Tag Archives: self-discovery

Rewriting the client’s narrative through colors

By Jetaun Bailey, Heather Hodge, Beverly Andes, Bryan Gere and CharMayne Jackson September 8, 2022

In our work as counselors and educators, we find that others are increasingly receptive to conversations about color preferences and interpretations during our interactions. It is as if talking about colors creates an entryway for open dialogue, mutual respect and connectivity and encourages all who are present to express authentic and insightful thoughts and opinions. Moreover, we have noticed that there is a connective alliance between these conversations and the continued, open discussions about understanding personality and issues related to mental health.

This process begins by asking  a  simple question: “What color or colors do you feel reflect your personality?” The individual or participants almost always pause, smile and then say, “Good question.” This practice of starting the discussion with a nonintrusive question creates a calm, safe space for everyone to become curious and explorative and engage in meaningful dialogue before delving deep into a topic about their mental health concerns.

And the answers to this seemingly simple question can be rather complex. The numerous color mixtures and hues we see — and the myriad ways in which we view colors — invokes meaning in our lives. Regardless of cultural background, influential sport teams, seasons of the year or clothing trends, colors have a way of speaking to the individual as well as the collective. 

The power of colors 

After witnessing the power of color in a staff training, Bryan Gere and I (Jetaun Bailey) first wrote about the psychology of colors in the 2018 Counseling Today online exclusive, “Identifying colors to create a rainbow of cohesion in the workplace for helping professionals.” Since then, we have incorporated colors into our teaching and counseling activities, including classroom discussions, group presentations and individual client sessions, as a unique way to get to know the student or client in a nonintrusive yet welcoming manner.

Recently, the authors of this article used color psychology to help the participants in a process group rewrite their own narratives by using their favorite color. We asked the participants to reconsider their past experiences through the lens of this color. The goal of this exercise was to help them discover what was preventing them from acting as their true selves in the present and to help them learn to move ahead effectively into the future. According to a 2019 article by Benjamin Hardy in Psychology Today, rewriting one’s present and future narratives requires an investigation of one’s past. A person’s outlook on their past narrative affects their present and future narratives, and in turn, their new outlook on the present and future also changes the significance they place on their past experiences. 

During this group presentation, one person described her favorite color as pink. After stating this, she seemed uncomfortable and almost apologetic for her answer. And she downplayed her color by saying, “It is a color that symbolizes weakness.” When we asked her to elaborate on why she felt uncomfortable sharing that this was her favorite color, we learned that she also considered herself “weak.” 

This discovery led to a deeper conversation on how she defined weakness and its relationship to the color pink. She said that pink is a “girly” color and is associated with being kind and pleasant and not speaking up for oneself. She then told us that she had been unable to advocate for herself and had remained in a broken marriage for years. She had allowed herself to be dominated during her marriage, and as a result, she had low self-esteem. By processing with the other group members, this participant began to understand not only the negative cultural and societal norms associated with the color pink (e.g., frail, timid, overly emotional disposition) but also positive traits such as compassion. This discussion and reframing allowed her to look at pink in a new way, and then she used this new perspective to reframe her thoughts about herself. What she once mistook as a representation of her personal weaknesses, she now realized represented her internal strength of compassion. Thus, her story was rewritten. 

Although this color activity was part of a one-session process group, it can be modified and used in regular group therapy as well as in individual sessions. Counselors can also use this activity as a training tool for various organizations. Within a work environment, for example, the color activity would allow employees to learn more about themselves and others within the organization. This insight can be revealed in a nonintrusive fashion that others may not be aware of. I (Jetaun Bailey) once used this activity in a training with a group of university faculty members. One of the faculty members identified with the color gray and associated it with neutrality. She went on to explain how her family life was chaotic, and she found solace in remaining as neutral as possible, which is a trait she had carried over into her work life. This trait led several of her co-workers in the group to express how they had noticed she had perfected the skill of remaining neutral, and although this trait is often considered a positive quality, it sometimes meant she would avoid addressing situations to remain neutral. Asking a nonintrusive question about color allowed the faculty to gain a greater understanding about their co-worker. 

Steps for implementing the color activity 

The group activity of rewriting one’s narrative through colors involves four sequential steps. During these steps, participants analyze their past using their favorite color, and in doing so, they are able to determine what prevents them from being their authentic self. In turn, this helps them to function more productively in the present and move forward into their future. 

Step 1: Connect colors to the client’s personality. Counselors can ask questions to help clients connect the color(s) with what it means about their personality. They can start by asking, “What color or colors do you feel reflect your personality?” While each participant answers the question, counselors should notice their body language or any spoken or unspoken explanations about the color(s), such as the previous example about the participant who closely identified with the color pink. Clinicians can then ask a gentle yet appropriate question about what they observed while the participant was identifying their favorite color. Some participants are forthcoming. For example, a Chinese American who participated in our process group easily connected the color red, which is symbolic in both Chinese and American cultures, to her own struggle with identity. She explained that she had been embracing and respecting one culture while feeling embarrassed by the other. 

Step 2: Investigate negative associations with the colors. Counselors should ask group members to identify one or two negative associations with the color(s) they chose and how it relates to past experiences in their lives. In addition, clinicians can ask the other participants in the group to share the negative connotations they may have heard about the color(s). This allows every participant to stay in a neutral zone so that no one feels attacked personally, and it also offers a broader understanding of the various meanings ascribed to colors on the part of different individuals, cultures and ethnicities. As noted by Iris Bakker and colleagues in their 2015 article published in Color Research and Application, a person’s gender, age, education and personality (e.g., being technical, emotional or a team player) affect their color preferences.

Step 3: Investigate the negative associations with specific colors as potential barriers to personal growth. Next counselors can ask clients to consider how the negative connotations associated with the color could be connected to negative feelings they have about themselves as well as how it might have hindered their growth in the past. It can be helpful during this step to self-disclose. Experts say that in small doses, self-disclosure can be a very effective technique. And when used judiciously, particularly in a group environment, it can help build trust, promote empathy and improve therapeutic relationships.

To break the ice during a group session on one occasion, I (Jetaun Bailey) disclosed that red, my identified color, is associated with aggression and impulsivity and that I am a risk-taker. I noted that I often get into trouble because of my impulsivity and risk-taking nature, and that my association with risk-taking being an ill-advised trait, which I learned from my experiences as a youth, often caused me to remain silent around others. Group processing teaches people how to voice their difficulties, and I believe my self-disclosure in this case increased the bond between the group members and myself. 

Self-disclosing also works well with clients who appear to be introverted. The participant who identified with the color pink in the previously mentioned example was somewhat apprehensive about sharing this color, which could imply that she may have introverted tendencies. But with the counselor’s and group’s own disclosure and encouragement, she began to express herself more freely.

Step 4: Help the client reframe the narrative. After exploring the negative connotations associated with the colors, counselors can ask each group member to think about positive qualities associated with the same color. For example, they could ask, “Now that you are aware of the negativity linked with the color(s) with which each of you have identified, how might you look at that negativity differently?” This technique, which is a form of cognitive restructuring, helps the participants reframe what they find to be negative and reflect a more positive view of the color. 

Clinicians could also have the client replace the negative word associated with the color with its antonym. It may be helpful to provide an example such as how sadness, which is often associated with the color blue, can be reframed by thinking of words that mean the opposite such as hopeful and optimistic. Counselors can then ask each participant to use that antonym or positive word to reconsider how they view their professional or personal lives now as well as how they hope to view it in the future. 

The person who identified with pink, for example, used the word “compassion” to reframe how she viewed herself and her marriage experience. This allowed her to see her strength amid the seeming dysfunction of her marriage, build self-awareness and help her understand that her strength lies in her compassion. In turn, the participant indicated that she would use this strength of compassion to regulate her emotions during difficult moments by using soothing, kind and supportive words or messages rather than self-criticism. She noted that decreasing self-criticism would improve her self-esteem as well as her relationships and communication skills with others. 

During this step, counselors can use a variety of techniques and modalities in addition to the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing. In fact, this step is an excellent time to use the “miracle question” technique from solution-focused therapy. For example, the counselor could say, “The rainbow symbolizes many things in Western society and art such as a sign of hope and better days to come. If that were the case, what miracle would your specific color bring you and why? How would that miracle alter the negative connotations associated with your chosen color(s)?” This approach achieves the solution-focused goal of helping clients rewrite their narratives, which makes it a good substitute for the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing.

A mindful approach 

This creative approach to rewriting one’s narrative offers inspiration and excitement because it can trigger a child-like curiosity and exploration and disarm tension and the expectation of a stereotypical psychoanalysis. The simple question of “what color(s) best reflects your personality” invites clients to express feeling, emotion and vision, which helps clients break down and deconstruct information into smaller, more manageable categories. Thus, counselors can easily incorporate the mindfulness method throughout this group process.

This question also causes many people to pause and reflect before answering, as though they are engaged entirely in their own mental imagery. The reliance on mental imagery is similar to guided therapeutic imagery, a relaxation technique closely associated with mindfulness. Asking what colors reflect their personality rather than simply asking what their favorite color is requires participants to use an inner sense or senses to elicit sensations associated with the color(s) and consider which color is most closely linked to their personality. 

The participants in our process group transitioned into a state of peace and tranquility the instant the question was posed, coinciding with the mindfulness approach of being fully present. In expressing their colors, they contributed to a sense of belonging created by the shared warmth, friendliness and evident understanding of the issue. The participants continued to work with this prompt in the present moment, completely involved in their own and each other’s experiences of the way their colors were manifesting.

Throughout the four steps of this approach, the counselor holds space for mindful listening. They must listen deeply and ask open-ended questions to allow everyone to express their authenticity through their colors, while gaining clarity and knowledge. And they also need to pay attention to verbal and nonverbal communication, especially to each individual’s breathing and physiological expressions. Clinicians should document clients’ comments and suppress clients’ negative self-talk. 

Effective mindful listening eventually creates an atmosphere of collective communication, resulting in each participant rewriting their narrative from self-reflection and collective sharing by way of mindful listening. The participant who identified with pink provides a great example of this. She communicated through both verbal and nonverbal expressions that the color pink caused her some uncomfortable feelings, and the other participants were able to help her see the beauty in her color and connect it to her own compassion. The participant was then able to self-reflect and reshape  her narrative. 

Because each group member brings their own cultural understanding of colors as well as their own color norms and practices with them, the group also gains a comprehensive richness that infuses components of cultural awareness in this activity of rewriting their narratives through colors. Each participant demonstrates cultural understanding by attentively listening to each other’s relationship with a color(s) and indicating how the connections are similar and different from their own. This cultural awareness creates a collective cohesive and appreciation for one another. As a result of this collective communication, a shared sense of culture emerges; the shared experience of discussing their own colors helps them form a community while still embracing each other’s individual identities and unique cultures.


Choosing one’s identifying color and the accurate attributes it holds, as well as the feelings and emotions associated with the thoughts, becomes rich material to work with in the therapeutic setting. Having clients consider the basic question — “Which color(s) do you feel reflect your personality?” — prompts a diverse range of responses and often results in enlightenment. It’s as if sharing colors has some magical or unexplainable way of shifting the discourse or topic in the group’s or individual’s favor. We are often oblivious of the way colors influence our moods, sensations and perceptions. Rewriting our narratives by looking at our interactions with colors from a cultural, personal and biological perspective can teach us something about ourselves, of which we are often unaware.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com


Jetaun Bailey holds a doctorate in professional counseling and supervision and is a licensed professional counselor with supervision status. She is also a college professor and a certified school counselor. Contact her at BaileyJetaun@hotmail.com.

Heather Hodge is a graduate student in the mindfulness-based transpersonal counseling program at Naropa University. Contact her at heather.hodge@naropa.edu. 

Beverly Andes is a graduate student in the mindfulness-based transpersonal counseling program at Naropa University. Contact her at beverly.andes@naropa.edu. 

Bryan Gere holds a doctorate in rehabilitation counseling and is an associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He is also a certified rehabilitation counselor. Contact him at bryangere23@gmail.com. 

CharMayne Jackson is a registered mental health counselor intern in Florida and holds a master’s in counseling psychology with a concentration in clinical psychology and a bachelor’s in psychology. Contact her at charmayne.jack@gmail.com. 


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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.

Counseling a broken heart

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2022

Romantic breakups can be a painful process that often involves feelings of loss on many levels.

According to Jessica Rizk, a licensed professional counselor and supervisor who owns a private practice in Northern Virginia, initial feelings of loss after a breakup can occur in two phases, the first of which is the loss of routine. A person may acutely feel the loss of activities that brought them comfort and connection such as phone calls and texts from their partner, watching their favorite TV shows together or their usual morning coffee time.

As the breakup begins to sink in, the person may feel loss over what could have been, Rizk continues. This second phase may bring painful feelings about unmet expectations and the absence of a future with their partner — either one they imagined or one they discussed and planned as a couple.

These multifaceted feelings of loss can intertwine with anger, disappointment, vulnerability, regret, shame, betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness or even relief. In short, there can be a lot to unpack in counseling.

Rizk, a member of the American Counseling Association whose practice focuses on helping clients with relationship issues, recommends counselors start by offering empathic listening, which, she says, these clients need first and foremost. There is healing in being truly and completely heard, she notes.

“Clients may not feel they have the opportunity to get it all out to friends and family without judgment,” she explains. “Having an opportunity for the client to speak completely unfiltered is my main goal. Counseling is about talking about pain without judgment — even if they need to talk about something over and over.”

Although post-relationship heartbreak is not uncommon, Rizk aims to treat each client who seeks counseling after a breakup as if they are going through a new and unique experience. This includes prompting them to share how they met their ex, what drew them together and other details of the relationship, including its end. It’s important for clients to talk through the breakup — when they are ready — so they don’t get “stuck” in feeling angry and relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, she says.

As clients share, Rizk says she tries to stay as neutral as possible and reassures the client that they will not feel the sadness, anger or any other feelings they are experiencing forever. She often needs to gently explain to clients that they may never know what caused a breakup.

“Depending on how vulnerable and open the client is, some of them are coming to counseling to figure out the why. Others are unhappy with being single or are looking to figure out why it [painful breakups] keeps happening and they jump from relationship to relationship,” Rizk says. “I try and listen to their stories and pull out threads to bring into sessions and gently process together. … Each client will cope in a different way, and my desire is to walk alongside the client as if I’ve never heard this pain before.”

Wondering why

Clients sometimes come to counseling after a relationship ends to seek closure, says Kelly Weber, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who sees individual clients at her private practice in Phoenix, Arizona. They are often looking for help to move through a painful period that is full of difficult emotions and unresolved feelings about the relationship and its end. It can be a confusing and hurtful experience, she notes.

This can especially be the case, Weber says, if the breakup was unexpected, such as the discovery of infidelity, or the other person ended the relationship without much explanation. Inadequate closure — that feeling of having the rug pulled out from underneath you — can cause a person to replay scenarios over and over in their mind, wonder what happened, and question if it was their fault, she says.

For clients with a preexisting mental illness, a breakup can exacerbate their symptoms, especially rumination, self-doubt, intrusive thoughts and overthinking the “what-ifs,” Weber says. For some clients, this can lead to depressive episodes, trouble sleeping, weight loss or gain, isolation/withdrawal and distress to the point where it interferes with daily life. She has seen clients get to the point where their thoughts about the relationship and breakup are all-consuming and they are unable to get out of bed or meet their work responsibilities.

As with any client who is experiencing intense distress, Weber says that it’s important to ask clients who are experiencing a breakup about suicidal thoughts, including hopelessness or feeling like they can’t go on without their partner. In her experience, it’s not common for clients to answer in the affirmative, but “it’s important to ask the question,” she says.

Marquita Johnson, an LPC with a solo private practice in the greater Atlanta area, also notes that many of her clients are seeking closure when they come to counseling after a breakup. She reminds them that closure doesn’t have to be about getting answers from their ex; closure is for them, she says. 

To keep this focus, she often suggests that clients who are looking for answers about why a relationship ended write out their thoughts and feelings in a journal or compose a letter or email to their ex that does not have to be sent. She prompts them to reflect on what did and didn’t work for them in the relationship.

Johnson also provides psychoeducation on how clients may regress when they are triggered by contact with an ex or by something that reminds the client of the relationship and the time they spent together.

“They need to understand that it can be a roller coaster,” Johnson explains.

Johnson adds that clients may also need psychoeducation on how social media can trigger and worsen negative thoughts if a client continues to follow or look at an ex’s posts. She often spends time explaining that although it’s tempting to keep tabs on their ex’s life through social media, seeing their ex’s posts can prolong post-breakup pain and cause them to compare themselves or jump to conclusions on whether their former partner is happy or remorseful.

Working through loss

Kristyn Macala, a licensed professional clinical counselor at a trauma therapy practice that offers online counseling to clients in Ohio, stresses that these clients need a supportive and gentle approach. If a counselor tries to put a positive spin on the breakup, prompting the client to identify good things that came out of a relationship before they are ready, they are likely to stop coming, she says.

Instead, Macala tries to create an environment for these clients to “feel however they need to feel” after a breakup.

“For me, the most important thing is creating the space, the rapport and the connection [with a client], so they feel comfortable and know that we can take our time, and that’s OK,” says Macala, who specializes in sex and couples counseling.

Macala uses psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief model with clients experiencing heartbreak. When describing this concept to clients, she refers to these five stages as “tasks of mourning” because even though their ex is alive, they are still mourning the loss of a person they loved. Kübler-Ross’ model can help them accept the reality of the loss and the pain that comes with it as well as come to terms with a world where they are no longer a partner to that person, Macala explains.

“If the relationship was a ‘first’ in some way (e.g., first relationship, first relationship with a partner with a certain identity or characteristics, first sexual partner or committed partnership), the loss may be particularly painful because they likely had expectations and dreams that were unfulfilled and made personal sacrifices to invest in the relationship,” says Naomi J. Wheeler, an assistant professor and director of the Family and Relational Stress and Health (FReSH) Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It can be tempting for a counselor to try to make a client feel better after a breakup, but the best support is the kind that honors all feelings as valid in the process of healing and taps into the client’s own internal wisdom, says Wheeler, an LPC in Virginia and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. This includes the ups and downs of vacillating between hating a former partner and loving them, feeling lost and lonely, or feeling free and empowered.

Rizk often prompts clients to describe and explore their feelings of loss by asking them to tell her the story of their relationship, from beginning to end. This gives counselors an opportunity to listen for “sticking points” that may need further attention later in therapy, she explains. In fact, the language they use to describe their situation often provides a lot of context, Rizk says. For example, she listens for phrases such as:

  • “I don’t know what’s next.”
  • “I don’t know what to do with myself.”
  • “I feel like I’m never going to find anyone else.”
  • “I’m going to throw in the towel and stop dating.”
  • “I have never not been with someone.”
  • “I don’t know how I’m going to bounce back from this.”
  • “I don’t know how I’m going to tell my family.”
  • “Without my partner, I’m not strong enough.”

Clients who use this type of language often need to focus on their identity and self-worth in addition to grief work in counseling, Rizk notes. It may also indicate that they struggle with a fear of loneliness or have previously relied on a partner to find happiness or fulfillment. These feelings may be further complicated if a client comes from a culture or family system that places value and importance on marriage or couplehood over singleness, she adds.

“There can be a sense of confusion on ‘what now’ or ‘what’s next.’ They invested so much in the relationship that they forgot to invest in themselves,” Rizk says. “There is a lot of grieving, but how they grieve can be very telling of how they view love, [including a reliance on] external love instead of self-love.”

Quelling negative thoughts

It’s easy for clients to fall into negative thought pattens and ruminate on the what-ifs after a painful breakup. So helping clients become aware of this inner “script” is a vital first step in counseling, Macala says, as well as equipping them with tools to stop and reroute intrusive thoughts. When left unchecked, unhealthy thoughts can intensify other mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.

“When those [negative] thoughts are swirling in our brain we can really get down on ourselves,” agrees Kasie Morgan, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor at a practice in Mount Holly, North Carolina. She’s noticed that clients often respond by questioning themselves and asking, “What did I do? What doesn’t this person like about me? Why does this always happen to me?” The first thing she helps clients do is redirect the focus by telling them, “This is not about what is wrong with you; it’s about what happened to you.’”

Morgan also finds that helping clients to forgive themselves can be an essential part of healing. A person’s self-talk often defaults to “should” statements, such as “I should have known the other person was going to hurt me or treat me poorly.” These clients often need to hear (sometimes repeatedly) from a counselor, she says, that nothing they can do will control or change the behavior of another person — all they can do is focus on their own actions and thoughts. 

“That is a hard concept to work through,” Morgan admits. “A lot of times when we talk about a breakup or dismantling a relationship, there’s a lot of talk about forgiving the other person. But we forget to talk about forgiving ourselves for our shortcomings and our patterns. Part of the process is letting go of the things within yourself that have driven you to a place of not liking yourself. Being kind to yourself is vital.”

Morgan uses acceptance and commitment therapy techniques with her clients to help them build resiliency and learn to separate fact from fiction in their thought patterns and emotions. She asks clients to identify the residual feelings they have from a past relationship (e.g., despair, sadness, relief). Then she helps clients put those feelings in context by pointing out a positive fact or aspect that came out of the relationship. For example, she may note that the client devoted a lot of time, energy and emotion to this person and relationship and prompt them to explore it further by asking themselves, “What are the facts about me that have come out of this relationship?” 

Rizk also says that cognitive reframing techniques are her go-to for clients who are spiraling into negative thought patterns after a breakup, including feeling that they have somehow failed or are “not enough.” She supplements this work by prompting clients to make a list of things that they are good at or have been successful at outside of their love life. Clients can also ask supportive friends and family to help them identify some positive qualities and accomplishments that they can add to the list, she says.

When Rizk discusses the client’s list with them in session, she emphasizes that they are worthy of love and have a lot of be proud of. Positive aspects of a client’s life, such as work accomplishments or valued friendships, can often be forgotten or put aside when a client is in a romantic relationship, especially one that is falling apart, she notes.

The language that clients use when describing their negative thought patterns can also uncover core beliefs that need to be explored and challenged in counseling, Macala says. This includes catastrophizing or making generalizations such as “bad things always happen to me,” she adds.

Macala says she gently broaches these conversations about core beliefs, and she doesn’t delve deeper into the issue with the client until after they have moved past their initial emotional response to the breakup, are stabilized and indicate they are ready to discuss these beliefs further. She begins by talking about what core beliefs are, giving examples such as “I am unworthy” or “I am helpless,” and explaining that some of them can come from negative things we’ve heard in our formative years. She then asks clients, “Does any of this sound familiar? Does it resonate with you?” And she says they often respond “yes.” 

“I don’t challenge them right away,” says Macala, who estimates that one-third of her caseload is struggling with some kind of relationship loss or grief. “This person has believed that two plus two equals five their whole life and I’m telling them that two plus two equals four, and it’s upsetting. … Sometimes it takes a lot of work to exchange them [core beliefs] for something more helpful.”

Macala says that the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing, which is strengths-based, can be particularly helpful for clients who disclose catastrophizing thought patterns and beliefs such as “I can’t do anything right.” 

Exploration of core beliefs and reframing helped a male client that Macala once worked with who came to counseling after the end of a long-term relationship. His partner had cheated on him, and the client was navigating a lot of pain, denial and a need to mourn the loss of the relationship and the long-term plans he had imagined with his partner.

His presenting concern was depression, she recalls, but as they began to work together it became apparent that the breakup was exacerbating not only his depression but also his substance use.

Initially, Macala worked on thought stopping techniques with this client to quiet his rumination and equipped him with healthy coping mechanisms, such as positive affirmations and gratitude journaling, to turn to instead of substance use. Once he was stabilized, they began to focus on his values, and it became clear that undergoing childhood abuse and abandonment by his mother had caused him to believe that he was unlovable, Macala says.

She challenged this belief by asking the client to write out a list of his values. For each value that had a negative connotation, she asked him to think of a positive one to match it. From there, she suggested the client put the positive values on a vision board to look at and remember each day.

“Negative beliefs focus on what isn’t there,” Macala says, “and reframing flips it to focus on what is there.” 

Rediscovering self

We often invest a lot of our time and resources in our relationships, and as a result, we can wrap much of our identity and sense of self into a significant relationship or partner,” says Wheeler, an ACA member who specializes in family and relational stress. “So, when the relationship ends, a person may grieve the loss of the partner, the loss of the life built together, as well as the future they had imagined, and begin a process of rediscovering themselves outside of the partnership.”

Wheeler and the other counselors interviewed for this article emphasized that clients can benefit from counseling work that guides them to explore and reconnect to their identity after a painful breakup. A first step can be to ask the client to identify hobbies, interests and social supports — including those which they had abandoned during their relationship — that they want to connect or reconnect with.

For Weber, this focus on reconnection to self often comes after she’s done grief work with a client and they have moved forward from an initial state of vulnerability and sadness where, in some cases, they’re crying all the time. She often explains this concept by describing it as “working on version 2.0 of themselves.”

Weber finds that dialectical behavioral therapy techniques can be helpful to give clients a new perspective after a breakup and boost confidence. In particular, she uses role-play to build communication skills and to help clients better express their needs.

Morgan also recommends counselors help clients who are going through a breakup identify and explore their core values and beliefs, including values that come from their family of origin. There are numerous values worksheets available at therapistaid.com that are helpful in this realm, she notes.

She advises counselors to help clients identify what values they want to closely examine and how those values affect their ability to be a romantic partner. “It’s important to identify not only [clients’] current values but also what they want them to be,” she says. “For example, I might want to have creativity in my life but right now I’m working at a job that isn’t creative.” 

“A lot of values are generational, so it can be helpful to see how they impact your life and play out in your own values,” she adds.

Johnson specializes in counseling the millennial population, especially with dating and relationships, and often spends a lot of time helping clients to identify and strengthen their identity and values after a breakup. She created two sets of cards related to relationships that she often uses in session with clients recovering from a breakup. The first set of cards prompts conversation on what a client wants for themselves in a relationship, with questions such as:

  • What did your mother or father teach you about relationships?
  • If your relationship was a traffic light, would the signal be green, yellow or red, and why?
  • How do you know you feel safe in a relationship?
  • If you had the relationship of your reality, what would that look like? (Johnson says she purposely uses the word “reality” here instead of “dreams” to keep clients from imagining or dwelling on a false reality.)

The second deck of cards contains a series of relationship affirmations for counselor and client to repeat together and talk through. Some of the affirmations include: 

  • The success of a relationship is a shared responsibility, based on trust and vulnerability.
  • Healthy control is having both self-control and the remote control. (This affirmation interjects a little humor and usually sparks a laugh before diving into the heavy topic of self-control, Johnson notes.)
  • When I’m in conflict with my partner, I am actually looking to connect with them.

In addition to the card prompts, Johnson also has clients identify and write lists of negotiable and non-negotiable aspects that they value in relationships and areas they are working on (e.g., self-confidence) to track and discuss in counseling. 

Having clients focus on themselves during this phase of therapy, Johnson says, often reveals the need to work on skills such as communication and assertiveness, as well as the need for psychoeducation on the different types of attachment styles and how that can influence a person’s romantic relationships.

Johnson notes that these conversations can also prompt wider discussions about what the client views as a healthy relationship, when and how they feel safe to become vulnerable with a partner, and what they’ve learned and internalized from their own relationships as well as others’. And it shifts their focus to realize that they have the power to set boundaries for the choices they make with romantic partners in the future, she adds.

Making meaning

With their relationship in the rearview mirror, an important part of the healing process is for clients to reflect and create meaning from the experience. However, “there’s no easy way to do that,” Macala admits. “We have to approach it from the perspective of putting ourselves in the driver’s seat. We get to decide what we are going to take from it [the relationship].”

Although this is an essential part of counseling after a breakup, it should come after a client has processed the loss and is ready to reflect on the entire relationship, including its painful end, Macala says.

The ultimate goal should be to guide the client as they identify what was good and healthy in the relationship. “Then, we discard whatever was unhealthy and what we don’t need anymore,” Macala says. Take, for example, a client who experiences a bad breakup with someone they have a child with; rather than thinking about the negative parts of the breakup, the client could choose to focus on the fact that this relationship also gave them something positive: their child.

One approach that Macala uses to prompt these discussions is to have the client make a list of things that were red and green flags in the relationship. Clients are often familiar with the idea of red flags in a relationship, such as jealousy or controlling behavior. Conversely, green flags can include things such as finding a partner who enforces healthy boundaries in their life or has good social supports. Macala suggests clients make meaning from their past relationship by expanding their thinking to include both the red flags they want to avoid repeating in their next relationship and the green flags they’d like to seek out.

Weber agrees that a counselor can help clients make meaning from the good and the not-so-good aspects of an ended relationship. She finds it helpful to spur these conversations by having the client draw a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper. On one side, they list all the things they will miss about the relationship, and on the other side, they include all the things they won’t miss.

“Through the grieving process, we are able to recognize both sides of that piece of paper,” Weber says. “We do not want to romanticize it [the relationship] or put it on a pedestal but have a realistic view of what happened.”



The need for self-love

Clients who are healing from a painful breakup often ask their counselor when they should start dating again. There is no “right” answer to this question, and a professional counselor shouldn’t advise a client on what they should or shouldn’t do, but it’s an important topic to talk about, notes Kelly Weber, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Phoenix, Arizona. Weber uses the question as an opportunity to explore why — or why not — a client feels they are ready to date again. 

Jessica Rizk, an LPC who owns a private practice in Northern Virginia, says that clients’ questions about when to start dating again often have some underlying reasons. If it’s because they are uncomfortable with being single, they may benefit from unpacking those feelings in therapy.

Rizk has worked with clients who dove back into dating and relationships soon after breakups because they were unable to tolerate feelings of loneliness and vulnerability and struggled with self-love. These feelings can stem from abandonment or negative experiences in their past, including childhood, she explains.

“They are attracted to feeling loved by someone,” Rizk says. “The reality is that they’re trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it. It’s not their partner’s responsibility to fix their bucket.”

Rizk helps clients work through these issues, explaining that a relationship is doomed if one of the partners is seeking connection to meet a need, such as self-love, that only they can meet themselves.

Clients may avoid talking about a breakup or blame others for relationship problems because they fear loneliness or feel they are unworthy of love — all of which can be processed in counseling, adds Marquita Johnson, an LPC with a counseling practice in the greater Atlanta area.

“Their identity is often enmeshed with being a part of a couple,” Johnson says. “I tell clients, ‘A single dollar bill still has value even though it’s alone. It is not valueless if it’s not with other bills.’”

She sometimes assigns these clients “homework” by asking them to do an activity by themselves (e.g., eat in a restaurant or attend a social gathering alone) and then write in a journal to process the experience. She prompts them to think about how they felt during the activity and, in turn, what value can be found in being single and doing things on their own.

Kasie Morgan, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor at a practice in Mount Holly, North Carolina, agrees that a counselor’s role can include helping a client explore their thoughts and feelings related to relationships after a breakup as well as whether they are ready to begin dating again and take on the “heavy work” of being in a partnership.

Entering another relationship “is a heavy thing and they need to work through their connection to self before” they’re ready to date again, Morgan says. “Until they are happy with where they are in life, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find a relationship and be fully committed to that person.”



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


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

Growing up between cultures

By Lindsey Phillips August 2, 2022

Kurt Bannert, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), left his home in Texas to move overseas at age 10. When his parents told him they were moving to Serbia for missionary work, his initial reply was, “That sounds awesome. You guys have fun. Don’t forget to call or write me or send pictures about how it goes, but I’m not going.”

Bannert’s family was unable to go straight to Serbia and lived in Bosnia for a few months at first. He remembers leaving the warm, 90-degree weather of Texas and moving to a cold city filled with snow and people who spoke a language he didn’t understand. 

He says this experience left him feeling bitter, angry and depressed. “I was angry at my parents. I was angry at God,” he recalls. “I was really mad. I felt it was unfair. I didn’t ask for these things to happen. I didn’t have a choice.” 

Over time, Bannert assimilated into Serbian culture and made local friends. But during high school, he mostly stayed in his room and messaged his friends from the United States, which he says caused his parents to worry that he was depressed. They decided to send him to an international boarding school in southern Germany, where he was surrounded by kids who had similar experiences of living abroad.

As a child, Bannert, who owns a private practice (Third Culture Therapy) in Longview, Texas, had heard the phrase “third-culture kid” (TCK), but he says it wasn’t until he attended this international boarding school and met other TCKs that this term really started to make sense for him. 

TCK, a term coined by sociologist Ruth Useem in the 1950s, describes someone who has spent a significant portion of their developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. A study conducted by Ann Cottrell and Useem in the 1990s revealed that American adult TCKs are often more successful than their homegrown peers, with 44% earning a bachelor’s degree by age 22 and 85% being bilingual. A 2011 survey by Denizen, an online magazine geared for TCKs, found that 30% of TCKs have a master’s degree and 10% speak four languages. 

But this success can often come at the cost of feeling lonely and dislocated. The Denizen survey also found that 70% of respondents weren’t planning to stay or weren’t sure if they would stay in their current city for more than two years. This number increased to 92% when asked if they would stay there for five years. The stressors that come with being a citizen of everywhere and nowhere can lead to anger or depression (as was the case with Bannert), unresolved grief and loss, an uncertain sense of belonging, or issues with relationships.

Cross-cultural identity 

For TCKs, a nomadic lifestyle is often a normal way of life, which can leave them wondering where exactly they belong. They may feel they are “citizens” of many places yet struggle to pinpoint “home.”

As a child, Josh Sandoz, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Seattle, Washington, often wondered about his own cultural identity. He is a U.S. citizen who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and his parents’ jobs caused him to continuously shift between living in Seoul and different parts of the United States. 

When parents make the choice to raise kids internationally, they often don’t realize or think about how they are creating a cross-cultural family, where individuals have different cultural frames of reference, Sandoz says. Parents may assume that their children share the same cultural identity that they do, but this is not always the case. He advises counselors who work with TCKs and their caregivers to initiate conversations around what this cross-cultural family looks like for them.

The TCK population is the epitome of cultural complexity, Sandoz continues, because of their unique and individualized experiences. So he cautions counselors not to make assumptions about a client’s cultural sensibilities based on what they presume to be their ethnicity, race or citizenship. A TCK client can hold divided or multiple loyalties, and these loyalties can be in conflict with each other, explains Sandoz, who founded the International Therapist Directory, which helps internationally mobile people find therapists knowledgeable about third-culture experiences. 

For example, Sandoz knew a TCK who was born in the United States, lived in Europe during elementary school, moved to South Korea for middle school, attended high school in Singapore and went to college in the United States. In college, friends constantly told him to “just be himself,” but he wasn’t sure what that even meant. Was he supposed to be his European self, his East or Southeast Asian self or his North American self?

A TCK may look or sound like they are from the United States, says Denese Marshall, an LPC and advanced alcohol and drug counselor with a private practice in New Canaan, Connecticut, but they have not had the same experiences as their U.S. peers. They may not have gone to football games on Friday night or watched the same TV shows, for example. So they don’t necessarily feel like they “belong” even when they are in a country where they are a citizen. 

In fact, Marshall acknowledges that the question, “Where are you from?” can cause some TCKs to freeze with fear or become anxious because they aren’t sure how to answer. She works with clients and their families to help these kids have a prepared response, such as “My parents are from this city, and we are currently living in this country.” 

Sandoz agrees that the “where are you from” question can be problematic or complicated for some clients, so as a clinician, he avoids asking it. Instead, he asks clients, “Where all did you grow up?” This question is more open-ended and unassuming, he explains, and it allows the client to explore all the cultures and geographic locations with which they identify.

The idea of identity is layered for TCKs, says Aishwarya Nambiar, a doctoral candidate in counseling education and supervision at William & Mary. These individuals are still trying to figure out where they belong, she notes, and some are doing this while also navigating their marginalized identities. 

One of Nambiar’s research interests focuses on how to infuse the TCK experience within the counseling education curriculum because she finds that counselors often do not understand the complexity involved in TCKs’ identities. As a result, TCK clients can feel misunderstood in sessions. She, along with her colleague Philippa Chin, presented on this topic at the 2021 annual conference of the European Branch of ACA. Adult TCKs often come to see Bannert because they are struggling with understanding their personal or national identities now that they are no longer living abroad. To help them begin to unpack all the layers of their identity, he hands them a family crest with four blank quadrants and asks them to fill it in with their identities. Most of the time, clients leave one of the four quadrants empty, Bannert says, because they feel there is more to them and the story they are developing.

Counselors need to be aware of the nuances associated with the TCK lifestyle, Nambiar stresses, because each TCK experiences a unique set of challenges and benefits. If clinicians are aware of these individualized experiences, then they can provide these clients with a space to process and consider all the layers of their identity and how it affects their experience, she says. 

Preparing for transitions 

There are two big transitional developmental periods that many TCKs experience: the transition back to their country of citizenship and the transition from college into adulthood. Marshall often works with parents during this first transitional phase when they are moving back to the United States after living abroad while their children were younger. 

Marshall encourages TCK parents to plan ahead for this transition to reduce some of their child’s anxiety around the move. Here are a few techniques she often suggests to families as they are preparing to reenter their country of citizenship: 

  • Help TCKs become familiar with things that peers in their country of citizenship might have experienced. Explaining cultural references (such as the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants) to them can help prevent them from feeling blindsided.
  • Find a way to continue one of the child’s extracurricular activities, such as playing a sport or participating in a Cub or Girl Scouts program.
  • Contact the child’s new school to see if they will help facilitate activities between classmates or teammates. Even if the school can’t coordinate an activity, they may be able to put families in touch with others who will be attending the school.
  • Have TCKs put together a small book filled with images of where they used to live to serve as a reminder of what they experienced and to take away the “mystery” of that life for the new kids they will meet.
  • Look at pictures of the new town, school and house if possible. Google Earth can be one great way to explore a new area virtually.
  • Ask TCKs to create a time capsule or memory box of special things from the place they are leaving (such as a small toy, a little snip of their bedspread, or photos or video recordings of familiar places).

Sandoz advises counselors working with adult TCKs to be curious and explore these types of transitions to see what each experience was like for them. To learn more about his clients’ transitional experiences, he often asks questions such as “What was it like for you in fifth grade when you moved from Amsterdam to New York?” It may also be helpful for clients to create a timeline or visual map of all the moves and transitions, he adds.

As TCKs transition out of college and enter their late 20s and early 30s, Sandoz says that it’s not unusual for them to wonder, “What now?” This is another transitional time when counseling can help clients as they process and identify what they want to do as an adult. This is a natural part of development, but being a TCK adds layers of complexity, he explains.

Counselors could also connect TCKs with resources such as seminars on these types of transitions. After his senior year of high school, Sandoz had the opportunity to attend a seminar on the transitions of TCKs. “More than anything, it was a very emotional experience just to be with others who were also transitioning … and just share stories and think about what we were going through,” he recalls. 

Regaining choice 

Constantly moving may cause some TCKs to unconsciously internalize that their own wishes do not matter and that things just happen to them, Sandoz says. If a TCK was excited because they just made the soccer team at their school but then finds out their family is moving again, for example, they may be upset about relocating to a new country where they may not be able to play soccer. The situation could cause the child to internalize that their wishes do not matter, Sandoz says.

To counterbalance this, he often advises parents to allow TCKs to make small choices to give them autonomy and independence in areas where they can have control. For example, maybe the child gets to pick what the family eats one night each week or which restaurant they go to. 

Bannert agrees that allowing TCKs some form of choice helps offset the fact that they did not have control over the decision to move to another country. It can sometimes be challenging for parents to understand how their kids feel, he explains, because they processed and dealt with the consequences of moving when making the decision. The kids, however, did not.

Parents also have to give kids space to make choices independently — even if that means they mess up occasionally, adds Bannert, who oversees a mental health program for the Ore City Independent School District in Upshur County, Texas. If not, when they get to college or move out on their own, they may not know how to make their own choices.


In fact, lack of choice during childhood can even result in an inability to make decisions as an adult. Sandoz says he’s known some adult TCKs who specifically partner with people who will make decisions for them. Counselors can help clients realize that it’s OK to have preferences and empower them to get to know more about their own agency, he says. 

TCKs learn to adapt and assimilate to the various cultures that they live in, but this can also  make them unsure about their own preferences, Sandoz says. “And sometimes there’s not a lot of focus given to getting to know oneself [in that way] or giving oneself permission to hold those kinds of preferences because there can be such a high value for blending in,” he adds.

The counselor’s role, Sandoz says, is to ask questions and listen to get a sense of whether this behavior of allowing others to make decisions is something the client is choosing or whether it’s a pattern that is getting repeated based on their past experiences as a TCK.

Bannert says sometimes his TCK clients look to him for all the answers because they are used to having choices made for them. If this happens, he focuses on helping them regain agency and encourages them to find the answers on their own.

Unresolved grief and loss 

Saying goodbye to people and places is so commonplace that TCKs often don’t even recognize they are experiencing grief when they leave, says Nambiar, a resident in counseling in Virginia. 

Bannert’s adolescent clients struggle with grief when they move away to college, and because they are TCKs, the grief is complicated by the fact that they are often moving to a new country and adjusting to cultural differences in addition to leaving behind their family, he says. He helps them recognize the grief associated with this transition and advises them to say goodbye to the people, place and culture. If a client is struggling to say goodbye because of some internal conflict, then Bannert may have the client do the Gestalt empty chair technique or write a goodbye letter to someone or someplace to help them better understand their thoughts and feelings about leaving that country. 

Some families do allow grief to be a part of the process when moving, Sandoz says. They eat at their favorite restaurant one last time, they say goodbye to their friends, and they give themselves permission to be sad. But other families just pack up and go. They don’t allow the children time to mourn, he continues, because they don’t realize how hard it will be on them or they assume the children are too young to remember it. Not allowing for grief could put the child in danger of repeating that dynamic when they get older, he adds. 

Sandoz advises counselors to acknowledge the loss associated with moving. For example, he may tell a client, “Growing up as a TCK, you’ve probably had a chance to say a lot of hellos and goodbyes. What has that experience been like for you? Were you able to say goodbye? If so, what were those goodbyes like?”These questions allow the clinician and client to notice areas where the client experienced grief as a child and where they may still be grieving, he explains. 

Being in a household that doesn’t allow for them to express their feelings around these transitions, Sandoz notes, can lead to unresolved grief that TCKs carry into adulthood. But therapy presents an opportunity for the counselor and client to create “a relationship together where there is freedom to actually feel those things and express those things and sometimes actively grieve losses that maybe were experienced years and years ago but were stored up somewhere inside all this time,” he says.

Parents may inadvertently minimize their child’s sadness or grief by focusing only on the positive aspects of living abroad. Children may be told they should be happy about this “great life” or the next adventure, for example, but this often results in unresolved loss, Marshall says. It may be challenging for some parents to let their children feel sad, she admits, because they often want to distract their child or refocus on the positive to make them feel better. Counselors can work with parents to help them resist this urge and instead acknowledge the loss and give the child the space to feel and process all the emotions they may have about the move, she says. 

Counselors can also work with parents and caregivers to help them and their children recognize and grieve the losses that come with transitions. It can be tempting for families to downplay or overlook a young child’s grief at moving away from what is familiar and comfortable, Sandoz says, because they assume the child won’t remember the grief that comes with moving. A three-year-old child, for example, is just becoming familiar with the language and routines around them, so moving overseas to a country where the sights, sounds and smells are all unfamiliar would set the stage for this child to experience many types of losses simultaneously, he says. 

Nambiar acknowledges that therapy can help TCKs accept the challenges and realities that come with this lifestyle as well as find the beauty in it. “You can be sad that you have to say goodbye to these people,” she explains. “But you can also recognize that you’ve had a lot of experiences now and you’ve met so many different people and you’ve grown because of that.” 

Rethinking relationships 

This mindset of constantly moving affects the way TCKs view relationships. Although a transient lifestyle allows TCKs to connect easily with others, Nambiar says, it can sometimes be difficult to maintain the relationships they have made when they have to move again. 

Marshall has noticed that her TCK clients may not put a lot of effort into developing close relationships. For example, they may not see the point in attempting to resolve a conflict with a friend because they assume that in a few months one of them will move away. 

It’s common to see more shallow or disrupted relationships with the TCK population, Marshall continues. She once knew a TCK who had attended 14 schools in 12 years. As an adult, this woman lived in the same town for more than 30 years, yet she hadn’t developed any close friendships because of this ingrained mindset that she shouldn’t get too close to anyone in case she had to move. Someone who is struggling to form or maintain relationships like this could benefit from counseling, Marshall says, because it could help them process the loss around moving and learn how to develop deeper connections and be vulnerable with others. 

These interpersonal issues and conflicts often resurface later when the TCK becomes an adult. Several of Bannert’s adult TCK clients have come to counseling because they are struggling with romantic relationships. “They tend to act like someone who has been abused or traumatized,” he says. “Whenever someone starts to get close to them, they break it off because they’re afraid to be intimate. … They’re so afraid they’re going to lose something good that’s outside of their control.”

Bannert works with TCK clients to help them be more vulnerable and form healthy boundaries within relationships. They tend to share a lot of details about their life really quickly, he explains, because they grew accustomed to having to get to know someone fast before one of them moves away. This approach of sharing too much too fast, however, can scare someone who didn’t grow up as a TCK, so he helps clients learn appropriate boundaries when first getting to know someone who is not familiar with a TCK lifestyle.

Marshall also encourages the parents of TCKs to use technology to promote healthy relationships for their children. Video chats and social media can become tools that allow TCKs to stay connected with long-distance friends and help them develop deeper connections even after relocating, she says. Parents often have valid concerns about social media use, she adds, so she takes time to clarify that staying in touch in a structured, meaningful way is more beneficial than simply “following” someone on social media or “liking” what others post.

Putting down roots

TCKs often have many homes but do not have one place where they feel settled, Nambiar says. Home is everywhere and nowhere. 

Some TCKs may struggle with feeling grounded, Bannert says. They may be “stuck” — living in transitional housing or jumping from job to job out of a fear of what it means to “settle down,” he explains. Bannert once knew a TCK adult who refused to unpack even after living in an apartment for almost two months. The man couldn’t shake this restless feeling that he may move, even though he had just signed a two-year contract for his job.

Bannert encourages his clients to find ways to root or ground themselves in some way. To help with this process, he sometimes asks clients to create a vision board of their five-year plan so they can find something they can work toward, which helps grounds them. 

Bannert and Marshall both agree that this notion of being “settled” or “grounded” does not have to refer to something physical, such as a 30-year mortgage. Clinicians working with TCKs may have to help clients expand this concept and reimagine ways they can ground themselves despite undergoing constant transitions or feeling restless. For example, TCKs could ground themselves in a relationship by staying connected with a close friend online, Marshall says.

Bannert admits he still has moments of restlessness and a strong desire to travel, but he takes his advice to heart and finds ways to ground himself. He has one object that comes with him during every move: a plaque containing the words of a Serbian prayer. “That’s the first thing that gets hung up and it’s the last thing to come off the wall,” he says. “It grounds me.



Lindsey Phillips is the editor-in-chief for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@counseling.org.


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

Reintegrating into a changed world amid an ongoing pandemic

By Katie Bascuas January 12, 2022

Samuel Bearer, a licensed professional counselor in St. Louis, remembers hearing a podcast interview back in fall 2020 with sociologist and author Brené Brown in which she described how the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on people’s day-to-day lives had helped many individuals push through the early stages of the crisis, but after several months of pandemic living, people were starting to wear down. 

“When there’s a sense of ‘I’ve been dealing with the unknowns for so long,’ there’s more and more energy it takes to maintain that level of hypervigilance,” Bearer says. “That comes at a high cost.” 

At that point in the pandemic, many counselors began witnessing an increase in anxiety and depression among their clients. Some providers shifted their practice from one that had focused on supporting clients with self-actualization to one that supported clients with learning survival skills. 

“You can’t self-actualize if you don’t have your basic needs met,” says Ashleigh Jackson, a licensed mental health counselor in Melbourne, Florida. “So, if there was a job loss or a partner’s job loss, money and paying bills became the priority.”

Fast-forward 12 months, and the levels of exhaustion and stress felt by many were even higher. The need for further decision-making and risk assessment turned a new corner as people started returning to work and school amid a surge in COVID-19 cases resulting from the delta variant.

As breakthrough cases mounted, dampening some of the initial excitement about the vaccine’s promise to significantly slow the virus’ spread, many people were left to wonder when or if the pandemic would end. Add to that the heated political debates around mask wearing and vaccine mandates, as well as a deluge of negative media coverage, and you get a recipe for increased levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue. 

Counselors were faced with supporting clients as they navigated even more change, with added layers of uncertainty, during this reentry phase. Despite the challenges and the continued strain on many individuals — including counselors themselves — some providers began to identify opportunities for growth, both for clients and the profession.  

Reassessing values around work and home

For some people, the initial reentry phase was an exciting time — a chance to return to old activities and familiar ways of life. But for others, it presented added stress for any number of reasons, including individual health concerns, the complexity of navigating a “new normal” and, for some, the realization that they were now very different from the person they had been 18 months earlier when the pandemic began.

To help clients manage some of the uncertainty around the reentry phase, Bearer says he tried to help clients see the opportunities in the transition. “The reentering is also about ‘Do I want to go back to doing what I was doing, or do I want to make a switch?’” Bearer says. “Anytime we face a crisis like that or we lose a piece of our identity, which might have been part of the work that we did — and all of that might have gone up in the air — there’s a sense of ‘Has this fundamentally changed me or not?’”

Some of those changes might include minor adjustments, such as changes in appearance or office attire. “I’ve seen several clients transition back to work and wonder, ‘Do I have to do my hair again?’” Jackson says. “But you don’t have to do these things. Those were all things that we thought that we had to do, and now we learned that we don’t.”

Some shifts that people were experiencing were more significant, however, such as deciding whether they wanted to return to working in an office setting or whether they even wanted to keep their jobs. Both Jackson and Bearer say that being a sounding board for clients to explore alternative work or employment scenarios became an important part of their work. Bearer also used the opportunity to help clients assess their values around work. 

For example, Bearer found that for various clients, 18 months of teleworking had different effects on their work-life balance. Whereas some found the extra time valuable to devote to personal or family needs, others struggled with delineating their work and home lives and subsequently felt overwhelmed. 

“To whatever degree that we have been affected by the pandemic, there may be moments that we come to where we can clarify for ourselves, to say, ‘Hey, if I’m feeling the tension between the value of work and the value of home, how do I clarify that for myself?’” Bearer says. “It’s normal that we fluctuate through life, but now we are learning more how to recognize which stage we’re in and what we need to prioritize.” 

Bearer hopes that as more people reenter the workplace or return to pre-pandemic commitments, they get the opportunity to identify a new balance among all of their responsibilities, whether that’s at work, school, home or with family. He encourages people, where possible, to recognize this as an opportunity not to default to the broader culture, but rather to make individual choices that better resonate with their unique goals and lifestyles.


More people taking risks

In addition to decisions around work and how to return to an office or workplace, Jackson says she has noticed more clients taking large leaps of faith and making significant life changes as things began to open up more. “People are learning that life is short and everything can be gone in a moment,” she says, “so some are taking drastic risks, moving across the country, ending relationships, ending careers.”

The combination of those life changes with the physical reentry process can be a lot to manage at one time, adds Jackson, who compared the reentry phase during COVID-19 to reentering the world post-divorce or after the loss of a loved one. “We’re not the same,” she says. “But we have to figure out ‘Who am I now?’ integrating everything that’s happened, and then determine ‘How do I show up?’” 

Jackson says that encouraging clients to reintegrate slowly and giving clients “permission” to not be awesome at reintegrating right away was helpful in her work with individuals feeling tension around the reentry process. She also helped to normalize clients’ fears and concerns, taught grounding and mindfulness strategies, and recommended that clients take advantage of collective resources, such as meditation and breathing apps. 

Managing added stimuli

Those techniques are also helpful when dealing with the overstimulation that can come with reentry, says Emily McNeil, an LPC who owns the Mariposa Center for Infant, Child and Family Enrichment in Denver.

“Meeting all the demands of work and family and extracurriculars … it’s a trigger for a lot of depression and anxiety because people went from very low stimulation, in a lot of ways, to incredible stress and more demands, on top of the fact that we’re not out of the pandemic,” McNeil says. She incorporated a healthy dose of mindfulness, breathing and somatic techniques to help clients focus on the present moment and encourage them to take one day at a time. 

McNeil and other clinicians in her practice also began referring clients to other providers, including acupuncturists, psychiatrists, massage therapists and craniosacral therapists. Given that she primarily works with children, McNeil and her colleagues also found themselves reaching out to schools more frequently. “We’ve been creating community with schools to make sure that the schools and the family and the community-based providers are all on the same page with how to support children who might be struggling,” she says. “So, our amount of case management at this time is really high.”

Not only are people being barraged with added stimuli from the physical reentry process, but many are also feeling overwhelmed with the noise coming from the media.

“It seems like we’re constantly being bombarded with breaking news and information and opinions right and left, and this can often take us out of the present space and into a pseudo reality,” says Kristin Prichard, an LPC in Houston. “Then you compound that with a novel worldwide pandemic and the restrictions and lockdowns, and it can cause our brains to go into survival mode and trigger a recurrent fight-or-flight response.”

Prichard also noticed that some clients began to create rigid opinions or reactions to try and compensate for and feel safer amid the influx of information and differing opinions. “They want to go to an extreme and say, ‘I’ve weighed it, this is my decision, and I’m not going to waiver from it,’” Prichard observes. “It’s like a protection mechanism.” 

To help clients manage this type of fixed thinking, Prichard says she tries to meet clients where they are and model flexibility. “Something that I’ve tried to help individuals navigate in therapy is being more open-minded and taking in that information, but finding a way to process it before just automatically going to an answer,” she says. “[It’s about] exploring options.” 

Encouraging flexibility was helpful when supporting clients as they navigated interpersonal relationships at a time when more people were gathering but not everyone was on the same page about risk and safety precautions. Prichard urged clients to have an open dialogue, as much as possible, with those they were involved with. “The best thing to move forward is to recognize that nothing is set in stone, and you really need to have open communication with others and have patience and a general level of respect,” she says.

Recognizing resilience

Despite the increase in mental health disorders and the challenges centered on navigating a new normal, another theme that many counselors noticed as the pandemic wore on was a rise in demand for therapy services. This can be interpreted as a sign of resilience, according to some providers.

“While at times it is difficult to navigate, and there are lots of challenges and setbacks as we progress and then take a step back and then progress forward, overall I’ve recognized that more people are reaching out for help,” Prichard says. “You’re seeing the resiliency of individuals and people wanting to reach out for support.”

The reentry phase provided yet another pivot point — or opportunity, depending on how you look at it — to help reframe people’s mindsets from one of discouragement and frustration to one of strength and adaptability.

“There are so many times when I’ve felt, and when I’ve heard from colleagues, clients and supervisees, that I can’t take one more thing, and then there is [one more thing], and people keep going,” McNeil says. “They figure it out.” 

McNeil began using examples of people’s resilience to help validate their strengths. “A lot of people who are coming to counseling say things like ‘I’m broken,’ and I never agree with that, but this has been an opportunity for people to look within themselves and see all the things that they continued to do over the last year and a half and hold the mirror up and say, ‘Actually, you’re not broken. Look at how resilient you are even as hard as this has been. You’ve gotten through it, or at least to this point.’”

While counselors were helping clients recognize their personal resilience in the face of one more hurdle, many professionals were also recognizing their own limits and fatigue. Thus, a potential side effect, or benefit, of the pandemic’s longevity was the realization among some counselors of the need for greater personal and professional well-being to ensure effective and sustained practice.

“I’m a huge proponent and advocate for therapists having their own therapy,” says Jackson, who realized a greater need to engage in personal therapy during the pandemic. “Everyone was in crisis, as opposed to a few [clients] every week, so I had to enlist my own support to process how this was all affecting me.”

In addition to therapy, some counselors found themselves reaching out more to colleagues and others in the field who were facing similar experiences. 

“I think it is really helpful to build a community of support,” McNeil says. “So, having colleagues who have your back, whether you work with them or whether they’re peers who you get coffee with or connect over Zoom with. [Having] other people who really get what you do and can share notes with you about what it’s like to work in a virtual world when we’re a relational profession.”

A new balance?

The reentry phase also presented an opportunity to assess the value of teletherapy, which became a necessity in the early stages of the pandemic but less imperative once the vaccine became widely available.

“At first I, as well as some of my colleagues, were leery of telehealth,” Prichard says. She explains that the fear of losing a sense of physical presence and connection with her clients, as well as the potential difficulty of picking up on clients’ nonverbal cues, initially made her question the effectiveness of teletherapy. However, after several months of providing virtual services to clients, Prichard says she came to respect the benefits that telehealth provides. 

“What it does offer is a sense of calmness or peace for the client to know that at any time, they can check in for a therapy session from wherever they are, and they can do it in their own space, feeling comfortable, and they don’t have to deal with all the stressors and ins and outs of going into a session like traffic and parking,” Prichard says. “From that standpoint, I think it’s been a unique but rewarding thing to realize that we can provide good service care in different forms than we first recognized.”

While there are very real benefits to teletherapy, in-person therapy continues to have its benefits as well. So, what will the future delivery model for professional counselors look like? Maybe a mix of both. 

“You can move forward with the new technology and a new way of doing things while still respecting other ways that you’ve done things before and finding a balance between the two,” Prichard says. 

This balanced approach may also present the opportunity to serve more clients, especially if licensure portability can keep track with the technology, Jackson adds. (To learn more about the Counseling Compact effort that the American Counseling Association is supporting, visit counselingcompact.org.)

“I am encouraged that the pandemic has brought a lot of counselors to virtual,” Jackson says. “It has increased accessibility for so many people who otherwise would not get therapy, and I’m really hopeful that this will carry over into more portability for us so that we can see people in different places. We will be dealing with the effects of this for a really long time, so we need to be able to help as many people as we can in the ways that are ethical.”



Katie Bascuas is a licensed graduate professional counselor and a writer in Washington, D.C. She has written for news outlets, universities and associations.


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.

Five regrets of the counselor

By Whitney Norris March 8, 2021

When I am supervising rookie counselors, one of my favorite discussions that often arises naturally concerns how unique the work of a therapist is. Yes, it is often incredibly tough work, but at the same time, we get an intimate, front-row seat to the experience of hope, pain, change and healing. (Along these lines, if you haven’t read Irvin Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, I highly recommend it.) If we can truly be witnesses to this on the deepest level, there are so many incredible lessons that we are privileged to receive.

I recently came across an article about the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, written by Bronnie Ware. After years of transformative work in palliative care, Ware summarized much of what she had learned from her work, first in a blog post and later in a 200-plus-page book. As I read, I found myself taking each of Ware’s lessons and adapting them to the unique work we do as counselors. I think that many counselors will be able to relate to these regrets and lessons.

1) “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

The work of Virginia Satir immediately came to mind when I read this one. It seems to me that perhaps a few too many of the pioneers and educators in our field want to, essentially, clinically clone themselves. Often, models come with a complete list of do’s and don’ts. I was even given an acronym in graduate school that taught me the exact way to sit during a counseling session. What I’ve always appreciated about Satir’s work is that she encouraged clinicians to be their own unique version of a great therapist.

When we’re new to the field, especially as interns, most of us do, in a sense, “try on” the techniques and styles of those we’re learning from. This, I think, is totally appropriate. Problems can arise, however, if we never grow out of that.

I’ll never forget the first time I was undoubtedly confronted by this “clinical differentiation” process. There was one specific professor in my graduate program whose therapeutic way of being I nearly idolized. I learned so much from him, and it so happened that much of our unique styles naturally overlapped. Then, one day, I was challenged to see some distinct ways in which they didn’t.

I had had a tough, conflict-ridden family session a few days previously, and we were watching the tape together in supervision. After talking through an overview, my supervisor told me he thought I should call and apologize to one of the family members for drawing the hard boundary that I had. After what felt like the longest eight seconds of my life, I swallowed hard and said, “But I’m not sorry.” I still felt I had done the right thing and could easily articulate why.

My supervisor paused thoughtfully and said, “Then you shouldn’t apologize.” And that was it.

He taught me an incredible lesson that day. We all need to be open and receptive to the information we can glean from what mentors, supervisors and others expect of us as counselors. And we need to be intentional about how and why we do what we do, whether that involves the companies we choose to work for, the clientele we choose to see, or the model and theories we posit. But we were never meant to do someone else’s therapy. We are meant to do only our own. To live the “therapy life,” we are meant to live uniquely.

2) “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

The standpoint from which we view quotas and session numbers is greatly influenced by our training, workplace, financial situation, capacity, etc. With this lesson presented by Ware, I find myself wondering whether, at the end of my career or end of my life, I will be wishing I had worked more to see more clients or given more individual attention to each of the clients with whom I worked.

To put it more bluntly, if I have regrets here, will I regret quantity or quality? Will I wish I had worked with a smaller caseload in order to pursue more specialized training or to take more time to read books and research about the specific needs and patterns of the clients with whom I worked? Or will I look back and wonder why I didn’t work to see more clients in order to help more people? Will I wonder why I didn’t find a way to branch out on my own so that I could have more choices in how much I worked? Will I end up regretting that I didn’t follow what my mind and body were telling me about my capacity?

I don’t believe there are many rights or wrongs here. I believe our best bet is simply to make this choice more consciously. When I think ahead, I imagine myself wishing only that I had made my choices with more intention — made them on purpose instead of letting other factors, in a sense, choose a path for me.

3) “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

I sat with some of these lessons longer than others in applying them to our work as counselors. After I read this one though, the application came to mind immediately.

While writing this article, I’ve also been reading through Louis Cozolino’s The Making of a Therapist: A Practical Guide for the Inner Journey. There have been many aspects of his candidness in writing to counselors-in-training that I have appreciated. This has stuck out the most to me in his many pleas to approach the work with humility — to admit when we’re in over our heads or when we need help. What I most appreciate is how Cozolino points out, much like Jeffrey Kottler does in his writings about counselor development (especially in On Being a Therapist), that this never ends. We never hit a stride where we no longer have questions, insecurities and specific struggles with clients.

Beyond that, most excellent therapists I know have at some point even questioned whether they should or want to be doing this work. Those of us who work through that well don’t keep it to ourselves. Doubts aren’t built for that kind of response. The path of least resistance is to talk through them with courage or, as Brené Brown would say (in Rising Strong), “rumble” with all that being a therapist does and will continue to bring up in us. I think the bravest among us have come to realize that there’s no shame in that.

As I said earlier, this work is tough — beautiful and tough. To not expect it to be accompanied by a somewhat constant dose of vulnerability can set us up for burnout and, eventually, at the end of the road, perhaps regret.

4) “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

In my mind, this one piggybacks off of No. 3. I have little doubt that when I look back at the end of my career, I will perhaps be even more grateful than I am now for the colleagues who made themselves available to process through these courageous conversations about the difficult and emotional work that crossed our paths.

One of the dangers of the field shifting more toward private practice than larger agency work is how easily this can lead to a sense of isolation before we see it coming. Even when we work with people we enjoy in these settings, we’re often just “ships passing in the night” during the last five minutes of the hour. Experts in interpersonal neurobiology are speaking more to the importance of the co-regulatory processes in therapy (see The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships by Bonnie Badenoch). We will be best served to keep this in mind beyond just our one-on-one work with clients. I believe that getting support from colleagues is not just important, but actually essential, to doing good work.

In The Making of a Therapist, Cozolino spoke to some of his pushback on this need and his own reconciliation of it over time: “Put a group of us together in a facility designed to help clients and you find that at least half of our time and attention is dedicated to taking care of each other. For years, I found this confusing and demoralizing, and I wondered why we couldn’t put our own problems aside and just do our jobs? After much reflection, I realized that this attitude doesn’t work. Everyone in mental health, clients and caretakers alike, needs help, support and healing. Trying to help clients without helping the helpers ultimately fails.”

5) “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Lately, I’ve been finding myself wanting to abandon the term “self-care” because it’s so overused and, I think for the most part, misunderstood. The last point I want to make here really goes beyond the term anyway.

There’s no way around the frequent intensity of our work and the unique stressors found in such close and intentional proximity to pain and suffering. Sure, there are tangible things we can do about that, as I’ve mentioned earlier (and as Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski expertly highlight in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle). But we also can’t escape the reality that, as counselors, we don’t have the luxury of not taking care of ourselves. We can’t do the work we do, at least not for very long, unless we tend to ourselves.

I tell students in my practicum classes that if you’re not willing to make attending to your own physical and mental well-being a distinct aspect of your job day to day, then you need to find another career. We have to take care of ourselves like it’s our job. Because it is. That’s how we let ourselves be happier, among other things. Suffering as a badge of honor and martyrdom has no place in this profession. It certainly doesn’t make us more effective as counselors, and it definitely doesn’t make us healthier, more loving people outside of the office.

The following quote from Brianna Wiest, from a blog post she wrote for Thought Catalog, comes to mind so often for me that I think people are tired of hearing me say it: “Self-care is often a very unbeautiful thing. … True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.”

Thinking about the end of life while still somewhere in the middle of it can bring incredibly valuable insight — into our priorities, how we spend our time, our expectations, our habits and even our worldview. I think it is really important to ask ourselves whether our perspectives and patterns are forging paths of regret or paths of health and healing. Then, with appreciation for whatever arrives with this exploration, we have the opportunity to cultivate a courageous, balanced, emotionally honest, collaborative and happier work life that we can look back on with pride and immense gratitude.



Whitney Norris is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor who co-founded and works as a trauma specialist at Little Rock Counseling & Wellness in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in clinical and translational sciences, with plans to study childhood adversity and prevention through the lens of public health and policy. Contact
her via whitneynorris.com.

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.


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.