Tag Archives: therapeutic alliance

Building trust with reluctant clients

By Bethany Bray June 22, 2022

The Washington Post’s “Dear Carolyn” advice column recently fielded a question from a person who was unsure if they were ready to seek counseling to cope with a strained relationship with a parent. Although the person was aware that counseling could be helpful in this particular situation, they were still reluctant to seek services. “I can’t bear the thought of sharing any sort of emotions or history with a complete stranger, especially when I hear people have to reshare as they try two or several counselors to find the right one,” they wrote.

In her response to this letter, advice columnist Carolyn Hax advocated for the person to try counseling and addressed their hesitancy by saying, “The ‘total stranger’ is actually the point. … That extra, disinterested, trained, and informed set of eyes can help any of us see things we’re too close to see.”

The author of this letter is hardly alone in their hesitance. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that roughly one in five American adults experienced mental illness in 2020, yet less than half received treatment.

And part of this reluctance may stem from the fact that counseling does involves being vulnerable to a stranger — albeit a professional stranger — and working through emotions, trauma and issues that can be painful, sad or fear-provoking. When combined with feelings of shame, stigma or bad memories of a past therapy experience, it’s no wonder that clients are often nervous, fearful or hesitant to start counseling.

Counselors understand the importance of the therapeutic relationship. But when a client is hesitant or reluctant, practitioners need to make trust and relationship building the central focus of counseling work, along with a little extra patience and unconditional positive regard.

An extra dose of validation

Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in New York and a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor in North Carolina, has worked with clients who were so apprehensive about trying counseling that they were visibly shaking in their first few sessions.

Richter-Abitol owns a private practice in Wake Forest, North Carolina, that specializes in counseling for anxiety disorders. She and her staff offer individual and group counseling with a focus on creating a welcoming, nonintimidating environment.

When a client’s body language indicates that they’re nervous or hesitant as they begin counseling, Richter-Abitol uses it as an opportunity to acknowledge their concern and validate that what they’re doing is hard. Her focus becomes normalizing the therapy process, rather than jumping into any kind of assessment or intake regimen.

“This [hesitancy] is extremely common, even for clients who have been in counseling before. … If I notice that a client is really anxious, I use immediacy and point out that it is scary to be here, and I applaud them for coming in,” says Richter-Abitol, an American Counseling Association member.

Clients who are hesitant to try counseling need transparency, patience and an extra dose of validation from their counselor, agrees Megan Craig, an LMHC who counsels clients at a community mental health agency in the Boston area. She often emphasizes to clients that they’re not doing something “wrong” if they are having trouble opening up or aren’t immediately comfortable in therapy. Applauding a client’s bravery to walk through the door also creates an opportunity to ask them what motivated them to make that first appointment — and, in turn, helps the counselor learn more about the client, Craig adds.

Validation played a key part in fostering connection with a female client Craig once worked with who kept being referred to different clinicians within Craig’s agency because of staff turnover.

By the time she was put on Craig’s caseload, the client was “exhausted” and fearful of losing yet another practitioner. So, she had spotty attendance and would often cancel appointments.

“She felt like she hardly wanted to be there [in counseling sessions]. She had told her story so many times, only for her clinician to leave. She kept having to start over from scratch and be vulnerable with a new person,” Craig recalls.

Craig was honest with the client and broached the subject directly, validating that her exhaustion was understandable and warranted.

Craig also realized she needed to slow the pace of therapy with this client. Their early counseling sessions focused on lighter topics, such as work stress. It was one year into counseling before the client was comfortable enough to begin talking about heavier topics, including her trauma history.

The client’s attendance eventually improved but not until Craig spent months building a relationship with her.

“At first, I second-guessed myself and wondered if this [early work] was ‘therapeutic enough.’ But that’s what she needed. That was what was therapeutic for her,” Craig says. “She needed to establish the trust that I wasn’t going to leave and would stay with her. Just me showing up [to counseling sessions] is exactly what this client needed.” 

Fear of judgment

Counselors are no strangers to the importance of the therapeutic relationship, and decades of research show how central and essential it is to client engagement and growth, says Michael Tursi, an LMHC in New York. Counselors, however, must make relationship building an utmost priority for clients who are hesitant. They have an opportunity to display nonjudgment every time they respond and interact with a client, he notes.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘the therapeutic relationship is essential,’ but there are some clients who really might not be willing to engage at all until they see certain things, especially nonjudgment, in their counselor,” he says. “When counselors meet with clients, right from the beginning, they have an opportunity to display nonjudgment.” 

Tursi, an assistant professor in the mental health counseling program at Pace University’s Pleasantville, New York campus, has done research on client experiential avoidance (i.e., when a person is resistant to experiencing strong or adverse sensations, emotions or thoughts) and engagement in counseling. For his doctoral dissertation, Tursi interviewed a cohort of clients in counseling who self-identified as experiencing this phenomenon, and he, along with two other colleagues, published the findings in a 2021 Journal of Counseling & Development article.

Tursi measured his study participants’ level of avoidance by having them complete the Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire developed by psychologist Wakiza Gámez and colleagues.

According to Tursi, one data point in his research quickly became very clear: Each and every one of the participants talked about fear of judgment from their counselor. The study participants acknowledged that they became more engaged in counseling once they established that their counselor was trustworthy and nonjudgmental.

In fact, the participants viewed counseling as a potentially harmful or threatening relationship until their counselor had fostered a trusting relationship with them and eased their hesitancy, Tursi adds.

Some participants talked about “testing” their counselor by intentionally saying something to elicit a response to gauge how trustworthy the counselor was. Even if a client does not do something like this intentionally, Tursi notes, they are very aware of how a counselor is responding to them.

“Nonjudgment is central to working with any client. But these clients might need a counselor who is quite in tune with [the fact that the] client is concerned about judgment and be patient with that,” says Tursi, an ACA member.

A key aspect of creating an atmosphere of nonjudgment is for counselors to be aware of a client’s comfort level, he says. This includes keeping an eye out for indicators that a client is anxious, such as body language, and checking in regularly with the client to talk about how they feel things are going.

A client should never feel pestered or pushed into talking about issues; they should come to the decision to disclose on their own, Tursi emphasizes. Counselors need to temper the expectations of what they think or expect a client will need or be willing to do. 

“Attending to where your clients are is important. We shouldn’t go into therapy and assume clients are going to disclose right away rather than do the therapeutic work that we think they need to do,” he explains. “Counselors should make sure they’re focusing on providing conditions for these clients to engage. … The client is never going to get there [make progress], in any kind of meaningful way, unless they’re engaging in sessions.”

Tursi hopes his research spreads awareness among counselors that experiential avoidance is very common and that some clients may come into counseling believing — for a variety of reasons — that it could be a relationship that is potentially harmful. Tursi draws on the work of Barry Farber, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, when he emphasizes that it’s easy to have unconditional positive regard for clients who come in ready to trust and work with their counselor. But it’s equally important to provide that regard for clients who are hesitant, although it may be more difficult. Patience should be a counselor’s watchword, Tursi adds.

“As counselors, we have to be aware of situations in which we have difficulty providing positive regard and continue professional development to improve our abilities to provide nonjudgmental acceptance at times that it is difficult,” Tursi says.

Check yourself 

As a practitioner who specializes in counseling clients with anxiety, Richter-Abitol finds that rapport building with clients who are hesitant must involve self-awareness on the part of the clinician. This includes keeping her own wants, expectations and assumptions about work with clients in check, she says, and asking for client input on the pace and direction of their treatment.

Richter-Abitol is transparent with her clients: She lets them know that they are “in control” of what they want to talk about in sessions and emphasizes that she won’t “make” them talk about anything they’re not ready to.

“You have to meet the client where they’re at and let them set the agenda. I have had clients who have taken months to build rapport, and if you [the counselor] are not patient, you may never get to that point,” Richter-Abitol says. “You have to constantly check yourself outside of sessions and tell yourself that even small successes contribute toward long-term goals. Small things add up.”

polkadot_photo/Shutterstock.com

Richter-Abitol, like Tursi, argues that the therapeutic relationship must take priority with these clients, rather than diving into a treatment plan based on their diagnosis or what the practitioner thinks they need. Counselors should get creative to find ways to bond with the client prior to moving into heavier work, she suggests. For young clients, this might be therapeutic games or activities; for adults, it might be a discussion of lighter topics that help paint a picture of who they are, including things that they like, dislike and what motivates them.

“Those conversations can lead to deeper ones,” she says. “It’s not helpful to be too rigid. You can have things that you’d like the client to work on, but ultimately it has to be up to them. Flexibility is important.”

Richter-Abitol has found that clients feel more empowered when she lets them take the reins in this way. And many begin to open up naturally when they don’t feel pressured to do so.

This approach requires counselors not only to be in touch with and sensitive to their client’s needs and level of readiness in counseling but also to check their own inclination to take charge when a client is slow to make progress. It’s all too easy to assume that a client who isn’t making progress — or not progressing in a way the counselor might want or expect — isn’t benefiting from counseling, Richter-Abitol notes.

Instead, she advises practitioners to take a step back and consider the client’s full context, including the barriers and challenges that are making it difficult for them to engage with a counselor.

“Their fear or discomfort can come off as resistance or presenting a vibe that ‘I don’t want to be here.’ … They just don’t know how to feel about this space yet, and you need to give them time to figure that out,” Richter-Abitol says. “Don’t make the assumption that someone who is uncomfortable isn’t gaining anything from the experience. It might not be that they don’t want to be there but they just don’t know how to be there yet.”

Have honest conversations 

If patience is the first thing that clients who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling need from a practitioner, transparency is the second. For Craig, this comes in the form of direct questions to the client to gauge their comfort level and an honest invitation to let her know when things aren’t working.

If a client appears uncomfortable or is hesitant to engage in counseling, Craig will address it directly, saying, “Here is what I’m picking up on. Tell me if I’m right or wrong.” She emphasizes to clients that she cares for their well-being and genuinely wants to hear how they’re feeling — and that they have a choice and a say in the counseling process.

Sometimes what counselors view as resistant behavior in clients can be caused by the use of methods or techniques that aren’t a good fit for that individual, Craig says, or it can be that the practitioner themselves is not the right fit. Because clients may not bring up problems to a counselor on their own, she makes a point to broach the topic with honesty, explaining that no therapist is going to be the best match for everyone who walks through their door.

“If someone is taking the huge step to start counseling, I want them to benefit from it as much as possible. I’m honest and tell them that they’ll never make progress if we are not a good fit,” says Craig. “People are not ready for different reasons, and that’s why I like to have such open conversations. … I might not be able to give them everything they need, but I certainly want to talk about it and I want to try.”

She not only checks in regularly with clients throughout therapy but also makes time for a deeper conversation about what is and isn’t going well once a year (on their anniversary as her client). 

During these check-ins, she prompts clients with questions such as:

  • How do you feel about our work together?
  • Do you respond well to me taking the lead in counseling, or do you prefer to take the lead?
  • What has been helpful during our work together?
  • What do you need more of? And less of?
  • What did you expect from therapy and how has this not met your expectations?
  • What’s working and what’s not?

Not only do these conversations provide Craig with valuable feedback, but they also help set an example for the client to advocate for their own needs outside of counseling, she notes. Learning to be able to communicate their needs and expectations is a big — and important — milestone for many clients.

Craig recommends clinicians ask clients directly about how things are going in counseling rather than fall into an easy pattern of making assumptions about individuals who are avoidant or hesitant to engage. Honest feedback from a client is a good thing, Craig stresses, and not something that a counselor should take personally.

Overcoming cultural barriers

Counselors also need to take a proactive approach when clients are hesitant because of challenges and barriers related to their cultural background, says Camila Pulgar, a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate who is a research faculty member at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Building trust and forging connection with clients who are from marginalized cultures require a counselor not only to be comfortable broaching the subject of culture (and cultural differences) in client sessions in an ethical and compassionate way, Pulgar says, but also to be fully aware of and sensitive to the many barriers that keep them from accessing counseling or being fully comfortable in the setting. 

A native of Chile, Pulgar specializes in the mental health needs of Latinx clients, including suicide prevention. She does clinical work once a week in her faculty position at the medical center, and she is the only bilingual (Spanish/English) provider on her team. Being the only bilingual counselor is not unusual for Pulgar; in fact, this has been the case for most of her professional career, she says. The mental health care system in this country is simply not built to support the needs of clients whose first language is not English.

Language is only one of many barriers that can deter clients from minority cultures from seeking or becoming fully engaged in counseling, Pulgar points out. Individuals may face logistical challenges such as trouble accessing transportation to appointments, finding child care or affording the cost of sessions. They may also be fearful or have adverse feelings about counseling because of stigma, past harm or skepticism about therapy within their culture or family group.

“If people make it to my office, they’re usually hesitant to share their mental health journey with their family members because of stigma. I often hear ‘I don’t want anyone else to know I’m here’,” says Pulgar, who also sees a small caseload of clients at her private practice in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “When we talk about their supports and who they can reach out to in times of crisis, they often don’t list anyone [in their family] because they don’t want their family to know they’re struggling.”

Shivonne Odom, a certified perinatal mental health provider whose private practice is the only practice in the Washington, D.C., area that specializes in perinatal mental health care and is owned by an African American therapist, says this is also common among her clients, the majority of whom are African American.

She’s had clients whose families reacted very negatively when they found out the client was attending therapy, and other clients have chosen not to disclose the fact that they were seeking counseling to their families and, in some cases, even their spouse.

Hesitancy is very common among Odom’s clients; she recently had a client tell her that she needed to take an hour-long walk to calm her nerves before logging in for her first counseling session.

There is an extra layer of stigma for minority clients who are seeking perinatal mental health care because pregnancy and childbirth are often assumed to be a joyful and happy time — not one of despair. All of these challenges add up and severely affect clients’ help-seeking behaviors, says Odom, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., and a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland.

Pulgar notes that conversations around challenges in minority mental health care often place the blame on the stigma that many cultures have regarding counseling. In reality, minority populations face many barriers when seeking treatment, and that should be an equally, if not more, important part of the discussion.

This issue is compounded by the fact that most of the evidence-based treatment methods that students are taught in graduate counseling programs were created by and tested within members of the majority population. So, it makes sense that many of counselor’s go-to methods may not be a good fit for some minority clients, says Pulgar, an ACA member.

Clients can also become discouraged if they are referred to counseling by a medical provider and none of the counselors on the referral list look like the client, Odom adds. Because of this, she goes out of her way to accept many different types of insurances and often consults and works with multidisciplinary professionals in related fields, such as lactation consultants, to advocate for her clients and ensure that other providers know of her services.

Counselors should also be aware that these clients are often unfamiliar with the process of counseling. A first step toward forging a therapeutic connection can be to explain what therapy is (and isn’t) and why it’s helpful, along with the concepts of privileged information and confidentiality, Odom says.

Pulgar and Odom emphasize that one way to reduce these clients’ stress and barriers to treatment is for counselors to become knowledgeable of culturally connected resources in their area, such as nonprofit organizations and support groups and services.

Free support groups can be very helpful to validate a client’s feelings and experience in a way that individual counseling can’t, Odom says. And if there isn’t a group that matches your clients’ culture and identity (e.g., single mothers by choice), she suggests that counselors consider seeking training to start and lead one.

It’s equally as important for counselors to forge a connection with the marginalized community in their area as it is to build a strong therapeutic relationship with individual clients, Pulgar says. She suggests that practitioners start by becoming involved with organizations that serve the local marginalized community and participate in events such as health fairs.

“Get out of the four walls of the office,” Pulgar stresses. “Marginalized communities are so collective, and community is an important part of life.”

Small changes, big impact 

Counselors have an opportunity to build trust with a client with every interaction. And sometimes, seemingly “small” things that are outside of the core work of counseling can make a big difference to a client. Here are just a few small steps clinicians can take that will make a big impact on clients. 

Explain the process of counseling and why it’s helpful. Don’t assume that clients know what therapy is or what it entails, Tursi advises. “If they’ve never been to counseling previously, the idea of connecting with feelings might be very foreign to them,” he says. “They might start counseling thinking that the counselor can just make these [difficult] feelings go away. When instead, counseling [works to] change their relationship with their feelings — and a practitioner may need to explain that.”

Remember that a breakthrough does not mean clients are completely comfortable in counseling. A counselor whose client makes a significant gain toward trusting their practitioner in one session may feel that they’ve built their relationship enough to move on and address other issues. However, the only way to truly build trust is to have patience and show a client, over time, that you are trustworthy, Craig says. This is especially true for clients whose trust has been broken by others in their life, including health care providers. “Remember that even if they open up about their fears, it doesn’t mean they’ll be less fearful at the next session,” she adds. “It’s about patience and giving them that chance to warm up.”

Welcome clients before they even sit down. Forging trust with hesitant clients takes “more than what you are doing in the [counseling] room, it’s the whole experience,” Richter-Abitol says. “And we want to make people feel as welcomed as possible. … I know what it takes to walk through that door, and how hard it can be.”

She has taken client comfort into consideration in every aspect of her practice, from choosing cozy décor for the waiting room to a casual staff dress code. She built her website to be particularly user-friendly and extend a welcoming vibe before clients even set foot in the door. For example, she provides a detailed biography of all members of the clinical team, including photos of the practitioners, adjectives that describe them (e.g., bubbly, enthusiastic, loyal, creative, motivated) and a description of what a client can expect when working with them. 

“We try and dial down the clinical and dial up the parts of our personality” on the website to make potential clients feel comfortable, Richter-Abitol explains. “With the anxiety population, fear of the unknown is a big issue, so seeing the office and the pictures [online] helps fills in that space [and] helps people form connections before even coming in.”

Pronounce their name correctly. And if counselors are not sure how to pronounce the client’s name, they should ask and remember it, Pulgar says. This is a seemingly small thing that can be overlooked by practitioners, she notes, but it lets the client know that a counselor values their identity.

Don’t assume they’re resistant. Clients who are opposed to treatment and those who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling can exhibit some of the same behaviors, such as canceling appointments frequently, answering a counselor’s questions with one-word answers or avoiding talking about heavier topics. However, counselors have an opportunity to build trust and explore the reasons why a client appears reluctant, rather than labeling them as resistant.

“We have been taught [in counselor trainings and graduate programs] that it’s a normal way to view clients. It’s really discouraging to know that [the word ‘resistant’] is even part of the dialogue,” Craig says. “Just because your perception as a clinician is that a person is not trying doesn’t mean that they’re not trying. They might not be doing the homework you assign, but they’re showing up every week. And that may be all that they can do right now. That is trying for them. Be sensitive to what they need to make progress.”

Do no harm and seek training. An important aspect of building trust with hesitant clients is ensuring that a practitioner is providing ethical, appropriate and competent care to keep from exacerbating their hesitancy or repeating any bad experiences they might have had previously in therapy. This includes seeking training, consultation or supervision when a counselor has a client who comes from a culture or is dealing with a challenge that the counselor is not familiar with.

In the case of perinatal clients, clinicians who are not trained in the needs and nuances of work with this population risk providing inaccurate — or even harmful — care, Odom says. Some of the symptoms that can be common in perinatal clients, such as intrusive thoughts about harming their baby, can easily be misinterpreted, she explains.

“We [counselors] have an ethical duty to only practice in areas in which we are trained, and if we’re not, we have an ethical obligation to reach out to providers who are and consult with them,” Odom says. “Don’t be afraid to take a training on perinatal [mental health]. I have seen way too many clinicians treating these clients [inappropriately] and it leads to clients having to unjustly interface with systems that will do harm.”

Leave the door open for them to return. Clients who are hesitant about counseling are more likely to drop off a practitioner’s caseload. Counselors should take measures to focus on retention with this client population, but they should also understand that when the client stops counseling, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t beneficial. Sometimes people simply have so much going on that life “gets in the way” and they can’t come to regular sessions, Pulgar points out.

Practitioners should emphasize to these clients that they’re always welcome to return to counseling whenever they’re ready. Instead of placing blame and asking the client not to return after missing multiple sessions, a counselor can instead say, “I understand this may not be the best time to start counseling in your life, but please do reach out when it is. I am here for you, please keep my number,” Pulgar says.

“The truth is, not everyone is ready for counseling when it comes time for the appointment, even if they made the phone call [to schedule]. They may not be ready to engage yet in the process of what counseling demands,” Pulgar says. “Stay calm and don’t overthink ‘What am I doing wrong?’ or ‘What more can I do?’ Take a couple of deep breaths and think about ways that the door stays open. … If clients get a good sense of counseling just with that interaction with you, maybe in a year or five years, they will come back. That interaction, although brief, can give them a positive feeling about counseling.”

 

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Reasons why 

Many different factors and barriers deter people from seeking counseling or feeling comfortable in sessions. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some common client fears and concerns include:

  • The client (or someone they know) has had a bad, hurtful or unhelpful experience previously with a mental health or medical practitioner.
  • They come from a culture where counseling is not widely accepted or a culture that has been historically maligned or harmed by mental health professions.
  • They are struggling with an issue that involves feelings of shame. 
  • They are afraid to confront the issue they are struggling with; this can include hesitancy to relive trauma as they process it or fear of showing vulnerability or imperfection.
  • They fear being given a diagnosis and/or being misdiagnosed.
  • They worry the counselors will judge them.
  • They fear meeting and opening up to a person they don’t know. 
  • They experience overwhelming negative or catastrophizing thoughts (e.g., “Counseling is not going to work”).
  • They face logistical challenges (lack of insurance or inability to pay, trouble finding child care or transportation, etc.).
  • They worry that others (family, peers, etc.) will find out they are attending counseling.
  • They do not have a choice in attending counseling (e.g., a person who is mandated to complete therapy, often as the outcome of a court case).
  • They are hesitant or unable to connect with a practitioner who doesn’t come from the same background or experience as them (e.g., a Latinx or LGBTQ counselor, one who has served in the military, one who understands miscarriage and infertility).

This information came from interviews with the following counselors: Megan Craig, Shivonne Odom, Camila Pulgar, Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol and Michael Tursi.

 

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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: How do you know?

By Gregory K. Moffatt April 27, 2022

My supervisee (we’ll call her Tasha) sat back in her chair and, with a look of confidence that I love to see in a first-year supervisee, told me that she had a successful session with one of her clients.

“I feel really good about it,” Tasha said.

I love watching the tentative and fearful looks that I see during the first few months of supervision gradually transition over to those first glimmers of “I’ve got this.” But that evolution also makes me nervous.

“Tell me about your feelings of confidence, Tasha. What happened that makes you confident you did a good job?”

Tasha reported that the client had made progress the week before after several weeks of stagnation in their work together. That is a good sign of course. But then Tasha said something that always raises a red flag in my supervisor’s brain.

“I don’t know, but I was explaining … and it just felt right. I think I got through to my client.”

I don’t know whether Tasha got through to her client or not, but the fact that she couldn’t operationalize it, along with the fact that she was “explaining” something to the client, made me nervous.

We’ve all been there as counselors. Everything just seems to click, and we close a session feeling good. But we also know that, in general, our feelings are not always trustworthy.

I suspect Tasha’s good feelings were reflective of her “explaining” things rather than anything the client did or said. Nothing is wrong with a little psychoeducation, but explaining well doesn’t mean that Tasha’s client “got it.” In fact, confidence based on her own feelings could even increase the probability that Tasha would miss it if her client didn’t get it.

Most veteran therapists at one time or another have felt good about a session only to find out later that their client didn’t share that feeling. The opposite is also true. Sometimes when we aren’t certain that we have connected well, we find out later that the session was a breakthrough moment.

I’ve made this error myself. I once worked with a young man who was strong, energetic, mature for his age and very verbal. He was one of those easy clients we all enjoy seeing on our calendars.

I thought we had hit it off pretty well in our first session and looked forward to each week with him. But after four or five sessions, he stopped coming. After he missed two sessions, the receptionist in the agency where I was working reached out to see if he wanted to reschedule.

Clint Adair/Unsplash.com

As you can easily predict, he didn’t reschedule. What was more disheartening to me was his reason. He told the receptionist that he just didn’t feel like I was the right fit and that he had decided to go elsewhere. He shared no details beyond that, but I’ve never forgotten about what happened.

My mistake was errantly assigning the cause of my feelings. I supposed that I felt good because he was connecting with me when, in fact, I most likely was feeling good because of things about me. Yikes. It is never about us.

I’m always happy when new clinicians experience successes. It would be a miserable career if we never had those positive experiences and interactions, so I celebrate their successes. But I don’t stop there. I always ask why they think it went so well.

If the answers have to do with “gut feelings” or something about the clinician, I suggest caution. The session might have been amazing, but I don’t trust feelings that I can’t operationalize.

Feelings are unstable things on which to base decisions. Most of us have had an experience where we were positive that a relationship in our personal lives was right, only to be equally convinced sometime later that it wasn’t. Our initial feelings about relationships are often based on newness, first impressions, expectations, appearances, sex or other shallow pieces of data. As the relationship progresses, the more important data points eventually become evident and are much more reliable than our initial feelings.

It is the latter data set that tells us if we should continue the relationship, adjust it or terminate it. And that same type of data analysis should be part of assessing our feelings about our sessions.

Feeling good about a session is fine; just ask yourself why you feel good. If it is because of something that your client did, said or presented, great! But if you can’t nail that answer down, be cautious.

 

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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.

Four lessons in building therapeutic relationships

By Anne-Marie Burke November 9, 2021

Tell me if this resonates: You enter graduate school bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, fresh with hope and galvanized by various novel theories that promise to offer you some sliver of competence when you enter the counseling room in barely a year’s time. Like any counselor-in-training who takes seriously the ethical imperative to “do no harm,” you are practicing basic skills, reflecting on how developmental models and family systems reveal your own skeletons, and thinking to yourself, “Surely these heady ethics issues won’t come up in internship.” (They do — immediately.) 

But you are still stuck. There are nagging questions jangling in the back of your skull: “How in the world do I counsel someone? Where do I even begin? What do I do when I am totally lost in a session?” 

Seeking to know the future and set my expectations, I consulted with a diverse milieu of practitioners, doctoral students and professors. Nonetheless, satisfying answers eluded me. As my anxiety grew, I was forced to seek comfort in the cozy lap of our profession’s favorite platitude: Trust the process.

Having since finished practicum/internship, I can now appreciate the futility of trying to anticipate all that this defining year has in store for counselors-in-training. Although I cannot tell you what to expect, I can shed light on the complexity of your experience and encourage you to lean into the promise of the therapeutic alliance.

Counseling’s heartbeat

The importance of the therapeutic alliance for client change cannot be overstated. It is the heartbeat of each intervention, technique and theoretical approach in the counseling profession. Furthermore, scholarship abounds with evidence of its effectiveness in the field.  

But what is the therapeutic alliance? An agreed-upon definition is difficult to find, but two common threads are routinely mentioned:

  1. A mutual respect is present between the client and the counselor as they embark on the shared purpose of resolving the client’s issues.
  2. Once safety and trust have been established, honest disclosure from the client is required, alongside support and nonjudgmental feedback from the counselor. 

These key aspects of the therapeutic alliance have their own implications: How do we establish mutual respect? How can we ensure safety and trust? Instead, I have simplified the therapeutic alliance down to one thing: figuring out what the client needs from me in every moment. 

Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock.com

Despite initially feeling underqualified to counsel clients — some of whom were at their most vulnerable — I was not ill-equipped. Theories and hypotheses lit my path, while companions such as horizontal and vertical processing, reflecting and silence never failed to fuel my clients’ process of discovery. These tools, along with many others, emboldened me to take risks with clients that, in turn, spurred them to “try on” emotional intimacy with me.

But in the beginning, it was not pretty. Impatient with the skills I was learning, I lurched from one to the next, hoping something would stick. For example, when an open-ended question and simple reflection did not produce the kind of insight I intended, I would jump to psychoeducation or a more complex reflection rather than giving space to my client to process what I had said. Thanks to good feedback from my supervisor and group members, I gradually slowed the pace of sessions down considerably and challenged myself to “be” with my clients intentionally. As I became purposeful in my skills, particularly with reflections, rather than panicking from one to the next, my clients relaxed with me and also became purposeful in their responses. This had an opening effect that laid the groundwork for safety and trust. 

Still, I made mistakes. I went headlong into directions that clients did not buy, catapulted to interpretations that pushed them away and introduced concepts that they simply could not wrap their heads around (e.g., they have value as a person because they exist, not because of how they perform). In such moments, the therapeutic alliance can crack; it can even rupture if these moments are frequent. Even the smallest misstep can create a distance that did not exist before. Recognizing those mistakes and renewing my commitment to figuring out what the client needed from me in that moment put me back on course. 

Doing this often allowed many of my therapeutic relationships to flourish. Because of this, I found that I could also offer difficult feedback to my clients. I believe that clients show up in the therapy room similar to how they show up in everyday life. Knowing this, if they engage in a pattern of behavior with me that is detrimental to building relationships, I judiciously offer feedback regarding their impact on me. 

For example, one of my clients struggled with impulsivity during conflict. She needed to resolve issues on her terms, leaving little room for how her partner processed conflict. During a session, I noted her compulsion to speak over and over again about the conflict as if I were not even there. Because I trusted our relationship, I was able to say, “I know you care deeply about the people you love, and this conflict is wearing you thin, but as you talk about it, I feel an overwhelming need from you to repeatedly say everything you need to say rather than engage in a conversation, and this makes me feel distant from you. I wonder if others in your life feel this same disconnection when you are attempting to resolve a conflict?” 

Her normally tough exterior immediately crumbled, and she burst into tears. She responded, “I thought I was doing everything in my power to overcommunicate and show how much I care about this person, but I am definitely not doing that.” It was the therapeutic alliance that helped the client believe me because she knew I cared about her. This exchange and realization led the client to engage in productive interpersonal work from there on out.  

Navigating the frontier of uncertainty

Perhaps all this talk about therapeutic alliance comforts you. You are skilled at constantly navigating your clients’ specific sensitivities and acknowledging your own mistakes. I hope this brings you substantial peace of mind. But do not be deceived. There is something else bubbling underneath all of this, and it is magical.  

The great pleasure of the therapeutic alliance is not that you can control it. In fact, the opposite is true. You have no clue where it will take you. For instance, I recall a time when one of my clients was laughing about their dog’s odd name one moment, and the next they were divulging their mother’s rape and their subsequent childhood in victim protection. 

In every session, no matter how I prepared, I landed in uncharted territory. This uncharted territory is the fertile but painful frontier of uncertainty. In this frontier of uncertainty, I made it my singular responsibility to shepherd properly by modeling presence, authenticity, cognitive flexibility and emotional agility. As a practicum/internship student, I noticed four counterintuitive ways to navigate this frontier and build powerful therapeutic relationships. 

Lesson No. 1: Do not infantilize clients. I treat clients as the adults they are by going over my center’s attendance policy with them and charging them for no-shows and late cancellations. This can lead to some awkward conversations, and, candidly, it is tempting to not charge them. Yet when I do have these conversations, clients show up, work with me in advance to reschedule their appointments or tell me to charge them because they know the policy. 

In other words, they treat me as a human whom they can affect with their actions. It is an invitation for the client to meet me at a boundary, which, by nature, brings connection rather than pushing us away from each other. Resistance to paying indicates other boundary issues that are worth exploring together. 

Lesson No. 2: Allow clients to be the experts of their own lives. Remember the abrupt drop into uncharted territory that I mentioned earlier? Generally, a big dose of anxiety accompanies it. Here, instead of asking myself what is going on with the client right now, I quickly ask myself what is emerging inside of me at this very moment. A quick scan of my internal environment usually tells me that I am too preoccupied with looking incompetent or fearful of disappointing my clients. This makes me overly involved in my own need to find answers and not involved in my clients’ search for their answers. 

My goal is to help clients make meaning of their life, not ascribe my meaning to their life. Recognizing whose search I am in — mine or theirs — and then permitting myself to not know their answers generally allows me to enter back into the session and sync into their process. This takes us to places that my limited understanding never would have given us access to. 

Lesson No. 3: Allow clients to feel that they matter to us. One of the most effective ways I have done this is simply to ask my clients, “Are you getting what you need?” Better yet, I ask them to tell me what they got out of the session. This helps both of us know where we stand. 

We are taught in counseling skills classes to summarize a session. Doing so demonstrates that we have listened thoroughly and, more important, ensures that the client feels safe and seen. If I have not done this throughout the session, then asking the client to tell me what they got out of it at the end is not going to bring us closer. But if I have gone to great lengths to show that I have seen and heard the client throughout the session, then asking them to summarize is a good way to see where we are on the same page and where we are not. 

What stuck? What did not? We see what we are creating together, which further bonds two people. (Note: I am careful here to ensure that clients are not giving me answers for my own ego. When we have a strong bond with our clients, they might want to please us. Teaching them to discern their progress through what Carl Rogers called their own “intrinsic valuing system” rather than our “conditions of worth” is critical for their long-term success.).  

Lesson No. 4: Seek out exceptional supervision. My supervisor sharpened my attunement to the therapeutic alliance by leading me to the root of my countertransference. 

In a couple’s session, I was determined to amplify a boyfriend’s voice by redirecting to him each time that his girlfriend would cut in. It had begun sinking in that their relationship was in jeopardy, and, naturally, she was in a lot of pain. But instead of validating her pain, I stayed the course to see what was happening inside of the boyfriend. In a sense, I cut her off emotionally. 

This backfired in two ways. One, there was an insurmountable distance between the girlfriend and me for the rest of the session. And two, rather than continuing to express his own emotions and thoughts, including his desire to end the relationship, the boyfriend turned his attention to comforting and validating his girlfriend. She could not see his pain without her pain first being acknowledged, and he was in pain because he was causing her pain. And I missed it because I had my own agenda. How did this happen? 

Upon listening to the recording of the session, my supervisor nonjudgmentally asked me what my feelings were toward the girlfriend to have skipped such an important reflection. I answered that I had not wanted to allow her to monopolize the conversation in yet another session. But there was more to it below the surface. 

At the beginning of the session, the girlfriend had accused me of turning her boyfriend against her. This had caused a high amount of tension in me and a desire to defend myself, even though I knew her accusation was only a distraction from what was going on between her and her boyfriend. I knew it was much easier to blame me than for her to see the signs that had been present in their relationship for months. 

I processed the accusation as therapeutically as possible, trying to redirect her to the boyfriend’s wishes to end the relationship. But in truth, I was angry and caught off guard. I unconsciously cut myself off emotionally to her in order to align with him. This resulted in all of us being isolated from each other.

Surprise! They never came back. I failed. But in this failure, my supervisor helped me uncover an invaluable piece of guidance: I should not be afraid to ask myself what I am feeling toward a client. I find that my answers are often surprising and worthwhile. I must then assess honestly whether my feelings are affecting my desire to build a relationship with the client. Are these feelings hindering my ability to prioritize my client’s growth? This does not mean that I should just tell clients what they want to hear, but it does mean that I should guard against withholding empathy from them because of my own negative feelings.

The catalyst for change

Despite implementing good tools to enhance the therapeutic alliance, I have had several clients who simply did not want me to continue as their counselor. In some cases, it may have had absolutely nothing to do with me personally. It may have been that I reminded them of someone, that my age made them uncomfortable or any number of other reasons. One former client came to her second session only to tell me that she did not want to continue working with me and not to even bother giving her referrals. 

On the other hand, I witness so much change in other clients’ lives that I overflow with joy. I celebrate those moments and allow fulfillment to cascade through my body. Then, I stop and reflect. Coupled with those moments are the tentacles of hubris tempting me to believe that I am bigger than the therapeutic process. I am not. The therapeutic process — and my clients’ engagement in it — is the catalyst for change. It’s not about me. 

I stay bound to the therapeutic process with my clients and bound to my role in their process. I am not bigger than this process. This truth buffers me on the days (I think) I am totally ineffective and, conversely, humbles me on the days I want to take more credit than I deserve. Good news: This reality testing is also a good way to prevent burnout. 

As I write this, I find myself wishing desperately that I could tell all counselors-in-training what to expect, but I cannot. You will engage in dozens of new therapeutic relationships, all of which must be watered, pruned and loved differently. Those of us who have come before you are cheering you on. Keep doing your work, and trust that if you do, you will get more comfortable in not needing to know what to expect.

 

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Anne-Marie Burke graduated with a master’s degree from Georgia State University’s mental health counseling program. She is a clinical mental health counselor and national certified counselor practicing at Samaritan Counseling Center in Atlanta. Contact her at amburke@samaritanatlanta.org.

 

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.

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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.

Restoring relationships with survivors of human trafficking

By Lindsey Phillips August 4, 2021

Jenna Hershberger, a licensed associate professional counselor, was working on a crisis response team for a regional human service center in North Dakota when she received a call from a young woman reporting physical abuse. The woman was forthcoming about her medical complaints but not the state of her mental and emotional health. Hershberger could tell there was more to the woman’s story, so she asked to meet her in real life to discuss things further. The woman agreed.

During their in-person meeting, Hershberger, a therapist at the Village Family Service Center in Fargo, North Dakota, noted signs of potential sex trafficking. “Her presentation was really concerning. She was very tearful,” Hershberger recalls. The woman also kept mentioning how her “friends” had forced her to do things while she was under the influence of substances. The more the woman shared, the more convinced Hershberger grew that the people being referenced were human traffickers, not friends. When Hershberger asked where the woman was staying, she revealed that she was currently homeless.

After talking for a while, the woman finally acknowledged that she had been forced into sex trafficking and wanted to get out. She was scared and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, Hershberger did. She found the woman a safe shelter for the night and helped her locate mental and physical health services.

“I’m in North Dakota … [where] prevalence rates [of human trafficking] are lower, yet it’s still happening,” says Hershberger, a member of the American Counseling Association. “The tragedy where I am and in Midwestern, rural areas is that people just seem to say, ‘Well, this doesn’t happen here.’”

Jared Rose, a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor with a private practice, Moose Counseling and Consulting LLC, in Toledo, Ohio, has also encountered a “that doesn’t happen in my community” mentality when it comes to human trafficking. He began working in anti-trafficking about 15 years ago when someone involved in an anti-trafficking organization in Toledo approached him because of his work with the LGBTQ+ community and with people infected with, affected by or at risk for contracting HIV, both of which often intersect with trafficking. When conducting trainings in rural Ohio counties, Rose has heard law enforcement say, “That’s not happening here.” This statement makes Rose cringe because he knows firsthand from his work with individuals who have been trafficked that it is happening.

Human trafficking, in fact, is more common than we think. The International Labour Organization reported that approximately 40.3 million people were in modern slavery globally in 2016. Sometimes people incorrectly assume that human trafficking is a problem only in developing countries, but the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 63,380 survivors of human trafficking in the United States from 2007 to 2019.

Rose, an ACA member who wrote an ACA fact sheet on human trafficking awareness for school counselors in 2019, finds that too many counselor clinicians also remain unaware of the definition and signs of trafficking. “You could have the epitome case sitting in front of you,” Rose says. “And if you don’t even know what trafficking is, you’re going to miss it.”

Recognizing the Signs

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Rose, an assistant professor of counseling at Bowling Green State University, advises counselors to stay alert to signs of force, fraud or coercion with clients. “Take note of who they are with and where the power and control lie,” he says. For example, is someone else benefiting — often financially — from the client’s actions? Does someone else seem to be in charge or making all the client’s decisions for them?

Hershberger, a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at North Dakota State University, also looks for visual signs such as bruising, scarring or branding. Individuals who are being or have been trafficked are often branded with “ownership” tattoos with the name of their trafficker or with symbols such as a star or cowboy hat. Because sex acts place a lot of strain on the body, survivors often discuss medical complaints such as dental issues, migraines or urinary tract infections, she adds.

Clients who have been trafficked “may appear overly compliant and submissive, or they might appear really abrasive and abrupt,” Hershberger points out. Counselors must recognize “that those strategies were adaptive at one time but they’re not right now.”

As it relates to falling victim to trafficking, Rose notes that the No. 1 risk factor for children is being unhoused. He prefers the term unhoused to runaway, he explains, because children are often abandoned or “thrown out” by their families. “Within a matter of two to three days of being out of the home, kids are approached [by traffickers], and one-third of those [unhoused] kids are going to get trafficked,” he says. “So, that piece of being unhoused — couch surfing, staying at a shelter, living on the street or whatever the case may be — puts them at significantly higher risk.” Children who are already vulnerable may easily fall prey to an adult who shows them attention or what they initially perceive as support, he adds.

Other risk factors include lower socioeconomic status, past trauma (sexual, physical, emotional, verbal or spiritual), being differently abled, substance use, and belonging to a racial or sexual minority group, Hershberger says. Given the complex trauma that these individuals experience, they often present with comorbid disorders such as substance use, bipolar and severe depression, she notes.

Counselors may overlook or miss signs of trafficking when they take the client’s circumstances or presenting issues at face value, notes Paige Dunlap, an associate professor of counseling at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. For example, if a client is homeless or doesn’t have any identification, counselors may start to talk about the emotions, behaviors and social systems surrounding the client’s chronic homelessness and help them come up with a plan to find a more stable environment. But in doing this, clinicians may miss the larger picture, stresses Dunlap, a licensed clinical mental health counselor with a private practice in Greensboro, North Carolina. Perhaps the client was forced into sex trafficking after being taken from their home or fleeing an unsafe environment.

“There’s a lot of different risk factors. There’s a lot of different things to look for. There’s a number of populations that we are particularly concerned about, but at end of day, it all boils down to vulnerability,” Rose says. For that reason, he stresses that counselors need to be cognizant of that vulnerability piece in connection with their clients.

Sometimes counselor practitioners worry that they won’t be able to recognize the signs that someone has been trafficked, Rose says, but he reassures them they know how to read interpersonal reactions. They know when someone is looking to another person for answers. They notice when people’s stories do not match up.

Counselors also need to consider what a trafficking survivor might look like in their particular clinical setting, Hershberger says. For example, if a counselor is doing crisis work, they might have someone who is in denial about being trafficked or confront a situation that appears to be domestic violence.

The office setting may determine the likelihood of a practitioner encountering an individual who is currently being trafficked or who has gotten out. Counselors who work in public health settings or hospitals are more likely to see individuals who are currently being victimized when these individuals come in for a medical issue such as testing for a sexually transmitted disease or injury from abuse, Rose notes. Counselors working in private practice or at a community agency will typically see these clients after they have been extricated, he says.

Establishing trust and safety

People who have been trafficked may find it difficult to trust others. Before thinking about clinical treatment plans, counselors need to establish a sense of safety and a healthy therapeutic rapport with these clients, Hershberger stresses. These individuals have experienced “complex trauma in the sense that it’s repeated for long duration and often comes from people who should be caregivers,” she explains, “so it makes it really hard for survivors of trafficking to trust us. We need to be really authentic because survivors will pick up on it if [we’re] not.”

Hershberger, president of the North Dakota Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, advises clinicians to maintain an open-door policy with survivors of human trafficking, especially when they are working on engagement with the client. People who are dealing with significant trauma may be more prone to canceling sessions, so adhering to a policy of termination after two missed sessions will not help build engagement and rapport with these clients, she cautions.

Counselors’ innate desire to help clients heal can sometimes be an impediment to build-ing this relationship. Rose sees counselors who want to dive right into the trauma work before first building strong therapeutic and strategic foundations, which can take a long time. “The minute we try to push too much — even if our best intentions are there — is when someone can have [a negative] reaction” and feel that the counselor is forcing them to do something they don’t want or are not yet ready to do, he says.

Rose has also witnessed the inverse: clients who get frustrated when counselors don’t jump straight into the trauma work. When this happens, he explains to clients that although they may feel ready, their whole system may not be. To further illustrate the point, he compares trauma work to a physical wound: “If I start poking around at a wound and you don’t trust me yet or your entire system isn’t ready to allow that yet, you’ll immediately pull back and you’re not going to want me to go near it,” he tells clients. “And the same [thing] is happening cognitively and emotionally with trauma. If we start poking around and you’re not ready, then it’s going to fall apart on us.”

The need for clinical trauma care

Rose asserts that counselors are in a prime position to provide clinical psychotherapy and trauma-focused work. Rose is an executive member of the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition, and he was awarded the Social Justice Leader Award from the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute in 2017.

Mental health services geared toward survivors of trafficking are great at managing clients’ symptoms through art or expressive therapy or group work, but Rose finds this is often where their treatment ends. “It has to be more. It has to be evidence-based trauma work,” he stresses. “We can’t just treat symptoms. We have to treat the whole person, and we have to treat the trauma.”

“Folx that have been labor trafficked have all sorts of layers of trauma damage. … Sex traffic victims have all of the symptoms of domestic violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse — all rolled into one very unpleasant package,” he continues. “And expressive therapy is not going to treat that trauma; it’s going to treat the symptoms. If we really want to help folx, we have to go deeper, and that’s where counselors really need to come into play.”

Rose, a certified therapist in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), recommends that counselors use an evidence-based trauma treatment that follows a triphasic approach that a) establishes a foundation, b) reprocesses and works through the trauma and c) plans for the future. Rose often uses EMDR when he’s working with this population because he finds it helpful to treat the root cause of the trauma. He also recommends trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, especially when working with children and adolescents.

Take the relational approach

Hershberger points out that traffickers differ from other sexual offenders (who are often described as socially awkward and desire a sense of belonging) in that they are often socially intelligent, charismatic and good at forming relationships. They gain the trust of vulnerable individuals by initially fulfilling their need for love, connection and belonging, she explains. For example, the trafficker could be the first person in the individual’s life to recognize and celebrate their birthday or give them special attention, such as taking them to get a manicure.

These acts can cause some survivors to form bonds with and defend their traffickers — a condition often referred to as Stockholm syndrome. Hershberger and Dunlap point out that something similar sometimes happens with individuals who experience domestic violence. “Survivors will often defend their trafficker because they didn’t have that sense of belonging or that family growing up. So, this is the first time they’re experiencing that — along with horrible kinds of trauma — but it’s hard for them to differentiate that,” Hershberger explains.

According to Hershberger, these trauma bonds illustrate survivors’ desire for human connection. Traffickers thwart this connection by exploiting this desire for their own gain.

“Human sex trafficking is the ultimate anti-relationship,” argues Hershberger, who recently presented on this topic at ACA’s Virtual Conference Experience. Survivors of sex trafficking have been forced “to exist in a world absent of authentic, growth-fostering relationships,” she explains. Thus, she recommends that counselors use a relational-cultural approach with this client population to foster an authentic growth-fostering connection.

To explain this approach, Hershberger presents Marie, a fictional client: When she was 14 years old, Marie lived in an abusive home where her mother’s boyfriend molested her. So, Marie was excited when Jake, a 24-year-old man, approached her and promised a better life as his “girlfriend.” He bought her nice things and told her she was “amazing in bed.” One day, he told Marie some money hadn’t come through at work and asked if she would help him by having sex with a few guys. When she resisted, he beat her until she complied. He forced her into sex trafficking, and she was having sex with as many as 10-15 men a night. (See Hershberger’s 2020 article, “A relational-cultural theory approach to work with survivors of sex trafficking,” published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, for a more detailed discussion of this case study.)

Following a relational-cultural framework, Marie’s counselor first establishes a sense of safety and trust, and they are authentic, empathetic and consistent in their interpersonal interactions, Hershberger says. So, if the counselor makes a mistake by showing up late for session, they own that mistake, apologize and ask Marie how they can make up for it.

Marie may have internalized negative beliefs or self-blame such as “I’m only good for my body and others’ use” or “I’m not worthy of being loved.” The counselor can help Marie first identify and name these beliefs, and then they can work together to challenge these negative beliefs. The therapeutic relationship further challenges Marie’s distorted thinking about herself and relationships, Hershberger notes, and models what a healthy relationship entails.

To challenge Marie’s belief, the counselor could use self-disclosure and tell Marie, “I experience you as a creative, confident individual who is worthy of being loved.” Hershberger recommends that counselors use the client’s own words when reflecting positive attributes to help the client identify and own their strengths.

As Hershberger points out, traffickers try to keep victims in a constant state of uncertainty about their environment, safety or identity. So, the counselor’s role is to identify moments or thoughts that are unclear, such as Marie’s negative perception of her self-worth, and help her add clarity to them.

Hershberger names bibliotherapy and narrative therapy as useful approaches for empowering survivors of trafficking and helping them find their own voice. For example, the counselor could ask Marie what name her trafficker gave her and the name she wants to use moving forward. Then, Marie could journal about this new identity and the qualities associated with it.

The counselor could also add in creative techniques such as collage or relational imagery. For example, Hershberger once had a client who identified with the image of a wounded deer because they too had been hurt and abandoned. The wounding paralleled their own trauma around the physical abuse they had experienced while being trafficked. Later, Hershberger used this image to help the client think about what they wanted their future identity to be and to create a collage of their strengths.

The therapeutic relationship becomes a healthy relationship — one that is safe, dependable and empowering and that counters the disconnection and uncertainty survivors experienced when they were trafficked, Hershberger says.

Preparing to work with this population

The best way to understand what is going on with human trafficking in a specific area is to get involved and volunteer in the community, Rose says. One place to start is joining or attending meetings of local, regional or state trafficking coalitions and task forces. “You can learn more about what agencies are providing services for this population,” he says. “They need to know where mental health providers are, and you need to know where additional services are for survivors.”

Rose advises counselors to approach these partnerships with an attitude of wanting to learn and help. Communities don’t respond well to people who think they know what is best or have all the right answers, he says. Instead, inform these organizations of the crucial skills they may be missing. Counselors have “the clinical piece that a lot of these places need and strive for,” Rose notes. “There’s a lot of social workers, nurses and different helping professionals, but clinical mental health treatment may not be what they have.”

In addition to attending monthly meetings of North Dakota’s trafficking task force, Hershberger prepared to work with this population by reading case examples and familiarizing herself with these tough stories. She also reached out to other clinicians in the field to hear about their experiences. As she points out, “It’s one thing to hear terminology, but it’s another thing to hear somebody’s story.”

Rose and Dunlap recommend that counselors limit their caseloads (if they have that option) when working with this population. “You can’t hear the thing of nightmares for three, four or eight hours a day and expect to be OK by 6 or 7 o’clock at night,” Rose says. Both he and Dunlap, an ACA member who researches and works with youth with disabilities, survivors of human trafficking and criminal populations, have had to learn how to balance their clinical schedules better. They intentionally leave time between these difficult sessions so they can reflect, reenergize and regroup before seeing their next client.

Counselors must also remember that not every client-counselor relationship is the right fit, Rose says. For example, someone may refer a female survivor of sex trafficking to him because of his expertise in EMDR, but if she has been abused by men her entire life, she may not want to work with Rose regardless of his qualifications and reputation as a counselor.

“These clients have had people treat them really poorly their entire lives,” he points out. “Part of that therapeutic relationship is recognizing maybe I’m not the best counselor for every person I want to help, and that’s OK. Just giving [clients] that freedom and autonomy will help them along in their journey. They don’t have to work with me to fix the problem.”

Rose reminds counselors there are other ways to help serve this population without working directly with clients. Counselors can get involved in local agencies that work on human trafficking, provide education and trainings, or work on prevention, he says.

Hershberger understands how difficult it can be when counselors must refer a client. Because she was part of a crisis response team when she met the woman who was a survivor of human trafficking, she wasn’t able to continue working with her. The woman was referred to another clinician who worked for the human service center. “That was hard,” she recalls. “I couldn’t stay with her, and having that continuity of care would have been nice.”

Hershberger did have a chance to meet with the woman a few months later. With the help of her new counselors, she was making progress toward creating healthier relationships.

fizkes/Shutterstock.com

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Working with perpetrators of human trafficking

Paige Dunlap, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Greensboro, North Carolina, once worked with an agency in Detroit that assisted individuals who no longer wanted to be engaged in gang activity. In sharing their stories, some of the group members disclosed that they had been directly or indirectly involved in trafficking other individuals. After recovering from the initial shock of hearing that, Dunlap started to think and educate herself about ways counselors could help perpetrators of trafficking.

“We as counselors don’t really talk about this hidden population” of perpetrators, she says. “We don’t know too much about them.”

Often people’s biases can cloud their judgment about these individuals. The more Jenna Hershberger, a licensed associate professional counselor in Fargo, North Dakota, researched and worked with cases of sex trafficking, the more she discovered the dichotomous thinking attached to it: People consider traffickers to be “bad” and survivors to be “good.” But it’s more complicated than that, she says.

“In the literature, we see that traffickers and survivors experience the same kinds of childhood traumas, such as sexual, emotional, physical and spiritual abuse,” she explains. But for individuals who become traffickers, “there is a distortion that happens in the way that they respond to the trauma.” Hershberger, a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at North Dakota State University, acknowledges this is an area of research that mental health professionals do not fully understand yet. But initial clinical findings, as well as Hershberger’s own professional experience, indicate that traffickers often seem to have empathy deficits and endorse trafficking myths such as “people like this way of life.”

Dunlap, an associate professor of counseling at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, says that traffickers and victims of trafficking often get enmeshed in that world for similar reasons. “There is a need for belonging in all of these individuals,” she says. Both groups often lack support systems, have limited work opportunities and are tempted by the promise of a “better” life, she explains.

Once individuals get involved in trafficking, it becomes difficult for them to leave, Dunlap points out. “It becomes almost an institutionalization for them too. … They don’t know how to function outside of that.”

“Getting those individuals into your office to do this hard work is really going to be tough,” she admits. “If you’re a counselor and you do happen to have these clients, the last thing they need is for your own biases to be stopping them from getting help, because they’re doing good just to be there.”

Hershberger hopes counselors continue to research ways to better help both the survivors and perpetrators of human trafficking. In doing so, she encourages counselors to consider a larger question: How as a society are we creating spaces in which people don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like so that they’re seeking out this subculture for a sense of belonging?

 

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@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.

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.