I started my counseling program in 2007, so after working 15 years in the field, I have … thoughts. One of the most difficult things for me along my career journey has hands-down been dealing with other people. And I am not talking about my clients; I’m referring to other professional behavioral health providers. Looking back, I’ve had some truly memorable encounters that taught me what no book, class or training ever could.
I want to preface this with the acknowledgment that the people whose actions I’m discussing here aren’t all good or bad. There’s a spectrum ranging from having a bad day to having a bad character, and we all bounce around on that to some extent. I’m sure others could reflect on some of my less-than-stellar moments, where I was acting out of a bruised ego or was simply hungry, and I took out my own stuff on others. We all have a shadow side. Pretending we don’t is what gets us into trouble and what causes real harm to others.
In general, I do not feel we are preparing counselors to work in an agency or organization with other types of treatment providers, other types of professionals and even our fellow professional counselors. I don’t have time to address all of that in this article, so I’ll focus on one key area I personally wasn’t adequately prepared to navigate: my working relationships with others. This is especially true in times when there was a value or priority conflict between me and the other person. There is a certain idealism that plagues training programs, including ones in the counseling field.
I have learned a lot from my experiences working in various agencies and organizations over the years. I’ve encountered people who were exceptionally kind, generous, compassionate, patient and wise. And I’ve also encountered people who shocked and angered me with the lack of empathy and respect they showed to myself and others. Later, I realized I was more disappointed and hurt than surprised or angry. I have encountered several individuals in the workplace who, if nothing else, clearly demonstrated the kind of person I do not ever want to be.
With this article, my goal is to empower other clinicians to protect themselves and be better prepared to effectively manage difficult situations in the workplace. At the same time, I hope that we will all do a better job of ensuring we are not acting in such a way that others need to protect themselves from us. Let us never be cut off from hearing what others have to say — whether it’s about our attitude, work performance and quality, or the way our behaviors affect others. And we need to stay open-minded about what others know that we do not yet understand. I admit I have failed in this endeavor in the past and will certainly fail in the future, but I think the key is to be sincere and genuinely not want to. I never want to be remembered by others as someone who hurt them or let them down.
For me to be the best counselor I can be, I can’t stop reflecting on my own personal and professional demons, deficits and errors. I can’t stop being open to feedback and seeking out opportunities for growth. Being a counselor isn’t just a professional identity or set of skills to master; it is a way of being. Who I am as a human being is shaped and molded by the values of the counseling profession. We counselors all in turn shape and mold what it means to be a counselor. Who we are as counselors not only impacts the care we provide our clients but also shapes our experiences in the workplace, the broader health care field and our world.
Learning the hard way
Something I wish I’d been explicitly told is just because you work in mental health doesn’t mean that everyone you encounter in the workplace will care about you. In fact, if you work with enough people for enough time, you are guaranteed to cross paths with someone who does not have your best interest in mind. They will not care about your success, well-being, and physical and mental health if it gets in the way of their agenda or bottom line. Even in a nonprofit setting, people still report outcomes of some kind to their managers, financers and stakeholders, no matter what impact this has on you. Even if you play a vital role on a team that collaborates on initiatives and projects, that doesn’t always mean you will be given credit or that the workload will be distributed equally. There will always be people who are willing to sacrifice your health and career for their own benefit. They may use you to build themselves up while also holding you back or to avoid having to do the work themselves or face the consequences of their own actions. Some will see you only through the lens of what you can do for them. It’s almost as if they’re asking, “How can I use your labor, skills and expertise to shape my own reputation? How can you make me look good?” People in more powerful positions and people who hold greater influence will essentially ask you, “How can you help me?” I have had almost that exact question directed at me explicitly, but more often that intention goes unspoken. We should be cautious to avoid creating exploitative and harmful power dynamics. We should be asking those we supervise, manage and work alongside, “How can I best serve and uplift you? How can we work together toward the greater good?”
Ego is a thing. You will work with people who lack awareness of or concern for how their own behaviors impact others around them. Some therapists I’ve worked with have appeared to be two separate people: They act one way in front of management and their clients and a completely different way with their peers or subordinates. Some people will be averse to any feedback, act spitefully or haughty, or seem to be easily threatened for no clear or rational reason. I’ve encountered other clinicians whose behaviors and/or explicit statements communicate they think they are superior because of their training, education, theoretical orientation, clinical focus or specific profession. Egos are walls. They get in the way of us being able to engage with others productively and deeply. One thing I’ve realized is that if you’re dealing with someone’s ego, you’re more than likely fighting a losing battle.
You will also encounter co-workers, managers, supervisors and directors who have poor boundaries. You may witness workaholism be glorified and rewarded, and you may have unrealistic performance expectations placed on you. People are routinely punished and shamed for attempting to strike a healthy work-life balance. This can happen directly; for example, I had a past manager say to me that if I didn’t work 60 hours in a week (without overtime pay, mind you), I “didn’t care about the kids.” The retaliation for boundary setting can also happen indirectly with people being fired for “not being a good fit” or being passed over for promotions if they don’t routinely work overtime. You will also see firsthand why ethical codes are necessary regarding boundaries with clients. There’s a reason codes explicitly state not to do something: Counselors are really doing those things.
You will meet other mental health providers who plain and simple are not healthy themselves. There is a level of gatekeeping that should happen within the mental health professions, but the gray area between observably impaired and functionally problematic is inadequately addressed in practice. There is a difference between being a “wounded healer” and not being on a healing path at all. I often use the metaphor of a “healing train.” None of us will ever get to the destination of being completely healed and perfect; what matters is staying on that train and resetting ourselves when we veer off track. Yes, practitioners are trained and have skills that are helpful to their clients even if they have never experienced a specific clinical concern themselves, but this is not the same as a counselor who believes they can be an effective provider without doing their own personal work. We all have our “stuff,” and many of us are drawn to the helping field because of our own personal experiences. No matter how much training and education we receive, if we aren’t doing the deep and difficult work of examining our own weaknesses and healing from our traumas and pain points, then we put our efficacy as a clinician at risk. This is why self-care is an ethical imperative for counselors. We can’t lead others somewhere we’ve never been before.
Truths that guide me
These lessons have taught me a few truths along the way — ones I wish I had known from the start because they could have guided me as I managed difficult interactions or situations.
The first and most important truth is that most of the time how other people treat me has nothing to do with me. We are all working out our own “stuff” in the best ways we can, and we often experience someone wrestling with themselves as they impact us negatively. Just because someone is educated, charming, brilliant, credentialed, licensed, published or highly renowned doesn’t mean they are immune to the human experience.
You will never know everything, and that is OK. It is genuinely OK that you can’t be the best at everything. This should be obvious, but I think this is at the heart of a lot of defensiveness and problematic interpersonal behavior. Everyone turns to counselors and therapists for answers and solutions, but we ourselves are fallible, limited human beings. That is not just OK — it’s why we are so good at what we do in the first place. Because we are imperfect human beings, we can help other imperfect human beings find meaning, purpose, joy and peace. So it’s OK to not have a perfect answer to why things are the way they are and how to best live, change and cope. When we refuse this truth and believe that someway, somehow we have managed to be special and the exception, then, of course, it will be uncomfortable and painful to be confronted with the reality that implies otherwise because we will always fail at perfection. If it feels unbearably embarrassing and shameful when others find us out, which will happen, then that is something to carefully examine and reflect on. We are setting ourselves up for failure if we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves, and in turn, we are also setting those around us up for failure because this will without a doubt morph into unrealistic or even exploitative expectations of other people. This shame can lead us to act out and engage with others in harmful ways. The work of being a counselor calls for radical self-compassion, but this is impossible without also reflecting on who we are in relationships and how we are extending that compassion to others.
Success is collective. By lifting others up and supporting them, we ourselves benefit. By sabotaging or disenfranchising others, we hurt ourselves as well. I need to make sure I am doing my best to live this truth by how I engage with others, and I need to be prepared to set boundaries and make needed changes if others in my life are not. I would have left some relationships and jobs much sooner than I did if I had only believed in myself and my intentions more. Do not trust anyone who acts in a way that pushes others down in any way; just because you aren’t their current target doesn’t mean you never will be. If someone doesn’t give credit where credit is due, they are a selfish person who will never be your true ally or partner. If someone seems frequently jealous and doesn’t get excited about the success of others, they may very well be more likely to try to hold you down and sabotage your health and success. Collective action is required for success, and this has to include communities holding people accountable for their actions and inactions when needed. We should all aim to align ourselves with people and organizations that are doing the work to uplift those around them and to stand up for others as well.
Boundaries are everything. Boundaries help us navigate the reality that we are responsible for both ourselves and each other. Yes, the adage “with great power comes great responsibility” is true, but any level of influence comes with responsibility, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. All too often we do not acknowledge the real impact we have on each other as humans, possibly to assuage our guilt and enable our avoidance of this burden of responsibility. Any encounter between two people is an opportunity for either healing and growth or, alternatively, harm and suffering.
Personal relationships, workplaces and workplace relationships are all vital parts of our lives that have the potential for great positive impact as well as negative or harmful consequences. I like to think of the range in terms of spice levels:
- Mild: unhealthy
- Medium: toxic
- Hot: abusive
- Scorching: violent
Anyone in a mild to moderate situation has the choice to stay and accept things as they are or work for positive change. If it’s hot or scorching, the only real way to get relief is to get away and seek emotional “burn” care.
Not all “defensiveness” is bad. It’s unacceptable how a lot of us are taught to “manage” our defensive behavior. It’s upsetting when you are confronted with someone pointing out how sensitive you are to constructive feedback, but early in our counseling careers, we need to know that our internal emotional protective system isn’t our enemy. We need to be taught to trust ourselves, to listen to how we feel and to know that sometimes defending ourselves and others is what we absolutely need to do. By not teaching this balance of managing unhealthy defensiveness, that’s often ego-driven, with the reality that there are other people who can and will harm us if we don’t protect ourselves, we set a lot of people up to essentially be conditioned to be complicit in their own abuse or oppression. Yes, we need to remain open to feedback that’s constructive and comes from someone who genuinely cares about us, but we also need to have discernment and the wisdom to know what feedback we should absorb and what we should shield ourselves from.
We must take responsibility for setting our boundaries, and we must allow others to do the same. Remember the only thing you can really control are your own words, actions and reactions, including how much you tolerate other people and situations. Emotional responses are automatic and unconscious, and although we have influence over these responses, we can’t expect ourselves to have complete control over them. They exist for a reason, and one of the main reasons we have intense emotions and anxiety is to protect ourselves.
I’ve had clients who have asked me to help them “just deal with” the situation that’s causing them harm, but as the saying goes, “You can’t heal in the same environment that is making you sick.” Leaving is often the best solution in relationships that cause us harm, be it with an intimate partner or an employer. I now realize that when I stayed in an unhealthy or harmful situation, I was not taking responsibility to care for myself or to consider how I was affecting the other person or environment. I am not referring to what could amount to blaming the victim of abuse or the recipient of boundary violations for another’s action; it is absolutely inappropriate to place any level of responsibility on the receiver of another’s behavior. However, by staying in an unhealthy environment or indirectly enabling unhealthy behaviors, I was essentially teaching that person that what they were doing was acceptable because I stayed put and tolerated it. I was not doing my part to stop them from not only harming me but also negatively affecting others. Oof!
It’s important to know where the line is between what you are responsible for and what the other person is responsible for. Without this line, it can be a slippery slope toward excusing, enabling and even rewarding unhealthy behaviors in the workplace and our personal lives.
If you set enough boundaries, you are guaranteed to get pushback. And it will be uncomfortable. To take a lesson from Nedra Glover Tawwab’s book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, the only people who have a problem with others setting boundaries are the people who are benefiting from another’s lack of boundaries. We need to be prepared for how others may react when we stand up for ourselves and refuse to be taken advantage of or treated poorly.
People who see relationships as only transactional or who want to use you for their own purposes will absolutely get irritated or angry for your refusal to comply with their attempts at control or manipulation. Often to further manipulate the situation in their favor, they label the boundary setting or the accompanying response as the problem. This allows them to preserve their reputation at the further expense of the other person being harmed.
All too often, we blame the person reacting to another’s behavior instead of addressing the source. This criticism, invalidation and punishment of the reaction to abuse is what is called “reactive abuse.” This line of reasoning can also be taken to its logical conclusion and turn into excusing and enabling harmful or outright criminal behavior (for example, blaming the victim of assault for what they were wearing). This is commonly discussed in the context of abusive intimate partner relationships. However, I’ve seen this play out in the workplace, and it can lead to ruptures in trust and morale and causes real psychological harm.
Abusive behavior is always the fault of the person doing the abuse. Unhealthy behaviors are always the responsibility of the person acting inappropriately. How we manage these encounters to protect ourselves and others are, in fact, our responsibility. By standing up for ourselves, setting boundaries, and leaving harmful and abusive situations, we are also helping others. We are teaching others what’s right and what’s wrong and what they can and cannot get away with.
Not everyone deserves access to your softness. Too often I believe counselors and healers of all kinds are expected to be “nice” and to be available for everyone for anything all the time. This is far from what’s healthy, sustainable or realistic. Just because we’ve chosen a helping profession doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own well-being, safety or sanity. It’s taken me years to learn and truly believe that yes, I am kind and sweet and silly, but I am not “nice.” I am fierce. And that fierceness is not a flaw; it is one of my most valuable strengths.
A part of who we really are is defined by how we meet life’s most uncomfortable and distressing challenges. As counselors, we will experience some of these challenges in the workplace, so we need to be prepared to navigate these and to support others as they navigate them as well. We need more humanity, compassion and humility built into the systems that train and cultivate providers whose very effectiveness depends on their own humanity, compassion and humility.
I leave you with these three reminders: You are not a leader if you don’t build up those around you, those coming up behind you or those who are in your charge. You are not successful if you hinder the success of others. You are not a healer if you are not allowing yourself healing.
Keep pushing to be better
I’ve learned so much from people who have shown me grace and patience. They showed me what’s possible and what I want to be. And I’ve also realized what I do not want to be from those who were self-focused, judgmental, and, to be perfectly blunt, haughty and elitist.
Some of my most painful and anxiety-filled moments with managers, co-workers and educators in the mental health field have taught me that I never want to:
- Be someone who can’t be taught something new and is unable to value perspectives that differ from my own.
- Advocate for “the way things have always been.”
- Argue that “it’s really not that bad so nothing needs to change.”
- Support something because “I made it through it, so everyone else should have to also.”
- Hire people who are experts at something I am not and then fail to listen to or consider their input and feedback.
- Assume I know what is best for another person.
- Manipulate or coerce others into doing something against their will.
- Use an offer of “feedback” or an explanation that I’m “just trying to help” as a way to rationalize violating someone’s boundaries.
- Forget we all carry unseen burdens.
- Doubt the validity of anyone else’s sincere effort or report of emotional pain.
- Yell at a colleague. (Yes, really.)
- Expect those I manage or supervise to meet my social and emotional needs.
- Jump to conclusions and assume I’ve been told the whole story.
- Throw someone else under the bus to make myself look good.
- Make promises I can’t keep or say yes when my actions say no.
- Disregard the needs of others and forcefully try to get my way.
- Punish or delegitimize someone because they defend themself when they have been wronged or harmed.
- Publicly call out people for what they’ve done wrong or criticize others in front of colleagues.
- Tell someone else they are providing inadequate or subpar care or work because they aren’t doing things my way.
- Look down on other helping professionals in the field who provide services to people in other ways aside from psychotherapy.
- Consider myself a superior clinician because “I do a deeper, more meaningful and more important” type of therapy.
- Promote the further disenfranchisement and oppression of already marginalized people.
- Fail to look at the whole person and their situation.
- Cause someone more harm because they were already struggling.
- Put my own pride and ego ahead of anyone else’s health, success or well-being.
- Fail to use my power to stop someone from hurting or mistreating others and enable them to continue perpetrating harm.
- Allow unsupportive, counterproductive and inadequate people to persist without consequences or be rewarded.
- Make others work harder and longer hours to pick up my slack, or if I’m their manager, tolerate someone being ineffective and causing an inequitable workload to be placed on others.
- Offer mentorship but fail to mentor and focus on my own advancement instead.
I’ve also had the privilege to work with some from truly inspiring and wonderful people. I’ve witnessed many examples of bold and commendable actions that have left me amazed, and looking back, there have been so many seemingly quiet and mundane encounters that really were so important and affected me more than I realized at the time. These encounters taught me that I always want to strive to:
- Give credit where credit is due.
- Help others network and introduce people who may share common interests or support each other professionally.
- Show others how much they mean to me.
- Be there for others when they need it most.
- Genuinely care about others, not just their work performance but their humanity.
- Listen with patience and kindness when others express their concerns and how their work environment is making them feel.
- Ensure others feel connected and that they know they belong.
- Tell people you see how hard they are working.
- Praise in public. Offer constructive feedback and conduct disciplinary actions in private.
- Show up and be present during meetings.
- Keep my word and do what I’ve said I’ll do when I’ve said I’ll do it.
- Recognize if the success and/or advancement of others depends on me in any way, and if it does, then act accordingly and timely.
- Remind people to care for themselves and encourage them to do things they enjoy outside of work.
- Set boundaries and have a life. Log off on time, take time off, etc.
- Stand up for myself and others.
- Speak the truth to those who have more power than I do.
- Make work fun and connect meaningfully with those around me.
- Push back against things that are unethical or fraudulent.
- Leave relationships and jobs that I’ve outgrown or those that are toxic and harmful.
- Trust that others are doing the best they can.
- Give support when it’s asked for and when it is not.
- Take responsibility for my actions.
- Be true to myself. By letting my playfulness, weirdness, creativity and passion be seen, I give others permission to be true to themselves as well.
Becoming the best version of yourself requires work and self-reflection. Here are some reflection questions I offer specifically related to the topic of hand:
- What would it be like if I let go of my need to be perfect?
- What would change if l gave myself permission to get things wrong while I am trying to get things right?
- Am I living out my values in all my relationships?
- How do I impact my clients, peers, mentees, co-workers and supervisees?
- How do I see those I serve, manage and supervise? Am I seeing them as individuals I have responsibility for, or do I only see them for what they can do for me or how they reflect on my personal reputation?
- How am I supporting and building up those I counsel, manage, supervise and work with?
- Do I really have this person’s best interests at heart? If I do not, what am I willing to do about that?
- What am I doing to ensure my clients, co-workers, peers, supervisees, mentees and others feel truly safe, valued and uplifted?
- What boundaries do I need to strengthen?
- Am I taking on anything that is actually someone else’s responsibility?
- How can I be fierce and brave? Am I ready to take on the challenge of being assertive?
- How can I prepare myself in case I experience pushback and negative consequences when setting boundaries and speaking truth to power?
- Am I doing my part to take responsibility for how I impact others?
- Am I open to receiving feedback? No, really, am I?
- Are my own needs met? How am I ensuring I am getting my needs met and in a way that is healthy?
- What am I doing to care for my own mental health, physical well-being and overall life satisfaction?
- What priorities do I need to shift? What do I need to do more of? What do I need to distance myself from or let go of?
Emily St. Amant is a licensed professional counselor and board approved clinical supervisor (in Tennessee). She serves as the counseling resources and continuing education specialist in the Center for Counseling Policy, Practice and Research at the American Counseling Association. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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