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Students Audience

Graduate counseling students: What makes you different?

By Sarah Fichtner September 3, 2018

As a counselor master’s student approaching graduation in December, a few lessons have become ingrained in my mind: “Always advocate on behalf of your clients”; “engaging in self-care is essential”; and “practice in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics.” At times, when I am lying in bed after a long day, I find myself reflecting on these tasks and whether I did my best to adhere to them.

Although these lessons are crucial for counselors-in-training, I wish one other lesson had been emphasized earlier in my graduate studies: the importance, essentiality and ultimate difference of putting yourself out there in the counseling world and making a name for yourself.

According to CACREP, there are more than 800 accredited counseling programs across the United States, which means that thousands of counselors will be graduating at the same time and applying for many of the same positions. As a novice counselor, I was naïve to this concept. When I entered my graduate program, I quickly began mirroring my peer’s habits. I focused on earning top grades, copying down important concepts in class, establishing my counseling skills through role-plays and researching internship sites. It was not until I attended the New Jersey Counseling Association conference at the end of my first year of graduate school that I realized just how important a young counselor’s identity is. From that moment on, my graduate mindset changed.

I started to go above and beyond to create my own unique “brand.” I found myself researching current trends in the counseling field, editing and re-editing my resume and cover letter, reading the most up-to-date articles and journals, and consulting with my professors about counseling-related opportunities that I could participate in outside of the classroom. I constantly asked myself, “What can I do to separate myself from every other counseling master’s student graduating from an accredited university? What makes my resume special? What makes me different?”

This pursuit to create my own personal brand eventually led me to the American Counseling Association (ACA) 2018 Conference & Exposition in Atlanta this past April. One of my professors at Kean University in New Jersey spoke to my multicultural counseling class about the ACA graduate student essay contest. She passed around a handout encouraging my class to submit a proposal. Immediately, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to define my identity and get my name out into the counseling world. After writing and rewriting my proposal, I finally submitted my essay in December. Because the winners would receive complementary registration to the ACA Conference, I could hardly wait for the winning essays to be announced. Finally, on Feb. 28, I received an email asking for my attendance at the ACA National Awards Ceremony; my essay had been chosen as one of the top entries. I was one step closer to becoming a known face in the counseling world.

Upon arriving at the ACA Conference, I prepared myself to get the most out of my experience. I printed out my resume, picked out my best business attire, scheduled an appointment with the ACA Career Center and promised myself that I would speak to as many people as I could. I was a novice counselor who planned to leave the conference educated on the licensure process, the benefits of a doctorate in counselor education, employment trends, who to contact post-graduation regarding approved supervisors and any other helpful information I could soak up.

Having this goal-oriented mindset opened my eyes to the true kindness and genuineness of the counseling community. Within minutes of entering the conference center in Atlanta, my wildest dreams were exceeded. I was engaging in impromptu, inspirational meetings with fellow master’s students, doctoral candidates, counselor educators and authors. I soon learned that the counseling community is a tightknit group of exceptionally talented and personable individuals. During my four days in Atlanta, the connections I made completely changed my personal and professional life.

There are so many people that made my experience worthwhile, but for the sake of time and space, I will mention just a few. Dedicated representatives from Magnolia Ranch, a rehab facility in Tennessee, engaged in personal conversation with me on multiple occasions. I must have stopped by their expo table at least twice per day, and each time they were just as eager to ask about my professional journey, share their insights on the counseling profession, talk about their contributions to mental health and, of course, answer all my questions about their therapy horses. (I, as a horse owner, could talk about equine-therapy for days.)

Gerald Corey, Michelle Muratori, Jude Austin and Julius Austin, co-authors of the book Counselor Self-Care (published by ACA), each connected with me on a personal level. After attending their presentation on self-care, I was determined to purchase a copy of their new book and get it signed. However, with more than 100 people in attendance at their presentation, I overestimated my chances of purchasing a book. It had quickly sold out. As a Type-A individual, self-care was something I had consistently failed at, and I knew this book would assist me in my quest to accomplish a better self-care plan. Thus, I made it my mission to find a copy of their book.

After stopping by the ACA Bookstore at the conference on multiple occasions, speaking with the authors directly and bargaining with the conference staff to sell me the copy in the display window, I started to feel defeated. It was in that moment that I decided to approach the authors one last time and express my appreciation and gratitude for their work (book or not, the information I had gained from their presentation was priceless). Surprisingly, they thanked me for my kind words, interest in their self-care book, and perseverance and commitment as a counselor-in-training. Then Michelle Muratori dug into her purse and handed me her own personal copy of Counselor Self-Care while all the authors smiled.

I spent the next few minutes chatting with her. We discussed her career as a counselor educator and clinician at Johns Hopkins University. She provided me with such valuable insight, motivation and hope for my future as a professional counselor. Additionally, prior to the book signing, I had the privilege of speaking with Julius Austin. We connected on our similar experiences of being Division I college soccer players and the transition into the counseling profession. He empathized with and understood the many emotions I went through as I left the collegiate world behind.

Finally, during one of the keynote speaker presentations, I sat next to Ed Jacobs. I introduced myself and expressed interest in his role as a program director (at the moment, I didn’t know he was a renowned author and educator in the field of counseling and that he had written the group counseling book used in my graduate program). Our conversation flowed as we talked about his position at West Virginia University, my current clinical work with children and my hopes and dreams for the future. Before we parted ways, he encouraged me to attend his group counseling session, where he would be presenting on group counseling techniques to use with children and adolescents. I made it a point to attend his workshop, and I am so happy that I did.

After the session, I went up to him to thank him for taking the time to speak with me earlier in the day. He smiled and said, “You came.” Then he reached into his bag and pulled out a copy of the book he wrote on individual counseling techniques. He handed it to me and said, “I’m really happy you came and hope we stay in touch.” I was so humbled and touched by his kindness and generosity. I, too, hope our paths will cross again.

When I returned home to New Jersey, I was filled with gratitude, warmth and excitement for my future profession. The conference was more than I could have ever imagined. However, I know that my pursuit to establish a unique identity is an evolving journey. I need to build on the connections I have made. I have reached out to Drs. Muratori, Austin and Jacobs and have been overwhelmed with the thoughtful and efficient responses I have received.

For example, Dr. Jacobs stated that one of his greatest joys is mentoring students and that he would be more than willing to guide me in my journey as a novice counselor. Within days, he had connected me with a counselor educator here in New Jersey; my name was quickly spreading throughout the counseling world. My resume was being reviewed by many professionals, my email inbox was filling up with new messages, and my identity as a counselor-in-training was far greater than that of a master’s student graduating from a CACREP-accredited program. There was a face to my name.

Although this idea of networking may seem like common sense, I cannot tell you how many master’s students leave their graduate programs unsure of what to do next. It is not that they failed to study hard, earn good grades and succeed in their clinical settings, but rather that their identity as novice counselors mirrors that of every other newly graduated student.

So, to all my fellow counseling graduate students, if there is one thing I hope you take away from this article, it is this: Go the extra mile; get involved in as many activities and events as you can; submit journal proposals; do not be afraid to introduce yourself and network with as many professionals as you can; and, lastly, create your own unique brand. Be bold. Be brave.

Understanding this concept early on will only help you in the long run. With the complex social challenges faced by the nation and the world, becoming the best counselor one can be is imperative. By celebrating our uniqueness and crafting our professional brand, we will be best positioned to solve the mental health problems and other social ills that we all face.

 

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Sarah Fichtner is a former Division 1 women’s soccer player for the University of Maryland. She is completing her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Kean University in New Jersey and currently works at Hackensack Meridian Behavioral Health as a counselor intern, where she practices from a strengths-based model. Contact her at fichtnes@kean.edu.

 

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  • American Counseling Association members: Advance your career with the resources you need in where you can find hundreds of job listings, complimentary career consultations and other helpful career information and services created specifically for counselors.
  • Find out more about ACA’s 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans at counseling.org/conference

 

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

 

Stepping into recovery

By James Rose June 13, 2018

After many years of working as an accountant, I decided to enter counseling as a profession in my “retirement” years. After four years in graduate school, including two years of clinical work at an addictions recovery center, I began my new professional career this past January. Here is how it began.

 

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It was my third day as the evening counselor at Ashley Addiction Services. A clinical aide called me and said, “We have a patient here who wants to leave now. He’s calling his girlfriend to get a ride, and he is looking for someone to punch so he can get kicked out. Would you come down?”

The patient was a young man I had met during my training period the prior week. “You look stressed,” I said.

“Of course I’m stressed!” he screamed back.

I coaxed him out of the clinical aide’s office to a quiet place where we could talk. He told me he was on the withdrawal drug Suboxone. He wanted to go out and get high, then quickly get enrolled in another facility so he wouldn’t disappoint his mother.

“Your mother’s opinion is important to you,” I said.

“Of course,” he said.

“What about your dad?” I asked.

“He’s dead,” he told me.

I asked him to tell me more. He had been using for seven years. This was his fourth stay in a recovery facility.

“What happened seven years ago?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

“When did your dad die?” I asked, following a hunch that there might be a link.

“Five years ago,” he said.

No link, I thought.

I had been working in addictions recovery for two and a half years at that point. I spent most of my life as an accountant, working in grants administration at various universities. At age 58, I had a near-fatal heart attack, and during my recovery, I knew that I had to change course in my life. Counseling had always fascinated me, and I had been in and out of therapy myself for about seven years. I made the decision six months after the heart attack to make a major course change in my life and study counseling. I enrolled in the pastoral counseling program at Loyola University Maryland, the same school where I had earned a Master of Business Administration 26 years earlier.

As part of my counselor training, I had worked as an addictions counselor at the Westminster Rescue Mission. I remembered a story about another patient I had worked with there who reminded me of my current patient. I shared that story with my current patient, explaining that my former patient’s parents divorced when he was 5. His dad lived only a few blocks away after the divorce, but he rarely saw his dad. Sometimes his father would tell him he would take him fishing on a Saturday morning, so this young boy would get up early, get dressed, assemble his gear and wait all day at the living room window for his dad to come. His father never came.

My former patient started shooting heroin when he was 18 and continued to do so for the next 24 years. After working with this patient for a year, he said to me, “Until we talked, I never understood the connection between what my father did and my addiction.”

Something in this story seemed to resonate with my current patient. So I asked him again, “What happened seven years ago?”

“That was the year my dad got sick,” he said. “He got diabetes and had to have his foot amputated. He was my rock.”

And then it hit him: the link between his dad’s sickness and death, and his own addictive behavior. He jumped out of his chair, threw his arms around me and shouted, “You just saved my life!”

I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a heady moment for me. We both knew an important bridge had been crossed. We talked a little while longer, then went for a quiet walk outside.

 

An epidemic of loneliness

People talk of the tragedy of the opioid epidemic. And the tragedy is painfully real. One of my patients lost two friends during his first weekend in recovery, and he believed that if he had not come in for help, he too would be dead. Another patient found his best friend dead from the dope he had shared with him. A third patient stood before the entire patient community and told us that he had lost 42 friends to overdoses in one year, and he knew that if he did not come in for help, he might well be next.

And yet from my perspective of working with people in addiction, the opioid epidemic masks a deeper epidemic. The epidemic I see every day is an epidemic of loneliness.

It is so ironic. We have never been more connected. We have cell phones, email and FaceTime. We can meet anyone, anytime, anywhere. The world I live in today reminds me of the futuristic world I saw pictured in science fiction comic books when I was a kid. And yet, rather than being more connected, we seem more distant from each other than ever before.

I believe that we all need a deep sense of connection with other people in our lives. Emotional connection is an essential part of being human.

People in recovery are in a state of inner conflict. They simultaneously want to recover and stop abusing drugs and alcohol, while at the same time they have cravings to continue to use. When they stop using, once they get through the painful physical symptoms of detoxifying, the painful emotions that led them to use in the first place tend to rise to the surface. Often, there is a painful event or painful circumstance in their lives that caused them to use in the first place.

Substance abuse is often a coping strategy, a way of easing pain, and very often it is some painful event that triggered their addiction. Substance abuse serves a function in their lives; it reduces their pain enough to enable them to cope and carry on with their lives. In that way, it is similar to taking a pill to get rid of a headache. Of course, the circumstances are far more drastic.

I asked one user why he used heroin, and he said it was better than committing suicide. It was hard for me to argue with his logic. From his perspective, heroin use had the positive aspect of keeping him alive, of keeping him from killing himself by his own hand. That is part of the reason that it is so hard for people to give up their addiction. It serves the positive function in their lives of keeping them alive, allowing them to continue to function, in spite of their pain. It numbs out their pain, however temporarily.

Unfortunately, in numbing out their pain, it numbs out all of their other emotions as well. This is why it is nearly impossible to have a meaningful relationship with someone who is addicted to a substance. Meaningful relationships require an emotional connection. How can one have a meaningful connection with someone whose emotions are chronically numbed out?

 

Breaking the cycle

The damage of addiction spreads out like the ripples in a pond, far beyond the individual who is addicted, to affect all the other people in that individual’s life — friends, family members, co-workers. Children of parents who are addicted grow up with parents who are emotionally unavailable. These children’s lives are shaped by the experience of emotional unavailability, and so the cycle continues.

Breaking that cycle of emotional absence is at the heart of the work I do. When patients stop using, the emotional pain that led them to use in the first place reemerges, and they often are as unequipped to deal with that pain in the present as they were in the past. As their counselor, I help patients to identify past trauma and try to find a new perspective through which to see it.

One way of looking at emotions is to think of them as predictions of what is about to come. If you enter a house filled with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate cookies, you might find your mouth starting to salivate and your stomach starting to rumble — physical signs that your body is preparing for you to eat something yummy. A sudden scream in the night might make your body straighten, your muscles tense, your eyes widen and your ears perk up — all signs that your body has gone into a high state of alert for possible danger, usually accompanied by a sharp rush of adrenalin to be ready for fight or flight. Again, these are the physical signs of anticipation of and preparation for predicted danger.

Emotional pain evokes different bodily reactions. We may feel a loss of appetite, a heaviness of heart and a wish to isolate. The triggers for emotional pain may be less obvious to a person than is the smell of cookies or a scream in the night, but they are certainly quite real to the person experiencing them. And the pain can be overwhelming.

This is where substance abuse comes into play. Often, emotional pain comes about when a person has lost someone with whom they had an important emotional connection in their life, and that emotional connection has been broken. If a parent has died or moved away, a loved one has betrayed you or a traumatic event such as a rape or murder has occurred, there is no way to undo the event. The pain of such events can be overwhelming.

Drink or drugs can provide a means of easing the pain enough that the suffering person can get on with their lives, but they cannot undo the event. Many people find solace over time and find ways to cope with the pain without resorting to drink or drugs; however, many do not. Because drugs numb the pain without addressing the loss, a person remains stuck within the loss, and so the need for the drug endures.

The damaging paradox of a person who uses drugs to deal with the loss of emotional connection is that drugs eliminate the possibility of creating new emotional connections, which are the very thing the person needs to heal. Drugs numb out all emotions — both the painful and the joyful ones — and without the ability to feel the full range of emotions, any new, real emotional connections are impossible to create.

 

Searching for ‘meaning’

Being with a person in the initial stages of recovery from substance abuse is an awesome experience. As a counselor, I face them in that moment of transition in their life. I know I cannot fix or heal anybody. The thing I can do is to be present with them, offering what guidance and presence I can as I try to help them find healing within themselves.

Often, that is a matter of helping them name and identify those hard emotions that arise within them — the ones that led to substance use in the first place. Once the emotions are identified, then we look for the event or the circumstance in their life that brought that emotion into play. This is the moment when the hard stories come out, the stories of heartache and loss. And then it is a matter of looking at the meaning those stories have had in their lives.

It is the meaning we place on our stories that give them their emotional charge. A child whose parents divorced and whose father moved away might, as a child, believe in some unnamed way that they are worthless. After all, dad delivered the message, in the most obvious way possible, that they were not worth sticking around for. I have known many people struggling with addiction who had just that circumstance in their lives, and that sense of worthlessness was at the root of their addiction.

In this work, we can look at stories like that and change the meaning. The meaning might be that dad was a troubled man. It might be that dad and mom had a bad marriage and their breakup was necessary. It might be that dad had to go away on a job or for military service. By reframing the story, we can change the meaning, and when we change the meaning, the emotions that accompanied that story can change.

This was the case for the young man whose story I shared at the beginning of this article. For him, the meaning of his dad’s sickness and death was that he was losing his rock, and there would be no one there to give him guidance. His story changed to dad was sick and died through no fault of his own, nor by his father’s choice, and now he would have to find his own guidance. In changing the meaning of his story, his emotions changed, and his need to numb out his painful emotions with drugs gradually evaporated.

 

Being present

So, at the heart of my work is the aim of being present with another person so that they can learn to be emotionally present themselves. One of my favorite outcomes was when a patient told me about his 17-year-old daughter. She was the rock of their family, a straight-A student who was always reliable and dependable, emotionally calm and stable.

She came to visit her father a few weeks after he had entered recovery. He told me he could not believe what had happened. His strong, calm and rational daughter had broken down in tears in front of him. I said, “She was emotionally present with you.” After a moment, I asked, “Do you understand why?”

He looked baffled and said, “No.”

I said, “For the first time since she was a little girl, she could sense that you were emotionally present for her, no longer drunk or high, but really right there with her. She felt it, and so she, for the first time in years, was able to be emotionally present with you. That is why she cried.”

My final meeting with the young man whose father had died of diabetes was the night before he completed the program. He told me that he was planning to move back home where he could help his mother. He expected he would be able to go back to work at his job in a restaurant, and he planned to attend school in the fall. I asked what he would study, and he said he was interested in psychology. He said he was thinking of becoming a counselor, which would further motivate him to stay on his path of recovery.

I saw him again the night he finished the program. I was thinking of the years I had spent in grad school — the books I had read, the papers I had written, the checks I wrote and all the time I had invested. And in a moment, it was all worthwhile when he threw his arms around me and said, “Thank you.”

 

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James Rose, a national certified counselor and graduate professional counselor, is a recent graduate of Loyola University Maryland and works in addictions treatment at Ashley Addiction Services. Contact him at jrrose@loyola.edu.

 

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

Guiding lights

By Bethany Bray May 30, 2018

Counselor supervision is a rite of passage for professional counselors. Although supervision requirements vary from state to state, the crux of the experience — learning that is based in a relationship between a beginning counselor and an experienced practitioner — is universal. As is the case for any relationship to remain healthy and beneficial, the supervisor–supervisee pairing requires care, hard work, respect and trust from both parties.

Supervision is meant to be “the other half” of counselor education, bridging classroom learning and in-session counseling skills, says Summer Reiner, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), clinical supervisor and associate professor and school counseling coordinator at the College of Brockport, State University of New York. “There’s no way you can fully prepare the student in a classroom. Supervision is to fill out your education,” says Reiner, president of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, a division of the American Counseling Association.

Supervision begins “a lifelong process of always stepping back and looking at what went well and what didn’t,” she adds. “Supervision is training to be able to do that throughout your career, a constant of thinking what went well and what do I need to do differently? It’s a supervisor’s role to get that internal dialogue moving, by demonstrating it first and letting [supervisees] know that they will self-evaluate, in a healthy way, throughout their career.”

Balancing act

The supervisor–supervisee relationship is different from the therapeutic bond forged between counselor and client. However, many counseling skills come into play as supervisors support and foster growth in their supervisees. Although supervisors never shed their identity as counselors, they must learn to shift gears between working with clients and working with counselors-in-training or beginning professionals.

Supervisors must also achieve a balance between two primary roles that can, at times, feel like they are at odds with each other: fostering an open and honest dynamic with supervisees and evaluating supervisees. The best learning opportunities often arise when supervisees feel comfortable with and have enough trust in their supervisors to ask questions and admit when they are struggling.

“It’s a delicate balance,” says Kevin Doyle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), clinical supervisor and adjunct instructor of counselor education at Virginia Tech. “The supervisor has the power, but it still needs to be an open relationship. … A supervisor should focus on creating a connection that is similar to counseling, with focus on the supervisee’s professional growth and development. Transparency is paramount, even though there’s a grade or evaluation piece to the situation.”

“It’s one of the biggest fissures in supervision: There’s this evaluative piece. It’s similar to a counseling relationship, but you also have the responsibility to assign grades or to be a reference for a future employer,” says Doyle, a member of ACA. “It’s not a counselor–client relationship, but it also shouldn’t be an inverted relationship” with a power imbalance.

Supervisors are a unique blend of teacher, counselor, evaluator and role model, and they need to be able to nimbly weave in and out of those roles as the moment demands, Reiner says. Throughout the process, counselor supervisors should remain very supportive of their supervisees while also offering honest feedback.

“Help them understand that we’re not evaluating them as a person, or as a counselor, but with each intervention they use with a client,” says Reiner, whose experience is with graduate student supervision as a counselor educator. “This isn’t me judging you; it’s me helping you see what was your intent in this process? What was the intended outcome? If that didn’t happen, what would you have changed?’”

“At the same time,” she continues, “it’s important not to be a cheerleader. Don’t let them feel like everything’s OK when it’s not. It’s this balancing act of having students hear critical feedback without personalizing it and [then] using it constructively.”

Stacey Brown, an LMHC and clinical supervisor in Fort Myers, Florida, stresses that the best supervision happens when the relationship is central to the experience, which transcends simply going through the motions of clocking the needed hours and ticking items off of a to-do list. “For me, it’s about becoming a counselor — beyond the techniques they learn in grad school,” says Brown, an ACA member. “It’s very easy to forget the human part of the equation, and our role as nurturer and encourager, as there are so many boxes to tick. Don’t make it so structured that [supervision] sessions are repetitive or predictable. Be open and allow flow to happen, like you would in a counseling session. You can still cover everything you need to cover, but be creative and open to what comes. Otherwise, you may lose out on [teaching] opportunities that pop up.”

For example, a supervisor might have a stack of case studies ready for review with a supervisee, but the beginning counselor walks into the room with tears in her eyes because of professional stress or something going on in her personal life. In that case, “You shouldn’t push forward with your case reviews,” Brown says. “You should take a step back, ask what’s going on and how can you [the supervisee] manage it? But if I have some kind of checklist to get through, I will miss out on opportunities to help her become a counselor. Teach [supervisees] flexibility, intuition, being present and learning that they have to deal with their own stuff and take care of themselves to be able to help other people. What better way to teach that than by doing it?”

Modeling and forging a bond

Doyle says the skills that supervisees gain through counselor supervision can be divided into two realms: everything that happens in the room with clients, and everything that happens outside of the counseling room.

The first part of the equation, the “nuts and bolts” of counseling, as Doyle calls it, is developed through case review and the one-on-one guidance that a supervisor provides. It involves real-time application of the knowledge base that counseling students were introduced to in graduate school.

The second part encompasses learning that can’t truly be acquired from textbooks. It involves preparation for the entirety of the job of being a professional counselor, Doyle says. Much of the knowledge acquired in this sphere is based on how supervisors model their own professional skills, both inside and outside of client sessions, in the presence of their supervisees. Supervisees watch and absorb not only their supervisors’ interactions with clients, but also the professional boundaries that supervisors set, how much they focus on self-care and how they manage time, professional ethics and other aspects of the job.

Supervisees “absorb so much from how we carry ourselves and what we do in supervision,” says Doyle, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on how supervisors can model wellness and how that influences supervisees’ wellness.

A little self-disclosure, when appropriate, on the part of supervisors can help keep the supervisor–supervisee relationship open and honest, says Kathryn Henderson, an LPC and an assistant professor at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. When supervisors disclose, for example, that they sometimes struggle to prioritize self-care, it demonstrates not only that even supervisors are imperfect but also that wellness will need to be a career-long goal.

“I stress that we’re in this together,” says Henderson, an ACA member. Supervisors share “our knowledge and experience, but we’re learning from [our supervisees] and growing ourselves. We’re learning just as much from them as they are from us. It’s mutually enriching.”

Brown says she is upfront with her supervisees that counselors are no different from the general population in that they sometimes have trauma in their past, struggle with an inner critic or anxiety, or face other challenges. “Part of being a good counselor is being comfortable with yourself and coming to terms with your own issues. I can’t be [my supervisees’] therapist, but as a supervisor, [I] can recommend they see a therapist,” Brown says. “I tell people right off the bat, there’s no reason to hide who you are.”

Brown also thinks that supervisor self-disclosure, within ethical boundaries, can strengthen the relationship with supervisees and help them realize that being honest about their struggles won’t sabotage their evaluation. Brown recalls one supervisee who had an infant at home. When Brown would check in with her about her stress level and self-care routine, the supervisee would insist she was fine. In truth, she was struggling with breastfeeding and a severe lack of sleep. The supervisee opened up only after being shown photos of Brown’s children and having Brown share a few of her own struggles during motherhood.

“My job, as I see it, is not to be rigid or pretentious at all, but to be real,” Brown says. “Being a real person who can share my experiences, my missteps, my learning, my boundary conflicts, my wellness efforts, etc., helps supervisees to be willing to be real with me. Then I
can see who they are and can offer suggestions that can help them personally and professionally.”

“The relationship is the most important part of the supervision,” she continues. “Elements of trust, mentoring, nurturing, directing, humor, compassion and tutoring are all there, just as in the counseling relationship. The difference is that in supervision, the supervisee will one day be completely equal or surpass me in credentials and expertise. I treat them as colleagues while still offering the nurturing and guidance and respect they need and deserve.”

Henderson agrees that trust is paramount in creating a good supervision experience. For supervisors, this includes trusting their supervisees enough to give them room to find their own way professionally. For supervisees, this means trusting the relationship enough to be able to share — and, in turn, work on — their weaknesses and areas of struggle.

“You can’t give someone insight; [a supervisee] needs to find that on their own. But we can create that opportunity in supervision,” says Henderson, co-editor with Alicia M. Homrich of Gatekeeping in the Mental Health Professions, published by ACA in May. “Supervision is their first time working with real clients in a real-world setting and applying what they’ve spent so many hours learning. That can be scary and overwhelming — there’s a fear of inadequacy. … The crux of supervision is that you’re not alone in that. This is exactly where you go to talk about those concerns and get the support and help that you need to grow in your own self-awareness and confidence in your skills.

“Supervisors are the ones to build that support [by offering] encouragement and validation. All of that helps create an environment where I [the supervisee] can come and bring my greatest concerns and failures, be vulnerable and not be afraid of being judged or of negative outcomes or consequences. Trust is so needed to create that environment.”

It takes two

What does it take to establish a healthy and beneficial supervision experience? In part, both parties must contribute by being flexible and practicing open and honest communication.

Suggestions for supervisees

Shop around to find the best fit. Look for a supervisor with whom you click, both professionally and personally. Alicia Simmons, a counselor intern working toward counselor licensure in Florida, found her supervisor, Stacey Brown (quoted in this article), by searching online and talking with friends from graduate school. She called and spoke with Brown before meeting her in person to test the waters of what would become a very positive supervision relationship. Simmons and Brown co-presented a session, “Intuitive Clinical Supervision: Creative Solutions for Helping New Counselors,” at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta this past April.

“Look for someone who is going to walk beside you for … however long it takes,” says Simmons, a clinician and play therapist at an agency that serves children removed from their homes due to trauma or neglect. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions before you begin. You want to know you’re in the right fit. Don’t be afraid to try more than one supervisor. … Look for someone who is going to be flexible and work with you in the way you need to work. If you don’t know what that is, work with someone who will help you figure that out.”

Speak up. If you have a need that is not being met through the supervision experience, talk to your supervisor in a tactful but honest way. Doyle acknowledges that this can be a tall order because supervisors are seen as authority figures. At the same time, identifying any area where you might be struggling in the relationship will actually help your supervisor, he says. Counselors who provide supervision have so much to focus on — including client needs, scheduling, paperwork and so on — that they may not notice everything going on with their supervisees.

“Advocate for your needs [even though] that’s a lot to ask at the outset,” says Doyle, who will be starting a new job as assistant professor of mental health counseling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall. “Speak up when you need support. Realize that the supervisor will rely on that. … When you come to see your supervisor as a safe person, you will really connect with them and [that will] make it easy to disclose your struggles.”

Respect the process. Keep in mind that your supervisor likely took on this extra responsibility because he or she wanted to “pay it forward” to the profession, Reiner says. Yes, supervisees have needs that should be met through the supervision experience, but at the same time, they must remember that a counselor’s first priority will always be client care.

“Step one is being appreciative that someone was willing to take you on as a supervisee and has trust in you that you will be able to serve clients well,” says Reiner, an ACA member. “Keep in mind that you are practicing under the license of someone else. If the [supervisee] does something really inappropriate, it can open the supervisor up to a lawsuit. They are taking on a personal risk as well as an additional workload. … Recognize that the supervisor is investing in the future of the profession and has no obligation to do that. Realize that they care about your future and the clients you are going to work with.”

Be authentic and drop preconceived expectations. Bring your true self into supervision. Don’t act one way with clients and another way with your supervisor. There should be “a thread of authenticity” throughout your work in supervision, Simmons says. “Counseling is basically holding up a mirror and showing somebody what’s there. Supervision I think ideally would be the same way.” Authenticity, both on the part of the supervisee and the supervisor, builds trust, she asserts.

In addition, it might be best for supervisees to leave behind their ideas of what supervision should look like. The important thing is for the supervisor and supervisee to be working toward the same goals. “What I had heard about clinical supervision was mostly [about] case review and going over the work with clients — very textbook and academic,” says Simmons, an ACA member. “What I’ve learned is that it can be much more fluid than that. All the in-between stuff is what has stuck with me and helped me develop my own style and confidence in my abilities. It’s about more than just the logistics of what’s going on in each [client] case.”

Remain open to feedback. Having a relationship built on trust makes it easier for supervisees to remember that any critical feedback they receive from their supervisor is meant to help them and that they are both working toward the same goal: the supervisee’s growth and development as a counselor. “It’s the same as the counseling relationship — you have to have that rapport,” Simmons says.

Regardless, being critiqued can prove challenging. “As a supervisee, it’s our responsibility to be able to receive feedback,” Simmons says. “If there’s something that’s getting in the way, perhaps that’s something [we] need to work through. We may need to seek therapy ourselves to work on it. Check yourself: Is it something related to the supervisor, or is it something unrelated that you need to work on?”

Think for yourself. At the same time, do not accept feedback blindly. Think it through and talk through any areas you have questions about with your supervisor, Reiner advises. But first, take a step back and consider whether you have received similar feedback from others in the past.

“Critically examine any feedback that you are receiving and be open to being the one who needs to grow and change. Or simply say ‘thank you for that feedback’ and ‘I’ll be mindful of that in the future,’” Reiner says. “I don’t think that supervisees know that supervisors are sometimes uncomfortable sharing critical feedback. They have probably thought it through [before telling supervisees] and were anxious about it themselves.”

Suggestions for supervisors

Temper criticism. Set realistic expectations and frame criticism in a way that lets supervisees know you’re focused on their growth, Doyle says.

In Reiner’s work supervising graduate students, she assures them that she won’t start evaluating them for a grade until halfway through the semester, once they have settled into the experience. It is important to stress that feedback is never personal but rather focused on supervisees’ development, Reiner says.

“There’s also an element of modeling for your supervisees — ‘This is how you have hard conversations with people.’ [They] will need to do that as a counselor,” Reiner says.

Debunk myths of perfection and the existence of one right way. Henderson shares an important lesson with her supervisees that she learned through her own supervision: There is no such thing as a perfect counseling session. Supervisees often put enormous pressure on themselves to find the “right” way to do something, she says. The truth is, clinicians can work with the same client in multiple ways and take different therapeutic directions and still arrive at a positive outcome, Henderson says.

Prioritize fostering growth. Might your supervisees end up working for a local competitor or leave your agency and move on once they’re licensed? Be supportive and invested in their growth, even if it won’t benefit you in the long run, Doyle urges. “Don’t think of [supervision] as just one more thing to get through. Don’t think of it as a task but as a relationship to foster,” he says.

One mark of a good supervision relationship is when a supervisor is comfortable enough to allow — or even to encourage — a supervisee to seek additional skills elsewhere, Simmons says. For example, if supervisees use different therapeutic modalities than their supervisors do, they might want to look for workshops or online training while
in supervision.

Help supervisees embrace their counselor identity. Supervisors can help prepare supervisees for work environments in which they may be the only counselor. “Once people get into a work environment, there becomes a lot of pressure to do things not in the way a counselor is trained to do. Part of a supervisor’s job is to train a supervisee not to lose their identity as a counselor,” Reiner says. “Sometimes you might get the message, ‘We know that’s what you learned in college, but that’s not how we do it.’ Be mindful of teaching them to be a team player yet [also] an advocate for counselors and counseling.”

For example, a counselor in a school setting may be the only person in the building with a counseling background, and he or she may repeatedly be asked to spend time as a test proctor or hall monitor or to perform other noncounseling duties. “How do you politely tell your principal that counselors are not lunch monitors?” Reiner asks. “Instead, explain that your approach will be different. ‘I will do it, but I’ll do it within my counselor identity. Instead of being a disciplinarian, I will use it as an opportunity to talk to students.’”

Lift supervisees up. Supervisees should leave the supervision experience even more energized about the counseling profession than when they began, Brown says. “The way I see it, our job is to lift them up. To help them see that they are more capable than they think they are. To teach, to offer guidance and education, and to model how we do what we do. … Yes, there are techniques and ethics and strategies, but there is also joy in the giving. Graduate students don’t often pick up on that part in grad school. I believe that is the key element we, as supervisors, need to be offering to new counselors. This will help keep integrity in the profession and prevent burnout [by] shining a light on the ability to truly offer healing to clients.”

Navigating the ups and downs

Because supervision is an experience that involves two human beings, it is only natural that not every experience will be positive. Frustration, awkwardness and other negative feelings may surface.

Conflict can arise easily in supervision relationships in which expectations are unclear, Henderson notes. To decrease the likelihood of that happening, she recommends that supervisors document their expectations thoroughly before supervision begins, regardless of whether that process is mandated by the state in which the supervisor practices.

Among the details that should be included:

  • How the supervisee will be evaluated
  • How often the supervisor plans to meet with the supervisee
  • The cancellation policy should a supervisee need to miss a meeting
  • The length of the supervision or how many hours are expected
  • How much the supervisee will pay the supervisor (if applicable)

These details should be talked through with supervisees before they agree to sign the document.

This is also a good time to map out wellness goals, says Doyle, who has supervisees include self-care in the learning contract they create at the beginning of supervision.

“In many ways, it’s on the supervisor to try and develop a welcoming, supportive, yet honest and challenging relationship with their supervisee,” Reiner says. “That starts out with being very direct and forward with your supervisee about what is expected and how they will be evaluated.”

The importance of being direct also extends to addressing any differences between supervisors and supervisees, from level of expertise to gender identity to spirituality, Reiner says. She recommends asking supervisees upfront, “How are you feeling about these elements of who you are and who I am and how that comes together in our space together?” In addition, she says, supervisors can offer assurances to ease supervisees’ concerns about those differences: “If there’s ever a time when I’m not hearing you or not understanding you, please tell me. I want to hear it because it will only help our relationship.”

When tough conversations arise or when things aren’t going well in supervision, it is helpful to keep the discussions focused on growth opportunities. In her role as a counselor educator, Reiner sometimes has to mediate meetings between supervisors and supervisees who aren’t seeing eye to eye. She begins by asking both, individually, what is going well, what can be improved on and what they would like to do or see in supervision that hasn’t happened yet. Reiner tries to frame the conversation so that both parties are able to take personal ownership of what has transpired without placing blame. That way, they are able to share and focus on what they want from the experience that they haven’t yet received.

Clear and open communication is essential when the supervision relationship is having its ups and downs, agrees Henderson, and that is when a supervisor’s counseling skills especially come into play. Supervisors should focus on concrete expectations that aren’t being met rather than vague or arbitrary attributes that they may not like, such as a supervisee’s personality or professional style. If necessary, supervisors can also refer to the contract put in writing at the beginning of the relationship, she adds.

“Many times, we talk around things without talking about the process that’s going on in the room, that here-and-now experience,” says Henderson, who presented on supervision and ethics at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta. “Oftentimes we need to go to that level of metacommunication, to use counselor lingo, to address the dynamics that are happening between us and what’s contributing to it. That can be a very difficult conversation to have, especially considering the power differential. I like to make it as concrete as possible. Having clear expectations and a contract helps focus on competencies and what’s not being met.”

“[Sometimes] it’s these unexpected lessons that find us, that we’re not looking for, that can be the most difficult but that lead to the most growth,” she adds. “When we are having these conversations, keep in mind our mutual goals. What’s our purpose? The supervisee’s growth as well as client welfare. Monitor both.”

Keep it going

Peer support and feedback, mentorship and case review with colleagues can play a vital role throughout a counselor’s career, long after formal supervision leading up to licensure has ended. Doyle recommends that counselors engage in lifelong supervision, whether in an informal or formal capacity, to continue learning and to find support.

“It’s extremely rewarding work that we do, but it’s extremely taxing too. Peer support becomes that much more important after formal supervision ends,” he says. “It’s hard to describe the grind you go through daily as a counselor and the emotional toll it takes. Connect with people who can understand that. Connect with peers across the profession, whether that’s within a professional organization or the practitioner in the office next to you. Make sure you have a support network, wherever you are.”

Henderson says one of the things that stuck with her most from Irvin Yalom’s keynote at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco was that he — a noted psychiatrist, author and scholar — had sought support from peer groups throughout his storied career. “Even though he’s a giant in the field, he continues to work on his own development,” she says.

“The message that we want to send is that the journey doesn’t end when you get that license or degree,” Henderson adds. “The journey is ongoing, and we don’t want to be alone in that journey.”

 

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Related reading: Counselor supervision: Reflections and lessons learned,” an online-exclusive companion piece to this article: wp.me/p2BxKN-58U

 

Additional resources:

From the Counseling Today archives:

 

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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

 

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

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

 

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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.

 

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

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

 

 

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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.

 

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

 

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