move away from people who remain stuck in unhealthy patterns, it’s certainly not easy. As a counselor, I believe that people have a ton of worth, even in the presence of an addiction or negative behaviors. If I’m told to walk away from the positives of a relationship because there are also negative behaviors, I’d struggle. Clients deserve to struggle with that too. Health and happiness are not always the same thing. If I have the choice to be alone and healthy or to be in the company of others and unhealthy, I’d waiver — particularly if others forced me in one direction or another.

“I think it’s important that counselors really sit with what’s being asked of someone when they’re told they must now avoid people who are still using. Allow for the struggle and encourage clients to grieve the loss of good people who are still stuck. Don’t lose sight of the loss and grief there. Value what’s being lost or taken away instead of encouraging — or sometimes mandating — the death of a relationship. And talk about it. Balance is key. Talk about why some losses are needed, and validate that they’re painful. Allow the pain, allow the struggle, and help clients to cope with them as they move toward something different.”

Losses that are controllable — meaning that clients have some say over their occurrence — can actually foster hope in clients that there will be a chance for repair or course correction once they have adopted a new way of living, Bates-Maves says. Examples of losses that might be controllable include legal problems or convictions, family ruptures, loss of employment and financial problems.

However, even with new skills and hope, there is no guarantee that clients in recovery will be able to fix or recoup all that they have lost, she cautions. For that reason, counselors need to help these clients “sit with that and explore both options: How can I learn to be OK and heal if this is changed or fixed? And how can I learn to be OK and heal if this stays broken or less than I hope?”

“The key lesson there is that clients can reconstruct a meaningful life in recovery, even if some components never return to what they once were,” Bates-Maves says. “It’s about moving ahead and grieving what doesn’t move with you. Again, balance. Growth is often painful, and we want to value the pain and loss that come with growth. Knowing that some relationships have been damaged beyond repair might be very painful and a point of personal despair, but it can also be framed as a powerful motivator. We can mourn the past and work to repair the damage that’s done, and we can work to not repeat it. I think our main task as counselors is to help frame the pain as useful and informative. What people hurt about reveals what they value. It also reveals what they don’t want to repeat. Both elements are quite useful to a counselor in helping a client figure out where they want to go and how to start getting there.”

“I think the most important thing for counselors to remember is that change is really hard,” she emphasizes. “That may seem obvious, but consider how often we forget it. Sometimes clients are kicked out of treatment because they’ve lapsed or relapsed. Other times there are mandates about [whom] one can spend time with and [whom] one cannot, requirements for employment, etc.”

Continuing not to engage in addictive behavior, forging relationships with people who don’t use substances, and gaining and maintaining employment are all healthy goals. However, clients need to process many of their losses — particularly those connected to self-worth and self-efficacy — before it is possible for them to achieve those goals, Bates-Maves says.

“Give people credit for the pain that comes with change, and give them space to talk about it,” she urges. “Talk about how health and happiness aren’t the same thing [but] that the work of counseling is to make them closer. Talk about how in order to move forward, we often have to let go and how hard that is, even when we’re letting go of ‘bad’ things. Focus on where someone is and not only where we/they/you want them to be. If we want to help people move forward, we have to understand what’s keeping them where they are currently. But mostly, give people credit for the pain that comes with change, talk about it, and help them grieve.”

A question of identity

As a certified rehabilitation counselor and someone who sustained a spinal cord injury more than 30 years ago, ACA member Susan Stuntzner knows a lot about the losses and grief that come with disability. 

“At the time, I was paralyzed from the waist down, but within two months, I achieved some mobility and enough to walk with below-the-knee ankle-foot-orthotics [AFOs],” she recounts. “While learning to walk was a fantastic high point of the rehabilitation process, an equally important aspect was figuring out my new or different capabilities. More specifically, I learned I could not run, which is something I used to enjoy; lift more than 25-30 pounds; and that I had to push or pull things rather than lift as a means to move objects. I learned it was probably not a good idea to stand indefinitely and the importance of recognizing and honoring what my
body could do rather than expect me to do things in exactly the same way as I could before.”

Stuntzner also grappled with an issue that is particularly common among women with disabilities whose physical appearance is altered, either through injury or a disability present at birth: body image and attractiveness.

“Again, going back to my own experience, while muscles in my thighs worked, those below my knees did not. This meant my feet and ankles did not either,” she says. “Thus, there was a change in how I initially saw myself and my calves, as these did not have muscle return but they were an attached part of my body. Changing the way I viewed myself was difficult and a form of loss, as I was 19 years of age and highly conscious of fashion and, in particular, shoes. In short, I loved cool shoes and I still do. However, the partial paralysis below my knees meant I now had to wear AFOs and could no longer wear the stylish shoes I had so loved. While some of this may sound trivial, fashion and shoes — again, I was 19 years of age — was important to me, and this change represented a form of loss, along with the attention that my AFOs brought to the stranger passing by.”

“My own story is only one of many, as each person who lives with a disability — visible or invisible — has a story or set of experiences,” Stuntzner says. “For some, it may be cognitive changes [such as] memory, learning, recall, traumatic brain injury. For others, it may be health conditions [such as] irritable bowel syndrome, heart conditions [or] chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that disrupt daily activities and events. Other people live with sensory disabilities — loss of vision or hard of hearing. People who are hard of hearing but not deaf face challenges because people sometimes report not feeling as if they fit anywhere; they are not deaf, nor are they a part of the ‘hearing’ sector due to some of the limitations they experience.”

Regardless of a person’s specific set of circumstances, it is important that the person views themselves as a “whole” person, recognizes their assets and strengths, and builds upon those assets and strengths, Stuntzner says. Identifying one’s abilities, strengths and talents regardless of disability and functional limitations is a key part of what rehabilitation counselors help people do, she adds.

Counselors can help these clients grieve by listening and supporting them emotionally and psychologically as they work through the changes brought about by their disability, Stuntzner says. Counselors should understand that adjustment and grief are individualized processes and that two people with very similar conditions and functional changes may cope and adapt very differently, she notes. They also may require different therapeutic approaches to help them move forward. One size does not fit all based on disability type, Stuntzner emphasizes. It is important to view the person as a whole individual and to help people learn to see themselves as capable individuals comprising many different aspects and interests.

“Another key component of working through loss is helping people work through their negative thoughts and feelings, and experience successes, while living with a disability so they develop a strong internal locus of control and a sense that they can effect change in their life and create the life they seek,” Stuntzner says. “In short, it is about empowering people to discover who they are or who they can be in spite of the disability. As people become empowered, they learn to find their voice and own it and use it to help themselves and others. It is through this process that people oftentimes heal and learn to see the bright side of living with a disability.

“By bright side, I mean they learn to see the positive ways their life has changed or can change, and many find a higher purpose through the experience of living with a disability. However, this is a process, one that may begin with grief and loss, then morph into a personal and/or spiritual journey where people discover ways to grow and sometimes access their higher purpose or sense of self. It is on this journey that people find healing.”

Not just a pet

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, at the end of 2016 (the latest year for which statistics were available), nearly 57 percent of American households had pets. Surveys have shown that the majority of people among that 57 percent also view their pets as part of the family. Yet many people do not regard the death of a pet as a “legitimate” loss. Indeed, those who have suffered the loss of a pet may not recognize their own grief, says licensed clinical professional counselor Cheryl Fisher, an ACA member whose counseling specialties include grief and loss.

In Fisher’s experience, it is not unusual for new clients to present with issues such as depression, anxiety or stress, and when talking about why they are seeking therapy, mention — almost as if it were a side note — “By the way, I just lost my cat.”

Fisher recalls a client who had come to her for grief counseling after the death of a relative. As Fisher listened, she realized that the client’s loss extended beyond that one death and that she was experiencing complicated grief.

The woman mentioned in passing that she rescued feral cats, two of which had died recently. These street felines were not easily domesticated, so the woman’s interactions with them had mainly been restricted to feeding them, Fisher notes. Yet the woman kept collecting them.

The client was very isolated. In fact, the recently deceased relative had been her only remaining family member. Except for the cats. As limited as her relationship was with them, the feral cats were her family, and she was grieving those losses as well.

“People are sheepish about sharing their grief, but our animals are the most vulnerable members of our families and also the most unconditional and accepting,” says Fisher, who shared the experience of losing her beloved dog Lily in her CT Online column, The Counseling Connoisseur (“Pet loss: Lessons in grief,” April 2017).

As she tells clients who are grieving (sheepishly or not), the relationships that people have with their pets — whether dogs, cats, fish or fowl — are strong not just emotionally but biochemically. In interacting with their pets, people feel a release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for feelings of closeness and attachment.

Fisher also asks these clients to tell their “pet story.” She begins by asking how they met their pets. Fisher says the adoption or birthing story is very significant to the pet–human bond, and when clients start to recount it, they get very passionate as they open up to those memories.

“I always want to know the pet’s name, what kind [of animal it was], what the client liked to do with them and if they have pictures,” Fisher says. “It’s like traditional grief therapy — I’m helping them talk about their loved one.”

As clients talk, Fisher will say things that highlight the significance of their relationship with their pet. For example, she might say, “It sounds like Sadie stood right by you through the divorce.”

Fisher says she can almost see clients exhale: “You get it. I didn’t realize this was so important. She wasn’t just a cat!’”

Fisher also helps clients find ways to stay connected to their pet by giving examples of rituals that others have used. She urges clients to think about their relationship with their pet and the type of remembrance that would fit that bond.

For Fisher and her husband, it was taking Lily’s ashes to the beach where they and their goldendoodle had so often visited and played. “She loved the beach,” Fisher notes.

Some clients create scrapbooks with items such as their pet’s adoption papers and first pictures. Fisher included all the condolence cards she and her husband received in the wake of Lily’s death.

One of Fisher’s clients honored her cat, who loved to look out the window at birds, by constructing a special birdhouse that held pride of place next to the pet’s perch.

Fisher also mentions a video she saw at a conference on children and grief. It was called “Bridget’s Loss,” and in it, a little girl says goodbye to her fish in a “ritual flush.”

Fisher describes the scene: The mother, who filmed the video, asks her daughter if there is anything she wants to say before flushing the fish. The girl says, “Sammy, you were a good fish. You always did good fish things, and now you will be able to go with all the other fish, and I will see you in another time in heaven or wherever.”

The key to grieving pet loss is to have some kind of goodbye ritual, Fisher says, even if it is something completely private that involves only clients and their pet.

 

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Additional resources

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

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/pages/events)

  • “An Overview of Military Service Members and Their Families: How Mental Health Professionals Can Best Serve This Population” with John P. Duggan and Odis McKinzie (WEB17002)

Podcasts (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/store/5#cat14)

  • “When Grief Becomes Complicated” with Antoinetta Corvasce (ACA252)
  • “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone (ACA231)
  • “Disability Awareness” with Robbin Miller (ACA196)
  • “Counseling Military Families” (ACA139)

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/)

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Establishing a private practice

By Laurie Meyers March 22, 2019

“If you build it, they will come.” Most of us are familiar with this popular misquote from the movie Field of Dreams (the actual quote is “he will come”), in which a ghostly voice urges Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. Following through on this vision despite the risk of bankruptcy, Costner’s faith is eventually rewarded when he gets the chance to reconcile with his deceased father and multitudes of fans start flocking to his “field of dreams” to watch baseball games.

It’s an attractive and enchanting thought: Give the people what they want (or need), pursue your dreams, and the rest will follow. However …

Remember the dream part? In real life, establishing a small business such as a private counseling practice requires a lot of preparation, planning and ongoing maintenance. Being a good clinician is not enough. Counselors who have established their own practices say that the other major requirement for success is business skill — and more of it than many of them expected they would need.

How will you market your practice? Who will do the scheduling and billing? File the paperwork? Balance the books? These are just a few of the questions counselors need to consider as they contemplate establishing a private practice.

Counseling Today asked four American Counseling Association members with experience in private practice to share their stories, their lessons learned and tips for others in the profession who might be looking to strike out on their own.

 

Tapping into the power of the internet

Ryan Thomas Neace, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and founder of Change Inc., a private practice located in St. Louis, first discovered his entrepreneurial spirit when he established himself as a local DJ at age 15. Neace started working in entry-level mental health positions during his first year of graduate school, and over the course of eight years gained experience in residential, agency, school, in-home, college and community counseling. Along the way, he discovered something crucial: He was an excellent clinician but a terrible employee.

“I tended to do first and ask forgiveness later, whether or not it coincided with what I thought management might want, because I typically thought my ideas were better and less bound to inside-the-box thinking,” Neace says. “I was right, I think, but it wasn’t a very good way to
stay employed.”

Fortunately, Neace’s entrepreneurial spirit and good connections put him on the path to self-employment. “In the course of all of that action [working in numerous counseling environments], I had latched on to a mentor who saw a lot of promise in me and recognized I was gifted in some ways he was not — business acumen, administration, etc. — and he asked me whether I’d consider starting a private practice with him in Virginia. We started brainstorming, and that was that. He put up about $10,000 for office furniture and technology, and we found the space we liked.”

Neace and his mentor co-owned and ran the practice together for several years, but, eventually, both wanted to move to different areas of the country. “I moved back to St. Louis in 2013 and started my first sole ownership practice there,” Neace says. “Five years later, it has two locations, 12 therapists, several support staff, and we’re conducting approximately 700 client sessions per month.”

Although Neace’s move was obviously a success, he acknowledges that it took a substantial amount of hard work and planning to achieve. “About 18 months before I moved back to St. Louis, I started looking online at where all of the counseling practices were,” he says. “I noticed that there tended to be a large accumulation of practices in the western county parts of the metropolitan area but not a ton in the up-and-coming urban areas that for several years were being revitalized and developed. While the county regions were clearly where a majority of the local wealth was, I decided that if I priced our services effectively, there was a decided advantage to being more local to the city itself. We could pick up [gain] residents who were tired of driving to the county for mental health services, and we could even get county residents who were dissatisfied with the kinds of therapists who dominated the landscape in their neck of the woods or [those residents] who worked in the city and might find the idea of getting therapy in the city attractive from a convenience standpoint — [for example] on their lunch hour — or from the perspective of having a bit of geographic distance between themselves and their therapist’s location.”

During this period of research, Neace was also building a website for his practice on WordPress. He already had some experience working with websites, and anything that he didn’t know, he found through online tutorials or support forums. Recognizing that the most essential part of having an online presence is showing up in search results, Neace sought help from a friend who was an expert in search engine optimization (SEO).

The friend taught Neace how to ensure that Change Inc. would show up whenever someone searched online for terms such as “St. Louis____ (anxiety, depression, LGBTQ, etc.) counseling.” Three to six months before Neace was even scheduled to make the move to St. Louis, he was already getting one to two phone calls per week from prospective clients. One month before Neace opened the doors to his new practice, he already had his first few clients scheduled.

Today, Neace’s practice continues to focus on SEO even as it has developed a stream of referrals from previous clients and area clinicians with whom Neace has built relationships. Change Inc. has also taken a nontraditional approach to marketing.

“Instead of spending money on traditional print or other marketing efforts, we partner with other small businesses — typically nonprofits — that have a mission we feel is supportive of our own and that reach a target demographic similar to our own,” Neace says. “We offer these organizations financial support in exchange for direct marketing opportunities to their target audiences and brand association, [such as] event or web advertising where our brand and their brand is featured together in a prominent way.”

Neace acknowledges that owning his own practice can be demanding, but for him, it produces less anxiety than trying to work within someone else’s confines. “Certainly, owning a practice increases the stress, though I think it’s a qualitatively different kind of stress,” he says. “Perhaps the most prominent difficulty in ownership for me is the heightening of my personal sense of loneliness, in that no one sees how much I’ve risked or how hard it can be, simply by virtue of the fact that they aren’t owners. But if you’re an entrepreneur of my kind, it is a labor of love where the rewards far outweigh the additional stress.

“Again, I’m highly motivated by the autonomy and independent decision-making, as well as the notion that each decision I make stands to increase my interests financially and otherwise. And I love getting to create an environment that prioritizes the elements of counseling that I believe are most important to transformational clinical work.”

When asked what advice he would give to counselors interested in setting up their own practices, Neace emphasized the following:

  • “Learn and implement SEO like your life depends on it. People should be able to search ‘Your city, Your industry, _____’ and you come up in the top five every time.”
  • “Find someone you trust who has a business that is thriving and ask them every question [you have]. Trust that if you are annoying them or if they don’t want to answer, they will tell you. Otherwise, be totally relentless about learning from them.”
  • “Remember that most people selling business how-tos are actually in the business of selling business how-tos, not in the business of having a successful, meaningful business. Most of the good information is free [from] mentors/friends … or next to free [from] books.” (Neace particularly recommends The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael Gerber, and Built to Sell: Building a Business That Can Thrive Without You, by John Warrillow.)
  • “Don’t be bogged down by convention. Do it the way you want to unless it absolutely makes no [financial] sense. Expect that people will tell you you’re breaking the rules and to generally be appalled that you have the audacity to think outside the box.”
  • “When you get scared and want to quit, run the numbers. Calculate the amount of money you need to keep the business afloat each month, and let that be your true north.”
  • “It helped that I had a side hustle [adjunct teaching online]. On the other hand, eventually it will eat into your ability to do the business. There’s definitely something to being all-in. If you keep a side hustle, keep one that doesn’t give you enough to live on. Let the hunger you feel drive you.”
  • “Don’t try to have everything at once. For the first two years, I worked in a space with old carpet and paint, three empty offices and a waiting room with the couch from my basement and some chairs I bought off Craigslist. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

 

Knowing your strengths and maintaining flexibility

“In my 25 years as a therapist, I’ve been in and out of private practice depending on the needs of myself and my family,” explains Keri Riggs, an LPC currently practicing full time in the Dallas area. “So, I’ve worked full time as executive director of a nonprofit and full time as an intensive outpatient coordinator at a hospital. I always wanted to keep my hand in counseling, so I often contracted through agencies or under other therapists or had a solo practice while still being employed.”

“I believe when counselors are just starting out, the decision about solo practice depends a great deal on their economic or marital status,” Riggs says. “If you have a stable family income with benefits, your options are different than if you are a single parent or sole income provider for your household.”

Riggs cautions others to think carefully about giving up additional sources of income while building a practice. “I … regretted quitting my part-time agency work while building my practice. I only made $17,000 that year, and it was the toughest year ever,” she says.

Riggs has used a variety of methods to attract clients. “I see many resources on Facebook or online promising people can have a flourishing full-pay, noninsurance practice within a year, but that hasn’t been my experience,” she says. “I believe it depends on demand in the geographical area [and whether] a counselor elects to accept insurance or employee assistance program work.”

In Riggs’ experience, it usually takes two to three years to build a full practice. “I do believe it’s valuable to network and to have a niche but also not to over-focus on that,” she says.

However, Riggs does recommends that counselors focus their marketing efforts. “Don’t just send flyers to doctors’ offices. They end up in the trash before a doctor ever sees them,” she says. Instead, she advises that private practitioners find ways to speak directly to their target client populations, such as by holding workshops or giving presentations at service organizations.

Riggs enjoys running her own practice but grants that being a CEO and a counselor is a tough balancing act. “There’s a saying: You can’t work on the business when you’re working in the business. So, if I’m seeing clients, I can’t be working on marketing, billing/accounting, networking, blogging.”

In addition to seeing clients and running the business side of things, it’s essential that self-employed counselors continue to devote time to self-care, Riggs says. “I’ve discovered my magic number of clients I can see in a row and in a day,” she says. “I’ve blocked time in my calendar as I’ve gotten busier to eat, return phone calls and do administrative tasks. Occasionally, I block a mental health day for myself and spend time with non-therapist friends.” Peer consultation is also essential, Riggs adds.

Riggs doesn’t have office support staff but does outsource certain tasks. She employs an accountant and someone to manage her website and consults with a social media expert. She does her own scheduling, billing and filing of health insurance claims with a little technological assistance. Riggs uses practice management software that allows clients to schedule online, sends clients appointment reminders, bills insurance, posts payments and even provides a central place for Riggs to take progress notes and write treatment plans. “I couldn’t manage without it,” she says.

Not having the luxury of sick time or paid leave as a private practitioner can be difficult, but Riggs thinks the trade-off is worth it. “I love the freedom and I love being my own boss,” she says. “I can arrange to go to the kids’ school or doctors’ appointments or even take a recharge nap on my office couch in between clients if I need to.”

When asked what advice she would give to counselors interested in setting up their own practices, Riggs says the following:

  • “Work with your own personality strengths and weaknesses. If you procrastinate on accounting and hate it but have a talent for writing, spend your time writing and hire someone to help with the financial aspects.”
  • “If you don’t want to deal with the administrative aspects of your practice, don’t. Get with a group [that] provides that for you and willingly pay the costs involved.”
  • “Don’t feel like you have to do everything all at once. Serve the clients you have and serve them well.”
  • “Find a supportive accountability partner if needed, and engage in regular peer consultation with other counselors.”
  • “Be kind to yourself. Keep learning and growing.”
  • “Make sure you have a life outside of work.”

 

Identifying a need and growing into a group practice

Michael Stokes, an LPC and founder of Stokes Counseling Services LLC, in Naugatuck, Connecticut, set up his own practice because he wanted to develop a niche devoted to treating LGBTQ individuals and their families. “There were not agencies focused on LGBTQ services in my area, and this was a significant unmet need in my community,” he explains.

To get up and running, Stokes networked with other counselors in private practice, but he says he owes the most to a former supervisor. “Her guidance around logistics helped me develop a step-by-step process for opening my practice. The first step was finding an office location [and] community I wanted to practice in. This was not difficult since I knew exactly the town where I wanted to set up my practice. From there, I needed to find office space I could afford. Living paycheck to paycheck, I needed something extremely cheap. I cashed in my saving bonds from when I was a baby and used that $500 to secure my lease on the office space. After the office space, I finalized my paperwork [and] insurance paneling and started to let others know I [would] be open for business Oct. 1.”

Like other first-time small-business owners of all stripes, Stokes was unaware of how much business knowledge he would need to run his own practice. “I had no formal training,” he says, “so I dove straight into reading, researching and seeking out experts in the field of private practice.”

Initially, Stokes’ practice was part time, but as he grew more confident with the business side, he decided to go full time. Suddenly, his practice mushroomed.

“When I took the leap into private practice full time in April 2012, I was eager to build my caseload to a place that was comfortable,” he says. “What I found instead was that I was seeing way too many clients, and the referrals were not stopping anytime soon. I was seeing about 40 clients a week and knew I could not sustain that level of practice.” Stokes realized that without additional help, he would have to start turning clients away, which he was loath to do.

“Simultaneously, colleagues from other agencies were reaching out to understand my experiences in private practice and asked if they could start to see a few clients in my office when I was not there. Little did I know, this was my starting point of group practice development. Being able to serve more clients was an amazing experience. As I began to cultivate my group [practice], I knew it was important for me to bring clinicians on who had different styles, theoretical orientations, different niche areas and populations. This allowed us to build a cohesive practice of clinical services. We now have over 50 licensed clinicians who serve thousands of clients in our state.”

Stokes started with a mission of providing help to the underserved LGBTQ community, but he didn’t anticipate just how much private practice would reignite his passion for clinical work. “I was working in clinics and nonprofits throughout my career. Feeling very overwhelmed, overworked [and] underpaid, I was on the path for early burnout,” he says. “Having my own space was empowering because I was able to design a safe place for myself and my clients. To this day, I am a huge advocate for private practice and helping clinicians find success in this arena.”

When asked what guidance he would give counselors who are thinking of setting up their own practices, Stokes says, “My best advice … would be explore all of your opportunities. Have a good handle on who your ideal client is, where you want to serve and what supports you need [to have] in place as you go down the path of private practice work.”

 

Keeping clinical skills sharp as a counselor educator

Misty Ginicola, a professor in the counseling and school psychology department at Southern Connecticut State University, is primarily a counselor educator. She began her career teaching, but decided that she wanted to keep her clinical skills sharp.

“I wanted to be a more effective professor,” she says. “It definitely helps students to have plenty of narratives on how something might work with a client.”

Ginicola, now an LPC with a private practice in West Haven, Connecticut, decided to focus on two specific populations — LGBTQ individuals and highly sensitive people. She purchased a website and started the process of completing the business application process for her town, registering for tax purposes, applying for a National Provider Identifier number, and getting on insurance boards, all of which took longer and proved to be more complicated than she had anticipated. Ginicola says she fervently wishes she had known enough beforehand to find someone with insurance board experience to guide her through the process.

Striking a balance between teaching, consulting on and conducting research projects, doing clinical work and all of her other commitments requires a bit of juggling and a lot of self-care on Ginicola’s part.

“I put limits on the number of clients I take. I only take a maximum of five clients at a time. I also only see clients during times when it will not interfere with family time,” says Ginicola, the mother of two small children and the president-elect of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA. “My self-care is vast and it really has to be. I practice pranayama — breathing practices — throughout my day and coherent breathing every night. I practice yoga every day and am a yoga teacher. I teach three times a week, and it really keeps me working on my own wellness, as I have to practice through the week and stay true to my own physical wellness. I make sure to be honest with myself and to communicate clearly with others what I need. I have learned to say no to lots of things that do not bring me happiness or speak to what I feel is my life purpose, or dharma. By really focusing in on those things, I do not feel overwhelmed. Everything I do truly feeds my soul.”

When asked what advice she would give to counselors who want to set up their own practices, Ginicola says, “Really understand that it involves being a business owner, not just a counselor. Therefore, if it is going to be your primary source of income, it takes a lot of work in setting up and retaining a thriving practice. As a part-time practice owner, the demand is not as much to make a good income at it. I can put a limit on my number of clients, I can choose what insurance boards I truly want to work with, and I can specialize in specific issues. I think establishing a specialization is an excellent way to attract clients and gain referrals.”

 

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Additional resources

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

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/pages/events)

  • “Private Practice: The Ethics and HIPAA of Technology” with Rob Reinhardt and John P. Duggan (WEBA18007)
  • “Private Practice: Building Your Brand” with Deb Legge and John P. Duggan (WEBA17007)
  • “Private Practice: Managing Your Business” with John P. Duggan and Deb Legge (WEBA18002)
  • “Private Practice: Getting Off to a Strong Start” with Deb Legge and John P. Duggan (WEBA17005)
  • “Counselor Risk Management: Counselors and Technology — A Two-Edged Sword” with Anne Marie “Nancy” Wheeler and John P. Duggan (WEBL18005)
  • “Private Practice: Choosing a Best Fit” with Rob Reinhardt and John P. Duggan (WEBA18004)
  • “Ethics and Values in Real-Life Counseling Practice” with Stephanie F. Dailey and John P. Duggan (WEBA17006)
  • “Counselor Risk Management: What You Didn’t Learn in Grad School That Could Lead to a Lawsuit or Licensure Board Complaint” with Anne Marie “Nancy” Wheeler and John P. Duggan (WEBA18001)
  • “Does One Size Fit All? How to Successfully Get and Keep Your Clients” with Janis Manalang (CPA20695)

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • The Counselor and the Law: A Guide to Legal and Ethical Practice, eighth edition, by Anne Marie “Nancy” Wheeler & Burt Bertram
  • ACA Ethical Standards Casebook, seventh edition, by Barbara Herlihy and Gerald Corey
  • Ethics Desk Reference for Counselors, second edition, by Jeffrey E. Barnett and W. Brad Johnson
  • The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors by Jeffrey A. Kottler
  • Counselor Self-Care by Gerald Corey, Michelle Muratoni, Jude T. Austin II and Julius A. Austin
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapies: A Guidebook for Practitioners edited by Ann Vernon and Kristene A. Doyle
  • Creating Your Professional Path: Lessons From My Journey by Gerald Corey

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/self-care-resources)

  • Self-Care

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

The messy reality of perfectionism

By Lindsey Phillips February 26, 2019

Philip Gnilka, an associate professor of counseling and the coordinator of the counselor education doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), has heard of severe cases of perfectionism at college counseling centers in which a student refuses to submit any work out of fear of being evaluated. As long as the student does not turn in work, his or her sense of self remains intact, he explains.

This raises a question: Is perfectionism a bad thing? Within the mental health professions, healthy debate is taking place on this very topic. Some therapists view all forms of perfectionism — whether self-oriented, others-oriented or socially prescribed — as negative, whereas others believe there is an adaptive component to perfectionism.

Gnilka, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and the director of the Personality, Stress and Coping Lab at VCU, is in the latter camp. He notes that, historically, perfectionism has been considered a negative quality, so the goal was to reduce clients’ perfectionistic tendencies to make them “better.” However, he says, this black-and-white thinking — a quality of perfectionism itself — does not fully capture perfectionism.

Instead, Gnilka, a member of the American Counseling Association, argues that perfectionism is a multidimensional construct that consists of perfectionistic strivings (i.e., Do you hold high personal expectations for yourself and others?) and perfectionistic concerns, or one’s internal critic, (i.e., If you don’t meet these standards, how self-critical are you?). He says these two dimensions can help counselors determine who they are working with: an individual with adaptive, or healthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards but low self-criticism) or an individual with maladaptive, or unhealthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards and high self-criticism).

In his research, Gnilka has found that one’s perfectionistic concerns, not one’s strivings, are what correlate with negative mental health aspects. “What’s really correlating with depression, stress and negative life satisfaction is this self-critical perfectionism dimension. It’s not holding high standards itself per se,” he explains.

In fact, Gnilka argues that lowering clients’ perfectionist standards or instructing them to do things less perfectly is the wrong approach. Anecdotally, he’s found suggesting that clients lower their standards is a nonstarter and often doesn’t work. Instead, Gnilka advises counselors to focus their interventions on the self-critical voice. “Focusing on that internal critic … is where you’re going to get your most malleability because that’s the one [dimension] that’s connected with all the [negative aspects of mental health],” he says.

Healthy striving

Beth Fier, the clinical director of SEED Services: Partners for Counseling and Wellness in New Jersey, finds perfectionism to be problematic. “It’s rigid and it’s interfering in some way, and it’s pretty unforgiving in terms of its high standards so that it actually is creating difficulty either for [people] and their experience of themselves or maybe in their relationship to others or how they’re interacting in the world.” However, she also acknowledges that many people want to be high achieving.

Because perfectionism can be limiting with its focus on being “perfect,” Fier, an LPC and an ACA member, likes the concept of excellentism. As an excellentist, people still want to do their best, but the term allows them to think more flexibly about how to do that, she explains. The focus is more on the process, which allows people to appreciate and enjoy the effort, the learning curve and their growth along the way. Perfectionism becomes problematic when people focus solely on the outcomes — on if they meet a certain goal, Fier adds.

Emily Kircher-Morris, the clinical director and counselor at Unlimited Potential Counseling and Education Center in Missouri, offers a similar perspective. Rather than using the term adaptive perfectionism, she prefers the phrase striving for excellence. Perfectionism, she explains, often implies there is no room for error, which becomes self-defeating. “All of these [perfectionistic] characteristics can be strengths,” she notes. “It’s when they go too far that they start causing disruptions to our lives.”

Despite their differences in terminology or mindset about perfectionism, Gnilka, Fier and Kircher-Morris all agree on the importance of healthy strivings and the need to intervene on the critical voice.

Kircher-Morris does this in part by having clients create realistic reframes, which is a way of changing a negative thought into something more optimistic. Counselors can draw thought bubbles and ask clients to fill in one of the bubbles with the negative thought and the other bubble with a realistic reframe. For example, the negative thought “I got an answer wrong when the teacher called on me. Now everyone thinks I’m dumb” could be rewritten as “I am allowed to make mistakes just like everyone else.” This exercise helps clients figure out a way forward without ignoring the uncomfortable emotions, Kircher-Morris adds.

However, too much reframing may cause clients to feel like counselors are imposing a “right” way to think about the situation, says Kircher-Morris, an LPC and a member of ACA. She finds that using dialectical thinking to look at and validate both sides is empowering for clients. For example, one technique she finds helpful is moving clients from either/or statements to both/and statements such as “I’m doing the best I can and I know I can also do better” and “This is going to be really hard and I know I can get through this situation.” By shifting their thinking, clients realize that two opposite statements can both be true; they are not necessarily exclusive to each other, she explains.

Much of Fier’s work involves softening the critical voice. She often poses the following scenario to her clients to illustrate the potential danger of this voice: “Imagine you are put in charge of selecting a child’s kindergarten teacher. Would you want a teacher who is strict and will tell the children they are horrible as a means of motivating them to learn and grow? Would you want a teacher who lets children do whatever they want and not worry about the quality of their work? Or would you want a teacher who has high expectations but works with and supports children to help them figure out opportunities for growth and learning?”

Although the answer seems obvious in that context, it is often difficult for people to apply that same balance of high expectations and support to themselves, Fier says.

Valuing progress, not outcomes

It is common for people who possess perfectionistic tendencies to assume they can achieve something quickly and easily, Fier points out. That’s why breaking down activities into smaller step-by-step pieces that clients can build on is important, she says. This process provides opportunities for positive reinforcement; allows clients flexibility in achieving their overarching aim; and allows clients to focus on what they have accomplished rather than on the ultimate outcome, she explains. 

Fier, the past president of the New Jersey Association for Multicultural Counseling, redirects clients from working toward goals to working toward values and aims, which allows them greater flexibility in how they address the situation. This includes asking clients the reasons they set a particular goal and why that goal matters. Shifting the focus to values and aims helps clients feel good about what they accomplish rather than beating themselves up for what they fall short of achieving, she adds.

Fier recently worked with a client who had a goal of balancing care for her mental and physical self. The client focused on outcome-based goals of diet, exercise and weight loss. By focusing on the outcome, she would berate herself whenever she didn’t make it to the gym. Fier helped the client broaden her perspective on how to achieve her aim or value of having a healthy lifestyle, which can include exercising, eating well, getting adequate sleep and pursuing good mental health.

“Some days that might be going to the gym. Some days that might be taking a quick walk outside because [she has] all of these other competing priorities,” Fier says. “It’s that intention and motivation that keeps [the client] focused on the care piece as opposed to the ‘I didn’t make it’ piece — ‘I screwed up and did it again.’”

Kircher-Morris also warns counselors to watch out for “goal vaulting.” This is when people set a goal and, as they close in on reaching that goal, they instead raise the bar. In the process, she explains, they forget about all the steps they completed to get to that point, which makes them feel like they aren’t making progress or haven’t accomplished anything.

One technique Kircher-Morris uses to address this counterproductive thinking is to have clients write down the steps they have accomplished to reach a certain goal on a graphic organizer, such as a visual symbol of stairsteps or a ladder reaching an end goal.

Kircher-Morris worked with a gymnast who was frustrated because she couldn’t seem to master a back handspring. Kircher-Morris helped the client break down all the skills she had accomplished in pursuit of that goal, such as learning how to do a cartwheel and roundoff. “You have to recognize those successes along the way because, otherwise, you’ll always feel like you’re falling short,” Kircher-Morris says. “A lot of times it’s easier to work backward — starting with the end goal but then thinking back to what were all of the things you had to do to get to that point. That, sometimes, is a little bit easier to conceptualize.”

Understriving

Most people equate perfectionism with overstriving and overachieving. But this isn’t always the case. Perfectionism manifests in different ways, Kircher-Morris points out.

“When clients come in … I hear anxiety, I hear stress [and] I hear being overwhelmed,” she says. “When we get into what is causing that level of distress, I find that it’s often coming from a place of perfectionism, whether that’s manifesting as procrastination or risk avoidance or just really trying to control situations.”

Avoidance, Gnilka says, “seems to be a big coping difference between adaptive perfectionists and maladaptive perfectionists. They use the same amount of task-based coping and emotion-based coping, but the avoidance-based coping seems to be very, very high for maladaptive perfectionists compared to an adaptive one.” Thus, counselors might ask clients why they are avoiding certain things and what they are afraid of, he says.

Kircher-Morris agrees that counselors should help clients understand what they are avoiding. People often assume that avoidance is based on a fear of failure, but what they don’t realize is that avoidance can also result from a fear of success, she argues. For example, imagine a student who avoids going to medical school based on a fear of doing well at school only to discover that he or she hates being a doctor and is unhappy.

“They fear the success that then might lead to something negative in the future,” Kircher-Morris explains. “It’s not something you would typically think of when you’re thinking of perfectionism, but it can have a negative outcome in the future and lead to procrastination or avoidance of decision-making.”

The challenges children and parents face

Socially prescribed perfectionism extends beyond the microcosm of the nuclear family, Kircher-Morris says. Thanks in part to the influence of social media, children and parents alike often start to think that others have a “perfect” life and then feel the pressure to measure up to that impossible standard.

Kircher-Morris recalls a client who chose a college degree program based on the respect he thought it would garner from others rather than based on his own interests. The client had struggled in high school, so he wanted to prove to others that he was capable.

To offset these societal pressures, counselors can help clients become aware of their own personal goals and ways to measure success for themselves, Kircher-Morris suggests. This might include guiding clients to figure out what is at the root of their motivation to get into a particular school or to achieve a certain ACT score, she says.

Kircher-Morris has also noticed a connection between perfectionism and people who are gifted or of high ability. “Part of the reason why you see [perfectionism] so commonly with people who are gifted and … with talented athletes is because things come so naturally to them, so then they don’t know how to handle it when something is difficult,” she says. People who are gifted are often told that they are smart, so they internalize this quality as a part of their identity, she continues. Then, when they face something difficult or challenging, they don’t know how to handle it because it doesn’t fit with who they think they are.

Kircher-Morris builds on these clients’ strengths by using analogies about times in the past when they got through something difficult or handled a situation differently. Then she points out how they could apply those same skills to their current situation. Counselors might also encourage clients to find their own comparisons, which facilitates independence, she adds.

Many parents also feel the pressure to be perfect. Seeing other people’s children getting accepted to elite schools or competitive athletic teams (things that often get trumpeted on social media posts) can cause parents to worry about not being good enough, Kircher-Morris points out. “When they see their child fail, it feels like a reflection on them,” she says. Or there’s the “fear that if [they] don’t handle this correctly, it’s going to change the trajectory of [their] child’s life.”

Counselors can help parents reframe this negative line of thinking. One method is to have them consider how allowing children to make mistakes is actually a sign of good parenting because it helps children learn, grow and become independent, Kircher-Morris says. “You don’t have to be the parent who always has all of the answers and who always manages your emotions,” she reminds parents. “It’s OK to show that vulnerability and process through that.” In fact, she often advises parents to be vulnerable within the parent-child relationship. Rather than hide their vulnerability, parents can talk through their feelings and model how to handle the stress.

For example, if a parent is anxious about a phone call or a meeting, the parent can share that feeling with the child and show the child how he or she would handle the situation. “You’re teaching the kids that it’s OK not to be perfect,” Kircher-Morris says. “It’s OK to have worries and stresses, but also you can still work through them.”

Kircher-Morris also finds that parents sometimes unintentionally facilitate perfectionism in their children. For instance, when a child brings home a school assignment, parents might focus on the errors and have the child correct them. Parents might also offer praise whenever the child scores 100 percent but question the child otherwise (e.g., “What happened? Why wasn’t this a better grade?”).

Another common example is when a parent unloads the dishwasher after the child loads it because it was not done to the parent’s standards, Kircher-Morris says. This behavior undermines the child’s level of independence and feeling of self-efficacy, she explains. In constantly critiquing and correcting their children in such ways, parents are teaching them that there is no room for error and that they aren’t “good enough” unless perfection is attained, she says.

Instead, counselors can help parents learn to focus on the process, not the outcome, Kircher-Morris advises. For instance, rather than fixating on individual test grades, parents can ask, “What did you learn on this paper? What did you get out of the assignment? What was the area of struggle?”

In an episode last year on Kircher-Morris’ Mind Matters podcast (mindmatterspodcast.com), Lisa Van Gemert, an expert on perfectionism and gifted individuals, discussed how teachers and schools also inadvertently engage in behaviors that increase perfectionism in students. She cited two examples of ways the educational system isn’t set up to recognize effort, persistence and diligence. First, teachers often give out stickers to reward “perfect” work. Second, having a perfect attendance award causes some children to come to school even when they are sick just to get the award. These types of rewards set up an unreasonable standard, Gemert said

“When we focus on the outcomes — the grades — then that’s going to lead to that perfectionism,” Kircher-Morris says. “When we focus on the process and the learning, then we’re going to move away from that and really focus on that striving for excellence.”

Imperfect experiments

To ease clients’ expectations of doing things perfectly, Fier often uses the word experiment: “We’re going to experiment this week with trying this [practice] and see how it goes. … This is simply a process that we’re going to test out and troubleshoot and come back to.”

The emphasis on experimenting is also a way of modeling flexibility, Fier stresses. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, I succeeded or I failed,” she says. “You’ve succeeded in the process of attempting.”

Rather than asking clients who expect to do mindfulness or meditation practices “perfectly” to engage in that practice every day, Fier may ask them to experiment with practicing their soothing rhythm breathing (slowing the exhale and inhale down to a rhythmical rate) twice during the week for 30 seconds. Then, the next week she may ask them to engage in this practice for five minutes every day or every other day. Again, counselors should emphasize that they are experimenting and exploring what works for the client, she says.

Kircher-Morris also finds it helpful to frame counseling activities as experiments. She often instructs her younger clients to be “scientists” with her. She tells them that together, they will come up with a hypothesis and test it out.

She has a middle school client who was deliberately not submitting work unless it was “perfect” (i.e., a completed assignment that lived up to her standards). In this situation, Kircher-Morris and the client crafted the following hypothesis: “If I turn in a math assignment and I have missed two problems, nothing will happen.” To test this hypothesis, the client intentionally missed two problems on an assignment that wasn’t worth a lot of points. In doing this, the client realized that the world didn’t fall apart when she got an 80 (instead of a 100) on this one assignment because it didn’t affect her overall A in the class. Kircher-Morris adds that this technique is similar to prescribing the symptom or systematic desensitization (a method that gradually exposes a person to an anxiety-producing stimulus and substitutes a relaxation response for the anxious one).

As scientists, clients also collect data. Kircher-Morris asks clients to document every time that they procrastinate on an assignment, think they are going to mess up or believe they have to do something perfectly. They can track these data with a phone app, in a notebook they carry with them or on an index card placed on the corner of their desk, she says.

Counselors should avoid framing this activity so that it unintentionally becomes a reward system for clients — an assignment they can “win” or “lose,” she warns. Instead, the point of the experiment is to have clients gain awareness, establish a baseline and test whether their beliefs associated with perfectionism are based on emotions or facts, she explains.

The shame of ‘falling short’

Fier doesn’t think she has ever worked with a client with perfectionistic tendencies who wasn’t also experiencing a sense of shame. She finds that perfectionism, depression and anxiety often cluster together, and the underlying thread is “this proneness toward self-conscious emotions, particularly shame, and that tendency to then get caught in a feedback loop in the brain that leads us down this road of self-criticism.”

Because clients who have perfectionistic tendencies often mask their struggles, building rapport and a trusting and open relationship with them as counselors is crucial, Kircher-Morris emphasizes. “They know that they’re in distress. They know that they’re struggling, but they don’t want it to be perceived that they can’t handle it on their own,” she says.

Perfectionism reinforces the idea that we are not enough to reach the standards we set for ourselves — the ones that are unrelenting and too high to be achieved, Fier says. “We start to have this sense of self that is based on this global sense of failure,” she explains. “It’s not that my behavior failed or that one part of me hasn’t been able to accomplish something. It’s that I’m the failure.”

In addition, shame makes people feel like they don’t belong, so they want to hide or disappear, Fier adds. In fact, some clients experience such a sense of unworthiness — to the point of self-loathing — that they often don’t feel they deserve compassion, she says. Thus, she finds compassion-focused therapy beneficial. Some compassion-focused techniques that help to regulate the body include soothing rhythm breathing, body posture changes (e.g., making the back and shoulders upright and solid and raising one’s chin to help the body feel confident) and soothing touch (e.g., placing hands on one’s heart).

Fier will also have clients imagine a compassionate image such as a color that has a quality of warmth and caring. She has clients explore their various emotional selves, such as their anxious self or their angry self, and think about how these emotions feel and sound when they speak to the client and to each other (e.g., “What does the angry self say to the anxious self?”).

Fier acknowledges that these practices and techniques do not get rid of the self-critical thoughts or difficult emotions entirely. However, over time, clients learn to pull up a compassionate self to sit alongside the difficulty, she says. “The compassionate self is the hub of the wheel that holds all these other parts of [the individual together],” she adds.

Kircher-Morris also identifies another point of emphasis. “One of the main components of perfectionism is a discomfort with vulnerability,” she says. “So, when [counselors] can facilitate that and give permission for that vulnerability, that’s where the change happens.” She recommends that counselors look for opportunities to use appropriate self-disclosures with these clients. She believes this gives clients permission to be vulnerable and reduces the power differential between client and counselor.

Being vulnerable and compassionate takes strength, Fier points out. She helps clients redefine strength — which in the United States is often viewed in terms of competition and domination — to realize that it is about being open to care and vulnerability.

Fier has also learned an important lesson: When working with clients, she doesn’t begin discussing compassion as something warm and caring. When counselors begin a session discussing compassion as a caring aspect, some clients think this emotion is too scary or difficult for them to relate to, she explains.

Instead, Fier begins by talking about accessing courage and eventually transitions into the courage it takes to be open, vulnerable and compassionate. She finds that some clients have experiences of feeling courageous or strong, but they have a difficult time connecting to experiences in which they have offered themselves any sort of care or comfort. “So, if [counselors] can start with where the client is and build up that courage, [they] can use that to help access the vulnerability and begin to redefine the strength aspects of being vulnerable,” she says.

Living with imperfection

For some counselors, perfectionism hits close to home. Counseling is a profession in which people often feel like they need to get it “perfect,” Fier says.

Kircher-Morris suggests that counselors follow the advice they often give to clients: Make the best decision based on the information you have at the time. “Our clients give us what they can, and it’s our job to connect with them and facilitate that and help them put those pieces together,” she says. “But we’re also working with what we have at the time, whether that’s our training and our professional development … [or the client] relationship and what we know about that particular client.”

Kircher-Morris says she often looks back at herself from five years ago and sees a counselor who thought she had everything figured out and knew what she was doing. Now, she says, she
realizes she was just doing what was best in the moment.

Counselors have to remember that they will not always get it “right,” and they have to learn to tolerate imperfection, Fier says. Every morning, Fier glances at the misaligned shower shelf in her bathroom, which serves as a gentle reminder that it’s OK to live with imperfection. Counselors can guide clients to find similar reminders to help them feel less threatened by imperfection, she suggests.

Perfectionism always goes back to one central issue — the self-critical voice, Gnilka asserts. “The idea that human beings are going to be able to walk around in life and not have any self-critical talk is just not possible. It’s not that healthy perfectionists are just walking around with no self-critical piece to them. It’s just that they’re walking around with no more, or maybe slightly less, than the average person of the population,” he says. “What [counselors] are trying to do is alleviate [the critical voice] so it’s not so critically depressing and keeping people from enjoying life.”

At the end of the podcast episode on perfectionism, Kircher-Morris acknowledges that if we don’t allow ourselves to admit we have flaws, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. “Perfectionism is the refusal to show any vulnerability,” she says. “It’s vulnerability that allows us to be authentic, who we really are, and establish those strong relationships with those around us. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be perfectly imperfect.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counselor self-disclosure: Encouragement or impediment to client growth?

Written and compiled by Bethany Bray January 29, 2019

W. Bryce Hagedorn once counseled a client who was wrestling with intense feelings of shame regarding things he had done during the Vietnam War. The client, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, felt responsible for the soldiers he had lost during combat. He never expressed any details connected to these painful and complicated memories, however, until Hagedorn used a pivotal therapeutic tool: self-disclosure.

Hagedorn is also a Marine Corps veteran who has served in combat. The disclosure of his military service “opened the door to share things that the client had never shared before, even with going to the Department of Veterans Affairs [for treatment] for years. Before he was able to share, he wanted to know if I would be judging him,” says Hagedorn, a licensed mental health counselor and director of the counselor education program at the University of Central Florida.

When used sparingly, professionally and appropriately, counselor self-disclosure can build trust, foster empathy and strengthen the therapeutic alliance between counselor and client. However, counselor self-disclosure also holds the potential to derail progress and take focus off of the client. It is a tool that should be used with care — and in small doses, according to the ethics professionals working at the American Counseling Association (see sidebar, below). Learning how, when or whether to use self-disclosure with clients is best achieved through training, experience and supervision.

Hagedorn notes that once a clinician self-discloses, the client may naturally be inclined to ask questions seeking additional personal information about the counselor. “If you’re going to self-disclose, know ahead of time where your bailout point is,” says Hagedorn, a member of ACA. “Once you open the self-disclosure door, where are you going to stop? When I worked with couples, they could see that I was wearing a wedding ring. I was often asked how long I had been married, if I had kids or if I ever struggled like [the clients were] struggling. Know where you’re going to stop answering questions.”

Hagedorn doesn’t believe that self-disclosure should be an automatic, out-of-the-gate technique for counselor practitioners. Rather, he advises, counselors should consider it a tool to keep in reserve, using it only when appropriate — and with clear intention.

“I’m in favor of less is more with self-disclosure,” Hagedorn says. “If you’re going to self-disclose, you have to do it with dignity and understand the reasons why a client is asking [for personal information from a counselor]. Explain to the client, ‘Even if I have walked down a similar path, it doesn’t mean I have walked down your path.”

 

The many aspects of self-disclosure

Counseling Today recently collected insights about counselor self-disclosure from American Counseling Association members of varied backgrounds and practice settings. Read their thoughts below.

We encourage readers to add their own thoughts to this discussion by posting comments at the bottom of this article.

 

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Kimberly Parrow is a doctoral student at the University of Montana. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in working with clients to address grief and posttraumatic growth.

Client comments often spark the urge for self-disclosure. The feelings of connection in a professional counseling relationship tempt counselors to self-disclose, sometimes without warning. I think the consideration of providing personal details to clients occurs regularly [but] believe situations when such disclosures are appropriate are few. Appropriate self-disclosure is client-focused, validates the client’s experience and spurs further exploration. A constructive disclosure is brief, focused on meaning and light on story.

Professional counseling relationships require a harmony of the necessary theoretical and relational components. When the pull to disclose occurs, I take a moment and ask myself three things:

a) Is the disclosure grounded in theory?

b) Is there any other way to keep the locus of the experience within the client’s world?

c) How will the disclosure affect the therapeutic relationship?

For these reasons, I think it is important to keep in mind that the decision to disclose should not be made in the moment. An appropriate disclosure is the product of thoughtful planning.

I once had a young adult client recovering from a tragedy that killed several people and left him clinging to life. Our work began after several months of hospitalization and physical therapy. A number of sessions became focused on his feelings of dissociation regarding his own near-death experience. He would make statements such as, “I almost died, and it feels like I don’t care.” He explained the feeling was getting in the way of connecting with his family and friends. His support people couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more thankful to be alive, and neither could he. Feelings of isolation and confusion were becoming a sticking point in his recovery. He felt alone in a rare experience. However, he wasn’t and isn’t alone; I have had a near-death experience too.

My decision to disclose took several days. The disclosure would be tied to our treatment goals, but keeping the locus on the client was a challenge. A discussion of my experience might be too alluring and could pose a threat to our therapeutic relationship and focus. Eventually I decided on a very brief statement, [saying], “I almost died once too,” and waited for the subject to surface again. When it did, I shared my brief statement. It was simple and powerful. In that moment, he was able to trust that my validation of and explanation for his dissociation was real, because I had also lived it. As a result, our therapeutic bond deepened, and our trauma recovery work gained traction.

 

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Benjamin Hearn is a school-based counselor in Columbia, South Carolina.

Self-disclosure is something that we all do with our clients from the moment we begin interacting with them. Our clothes, offices and other nonverbal communications all disclose things about [us], either intentionally or unintentionally.

Our more common notion of self-disclosure, however, centers on information we share about ourselves verbally with our clients. One piece of information that I have found myself often considering whether to disclose is my identity as a gay male. I most often disclose this information when I have sufficient client rapport and a client voices an incorrect assumption about me, such as asking about my wife. At other times, I may use disclosure to model a healthy gay identity or to promote a sense of similarity between myself and a client.

This latter approach was particularly helpful with a teenage client who had recently come out as gay but did not know other gay people and conceptualized them using common stereotypes. In order to keep the focus on him while disclosing, I framed my disclosure with a question afterward, saying, “I’m not sure if you know this, but I’m also gay and wonder if you see me as fitting within these stereotypes?” This allowed my client to explore differences in gay identities, as well as modeling a secure identity. He noted that he was surprised at how casual I had been in my statement, after which I was able to assist him in exploring reasons that he was anxious about his own disclosure to others.

Regardless of the content being self-disclosed, counselors should consider the possible risks and benefits of disclosure prior to disclosure and how they will keep focus on the client afterward. This can be done by questioning how a client responds to the information or by ending the disclosure using an empathy statement such as, “I remember when my own child left for college. You feel like the house and your life is just emptier.” Though this statement contains a self-disclosure, it is framed in a way that acts as an empathy statement, which the client is then able to evaluate according to their own experience.

Overall, mindful and intentional self-disclosure can act as a powerful technique in the therapeutic relationship [that] can normalize client issues, model healthy behaviors and increase clients’ own self-exploration.

 

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John J. Murphy is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology and counseling at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of the book Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, published by ACA.

The decision to self-disclose, like any counseling decision, is based on my judgment of its potential to enhance clients’ goals. For me, self-disclosure is never planned but occurs spontaneously, just as it does in other relationships and conversations. Self-disclosure can help convey our humility, humanity and understanding. Research indicates that the most effective counselors are seen by clients as genuine, compassionate and accessible, and self-disclosure can help foster such perceptions.

The following examples of self-disclosure occurred in a psychoeducational group that I led for parents and guardians of children with behavioral difficulties:

  • We started the first meeting by stating that some parents describe parenting as one of the most joyful, gratifying and challenging experiences of their lives. I commented that parenting was much more draining and humbling than I ever expected, adding that “if I made as many mistakes on a job as I do as a parent, I’m pretty sure I’d be fired within a week.” They liked that metaphor and brought it up a few times in subsequent meetings.
  • I made the following comments in a meeting during which a parent stated how hard it was to change her parenting style: “Some of my parenting habits have been really hard to break. One that comes to mind is the use of those short ‘precision requests’ we discussed last week. Even though I teach it to parents, it’s hard for me to do it with my own kids. So, I have these times when I can almost see the words traveling from my mouth toward one of my kids, and I just want to reach out and pull them back before they get there. I’m not sure why I expect these words to work now when they haven’t worked the last 100 times. It’s frustrating and embarrassing.”

Both examples framed the experience of making and accepting mistakes — a valuable skill for any parent — as a shared, inevitable part of any major life journey, parenting or otherwise. While neither example was deeply personal or self-revealing, I hope that acknowledging my own parenting blunders and frustrations helped level the relationship and enhance my approachability.

Self-disclosure, like anything else we do as counselors, is only as useful as clients’ response to it. Obtaining regular client feedback on their experience of the alliance can also help detect a client’s response to self-disclosure and other aspects of our overall counseling style and approach.

 

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Catherine Beckett is an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral counseling program at Oregon State University. She also has a private practice in Portland, Oregon, specializing in grief counseling.

Like many other aspects of counseling, clients are going to have different experiences with different approaches. One question I always ask during the intake process is, “If you have had counseling in the past and it worked well, what was it about the therapist’s approach or style that was positive for you? Or, if it did not work well, were there aspects of the approach or style that contributed?”

Some clients say, “That therapist shared too much; I didn’t like it.” Whereas others may say, “That therapist wouldn’t even answer basic questions about him[self] or herself, and I found it hard to have a relationship with somebody I didn’t know at all.” So, within the bounds of what I believe is ethical and what I feel comfortable with, I will try to be respectful of a client’s preferences in the service of building a positive alliance.

The second principle I have found useful is the practice of requiring myself to have clarity about the purpose of a disclosure prior to making it. I suggest to clinicians whom I supervise that they be able to follow any disclosure with, “The reason I am sharing this is …” This serves two purposes. First, it holds counselors responsible for clarity around intention. Second, it makes the purpose or intention clear to the client, as opposed to — and guards against the possibility of — a disclosure coming across as chitchatty, or as the counselor making the session about him/her.

I also believe that counselors need to be very cautious about using disclosures to convince a client that we understand how she or he feels. Even if we have had an experience similar to what that client is going through, the reality is that we don’t know how she or he feels. We had our own experience, and the experience of our client may be quite different.

 

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana and the author of eight books, including Tough Kids, Cool Counseling, published by ACA.

My first thought about self-disclosure is that it’s a multidimensional, multipurpose and creative counselor response (or technique) that includes a fascinating dialectic. On one hand, self-disclosure should be intentional. If counselors aren’t aware that they’re using self-disclosure and why they’re using it, then they’re probably just chatting. On the other hand, self-disclosure should be a spontaneous interpersonal act.

Self-disclosure is an act that involves revealing oneself. As Carl Rogers would likely say, if your words aren’t honest and authentic, then your words aren’t therapeutic. From my perspective — which is mostly person-centered — the purest (but not only) purpose of self-disclosure is to deepen interpersonal connection. As multicultural experts have noted, self-disclosure can facilitate trust more effectively than a blank slate, because transparency helps clients know who you are and where you stand. What’s less often discussed is that it’s impossible to not self-disclose; we’re constantly disclosing who we are through our clothing, mannerisms, informed consent form, office accoutrements and questions.

I remember working with a 19-year-old white, cisgender, heterosexual male. He told me he was diagnosed as having reactive attachment disorder. After listening for 15 minutes, I was convinced that there was no possible way he could meet the diagnostic criteria for reactive attachment disorder. First, I used an Adlerian-inspired question/disclosure: “What if it turned out you didn’t really have reactive attachment disorder?”

You might not consider a question as self-disclosure, but every question you ask doesn’t simply inquire, it simultaneously reveals your interests.

Later, I disclosed directly, using immediacy: “As I sit and listen to all your positive relationships, it makes me think you don’t have reactive attachment disorder.” Despite my interpersonally clever use of an educational intervention embedded in a self-disclosure, my client didn’t budge, countering with, “That doesn’t make any sense, because I’m diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.”

At that point, I wanted to use self-disclosure to share with him all the ways in which I was a smarter and better health care professional than whoever had originally misdiagnosed him. Fortunately, I experienced a flash of self-awareness. Instead of using disclosure to enhance my credibility, I spontaneously disclosed, “I’ve been talking way too much. I’m just going to put my hand over my mouth and listen to you for a while.”

As I put my hand over my mouth, my client smiled. The rest of the session was — in both our opinions — a rousing success.

 

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Zachary R. Taylor is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and behavioral health director at a health center in Lexington, Virginia.

I specialize in working with patients who have chronic anxiety and panic, and I regularly disclose that I suffered from these disorders myself for more than 10 years.

The key is being specific about my experiences because many anxious patients feel no one understands what they are going through. Simply saying, “I too was anxious” often doesn’t connect. Instead, I choose specific stories about my many trips to the emergency room, my phobia of checking the mail, the clutching on to my Xanax and my sophisticated driving routes through town to avoid anxiety triggers.

When I share these things, it’s usually out of an effort to normalize their experience and get leverage because, if they know I’ve been there, they’re more likely to accept my help not only as a licensed counselor but also as a former anxiety sufferer who has used these same counseling principles to recover.

Second, I use self-disclosure to reinforce principles we are working on in counseling. For example, to this day, I still experience scary and sometimes tragic images that flash through my mind out of the blue. These used to send me into full-on anxiety spirals, during which I would go through all kinds of safety behaviors to reassure myself that I, and everyone I loved, was OK.

The only real difference between these images then and now is not that the images don’t come back anymore but that I learned how to do things many counselors know as cognitive defusion and psychological flexibility. This is the ability to recognize the imaginary quality of these images and learning how to have the courage to treat them as things I can safely ignore.

This example, in particular, is useful when patients believe every anxious thought, image or sensation and take them as something they need to either respond to or repress. It gives them a new vision that recovery doesn’t mean never having another anxious thought but learning to cope with them when they show up.

However, we must remember there’s a difference between showing patients our psychological scars versus our psychological wounds. There is a significantly greater risk in revealing hurts not yet healed. We must be judicious in self-disclosure, make it brief, always have a clear therapeutic purpose and have a reasonable expectation that the patient can manage the disclosure and that they never feel the need to care for us in the process.

 

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Richard S. Balkin is an LPC and the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development. He is also a professor and doctoral program coordinator in the Department of Leadership and Counselor Education at the University of Mississippi.

In the second semester of my master’s program, my skills class was taught by a professor who followed a psychoanalytic orientation. She was clear that she would give feedback based on this orientation and that it was OK to reject her feedback as long as we supported any alternative with our understanding of theory. I do not recall any student rejecting her feedback. That being said, I do recall my first session with a client. When the client entered the room, I reached out to shake hands. When reviewing my initial session with the professor and class, I was asked [by the professor] why did I reach out to shake hands? When I indicated I thought that was the polite thing to do, I was told, “That’s about you, not the client.”

I remember being taken aback by this feedback, which seemed to me rather extreme. Not only did I listen to it at the time, but I was influenced by it for many years. Naturally, not shaking hands with the client easily extended to what I could possibly share with a client. If the initiation of a handshake was viewed as countertransference, I could only imagine what my professor would say if I were to self-disclose.

Of course, all of this was challenged in my first year working as a professional counselor, when I worked on a dual diagnosis unit with adolescents. Many members of the multidisciplinary treatment team were active in 12-step support programs, so self-disclosure as a means for teaching about addiction and working together was very natural. More importantly, the adolescents seemed to appreciate the candor and learn something from it.

No doubt, self-disclosure can be helpful, but it can also be self-serving for the counselor, contributing to an unhealthy dynamic in the counseling relationship. If the curative components of counseling truly are based on the counseling relationship, then counselors might do well to consider how self-disclosure will deepen the counseling relationship. In [the ACA-published book] Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life, my co-author, Jeffrey Kottler, and I mention ways that self-disclosure can be therapeutic, [including] communicating understanding and acceptance and promoting deeper reflection.

 

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Sidney Shaw is an LPC in Anchorage, Alaska, and a core faculty member in the School of Counseling at Walden University.

Researchers often describe two types of self-disclosure: immediate and nonimmediate self-disclosure. Immediate refers to process self-disclosures from the counselor about their own feelings or ways of experiencing the relationship with the client. Nonimmediate self-disclosure or counselor disclosure about their life, personal experiences or biographical information is often what counselors are referring to when they discuss self-disclosure. Immediate and nonimmediate self-disclosure both have potential to deepen the alliance and promote client wellness. That said, there can also be negative effects of indiscriminate self-disclosure. The litmus test of whether or not to engage in self-disclosure is to do so only when it will be therapeutic for the client.

In the spirit of self-disclosure, I’ll share an anecdote about nonimmediate self-disclosure from my own practice. Early in my counseling career, I worked with indigenous communities, and one of my first experiences was to co-facilitate groups on the topic of healthy families and communities. In preparing for the upcoming groups, my supervisor asked me, “Have you thought about what story you are going to share about yourself?” I replied that I had not considered it, and I could feel my anxiety rise as he mentioned it. As a recent counseling graduate, I was highly concerned about negative effects of self-disclosure — e.g., too much emphasis on me, communicating that how I dealt with a situation is how the client should deal with it, etc.

As my supervisor pointed out, and as supported by my subsequent experience and broader research findings on the topic, self-disclosure is frequently an important element of developing trust in working with indigenous clients. One of the groups that I co-facilitated was on the topic of male family relationships. With this in mind, I shared a brief story about my father, how we had been through a long period in which our relationship was conflictual and how we eventually worked to move toward a more harmonious relationship. Cultural context is an important factor to consider in terms of how and to what degree to engage in self-disclosure. Thoughtful and intentional self-disclosure can help counselors build alliances with individual clients and with communities outside of their own.

As counselors, we may initially intend to self-disclose in order to promote client well-being, but self-disclosure can subtly and unwittingly begin to creep toward serving our own needs. The question of whether or not our self-disclosure is therapeutic for the client is not one that counselors should answer in isolation. Ongoing consultation with skilled, wise and competent supervisors and peers is an essential element of helping counselors answer this question.

 

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Caitlyn M. Bennett is a licensed mental health counselor and an assistant professor at the University of North Texas.

One of my areas of clinical expertise is anxiety, especially in adolescents and young adults. Anxiety has a way of making people feel out of control, and oftentimes, clients have told me that they “feel crazy.” Because of this, I have found when processing and making sense of the physiological aspects of anxiety — i.e., racing heart, tightness of chest, etc. — with clients, it can be empowering and validating to self-disclose my personal physical expressions of anxiety.

Prior to this self-disclosure, I find that general psychoeducation about anxiety [and its effects on] the brain and body serves as a catalyst to making sense of anxiety as well as serving as a bit of a normalizing factor. This helps me to gauge whether clients feel connected and understand the physiological impacts of anxiety. For example, their experience of anxiety may not involve as much of the physical experiences. Thus, me expressing my personal physical experiences of anxiety would not be helpful for the client.

After exploring psychoeducation, I begin to encourage clients to share about their personal physical experience of anxiety. If clients have a hard time identifying where in their body they experience anxiety, this is where I introduce self-disclosure by sharing, “When I feel anxious, I may feel my anxiety in my chest or my shoulders tense up. What about for you?”

I have found that this softens and makes exploring anxiety safer and more relatable without taking away from the counseling space being for the client. It also creates an added layer of connectivity for the therapeutic relationship. I have found that some of the most powerful sessions have been when clients feel understood by me as their counselor and also realize that I am only human too.

In all aspects of self-disclosure, I reflect on rapport and encourage my students to do the same. For example, I don’t make it a point to self-disclose prior to establishing a working therapeutic relationship. Self-disclosing prior to creating this relationship may create misunderstanding of what counseling will or will not look like for the client.

It is also important for counselors to remember that self-disclosure can be such a powerful tool. In my personal process of integrating self-disclosure with a particular client, I reflect on the pros and cons of self-disclosure, the difference of impact in emotional (personal feelings) versus content (facts) self-disclosure, the development of the client and multicultural factors. When I have explored this with counselors-in-training, we often focus on using self-disclosure “for good and not for evil.” That is, will the self-disclosure I choose to use be helpful for my client and their process or only benefit myself?

 

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Carol ZA McGinnis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and approved supervisor. She is a pastoral counselor and clinical director for the AWI Counseling Center at the Fairview United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Maryland, and an associate professor and clinical mental health track coordinator in the graduate counseling program at Messiah College.

As a person-centered [counselor], I rarely self-disclose and only after professional consultation and deep reflection on how that content may be of significant help to the client.

One client who had decided to drop out of high school and pursue her GED received a brief self-disclosure from me at our termination session. I considered the fact that I had dropped out of high school and earned my GED many years prior to completion of my Ph.D. sufficient to disclose. [In doing so, I] meant to encourage and challenge the client to stay the course.

Another client I can recall self-disclosing to was a Muslim adolescent whose parents had asked with concern about my religious orientation. After consultation with my site supervisor and fervent prayer, I decided to disclose my faith tradition along with reiteration of my work that would focus on the client’s beliefs and not my own. It was rewarding to receive a copy of the Koran at our termination session in appreciation from the client and his family.

I do, however, use emotional self-disclosure fairly frequently to validate and normalize client anger. Oftentimes, people who come to me for help with their anger feel shame, guilt or fear, and it has been helpful for them to hear that I am in alignment with them when they report an unfair or unjust event as the source of that emotional response. This disclosure does not include circumstances or stories from my life but instead remains strictly within the realm of emotion in the moment.

One client example of this type of disclosure involved a [client’s] vague memory of an unidentifiable doctor who had engaged in questionable behavior during a medical physical when she was a teenager. The client could not recall what had happened beyond [the doctor’s] request to have her strip naked and do jumping jacks, yet the anger she held toward him was fresh. When this client cursed through tears at this person in the counseling session, I disclosed my own feeling of anger toward this person because he had violated her trust and his professional mandate to act in an ethical manner. Efforts to report this professional were largely unsuccessful due to the client’s blocked memory, yet the client reported feeling affirmed and validated by our work that focused on mitigating that traumatic event.

 

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The ethics of self-disclosure

Practitioners who choose to self-disclose information about their personal lives in counseling sessions often walk a fine line between using it as a tool to connect with clients and diverting attention away from clients and on to themselves.

When used incorrectly, self-disclosure can take focus away from the therapeutic work and the needs of the client. When used appropriately, however, practitioner self-disclosure can build trust, strengthen the therapeutic relationship and help a counselor to express empathy.

So, how much self-disclosure is too much? Practitioners must always put the client first when using any intervention, including self-disclosure, says Joy Natwick, ethics specialist for the American Counseling Association. Counselors should carefully consider their client’s needs and presenting issues and whether the self-disclosure could trigger an issue with which the client struggles, such as excess worry or caretaking behavior, she says.

In addition, self-disclosure should never be used as a response to the counselor’s emotional needs or in situations in which self-disclosure would jeopardize the quality of care to the client, Natwick emphasizes.

Self-disclosure should be regarded as a tool to engage clients and help move them toward their treatment goals. If it would have any other outcome, it is unlikely to be the correct intervention to use, Natwick says.

For additional guidance, consult the following standards in the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics:

  • A.1.a. Primary responsibility
  • A.4.a. Avoiding harm
  • A.4.b. Personal values
  • A.6.b. Extending counseling boundaries
  • B.7. Case consultation
  • C.2.g. Impairment
  • C.6. Public responsibility
  • H.6. Social media
  • I.1.b. Ethical decision making

 

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Related resources from ACA

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

 

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

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.