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Students Audience

Behind the Book: The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors

By Bethany Bray October 17, 2017

Jeffrey Kottler has spent more than four decades as a counselor, educator and supervisor, and he has collected a lot of stories along the way.

He passes some of these stories on in his latest book, The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors, which is published by the American Counseling Association. With chapter titles that include “Admitting you’re lost,” “There are no difficult clients, only difficult counselors,” “Clients lie – a lot – and it might not matter” and “Who changes whom?” Kottler sprinkles his own insights among those learned from some of the most accomplished practitioners in the field.

The secret to being an exceptional practitioner? Unwavering passion and a spirit of constant reinvention, says Kottler.

“Ultimately, beyond a requisite level of intelligence and emotional functioning, the best among us are quite simply those who have worked hardest to develop themselves. They are intensely motivated and committed to becoming the best practitioners of their craft – and they are willing to make all kinds of personal sacrifices and devote time and energy in order to make that a reality,” Kottler writes in the book’s preface. “I am talking about passion and excitement for the work, for the people they are helping, the kind that doesn’t diminish over time.”

Kottler, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, dedicates the book to Jon Carlson, a close colleague who helped him gather much of the information in its pages. Carlson, a well-known counselor, professor and champion of Adlerian theory and practice, passed away earlier this year. The two had planned to write the book together.

Kottler, a keynote speaker at ACA’s 2015 Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida, recently moved to Texas to start a new position at Baylor College of Medicine and to serve in a volunteer role (consultant and staff trainer) at the Alliance for Multicultural Services, a refugee resettlement agency. Previously, he was a professor at California State University, Fullerton.



Q+A: The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors

Counseling Today sent Kottler some questions, via email, to find out more about his latest book.


You and Jon Carlson spent years working with some of the most accomplished and influential practitioners in the field. What are some key insights you’d like to share? What were some of the reoccurring themes?

1) Truly extraordinary, exceptional counselors are not necessarily well-known. Most you’ve never heard of because they don’t care about attention and don’t have an interest in seeking fame or writing books.

2) Really great counselors are scrupulously honest and self-critical about their mistakes and failures. They own them fearlessly, forgive themselves for being less than perfect and then learn from them.

3) Exceptional professionals in any domain, flat out, work harder than others. But the idea of the so-called “10,000 hour” rule is wrong: It isn’t just experience and practice that makes anyone great; it’s practicing what you don’t do well. Extraordinary athletes, for instance, practice relentlessly those skills that are not yet within their comfort zone. Most people prefer to practice the things they have already mastered.

4) In spite of the obsession with the best theory or the newest technique or strategy, exceptional counseling (or parenting, or teaching) is about relational connections, those in which the client feels a connection. Great counselors recognize that their main job is to build mutual trust in the relationship, since when we trust our clients, we are more willing to experiment, become creative and try new things.

5) Exceptional counselors have discovered their own unique voice rather than simply imitate others. They have found ways to capitalize on their own signature strengths that are unique to them. That is why counselors can appear to operate in such different ways and yet still be effective.

6) They practice what they preach and live the values and lessons that they teach to others. They are models of what they hope their clients will become, yet are always searching for new and different ways to improve their own functioning, not only in sessions but in their personal lives.

7) Finally, my own favored interpretation is that exceptional counselors are consummate storytellers. They use metaphors, imagery, teaching tales, self-disclosures and other forms of narrative to help people become heroes/heroines of their lives rather than victims, or just survivors. In addition, they recognize that their main job, above all else, is to help clients to share and honor their own life stories. Almost every approach to counseling introduces a variation of that theme, whether called reframing, restorying, looking for exceptions, disputing beliefs, challenging discourse or others.


Please elaborate on what prompted and inspired you to write this book.

I noticed a disconnect between what we’ve learned from research and what counselors seem to pursue the most in their training. Everyone is hungry for the latest theory or the newest technique, even though they seem to matter relatively little compared to other factors. We talk a good game about the importance of the therapeutic alliance, but often we put more faith in the “doing” of counseling. When clients are asked what made the most difference to them in their counseling, they rarely mention any specific strategy or technique and instead say they felt understood. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that some amazing intervention wasn’t critical, but just that it likely wouldn’t have [made] much impact if there wasn’t a solid relationship.


What do you hope counselors take away from this book?

In our previous books, Jon Carlson and I interviewed really prominent, well-known figures in the field. And many of them became writers and teachers because they had some very good ideas but were not necessarily very skilled as practitioners. Some of them didn’t even like doing counseling. So, I wanted to focus this time on counselors who just quietly go about their amazing work and what they can teach us.

I’ve always been intrigued by the phenomenon that there are so many great counselors and therapists who appear to operate in such different ways. How is it that some work in the past, others in the present or future? Some focus on feelings, others on thoughts or behavior. There has to be something in common, and I’ve learned that so much has to do with the counselor’s presence and charisma in all kinds of ways. Exceptional counselors are usually remarkable people. And it has always been so important to me that we apply in our own lives [that which] we say is so important for our clients.


In addition to your book and the insights it shares from others in the field, what resources do you recommend to help counselors stay inspired and passionate about their work?

I think counselors can learn more from our own clients as teachers, more from reading fiction, than the books that I, and many of my colleagues, write. It’s life experiences, especially those that are novel and challenging, that have taught me more than any text or resource. I constantly ask my clients to take risks, experiment with new behaviors [and] get outside their comfort zone – and I’m always pushing myself to learn and grow. I read a novel every week, accompanied by biographies and, lately, medical books. I retired from a counseling department and now teach in a medical school, and I’m so lost most of the time because our backgrounds are so different. And I love that at my advanced age, I’m still learning so much.


Learning from failures and mistakes plays a big part in professional growth and development. What do you want to stress about this to counselors – especially those who are starting out?

It’s often not safe for beginners to admit they are lost or that they don’t know what the heck they are doing (which, of course, is the way things really are). So, it’s really important to have a support system of like-minded people with whom it is safe to talk about fears, doubts and uncertainties.

The second thing that I don’t think gets nearly as much attention as it could is the parallel process that occurs in a counselor’s life – how our clients are constantly teaching us, triggering us [and] stimulating us in ways that can enrich our own daily lives. And also, that all of our own personal experiences, including trauma and failures, can be gifts that help us better understand and connect with others.


What secrets of your own would you add to this conversation? What are some highlights that your clients and students have taught you over the years?

This is more personal than you might expect, but I guess it’s how hungry I am to be valued, how I define myself, my worth, my value, in terms of the good I’ve done —every day. Even after all these years, I still don’t feel worthy or that I’m ever doing enough.

Especially during these insane political times, it seems even more important to do more, especially with those who are being left behind. Frankly I’ve been struggling with depression during the past year, feeling like I hardly recognize my country. Some of the decisions that are being made related to the environment, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ rights and the poor are deplorable. I feel so helpless and sometimes feel like I’ve lost faith.

It is my students and clients who push me to be a better person and model for them what I think is most important. My time is almost over, and I can feel the clock ticking away, so I feel more urgency than ever to pass the baton to others.

My students and clients have challenged me to question what I think I know and understand. Their trust in me has been a vehicle for my own healing, in ways my experiences as a client couldn’t touch.



The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-347-6647 x222




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


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




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.

Developing trust in your effectiveness as a helper

By Peter Scheer September 12, 2017

As a newly minted counselor, I sometimes remember back to my early days in the program when my classmates and I shared some deep concerns about “doing it right.” Our heads were full of theories and dos and don’ts, and we really struggled to understand how we could possibly help anyone as we stumbled around during our practice sessions with other students during the prepracticum course.

While reviewing tapes of our sessions in class, we questioned ourselves: Were we doing anything to help this client? Were we just wasting their time? What the heck were we doing as counselors?

Many months later, after completing our required internship hours under the supervision of a licensed practitioner, we then had to supervise students in their early stages of counseling during prepracticum. I was actually very glad for this experience and quite surprised at how much it reminded me of where I had been at the beginning of the program. I observed my supervisee and recognized many characteristics that I had at that stage: self-doubt, setting high standards for myself, wanting to control the session.

It made me realize how far I had come. I was surprised at my ability to empathize with my supervisee and to find words to ease their concerns while providing some guidance and hope that they too could make it one day. I saw how much my internship hours had changed me and helped me develop some degree of confidence.

While reviewing tapes one week with my supervisee, I noticed that they were struggling significantly with self-doubt and wanting to see improvements quickly. The supervisee felt that because they had not managed the counseling session well enough, the client had not been well served. The supervisee took on a lot of pressure to get an outcome and ended up feeling very inadequate.

A few days after the session was over, I thought of a personal experience that had been significant in helping me to see how therapy works. It was a single session that was so helpful, although neither I nor my therapist knew it at the time. Over the course of about 20 years, I went to 12-step meetings to work on my codependency, went to therapy off and on, read many books and discussed mental health with others who were also in emotional recovery. I explored spiritualty and many forms of alternative healing modalities. Many times I encountered the concept and benefits of forgiveness and would remember my therapist’s story. Like water dripping on a rock, over time, my stubborn anger softened and yielded.

I want to share my journey to wholeness and how that first encounter with forgiveness was foundational in my eventual release of anger, even if that therapist is unaware of how she helped me. I share that with you now using an excerpt from an email to my supervisee.


Email to supervisee

I did have something else that I wanted to share with you to support you with this new skill that you are developing.

I recall your desire to steer and to control the session and hope to see some results, or at least some change in the client fairly quickly. Also, your desire to rate and assess your personal helping skills during a session. This mental health therapy is quite different than other professions, as we have discussed. I too came from a problem-solving profession where we assess, diagnose, make a plan, implement it and reassess … and try something new if that does not work. It is quite action-oriented and “managed” by us. We rely on feedback of some sort to assess progress.

However, mental health therapy is quite different. It has some similarities in that we may try different approaches until we see progress. However, the feedback we get from the client can range from direct and clear to none at all. Many times it is vague and sometimes even evasive. It is really hard to work with this kind of self-reporting as feedback.

Also, a reminder that counseling is a collaborative activity. We may forget that desired change in the client requires action and effort by both counselor and client. It is not realistic to think that we as counselors are solely responsible for client outcomes.

Finally, you may recall I mentioned that a client may actually be helped even if they do not show it in session. We may say something that triggers an awareness that proves helpful, but we, as the therapist, do not know of it. I want to share a personal experience I had to illustrate this point.

Many years ago, I saw a therapist. This was my first experience with counseling. It was possibly our third or fourth session, and I was struggling with unresolved anger at my father. She sensed that I needed help to forgive him and release the emotional burden I was carrying. She told me her personal story of forgiveness. How she managed to forgive the DUI driver who killed her only child, and how she found emotional peace after that. I was both stunned and impressed by her ability to forgive and her calm and peaceful demeanor while recounting it. Clearly, she walked the talk of emotional wellness.

While I found it impossible to forgive, I was deeply affected by her story and thought of it many, many times over the years. I returned to that story many times as I worked through my anger with my father and as I learned how to forgive.

Her story did not “fix” my problem with my father, but it certainly did give me a new awareness about forgiveness, what it means and the benefits of forgiveness for me. It has taken 20 or more years to forgive my father. However, I worked on it and am now at peace with that relationship.

To illustrate how a therapist may help a client but not know at the time, and how the collaborative nature of counseling should work, I offer the following questions and answers for you to consider:

Did that therapist “cure” me in that session? No.

Was that session helpful to me? Yes.

Did I tell the therapist at that time this was helpful? No (because I was just processing this information).

Did that therapist lay a foundation for a positive change in me? Yes.

Does she know today how that one session helped me? No.

Who had the choice to work on changing me? I did.

Who did the actual work to change me? I did.

I think what I carry with me because of this experience is the awareness that I may be helping this client in front of me, but I may never know it. I may be adding one brick to this client’s efforts to rebuild his/her house of emotional health. I may never see the finished house. It may never be finished. But I know I tried to help the client in the moment. I am not sure I can do more than give it my best effort and keep learning and stay focused on the client.

This all feeds into the notion of “letting go” of the outcome of a session. To accept that we just do not know in many cases what effect, if any, we may have on a client. Sometimes, it may be enough to just sit there and be present and caring as they tell us painful and personal stories.

This can be quite difficult to accept; to allow ourselves to believe that if we make an honest effort to help each client, that this may actually be enough. Improvements in mental health require a collaboration and involve a client being both willing and trying to change, along with a supportive therapist to help them change. It is complex and time consuming. It is vague and uncertain most times. This is what we are getting into.

I offer all this and ask you to reconsider your definition of what a “successful” session looks like. I offer this to allow you to reconsider how you judge your performance in this profession. Your heart is in the right place. I believe that you will help people by just having patience and persistence (with the client and with yourself), along with caring and empathy, ongoing practice and continual learning.

My best wishes to you!





Peter Scheer conducts a private practice, Heartbeats to Wellness, offering private counseling with a focus on adolescents, major life transitions, and grief and loss in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is a national certified counselor (NCC) and Health Rhythms facilitator offering drum-based group therapy. Contact him at peter.heartbeats@gmail.com.



Related reading on practitioner self-doubt, from the Counseling Today archives: “Facing the fear of incompetence”




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.

Counselors’ career paths and insights

August 25, 2017

[EDITOR’s NOTE: This is an online-only companion article to the September cover story that appeared in the print edition of Counseling Today.]

Professional counselors find their way into the profession in a multitude of ways. Some individuals know it is their calling even in their undergraduate years. Others enter the counseling profession after first having had a career in another field or returning to the workforce after raising children. Still others are inspired to pursue training as counselors at the suggestion of a mentor or after personally encountering the good work of a professional practitioner, either in their own life or in the lives of friends or family members.

Regardless of how they get here, however, they all have one thing in common: a deeply felt calling to help others.

Counseling Today asked American Counseling Association members from across the country to share — in their own words — their personal stories of how and why they entered the profession and the insights they have gained along the way.




The path that lead me to counseling is an interesting one, but I can’t quite see any other way it would have happened for me. I was a psychology major as an undergraduate at New York University when I was hired as a sophomore to work at The Maury Povich Show. I started as the receptionist, but within a year and a half I had been promoted several times and was now a producer, still in my junior year at NYU. I spent the next decade producing Maury, Sally Jesse Raphael and Queen Latifah and was nominated for an Emmy in 1996. Beyond the perceived glitz and glamour of rubbing elbows with celebrities and befriending some of them, was the common thread of dysfunction, pain and grief that all my guests shared.

Having interviewed almost 10,000 people over the course of 10 years, I could hear my calling into the counseling field. These television guests needed help, not just 15 minutes of fame. I often found ways to help the guests by connecting them to therapists in their hometowns, but it never felt like it was enough. Gradually, the episodes I produced became the conduit for my tackling mental health issues in my own way. Granted it was sensationalistic, but I had to try and marry the two fields.

Shortly after retiring from television at age 28, I went back to school to get my graduate degree in social work at NYU. Unfortunately, Sept. 11 happened and I withdrew from classes for personal reasons associated with the attacks. Instead, I decided to become a realtor and open a real estate firm in New York City. Albeit successful, the idea of being a psychotherapist persisted. I eventually closed a lucrative real estate business and pursued [studying] counseling at NYU instead.

Being a professional counselor for me is an extraordinary gift. I have grown personally and professionally in so many ways, and each and every day I continue to learn from both my colleagues and my patients. Originally, my fantasy was to be in private practice working with rich female patients. I had an extreme resistance to working with males in any capacity. My path led me to a social service agency in Brooklyn where I worked with men with severe and persistent mental illness (psychosis) comorbid with substance abuse. I fell in love with all my male clients! It was challenging, but so rewarding. It didn’t take long to figure out the trauma that each of these individuals faced, both in their past and present lives. So I decided to become a trauma specialist.

Today, I run a successful private practice with two colleagues. Together we clinically supervise 10 post-graduate limited-permit counselors, three licensed mental health counselors and four licensed master social workers. Myself, I’m an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) trauma specialist and work with people to heal trauma-related symptoms. I also utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), neuro-feedback and psychodynamic therapy to help bring about change.

What I have learned, however, is that the best work comes from using my relationship with my patients to identify interpersonal issues and make lasting change. Additionally, I also use my skills as a consultant in group relations work (organizational psych and leadership).

I would advise graduate students to keep their minds open and let the counseling field speak to them. What is it saying to them? Who is it telling them to help? How is it telling them to get there? I think it’s safe to say that we don’t know anything when we graduate, we learn who we are as counselors as we engage with patients and do the work. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into one particular area right out of school, you may just miss out on something spectacular if you do.

  • Anthony Freire, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), EMDR trauma-specialist and clinical supervisor in private practice in the Soho area of Manhattan





I think this profession chose me. It seems that since I was a very young girl, God had this path planned out for me, even though I had no idea. And yet what really brought me to counseling was my own suicide attempt in 2005. Here is what I tell people about why I am a counselor:

“Twelve years ago this August, I attempted suicide. By the grace of God (the hospital staff and modern medicine) I survived. I don’t know what scars you carry, what weighs you down, what trips you up. I don’t know what masks you wear or what dreams you’ve lost, but I do know that the greatest of all gifts is this day.

Choose life. Choose this, your messy life. Your purpose may be unknown, your path may be windy and your heart may be heavy but you have meaning. I am proof that we are more than our scars. Today I am more than my shame — for I know rape, alcoholism, mental illness, cancer, death, child abuse, divorce, abortion, infidelity, bankruptcy, violence, guilt and loss. And I could get bogged down by the very weight of all the scars I carry or I can choose to get up and walk again taking each step and each day as a gift.

If you’re lonely or hurting or struggling to find a way to keep going today, please reach out to someone. You may not see us and you may not know who we are but there are many of us who have been where you are. We’ve felt the pain that you are experiencing that makes death look like the best option – the only option. We’ve learned (I’ve learned) that those thoughts and the situation that you’re in, the doubt, shame, guilt and fear will pass. It will be hard and messy, nevertheless, choose life!

You [can] heal and grow and learn and breathe. I’ve learned to love and I’ve learned to live. Choose life.”

I’m not one for quoting the Bible mostly because my memory isn’t that good and my attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) gets in the way. But recently a friend reminded me of this verse and I think it fits today: Deuteronomy 30:19 “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live …”

I have sat at all sides of the proverbial table, as an adolescent and adult in individual counseling, as a parent (adoptive/foster/biological) in parent-child/family sessions, as an advocate and mental health professional (parent partner and therapeutic foster parent), so being a counselor/therapist seems like a natural fit. Therefore I think I am drawn to this profession because 1) I believe deeply in the impact of good counseling and 2) I want to be a part of change and healing.

I’m a storyteller and a lover of stories. As a little girl I loved books. I read everything I could get my hands on. In my professional life, I listen to people’s stories every day — captivated by their emotions, their history, the personality within their story. I can’t say that I’m a writer or that I’m even good at writing. Yet, as I hear each person’s story, their stories impact me deeply. I hear truth, pain, sorrow and joy in the lives they have led and I feel honored to be a part of their journey.

My advice to others in the profession is to learn about how to run and operate a business and find a mentor or two to help you through the process. Also, do your own work (i.e., engage in your own counseling/therapy with many different therapists). Engage in self-care and don’t let this work take over your own life; protect against compassion fatigue.

  • Lily Maino, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice in Windsor, Colorado






I worked as a janitor, repair person, certified welder, office worker and in factory jobs prior to becoming a counselor. I was working in a factory when the boss called me into his office to discuss his concern about coworkers crowding around my work area discussing their issues. At one point he said “I hired you to do shipping and receiving, not be the company shrink.” At that moment it dawned on me that I needed to go to college to become a counselor. I remember saying “You’re right, thank you. Every job that I’ve ever had, the boss talked to me about this. Everyone seems drawn to me to talk about their problems. I quit, I’m going to college.” It dawned on me as I got into my truck that I had no idea how one went to college but I figured it out.

I did seven or so educational programs and have worked in most treatment settings. I’ve been told that I am the “go to” person for the toughest cases but to me, I’m just a guy that was tired of the status quo and decided to design and build his own charity [a nonprofit counseling center]. I like to create things and empower people. I love the toughest situations because when you have conquered those you feel so alive.

What drew me to this profession? People drew me. For some reason they were drawn to me and I had natural gifts for working with people. I decided that they all couldn’t be wrong and that if they were going to come it was my responsibility to get as much training and as broad an experience base as possible. I feel that it is my calling and will do it until I feel I am being called into something else.

The advice I would give to graduate students and new professionals is to never stop learning, never stop expanding your knowledge base, not only professionally but as a person. The broader your knowledge base the more people you can potentially connect with because you will have a better understanding of their frame of reference.

Some folks see weakness in being different. I learned to see [being different as a] strength. Embrace your uniqueness and forget about what society feels someone of your status should be. I have a Ph.D., am certified in two countries [the United States and Canada] as well as a host of other things but I also like to drive farm tractors, frame buildings, do plumbing, restore classic vehicles etc. I can get as dirty as the dirtiest sand hog, clean up and do a doctoral level lecture before delving into something else. Never let anyone dictate what you should do, feel or act. Your power comes from being who you are. Make it matter.





As a non-traditional student, I had an intense interest in becoming an effective counselor. I appreciated how spending time with folks and listening to what they have to say was beneficial for them, with noticeable relief on their face replacing the distress. I felt rejuvenated after our time together. There came a time that having an undergraduate degree would have been enough for me however, with the changing times employers were notifying staff that a graduate degree was now required to sustain employment. I quickly without hesitation immersed myself. The graduate program was chock-full of information, experience, camaraderie  and inspiration.

For me, becoming a therapist was a by-chance chain of events. Coming from a single-parent lifestyle I held several jobs to make ends meet including housekeeping, janitorial, receptionist and health information technician. I was involved in a motor vehicle accident that caused severe injuries which altered my employment opportunities.

During recovery I was led to this profession through re-assessment of life, career and the enjoyment of working with others. Even as a young child, I realized that I loved listening to others, mesmerized at age 3 by the conversations of others, enjoying socialization in adolescence and supporting individuals in adulthood as they struggled with life challenges to liberate themselves from sadness, frustration and fear mounted from their personal experiences. The moment in undergrad we began “fishbowls” (internship and practicum) I knew this was a good fit, offering an opportunity to do what I love as a full-time profession!

CBT is the therapeutic approach I have chosen most often, due to the practicality and positive outcomes I have experienced with clients (and it is an evidenced-based therapy). That’s not to say that I haven’t implemented other modes into my practice. I have learned a few lessons along the way – especially that not one mode will fit all individuals so being flexible and meeting the client where they are and having that conscious awareness [is important]. Understand and be in the moment, be present and mindful of the undercurrent and the unspoken. Have an approachable manner with steadfast boundaries.

Feel comfortable asking questions, reach out to other professionals, pay attention to yourself, carve out time for self- reflection often and develop a strong reserve of self-care techniques to postpone burnout. That being said, I think it is important (and wished I had known what I do now) that you don’t just jump into practice knowing how to do it. You will be learning along the way, things that education does not teach and cannot replace experience, allow yourself to make mistakes for retrospective corrections.

Remain humble because just as you believe you are an expert, along comes a client that will challenge you. Remember: cause no harm is treating within your scope of practice. Refer when you feel it would be the right thing for the client and bring vibrancy and fresh approaches into your practice. Be yourself and enjoy the moment – change what you can to move forward and let go of what you need to in order to grow, and please, do not take anything personally!

  • Rhonda J. Cox, LPC, certified addiction counselor and owner/therapist at A New Life Counseling, Inc., Grand Junction, Colorado






What drew me into the counseling profession was much struggle in my own life with depression and anxiety and striving to feel relief from these symptoms. I also always had a desire to help others with their problems. I’ve always been the friend who was the good listener and willing to help others. I also have been in therapy at various times in my life. I could always relate to being the therapist and found everything about the field fascinating. I have also done work with motivational seminars and alternative therapies which have provided much insight and been the perfect complement to traditional therapy. These various modalities have encouraged my continued growth in every area of my life. It’s been a godsend and I’ve never been more happy.

My path has changed recently since I have an interest in family dynamics and how our family history affects us. As a result of learning more about this subject and receiving my mother’s help with our genealogy I was able to get more information about our family and about my ancestor’s stories. Needless to say I was able to see some patterns in family members. Having this insight has allowed me to explore this further and how it relates to my life as well as heal unresolved issues. Understanding this has allowed me to also help clients gain insight as to how family history affects them and how to feel more peace overall with their situation and in their lives.

I specialize in anxiety, depression and addictions as a result of working in various settings with other therapists and psychiatrists, taking courses and workshops as well as personal experiences. My modalities that I use mainly are CBT and psychodynamic. However, I place a strong emphasis on mindfulness, or helping people to slow down and live more in the present.

One big lesson that I have learned is that I’m not going to be the right counselor for everyone. This is difficult when it comes up but some clients do bring up that they don’t feel we have the right chemistry. This makes all the difference in the world when they are sharing their deepest feelings.

If I had to give advice to graduate students I would encourage them to not only look for internships in the field but to read as much as possible on their particular niche and to network with others to learn as much as they can and connect. It’s a great idea to get involved in school and get affiliated with membership organizations helping counselors to expand their knowledge and connecting with others in the field.

Also, students should be sure that this is the work that they will love doing since the field is not known for making too much money, but the rewards far outweigh the salary.

  • Jennifer Colton, a LMHC and credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor (CASAC) with locations in Brooklyn and Queens, New York





I was always into counseling, in a manner of speaking, since I began my career in industrial relations. This really involved a lot of counseling in dealing with unions and workmen. Grievance handling, which was an integral part of the role required being both sensitive and open to ideas, content and suggestions. I also realized with time that it took patience and often both of us had own agendas to fulfil. Getting to a mutually acceptable position was always the challenge. Therefore patience was a rewarding enabler. Along the way I also began to develop deeper insights into behavior.

In time, with an improved understanding of my own life position and deeper insights into my own being, drivers, motivations and desires, I began to ask myself how I may add value to those who might need the advantage of my own experience and insights. I consciously moved into learning and experiencing the skills and building the capacity to deal with mental health.

I soon recognized that this space was presently occupied in India only by psychiatrists and there was not much room available nor would they the fraternity allow for influencing such cases. In India counseling for mental health consists more of being a caseworker reporting information to a [medical] doctor. I realized with time that doctor’s orientations were more to do with “healing,” which meant give medication and little emotional support. Therefore I decided that I would like to explore the potential to be able to provide that support rather than being a documentations expert.

I expanded this into getting a professional coaching training and qualification.

I recognized that this was a good input because it helped me to enable my clients to deal with themselves by helping them examine themselves, their strengths and their present constraints. I recognized that empowering the client was the best enabler to help them resolve their own issues.

I have now expanded this role into counseling for adolescents too. I have found that it helps the adolescent recognize that they are not dealing with a parent figure but with a friend and a person open to their own experiences without being judged. This has helped considerably.

My interests still are in mental health. Unfortunately, being a counselor is akin to meeting a “shrink” – something that we Asians do not take to kindly. Even during my training days with genuine patients in a hospital the process was always to not talk about mental health but to say that the patient was “possessed” and therefore this period was to enable that possession to be removed.

The second aspect is costs. Clients want quick fixes. They are not prepared to invest time which they equate to money.

I have never received any career advice anytime. That’s why I believe I would like to help my clients look at themselves their strengths and their capacities and make informed choices.

As to what advice I can give its simple: This is not a profession for crusaders. This is taxing emotionally as you often have to hear events and incidents that can be very disturbing and often conflicting with your own values and morals. As a professional you need to be able to remain objective, unbiased, non-directional and at all times enable the client to make the choices. This is important because then they own the outcomes.




I joined the military so that I could go to college to study psychology so I took advantage of the opportunity to pursue it.

Back in high school I studied psychology 101 and fell in love with it. I then wanted to be a mental health therapist to help others. Self-esteem is a key factor in which I have. I enjoy making people feel better about themselves.

I have worked with adults and adolescents, which has changed my path because of different populations and demographics. I specialize in Gestalt therapy, which focuses on the here and now in the present moment. I ended up with this specialty because it has always been the way that I think. I do not believe in dwelling in the past, although it is a great staring point, the past can be a great or not so great memory. This is why it is so important to confront it right now because it really matters the most.

I also work in the security profession and I teach at a police academy and psychology plays a major part in law enforcement.

I have learned that no one client is alike and so you must have the ability to adjust to different ways of therapy. This is accomplished by constantly staying abreast and in tune with what is new in the field and ensuring that my continuing education is relevant to my particular field of study.

Advice I would give to new professionals and graduate students: Remember foremost the [ACA] Code of Ethics, be mindful that there is a large burnout factor in counseling and ensure that you always take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. Always remain objective, consult with your colleagues, don’t channel negativity, and never take anything personal.

A piece of advice that I received along the way is to always keep in mind that the client’s welfare is the number one priority and documenting is a close second. The advice that I wish I received along the way would have been to remember that this field is very demanding and there are some jobs that will have a higher client case load than others, and so I should always be prepared.

  • Tillie Brown, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, U.S. Army veteran and security specialist with the federal government





After two years of information technology (IT) consulting after college, I realized that there was no passion in my work. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, I had thoughts of becoming a therapist but got derailed and went in to business. I quit my job in IT and began applying to graduate schools. I looked at Ph.D. programs, however I wasn’t interested in research and wanted to focus solely on face-to-face clinical work.

I wanted to have deeper conversations. I wanted to collaborate with passionate people to help change their lives in the way that they wanted to change. I find it an honor and privilege that individuals and couples ask me to help them in authentic and vulnerable ways.

I enjoy in-the-moment problem solving, deep human connection and a shared experience in which we don’t know all the answers. In being a therapist, boundaries are essential and it is a good fit for me in that I am engrossed in my work while I am at the office, however I can leave it behind at the end of the day.

At the end of graduate school, I had learned about Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), a highly active and specialized type of therapy originally formulated by Dr. Habib Davanloo. I now video record my work and have sought advanced training, which has helped to improve effectiveness.

I specialize in ISTDP; however I have much to learn. Becoming an expert is a life-long journey with much effort, such as supervision with a trusted mentor and deliberate practice, such as watching video tapes of your own work and monitoring patient and therapist response.

I have learned that it is important to learn a method. Research has shown that there is effectiveness across many methods, however having a skill set and a framework to work with allows the therapist to go off wandering with a home to come back to. Learning how to use a compass is essential in getting lost, which is a huge part of being a therapist, whether we like to admit it or not.

Some therapists sit with visions of past mentors, parents and/or heroes on their shoulders. If they are being unkind and/and harsh, they either need to be ignored or the therapist needs to understand that their harshness and attack is his or her own inner saboteur. This work is personal, and we cannot go deeply into our patients without going deeply into ourselves. A patient needs a vulnerable and human partner, not a guru.

  • Michelle M. May, LPC in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in couples therapy and Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy





My career path was one which can be described as traditional. I attended undergraduate [university] right after high school. I then proceeded to graduate school, completing both my master’s and doctoral degree.

I did not know what area of study to engage in until my junior and senior year of college. I became engrossed in the field of psychology. I would have liked to have been exposed to psychology earlier in my studies as an undergraduate. Nevertheless, I proceeded on to graduate school, with an emphasis in human development counseling. Upon graduation, I continued my studies to meet the licensure requirements as a psychologist.

I continued to attend conferences, workshops and seminars to the point of establishing my specialty area in neuropsychology. I now hold board certification in neuropsychology.

One piece of advice to students and early career counselors is [to] never stop learning. Continue attending conferences, seminars and workshops. Expand your knowledge and if [you are] faced with a challenging client/patient, consult with your colleagues. I have been in this field for over 35 years and I still am learning. Never stop acquiring knowledge.

  • Jose G. Vega, licensed psychologist, board certified neuropsychologist with added qualifications in forensic neuropsychology in Pueblo, Colorado




I was initially planning on going to law school but an encounter with a LPC created an interest in me that I felt would be a better fit for me, while simultaneously feeling a drawing toward ministry. At the time I felt like my being an LPC could provide an inroad into a community of faith whose members were hesitant about the field of counseling. In the early 1990s counseling was not as accepted in some faith and community circles like it is today. Through perseverance and education many of those walls have been shattered to the betterment of those accessing our services.

The profession is a good fit for me because it allows me the ability to practice independently and be a force for change and empowerment in our community.

I have made deliberate efforts to explore as many areas of counseling as possible and now have experience with counseling in many populations including military, disaster mental health, pastoral counseling and community mental health counseling. Specifically, volunteering with the American Red Cross opened up trauma counseling as a significant part of my practice.

[My advice to others in the profession is] allow yourself the time to explore the many avenues that counselors can. Travel and allow yourself the opportunity to explore the many niches available in our field. I have found that change is absolutely possible and empowerment and hope is real. I have found setting personal boundaries is essential to my own healthiness and helpfulness as a counselor also. I watched a man pass out while handing out bottled water to others after having told them to hydrate and take care of themselves while not taking his own advice. I have found it essential and important to practice what I preach. I have also discovered, over time, that many things I said I would not enjoy or was fearful of became areas of passion and expertise. Learn all you can at every opportunity and get involved as a counselor in every area possible: your job site, your organization, community and state and national levels.

One of my professors said to “push yourself beyond yourself.” Impose boundaries and venture beyond your comfort zone and you may realize there are things you enjoy and are really skilled at that you only discover by trying.

  • Donnie Underwood, LPC and licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in private practice in Arcadia, Louisiana; president of the Louisiana Association of Marriage and Family Counselors; an ordained minister; and Louisiana state liaison for the American Red Cross




As a teenager, my friends called my home phone “Lisa’s hotline” because they would call me for advice and guidance. I always loved helping my friends solve their issues and explore ways to have more confidence. It was only normal for me to go into counseling because I loved talking with my friends and family about self-exploration, personal growth and development.

In college, I took as many psychology classes as possible and asked professors for opportunities to perform research and/or work on psychological projects with them. Immediately after college, I went into graduate school to obtain a master’s in clinical psychology. At that time, I specialized in [treating clients who had experienced] domestic violence and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in teenagers. After working at several psychiatric facilities, I took a break to raise my family. As I raised my children, I still wanted to work in the counseling field.

Seven years ago I decided to return to the counseling field, but I made a major change to [specializing in] marital and premarital therapy. That area has been my passion for many years because I had seen so many friends and family members struggling in their marriages and relationships. I thought that retraining in this new area could have an impact on couples. I decided to train at the Gottman Institute with John and Julie Gottman because they have performed 40 years of research on what makes a successful relationship. I had confidence that their method of marital therapy was the most efficient and effective.
The best advice I can give a graduate student is to find a good supervisor. A supervisor should be supportive, knowledgeable and encouraging. My supervisor gave me many tools to become the best therapist possible. She helped me focus on my strengths and gently pointed out the areas I needed to improve.

I work in the counseling field, but as a mother, frequently, I wear the “hat” of a counselor, assisting my children in ways to resolve conflicts, learning how to develop self-esteem and teaching them how to trust themselves. My journey has been a fabulous one because on a daily basis I help my clients live healthier, happier and more peaceful lives. In addition, many of my couples have learned how to have a loving and warm relationship, which also positively impacts the future generation. I believe that on this journey I learned to trust myself and listen to my inner wisdom.

  • Lisa Rabinowitz, licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in private practice in the Baltimore, Maryland area, specializing in premarital and marital therapy




After completing an undergraduate degree in fine art and graphic design from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, I spent 12 years working in the corporate world of advertising and design; first in Houston and then in Princeton, New Jersey. One part of my job entailed sitting around a conference table, meeting with clients and trying to determine what they had in mind. This was a challenge when [they] each had a different point of view regarding a particular campaign. Many of my colleagues avoided the frustration of interacting with clients. They joked that I’d make a good therapist.

When my husband accepted a position in the small town of Easton, Pennsylvania, I worked as a freelance graphic designer for a while, but felt frustrated with my career. I did, however, enjoy talking with clients and getting to know them. That helped me to form friendships and feel connected to my new community.

As an undergraduate, I had taken elective classes in philosophy and psychology, though I never planned to pursue a career in either field. Over time, I embraced a philosophy that synchronistic events and apparent coincidences may lead to one’s true destiny. I was aware that helping others find solutions to problems was a common theme in my life and I felt honored when appointed by friends or family to take on that role.

The day I decided to research counseling programs in my area, I found that Lehigh University, which was 20 minutes from my home, had such a program. They also offered evening classes, which was ideal as we had two small children. The deadline to apply was the very next day! That was another crazy coincidence. I decided to apply, despite having to gather transcripts and letters of recommendation in record time. I was accepted.

I was drawn to this profession in my quest to do something meaningful. As a graphic designer, I loved to create and design, [but] each job was extremely important, there were tight deadlines and the final product had to be perfect. I spent late nights far from home, checking brochures as they rolled off printing presses to ensure quality. Once they were circulated, people would look at them briefly and then throw them into the trash. I wanted to do something with my life that mattered.

Counseling was a good fit for my lifestyle. My children were in elementary school when I started practicing. I worked for a community program that provided one-to-one counseling services to teens in their schools. The hours were ideal. I was able to be home with my children at the end of the school day. Working with high school students was very rewarding, as I could observe change and growth in my clients. I really enjoyed guiding them and helping them overcome whatever difficulties they brought to our sessions.

When my children left for college, I gradually transitioned away from working exclusively in school settings. I opened a small private practice, where I meet with teens, college students, adults and families. After working with teenagers for twelve years, it was refreshing to add older clients to my case load.

I currently work four days per week as a counselor and one day per week as a fine artist. To be happy, I need both the solitude of painting in my studio and the opportunity to interact with people.

My advice is not to be afraid to evolve and make changes to your career. Try working with different age groups, in different settings. Learn new counseling techniques. Challenge yourself to stay fresh. Make time for activities that bring you joy – and pay attention to where your life is leading you.

  • Denise Pollack, LPC with a small private practice in Easton, Pennsylvania and artist (specializing in contemporary realistic oil paintings)




I always knew that I wanted to be in the helping profession and I never questioned my counseling route. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in psychology on a Saturday and started my master’s program on Monday, which I went through very quickly. While still attending college (undergraduate), I took a position at our local mental health agency as a grant writer and an administrator of housing grants. This was a natural fit for me and I have always prided myself on my ability to guide and supervise others. Not only is my role to help be a present and attentive person in my client’s lives, I enjoy working with new professionals in the counseling field. I spent about seven years as the executive director of a children’s residential center, which involved being on call 24/7 before I eventually moved into a smaller practice as an independent consultant.

[At first,] I was adamant that I did not want to work with children! I have a very small family and the youngest member in my family is my sister who is 30 years old! When I took a position as the executive director of a children’s residential center for adolescent females, my entire perspective changed. I now see kiddos as young as 5 years old with a specialty focus in trauma.

I was the oldest of three sisters and my mother instilled a strong sense of dedicating your time to others throughout our childhood. From a very early age, I remember making crafts for a mental health group home down the street from us, volunteering time at a food pantry and running children’s programs at our library. She also had a strong belief in giving back to others. When we would receive Christmas presents, for each new thing [gift] that came in, an equal number would be donated.

Counseling is a great fit for my personality! My husband says that I may be the only person in the planet who actually enjoys going to work every day! I love the diversity and challenges that are presented me every day, and I love the fact that my clients also push me to grow outside of my own comfort zone.

[My advice to others in the profession:] Be able to laugh at yourself. Set some limits, but be a flexible and open person to thoroughly enjoy the profession.

Also, find your balance. A big heart and a desire to help others are an essential aspect to this field, but without taking care of yourself and your own mental health, burn out will be inevitable. Know how to laugh.

Most people set off into this profession thinking that they are going to help so many people. But this biggest tip I ever received is that our most important role of a counselor is to help people to help themselves.

  • Jessica A. Oates, licensed professional clinical counselorsupervisor (LPCC-S) and clinical director at Comprehensive Behavioral Health Associates in Austintown, Ohio




I think I always knew I wanted to be in a helping profession. As a child I have the distinct memory of wanting my first summer job experience to be at a local crisis center. I ended up pursuing psychology and human resource management for my undergraduate degrees, and my career started out in human resource management, when I worked in the HR department of an electric utility company. I did this for five years. My main responsibilities were recruitment, training and development, and performance management. Even then my favorite parts of my job were helping staff identify their training needs and developing in their own careers.

When I got the opportunity to pursue full-time graduate education I went all in and completed a counseling degree in order to become a licensed professional counselor. I have now been licensed for about two and a half years and have also completed requirements to become an LPC supervisor.

I have never regretted the decision to pursue counseling as a career as it’s the most rewarding and fulfilling work I have ever done. I realized this very early in my counseling career when during my internship with a private therapist I had a particularly long day, from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. working with clients. At the end of that day I was surprised that I was not as exhausted as I thought I would be. It made sense to me then [the adage] “If you do what you love you will never work a day in your life.” I was absolutely sure then that I had found the right career fit for me!

I currently work for a community mental health center and have been there for almost five years. Of course there are the usual challenges associated with working for a state agency (bureaucracy, redundant paperwork) however the core work that I do is still absolutely rewarding. I have received specialized training along the way (e.g. EMDR) and I have seen the results in my work with clients.

I would encourage graduate students and new professionals to begin to consider what their passion or specialized area/niche would be and get certified. Most of the clients I see have extensive trauma histories and co-occurring issues and I am still in the process of getting advanced training in those areas to more adequately serve them.

Continued training and self-care never stops in counseling, and this is one of the reasons I love what I do. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share!

  • Toya Compton, LPC supervisor (LPC-S) and senior triage specialist at the Jim Taliaferro Community Mental Health Center, Lawton, Oklahoma




My first degree is in nursing. Later I graduated as a psychologist in my country which was a full-time career for seven years. I came to the U.S. to complete my master’s degree and my Ph.D. but could not afford the doctoral degree. So my chances were to become a social worker, mental health or family counselor. I choose to become a counselor.

The need of serving people and my curiosity for understanding human behavior drew me to this profession. This career lets me accomplish what I love the most: [working with] the brain and the human behavior.

Pain management and personality disorders are my specialties. I work for a pain management clinic and personality disorders are very attached to pain perception.

One lesson I have you learned along the way: Our mind is so powerful that we can do whatever we want with it.

  • Marly Ayala-Ycaza, LMHC in Bradenton, Florida




I took a long, rather odd route to becoming a counselor. This career was nowhere on my radar when I first graduated from college. I originally went into library work. I love libraries and was happy with the work, but it was a part-time job and after a time, and an attempt to sell handmade crafts in addition to it, it became clear that I needed a larger income.

I enjoyed working with my hands and I had read about a professional trade school in Vermont that taught paperhanging. I enrolled there, attended the program for the requisite 10 weeks and went into business. I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed making my own schedule, and I enjoyed talking to the people in whose homes I worked. Some days I had rather long intimate discussions with the “lady of the house” while I worked. I became a mother and the flexible schedule worked for me. Then, my oldest child was diagnosed with a serious mental illness and life changed drastically. Our home sometimes felt like it was under siege.

In time, I sought the advice of a therapist and an advocate to help find an appropriate school placement [for my child]. The advocate eventually asked me to work with her and help other families through the journey. Twenty-five years after I first began hanging wallpaper I decided to become a counselor and enrolled in graduate school to become an LPC.

I found counseling to be an excellent career choice for an older person. Life experience is invaluable. It makes the work we do as counselors real – not just theoretical.

My advice to those new in the profession is to give up preconceived ideas about what is the right way to live, to think and to be in the world. This is not to say to give up our ethics and morals, but as counselors we must realize that everyone’s experiences are unique and judging has no place in our job. We must start where the client is and allow them to see that perhaps the way they have done things is not working for them and help them find new choices and viewpoints and ways to think of things.

My career path has not been entirely what I expected. I do contract work with courts, working with people who are referred by child protective services, people who have acted out in anger and need to learn to manage their emotions and many other individuals with many other needs.

  • Mary Spradling, LPC and limited license psychologist (LLP) in Kalamazoo, Michigan




I found my way into this profession extremely circuitously. I took modern dance in high school because I could not take [gym class] in the hot California sun. The struggle to be who I was drew me to study dance at UCLA. After teaching, choreographing and dancing in high schools and colleges, I felt dance was limiting.

I moved to Washington, D.C. and worked with special children (autistic, developmentally delayed, behaviorally disturbed). I later worked with patients with severe mental illness at St. Elizabeth’s Federal Mental Hospital. I moved to West Virginia and began working at a mental health clinic. I learned traditional counseling on the job in the line of fire, as is said.

Later I expanded my arts background and traveled in America, Jordan and Canada doing creative arts therapies. Later I trained as a hypnotherapist, trauma specialist (EMDR) and also employed the creative arts therapies in a variety of settings. Then I went into private practice as an LPC in 1989. I often employ a mix of the above modalities.

I specialize in trauma and PTSD. My own birth was traumatic and I had many consequences to overcome and learn from, and later to share the knowledge with others. I was born into a PTSD world (Army brat on military bases) which gave me a deep understanding of how to work with people who have experienced life-threating situations, veterans and children of war.

There are many avenues for this work. I traveled and gave workshops. The breadth of my training and experience gave me “wiggle room” to explore working with people with severe mental illness as well as the “worried well.”

The element of creativity has been a strong thread throughout my practice. Creativity and spirituality are closely connected and my practice has become more spiritual in its approaches. Often people with severe trauma also have a plethora of “the big questions” such as: What is life? What am I supposed to be doing? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Lessons I have learned along the way: Be open. I can support myself doing what I love doing and that is helping others. I don’t give advice [but] I might suggest: Be humble, respect differences and listen better. It does help to know yourself and be an open-minded learner.

I have done traditional counseling but have found that one size does not fit all. It is crucial to be broadly trained and experienced in different settings to support flexibility and open mindedness.

  • Jo Weisbrod, LPC in private practice in Lewisburg, West Virginia




Dreams come true. I was led to the counseling profession when I was in my 40s and burned out as a stay-at-home mom. I was co-facilitating sexual abuse support groups, and it was the counselor co-facilitating the group with me who said, “Dana you’re gifted at this. You need to get your degree.” Three years later, I became an LPC and opened my practice (Child and Family Counseling Center of Columbus, Ohio) in 2012.

Last January I transitioned my practice into a nonprofit and with that added a chemical addictions counselor, two social workers, three equine professionals, an administrative assistant, two horses (Batman and Ellie May) and our therapy dog, Willow to our team. We specialize in treating minor [youth] and adult survivors of sexual abuse. Clients interact with horses at the barn and our therapy dog at the office. The power of animals in the treatment of humans is significant.

Animals offer clients the opportunity to build a healthy relationship. It may sound fundamental, but we know deficits usually exist in most of our populations. Another benefit of horses is that they are always honest. This purity coupled with their heightened sensitivity to our energy and emotions gives a client immediate feedback. The honesty reflects truths hidden below their subconscious. Another relational aspect is that horses live in herds like our human families. Coming to the barn clients are having an experience. It’s not didactic, but experiential.

Research tells us heart rates decrease [as we] pet our dogs. Doing reunification sessions between a child victim and their perpetrator (often a family member), the victim often wants [our therapy dog] Willow next to them during the session(s), acting as a comfort.

People are often uncomfortable coming into our offices. Animals often provide a distraction from their presenting issues. They act as a bridge at the office and barn for people to disclose root issues leading to their psychological pain.

I can often fail to take care of myself much like many of the clients I treat. Implementing routines and rituals assist in my wellbeing, along with good sleep, nutrition and exercise. Feeling safe to share my challenges relaxes me along with the rhythm of brushing the horses. These animals have taught both my clients and me the importance of listening more deeply, being more honest and the healing that takes place when we are heard and feel understood.

  • Dana L. Kasper, LPC, clinical coordinator for Reins of Freedom nonprofit in Ohio, writer, speaker and advocate for survivors of sexual abuse





I was drawn into the counseling profession because of my passion and belief that many of the personal and social needs of our children were not being met in the classroom. I felt that by becoming a community resource, I could better serve the behavioral, mental health and family needs. This would help alleviate many of those issues experienced by both children and staff inside and outside the classroom.

I feel that this has been “good fit” for me because I grew up in the same communities [I now practice in] and am better equipped to understand the needs of clients both young and old.

My path has included working and managing an outpatient facility and later working at an inpatient hospital setting for several years with clients experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems. As a result, I decided to specialize in treating clients with comorbidity behaviors.

The lessons I have learned include the rewarding feeling I get each time a client takes ownership of their lives. They use phrases such as “I know what I should be doing” or “I’ve learned greater acceptance of where I am in my life.” It has been enriching to see my own personal growth as I continuously strive for excellence in the profession and address my personal self-care and desire to live a balanced life.

I would encourage both graduate students and new professionals to pursue their dreams and desires to enter the profession no matter what vehicle or career path they take (business, science and research, education or analytical reasoning). You may be destined to serve in clinical, forensics, community, Christian, marriage, family or rehabilitation counseling. The key involves developing your knowledge, skills and attitude of the profession.

An area that I have had to develop in my work that does not relate to traditional counseling is using counseling skills to manage my business. This includes active listening, rapport building, reframing, redirecting and being supportive, etc. These skills have been instrumental to help promote marketing, schedule appointments and provide flexibility, along with resolving billing issues as I continue to expand in this technological and e-commerce world.

The key advice I was given was the need to get connected to a professional organization. This has helped me maintain my professionalism and gain the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in pursing my professional and personal goals.

The advice I would give is to stay connected to a professional organization and if it is your desire to be a part of the helping profession, I encourage you to follow your passion.

  • Srlestine Davis, LPC and substance abuse counselor at Keys to Wellness and Recovery Services in Houston, Texas




I first considered becoming a counselor while on sabbatical in 2008 at a community college where I worked teaching biological sciences. I interviewed several professors at the university where I worked during the sabbatical in both biology and counseling. Being an introspective and observant person, I needed more information to make an informed decision. I knew I didn’t want to compete [for] a university job in biology. I recognized my restlessness and desire for change – and I had a strong desire to help people be successful in a more personal way.

The reason I took sabbatical was the restlessness that had grown over time. I worked the prior 20 years as an administrator and professor at the community college and had returned to the classroom the semester before I requested and was granted the sabbatical. I volunteered at the university biology department in preparation to enter the Ph.D. program in biology education. But as the time approached to complete the application process, I felt I needed to really consider what I wanted to do in the next 10 years. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to teach large classes of undergraduate general biology or graduate seminar classes. I needed something different.

To honor my restlessness, I sought to answer: “What change was calling me?” “What do I see myself doing in ten years?” “What can I do that is personal, individual and reconciling for that person?”

My answer was found in my delight in hearing people’s stories and being able to accompany them on paths to reconcile issues of identity, in relationships and career choices and accomplish goals. I began to see counseling as a viable career choice. I would need the appropriate credentials but I was willing to return to the university as a part-time student. I made preparations to enter the program the following spring semester. That was in 2009 – and I haven’t looked back.

During my internship at the university counseling center I discovered a passion for suicide prevention that afforded opportunities to teach and counsel. My work provides suicide prevention gatekeeper workshops and evidence-based therapies such as Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS), CBT and grief counseling, attachment based-emotionally focused therapies for individuals, families and couples. This is my seventh year as a psychotherapist and I am excited about the opportunities in my new chosen field of study and work.

My career trajectory into counseling began after a full and rich career working in science as a microbiologist, college professor and dean of science and mathematics and continues on a journey of discovery and service of reconciliation that is even more fulfilling and enriching. My career goals include qualifying for a LPC and becoming certified in emotionally focused couples therapy.

  • Brenda Manthei, licensed associate counselor (LAC), trainer and psychotherapist funded by a Garret Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant in Flagstaff, Arizona




Growing up I always knew that I wanted to spend my life helping people. I’m from a small town in central Louisiana. When I graduated high school, I did what most high school graduates do, I left the town. There were really only three options for me: I could go to college, seek a career in the oil industry or join the military, which I actually did. I joined the U.S. Navy and served four and a half years serving during Operation Desert Storm. While I was in boot camp, I chose to get training as a hospital corpsman, similar to the civilian licensed practical nurse (LPN). After completing that training and my first tour of duty at the naval hospital in Orlando, I was scheduled to transfer to another duty station. Instead, I decided to take on a second academic training tour and study to be a psychiatric technician, partially due to interest I was gaining in psychology while I took night classes at an onsite military-based college. After completing the Navy’s psychiatric technician training school, which took about six months, I was stationed at another military hospital and worked in the psychiatric ward for the remainder of my military service time. While serving in the military full time, I increased my college studies from part-time to full time and studied psychology at the University of Central Florida. I was fortunate to graduate from college approximately one month before my separation from the military.

Immediately after my discharge and because I had obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I was able to work for the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCFS) as a child and family counselor. My primary job was to manage families referred to the department because abuse, neglect or abandonment of children. After working there for one year, I decided to pursue my master’s degree in counseling and was able to complete that degree in three years as I continued my work with the state of Florida in the capacity of psychological specialist for Florida’s state prison system. I was fortunate to be a part of the clinical team which opened the state’s first state of the art psychiatric hospital in the prison system.

Two years later, I was licensed and practicing in three states: Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. Since then I have opened and managed behavioral health companies and provided behavioral health services in through very diverse service systems.

The counseling profession is a good fit for me because it allows for so much flexibility, diversity, practice options and opportunities to help people.

During the early part of my counseling career, I focused on therapy. Now I am primarily focused on training and development of counselors and behavioral health service systems. I have also become increasingly involved with mental health policy by defending and advocating for professional counselors and practice.

The greatest lesson I think I’ve learned is that counseling is not a one size fits all profession. A counselor’s success is primarily depended upon how hard that person is willing to work and how creative that person is in order to maximize the opportunities given within the profession.

My advice to others: This profession is saturated and competitive – it’s sink or swim. The financial rewards (pay) are scaled down and the work is overwhelming. Creativity, hard work and inspirational attitudes with excellent clinical knowledge will give you the cutting edge in the profession.

I got a great (private practice) internship that helped to pave the way toward me understanding the business side of the profession, of which I attribute my success in the profession to.

  • Leroy ScottLPC-S (Louisiana), LMHC (Florida) in Zachary, Louisiana




While in the U.S. Marine Corps, I enrolled in some college courses to begin preparing for my future after serving my country. One of the officers I served under was a trained psychologist so I took a few courses in psychology and developed an interest to help others. When I attended college after my time in the Marines I completed a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and decided to pursue a master’s degree in community mental health counseling.

I thought pursuing a counseling degree would be beneficial to help people who struggled with behavioral health challenges who entered the criminal justice system.

I am passionate about delivering quality services to all my clients and consider counseling a part of my mission in life.

I initially worked in a nonprofit agency before transitioning to a community hospital setting, followed by moving into the field of employee assistance programs (EAP). Eventually I returned to a nonprofit agency and worked closely with the Drug Court and Federal Reentry Program before opening my own private practice business. I have close to 30 years of experience working with individuals, couples, families and groups. As an EAP professional I have provided critical incident stress debriefing to local and national events that have impacted employees, families and communities.

Lessons Learned: As a professional, counselors must embrace diversity and accept their clients unconditionally. Also, it is importance to consult and communicate with peers.

Advice to students and others: Be open minded, passionate and nonjudgmental toward your clients and colleagues. Always be eager to learn new skills and remember that you don’t have all the answers. Stay hungry to grow and remain humble. It’s not about you, It’s about your client’s health and wellbeing.

  • David Jennings, LPCC, licensed independent chemical dependency counselor (LICDC-CS), certified employee assistance professional (CEAP) and founder of Premier Counseling and Coaching Services, a private practice with offices in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus, Ohio




I have been in private practice for 33 years. Actually, I always wanted to be a teacher [but] my guidance counselor talked me out of it. “No future jobs,” he said. I got my associates [degree] in business administration. I wanted to be successful but didn’t want to enter corporate America so I got my bachelor’s [degree] in criminal justice, my only other interest. Landed a job counseling ex-offenders. Hardest job I ever had. My next job was counseling high school dropouts, still without [having taken] a counseling course.

We used to administer “interest inventories” and I took one and my career path became crystal clear. Every job, full or part-time, as well as every volunteer position [I had done] was in counseling or teaching.

I went back for my master’s degree, opened my practice, became certified and licensed and have been successful ever since. Thirty-three years in the same beautiful, warm office. A few times a year I develop, market and conduct weekend workshops on various topics employing counseling, teaching [and] every other skill I have. I am very happy to say that I love what I do.

I believe that being a psychotherapist is a good fit for me because, humbly, I am good at it. I possess the necessary qualities. I am a good listener, empathetic, respect confidentiality and truly care about helping others.

To those entering the field I would recommend getting their master’s in counseling as I did or getting master’s in social work. Employment opportunities abound. [Do not chose] psychology unless you want to pursue a doctorate.

Invaluable pieces of advice I received were to get personal counseling and supervision. Also I became active in my professional association, ACA. I attended yearly conferences and while my degree taught me counseling techniques, at the conferences I attended specific workshops on issues my clients presented.

  • Ramona Bobe, LMHC in Glen Head, New York




I initially started out as a nursing major [in college]. I took a psychology course as an elective and fell in love with the study of human behavior. I changed my major immediately to psychology after that. After completing my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I begin looking into graduate programs and found counseling to be the best fit for my career goals.

The study of people and seeking a deeper understanding of human behavior drew me to the field and has kept me in the field. Along the way I have learned to trust the process. Also that people are the experts of their experiences and it’s important to keep that in the front of our minds when interacting with people.

The most helpful advice I received was to trust the process and that therapy is a marathon, not a sprint, and it takes time for people to create new processes and experiences.

  • Brittany Johnson, LMHC in New Albany, Indiana







Add your voice to the conversation in the comments section below; Tell us about your own career journey and the lessons that you have learned along the way.


Letters to the editor: CT@counseling.org





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.

A path well chosen

Compiled by Bethany Bray

Professional counselors find their way into the profession in a multitude of ways. Some individuals know it is their calling even in their undergraduate years. Others enter the counseling profession after first having had a career in another field or returning to the workforce after raising children. Still others are inspired to pursue training as counselors at the suggestion of a mentor or after personally encountering the good work of a professional practitioner, either in their own life or in the lives of friends or family members.

Regardless of how they get here, however, they all have one thing in common: a deeply felt calling to help others.

For this month’s cover story, Counseling Today asked American Counseling Association members from across the country to share — in their own words — their personal stories of how and why they entered the profession and the insights they have gained along the way.




Like many of my fellow counselors, I took a rather circuitous route to the field. Prior to becoming a licensed professional counselor (LPC), I spent 21 years as a fighter pilot in the United States Navy and Naval Reserve and 10 years flying for United Airlines. I had a great contract with the airline, enjoyed the lifestyle and loved getting to turn and burn in a Navy jet on the weekends. I never thought I’d want to be anything else but a pilot.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I took off from Hartford, Connecticut, as the first officer aboard a United 737 [aircraft]. As we flew the departure through beautiful clear skies over Manhattan, I found myself caught in the middle of an event that would change all our lives forever.

I spent most of the next six years on active duty, recalled three times, including one 18-month mobilization in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Shortly after coming home from Iraq, my marriage ended, and I found myself a single father caring for three young kids struggling with the legacy of war and divorce. Caught in the grip of a deep depression, I wasn’t much of a father. I definitely wasn’t the strong, stable one they needed.

When it finally became obvious we needed help, I reached out for counseling. I saw a counselor doing traditional talk therapy, and my kids started working with a counselor doing equine therapy. For me, it helped to talk with someone, but I could never get over the fact [that] my counselor had no experience with or knowledge of the military. This hang-up was all mine, but it kept me from fully investing in the process, and I eventually quit going.

I probably would never have gone back to counseling, let alone become a counselor myself, had it not been for the experience my kids had with the horses. This unique therapy became a transformational experience for all of us. The kids developed a more realistic understanding of themselves and the world, rather than one overly based on fear and mistrust. The horses acted as catalysts for learning authenticity, respect, empathy and self-confidence. They showed my kids [that] they didn’t need to fear or avoid uncomfortable feelings. Through the bonds they formed with their horses, my kids learned they were valuable and worthy of love. Perhaps most importantly, they learned to accept that they weren’t to blame for everything that had happened in the preceding few years, but feeling sad because of it was OK. Those few months proved to be a pivot point for the kids. They are now young adults, each embracing life with all its ups and downs and excited for what the future holds.

Having a front-row seat to my children’s amazing transformation transformed me. I became fascinated by how counseling could change lives — and especially how horses seemed the perfect partners in this journey. I left United and never looked back. Over the next few years, I earned my master’s in counseling, reentered personal counseling and overcame my depression. Eventually, I met a wonderful woman (a fellow Navy veteran) and married again.

Today, I’m the clinical director at Equest in Dallas. I work with a team of counselors, social workers and equine specialists to provide equine-facilitated counseling to veterans and military families. Every day I’m reminded of just how much counseling can help — and how, for so many folks, horses are the best counselors of all.

— Jeff Hensley, LPC and clinical director at Equest, a nonprofit equine therapy organization in North Texas




I initially was drawn to education and taught as an assistant middle school teacher. There I developed an emotional intelligence curriculum but felt limited by the bureaucracy and standards. I got a job working as field staff in a wilderness therapy program, where I got incredible exposure and practice working in a clinical realm in a unique setting. The company I was working for at the time (Evoke Therapy Programs) offered to help me go to graduate school and allowed me to train under therapists. I could not refuse this wonderful opportunity to get training and work in such an expansive, powerful “office,” and, hence, my path to become a therapist began. I began working in the wilderness and now have moved to helping young adults transition out of wilderness therapy and teaching graduate students at Oregon State University. 

Most people “know what to do” but struggle to “do what they know.” Telling someone something is not nearly as helpful as creating the space for the client to have new experiences, even if it is as simple as being in contact with emotion and not responding in their old patterns.

My advice to graduate students and new professionals who are entering the profession? There are more and more counselors. Find a passion or interest and try to carve out a specialty or something that will allow you to stand out.

— Sean Roberts, LPC, clinical director at Cascade Crest Transitions in Bend, Oregon, and an adjunct instructor at Oregon State University




As a young mother in my early 30s, my family was plunged into crisis when my two oldest children were victims of a crime. Caring counselors helped every member of our family at the time. Later, in my 40s, when I had the opportunity to return to school, I could think of nothing I wanted to be more than a counselor, like those who had helped my family and me when we were in such distress.

My advice for those entering the profession is to consider a specialty in disabilities. In addition to being a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC), I am a certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC), and that has served me well. With the aging of the baby boomers, disabilities are expected to skyrocket. The field needs people who are well-versed in how to provide accommodations, who can advise families struggling with a disabled member or help someone cope with all the changes a newly acquired disability can bring. This can provide a valuable specialization for your career and make you an important resource within your community.

Within disabilities, I subspecialize in brain injury, autoimmune disorders and hearing loss. My interest in brain injury started with a client who had survived a severe traumatic brain injury. The more I learned, [the more] I realized brain injury is a hidden epidemic in our society. It’s thought [that] 50 percent of homeless people have one.

All counselors need training on the difficulties of mild to moderate brain injury. These may be the clients with severe fatigue, concentration problems, a history of homelessness and multiple employment failures. They struggle to get through their day, often not knowing what is wrong with them and why they can’t be “normal” like their peers. A well-educated, thoughtful counselor who is knowledgeable about the challenges of brain injury can make a world of difference.

Longtime career counselor and chair of the San Francisco State University counseling department, Robert Chope, once told me to always have multiple income streams. He advised people to have a variety of ways in which they make money in the field. For example, in addition to a private practice, he suggested teaching, coaching, writing a book, creating webinars or a continuing education series related to your book or a specialization. This could potentially create several different income streams. If something happened to one, it would be possible to focus on the others for a while if needed and not lose everything. Great advice from a well-known giant in our field.

— Laura C. Strom, LMFT, LPCC, CRC, a trauma and disabilities specialist with a practice in Santa Rosa, California




I had a suicide in my family when I was a teenager. Having personal experience dealing with emotional issues at a young age fueled my drive to find a way to help people. I think counseling is a good fit for me because I’m good at helping others break down issues, and [I] find joy when a client feels normalized with their pain.

My path just to getting licensed is a long one. I believe that I’ve changed as a person since I started counseling professionally. Every day is a challenge, and [this] has taught me to be more creative.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that all the textbook learning they teach you in graduate school is not at all how it works in real life. Counseling is much more than sitting in a room with a client. It’s about working with people in all walks of life, in everyday settings, and looking outside the box.

My advice to new [practitioners] is to know your boundaries and stick to them. … Also, try everything. We are so often told to stay in parameters of fields or specialties. But I found that having many different types of jobs in different areas has really opened my mind to what I wanted to do and what I never want to do again.

Emelia Thygesen, credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor and licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at the Onondaga County Justice Center for the Syracuse City School District in New York and online therapist at 7cups.com and Betterhelp.com




I first knew I wanted to work in the psychology/counseling field in high school. I felt I had a calling to work in the field, although I didn’t understand the differences in the professions within the field. I took a psychology class in high school, and I was hooked. It came naturally to me, was interesting and I was passionate about it.

I obtained my undergraduate degree in psychology from Florida State University, took a few years off as I had my daughter and then started my master’s program at Florida State.

Shortly after graduation, I transitioned to a position at a forensic facility working with adult males who were [found] not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to proceed to trial. I was quickly put into a supervisory position over social workers and social services staff. I remained in the forensic field for four years, then had a premature child who required a lot of special services and needed me to have a flexible schedule. I then started working in community mental health as a therapist. This role was perfect for me to be able to balance the needs of my children and still work full time. It was frustrating, though, because it was fee for service. This meant that if the clients didn’t show up, then I didn’t get paid, and that could be overwhelming at times.

While working at this agency, I did a number of things to help my career. I became licensed (more than six years after graduating) and completed a certificate program for sex therapy. I realized throughout the course of my work that sexual issues were grossly ignored by most mental health and other health professionals. This became an area that I was passionate about within the counseling field. I started a part-time private practice focusing on sex therapy. I was the first sex therapist in my hometown and one of few in the surrounding areas. I was also the first to work in community mental health. I gained a ton of experience during this time as people came to know about me. Clients would call the agency asking to make an appointment with “that sex lady,” a persona that I have now adopted to use for speaking engagements, trainings, etc.

I recently started the Florida Association for Sex Therapy and Education. The goal of this organization is to have an organization specific to sex therapists and educators in Florida, as requirements differ here from the rest of the country. I want to expand awareness of sexual issues and sex education to youth and adults in the community.

I honestly believe my journey was meant to go the way it did. I had opportunities that I passed up (i.e., going to a doctorate program immediately after my bachelor’s). I could have gotten licensed sooner, or I could have worked in different jobs, but I truly believe that every experience I have had has helped   mold me into who I am today.

The best advice I can give someone is to pay attention to what feels right for you. Listen to your gut. Pay attention to the things that you are passionate about. Find ways to incorporate your passion into your work.

— Valerie Richards, LMHC, certified sex therapist, owner of Vivas Counseling Services in St. Lucie and Martin counties and founder of the Florida Association for Sex Therapy and Education




I started undergraduate college with the intent of becoming a commercial pilot, but an elective class on counseling turned my career in a totally new direction. My undergraduate professor introduced me to the field, and even though he retired long ago, he still is a mentor to me. From that point on I knew I wanted to be a counselor, and I’ve never looked back.

I continued directly from undergraduate to graduate school and my Ph.D. program. I learned to channel my love for children into a specialty of working with sexually and physically abused children, where I’ve invested the majority of my clinical time over the past 30 years. I chose children because I learned in my very first internship that many problems in later life have their roots in childhood. If those problems had been addressed early on, my clients’ lives would have taken very different paths.

My graduate internship supervisor helped me learn to get to know myself — a lesson I desperately needed — and how to manage my frailties and personal issues in a professional context. I have not seen her in 25 years, but her voice is often in my head, and I quote her to my own students, interns and supervisees. Therefore, I’m a die-hard advocate that counselors should also be in counseling.

My career has been exciting because I have not been afraid to try new things and to apply my counseling skills in nontraditional arenas (law enforcement, criminal profiling, business consulting). I was able to recognize open doors that led to many exciting and fascinating turns in my career.

In the field, the hardest lesson for me to learn — one that I regularly try to communicate to my interns and supervisees — is that the real world doesn’t always work the way we are taught in sanitized classrooms. Learning to apply ethics and evidence-based theory in a multicultural world that doesn’t always play by [the] rules we assume is a tough part of learning the field.

I would encourage new counselors to do three things. First, never stop learning. Continue supervision, participate in professional organizations, read the journals and go beyond basic CEU requirements.

Second, never do anything just for the money. No license, title or position will bring you satisfaction by itself. No one owns me, and I could quit my job today if I wanted. Even when I made very little money, I lived by this principle, and the freedom it brought me is indescribable.

Third, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and pursue an area of the field you love. Burnout won’t ever happen to me because I am not really working; I’m doing the things I love every day. All of us start with general practice and pay our dues early on, but learn what gives you energy and focus your practice in that direction when the opportunities present themselves.

— Gregory K. Moffatt, professor of psychology at Point University in Georgia, an LPC and certified counselor supervisor in private practice with offices in the Atlanta area, author, clinical supervisor, public speaker and consultant to businesses, law enforcement and foster care agencies




I spent more than 20 years in business, real estate and finance. I had become increasingly disinterested in my work and decided to brainstorm ideas for an alternative path. My husband recommended a career counselor who had given a presentation at his employer’s [office]. I made the appointment, and in the course of discussions with her around my possible interest in some type of teaching, she asked if I had ever thought about counseling. Our meeting was on a Friday. By the time the weekend was done, I had begun the process of applying for my master’s in counselor education, and I have never regretted my decision. I loved each step of the academic journey as much as the destination of becoming a licensed counselor.

Professional counseling allows me to be authentically me and do what I love: listen, support, collaborate and empower. My specialties are adults in transition and grief/bereavement. Adult life transitions is an area for which I have the greatest affinity. It has been extremely rewarding working with clients to reframe struggles into opportunities and journey with people reclaiming their lives, especially in the second half. Grief and bereavement influence every aspect of life. Nothing prepares you more for living than death. Contemplating terminal illness, death and their anticipatory effects was an emotional thing for me. Through learning and experience, I took it by the hand to walk with it to dispel some of the fear. It is a privilege to share that journey with others.

The career advice I would give others is that peer support and collaboration are invaluable. Private practice can be somewhat isolative. Align yourself with colleagues, and be selective in consultation groups. Meet with people you trust who model professionalism and integrity and understand the client concerns you present.

Also, self-care, self-care, self-care. You don’t want to burn out doing what you love.

— Katherine Perry, LCPC in private practice in Saco, Maine




I started out thinking that I wanted to be a wilderness therapist. I love camping and hiking, and the impact of nature on treatment outcomes was compelling. I shifted to doing sailing-based therapy through local nonprofits and colleges.

Throughout this journey, I launched a small private practice to pay off student loan debt. Then I started blogging and podcasting about the things I was learning. Over time, I found that as counselors, we aren’t really taught how to grow a practice through business basics and marketing. So, counselors struggle when, in reality, a lot of the principles are really easy.

I was drawn to counseling because I wanted to help angry kids. I was beat up a few times in middle school and really wanted to help hurting families. But then I started looking more at systems and how counselors weren’t thriving. I shifted from focusing on the clients to focusing on helping more practices to thrive.

It’s interesting how my professional path has changed, but many of the themes of wanting to make an impact stay the same. As a professional counselor, it is important to see how I can expand the ideas of counseling beyond just the typical therapy walls.

I’m really excited about this coming generation of counselors. They are digital natives, so the idea of creating a podcast, blog or e-course to expand what they are doing in therapy is not foreign. My best advice to graduate students and new professionals is to start blogging, talking about their experiences and [giving] advice. That’s what we try to do every day at [my blog] Practice of the Practice.

When I think back on my early career, I wish someone would have said, “Counseling theory applies everywhere. You don’t have to take the traditional path.” For a long time, I felt like a “bad” counselor because I was doing more business consulting with therapists, but in reality, it was strengthening the field and the overall fabric of our society.

— Joseph R. Sanok, LPC, owner of Mental Wellness Counseling in Traverse City, Michigan, and creator of the Practice of the Practice podcast, which was named one of the top 100 podcasts to listen to by The Huffington Post




As long as I can remember, I wanted to help people, and I was intrigued by the human mind and how people heal and grow. I’ve seen and read about so many people who have experienced so much trauma, struggle and pain and made it through those experiences stronger, happier and successful. I wanted to be a part of that experience, the journey and the will of the human spirit.

What drew me to study counseling specifically (over social work and psychology) was a certification program in complementary medicine and wellness. During my first year in college, I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. I discovered breathing techniques and meditation, which really saved me. I wanted to teach others the tools that can also save them from stressful situations. This experience led me to become a registered yoga teacher, allowing me to teach meditation and breathing practices to my clients.

Interestingly, I started out in a holistic counseling center as an intern. I moved on to work with children after that, then I worked with inmates in the county jail with a focus on substance abuse. And now, 17 years into my career, I am in a private practice using my yoga teacher training and coaching skills to provide a holistic growth and wellness approach to counseling. I am now exactly where I want to be.

My advice to new professionals would be to go for your dreams, do what you love and keep that passion alive. Service to our community is so important. And self-care is above all. This is definitely a career where you can lose your sense of self if you’re not mindful. The better you can care for yourself, the better you can serve others.

— Dawn Gaden, yoga teacher, life coach and LPC at a counseling practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan




Before deciding to become a counselor, I worked 15 years in corporate America. Because I enjoyed working in business, I decided to open my own counseling practice after returning to school and graduating with a counseling degree. As the founder and owner of Grace Liberty Counseling, I’m able to pursue my passion of serving others as a counselor while continuing to stay involved with the business aspect of owning my own company. I provide counseling services to children, adolescents, individuals and families. Each individual and family has unique strengths to draw out and build upon, and I am passionate about helping my clients build healthier, [more] meaningful and happier lives.

The piece of advice I would give to graduate students and new professionals who are entering the profession today is to have faith and to stay focused. I’ve learned that building my counseling practice takes time, finances, planning and execution. I find that self-care, being mindful and having the support of your friends and family are important. I also find it helpful to collaborate and consult with other professionals. Life is a journey, and you are the answer to somebody’s prayer. If you do your part to add to the health and well-being of others and your community, you will find counseling to be a fulfilling career.

— Abigail Castel, LMHC and clinical supervisor with a counseling practice in Bellevue, Washington




My journey to professional counseling began in my undergraduate program, working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I received two field placements, one as an assistant to a school social worker, working with pregnant teenage students, and the other working with at-risk teenagers and their families in a local nonprofit agency. Both placements were challenging and rewarding experiences that led me to continue to follow my passion in counseling children, youth and their families.

During my journey as an LPC intern, I was very fortunate to have been matched with an encouraging, honest and helpful supervisor. She helped me navigate the seemingly scary road to private practice and encouraged my professional growth and connection with other amazing therapists.

My best piece of advice for new graduates and professionals is [to] connect with mentors and other professionals in your field and explore various counseling avenues. Throughout my journey to private practice and owning my own practice, I have found invaluable connections that nurtured my professional and personal growth. On my path to becoming a counselor, I have made connections through my employment at nonprofit agencies, schools, advocacy programs and volunteerism within the mental health community. Instead of finding myself in competition with other therapists, I have learned to embrace an attitude of learning, sharing knowledge and celebrating the successes of others, as they have celebrated my successes.

Without the mentorship of my supervisor and other experienced therapists, I would not have been as confident or prepared to take the leap of faith into owning my own private practice. [Working in an office as] a private practitioner can be lonely and isolating work. However, I make it a priority to continue to seek out and connect with other therapists as a mentor, consultant and friend. I have learned to share about my own professional journey, challenges, trials and successes to encourage other therapists on their professional path to nurture ethical, professional and beneficial relationships with their clients. Creating a network of accountability and encouragement to other counselors and therapists helps to create able therapists to best meet the needs of their clients.

I have heard numerous horror stories from clients who have experienced unethical, maleficent and unprofessional therapy from other practitioners. I hope to be one link in building a stronger and [more] able network of therapists to meet client needs. [Involvement] with professional networks and organizations is another avenue to be connected with and stay updated on counseling, theoretical and ethical standards.

— Courtney Guhl, licensed professional counselor supervisor and registered play therapist in private practice in Fort Worth, Texas




I was an anxious child, and I grew up to be an anxious adult. I suffered with panic attacks and anxiety for more than 20 years. My undergraduate degree is in communications, and after working in the public relations/advertising field for a while, I left to start a family. I then ran a small business with my husband. While raising our two children, I really felt the limits that panic disorder had placed on my life. It became increasingly difficult for me to do the most basic of things, such as go to the supermarket, and I was quickly running out of excuses for why I could not attend events. I thought that this was the way I would have to live my life.

I finally sought help and got relief from a very talented therapist, and I realized how powerful therapy can be. I was able to get my life back and do things without all of the “what if” thinking. It became clear to me that a career helping others to get relief from anxiety is what the universe had planned for me.

[Choosing my specialty as a counselor] was an easy decision for me. I know anxiety from the inside. I believe that unless you have suffered with panic and anxiety, it is really hard to fully understand what it is like to live a life filled with terror and dread and constantly be on guard. My clients appreciate that I get it and also realize that there is hope.

I would advise new professionals to find a modality that they believe in and then train with experts and learn as much as they can. I would also suggest having a mentor or someone with experience in the same modality with whom they can consult.

I’m not sure if this is career advice. However, one of my professors once told me to enjoy the journey, and I am!

— Tish Schuman, LPC, national board certified clinical hypnotherapist, certified master hypnotherapist and owner of Calm Pathways Counseling in Mount Laurel, New Jersey




I was interested in psychology while in high school in the seventies in south Louisiana. The thought of eight years of college [for psychology degrees] was a huge deterrent, so I majored in English literature and journalism and began a career as a print reporter in the early eighties. I really got into my assignments digging for the roots, the solutions and the personal in each story.

After getting married and having a child, I miscarried a second child five months into term and then had three subsequent miscarriages. I sought out the help of a psychologist to reroute my life.

My therapist was a widow, a mother of two young sons when her husband was tragically killed. Her story was one of slow and steady coursework in psychology to support her family and define herself in the wake of her new existence. She told me it actually didn’t matter if she — or now myself — didn’t graduate; it was the getting out and being part of something we enjoy that was important.

At age 35, I enrolled in an adult program at the University of Delaware and took classes on the days my son was in KinderCare. Then my husband’s work transferred us to Mexico City. I finished my undergraduate degree in psychology at the United States International University located there and began a prep course for a master’s program exam. I was going all the way!

[When we were] transferred back to the United States, I started my master’s in counseling psychology at the age of 40 at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania and graduated at age 43. I became an LPC three years later and, now, at age 58, I enjoy a private practice in two locations that completes me.

Everyone has a story at some level of development. As a therapist, I help my clients write and rewrite their own stories.

Graduate students and new professionals will achieve maximum satisfaction if they are truly interested in their clients’ narratives and help them edit out the superficial and flesh out the deeper meanings of their lives.

As a specialty, I chose treating eating disorders because they embody the definition of a true mystery illness. Unraveling that mystery and seeing a healthy young person emerge is a life’s work well spent. I also found through the years that I have a great love for and connection with these young women for an inexplicable reason. Perhaps it is a motherly instinct not fully tapped.

— Diane R. Girardot, LPC with offices in Philadelphia and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania




I spent 23 years in the special education field as a teacher, supervisor and director of student services. The one service I saw [that] we were missing the most was tending to the mental health of the students and, most especially, their parents, who were struggling with raising a child with mild to severe special needs. I used a lot of federal funds to begin an elementary counseling program and developed some parenting programs. That led me to the interest in another degree, and I went back to school for counseling. I eventually left education and went into counseling practice. My degrees also led me to work part time in a private foster care program as an educational and career counselor/consultant. I’ve been in private practice for 23 years, and [I am] getting ready to retire pretty soon.

I was drawn to the profession even before my educational experience by a counselor who helped me through a serious depression. She may have saved my life, and I wanted to help others.

One way my path has changed is finding out what I like and don’t like. About six years ago, I stopped working with children, very discouraged that most of it was divorce cases wanting the counselor to be on each parent’s side. I admire those who are really good at that.

My advice, especially in private practice, is learn how to do your business as well as counseling. Most programs do not prepare us for the business end, and we are naive. I was shocked in the beginning that [clients] don’t pay their bills, they blow off appointments and they expect the utmost from you but nothing from themselves in terms of communication. It would be so much easier just to know [this] and accept the realities in the beginning. I’ve talked to many others who have felt the same way. This is what I wish I had received along the way.

One of the best pieces of advice I received was from a counseling professor who said, “You have to care passionately and not care all at the same time.”
Also, that sometimes we’re the teacher and sometimes the learner. Learn to do both well.

— Dianne Kruse, LCPC in Nampa, Idaho




I’ve enjoyed my winding path from Peace Corps volunteer to computer trainer/tester to counselor. When I considered becoming a counselor prior to college, I couldn’t fathom how I’d listen to people’s problems all day and still feel OK in the evening. Not knowing what career to choose, I enrolled in computer science, thinking I’d be good at it. When I graduated with a bachelor’s in 1986, the job offers I received sounded boring, and the jobs didn’t feel meaningful. So I joined the Peace Corps — something that had been on my mind for years. I served in Mali, West Africa, teaching high school math and maternal and child health. Living abroad expanded my mind. An extra bonus was meeting my husband.

Once back in the United States, I found a job teaching a software product to insurance companies. Although I loved teaching and traveling all over the country, I wished I was teaching something more meaningful to people’s lives. Once we had children, I became a software tester because it allowed me a flexible schedule.

Even as a kid I enjoyed having deep conversations. I still do. As a teen, I was the friend people talked to. As the go-to hair stylist for my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, the conversations went deep. One friend accused me of having a
“truth serum.”

Although the computer field was good to me, ultimately it wasn’t fulfilling. I realized I wanted to have those conversations and help people as a profession. At the age of 40, I enrolled in a master’s in counseling program and loved it. After graduating, I worked in a children’s program for two years, then joined some friends in their private practice. That was eight years ago.

I know counseling is a good fit for me because it matches who I have always been. Not only do I get to have meaningful conversations and help people, I also continually learn and grow on a personal level. What a bonus! Currently my growth is focused on tuning into and trusting my intuition. I am noticing some positive effects.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far are: Our brains are dangerous places, and we generally believe the negative stuff going on in there. Growth and healing are possible. Mindfulness is the pathway to growth. Address childhood wounds. Energy psychology (e.g., tapping) is cool, and it works.

My advice to those entering this field: Get therapy. Be compassionate and caring with yourself and your clients, of course, but turn that good healing inward.

My current career goal is to expand into teaching and training of the concepts that I find so meaningful. In addition, I’ve set a goal of having a TED Talk on a counseling topic by the time I’m 60. Wish me luck!

— Penny Mechley-Porter, LPC in private practice in Erie, Pennsylvania




I knew at the age of 17 that I wanted to be a school counselor. At that time in my state, it was required for you to get a degree and certification as a teacher (K-12) in order to be a school counselor. I pursued the path to school counseling by obtaining my bachelor’s degree in secondary social studies education, which allowed me to take some broad field psychology courses that related to my interest in counseling.

When I was 17, my stepfather was in a rehabilitation center, and I visited him with my mom every weekend. I met a person [another patient/resident] in the center who just needed to talk and process his feelings. I would listen to him every weekend. He told my mother that I was a great listener and really helped him to express his feelings. It was the moment that I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession.

School counseling is not a job for me, it is a passion. I love the everyday experience of helping students grow in the areas of personal, academic and career development. Each day is a different journey, which keeps the art of counseling interesting.

I have had the opportunity to work as a school counselor in all grades from prekindergarten to 12th grade. It has been a rewarding experience to work and learn about each developmental level. I have become interested in teaching future school counselors and have become an adjunct professor in school counseling.

Every day of school counseling is different. You must be flexible. I have learned to be data driven and produce data that show results of my work. Relationships become the most important part of counseling in the schools. You have to be connected to the faculty, staff, students, parents and community to earn the rapport and respect to be able to do a good job.

The one piece of advice that I received that was most helpful to me as a school counselor was to not get caught up in a single counseling theory. As you practice, you will use many theories and develop your own way of serving clients. That helped me to find what works and what style fits my personality and ability to help others.

— Brian Law, school counselor at Valdosta High School in Georgia and adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology, Counseling and Family Therapy at Valdosta State University




In high school, my career goal was to become a counselor. After a lengthy detour, I have. At the age of 21, having completed my bachelor’s degree, I took my first counseling course. It was required that we work with a student intern. The intern I was paired with was not a good fit for me. At the end of that term, I decided to take a break from school and planned to go back later.

Coincidentally, I heard that the phone company (in 1972 there was only one!) was offering paid training in computer programming. I passed the aptitude test and was hired. Thirty-five years later, I had been a vice president at two international financial institutions and an independent project management consultant. Technology was an interesting and challenging career and I enjoyed it. I noticed, however, that I was losing enthusiasm for the work. I didn’t hate it. I just wanted something new.

I thought about giving counseling a try, but it was a big risk for me to leave the high-tech arena. A quote I read from Tennessee Williams helped clarify my direction: “There is a time for departure even when there is no certain place to go.” I entered a counseling program at Portland State University and received my master’s in counseling in marriage and family therapy and mental health counseling.

Counseling has been extremely rewarding for me. It is also interesting and challenging in an entirely different way. One of my areas of focus is working with business professionals because I share a frame of reference for the problems business folks deal with — relationship problems and issues related to Type A behavior patterns such as chronic stress, workaholism and perfectionism. I also help people deal with anxiety, depression, life transitions, grief, past trauma and a desire for personal growth. I am honored on a daily basis to be allowed into my clients’ lives and trusted to help them.

My suggestion for prospective counselors is to get information about the health care industry to make an informed career choice. Consider aspects of the counseling profession that are ancillary to the therapeutic methods used with clients. These include private practice versus organizational work [and] financial, regulatory, legal, ethical, licensing, marketing, technological and insurance requirements.

My excitement for counseling continues to grow. Looking back, I owe my interest in this work to counselors who helped me along the way — my wonderful high school counselor and a brilliant psychologist who helped me discover the strength within myself. I offer my clients my presence and the skills I’ve learned to help them find a deeper awareness of their own competence, value and humanity. I hope when they look back, they also feel enriched by the experience.

— Ramona Roberts, LPC and counselor supervisor in private practice in Portland, Oregon, and clinic director of the Community Counseling Clinic at Portland State University




Nearly 50 counselors answered Counseling Today’s call to share career stories for this article — too many to print here. Read more responses from these practitioners at CT Online at wp.me/p2BxKN-4P.

Add your voice to the conversation in the comments section below — tell us about your own career journey and the lessons that you have learned along the way.



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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org




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.

Observations from a licensing board

By Brian Carnahan and Tracey Hosom July 31, 2017

In our respective positions with the Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board for the state of Ohio, we have the unique opportunity to encounter many clinicians as they are starting their careers. (We use the term “clinician” to refer to the counselors, social workers and marriage and family therapists regulated by the Ohio Board who also provide direct services to clients.) This includes discussing the challenges and questions these new clinicians have as they embark on their career paths.

Clinician Jeffrey Kottler’s book, titled The Therapist in the Real World: What You Never Learn in Graduate School (But Really Need to Know), prompted some thinking from our perspective as a licensing board staff. What follows are some additional lessons that we believe fall under the category of “were never taught in graduate school but still need to know.”

One area in which newer clinicians often encounter difficulties is documentation. In our experience, issues with progress notes and other record-keeping concerns result in more complaints and employment issues for new licensees than most other possible violations. Proper documentation is critical for billing, quality control and transitioning clients to other providers, and when there are questions or concerns about a licensee. Case notes can form an integral part of a licensee’s defense if a concern or complaint is filed against the licensee.

In many settings, from community mental health to school-based settings, productivity demands can compound issues with record-keeping. Agencies must produce billable hours, and these demands fall upon clinicians. New clinicians are particularly susceptible to the pressures of productivity requirements. Our conversations with licensees suggest that productivity demands are occasionally a focus of training and education but that some of these associated skills, such as how to engage clients to show up for appointments, are generally learned on the job.

Understanding how important it is to meet client needs and agency goals and yet still remain ethical in record-keeping practices is critical for beginning licensees. Newly licensed clinicians may find themselves unable to keep up with these demands. This is where seeking proper supervision and practicing effective communication are key to the success of new clinicians.

Another important area concerns appropriate termination. We are now in an era when employees start and leave jobs more frequently than in the past. The world of mental health counseling is no different. For instance, better opportunities may emerge that licensees would like to pursue. New clinicians may wish to leave a job when they find the position is not satisfying or isn’t a good fit for them.

Unfortunately, licensees cannot simply walk out. No matter the reason, leaving a job must be done according to jurisdiction rules and agency/practice policies. New licensees should prepare to leave by reviewing termination requirements, offering written notice, ensuring that client documentation is complete and up to date, and helping to refer and transition clients.

The impact of mentors and supervisors on new licensees should not be understated. However, although these relationships are important for professional development, too often newer clinicians rely on others for answers without first doing their own research. New licensees need to develop their skills in reading and interpreting the laws, regulations and codes of conduct governing their profession. Although we coach licensees to rely on supervision, we realize that not every professional keeps up with developments in the field. Use good judgment when relying upon others to guide your career.

New licensees often confuse work supervision, or clinical supervision, with training supervision. Recognizing the difference between these two types of supervision is key to the success of new professionals. Having a supervisor to whom you report, and who is responsible for signing off on diagnoses and treatment records, is not the same as training supervision, which is supervision that is intentionally provided to develop the professional’s skills for possible independent licensure. Unfortunately, we encounter situations in which new clinicians mistake the work meetings they attend with training supervision that would qualify their hours toward independent licensure.

Many newer clinicians are savvy in their use of social media and technology. Their facility with these tools has both upsides and downsides. Make sure that you limit any personal accounts with privacy settings to protect yourself, and of course do not perpetuate multiple relationships by adding clients to your online accounts such as Facebook. Other tools such as texting can also be an issue. Be sure to limit texting and email to confirming appointments and similar administrative tasks, unless those tools are a planned part of therapy, for which proper notice is provided.

The last observation applies to everyone: A little humility goes a long way. The passion and excitement of starting a career can overwhelm good judgement or give one more confidence than is warranted. Use that passion and energy to serve clients well, while at the same time investing in growing your knowledge and understanding of the field.




Brian Carnahan is executive director of the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. Contact him at brian.carnahan@cswb.ohio.gov.


Tracey Hosom is an Investigator with the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. Contact Tracey at tracey.hosom@cswb.ohio.gov.




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.