Tag Archives: self-discovery

The therapeutic triad of disability

By Susan Stuntzner, Jacquelyn Dalton and Angela MacDonald July 9, 2018

For many counseling professionals, the exploration of forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience can seem daunting, particularly when determining ways to apply these concepts to people with disabilities and their specific needs. When approaching this task, counselors may ask themselves several questions, including: Where do I start? Which concept is most important? Is one of them more relevant for this population? How can I best help people explore one or all of these concepts? Good questions indeed but not always easy ones to answer.

To help counselors understand each of these concepts, the three authors of this article developed a model called the therapeutic triad of disability. The therapeutic triad provides counselors a means with which to consider one or all of these approaches as a gateway to healing and a pathway to hope for clients.

A personal search for therapeutic approaches

Susan Stuntzner’s experience: I am the director of disability services at Southwestern Oregon Community College and a lecturer for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. I have lived with a visible disability for more than 30 years.

In the summer of 1985, I broke my back and found myself paralyzed from the waist down. I was life-flighted to Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, Oregon, to undergo emergency surgery. Prior to the surgery, the attending physician told me that I would never walk again. Putting his pronouncement aside, I thought to myself, “Hmmm, maybe, maybe not. Time will tell.”

Following surgery, I was in Sacred Heart for two months while I underwent physical therapy and learned to walk with the assistance of below-the-knee ankle-foot orthotics. Over those two months, I had a lot of time to think about my predicament, how the course of my life had changed and the road ahead of me. I remember having an innate sense that my life would never be the same, that I could not go back to my “old life.”

At the same time, I found myself feeling a sense of hope. I was already anticipating that my life would be filled with new adventures, personal growth, challenges and possibilities. I can’t explain why I felt this way, but I distinctly remember seeing myself at a vital fork in the road, and now my life purpose was to take the “left road” instead of the one on the right. Perhaps this was the start of resilience and the very beginning of great things to come.

Over the next several years, I was faced with a number of experiences that I wasn’t prepared for, nor did I understand them at the time. Most of these experiences could be filed under what we know of today as negative societal attitudes toward people with disabilities: inaccurate beliefs, low expectations, bias, discrimination, oppression and a lack of equitable access to the opportunities and resources enjoyed by people without disabilities. This was a time when no one really discussed the experience of disability or the impact of society and barriers on people with disabilities. As a result, the process of figuring out what I was experiencing or what I should do was ambiguous at best.

That may not be easy for some readers to hear, but I share it because all of these experiences set the stage for what was to come. I just didn’t know it yet. It wasn’t until about a decade later, while I was a master’s student in Portland State University’s counseling program, that I formally learned about the realities and impacts of societal attitudes toward people with disabilities, the coping and adaptation issues that people with disabilities often experience and the changes in relationships and expectations that this population frequently faces. It was at this point that my personal experiences finally “had a face.” I could look at my personal experiences and better understand why life was now very different from a societal perspective.

Jacquelyn Dalton’s experience: I am a rehabilitation counseling educator, and I have had my own experience of living with a disability. However, my story is one of progressive hearing loss and the challenges and difficulties that come with that. I grew up in the “hearing world” but became profoundly deaf in my mid to late 20s. When I was in my late 30s, I pursued and received bilateral cochlear implants. Because of these implants, I am able to hear and to re-enter the world of the hearing person. However, this was not the end of my experience with disability.

Throughout this time, I worked hard to figure out where I fit in the world. My situation was one in which I wasn’t accepted by the culturally or functionally Deaf population, nor did I fit neatly into the hearing world. As time passed, I sought out other means of coping and adapting to changes brought on by my hearing or my lack thereof. I too witnessed the face of societal bias, inaccurate perceptions and the overstepping of personal boundaries.

Some of these issues were readily noticeable the moment I acquired a service hearing dog named Ainsley. Although providing a vital service and need, Ainsley suddenly made my hearing loss “visible” to the outsider and onlooker. With this experience came the presence of well-known issues that most people with disabilities encounter: strangers staring or gawking at them, invasive personal questions, unkind remarks and social intimidation tactics. To cope with these unexpected and difficult experiences, I began my own journey of exploration, which led to the discovery of mindfulness, meditation practices and Buddhist teachings.

What is the therapeutic triad?

The therapeutic triad of disability is a model and an approach to counseling that comprises three specific components: forgiveness, self-compassion, and resilience. Those who have embraced it have described it as a lifesaving strategy. People have told us that the therapeutic triad helped them move from a place of despair, darkness, anxiety and uncertainty to one of strength, hope and self-confidence. Through the therapeutic triad, these individuals discovered the power of forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience — and the interconnectedness of each component — on a journey of self-growth and personal healing.

So, how did the therapeutic triad come about? In 2012, Susan was looking for a way to expand the use of forgiveness among people with disabilities. This led her to the exploration of forgiveness as a potential component of resilience. Not seeing a lot available on either component in relation to people with disabilities or as part of an integrated approach, she started to work on it.

One outcome of this exploration and research process led to the development of Susan’s second book, Reflections From the Past: Life Lessons for Better Living. The book looks at a number of specific resilience-based strategies that people can use in everyday life. Each skill is categorized and housed within a specific resilience domain to help readers better understand the connection. Some of the skills presented focus on spiritual practices and forgiveness.

From there, an opportunity presented itself to Susan to explore the applicability of self-compassion to the field of rehabilitation counseling and to the process of counseling people with disabilities. Soon thereafter, she participated in one of Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer’s intensive trainings for individuals wishing to delve deeper into the therapeutic value and vitality of self-compassion. Neff and Germer are co-founders of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.

Occurring simultaneously, yet unknowingly, with Susan’s experience, Jacquelyn was undertaking her own personal exploration of mindfulness, meditation, compassion and self-compassion. Her life experiences led her to consider Buddhist practices, with some of her initial work being influenced by scholars such as Sharon Salzberg, Ron Siegel, and Pema Chodron. As part of these studies, she became mindful of the importance of compassion, acceptance and forgiveness in people’s lives. Later, she added to this understanding by familiarizing herself with Neff’s work and attending one of her workshops on self-compassion. Each of these pieces helped Jacquelyn better understand the interconnectedness between mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness and resilience, which she later started to apply to disability, trauma and other life challenges.

Angela MacDonald, a licensed mental health specialist and clinician at Frontier Behavioral Health, journeyed through her own experiences and exposure to forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience as part of her education and counselor training.

Throughout our individualized paths, we started to see the interconnectivity between these three therapeutic skills and approaches and, thus, the therapeutic triad of disability was developed. Each component of the therapeutic triad — forgiveness, self-compassion, resilience — is a portal or gateway to therapeutic healing and serves as a pathway to the other components. This is because people often begin therapeutic work in one area, only to discover that they could benefit from looking at other issues that are better addressed by one of the other two components.

For example, as part of their collaborative resilience intervention research, Angela and Susan have exposed people with various disabilities to a 10-week resilience-based skills intervention, “Stuntzner and Hartley’s Life Enhancement Intervention: Developing Resiliency Skills Following Disability” (developed by Susan in collaboration with Michael Hartley of the University of Arizona). Over the course of 10 weeks and 10 different modules, these individuals learned and applied specific resilience-based skills to their lives. Modules six and seven focused on forgiveness and self-compassion, respectively. While learning about these skills, many individuals became acutely aware of their need to work on forgiveness and self-compassion as key components to their healing, making them willing to explore one or both at a later date.

Angela regularly works with numerous people, individually and in a group context, on resilience and forgiveness. She witnesses people become more open to forgiveness after doing some initial work on resilience or sees people recognize the need for self-compassion after they have started learning how to forgive. It is amazing to watch people grow and draw from all three components as part of the therapeutic experience.

The benefits

People who practice forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience will experience a number of benefits, some of which are unique to that particular component and some of which overlap with the other components. To give counselors an idea of the benefits that these three components offer, let’s first consider some of the similarities.

The therapeutic triad, regardless of where people begin, affords clients the opportunity to increase their self-insight into the thoughts, feelings and choices that they have and make. As a result, clients may come to recognize that they engage in thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are not helping them heal or move forward. When this happens, people can decide what they are going to do instead.

An example of this was evident in the resilience intervention work that Susan and Angela conducted. By the third week of the intervention on resilience-based skills, participants had covered the meaning of resilience, the role of attitudes and beliefs, and the role of locus of control. It was during this time that a group member said, “You know? These exercises are really helping me see how I think and feel. I had no idea that I harbored this much negativity and that I talked to myself this way.” When the group member shared this insight, we asked him to be “kind and accepting” of his personal discovery and to realize that he also now had an opportunity to do something different.

Forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience can be used to help people reduce negative thoughts (e.g., mental rumination, self-judgment, critical thinking) and feelings (e.g., anger, anxiety, depression, hostility), diminish fears and decrease negative psychological reactions to the disability. They can also help people heal emotional hurt, feel less socially isolated and more connected to others, improve social relationships (including the relationship that people have with themselves), improve self-esteem, find hope, develop the ability to sit with their pain, and be kinder and more accepting of themselves.

In addition, each of these components may be a portal to another. For instance, when people work on forgiveness, they often realize they are not self-compassionate; thus, it provides a way to start working to change that. If resilience is the starting place, people often discover an accompanying need to work on forgiveness or self-compassion.

Jacquelyn has made similar observations pertaining to the interconnectedness of these skills in her work with military veterans. One veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder who is recovering from alcoholism told her, “The VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] tells you about resilience, but no one really shows you how to do it. It was not until you gave me information on self-compassion that I started to feel better. It was through this exposure to self-compassion that I then realized that some work on forgiveness was in order. I now see that the more I work on self-compassion, the more forgiveness I am able to experience.”

Overcoming barriers

Counselors working with people on the therapeutic triad have some options in the ways they can explore and address the barriers that people encounter as a part of the triad process. Like the benefits that people encounter, some of the barriers may be similar across the therapeutic components, whereas others will likely differ. Thus, counselors may want to consider which approach is best tailored for each person’s needs and situation.

For instance, some may decide to use an educational or more formalized approach in exploring and discussing potential barriers. Such an approach may be particularly useful in psychoeducational settings or as part of group counseling. Others may decide to use the exploration of barriers as a key feature of preparing clients for work on forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience. Still others might address “barrier identification” work on an individualized level and discuss them as they surface in the counseling relationship.

Susan and Angela, as part of their individualized and collaborative work, constantly revisit which approach works best for the situation, the person and the therapeutic context. In their collaborative group work, they have used a combined educational and self-assessment identification process. In the group setting, they typically educate group members about some of the barriers that people experience when working on a skill such as forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience. This is followed by the opportunity for group members to self-assess and explore their own personal barriers.

Susan and Angela have found that this combined educational and self-assessment identification process helps people realize that it is OK to encounter some kind of barrier. People learn that barriers are part of the human condition and their presence does not warrant adding additional layers of shame, guilt or self-criticism to a person’s self-concept. In the end, people are empowered to make a choice to do something different. To help counselors better understand the plethora of barriers people may experience as part of the therapeutic triad, we will provide some examples.

When exploring forgiveness, it is often difficult for people to ask for help in learning to forgive. Forgiveness is difficult because it is a personal process in which people are asked to face and address deep hurt and painful experiences. This process is compounded by the fact that some people believe that forgiveness is for the “weak” or that it is too hard to achieve. Others mistakenly believe that forgiveness is only for people who are religious or spiritual. Still others find it hard to forgive because they cannot “let go” of the pain or because they harbor feelings of blame toward themselves, others or God.

People commonly experience barriers in the cultivation of self-compassion when they hold on to negative thoughts and feelings, have difficulty letting go of the past or engage in critical or judgmental thinking about themselves. Some people cannot find their way to a self-compassionate way of life because they spend most of their time thinking only of themselves, feeling sorry for themselves or believing they do not deserve self-compassion.

Because of the nature of resilience and the reasons that people find themselves attracted to it, the barriers encountered may be different than those encountered for forgiveness or self-compassion. Part of this is because people tend to work on resilience following a life-changing or traumatic event, not when life is going well. Some common barriers include:

  • Believing a situation or event is unfair and that the choices you make will not result in a difference
  • Blaming other people for your situation
  • Feeling that you do not deserve what is happening to you, especially when you have done all of the “right” things
  • Continually asking “why” something is happening rather than working on potential solutions

Therapeutic strategies for skill cultivation

Counseling professionals interested in pursuing forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience work with clients are encouraged to consider a few initial questions, followed by employing some strategies as part of the therapeutic relationship.

  • Which of these — forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience — is most relevant to the person’s situation?
  • How do these skills relate to the person’s experience of living with a disability and its associated life changes?
  • Does the person seem more receptive to one of these approaches than the others?
  • What beliefs or practices does the person have or follow that can aid in this exploration?
  • In the given situation, which of the skills is most important for positive coping and adaptation to disability?
  • How can I help the person start on one area and use it as a portal for healing in another?
  • Do I cover each of these skills separately or as an integrated part of an intervention?

Professionals who are counseling clients with disabilities can choose from a number of strategies, especially given the multiple paths for cultivating forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience. The key is to find those that work for the person and that are relevant to the individual’s experiences. As previously mentioned, each of these skills often opens the door to another, so there is no one right place to begin.

Having said that, Susan and Angela have found that it often helps people to consider forgiveness and self-compassion after doing some initial work on resilience. Part of this may be because many of those with whom they have worked were exposed to forgiveness and self-compassion while learning resilience-based skills. As part of the process to build resilience, people often realized their need to work on the other two components.

Counselors may elect to work with people individually, in groups or in a way that accesses some of both. Counselors can approach the therapeutic triad from a psychoeducational approach, an intensive therapeutic approach or a specific counselor theory. They can also infuse techniques such as educational topic sessions, self-assessments/insight-driven exercises, bibliotherapy, specific exercises geared toward skill cultivation, interventions, meditation and spiritual practices, writing and reflection exercises, and therapeutic homework.

 

 

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To learn more, visit The Thoughtful Counselor podcast archives (thethoughtfulcounselor.com/all-episodes/) for a two-part conversation that Mike Shook facilitated with Susan Stuntzner and Angela MacDonald about the intersections of disability and forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience (episode dates: Feb. 17 and Feb. 21).

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Susan Stuntzner is the director of disability services at Southwestern Oregon Community College and a lecturer for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health practitioner, certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC), national certified counselor (NCC) and board certified telemental health provider. Contact her at susan.stuntzner@socc.edu.

Jacquelyn Dalton is an assistant professor in the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center within the Department of Clinical Counseling and Mental Health. She is a CRC and an NCC.

Angela MacDonald is a licensed mental health specialist and clinician at Frontier Behavioral Health. She is an LPC, CRC and NCC.

 

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.

 

Canine companions

By Laurie Meyers May 4, 2018

Having kids and young adults train rescue dogs isn’t technically animal assisted therapy, but for the kids—and dogs—involved in the Teacher’s Pet program, the result has definitely been therapeutic.

The youth —with the help of professional animal trainers— use positive reward-based training to increase local rescue dogs’ chances of being adopted. In return, working with the dogs helps the students develop patience, empathy, perseverance and hope, says Amy Johnson, the creator and executive director of Teacher’s Pet, a Detroit-area non-profit program.

The idea for the program was born when Johnson, a former public school teacher, was working as a dog training instructor at the Michigan Humane Society. Johnson, an American Counseling Association member, wasn’t sure what the training would look like at first — she simply knew

Images courtesy of Teacher’s Pet. Identifying features of (human) participants have been blurred for confidentiality.

she wanted an intervention that would help both kids and dogs. Johnson contacted every group she could find in the United States and Canada that worked with both youth and dogs to learn more about how their programs worked. Her intent was to work with kids who — like their canine counterparts — were behaviorally challenged and often unwanted. So, not only did Johnson contact school counselors and psychologists for their input, she decided to become a professional counselor herself.

The end result was a program that is 10 weeks long and meets twice a week for two hours. Teacher’s Pet currently works with teens from an alternative high school and three detention facilities and young adults, aged 18-24 at a homeless shelter, says Johnson, a licensed professional counselor. At each facility (except for the homeless shelter), the training takes place on site. Participants from the homeless shelter are brought to an animal shelter to complete the program.

The program’s group facilitators are all professional trainers and they choose only dogs with good temperaments to participate, says Johnson, who is also the special projects coordinator and director of the online animal assisted therapy certificate program at Oakland University in southeast Michigan. Before the participants begin working with the dogs, the facilitators give them some safety training.

“We spend the first day going over body language and stress signals,” Johnson says. “They meet the dogs on day two, after one more hour of dog body language education.”

Other safety measures include limiting the number of dogs — five or six per class of 10 students — and keeping the dogs on long tethers placed 10 feet apart so that they can’t interact with each other, she says. There are also always at least four trainers in the room and the dogs are closely monitored. If a dog gets overexcited, is struggling to get off the tether or barking at another dog, a trainer will remove it from the room, Johnson says.

At the beginning of each session, the lead facilitator goes over the goals for the session, such as teaching the commands “sit,” “stay” or “down,” learning to walk on a leash or not jump for the food bowl. The individual trainers explain how to teach the commands and let the teens or young adults do the actual training as they supervise. The dogs are never forced to participate—if an individual dog is nervous or reluctant, the goal for the day is to establish trust and confidence, she says.

Johnson says that sometimes dogs that come off the streets have specific problems like trembling when people walk by. In that case, the students will sit with the dog until it becomes more comfortable and then start with small steps like going for a brief walk outside.

As participants are teaching the dogs new behavior, often their own behavior changes, she says.

In particular, a lot of the teens and young adults who participate have poor communication skills, Johnson says. For instance, some are so shy that they don’t project their voices and the dogs don’t respond to their commands. The participants have to learn to speak firmly and assertively, and to demonstrate a sense of command by standing up straight. One boy told Johnson that he decided to test the tone of voice and body language he used with the dogs on his peers to see what would happen. Imitating the behavior he used with the dogs gave the boy more confidence and he found it easier to interact with his peers, she says.

Johnson describes another boy who was very angry, had little patience and low impulse control. He had a soft heart and would choose dogs that were struggling, which told Johnson that he was projecting his anger.

“Inside he was like the dogs [scared],” she says. So the trainers paired the boy with a dog that was afraid of men. His job was to make the dog like him, Johnson explains. The boy had to be patient and sit with the dog. As the dog got calmer and more confident, the boy would gently encourage it to move closer and closer. By the end of the program, the dog was joyfully playing with boy.

Johnson says that the program facilitators coordinate with the participants’ counselors when possible, so that if they are struggling with particular problems — such as patience or impulse control — training sessions can include activities that help address those difficulties.

The teens and young adults also learn from each other. The first hour of each session is devoted to training and the second to journaling and “debriefing” — talking as a group about what worked and what didn’t.

Johnson believes that even just the oxytocin release that comes from spending time with the dogs is highly beneficial. The program participants are often deprived of loving human touch and the dogs will lick and hug and make them laugh — reducing their anger and anxiety.

As the program draws to end, saying goodbye isn’t easy, but that in itself can be a lesson learned, Johnson says. The students start to detach from the dogs a little bit, and they’ll talk about how that is a normal part of processing grief and loss, she says. The kids also write letters to potential adopters  touting the dogs’ accomplishments.

When the program is over, the teens and young adults say goodbye to the dogs and learn that they can say goodbye and not have it be the end of the world, says Johnson. The participants also get lots of pictures of themselves with the dogs and a certificate for the wall. Many former students have told Johnson that they keep a picture of themselves and the dog they trained on their dressers.

“I had a youth email me seven years later and ask me for another copy of his certificate because his was in a storage unit that was auctioned off,” she says.

Many graduates want to volunteer with Teacher’s Pet for adoption and other events, Johnson says. The organization also remains a resource for the students — they can get letters of recommendation or basic things like clothes for school or school supplies if needed.

Johnson says that Teacher’s Pet is also currently working with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) on a longitudinal study to determine if the program produces behavioral changes in the kids, and if so, for how long.

 

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For more information about Teacher’s Pet, visit the website at teacherspetmi.org or email Amy Johnson at amy.johnson@teacherspetmi.org.

Related reading, on therapeutic power of the human-animal bond, from the Counseling Today archives: “The people whisperers

 

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

Letters to the editor:ct@counseling.org

 

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

 

When help isn’t helpful: Overfunctioning for clients

By Kathleen Smith March 19, 2018

“Erin” came to counseling with all the signs of depression. She was unhappy with her career, her health and her family. Her mother was distressed, her father was distant and her disabled brother was sick.

Erin spent a lot of energy calming and directing her family, and she complained about how little her family supported her in return. She increasingly relied on sugar to calm herself down, and she struggled to end this dependence.

Erin’s anxiety was high, and as a newbie counselor, I struggled to operate outside of it. She cried through many of our meetings, and she grew increasingly critical of our work together.

She said she wanted to stop focusing on her family dynamics, so I switched topics.

She wanted to focus more on her eating habits, so I focused on that.

Then she said I wasn’t giving her enough tools, so I gave her more tools.

I dreaded meeting with her every week, knowing that she’d find some reason to be unhappy with me. I’ll admit that I was relieved when she decided to switch to a different counselor.

It would be very easy for me to look back on my work with Erin and label her as a difficult or resistant client — someone who simply wasn’t ready to change. But now I know better.

You see, I’m a student of Bowen family systems theory. One of the big ideas in Bowen theory is that relationships are reciprocal. Each person plays a part, and these parts are complementary. When you look at the individual and not the relationship, then you miss seeing this reciprocity. The therapeutic relationship is no exception.

Murray Bowen wrote, “When the therapist allows himself to become a ‘healer’ or ‘repairman,’ the family goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish his work.”

Erin was looking for someone to take responsibility for her problems, and I quickly dove in and volunteered as a way to calm down the room and avoid her anger. Looking back, I think about how our relationship might have been different if I hadn’t begun to overfunction for Erin and had refrained from “teaching” her how to fix her depression. I decided that Erin wasn’t willing to change, and I never stopped to think about how my actions were supporting her ambivalence and helplessness.

Have you ever heard an interview with a successful person who grew up in an intense family situation? These individuals always have at least one variable in common. Someone took an interest in them. Often, it was a teacher, a coach, a grandparent or a clergyperson. Someone was curious about their capabilities, and they thrived from this interest.

I truly believe that the opposite of anxiety is curiosity. If I can stay curious about counseling clients who are challenging, they will often do better. When I jump in and try to fix, I am communicating to those clients that they aren’t capable of solving a problem — that their thinking isn’t useful and that they should borrow mine instead. In such instances, I am more concerned with calming everything down than letting clients take responsibility for themselves.

I am very fortunate to have a curious counseling mentor who does not prop up my own incapacity to direct my life. Even though we have been meeting for years, I could probably count the number of times she has made a suggestion to me on one hand. I can see how by simply asking good questions and helping me develop my thinking, she has allowed me to take responsibility for my own functioning.

My job as a counselor is to help people see the reciprocity in their relationships. Like when a client wonders why his mother is financially irresponsible when he’s spent years bailing her out of debt. Or when someone wonders why her partner doesn’t share more when she’s constantly asking him to manage her own distress. When we focus on the other person in a relationship, we’re missing 50 percent of the picture. In fact, we’re missing the 50 percent that we can actually control. By focusing on Erin and what I thought was her “fault,” I missed seeing my part in our relationship.

When anxiety is high in the counseling room, it’s incredibly difficult to shift the focus back on yourself. Difficult, but not impossible. So when a person is distressed, instead of fixing or reassuring, I try to relax my posture, take some deep breaths and access my best thinking. I try to pay attention to when I’m slipping into my default mode of overfunctioning. When a person asks me how I think they’re doing, I challenge them to trust their own ability to evaluate themselves. I try to do this for any relationship, whether it’s with a counseling client or with a friend.

I think I’m getting a little bit better each day with noticing the reciprocity in my relationships. By seeing my part, I’m taking responsibility for myself and allowing others to do the same. In exchange, these relationships bring so much more joy into my life. If I can stay focused on myself around my most anxious clients, then, often, they end up being some of the most rewarding ones I see.

It’s funny how when we treat people as though they can take responsibility for themselves, they are likely to rise to the occasion. I hope that Erin found a counselor who saw her as the capable young woman she was.

 

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Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at kathleensmith.net.

 

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Related reading by Kathleen Smith, from the CT archives: Facing the fear of incompetence

Self-doubt often nags at the minds of counselors, but the practice of vulnerability might offer both a powerful antidote against unrealistic expectations and a prescription for forming stronger connections with clients. https://wp.me/p2BxKN-4EK

 

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

 

The path forward: A counselor’s coming out in counselor education

By Jack D. Simons November 22, 2016

businessman with a rainbow necktie, with a slight vignette addedTo be who you are, you don’t have to wait a lifetime.

I knew at age 5 that I was attracted to the same gender. This realization occurred during a time when, in my mind, it was not OK to be gay. I just couldn’t see it. It wouldn’t get better.

I grew up in the Midwest during the AIDS generation. People were dying, and the media portrayed the so-called “plague” as horrific. This definitely impacted me, including how I thought of myself and who I was. The advent of AIDS changed the lives of millions. Sexuality, for many, was no longer the same.

It was also during this time that I witnessed my uncle die of AIDS, shortly after the death of my great-grandfather. My uncle was gay, and he was just beginning life with his partner. He had moved to Portland to work as a musician and a nurse, but shortly thereafter he died. His life had been cut short by a condition that could not be cured.

How challenging it was for me as a teenager to see this while also questioning my own sexuality. Unfortunately, I never got to talk to my uncle about his life, but I wish that I had. Instead, I just asked myself, “Why would I live a life like his if I could die?” Being gay wasn’t an option that I wanted, so I did not accept myself for many years. I became one of those men who married a woman and started a family, thinking that my same-sex attractions would go away.

Well, it didn’t. I had just done what I thought I was supposed to do. I didn’t tell anyone in my family that I was gay until my early 30s.

Remaining in the closet comes at a cost. It depleted me of energy and compromised my health, which is not uncommon for those who come out later in life. I was unable to live a life congruent with my values, and others were hurt. This upset me.

While in my Ph.D. program, I decided to take active steps toward authenticity, whatever the cost. I asked myself how I could be a role model in counselor education if I wasn’t true to myself. How could I be vital and thrive in the world if I was inauthentic? How could I look my daughter in the eye in good faith?

I knew the answers, and they were all the same. I could not bear to continue to live an inauthentic life. I told my family members and close loved ones about what I was going through. It wasn’t easy, but I began to meet others like me and build a support system. Ultimately, I disclosed at work, which is a key milestone. Those who stood by me during this time are now some of my closet friends and colleagues.

I am grateful that I have been able to come out and live an authentic life. My education played a part in this. I am fortunate to teach and inspire others. Over the past two years, I completed my dissertation, taught, and worked on research and community events that I felt were important. As a former school counselor, it has also been exciting for me to see how the field of school counseling has become more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, or those perceived to be (note: LGBTQ+ is an umbrella term that aims to capture all sexual and gender minority groups).

I thank everyone who has challenged me to be myself. Without this support, I may not have fully come out. I also know that if I had had more visible role models (like I am trying to be now) when I was younger, I would have accepted myself sooner.

 

Final thoughts

For those who haven’t yet come out, for whatever reason(s), don’t lose hope. There is time to work toward authenticity. It just takes longer for some. The experience has been hard for me, but it has gotten better.

If you wish to come out but you don’t think you can do it on your own, seek support. Some people might find this difficult, but I have always said that nothing of value is easy. This might be the time for you. If, however, you just want to learn more about LGBTQ+ communities, I recommend that you reach out to these communities and ask questions to make new friends or professional contacts.

In addition, I encourage counselors and counselors-in-training who have limited experience in working with LGBTQ+ communities to attend workshops and to reflect on their own sexual identity development. LGBTQ+ communities are very diverse, so there are many people to learn about, to learn from, to draw strength from and to stand tall with. If you see me, say hi!

 

Select resources

  • The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience by Perry N. Halkitis (2014)
  • Transgender Explained for Those Who Are Not by Joanne Herman (2009)
  • The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die by John B. Izzo (2008)
  • “Coming out in mid-adulthood: Building a new identity” by Lon B. Johnston and David Jenkins, in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, Volume 16, Issue 2, 2004
  • Outing Yourself: How to Come Out as Lesbian or Gay to Your Family, Friends and Coworkers by Michelangelo Signorile
  • Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). “The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale” by Alex M. Wood, P. Alex Linley, John Maltby, Michael Baliousis and Stephen Joseph, in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Volume 55, No. 3, 2008

 

 

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Jack D. Simons is a core faculty member in the counseling program at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Contact him at jsimons1@mercy.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.

 

Growing up: An allegory

By Shawn Patrick September 15, 2016

When I turned 39, I had a midlife crisis. I wasn’t home on my 39th birthday. I was on another continent, sitting in a hotel lobby at stupid early o’clock, jet-lagged and writing because I couldn’t sleep. I looked up, saw the date and realized my birthday had occurred while I had been traveling, the day lost somewhere in the time vortex that opens up when flying overseas. Technically, then, it was the day after my 39th birthday when The Voice screamed at me, “What have you been doing with your life???!”

Granted, I had earned a doctorate, had achieved tenure, had published manuscripts. I had two lovely children, and I had managed to stay married to the same person longer than any other person in his or my family history. These are not small accomplishments. But this is not what occurred to me in that panic-inducing moment. Rather, The Voice pummeled:

“Why aren’t you on The New York Times’ best-seller list yet? What happened to the blockbuster movie? Where is the Fields Medal? Why haven’t you played Carnegie Hall yet? You haven’t even photo-1458175049065-aefb15b1b58bbothered to figure out the grand unification theory bringing together quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity — you’ve been sitting back letting Stephen Hawking do all the work. What the &$@# is wrong with you?”

Part of the problem for those like me is that we still cling to our childhood fantasies of success. We grew up imagining ourselves getting discovered simply because Hollywood Movie Mogul in a red convertible Mercedes screeches to a halt while we’re walking down the street and shouts, “There, there is the person I’ve been waiting for!” And the other part is because we were given some remarkably confusing aspirational advice.

In grade school, I was in the first group of identified “gifted” children. I didn’t know what it meant, and no one else understood it either. But to the dozen of us who were selected, it meant that we could leave class a few hours each week and play games. This was a good deal in our opinion, so we didn’t question anything. Yet without our knowing, we were already receiving those sneaky messages about where our lives were supposed to end up.

The social strata are well-established by high school, telling us who is and is not supposed to be a productive member of society. We instinctively knew there were no real differences between these arbitrary groups; the “achieving” group could simply get away with more because no one expected us to do anything illicit. The “remedial” group included plenty of individuals who were extremely smart and capable, but for reasons well outside themselves, no one paid attention to them anymore. This stratification persisted due to factors outside our control and taught us about the many forms of privilege and its consequences.

Many of us slowly go insane from pressure to climb to the top of the mountain, to win, to be the best at whatever is deemed successful. If we don’t accomplish it, then we have let the whole of civilized society down, our ancestors are forever shamed, and our future offspring will only hope to dream about peeking through the window of a good school. Include the discourses bombarding teenagers about being “Someone” — e.g., a doctor is better than a nurse, a scientist is better than an artist, a rich person is better than a poor person. So often our legacies make no sense to us. We are pushed by unexplained, invisible forces, but if we make a mistake, we will ultimately carry all the blame for what goes wrong. Everyone loves to claim the credit when someone succeeds, but if that person fails, it’s all on you, baby.

I never knew what I wanted to do. When I graduated high school, I had one very well-meaning teacher give me the kiss of death. I experienced heart-palpitating conflict over choosing a college major. Enter this literature teacher who took great interest in my writing. At the end of the term, I asked him to sign my yearbook. He wrote:

“Good luck to you in all you do. I know you’ll go far. Keep writing because it’s clearly what you were meant to do. Of course the last person I said that to now only writes grocery lists. Best wishes, B.”

He had a genuine interest in my future, and I suspect he thought he was being funny. But he had no idea how this gong resonated throughout my core, highlighting the double bind I lived with: You can do anything you want, but what you want might not amount to anything.

When I turned 39 in a hotel lobby, all I’d really figured out was that in one year I’d be 40. What did I have to show for myself? Had I even come close to approaching some of the lofty aspirations I held for myself, or did I too end up writing grocery lists?

Part of maturity is realizing that the frenetic pace of youth cannot be maintained. Eventually, we have to abandon the immature need for immediate gratification. Recognizing our mortality means catching on to the idea that one is not interested in dying due to blowing out your own candle; death will come in its own time, so why not learn to live? These are the chronic existential conversations that infiltrated my head as an adult who had to concern herself with things like paying bills. And the appearance of children completely redesigns the landscape — a total home renovation that leaves you forever wondering where you left your keys. So pacing becomes a necessity. Priorities must occur because we are forced to write our own instruction manuals for adulthood.

But the adult dilemma becomes, did I pace myself too much? Did I slow down to the point of stopping? Specialization is an ironic creature. It is comforting to think you actually know something. However, the danger in such comfort is that it can easily lull you into complacency. Did I avoid the new thing because I didn’t have the time, or because it would mean stepping outside of what was familiar? In the guise of developing “expertise,” did I actually limit myself from gaining knowledge?

“How have you made your mark on the world?” Regardless of how far-fetched, lofty, idealistic or fantastic my earlier aspirations were, they were there to tell me to make more of myself. Not in the sense of being the best, biggest, brightest or richest, but in the way of being more than just what was prescribed for me. Have I challenged myself? Have I at least tried to take a risk, or do I still play it safe? Did I keep listening to what everyone else demanded for my life, or did I speak up and say, “Here I am, like it or lump it.”

Disturbingly, my answer at age 39 was, “Well, sort of.” In examining how I had established myself, I found that even though I wasn’t writing grocery lists, I hadn’t exactly written sonnets either. Perhaps I felt like something was missing because something was, indeed, missing. Perhaps I was being told it was time to take the next step. I had allowed myself to live with a list of “what if” questions — What if I’d done this? What if I had gone there? What if I were like that? — and I’d fallen into the trap of constant speculation. Everyone wants to be Yoda, but I was at risk of turning into nothing more than Super Grover stuck in a tree.

I didn’t know what my mark would look like, but I decided I could live as though I had made one and see what happens. I stopped saying “no” and started saying “yes.” That’s not to say that I suddenly started agreeing indiscriminately with some “you can do anything” illusion. Instead, I decided that fear or social disapproval would no longer be enough of a reason to prevent me from trying the new thing. “It’s the way it has always been done” was no longer a good enough reason to stay the same. Not knowing became the reason for acting.

Experiments in living can have curious effects. All kinds of wild ideas entered my mind. Not all were viable, but the energy that comes from rediscovering one’s creative power is intoxicating. It flows into every part of work and life.

If this were a fairy tale, I would stop at this “happy ending.” But I’m not trying to wrap my experience up in a neat bow, nor am I trying to say that this is just my story. I’m not 39 anymore. I’ve had a few years to live with my experiment, and I prefer living this way. But it has not made life easier. In fact, living as though the “what if” has already been answered makes life more challenging. But it’s a challenge I put to others — and especially to a counseling profession that also seem to have gotten stalled in its own internal-gazing.

Twenty years ago during my master’s program, my professors said that counseling was in its adolescence. Today, we are still struggling with questions of identity. Who are we? What are we about? What do we believe in and stand for?

We have gone through several fast-paced movements, some which have enhanced us and some of which have diminished us. Like so many tumultuous progressions, we regularly take three steps forward and two steps back. Yet we also seem to have lulled ourselves into a strange quietude, the kind where we exude certainty until we are asked to define what it means to carry this mantle. In our quest for legitimacy, we could very well have sold ourselves out, making us into a caricature of the professions we seem to think we should be. Are there lessons we can borrow from fields such as psychology, social work or psychiatry? Certainly. But at what point do we stop saying, “This is who we are not” and instead assert, “This is who we are?”

The “what ifs” have caught us for far too long. How many debates, circular arguments really, do we get into about which theory is the “best,” which specialty is the most important, who is the most moral or just? At what point will we admit to ourselves and the rest of the public how many of our choices have been profit driven — claims staked to promote our own brand of job security? What do our politics really say about us — not an individual’s personal views, but the fact that we as a profession still argue amongst ourselves about who is granted personhood.

What if instead of fighting over limited crumbs, we acted like a profession with a unified vision, not of what each counselor should do but of who our profession is meant to serve? What if we stopped proving our legitimacy through purely Cartesian lenses and instead recognized that the totality of our work cannot be reduced to widgets and Facebook memes but must also encompass a marvelous, mysterious human interaction? What if instead of resting on our certainties, we asked ourselves in what ways our insecurities have seduced us into believing that the illusions we cling to are the realities that everyone must follow? What if instead of being afraid of our differences, we took a chance to allow ourselves to be influenced by each other in the ways in which we arrogantly expect our clients to be influenced by us?

Prepare to grow up, Counseling. What have you been doing with your life?

 

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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.

 

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Shawn Patrick is an associate professor in the counseling and guidance program at California State University, San Bernardino. Contact her at shawn.patrick@csusb.edu.