Tag Archives: therapeutic alliance

Counseling outside the box

By Bethany Bray February 25, 2021

Clients bring an unending range of presenting issues, personalities, life histories and challenges into counseling. Fortunately, counselors also have an infinite supply of tools for forging therapeutic bonds, meeting clients’ needs and helping clients tell their stories.

Counselors need only flex their creative muscles to find approaches that can bolster trust with clients and speak to each person’s unique life experiences and worldview. Exploring a client’s interest in skydiving as a metaphor for self-awareness and trust? Discussing a favorite dish or recipe as a prompt to get a client talking about family-of-origin issues? Assigning a client to play video games online with peers as a first step toward addressing social anxiety? The sky’s the limit.

Counseling Today contacted several counselors who are using interesting, fresh or different approaches to help their clients and students. We hope that you will be inspired by their ideas and possibly use them as a jumping-off point to think outside the box in your own work.

Sparking connection with photos

As the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

American Counseling Association members Brandee Appling and Malti Tuttle believe the truth of this saying holds up even in counseling settings, especially in the age of smartphones, when photography is ubiquitous. Why not leverage that by asking clients to bring photos and images into sessions, they reasoned. Prompts such as “bring in an image that represents you feeling happy” or “bring in an image that represents your family” can be eye-opening for clients and clinicians alike, Appling and Tuttle say.

The duo, former school counselors who met while working as co-coordinators of the school counseling program at Auburn University, have found that “phototherapy” can encourage dialogue and boost empathy and connection in counseling. This can be especially true in group settings, with child and adolescent clients, and with individuals who struggle with speech or whose primary language is not the same as the counselor’s.

Photos and images introduce “another mode of communication” in counseling, says Tuttle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who is an assistant professor and school counseling program coordinator at Auburn.

“Photographs can bring insights into someone’s life that we might miss when talking — things that the client can’t verbally express or doesn’t think to,” adds Appling, an LPC and approved clinical supervisor who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia. “It helps to break down walls [in session] and makes it easier for the client to talk about something that’s concrete rather than [topics] that are in the air, so to speak.”

When Tuttle and Appling have used this approach in school settings, students have often been able to display photos on their cellphones. If students don’t have access to a cellphone, they may be able to check out digital cameras from the school, or the exercise can be widened to include printed images such as postcards or magazine clippings, the counselors say.

The counselor’s role is to prompt conversation by asking questions about the client’s image and then allowing the client to reflect and speak. The counselor should never try to interpret the image or impose their feelings about it, Appling stresses.

“This is not to be used to diagnose [clients]. This is not meant to be a stand-alone tool but part of a range of counseling tools,” Appling notes. “It’s one thing that we would use, but it’s not the only thing we would use. It should be part of the therapeutic process, one tool to use in an interrelated system.”

In group settings, an assignment to bring in an image that “represents you” can help participants get to know one another, build connection and create a sense of belonging, Tuttle says. Asking group members to explain why they chose their image can prompt meaning-making, empathy and recognition of others’ viewpoints and perspectives. It can also provide the group leader a glimpse into each group member’s personality and emotions.

The exercise “builds a sense of universality and connection with one another, [prompting] conversations that might not happen organically,” Tuttle adds.

She suggests spurring dialogue in sessions (whether individual or group) by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • Why did you choose to bring this particular photo?
  • What meaning does it hold for you?
  • What would you title this photo, and why?

Appling has used this approach with a group she ran for students who were going through family transitions (e.g., divorce, a death in the family, living in foster care). When asked to share an image that represented the changes they were going through, one student brought in a photo they had taken of a unique seashell.

The seashell “was a representation, for them, of where they had been,” Appling recalls. “It looked very different than any other seashell that I had ever seen, and I initially didn’t recognize the image as a seashell. We talked about how water had changed it and eroded it. The seashell represented [the student] but also the growth and change they were experiencing.”

This intervention can also be flipped, with the counselor bringing in a photo for clients and students to discuss. When presenting on this intervention at conferences and trainings, Appling and Tuttle use an image of an aging set of concrete steps with vegetation growing through the cracks. They ask participants:

  • What do you think this image means?
  • What emotions does it elicit?
  • What does this photo remind you of in your own life?

Despite being shown the same image, participants typically share a wide range of thoughts, reactions and associations regarding the picture, Tuttle and Appling say. Some people see resiliency and growth in the vegetation, whereas others see decay and despair in the cracked steps.

“It’s really interesting to be able to see the perspective of each participant,” Appling says. “It’s a lesson that we all see things very, very differently and that it depends on the things we have been through, our different lenses. It’s a lesson that we all bring different experiences and viewpoints.”

 

Walking (and running) the walk

Counselors can use a seemingly unlimited number of running-related metaphors to encourage clients: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Focus on the mile, not the marathon. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

But for Natae Feenstra, an LPC with a private practice in Smyrna, Tennessee, this approach goes beyond the metaphorical. An experienced runner who has completed multiple marathons, she sometimes conducts outdoor counseling sessions with clients as they run and talk, side by side. As a counselor who specializes in “running therapy,” Feenstra offers running sessions for clients who are comfortable with and interested in donning their sneakers and hitting the trail with her.

“For the client, it’s first and foremost a counseling session,” says Feenstra, who is working on a dissertation on running as a therapeutic treatment for trauma as part of a doctorate in counselor education and supervision through the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky. “A goal to get to a certain number of miles is never part of a client’s treatment plan. The goal is improvement of mental health, and running is a tool for that.”

Counselors have long known the benefits that movement and exercise can have on mental health, including stimulating the release of endorphins, dopamine and other brain chemicals. Engaging in movement and exercise also offers opportunities for processing thoughts and mindfully focusing on one’s breath and stride.

“Natural bilateral stimulation — that’s all that running is. Rhythmic movement of large muscle groups, and we know that can bring amazing benefits to our brain,” explains Feenstra, a former school counselor who recently transitioned into private practice. Running therapy also offers the built-in ecotherapy component of enjoying sunlight, fresh air and views of nature as she and the client run and talk, she adds.

Feenstra’s approach is individualized. If a prospective client requests running sessions, Feenstra agrees only after having at least one consultation to get to know the client and their presenting concerns and determining whether the approach would be a good fit. She also offers walking and walk/run sessions, as well as traditional, stationary counseling sessions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Feenstra is conducting all of her traditional counseling sessions via telebehavioral health. She continues to offer in-person running therapy for clients who are comfortable doing that, while following health guidelines concerning physical distancing as much as possible.

Above all, she suggests running only if the client is comfortable with it. She points out that clients don’t need to be experienced runners to engage in this approach. She modifies each session to the client’s ability and comfort level. “It’s never about the pace or distance of the run. It’s about the movement, going alongside the therapeutic conversation,” says Feenstra, a member of ACA.

Feenstra has seen significant improvement in clients presenting with anxiety and depression who engage in running. Her clients have also self-reported boosts to their self-esteem, self-efficacy and overall wellness.

In addition to the mental health benefits that running provides on it own, these mobile sessions can help strengthen the counselor-client bond and support clients who might otherwise struggle to open up in a more traditional therapy setting, says Feenstra, who is also a certified running coach with the Road Runners Club of America. “Some people are intimidated by eye contact or other aspects of face-to-face sessions, or being in an office with a power differential. For some people, [running during counseling] can help them speak more freely,” Feenstra says.

This was recently the case for an adult male client on Feenstra’s caseload who presented with severe depression and anxiety. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his condition had worsened to the point that he was no longer leaving home.

When Feenstra and the client began meeting, counseling sessions were the only time the man ventured out. They eventually transitioned to mobile sessions, beginning with a walk/run mix to fit the man’s comfort level. Within a few sessions, his anxiety and depression had lessened so that he was leaving his house more frequently and beginning to reengage in hobbies and activities that he had enjoyed previously.

“The platform of running therapy was what prompted him to leave the comfort zone of his house. A telehealth platform would not have made him leave his house, and he was not interested in pursuing [therapy in] an office environment,” Feenstra says. “In this case, the running therapy was what helped him pursue counseling services. I think it was the running piece that was intriguing [to him], and it was so helpful to get him outside to conquer his anxiety.”

Running therapy “is not a miracle treatment, of course, but there are cases where it can make a difference, just like any therapy,” she adds. Running therapy, pioneered by American psychiatrist Thaddeus Kostrubala, has been around since the 1970s, she notes.

For running sessions, Feenstra meets the client in a park, on a trail or in another public place that she is familiar with or has checked out ahead of time. She begins by warming up with the client and chatting as they stretch. After completing a run or walk, they finish by cooling down and reflecting on the session together.

Feenstra acknowledges the potential lack of confidentiality when holding counseling sessions in a public place. She addresses this with her clients ahead of time, both with detailed language in her informed consent forms and verbally, explaining that they can pause their conversation whenever another person is within earshot.

“I let the client dictate,” she says. “I let them know that [they] can choose to lower their voice, stop talking or continue talking if they are comfortable.”

While many counselors may not be runners themselves, they could have clients who enjoy running. Practitioners don’t have to offer running therapy to leverage running’s benefits for their clients, Feenstra points out. She sometimes incorporates running by assigning clients to run outside of session (again, only if they are interested and able) and then uses that to prompt counseling work in their next session together. Running provides an opportunity to relieve stress, tap into the subconscious and process thoughts away from the distractions of life, Feenstra explains.

Clients may find it helpful to keep a journal to record their thoughts, questions and discoveries made while running. This can be used as a self-development tool or as something the client brings into sessions, Feenstra notes.

“Since the run time is often prime time for thinking, clients and counselors can discuss [in sessions afterward] how the run went and what their thought process was like on the run,” Feenstra says. “Also, since running has an innate mindfulness component, this [aspect] can be used as a counseling tool. The counselor might give the client a thought to ponder or a mindfulness activity to meditate on during their run time.”

 

Movies and moral development

One of Justina Wong’s clients had served a long military career as a sniper with a special forces unit. His experiences in service, including multiple deployments overseas, had left him with posttraumatic stress disorder and a relative inability to show or express his emotions. When he did, it often manifested as anger. His relationship with his wife and family was becoming increasingly strained, and one of his children was beginning to fear him.

In counseling, what clicked for this client was Wong’s suggestion that he watch two movies that, on the surface, were geared toward children: Charlotte’s Web and Inside Out. Wong’s client was able to see himself — and many of the emotions he was having trouble identifying and expressing — in the moral arc these movie characters experienced.

“The response that he had was very powerful,” says Wong, who completed an internship at a nonprofit that serves military veterans and their families as part of her master’s in counseling program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. As they processed the movies together in session, “We talked about healthy coping skills and unhealthy coping skills. He began to open up more about what he saw and experienced in the military. He had a very hard time differentiating [between] feeling angry and feeling sad, which is common among this population. Feeling angry is accepted, but feeling sad is seen as [a] weakness or being undependable.”

Cinematherapy, or using movie storylines, characters and themes as a therapeutic tool, can be particularly helpful with child or adolescent clients and those who struggle with depression, trauma, loss or social anxiety, Wong says. It’s also useful for individuals who might not respond well to more traditional counseling interventions and those who have trouble opening up to a counselor, she adds.

Clients can observe and learn from movie characters’ struggles, growth and perseverance in the face of challenges throughout their story arcs, explains Wong, a member of ACA. Clients “can feel like they’re not alone because someone else [a movie character] is going through a similar thing. They can see a character’s unhealthy behavior, coping skills and what they did or didn’t do to manage. It can help clients communicate and voice their emotions and understand what their values are.”

A counselor can either assign a client to watch a particular movie (that the practitioner has vetted) outside of session, or the counselor and client can watch film clips together in session. Either way, the important part of the intervention involves the therapeutic discussion afterward, Wong says.

Wong, a recent graduate of the Chicago School, prompts dialogue with open-ended questions. For Inside Out, these include:

  • Which emotions do you consider to be positive, and which do you consider to be negative?
  • Tell me about a time when you suppressed a particular emotion and, as in the movie, your “island” started falling apart.
  • What islands do you have in your life?
  • What role do joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust have in your life?
  • Describe a time you felt embarrassment, shame or guilt regarding something from your childhood.

Wong stresses that cinematherapy must be individualized when used in counseling. Practitioners should carefully consider whether the approach is a good fit for each specific client and appropriate for their presenting concerns and therapeutic goals. She uses only movies that she is very familiar with and has prescreened. Her list includes About Time (2013), Mulan (1998 animated version), Yes Man (2008), The Lion King (1994 animated version), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Toy Story 3 (2010) and others.

“You really want to do your due diligence and make sure you’re using this intervention to the benefit of the client,” says Wong, a certified trauma professional. “If you don’t, it [watching movies] just becomes a recreational activity.”

The therapy goals of Wong’s veteran client included mending his relationship with his family and being able to have conversations without becoming triggered and angry. As a grown man and hardened military veteran, he initially bristled at the idea of watching children’s movies. But when he began to understand how they could help him strengthen his family relationships, he agreed. He watched Inside Out with his entire family and discussed Wong’s therapeutic questions afterward with his wife.

When Wong suggested he watch Charlotte’s Web, she warned him about the movie’s sad ending because he had never seen it before. Even so, Wong recalls, he was very upset in the following counseling session. As they began discussing the movie, the client realized that he identified with Wilbur’s feelings of isolation and loneliness. The pig’s friendship with the spider, Charlotte, reflected the camaraderie he felt and the bonds he had formed with the soldiers in his unit, some of whom had not made it home alive.

“He put two and two together and understood that when Charlotte dies, she couldn’t return home with Wilbur, and he [the pig] was angry, sad and in despair. [The client] had served in special forces and had lost many friends and was trying to bury and push away his troubles. … After processing it [in therapy], he understood why I chose that movie for him to watch,” Wong says. “The lightbulb turned on for him when Charlotte and Wilbur have a conversation in the movie and she tells the pig that she can’t return home with him.”

Wong talked these issues through with the client, supporting him as he processed, during which he began to show emotion and cry — a major breakthrough for someone who had appeared emotionless and “very by the book” at intake, according to Wong.

The movie discussion spurred the client to open up to Wong. He disclosed that during one of his deployments, several soldiers he was in charge of had died as they worked to secure and occupy an area. The area was eventually retaken by insurgents, and the client wrestled with feeling that his comrades had “died for no reason,” Wong says. He struggled with moral conflict and felt frustrated and betrayed by his commanding officers and the government. “It was powerful progress. He was able to talk about that, which he had never [done] before,” she says.

When used intentionally, cinematherapy can be a powerful tool, Wong notes. She was inspired to explore the approach after hearing Samuel T. Gladding, a past president of ACA and a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University, present on a range of creative interventions, including cinematherapy, at the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors conference in January 2020. “It’s up to the counselor to be as creative — or not — as they want to be,” Wong says. “I never thought of myself as a creative counselor, but when I heard Dr. Gladding’s presentation … I guess I’m more creative than I thought I was.”

 

Once upon a time

As a doctoral candidate at North Dakota State University, Robert O. Lester recently taught a class on group counseling to first-year, master’s-level counseling students. Most students, Lester notes, came into the class with an innate understanding of empathy, but as the class neared its end, he looked to delve deeper, teaching empathy in an applied manner.

He turned to fairy tales. Lester asked students to write a tale that illustrated some of the challenges they had encountered and the personal growth they had experienced over the span of the class. The assignment had just two requirements: Begin the story with “Once upon a time …” and don’t make fun of any tale shared in class.

The exercise succeeded in opening students’ eyes to a greater understanding of empathy while spurring the growth of their professional identities. It also equipped them with a creative intervention that can be used with clients in counseling sessions. Going through the “imaginative labor” of observing one’s self in unfamiliar places or scenes expands our concept of what is possible, Lester explains.

“Many students began with ‘I don’t have a story to tell,’” says Lester, a school-based counselor and ACA member. “You don’t need to have gone through some great suffering; you just need to be up close to your own desire and belief. It’s the distance of suffering that empathy can’t cross. It was an assignment to bridge the distance between ourselves and others by keeping the desire and suspending the disbelief. It’s about a willingness to let other worlds be possible. This is the initial move of empathy.”

Weaving one’s experiences into a fairy tale can be a helpful exercise for counseling students and clients alike because the stories are compact and give the writer the satisfaction of identifying a coherent story arc and conclusion, even if it’s not a happy one, Lester says.

Writing fairy tales “is expressive, playful and may surprise you. It can loosen the tongue for serious talk. Letting people become a little more enchanted and surprised with themselves would have a lot of possibilities [in counseling]. Then, it would be on the counselor to facilitate a good discussion afterward,” says Lester, who is now living in California and working as a counselor at an alternative-education high school while he completes his doctoral dissertation. “One of my favorite things about this [intervention] is when we surprise ourselves. … It can certainly break some of the narrative ruts we can get into.”

In counseling sessions, prompting clients to express themselves through fairy tales could be a good fit for “any situation where you want someone to begin trying on differences,” Lester says. “Organizing our experiences into an imaginative story — a story where there’s room for enchantment, and the marriage of emotion and imagination — [can be beneficial] for clients who operate with a lot of constraint in their life, either self-imposed or imposed by culture or external forces, especially if they’re having trouble imagining themselves otherwise.”

Fairy tales offer students and clients a chance to cast themselves in new roles, organize their experiences into a sequence, and reflect on the challenges they’ve overcome and how they’ve grown from start to finish, Lester explains. In turn, they gain an appreciation for their belief of what they’re up against and their desire for how they go on.

This benefit was magnified when Lester invited his counseling students to share and discuss their fairy tales in class. This enabled them to see how different each of their journeys were.

“At the deepest level, I was hoping the fairy tale project would be a hermeneutical project [and] part of their professional identity development — marrying your own worldview into the profession [and] taking the feelings of others seriously and compassionately, especially those who don’t experience the world as we do,” Lester says. “They are just beginning in counseling and have to learn to honor others’ worldviews. This fairy tale [assignment] was a compact way to help them begin by rendering their own experiences as unusual and in need of close reading.”

One of Lester’s students wrote an impactful fairytale about a protagonist named Mia. She lived in an idyllic village where everyone knew one another and worked according to their talents — except for Mia, who spent much of her time alone, reading. Although she liked her fellow townspeople, Mia felt something was missing in her own life, Lester says. She harbored an intense curiosity and sense of imagination that many of her neighbors did not share.

Her story took a turn when some creatures from the outlying forest visited her and asked for her help. An ancient well where they lived, deep in the forest, had dried up. The well was the source of the creatures’ magical powers.

Kindhearted Mia knew she had to help and journeyed into the forest, where she found the well in shambles. Her heart broke for the forest creatures, and at a loss for what to do, Mia began to cry. As her tears flowed, they filled and restored the well. Mia’s compassion had saved the day. Not only had she revived the creatures’ source of magic on her quest, she had also discovered her own sense of purpose.

In class discussions afterward, the student who wrote Mia’s tale talked about feeling alienated in the small town where she grew up. Everyone in town seemed to know how they fit into the fabric of the community, but this student was never able to find her niche, Lester says.

Her fairy tale was a beautiful description of this concept. “She [Mia] is looking for a world where her tears have a place and can do something on behalf of others,” Lester explains. This paralleled the student’s own struggle to find her way and cultivate her professional identity.

“We all go through growing up and forming identity, but her fairy tale elevated the experience,” Lester says. “Suddenly, Mia’s tears could do work and were life sustaining. I find that incredibly moving — that language of having permission to cry, because you don’t know what wells your tears might replenish. To me, that’s a whole other order of coming to apply empathy. [Learning empathy] begins with ourselves and becoming empathic with some of the pain and beauty of growing up. … There’s something poetic in that everydayness.”

 

Culinary therapy

Each of the elements in chef Samin Nosrat’s 2017 cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, can be used as therapeutic metaphors in counseling work with clients, suggests Michael Kocet, a professor and chair of the Counselor Education Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

If a dish doesn’t have enough salt, it can be bland, but if the cook oversalts the dish, it becomes inedible. “One little [extra] pinch of salt can ruin a dish,” Kocet says. “Talk that through with the client: In life, what do you have that’s not enough or too much? What in your life is that extra pinch of salt? Is it unleashing an opinion on a family member? How can we control that?”

Similarly, acid is very powerful and must be wielded correctly, as in ceviche, in which citrus juice is used to cook the dish without heat. Continuing the metaphor, a counselor can ask a client about the “acid” they have in their life. “Maybe their sarcastic humor is biting. Talk about when that can be useful and when it can be hurtful,” advises Kocet, a licensed mental health counselor and approved clinical supervisor who provides pro bono counseling at the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in Chicago.

Food, eating and cooking are so intertwined in most people’s life histories, perspectives and preferences that they can become beneficial tools when leveraged in counseling, says Kocet, who taught a course on “culinary therapy” when he was a professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Although he no longer teaches that class, he continues to weave culinary elements into his work with clients and students in Chicago and has provided workshops and trainings on the topic.

In addition to tapping into a bountiful supply of culinary-related therapeutic metaphors and conversation starters, counselors can consider giving clients the assignment (when appropriate) of cooking a dish at home and debriefing in session afterward. The dish doesn’t need to be anything complicated, Kocet emphasizes. It could be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a simple salad, he adds. Cooking or preparing food mindfully, no matter the recipe, can prompt reflection. Tracking experiences in a cooking journal may also benefit clients who respond well to this approach.

“Food is often a binding element,” Kocet explains. “If I have a client who is struggling in a relationship, I might have them cook a recipe that represents their relationship and talk about that [in session afterward]. Or if a client and their partner are from two different cultures, I might have them cook a meal that incorporates elements from their two cultures. … One aspect to [help] forge cultural connection with clients is to discuss food: what they grew up eating and what was ‘celebration’ food. That’s one way to get to know the client a little more. Clients are often really proud of food and cultural traditions, and it’s one way to connect and break down barriers in a counseling setting.”

Assignments for a client to cook with a partner or family member can prompt bonding and offer a fun and creative way to work on healthy behaviors introduced in counseling, Kocet adds. Also, cooking “failures” don’t have to be failures when talked about and learned from in counseling. Perhaps a client forgot an ingredient or strayed from the recipe. How does that parallel the choices made and lessons learned in their life outside of the kitchen?

Even time spent cleaning up and washing dishes after cooking can serve as a mindfulness exercise, Kocet points out. Practitioners could suggest that clients take time to reflect on how they felt stepping outside of their comfort zone to try a new recipe as they clean up the kitchen and feel the dishwater on their hands.

Kocet has developed a culinary version of the genogram mapping tool that he uses with clients to delve into family issues. He keeps a small collection of cooking spices and a sleeve of mini paper cups in his counseling bag. As he begins the exercise, he lines all of the spice containers up on the table and asks the client to select a spice that represents them and other members of their family circle. The client pours a little bit of each person’s spice into a separate cup. Eventually, a constellation of spice-filled cups is displayed in front of them.

Kocet prompts the client to talk through why they chose that particular spice for each person. Cinnamon or red pepper flakes might signify either a warm personality or a hot temper, Kocet points out. The exercise encourages clients to talk through issues related to their own identity and helps the counselor better understand how the person views their family network, Kocet explains. Similarly, questions that invite discussion of traditions and memories surrounding food can encourage clients to reflect and open up, while giving practitioners additional context on clients’ families of origin and related emotions.

Kocet, an ACA member and a past president of the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities (SAIGE), a division of ACA, specializes in grief counseling. “If a client is missing someone they lost, such as a grandmother, it can bring comfort to cook a dish that she used to make,” he says. “Cooking uses all the senses — we can connect with loved ones through the tastes and smells [involved] in the act of cooking.”

As with any counseling intervention, practitioners must be mindful of the ethical ramifications of incorporating cooking and culinary elements into therapy and consider whether it is appropriate for each individual client, Kocet stresses. Clinicians should practice caution in using the approach with clients who struggle with disordered eating, and cooking assignments should not be given to clients who have a history of suicidal ideation or self-harm because knives and other equipment could be involved, he says.

Kocet plans to continue exploring the use of culinary elements in counseling and is in the early stages of a research study on therapeutic cooking as a coping tool for the isolation, anxiety and depression people have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

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Staying within scope of practice

Practitioners considering the use of nontraditional approaches in client sessions must always keep the profession’s ethical guidelines in mind. Professional counselors’ licensure guidelines and scope of practice vary from state to state. Practitioners must ensure that any approach, whether a widely used talk intervention or one of many complementary methods such as aromatherapy, reiki, yoga, acupuncture and others, fall within their state’s scope of practice regulations before using them with clients or students.

In addition, counselors must consider the potential risks to client welfare, whether the approach is evidence-based (which is called for by the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics), and their own level of competency in using the method.

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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

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

Voice of Experience: Violations of trust

By Gregory K. Moffatt January 19, 2021

Trust is the foundation on which relationships of any kind are built. Think about how much we depend on trust in our everyday lives. We trust that our teachers are telling us the truth. We trust that a check from someone won’t bounce. Even the cash we exchange requires trust in the value of the currency in our hands. We trust that the products we buy will function properly and feel betrayed when they don’t.

And with every secret we share in confidence with another person — no matter how big or small the secret — we trust that it will be protected.

Trust comes easily for children in almost all relationships. Whether it’s with parents, siblings, teachers, coaches or sometimes even with counselors, children generally are quick to trust. “My teacher said …” “Coach told me …” “My dad told me …”

Sexual perpetrators take advantage of the ease with which children trust by “courting” — pushing boundaries a little at a time so their victims don’t ask too many questions. Con artists do the same thing to adults, preying on our natural human instinct to believe in one another. But once trust is violated, it will never come naturally again. A violation of trust compromises not only that relationship, but all relationships.

So, to protect ourselves, we must learn, by necessity, that not all people are equally worthy of trust.

In the field of ethnography, the term incorrigible propositions refers to beliefs that are so fundamental to our existence that we don’t even question them. The most serious violations of trust involve incorrigible propositions. When these beliefs are called into question, it shakes all of our beliefs. In a way, we say, “If I can’t trust in this, then what can I trust?”

For example, most people are familiar with statistics on divorce, but upon getting married, almost no one assumes that they will experience divorce themselves. They trust their spouses. But when the belief that they will always stay together is shattered — by infidelity, for example — their entire world is shaken. The incorrigible proposition that people are trustworthy comes into question. Distrust can generalize to all spouses, everyone of a given gender, or to people in general.

Marriage and family therapists see this kind of shaken trust almost every day. The abused children who come through my office have had their trust violated as well, and I have to work hard to prove myself worthy of their trust. This is often a monumental task. Their childlike gullibility is long gone by the time they come through my office doorway.

I have written before in this column that confidentiality is the foundation on which most of our ethics are built as counselors. This is so important because it relies on a client’s trust that we won’t betray secrets.

Sometimes, however, trust must be betrayed. We must act, for example, if clients are a threat to themselves or to others. Mandated reporters have no choice but to violate confidentiality when they suspect abuse or neglect. Even the sharing of therapeutic information with parents or guardians can potentially compromise our clients’ trust in us. These violations of trust cannot always be avoided.

But perhaps most damaging is when counselors — those of us entrusted with the scariest and most embarrassing secrets carried by clients — violate that trust in an unethical manner.

Unethical violations of trust can come in many forms. Unfortunately, carelessly using a client’s name while talking to a colleague or failing to adequately disguise a client’s identity in consultation with a supervisor are not uncommon occurrences.

Most serious is the violation of trust that takes place when a therapist engages in blatant boundary violations with a client. Inappropriate touching, inappropriate social relationships and other egregious boundary violations with clients always destroy trust in the long run.

Those of you who have been in the counseling profession very long have likely seen your share of clients who have had bad experiences with previous therapists. Therefore, you have almost certainly experienced the painstaking job of trying to prove that you are trustworthy (and that the profession as a whole is worthy of trust) to someone whose personal experience has taught them otherwise.

Even more painful to me is the knowledge of all of the clients who will never risk going to a counselor again. These clients will not seek help because of a violation of the trust-based relationship that is at the heart of our profession. Whether these violations were careless or intentional, the effects are the same. These are the people we have lost.

An ethical “oopsie” that violates trust might never be known to anyone else. But then again, it might. Even the slightest breach might damage a client’s trust to the point that they will never seek counseling again. And that, my dear colleagues, is unforgivable.

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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

Primum cura te ipsum: First, heal thyself

By Samuel Kohlenberg August 17, 2020

During this bizarre and painful epoch beset by pandemic, racial trauma and social injustice, there is a growing emphasis on clinician well-being and self-care, and rightfully so.

Countless articles and blogs have been written about self-care for counselor clinicians, and here is one more. Why write another one? Because as a counselor educator and supervisor, I want to sell you on a goal other than being OK enough to work. Because avoiding burnout is not enough. We need to set the bar higher to competently render care. Make no mistake, this is an ethical issue.

Like many, perhaps, I have always found Latin venerating in a way that underscores the importance of a phrase or idea. Whether carved into cornerstones or encircling university seals, the tradition has gravitas. One idea I find worthy of such reverence, as it pertains to psychotherapy and behavioral health, is that clinicians need to “do their own work.” Therapists need to heal.

Whether it is through traditional talk therapy or other means, therapists need to attend to their own trauma, developmental journeys and growth. While the oft-cited phrase attributed to Hippocrates, “primum non nocere” (first, do no harm), is a vitally important doctrine in mental health, I am suggesting that there is an overlooked and more sequentially vital step in terms of primacy required to avoid doing harm: that therapists confront and deal with their own issues.

Although therapists are often told that they need to take care of themselves and “do their own work,” I do not believe there is enough understanding regarding why this is so crucially important. Yes, it benefits the therapists, it may mitigate burnout, and it may increase professionals’ longevity in the field. But from my perspective, not enough emphasis has been placed on the idea that people who are not OK do not make competent therapists.

This is not to say that people who have endured trauma or have previously met criteria for a behavioral health diagnosis should not pursue jobs as therapists. Far from it. Many of the best therapists I know are as good as they are in large part because of the difficult roads they have had to walk.

There are many ways to describe how therapists doing their own work might affect them professionally, but I am going to focus on three ideas:

1) Your nervous system is an instrument for attachment work and relationship, and it is shaped by how much work you have done.

2) Doing your work helps you project less and become more aware of your projections.

3) Having done the work means being able to genuinely relate to what your patients are going through instead of just understanding. (Note: Although I say “patient,” please feel free to substitute “client.” The reason I prefer patient is that I feel it better emphasizes the connection between the physical and psychological realms, and given the field’s current understanding of the interconnection between the two, I intentionally use language that fits in both lexicons.)

The nervous system

In a typical stress response, a perceived threat can activate the amygdala, leading to the release of epinephrine and coordinating a sympathetic response to the stressor. Typically, this sort of sympathetic activation means that you are no longer using the circuits associated with optimal social engagement (consider, is it harder to tell how other people feel when you are angry?).

The social engagement system is characterized by the feeling of social connection, the ability to read social cues, eye contact, voice modulation and comfort. All of these things shut down when we go into sympathetic activation as part of a stress response.

Imagine a therapist who has yet to “do their own work” sitting in their office listening to their patient describe a traumatic event. Even if an activated therapist gives no obvious facial expression or gesture, how do you think the person sitting across from them will be affected by the therapist’s nervous system switching gears from social engagement to fight-or-flight?

Imagine for a moment a scared child running to a parent or caregiver and being met with warm eyes, a soft smile and a soothing voice. Now imagine the same child being met with scared eyes, decreased facial muscle tone and a flat voice. In which situation is the child going to be more OK?

Similar dynamics play out in therapy. This means that therapists’ ability to stay in their social engagement system affects patients’ likelihood of being OK while doing things such as trauma work. Part of a therapist’s work is using their nervous system to help resource a patient’s nervous system. For some, it will take significant and ongoing work to be able to do this well. 

Awareness

Awareness and projection share a simple relationship: The more aware you are of your projections, the less likely you are to inadvertently allow those projections to affect your relationships with others.

Regardless of theoretical underpinning, modality or clinical philosophy, virtually all types of psychotherapeutic work regard the relationship between therapist and patient as instrumental. Thus, if the therapeutic relationship itself is one of the primary means by which therapists ply their trade, and a lack of awareness can lead to one’s projections interfering with relationships with others, there is an argument to be made that therapists are on ethically dubious ground if they practice without having cultivated enough awareness and done enough work to overcome this potential pitfall.

You are missing your patient if all you can see is your projection. You are not going to realize that it is a projection if you have yet to cultivate enough awareness. 

Relating

There is a difference between understanding what someone is going through and being able to truly relate to it. While psychotherapists are undoubtedly an empathetic bunch, helping someone engage in the process of developmental therapeutic growth beyond where you yourself have grown is no easy task.

Imagine for a moment a 40-year-old in the midst of an existential crisis. Now imagine an empathetic and well-meaning 14-year-old attempting to help that 40-year-old. Unfortunately, a developmental stage is not always as clear as chronological age, and this can lead to blind spots for clinicians that may negatively affect quality of care. Being able to genuinely relate to what your patients are going through is important, and the 14-year-old is going to have a heck of a time helping the 40-year-old.

Keep doing your work

The thing that all of the above ideas boil down to is relationship. It is your job to ensure a helpful clinical relationship, and the relationship itself is the greatest clinical tool that you have. Ensuring that this primary tool is going to be functional, let alone optimal, can require time, effort and a willingness to endure the discomfort necessary for growth.

Of course, more basic day-to-day self-care is still important for fighting burnout and for resourcing one’s self, especially when you are tasked with taking care of others and especially during times in which nobody seems to be OK. The invitation, the challenge, the mandate, is to not stop at “resourced.”

Aim higher. Embrace catalysts for growth and development. Get comfortable with discomfort when it means a potential breakthrough. Do it for you. Do it for them. Do it like it’s your job.

 

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Samuel Kohlenberg is a clinical psychophysiologist, licensed professional counselor and behavioral health educator specializing in the treatment of stress. He is a master of education in the health professions fellow at Johns Hopkins University and a postdoctoral fellow at Saybrook University and works in private practice in Denver. Contact him through his Facebook page or through his website at denverstressclinic.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.

Encountering and addressing racism as a multiracial counselor

By Michelle Fielder and Lisa Compton August 11, 2020

It was a simple question, “How are you doing?” that started us on a path of discovery. I (Lisa) wanted to check in with Michelle, my teaching assistant, after racial tensions consumed the news. George Floyd had just been killed, and the media were focused on his death, the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, and the outcry for justice for the African American community.

Michelle was initially numb, unsure of how to articulate the different thoughts and feelings the recent events had triggered for her. I could tell she needed a break from our usual academic work, so I assigned a reflective activity to give her space for introspection.

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The events brought to my (Michelle’s) mind a comment that actor Will Smith had previously made on a late-night television show: “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”

As my ideas began to crystallize, Lisa and I began to share our perspectives on the sobering current events. The result was a rich dialogue between us — raw, authentic and refreshingly open.

What follows is an excerpt from our discussion. We hope that it will stimulate other discussions and encourage counselors to not fear engaging in dialogue about race. We believe that such open communication will help us to better understand one another and the reality of systemic issues, to identify our blind spots and areas for growth, to improve our care for clients and to move our profession forward.

Racism at first glance

Lisa: Michelle, you told me how triggering the recent acts of racism in America and subsequent protests have been for you. Could you share some of your background?

Michelle: I was born to an African American father and a Japanese mother around the civil unrest and well-publicized riots of 1968. The United States was embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam, and racial tensions at home were an additional black eye on our status as a world leader. It is sobering to consider that the institutionalized racism which led to the widespread violence and destruction of many cities, including Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, has not been eliminated over my lifetime.

My first understanding of racism occurred when I was in the first grade. My mother would meet me after school each day to walk the mile or so back to our house. One day, a white pickup truck pulled alongside us, and two Caucasian men started yelling racial epithets and throwing beer bottles at us. My mother grabbed me and ran into a nearby park where they could not follow in their vehicle.

My mother reported the incident to the police, but it was not investigated, and the matter was dropped. It was not until several years later that I understood what transpired that day and the reality that the very notion of my existence was abhorrent to someone simply based on how I looked.

The path to becoming a counselor

Lisa: That must have been a terrifying experience for you. What impact did your childhood have on your career path as a professional counselor?

Michelle: I became driven to prove my value and worth to society through academic and athletic achievement. When it came time to apply to college, I wanted to mark the “other” box because, back then, “multiracial” was not an option.

My mother surprisingly challenged my decision: “Michelle, whether you like it or not, the world is going to look at the color of your skin and decide that you’re African American. Why not show them you are also kind, driven, intelligent and talented? It doesn’t have to be either-or.”

My mother’s advice empowered me to look beyond my neighborhood and the typical path of my peers, which was community college or service and retail jobs. I applied to the United States Naval Academy and was accepted into the 10th class that allowed women. As a midshipman, it was not lost on me that there were few black or brown faces, and I was often reminded that there were 20 other applicants for everyone who was accepted, so I had to make my presence count.

I found my follow-on experience in the Marine Corps to be a great example of inclusion, as we all worked together toward a common mission. There were not black, white, brown or yellow Marines — we were all “green.” As an intelligence officer, I became adept at understanding the human nature of our enemies and advising appropriate responses to conflict. This intuitiveness and desire to bring healing to suffering led me straight to my next career as a professional counselor.

Experiencing racism with clients

Lisa: Have you experienced racism in your interactions with clients and, if so, how have you managed it?

Michelle: Depending on how I wear my hair, it has apparently been difficult for others to determine my race. Over my lifetime, I have been mistaken for Filipino, Puerto Rican, Thai/Burmese, South Korean and Samoan.

As a licensed professional counselor, I have had clients decline to meet with me because I was not pale enough for their liking or not dark enough “to understand their experience.” Several clients have made racially disparaging comments about African Americans or Asian groups in my presence because they were unaware of my multiracial background. One Caucasian client made the flip comment, “She [a Hispanic friend] is so stupid. What did she expect dating a Black guy? They’re all dogs and can’t keep a job!”

Those comments were spoken so casually that it is not hard to imagine that worse was being said in other settings. It is a sad reminder that racial prejudice and stereotyping are still at the forefront of some people’s minds. Sad because such views prevent the speaker from seeing the potential good aspects of another race and benefiting from their culture. Sad because such divisiveness prevents unity that could make us stronger as neighbors, co-workers or fellow journeyers on this path through life. My identity is not the “little mongrel” girl who had to hide in a park, nor are those individuals being described the sum of those demeaning or devaluing statements. We can and need to do better.

Early in my career, I had a Caucasian client tell me he hated “Black people.” I was quite surprised, and it must have shown on my face because he immediately added, “But you’re all right. You’re not like the other ones I’ve met.”

As you can imagine, I was angry at his audacity and saddened by his views, but I knew based on where he was in treatment that it was not the time to get into a heated debate about his racial beliefs. However, I realized that his sharing of those ideas with me indicated that he felt safe to do so in my presence and that I had been entrusted with a variable that I had not known about him previously. While I was offended by his remark, I remember thinking, “Stay focused on the client. This is not about me; it’s about the client.”

I am going to be judged, fairly and unfairly, but I choose to live in a manner to be a credit to my race rather than a detractor. I also recognize that every instance of racism is a learning opportunity — for me to better understand how the other person came to their beliefs and for clients to perhaps expand their views to see past a person’s appearance to their character. We are all a product of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experience. A client’s life may have taught them to hate, but if we, as counselors, do not believe in the potential for people to change and grow, we are in the wrong profession.

Racism can come in many forms. It can be overt or covert, generational or situational, and institutional or individual. As counselors, we need to be prepared for however it manifests and to recognize that some people are not even aware of how hurtful their beliefs are until they are uttered out loud and someone checks them on it. When working with clients, I have come to recognize that racism is often based on fear, and the more information the client is willing to learn about the object of their fear, the less impact it has. Working with a client’s racist remarks takes the same unconditional positive regard that you would give any client, and it is an opportunity to model healthy self-concept and emotional regulation.

So, take the client I mentioned previously who stated that he hated Black people. For this interview, I will call him “John.” When John made that statement, I did not react to his remarks, but I was able to work with him later in therapy surrounding some of his distorted schemas when he was ready. The following are some practical suggestions for working with clients who show signs of racism:

1) It’s not about you. (Do not personalize clients’ racist remarks).

Me: “It sounds like there are anger and pain behind that statement. Tell me about the Black people you’ve previously met.”

John: “Well, they make me sick. They’re lazy. They lie around doing drugs and collecting a welfare check while I bust my butt working all the time.”

2) Gently challenge any overgeneralizations.

Me: “Who are ‘they’? Are you talking about specific people you know?”

John: “No, you know what I mean. Just Black people.”

Me: “I know some Black people, but they don’t do drugs and they have jobs.”

John: “I know they’re not all like that. Like I said, you’re all right because I know you work for a living.”

Me: “So you don’t hate all Black people, just the Black people who are uneducated or unemployed?”

John: “Yeah, I guess.”

3) Help clients clarify their feelings.

Me: “Some might take your response as jealousy rather than hatred. You work hard, but they get by without working. Would you consider jealousy to be a better word?”

John: “No! I’m not jealous of those Black people. Shoot, I’m way better than them. I’m financially secure with a good job and a house. There’s nothing to be jealous of.”

Me: “You do work hard and have a lot going for you. So, why are you comparing yourself to them?”

John: “I’m not! They’re a drain on society. They could be doing as well as I am if they would just apply themselves.”

Me: “So, help me understand. If there is no comparison in your eyes, why do you even care?”

John: “Because my taxpayer dollars are going to finance their lifestyle.”

Me: “Actually, your and my tax dollars are going to finance a lot of things, like the military, Social Security and the national debt. Do you hate them too?”

John: “No, that’s just stupid. Of course I don’t hate the military. They’re necessary for our nation’s defense. It’s just our precious resources should only be used on important things that benefit all of society.”

Me: “If hate is too strong, or not the right word, what is a better way to describe how you feel?”

John: “I guess you could say I’m frustrated.”

4) Help clients clarify their beliefs.

Me: “OK, you are frustrated with some uneducated or unemployed Black people.”

John: “Yeah, because they’re on welfare.”

Me: “I also know a lot of people on welfare — White, Black, Hispanic, etc. Are you frustrated with them as well?”

John [staring at me]: “I know what you’re doing. No, I’m not frustrated with all of them. You are just twisting things around.”

5) Follow up with psychoeducation.

Me: “I’m just trying to understand what you believe and why you believe it. Words matter, and I hope you can see there is a big difference between ‘I hate Black people’ and ‘I’m frustrated with what I believe is the misuse of taxpayer money.’

Some people are where they are due to a lack of nurturing, growing up in an unsafe environment or even traumatic experiences. But when you are hindered by those things, which are outside of your control, and the color of your skin habitually prevents others from seeing you as a person or recognizing your worth, it is hard to have hope of living any other way.

We all have biases — because of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experiences — that can incite our emotions and distort our thinking. Racism occurs when we start believing those distortions about an entire group of people without considering individual differences. It may be easy to blame an entire group of people in a situation, but it is much more helpful to honestly examine why we feel the way we do and, when in our power, to do something about it.

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Having an open conversation about race with a client is possible, but counselors must consider the client’s readiness and make sure the discussion is integral to the context of the client’s presenting issue. The counseling office is not a bully pulpit, nor is it a place for counselors to get their own emotional needs met. However, when a client is ready and open to discuss the subject, counselors should be ready to “go there” while maintaining empathy and without allowing countertransference to interfere with their effectiveness.

Experiencing racism within the profession

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your experiences and such practical suggestions for working with clients. I think we are often caught off guard by comments made during sessions, and it is very helpful to think ahead of time about what to do in those situations. In addition to interactions with clients, have you experienced racism within our professional field?

Michelle: Sure. I once had a colleague tell me that she was no longer going to take Medicaid clients because they were “all Black, unemployed and unmarried with a gang of kids.” Another colleague commented that the Black clients brought their kids in for testing for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “just so they can get a check.” These were seasoned professionals who had been seeing clients for many years.

Lisa: How disappointing to hear such comments from your peers. As a Caucasian, I have noticed that many of my White colleagues feel content in knowing that they do not personally hold prejudiced feelings against others. However, I realize that a lack of personal hate does not do enough to confront systemic racism. What can we do as a profession to make progress and move forward in this area?

Michelle: The first thing is to stop apologizing. I cannot speak for all people of color, but we are not looking for apologies. Now, let me caveat that: I always advise my clients to “own what’s yours.” If you personally contributed in any way to the oppression of a person of color, then apologize to that person. Otherwise, a blanket apology often indicates that someone does not understand the nature of institutional racism.

Secondly, ask, listen, learn and act. We will never solve the problem if we do not understand the nature of the problem. Ask people of color about their experiences. You may be surprised how many instances of racism — such as inappropriate comments or jokes in the workplace — individuals have had to push aside or ignore. Question formal processes at work that have been in place for a long time because “that’s the way we’ve always done things” attitudes can indicate tacit approval of an oppressive infrastructure (e.g., not taking Medicaid clients because it does not pay as well as commercial insurance).

Listen to the conversations being held when people of color are not in the room. They may be an indication of an undercurrent of racism (e.g., gossip or complaining regarding people of color) that needs to be exposed.

Learn by reading books, listening to podcasts or subscribing to YouTube channels by people of color.

Act by speaking up when you hear racist comments or when you see acts of discrimination. Be willing to get involved with faith organizations, social justice movements and causes of people of color (e.g., speaking at a city council meeting about trauma-informed care for African American neighborhoods or joining a peaceful march). Lastly, help affect the future of the counseling profession. Become a supervisor and share the wisdom you learn about institutional racism and the need to work with people of color to fix the system.

Thirdly, for supervisors, it is important to recognize that our supervisees are coming from different backgrounds and are at different levels of multicultural competence. I hold an initial interview with my supervisees to get a sense of their goals, strengths and weaknesses. Included in this interview is a question about their ethnicity, nurturing, environment and experience as it pertains to working with race and other marginalized groups. The answer is usually, “I had a multicultural awareness class as part of my master’s degree.” I take that to mean that they do not know what they do not know, so the onus is then on the supervisor to prepare counselors-in-training in this area of competency.

I take a developmental approach with supervision and challenge supervisees to take multicultural considerations into account as they approach each client and their diagnosis. Our discussions also include case studies tailored to increase their ability to recognize their own biases and blind spots.

These past weeks, with all of the media coverage of the racial unrest, have offered a rich environment for my supervisees to learn about institutional racism and to ask questions about social justice for their clients. It is not just a multicultural issue but also an ethical one. So, I try to ensure that my supervisees are not only comfortable working with people of diverse backgrounds but also willing to admit their own areas of cultural ignorance and work toward increasing their knowledge.

Connecting multicultural competency and trauma-informed care

Lisa: Is there any other area where we can look for change?

Michelle: All professional counseling organizations have submitted statements of support to the current nonviolent protests and offered ways to help support the victims of racial trauma. This is a great start to addressing the issue. However, if we want to make a difference, we need to reevaluate the profession’s approach to multicultural and trauma-informed education because they go hand in hand.

Most counseling programs have one mandatory multicultural class and may offer some trauma electives. However, multicultural competency should be infused throughout the program, and trauma-informed care should be a required part of every curriculum. Recognizing that the design of the master’s programs is toward clinical competency as determined by face-to-face hours, how well do practicum and internships expose and evaluate multicultural and trauma care competencies? Your new book, Preparing for Trauma Work in Clinical Mental Health, addresses concepts such as historical trauma, disenfranchised grief, advocacy and ethnic identity strength and would really fill this curriculum void.

For provisional and licensed counselors, in the same way that ethics continuing education is required every year, multicultural and trauma refresher training should be required on an annual basis to ensure that counselors are maintaining the best practices. To obtain licensure, counselors should demonstrate competency in working with diverse clients and various trauma backgrounds. In addition, all professional counselors should take an active role in advocacy work on behalf of their clients and in their communities.

Just as the color of my skin is going to be subconsciously noted by the people I meet, similar experiences are happening to our clients of color, most of whom have lived with some form of oppression during their lifetime. Counselors need to be prepared to approach multicultural considerations in trauma-informed care to understand how to appropriately establish strong therapeutic alliances with clients and enhance safety and stabilization. This is a herald’s call for counselors to change the way we approach the effects of institutionalized racism if we truly want to be agents of change.

 

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Michelle Fielder is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in private practice. She is also a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at Regent University. Contact her at michfi3@mail.regent.edu.

Lisa Compton is a certified trauma treatment specialist and full-time faculty at Regent University. Contact her at lisacom@regent.edu.

 

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

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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.

Counselor considerations for disclosing LGBTQ+ identity

By Benjamin Hearn June 2, 2020

The question of what is appropriate to disclose about ourselves to clients is one that all counselors face, whether it be about an upcoming vacation, an emotional reaction to a client or how our own past struggles may parallel those of a client. Beyond these more common self-disclosures, we also may choose to disclose aspects of our identity that are not inherently visible, such as our sexual orientation, gender identity or even religious beliefs.

These invisible aspects of the self differ from others such as race in that there may be incongruence between how these identities are perceived by the client and experienced by the counselor. At times, disclosure of such identities may be beneficial for clients, but we must proceed both with caution and intentionality prior to taking that step. Although I will be discussing LGBTQ+ identity disclosure for the remainder of this article, it is my hope that all counselors will benefit from engaging in the process of deciding when and what is ethical to disclose to our clients.

I first became aware of the utility of disclosing my sexual orientation in practicum, during which time I needed to obtain group hours. The only active group at my site was a women’s anxiety group facilitated by my supervisor, who was also a woman. My supervisor was intent on my gaining group experience and asked the women whether they would be comfortable having a male co-facilitate sessions. Most of the group was hesitant until one of the members spoke up and said, “That’s fine, but only if he’s gay.” Her statement was met with concurrence by the rest of the group, and I was allowed to co-facilitate after sharing that I was indeed gay. My supervisor thought this was a strange contingency, but I was not surprised. I have a long history of seeing people interact differently with me once they learn I am gay.

My initial experiences self-disclosing LGBTQ+ identities demonstrated that it could be used to enhance client trust and perhaps provided greater autonomy to clients by allowing them to find a counselor with whom they “fit.” However, after reflecting, obtaining supervision and exploring the literature on self-disclosure, the concept of appropriately disclosing LGBTQ+ identities became much murkier for me. Compounding the issue was the fact that the literature also described risks to the concealment of an LGBTQ+ identity.

Overall, the consensus from these sources was that disclosure is a choice rather than a rule and needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Factors that influence the choice span a wide range and may include characteristics of the client, the counselor and treatment settings. The remainder of this article explores these issues within the context of the counseling profession’s values and ethical principles, professional literature, and theories that my colleague Kelli Hess and I developed and presented at an American Counseling Association Conference.

Professional values and ethical principles

Whenever considering whether a course of action is ethical, counselors should turn first to the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics and the Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making, a white paper developed by Holly Forester-Miller and Thomas Davis in collaboration with ACA. While neither of these documents provides concrete answers to the question “Is it ethical to disclose my LGBTQ+ identity to my clients?” they do offer a good starting point to assess the question. So, let’s begin by outlining applicable ethics standards and professional values and principles so that they can be kept in mind and later applied.

The preamble to the ACA Code of Ethics states that the promotion of social justice is one of the core professional values of the counseling profession. In the glossary of terms for the ACA Code of Ethics, social justice is defined as “the promotion of equity for all people and groups for the purpose of ending oppression and injustice affecting clients [and] counselors …”

The preamble also outlines a number of important principles that inform our topic, including:

  • Beneficence: “Working for the good of the individual and society by promoting mental health and well-being.”
  • Veracity: “Dealing truthfully with individuals with whom counselors come into professional contact.”
  • Autonomy: “Fostering the right to control the direction of one’s life.”

It is worth noting that the ethical decision-making model developed by Forester-Miller and Davis elaborates on these definitions and describes these principles in action in ways that may not be intuitive. For example, helping a client understand how their actions and values are likely to be received in the context of society promotes client autonomy.

The ACA Code of Ethics also provides several standards that are relevant to our discussion:

  • A.4.b. Personal Values: “Counselors are aware of — and avoid imposing — their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.”
  • I.1.b. Ethical Decision Making: “When counselors are faced with an ethical dilemma, they use and document, as appropriate, an ethical decision-making model that may include, but is not limited to, consultation; consideration of relevant ethical standards, principles, and laws; generation of potential courses of action; deliberation of risks and benefits; and selection of an objective decision based on the circumstances and welfare of all involved.”
  • I.2.c. Consultation: “When uncertain about whether a particular situation or course of action may be in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics, counselors consult with other counselors who are knowledgeable about ethics and the ACA Code of Ethics, with colleagues, or with appropriate authorities, such as the ACA Ethics and Professional Standards Department.”

Types of disclosure

Now that we have an understanding of the relevant professional values, principles and ethical standards, we can begin considering how they inform self-disclosure. We typically think of self-disclosure in terms of information that we share verbally with our clients during session. This can be broken up into “intra-” and “extra-” therapy disclosures, with the former being disclosures about the counselor’s own thoughts or feelings in session and the latter being disclosures about the counselor’s life outside of session.

Self-disclosure also takes place through nonverbal means, such as our body language, office layout and dress. The information that we disclose nonverbally is either intentionally or unintentionally shared and can also suggest or confirm an LGBTQ+ identity.

Nonverbal suggestions and confirmations

To understand how nonverbal information may suggest an LGBTQ+ identity, we must first acknowledge that human beings use stereotyping to make sense of and navigate the world. Sexual orientation and gender identity are often spontaneously assumed about an individual based on the nonverbal information they present. Some nonverbal information, such as the counselor’s mannerisms and voice inflection, are not intentionally disclosed but still may inform a client’s assumption of the counselor’s LGBTQ+ identity. A counselor may also intentionally display information, such as choice in dress or a pride flag in their office, that suggests to clients that the counselor is LGBTQ+.

Counselors may also nonverbally share information that confirms their LGBTQ+ identity to clients. This type of disclosure can take several forms and may also be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional nonverbal disclosure of this type occurs through things such as disclosing an LGBTQ+ identity on a professional biography or displaying a picture of a same-gender partner in the office. Unintentional confirmation may take place if the counselor is seen in public with a same-gender partner or if a client discovers the information through social media platforms that are not professionally oriented.

Verbal disclosure with and without prompting

In addition to nonverbal means of disclosure, we can begin to consider how and when counselors may choose to broach the topic verbally in session. In some instances, the client may ask or express something that prompts the counselor to disclose, while at other times, the counselor may disclose without prompting.

Perhaps the two most common instances that could be considered “prompts” are when a client expresses an incorrect assumption about the counselor’s sexual orientation or gender identity or when a client asks about either of these directly. Counselors may be more prone to being questioned directly or to have incorrect assumptions expressed based on the degree to which they “fall into” common LGBTQ+ stereotypes. For instance, I believe that I present few nonverbal suggestions that I am gay, and I wear a wedding ring at work. As a result, clients often ask questions about my “wife.” Another prompt to consider is the unintentional confirmation of an LGBTQ+ identity, such as the counselor being seen in public with a same-gender partner.

When it comes to responding to these questions or assertions, a counselor can always redirect the topic back to the client by asking why this information is important to them or how it would affect their treatment. The counselor may choose to disclose an LGBTQ+ identify when asked directly by a client or when correcting a client’s expressed assumption, provided that a counselor perceives minimal risk to the client and is comfortable with disclosing when prompted.

In these situations, unethical responses would be those that conflict with the principle of veracity. They would include lying about one’s LGBTQ+ identity or providing a response that affirms a client’s incorrect assumption. Such responses might damage the therapeutic relationship in the future should the client discover through other means such as social media or public encounters that the counselor identifies as LGBTQ+.

Counselors who wish for a middle ground between redirection and coming out may choose to use gender-neutral words to answer appropriate questions about themselves or their relationships. For example, “My partner and I have been married three years.”

Counselors may also wish to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity without prompting from the client for a variety of reasons, including:

1) To promote perceived similarity or relatability between counselor and client: Similarity between counselor and client identities, particularly with aspects of identity such as race, has been found to be helpful in developing rapport and with client retainment and engagement. While disclosing similarities may build rapport, counselors should be cautious of using disclosure as a shortcut for rapport or as a stand-in for mastery of LGBTQ+ competencies and expertise.

2) To increase client autonomy or comfort: Disclosure of LGBTQ+ identity may also serve to promote client autonomy. Many clients “shop” for their counselor, and early disclosure, such as on a professional biography, may aid clients in making their selection. In addition, as I described earlier regarding my experience with a women’s group, disclosure of LGBTQ+ identity may serve to promote client comfort. While the situation I described was prompted, counselors may also find that disclosure promotes comfort when clients are reluctant to broach certain issues that may be related to the counselor’s gender identity.

3) To assist in resolution of a client’s internal values struggles.

4) To model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity.

To understand how disclosure might assist a client’s internal values struggles, we’ll return to the professional value of autonomy. Forester-Miller and Davis suggest that disclosure might serve to help clients understand how their actions and values are likely to be received in the context of society. An illustration of this could be a client who is experiencing distress at work due to difficulties with a new LGBTQ+ employee and is unaware that their counselor has an LGBTQ+ identity. The counselor may choose to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity in such an instance should the client not be at risk for self-harm or in crisis and should the therapeutic relationship be strong enough to withstand the disclosure. A counselor taking this approach should consider how they will maintain their focus on the client and manage any significant ruptures to the relationship.

Disclosure of the counselor’s own LGBTQ+ identity may also work to model a healthy identity to clients who have less-developed identities. Models of LGBTQ+ identity development suggest that comfort in disclosing LGBTQ+ identity is indicative of a healthy identity. Given this, counselors may use self-disclosure as a means to explore the reasons behind clients’ own discomfort with disclosure, such as internalized homophobia.

Additionally, instances in which cisgender, heterosexual counselors feel at ease to disclose may also work to model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity and may be viewed as an act promoting social justice. To illustrate this point, consider a community counseling clinic in which some cisgender, heterosexual clinicians display family pictures. An LGBTQ+ counselor who chooses to display similar pictures that illustrate nontraditional family structures promotes equality and raises awareness about such families.

Such seemingly small acts are important to help LGBTQ+ counselors feel comfortable in their work settings because these counselors may also experience fear of client, peer or supervisor judgment and thereby be less effective in their roles. Peer or supervisor judgment may seem unlikely, but I have met many LGBTQ+ counselors who have felt ostracized within their agencies, been told to lie to clients about their sexual orientation or gender identity, or even been fired for their disclosure to clients. Concerns such as these may be indicative of issues related to multiculturalism and diversity within the agency or wider culture but also may be related to the counselor’s unresolved issues regarding internalized homophobia. In such instances, LGBTQ+ counselors may seek their own counseling services.

To illustrate these concepts, consider this vignette: Thomas is a counselor working at a group practice in a moderate-sized city with an established client, Jared. Jared has been voicing increased complaints about his work, particularly concerning a new co-worker who is openly gay and inappropriately discusses his sexual relationships in the workplace. Jared exasperatedly states, “I just can’t stand gay people. They’re all like this. Why can’t they just keep that stuff to themselves?”

As a counselor who displays few nonverbal suggestions about his own sexual orientation, Thomas assumes that Jared believes he is heterosexual. Thomas believes disclosing that he is gay might help Jared, but he first considers the strength of his therapeutic alliance with Jared and what other services would be available to Jared were disclosure to cause irreparable damage.

Thomas decides that Jared would likely be able to process this information in a healthy way and chooses to disclose his sexual orientation in the next session when Jared once again complains about people who are gay. Jared is surprised by Thomas’ disclosure. Jared discusses stereotypes he has about gay people and why he didn’t suspect that Thomas was gay. This process allows Thomas to model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity to Jared while also dismantling unhelpful stereotypes. Jared is now able to see his co-worker’s behavior originating from poor interpersonal boundaries rather than from his sexual orientation.

Choosing not to disclose

Although it appears there may be benefits for clients, counselors and the larger LGBTQ+ population when counselors choose verbally to disclose their LGBTQ+ status, there are also times when counselors should refrain from doing so. In arriving at this decision, counselors should carefully consider:

  • Whether their disclosure is relevant to the client’s issue
  • The purpose of and motivation for disclosure
  • The client’s immediate needs
  • The strength of the therapeutic relationship

In many, if not most, cases, the counselor’s LGBTQ+ identity is irrelevant to the client’s presenting issue, and prompts for disclosing may not arise. Should the counselor still feel an urge to disclose, the counselor should consider their purpose and motivation in disclosing to ensure that disclosure is not used to meet personal needs such as client approval.

Counselors may also refrain from disclosure in instances in which the client has poor interpersonal boundaries, the client is in crisis, or there is a real risk that the therapeutic relationship may not withstand disclosure. Building on this last point, counselors should also consider what additional resources are available to the client should the client refuse to work with an LGBTQ+ counselor. This is particularly important in underserved areas or in agencies that assign counselors to clients or that have long waiting lists.

Here is a vignette to illustrate an instance in which a counselor may choose not to disclose: Janine is a heterosexual trans woman who consistently “passes” in social settings. She is providing mental health counseling services in a rural school-based setting to high school students and receives a referral for a new client, Jamil. Jamil is a junior who has recently been withdrawing from his friends. He has also been experiencing increased conflict with his family after beginning to wear his older sisters’ clothing to dinner and disclosing to them that he often wishes he were a girl.

Jamil presents in the initial session with his mother, who expresses prejudice and disdain toward the LGBTQ+ community. She states, “I was shocked. I’ve seen them in the news, and I won’t have my son being one of them.”

Janine keeps her composure throughout the intake and processes her thoughts and feelings later in supervision. She expresses that the mother’s comments did upset her and caused her to be distracted because of her own family history. She believes that Jamil would benefit from knowing someone else in the LGBTQ+ community. Janine considers this possibility with her supervisor but decides disclosure of her identity as a trans woman to Jamil at this point is too risky. She reasons that Jamil’s mother might pull Jamil from services with Janine, and there are no other readily available providers in the surrounding rural setting.

Janine collaborates with her supervisor to develop ways to bracket her discomfort with respect to the mother’s comments and Janine’s desire to build rapport with Jamil through disclosure. During the treatment planning session, Janine works with the family to develop rapport. She uses her training and education, rather than her personal experience, to explain the myriad difficulties faced by gender-nonconforming individuals and the importance of family support. Janine, Jamil and Jamil’s mother develop a plan aimed at increasing family cohesion by using small, incremental steps that will allow Jamil greater ability to express his gender identity.

Wrapping up

Counselors who identify as LGBTQ+ are faced with the unique challenge of determining whether to disclose this identity to clients and how. Myriad factors influence this decision, making it not unlike many other decisions related to self-disclosure. Counselors can begin considering the issue using an ethical decision-making model and taking into account the professional principles of beneficence, autonomy and veracity alongside relevant ethical standards.

Counselors may find themselves in a position of disclosing more or less often based on their own nonverbal attributes and behaviors, which clients may consider as suggestions that the counselor is LGBTQ+. Clients may use these attributes or behaviors in creating a prompt for the counselor to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity, or counselors may broach the topic themselves when appropriate. 

Counselors should consider verbal disclosure on a case-by-case basis, taking into account knowledge of the client’s presenting issue and needs, the strength of the therapeutic relationship, and other available resources. Counselors should refrain from disclosing when disclosure would pose an immediate risk to clients. LGBTQ+ counselors may look to their heterosexual or cisgender peers for more immediate norms on self-disclosure.

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Benjamin Hearn is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is developing approaches for the counseling profession to use psychedelic-assisted therapies for mental health and substance use disorders. He is also interested in the integration of spirituality to counseling and is an active member of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling. He has practiced in a variety of settings, including school-based mental health, private practice and wilderness therapy. Contact him at hearnbg@mail.uc.edu.

 

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

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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.