Tag Archives: therapy

What does therapy mean to you?

Compiled by Bethany Bray June 11, 2019

What does therapy mean to you?

Jessica Ferrence, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was a little taken aback when a client posed this question to her in a session. However, it sparked Ferrence’s interest and led to some self-reflection.

Therapy is what counselor practitioners do – but it means something different to each professional. It’s a place for the client to heal, grow, be vulnerable, set goals, get to know themselves and many, many more things.

For Ferrence, therapy is a place to uncouple oneself from pain and find strength.

“Therapy puts people in a vulnerable position because we trust clinicians with our deepest, darkest, most painful secrets; things we haven’t shared with our partners or family members or best friends for various reasons. When we feel safe enough to let down our walls — when we share the burden we’ve been shouldering for years or relive the experiences that haunt us in our dreams — we find the strength to find our voice,” says Ferrence, who considered the topic both as a practitioner and recipient of therapy. “Confronting our pain and reclaiming our lives, without fear of judgment or ridicule, can be extremely cathartic. We feel validated, understood and accepted for the first time in a long time — and maybe even ever. And that’s when healing truly begins. That’s when we realize that the power to break free from the grip of our past lies within us. That our vulnerabilities are no longer vulnerabilities, but rather areas of strength that we draw from. [It’s] where the image of our best self has come into focus, and more importantly, that we have the courage to turn that image into a reality.”

 

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CT Online asked a sampling of American Counseling Association members to consider the question “What does therapy mean to you?”

Read their thoughts below, and add your voice to the conversation in the comment section at the bottom of this page.

 

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As a therapist, to me, therapy is…

  • An honor and privilege. I continue to be humbled by the fact that my clients share with me their most sacred stories. Often these are trauma stories, in which their deepest pain and vulnerabilities lie in the details they have shared with very few, or only with myself.
  • A collaboration between the client and myself. My clients bring their expertise about themselves and their experiences. They bring their stories. They also bring their strength, resiliency and all of themselves – shadow and light. As a therapist, I bring years of clinical experience and education. It is my responsibility to provide a safe, non-judgemental and compassionate space for us to work in. As appropriate, I will offer clients my perspective, as well as evidence-based interventions and information, which they have the right to accept or decline freely, based on what fits for them.
  • An opportunity to support clients in reaching their goals. These goals might involve learning how to cope with the aftermath of loss or trauma, or learning how to manage distress related to stress and/or a mental/physical illness. Sometimes we are working together to adjust their understanding and expectations regarding healthy relationships and boundaries.
  • Often focused on helping clients to recognize that they deserve to be loved, respected, cherished and protected — and that in life they don’t need to be perfect to be “good enough,” but rather they only need to be perfectly themselves – with all of their disappointments, triumphs, strengths and vulnerabilities. Frequently, I find [therapy] is about helping clients learn to view themselves from the perspective of their wisest and most compassionate selves.
  • A place to educate and normalize my client’s reactions and/or symptoms, so that they can get a handle on what it is they are dealing with, what they might expect and strategies they might wish to consider to help them to better manage their distress.
  • A place in time where clients do not have to wear masks or say they are “OK” when they are not. A refuge. A place where their distress will be heard and witnessed by another human being, who will not judge, but rather will reflect back their distress without minimizing, and will also hold up a mirror to their strength, courage and tremendous resiliency.

 

  • Shirley Porter, a registered psychotherapist and a registered social worker in London, Ontario, Canada

 

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To me, therapy is for everyone. It is the opportunity for individuals to get the most out of life.

Though traditionally viewed as a medium for helping someone work through a particularly challenging issue or mental health disorder, therapy offers much more. The reality is that, yes, everybody struggles at various points throughout life and may benefit from some additional assistance. People need not wait, however, until life becomes challenging to seek therapy. That is, effective therapy may help people go well beyond attaining life satisfaction to the point of thriving.

Accordingly, the lens through which counselors view clients should be one that extends well beyond problem resolution. By resolving an issue, a person may shift from a bad place to a neutral one. Pushing beyond this is where we really begin to witness existential growth. This is the place where life satisfaction increases, interpersonal relationships improve, goals are achieved and one begins living a life that — until therapy — seemed unattainable.

As counselors we make the unattainable attainable. While I have yet to meet a new client who comes into the office under the premise of “My life is great, and I am here to make it even better,” counselors have the tools to do just that! When working with clients, then, my thought process is to first help address the presenting problem, then facilitate a personal growth process that exceeds previously thought of expectations.

This is one way, of many, that we may continue to destigmatize the therapeutic process. Therapy is not just for individuals with mental illness or problems—it is for everyone.

  • Matt Glowiak, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), certified advanced alcohol and other drug counselor, full-time clinical faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University and co-founder/co-clinical director of counseling speaks in Chicago, Park Ridge and Lake Forest, Illinois.

 

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By definition, therapy is sitting in a room with an essential stranger and discussing your inner most intimate memories, feelings and traumas. Sounds fun right?

No.

So, if therapy isn’t always fun, why do so many people continue to go and find such benefit from the process?

Everyone’s answer to the above question is going to be a bit different but being a therapist myself, and a client within therapy throughout my life and currently; I would like to share my current perspective on what therapy is and why everyone should go.

To me, therapy is a helpful tool to use in order to get to know myself on a deeper, more authentic level.

Within our bodies and minds we all hold the answers to our presenting concerns, but the protective factors and defense mechanisms we’ve built up over the years tend to get in the way of effectively working through our life’s difficulties alone. Therefore, we rely on our coping skills and our loved ones to assist us in times of need. But what happens when your go-to coping skills are no longer working? For a lot of people, it means that you now have to adapt your life and accept the fact that you are now anxious, depressed, alone…fill in the blank — and that’s just the way it is. Fortunately, though this doesn’t have to be the case.

Therapy can be a great way to adapt or change your learned way of life in order to gain a better understanding of your inner workings and what happens when your internal and external worlds collide.

By nature, the process of therapy forces you to be vulnerable. And with vulnerability being the key component to experiencing all emotions (the good, the bad and the ugly) the therapeutic process can assist in the education, understanding, integration and execution of your complex emotions. Therefore, allowing you to take what is learned within the therapeutic hour out into the world and apply it to your life in order to reach our full potential.

In summary, I think that everyone should have access to, and be a client within the therapeutic process sometime throughout their life. It is not something I think people should be in forever, because I do think one of the goals of therapy is teaching clients how to be their own therapists. But I do think everyone should be able to experience the benefits that the unique relationship between client and therapist can have.

  • Shannon Gonter, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) in Louisville, Kentucky who works with young adults and specializes in men’s issues

 

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To me, therapy or counseling is the space in which counselors are able to promote, encourage and support clients in achieving wellness. This space is where clients go to seek out the assistance that they need to improve areas of their lives that contribute to their overall sense of wellness. These areas may include but are not limited to social, cultural, emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational and/or physical.

Therapy is this safe space where I can explore where I am in life, what obstacles I may be facing and what I need to feel whole again. To me, wellness is the experience of wholeness.

  • Ashley C. Overman-Goldsmith, an LPC and doctoral student at North Carolina State University and owner and lead therapist at Sea Change Therapy in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her current research centers on honoring the lived experiences of terminally ill clients while helping these clients resolve issues that affect their end-of-life experience.

 

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As a veteran and mental health professional, I often find myself conducting community presentations in order to reduce the stigma against clinical mental health counseling. Often, I find myself having discussions about what therapy is and what it means.

During these conversations, I draw the line between therapy and Therapy. Many find things helpful and calming that they consider “therapeutic,” like gardening, physical exercise, cooking, art, etc. I have clients that say “_____ is my therapy” and that’s great. The meaning in that context is anything that is emotionally soothing or helpful to them.

The other one, though, is Therapy. It is a formal interaction with a licensed mental health professional that is bound by a set of ethical principles, licensure regulations and expectations of professional conduct. I typically use the term clinical mental health counseling, which is more cumbersome but also clearer than just the word “therapy.”

During Therapy, in the clinical sense, a client identifies areas in their life that are not functioning as well as they would like. They then work with a trained professional to develop and work towards goals that will improve that functioning. The professional does not only have training in therapeutic interventions, but they also have training in evidence-based practices that research has proven can help the client resolve their concerns.

Unfortunately, many of the clients I see do not engage in Therapy until the things they have been using to try and manage their problems don’t seem to work. I often describe it this way: if I were a medical doctor, I would be an emergency room doc. The veterans I see come in to my office either right before a crisis, during a crisis, or after a crisis has occurred. Clinical mental health counseling is often seen as a last-ditch effort, a final resort to try before the wheels fall off the wagon.

Instead, I try to encourage clients to consider clinical mental health counseling as a resource to use in order to prevent a crisis, rather than reaching out in response to a crisis. To use Therapy in conjunction with things they consider therapeutic, rather than thinking they are two separate things. For my clients, I have seen this combination help them live the post-military life they both desire and deserve.

  • Duane France, a U.S. Army noncommissioned officer (retired), combat veteran and LPC who practices in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In addition to his clinical work, he also writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast at veteranmentalhealth.com

 

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To me, therapy is an opportunity. It seems that with any kind of client, in any type of situation, using any option of modalities, therapy is a gateway to a field of possibilities. I believe one of my greatest gifts to my clients is helping them to facilitate possibilities of thought, feeling and action. With possibilities, clients can see opportunity. Two important words come to mind when I think of opportunity: awareness and empowerment.

Clients come to counseling, voluntarily or involuntarily, but most come with some desire to figure out something. Clients may be looking for specific techniques or just a way to be able to communicate with their partners. They may be court ordered for addictions treatment or just feel like something is not right. Whatever the concern, figuring it out seems to bring insight and peace on some level. Being a licensed professional counselor, certified yoga instructor and an artist has allowed me to provide multiple strategies to foster clients’ inquiry into their presenting concerns. But strategy aside, therapy provides clients opportunities for self-awareness and insight about the world around them.

Additionally, opportunity begets empowerment. One of the key principles of counselor identity is empowerment of our clients to help themselves. I remember working in a community mental health center years ago. Then I was working with children and families who did not have a lot and who had experienced violence, abuse and insecurity in their living situations. I wondered what good could I do in one 60-minute session, and with one meeting per week for each client, especially when I was working in the context of highly distressing situations. Therapy was the act of empowering my clients to find options in how they reflected on themselves and responded to their environments.

With options available, clients can find freedom to choose. Feeling free to make decisions – intentional decisions – is one of the most empowering experiences for anyone. Being able to foster opportunity for my clients means that they have a chance to feel their personal power to make their own choices.

I would say that my primary job as a counselor and counselor educator is being an options-maker or a possibilities-creator! I believe it is in therapy where opportunities are born!

  • Megan M. Seaman, an LPC, certified yoga instructor and assistant professor in the Counseling and Art Therapy Department at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. She also maintains a private practice in Beachwood, Ohio where she works with children, youth and families using creative arts healing and yoga therapy strategies.

 

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To me, therapy is providing an open space for people to have the opportunity to discuss life events or problems that are impacting their daily lives. This is a place where someone feels heard. Our lives are often so busy that we don’t listen.

Counseling provides this safe place for someone to “unpack” life problems and look at them with someone who is truly listening and is available for unbiased support. Therapy offers the opportunity for people to discuss and explore ways to improve their lives and find resources to enhance their quality of life. Thus, they find the strength to manage difficult life events such as trauma, illness and adjustment to disability.

Therapy is also the passionate pursuit of learning and effectively using practice-proven and evidence-based practices to help with the healing process. But, it also requires a counselor to have the courage to question, redirect, and, yes, confront a client to keep them on the path to wellness and wholeness.

This is hard work! But it is an honor to be trusted by someone who doesn’t know us to listen, care and support them during their most vulnerable times.

  • Judy A. Schmidt, a certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC), licensed professional counselor associate (LPCA) and clinical assistant professor in the Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the rehabilitation counselor for the acute inpatient rehabilitation unit for UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill.

 

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To me, therapy is a communion of two souls who make an agreement to walk alongside each other for a part of this journey. Therapy calls us to bear witness to another person’s healing process by helping them to come back home to their true and authentic self. It reminds us of our wholeness and asks us to remove any barriers that prevent us from seeing this wholeness.

Therapy reminds us that we cannot have the shadow without the light and that the shadow only exists because of the light. It is about quieting the ego and the mind in order to get us out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies.

Therapy involves being truly seen and heard by another person to help us remember that we are not alone on this journey. It is about accepting someone for who they are (battle scars and all) while also seeing their infinite potential.

  • Jessica Smith, an LPC, licensed addiction counselor, yoga teacher and owner of Radiance Counseling in Denver, Colorado

 

 

 

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

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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

 

 

A script for socialization to the cognitive model

By Brandon S. Ballantyne May 14, 2019

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment approach that has statistically been shown to be effective in addressing a variety of mood disorders and psychological problems. It is my belief that a key component to successful cognitive behavioral treatment is counselor-to-client socialization of theory and concept.

It is essential that clients become socialized to the cognitive model — understanding the rationale behind CBT’s effectiveness — to gain maximum benefit. For that reason, I have developed a script that counselors can use with the clients they serve. This script aims to provide a blueprint for live, in-session socialization to the cognitive model and provides a platform to transition into routine practice of cognitive behavioral technique in future sessions.

 

Script introduction

If I were to ask you to think of a palm tree, what do you think of? You probably just imagined a palm tree. If I were to ask you to think of your very first car, what do you think of? You probably just imagined yourself either in or next to that memorable first automobile. If I were to ask you to think of your favorite food, what do you think of? You probably just imagined your meal of choice.

Now, if I were to ask you to feel anxious, what do you have to do? Most people say they need to imagine a stressful scenario to feel the emotion of anxiety. The point is that we can instantaneously produce any thought. However, when it comes to producing an emotional state, we first need to think of something in order to feel something.

The formation of emotions is a biological process, meaning that it is impossible to shut off or terminate from human experience unless we suffer serious medical injury that leads to such complications. With that being said, there is a specific sequence of internal and external events that not only create, but contribute to, the emotional experiences of you, me and everyone else with whom we share this wonderful planet.

 

Situation

For an emotion to be formed, one must first encounter a situation. A situation is anything that an individual becomes aware of. It can be an external event such as a person, place, thing or activity. It can also be an internal event such as a particular thought or emotion.

Let’s say that tomorrow, I wake up, get in my car and start my drive into work. I encounter a traffic jam, which I anticipate might make me late to my destination. As I approach, I become aware of the traffic jam itself. Both the awareness of the traffic jam and the traffic jam itself become the situation at hand.

 

Thought

Our brain is like a thought warehouse. It has a job of producing thoughts throughout the day — every second, every minute, every hour.

What is a thought? A thought is a sentence that our brain produces about the situation at hand. Thoughts have sentence structure. Each thought has punctuation. It can also take the form of an image or movie that we experience in our mind.

On some occasions, we verbalize our thoughts out loud. Sometimes they stay silent. Regardless, they affect how we feel. If I am driving to work and become aware of the traffic jam, my brain might produce the thought of, “Oh no! I am going to be late. I am going to be behind all day, and I will get reprimanded by my boss. This happens all of the time!”

The first thoughts that our brain produces about a situation at hand are automatic. We don’t really have control over them. But as I mentioned earlier, these thoughts affect how we feel, so they are important to accept and to understand.

 

Emotion

Once our brain produces a thought about a situation at hand, there is the onset of some kind of emotional experience. How is an emotion different from a thought? Emotions can be categorized into mad, sad, glad and fearful. Any emotion that we have at any given time will likely fit into one of these categories of primary emotions.

There is also a subtle category that some identify as “neutral emotions.” However, we are rarely taught about what neutral emotions are. Throughout our life experiences, we are given the message that there must be a way to feel and that emotions need to be either pleasant or unpleasant. Therefore, if we aren’t particularly happy, sad, fearful or mad, we tend to say that we are feeling “nothing.”

Emotions are a biological process. And because our thoughts are automatic, we never really have an absence of emotions. So, when we are feeling “nothing,” we are actually feeling “neutral.” Descriptors such as “content” and “OK” best describe a neutral emotional state.

Now, let’s refer back to the traffic jam scenario. While sitting in the traffic jam, I am having the thought, “Oh no! I am going to be late. I am going to be behind all day, and I will get reprimanded by my boss. This happens all of the time!”

Because of this thought, I am most likely to be feeling anxious. Anxiety is most closely related to the primary emotion of fear. Some emotions occur parallel to physical symptoms as well. For example, if I am sitting in my car feeling anxious from the thought about being late to work, I may also notice that my hands have started to sweat. Physical symptoms help us to identify and label emotions.

So, it is important to pay attention to your patterns in your physical symptoms as you experience emotional states. In general, emotions give us information about the situation at hand. However, it is then our job to examine that information accordingly.

 

Behavior

Our behaviors are influenced by the emotions we experience. Behaviors can usually be observed by others. Based on the specific characteristics of the behaviors — and the specific characteristics of the reactions that the behaviors provoke in others — these behaviors can help us to get closer to our goals, push us further from our goals, or neutralize the pursuit of our goals.

What does it mean to neutralize the pursuit of our goals? Well, some behaviors neither get us closer to nor push us further from our goals. These behaviors can be referred to as “neutralizing behaviors.”

In the example of sitting in the traffic jam and feeling anxious, I may react to the intense anxiety by engaging in behaviors such as beeping my horn and yelling at other drivers.

 

Result

Results can be defined as a set of benefits or consequences that are produced by one particular behavior or set of behaviors. Results can be desirable, undesirable or neutral.

Desirable results are outcomes that take us closer to our goals. Undesirable results are outcomes that push us further from our goals. Neutral results neither take us closer to our goals nor push us further away.

In the traffic jam example, the behavior indicated was beeping the horn and yelling at other drivers. We can anticipate potential results that those behaviors may produce. As a reminder, the goal in that scenario is to get to work on time, or at least not too late, and safely.

One possible result of beeping my horn and yelling at other drivers is that other drivers may begin beeping their horns and yelling at me. This additional conflict may cause my anxiety to intensify further. At the same time, everyone beeping their horns and yelling at each other will not change the fact that I am sitting in the traffic jam itself. Therefore, this outcome can be categorized as an undesirable result.

 

Wrapping it up

The goal of this type of cognitive behavioral style work is to identify where in the process above an individual may have personal control or personal choice of changing the problematic patterns or tendencies. By examining the above scenario in that way, individuals will be able to conceptualize aspects of personal choice and change that can help them reduce intense emotional distress, engage in healthier behaviors, and achieve more desirable results — first in the above scenario and then with the real-life stressors that have brought them into treatment.

Use the following reflection questions to get started with application of this skill:

1) If you were stuck in a traffic jam similar to the one described above, what would be going through your mind? What are some of the automatic thoughts you would be having?

2) What kinds of emotions would your automatic thoughts produce? Would you be noticing any symptoms of those emotions in your body?

3) What type of automatic behaviors might you engage in based on the influence of those emotions or physical symptoms?

4) What type of outcomes or results would those behaviors likely produce? Would those results be desirable, undesirable or neutral based on your goal of getting to work on time, or not too late, and safely?

5) Is there anything else you might be able to say to yourself in the scenario about the traffic jam that would produce less intense distress? If so, what are those thoughts? Remember, thoughts come in the form of sentences or images.

6) If you were able to insert those new thoughts the next time you experience a traffic jam, what types of emotions would those thoughts likely produce? If they do not produce less intense distress or new emotions comprehensively, try identifying new thoughts (sentences) until you find one or two that either reduce the distress or produce new desirable emotions.

7) With less intense distress or new desirable emotions, what are the new behaviors that likely would be produced as a result?

8) Given the likelihood of those new behaviors, what would happen next? In other words, what would be the results of those new behaviors? Would those results be desirable, undesirable or neutral based on the goal of getting to work on time, or not too late, and safely? If those results are desirable or neutral, then you have successfully completed examination of this scenario. If the results are undesirable, repeat steps 1 through 8 until you are left with desirable or neutral results. If a neutral result does not make the situation worse, then it is desirable in itself.

9) What are some situations in your life that have caused stress?

10) What were the automatic thoughts running through your mind at the time?

11) Given those life situations, what were the undesirable results that were occurring?

12) Given those life situations, what were the behaviors that were contributing to those undesirable results?

13) Looking back, could you have said anything different to yourself in those moments to reduce the level of stress? If so, what would those coping thoughts be?

14) Given those life situations, what are examples of healthier behaviors that you want to be able to engage in?

15) Given those life situations, what emotions would be needed to make those healthier behaviors easier to achieve?

16) Given those life situations, what results would you want to be able to achieve, experience or receive?

17) With those desired results in mind, what can you say to yourself about those life situations that might help to produce healthier emotions and healthier behaviors?

18) Copy down those thoughts. Put them on an index card. This will serve as your coping cue to take with you. It will be a reminder that although we may not be able to fix a stressor at hand, we do have the opportunity to access alternative thoughts. It is those alternative thoughts that kickstart the process of reduced distress, healthier behaviors, and the satisfying experience of more desirable results. Thus, we are creating an opportunity for achievement as we assist ourselves in getting closer to our goals, even if certain stressors stay the same. With consistent practice, we teach our brains that we control our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We give power to ourselves in knowing that we do not need situations to change in order to feel better and do better.

 

 

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Brandon S. Ballantyne has been practicing clinical counseling for 12 years. He is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor who specializes in the treatment of anxiety and depression. He currently practices at a variety of different agencies in eastern Pennsylvania. Find him on the web at https://thriveworks.com/bethlehem-counseling/our-counselors/, and contact him at brandon.ballantyne@childfamilyfirst.com.

 

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

Counselor self-disclosure: Encouragement or impediment to client growth?

Written and compiled by Bethany Bray January 29, 2019

W. Bryce Hagedorn once counseled a client who was wrestling with intense feelings of shame regarding things he had done during the Vietnam War. The client, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, felt responsible for the soldiers he had lost during combat. He never expressed any details connected to these painful and complicated memories, however, until Hagedorn used a pivotal therapeutic tool: self-disclosure.

Hagedorn is also a Marine Corps veteran who has served in combat. The disclosure of his military service “opened the door to share things that the client had never shared before, even with going to the Department of Veterans Affairs [for treatment] for years. Before he was able to share, he wanted to know if I would be judging him,” says Hagedorn, a licensed mental health counselor and director of the counselor education program at the University of Central Florida.

When used sparingly, professionally and appropriately, counselor self-disclosure can build trust, foster empathy and strengthen the therapeutic alliance between counselor and client. However, counselor self-disclosure also holds the potential to derail progress and take focus off of the client. It is a tool that should be used with care — and in small doses, according to the ethics professionals working at the American Counseling Association (see sidebar, below). Learning how, when or whether to use self-disclosure with clients is best achieved through training, experience and supervision.

Hagedorn notes that once a clinician self-discloses, the client may naturally be inclined to ask questions seeking additional personal information about the counselor. “If you’re going to self-disclose, know ahead of time where your bailout point is,” says Hagedorn, a member of ACA. “Once you open the self-disclosure door, where are you going to stop? When I worked with couples, they could see that I was wearing a wedding ring. I was often asked how long I had been married, if I had kids or if I ever struggled like [the clients were] struggling. Know where you’re going to stop answering questions.”

Hagedorn doesn’t believe that self-disclosure should be an automatic, out-of-the-gate technique for counselor practitioners. Rather, he advises, counselors should consider it a tool to keep in reserve, using it only when appropriate — and with clear intention.

“I’m in favor of less is more with self-disclosure,” Hagedorn says. “If you’re going to self-disclose, you have to do it with dignity and understand the reasons why a client is asking [for personal information from a counselor]. Explain to the client, ‘Even if I have walked down a similar path, it doesn’t mean I have walked down your path.”

 

The many aspects of self-disclosure

Counseling Today recently collected insights about counselor self-disclosure from American Counseling Association members of varied backgrounds and practice settings. Read their thoughts below.

We encourage readers to add their own thoughts to this discussion by posting comments at the bottom of this article.

 

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Kimberly Parrow is a doctoral student at the University of Montana. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in working with clients to address grief and posttraumatic growth.

Client comments often spark the urge for self-disclosure. The feelings of connection in a professional counseling relationship tempt counselors to self-disclose, sometimes without warning. I think the consideration of providing personal details to clients occurs regularly [but] believe situations when such disclosures are appropriate are few. Appropriate self-disclosure is client-focused, validates the client’s experience and spurs further exploration. A constructive disclosure is brief, focused on meaning and light on story.

Professional counseling relationships require a harmony of the necessary theoretical and relational components. When the pull to disclose occurs, I take a moment and ask myself three things:

a) Is the disclosure grounded in theory?

b) Is there any other way to keep the locus of the experience within the client’s world?

c) How will the disclosure affect the therapeutic relationship?

For these reasons, I think it is important to keep in mind that the decision to disclose should not be made in the moment. An appropriate disclosure is the product of thoughtful planning.

I once had a young adult client recovering from a tragedy that killed several people and left him clinging to life. Our work began after several months of hospitalization and physical therapy. A number of sessions became focused on his feelings of dissociation regarding his own near-death experience. He would make statements such as, “I almost died, and it feels like I don’t care.” He explained the feeling was getting in the way of connecting with his family and friends. His support people couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more thankful to be alive, and neither could he. Feelings of isolation and confusion were becoming a sticking point in his recovery. He felt alone in a rare experience. However, he wasn’t and isn’t alone; I have had a near-death experience too.

My decision to disclose took several days. The disclosure would be tied to our treatment goals, but keeping the locus on the client was a challenge. A discussion of my experience might be too alluring and could pose a threat to our therapeutic relationship and focus. Eventually I decided on a very brief statement, [saying], “I almost died once too,” and waited for the subject to surface again. When it did, I shared my brief statement. It was simple and powerful. In that moment, he was able to trust that my validation of and explanation for his dissociation was real, because I had also lived it. As a result, our therapeutic bond deepened, and our trauma recovery work gained traction.

 

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Benjamin Hearn is a school-based counselor in Columbia, South Carolina.

Self-disclosure is something that we all do with our clients from the moment we begin interacting with them. Our clothes, offices and other nonverbal communications all disclose things about [us], either intentionally or unintentionally.

Our more common notion of self-disclosure, however, centers on information we share about ourselves verbally with our clients. One piece of information that I have found myself often considering whether to disclose is my identity as a gay male. I most often disclose this information when I have sufficient client rapport and a client voices an incorrect assumption about me, such as asking about my wife. At other times, I may use disclosure to model a healthy gay identity or to promote a sense of similarity between myself and a client.

This latter approach was particularly helpful with a teenage client who had recently come out as gay but did not know other gay people and conceptualized them using common stereotypes. In order to keep the focus on him while disclosing, I framed my disclosure with a question afterward, saying, “I’m not sure if you know this, but I’m also gay and wonder if you see me as fitting within these stereotypes?” This allowed my client to explore differences in gay identities, as well as modeling a secure identity. He noted that he was surprised at how casual I had been in my statement, after which I was able to assist him in exploring reasons that he was anxious about his own disclosure to others.

Regardless of the content being self-disclosed, counselors should consider the possible risks and benefits of disclosure prior to disclosure and how they will keep focus on the client afterward. This can be done by questioning how a client responds to the information or by ending the disclosure using an empathy statement such as, “I remember when my own child left for college. You feel like the house and your life is just emptier.” Though this statement contains a self-disclosure, it is framed in a way that acts as an empathy statement, which the client is then able to evaluate according to their own experience.

Overall, mindful and intentional self-disclosure can act as a powerful technique in the therapeutic relationship [that] can normalize client issues, model healthy behaviors and increase clients’ own self-exploration.

 

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John J. Murphy is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology and counseling at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of the book Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, published by ACA.

The decision to self-disclose, like any counseling decision, is based on my judgment of its potential to enhance clients’ goals. For me, self-disclosure is never planned but occurs spontaneously, just as it does in other relationships and conversations. Self-disclosure can help convey our humility, humanity and understanding. Research indicates that the most effective counselors are seen by clients as genuine, compassionate and accessible, and self-disclosure can help foster such perceptions.

The following examples of self-disclosure occurred in a psychoeducational group that I led for parents and guardians of children with behavioral difficulties:

  • We started the first meeting by stating that some parents describe parenting as one of the most joyful, gratifying and challenging experiences of their lives. I commented that parenting was much more draining and humbling than I ever expected, adding that “if I made as many mistakes on a job as I do as a parent, I’m pretty sure I’d be fired within a week.” They liked that metaphor and brought it up a few times in subsequent meetings.
  • I made the following comments in a meeting during which a parent stated how hard it was to change her parenting style: “Some of my parenting habits have been really hard to break. One that comes to mind is the use of those short ‘precision requests’ we discussed last week. Even though I teach it to parents, it’s hard for me to do it with my own kids. So, I have these times when I can almost see the words traveling from my mouth toward one of my kids, and I just want to reach out and pull them back before they get there. I’m not sure why I expect these words to work now when they haven’t worked the last 100 times. It’s frustrating and embarrassing.”

Both examples framed the experience of making and accepting mistakes — a valuable skill for any parent — as a shared, inevitable part of any major life journey, parenting or otherwise. While neither example was deeply personal or self-revealing, I hope that acknowledging my own parenting blunders and frustrations helped level the relationship and enhance my approachability.

Self-disclosure, like anything else we do as counselors, is only as useful as clients’ response to it. Obtaining regular client feedback on their experience of the alliance can also help detect a client’s response to self-disclosure and other aspects of our overall counseling style and approach.

 

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Catherine Beckett is an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral counseling program at Oregon State University. She also has a private practice in Portland, Oregon, specializing in grief counseling.

Like many other aspects of counseling, clients are going to have different experiences with different approaches. One question I always ask during the intake process is, “If you have had counseling in the past and it worked well, what was it about the therapist’s approach or style that was positive for you? Or, if it did not work well, were there aspects of the approach or style that contributed?”

Some clients say, “That therapist shared too much; I didn’t like it.” Whereas others may say, “That therapist wouldn’t even answer basic questions about him[self] or herself, and I found it hard to have a relationship with somebody I didn’t know at all.” So, within the bounds of what I believe is ethical and what I feel comfortable with, I will try to be respectful of a client’s preferences in the service of building a positive alliance.

The second principle I have found useful is the practice of requiring myself to have clarity about the purpose of a disclosure prior to making it. I suggest to clinicians whom I supervise that they be able to follow any disclosure with, “The reason I am sharing this is …” This serves two purposes. First, it holds counselors responsible for clarity around intention. Second, it makes the purpose or intention clear to the client, as opposed to — and guards against the possibility of — a disclosure coming across as chitchatty, or as the counselor making the session about him/her.

I also believe that counselors need to be very cautious about using disclosures to convince a client that we understand how she or he feels. Even if we have had an experience similar to what that client is going through, the reality is that we don’t know how she or he feels. We had our own experience, and the experience of our client may be quite different.

 

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana and the author of eight books, including Tough Kids, Cool Counseling, published by ACA.

My first thought about self-disclosure is that it’s a multidimensional, multipurpose and creative counselor response (or technique) that includes a fascinating dialectic. On one hand, self-disclosure should be intentional. If counselors aren’t aware that they’re using self-disclosure and why they’re using it, then they’re probably just chatting. On the other hand, self-disclosure should be a spontaneous interpersonal act.

Self-disclosure is an act that involves revealing oneself. As Carl Rogers would likely say, if your words aren’t honest and authentic, then your words aren’t therapeutic. From my perspective — which is mostly person-centered — the purest (but not only) purpose of self-disclosure is to deepen interpersonal connection. As multicultural experts have noted, self-disclosure can facilitate trust more effectively than a blank slate, because transparency helps clients know who you are and where you stand. What’s less often discussed is that it’s impossible to not self-disclose; we’re constantly disclosing who we are through our clothing, mannerisms, informed consent form, office accoutrements and questions.

I remember working with a 19-year-old white, cisgender, heterosexual male. He told me he was diagnosed as having reactive attachment disorder. After listening for 15 minutes, I was convinced that there was no possible way he could meet the diagnostic criteria for reactive attachment disorder. First, I used an Adlerian-inspired question/disclosure: “What if it turned out you didn’t really have reactive attachment disorder?”

You might not consider a question as self-disclosure, but every question you ask doesn’t simply inquire, it simultaneously reveals your interests.

Later, I disclosed directly, using immediacy: “As I sit and listen to all your positive relationships, it makes me think you don’t have reactive attachment disorder.” Despite my interpersonally clever use of an educational intervention embedded in a self-disclosure, my client didn’t budge, countering with, “That doesn’t make any sense, because I’m diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.”

At that point, I wanted to use self-disclosure to share with him all the ways in which I was a smarter and better health care professional than whoever had originally misdiagnosed him. Fortunately, I experienced a flash of self-awareness. Instead of using disclosure to enhance my credibility, I spontaneously disclosed, “I’ve been talking way too much. I’m just going to put my hand over my mouth and listen to you for a while.”

As I put my hand over my mouth, my client smiled. The rest of the session was — in both our opinions — a rousing success.

 

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Zachary R. Taylor is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and behavioral health director at a health center in Lexington, Virginia.

I specialize in working with patients who have chronic anxiety and panic, and I regularly disclose that I suffered from these disorders myself for more than 10 years.

The key is being specific about my experiences because many anxious patients feel no one understands what they are going through. Simply saying, “I too was anxious” often doesn’t connect. Instead, I choose specific stories about my many trips to the emergency room, my phobia of checking the mail, the clutching on to my Xanax and my sophisticated driving routes through town to avoid anxiety triggers.

When I share these things, it’s usually out of an effort to normalize their experience and get leverage because, if they know I’ve been there, they’re more likely to accept my help not only as a licensed counselor but also as a former anxiety sufferer who has used these same counseling principles to recover.

Second, I use self-disclosure to reinforce principles we are working on in counseling. For example, to this day, I still experience scary and sometimes tragic images that flash through my mind out of the blue. These used to send me into full-on anxiety spirals, during which I would go through all kinds of safety behaviors to reassure myself that I, and everyone I loved, was OK.

The only real difference between these images then and now is not that the images don’t come back anymore but that I learned how to do things many counselors know as cognitive defusion and psychological flexibility. This is the ability to recognize the imaginary quality of these images and learning how to have the courage to treat them as things I can safely ignore.

This example, in particular, is useful when patients believe every anxious thought, image or sensation and take them as something they need to either respond to or repress. It gives them a new vision that recovery doesn’t mean never having another anxious thought but learning to cope with them when they show up.

However, we must remember there’s a difference between showing patients our psychological scars versus our psychological wounds. There is a significantly greater risk in revealing hurts not yet healed. We must be judicious in self-disclosure, make it brief, always have a clear therapeutic purpose and have a reasonable expectation that the patient can manage the disclosure and that they never feel the need to care for us in the process.

 

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Richard S. Balkin is an LPC and the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development. He is also a professor and doctoral program coordinator in the Department of Leadership and Counselor Education at the University of Mississippi.

In the second semester of my master’s program, my skills class was taught by a professor who followed a psychoanalytic orientation. She was clear that she would give feedback based on this orientation and that it was OK to reject her feedback as long as we supported any alternative with our understanding of theory. I do not recall any student rejecting her feedback. That being said, I do recall my first session with a client. When the client entered the room, I reached out to shake hands. When reviewing my initial session with the professor and class, I was asked [by the professor] why did I reach out to shake hands? When I indicated I thought that was the polite thing to do, I was told, “That’s about you, not the client.”

I remember being taken aback by this feedback, which seemed to me rather extreme. Not only did I listen to it at the time, but I was influenced by it for many years. Naturally, not shaking hands with the client easily extended to what I could possibly share with a client. If the initiation of a handshake was viewed as countertransference, I could only imagine what my professor would say if I were to self-disclose.

Of course, all of this was challenged in my first year working as a professional counselor, when I worked on a dual diagnosis unit with adolescents. Many members of the multidisciplinary treatment team were active in 12-step support programs, so self-disclosure as a means for teaching about addiction and working together was very natural. More importantly, the adolescents seemed to appreciate the candor and learn something from it.

No doubt, self-disclosure can be helpful, but it can also be self-serving for the counselor, contributing to an unhealthy dynamic in the counseling relationship. If the curative components of counseling truly are based on the counseling relationship, then counselors might do well to consider how self-disclosure will deepen the counseling relationship. In [the ACA-published book] Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life, my co-author, Jeffrey Kottler, and I mention ways that self-disclosure can be therapeutic, [including] communicating understanding and acceptance and promoting deeper reflection.

 

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Sidney Shaw is an LPC in Anchorage, Alaska, and a core faculty member in the School of Counseling at Walden University.

Researchers often describe two types of self-disclosure: immediate and nonimmediate self-disclosure. Immediate refers to process self-disclosures from the counselor about their own feelings or ways of experiencing the relationship with the client. Nonimmediate self-disclosure or counselor disclosure about their life, personal experiences or biographical information is often what counselors are referring to when they discuss self-disclosure. Immediate and nonimmediate self-disclosure both have potential to deepen the alliance and promote client wellness. That said, there can also be negative effects of indiscriminate self-disclosure. The litmus test of whether or not to engage in self-disclosure is to do so only when it will be therapeutic for the client.

In the spirit of self-disclosure, I’ll share an anecdote about nonimmediate self-disclosure from my own practice. Early in my counseling career, I worked with indigenous communities, and one of my first experiences was to co-facilitate groups on the topic of healthy families and communities. In preparing for the upcoming groups, my supervisor asked me, “Have you thought about what story you are going to share about yourself?” I replied that I had not considered it, and I could feel my anxiety rise as he mentioned it. As a recent counseling graduate, I was highly concerned about negative effects of self-disclosure — e.g., too much emphasis on me, communicating that how I dealt with a situation is how the client should deal with it, etc.

As my supervisor pointed out, and as supported by my subsequent experience and broader research findings on the topic, self-disclosure is frequently an important element of developing trust in working with indigenous clients. One of the groups that I co-facilitated was on the topic of male family relationships. With this in mind, I shared a brief story about my father, how we had been through a long period in which our relationship was conflictual and how we eventually worked to move toward a more harmonious relationship. Cultural context is an important factor to consider in terms of how and to what degree to engage in self-disclosure. Thoughtful and intentional self-disclosure can help counselors build alliances with individual clients and with communities outside of their own.

As counselors, we may initially intend to self-disclose in order to promote client well-being, but self-disclosure can subtly and unwittingly begin to creep toward serving our own needs. The question of whether or not our self-disclosure is therapeutic for the client is not one that counselors should answer in isolation. Ongoing consultation with skilled, wise and competent supervisors and peers is an essential element of helping counselors answer this question.

 

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Caitlyn M. Bennett is a licensed mental health counselor and an assistant professor at the University of North Texas.

One of my areas of clinical expertise is anxiety, especially in adolescents and young adults. Anxiety has a way of making people feel out of control, and oftentimes, clients have told me that they “feel crazy.” Because of this, I have found when processing and making sense of the physiological aspects of anxiety — i.e., racing heart, tightness of chest, etc. — with clients, it can be empowering and validating to self-disclose my personal physical expressions of anxiety.

Prior to this self-disclosure, I find that general psychoeducation about anxiety [and its effects on] the brain and body serves as a catalyst to making sense of anxiety as well as serving as a bit of a normalizing factor. This helps me to gauge whether clients feel connected and understand the physiological impacts of anxiety. For example, their experience of anxiety may not involve as much of the physical experiences. Thus, me expressing my personal physical experiences of anxiety would not be helpful for the client.

After exploring psychoeducation, I begin to encourage clients to share about their personal physical experience of anxiety. If clients have a hard time identifying where in their body they experience anxiety, this is where I introduce self-disclosure by sharing, “When I feel anxious, I may feel my anxiety in my chest or my shoulders tense up. What about for you?”

I have found that this softens and makes exploring anxiety safer and more relatable without taking away from the counseling space being for the client. It also creates an added layer of connectivity for the therapeutic relationship. I have found that some of the most powerful sessions have been when clients feel understood by me as their counselor and also realize that I am only human too.

In all aspects of self-disclosure, I reflect on rapport and encourage my students to do the same. For example, I don’t make it a point to self-disclose prior to establishing a working therapeutic relationship. Self-disclosing prior to creating this relationship may create misunderstanding of what counseling will or will not look like for the client.

It is also important for counselors to remember that self-disclosure can be such a powerful tool. In my personal process of integrating self-disclosure with a particular client, I reflect on the pros and cons of self-disclosure, the difference of impact in emotional (personal feelings) versus content (facts) self-disclosure, the development of the client and multicultural factors. When I have explored this with counselors-in-training, we often focus on using self-disclosure “for good and not for evil.” That is, will the self-disclosure I choose to use be helpful for my client and their process or only benefit myself?

 

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Carol ZA McGinnis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and approved supervisor. She is a pastoral counselor and clinical director for the AWI Counseling Center at the Fairview United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Maryland, and an associate professor and clinical mental health track coordinator in the graduate counseling program at Messiah College.

As a person-centered [counselor], I rarely self-disclose and only after professional consultation and deep reflection on how that content may be of significant help to the client.

One client who had decided to drop out of high school and pursue her GED received a brief self-disclosure from me at our termination session. I considered the fact that I had dropped out of high school and earned my GED many years prior to completion of my Ph.D. sufficient to disclose. [In doing so, I] meant to encourage and challenge the client to stay the course.

Another client I can recall self-disclosing to was a Muslim adolescent whose parents had asked with concern about my religious orientation. After consultation with my site supervisor and fervent prayer, I decided to disclose my faith tradition along with reiteration of my work that would focus on the client’s beliefs and not my own. It was rewarding to receive a copy of the Koran at our termination session in appreciation from the client and his family.

I do, however, use emotional self-disclosure fairly frequently to validate and normalize client anger. Oftentimes, people who come to me for help with their anger feel shame, guilt or fear, and it has been helpful for them to hear that I am in alignment with them when they report an unfair or unjust event as the source of that emotional response. This disclosure does not include circumstances or stories from my life but instead remains strictly within the realm of emotion in the moment.

One client example of this type of disclosure involved a [client’s] vague memory of an unidentifiable doctor who had engaged in questionable behavior during a medical physical when she was a teenager. The client could not recall what had happened beyond [the doctor’s] request to have her strip naked and do jumping jacks, yet the anger she held toward him was fresh. When this client cursed through tears at this person in the counseling session, I disclosed my own feeling of anger toward this person because he had violated her trust and his professional mandate to act in an ethical manner. Efforts to report this professional were largely unsuccessful due to the client’s blocked memory, yet the client reported feeling affirmed and validated by our work that focused on mitigating that traumatic event.

 

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The ethics of self-disclosure

Practitioners who choose to self-disclose information about their personal lives in counseling sessions often walk a fine line between using it as a tool to connect with clients and diverting attention away from clients and on to themselves.

When used incorrectly, self-disclosure can take focus away from the therapeutic work and the needs of the client. When used appropriately, however, practitioner self-disclosure can build trust, strengthen the therapeutic relationship and help a counselor to express empathy.

So, how much self-disclosure is too much? Practitioners must always put the client first when using any intervention, including self-disclosure, says Joy Natwick, ethics specialist for the American Counseling Association. Counselors should carefully consider their client’s needs and presenting issues and whether the self-disclosure could trigger an issue with which the client struggles, such as excess worry or caretaking behavior, she says.

In addition, self-disclosure should never be used as a response to the counselor’s emotional needs or in situations in which self-disclosure would jeopardize the quality of care to the client, Natwick emphasizes.

Self-disclosure should be regarded as a tool to engage clients and help move them toward their treatment goals. If it would have any other outcome, it is unlikely to be the correct intervention to use, Natwick says.

For additional guidance, consult the following standards in the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics:

  • A.1.a. Primary responsibility
  • A.4.a. Avoiding harm
  • A.4.b. Personal values
  • A.6.b. Extending counseling boundaries
  • B.7. Case consultation
  • C.2.g. Impairment
  • C.6. Public responsibility
  • H.6. Social media
  • I.1.b. Ethical decision making

 

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Related resources from ACA

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

 

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

Letters to the editorct@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.

Key concepts from Gestalt therapy for non-Gestalt therapists

By Jon Frew June 7, 2017

Several years ago, I attended a reception for a faculty member whom we had recently hired in our department. She had just completed her doctoral degree, and this would be her first academic job. She had received her training in the Midwest in a program known for its emphasis on cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). In a one-on-one conversation, she inquired about my theoretical orientation. I said I was a Gestalt therapist. She paused, looked slightly confused, then said, “Gestalt therapy? Really! I didn’t think anyone did that anymore.”

It’s not easy being a Gestalt therapist, especially when you’re teaching and supervising in a doctoral psychology program in the United States. Sometimes I encounter individuals, like my former faculty colleague, who believe that Gestalt therapy is extinct. More often I encounter individuals who have an antiquated and unbalanced picture of what Gestalt is (or was). Fritz Perls, the co-founder of Gestalt therapy, can be credited for this inaccurate picture, which has been difficult to recalibrate 47 years after his death.

When I presented on this topic at the 2016 American Counseling Association Conference in Montréal, I began with a “free association” exercise: “I say Gestalt therapy, you say …?” As expected, I heard hot seat, here and now, empty chair, techniques and the Perls prayer. I was also pleased to hear field theory, dialogue and process oriented.

One common misconception is that Gestalt therapy is a tool bag of techniques that any therapist, regardless of orientation, can employ. In fact, a technique, such as having a client imagine, then address, another person in an empty chair, can be employed by any therapist, but that intervention is not Gestalt therapy. As with any counseling approach, achieving even an elementary level of competence as a Gestalt therapist takes years of education and training.

Another misconception is that Gestalt therapy can be coupled with other counseling orientations. Many years ago, I attended a one-day workshop led by Arnold Lazarus, the “founder” of multimodal therapy. Near the end of the morning session, he announced that he was going to show a video in which he would demonstrate how he could combine Gestalt therapy with his approach. In the video, he led a client through a “two-chair” exercise (in which a client moves back and forth between “facing” chairs, enacting a dialogue with two conflicting parts of the self). I approached him during the lunch break and respectfully suggested that he was not doing Gestalt therapy. I asked if he would make a clarifying comment in the afternoon session. My suggestion and request were not well-received to say the least.

Having said that, are there aspects of Gestalt therapy that can be incorporated by counselors who are not well-trained and grounded in this approach? I believe there are, and in the remainder of this article, I will outline several of those concepts.

1) Context, context, context. In our increasingly multicultural society, the importance of considering context is becoming more obvious, regardless of one’s theoretical orientation. Gestalt therapy adopted (from Kurt Lewin) the concept of “the field” as one of its underlying philosophical foundations. In Gestalt therapy, the individual is always considered in the context of past and present field conditions or environments. Conceptualizing our clients as both being influenced by and influencing their various environments is the starting point of any therapeutic relationship.

One of the mistaken perceptions about Gestalt therapists is that we are not interested in the past. In fact, a thorough history is usually taken so that we can find key parts of the trail that led clients to their current social and emotional location. “Context analysis” is critical to effective counseling, and given the demographic shifts taking place in the United States today, our clients’ contexts are far more heterogeneous than they were in past decades.

2) Curiosity competency. I just completed a one-year training program on intercultural communication. I had to smile when my trainer announced that the most important competency in intercultural communication is curiosity. I smiled because for the past several years, I have been featuring curiosity as the most essential competency for Gestalt therapists.

Our theoretical term for this competency is phenomenological inquiry. Sitting with our clients, we attempt (as much as possible) to bracket off preexisting experiences, which would compel us to rush to judgment, to objectify and to believe we have these clients figured out. This process is not easy. After all, our academic preparation encourages us to ask questions to help us determine what box to put our clients in (diagnosis) so that we can apply the most evidence-based intervention.

The goal of phenomenological inquiry is not to classify, however. Rather, we are using our “open mind” to understand the client’s subjectivity. Paradoxically, the more we are like our clients (in regard to age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on), the more essential it is to lead with curiosity, especially given the natural tendency to take shortcuts and assume we know how the story ends without taking time to read all the chapters.

In our increasingly diverse and multicultural world, it is more common to be sitting with clients who are not like us. One caveat about using phenomenological inquiry with clients who are very different from us is that it is not the job of the client to educate the counselor. Unlike other competencies that must be learned or acquired to be a skilled clinician, curiosity is innate and for most of us must be “recovered.”

3) Play no favorites. Many psychotherapy orientations place more emphasis on one particular aspect of an individual’s experience. I vividly remember watching a video of a group therapy session led by Carl Rogers. In the early minutes of the group, members predictably were engaging in intellectual exchanges. Rogers was very quiet and looked half asleep. When a member eventually began to talk about her feelings, Rogers became animated and said some version of “Now we are getting somewhere.”

Whereas client-centered therapy holds that feelings are primary, CBT places a similar emphasis on cognitions or thoughts. Gestalt therapy plays no favorites. Our clients may present with distress related to their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, dreams, sexuality, spirituality or relationships. All of those “domains” are interconnected, and at any particular moment in therapy, one may be more salient to the client than the others. As a Gestalt therapist, I trust that my clients (not my theoretical orientation) will identify the aspect(s) of their experience that is primary at any moment.

Cultural considerations will also require that therapists do not adhere too strictly to the dictates of any counseling approach, the majority of which have been developed with Euro-American values and biases. For example, how would a counselor trained to encourage clients to express feelings accommodate a client from an emotionally restrained culture?

4) The power of process. One of the hallmarks of Gestalt therapy is the attention to process, not just content. A graduate student recently approached me to inquire about joining one of my supervision teams. I asked him how familiar he was with Gestalt therapy. He said that all he knew for sure was that Gestalt therapists focus exclusively on the present. I corrected that perception and gave him a number of books and articles to read.

I think about content and process in counseling relationships in several ways. Content is the currency of therapy, what is exchanged. Content is the vehicle that drives therapy, the stories that our clients share. Content encompasses the past and the future. Process exists only in the present moment. Process is the arena for change because change cannot happen in the past or the future.

In every counseling relationship there is a rich and vibrant process that the therapist can either incorporate or ignore. The majority of counseling orientations are “content heavy.” Gestalt therapists realize that content and process cannot be separated. We are trained to pay close attention to process and to “artfully” comment about it. For example, a counselor might say, “As you talk about your former lover (content) you are speaking louder and your fists are clenched (process).” I use the word artful because it takes time and experience to become skilled at process observation and commentary.

To comment on process is to invite your client to be “in the consulting room” with you. To comment on process is to create the opportunity for a kind of “intimacy” that many clients would be uncomfortable experiencing. And yet no matter your counseling approach, there is ample evidence that the so-called “relationship factors” account for much of the positive outcomes that our clients report. Laura Perls, the other co-founder of Gestalt therapy, adopted Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship beliefs as a model for Gestalt therapy. Something such as our clients feeling truly understood and appreciated by us can, in some way quite simple, be healing in and of itself.

In my experience, these occasional and fleeting moments when clients feel extraordinarily connected to their therapist (and not alone) can occur only if counselors are able to incorporate attention to process into their approach.

5) Beyond empathy. It is widely recognized in the counseling field that empathy is a good thing. Carl Rogers’ contributions to the field are well-documented. Certainly the ability to be empathetic is a necessary competency in all counseling relationships. But I would like to introduce and define another lesser-known term. The term is inclusion, and it comes to us from Buber and Heinz Kohut.

The distinction between empathy and inclusion is not absolute. There is some intersection and crossover between the two, but for the sake of this article, I will define them this way: Empathy is what it would be like for me to be in my client’s shoes; inclusion is “getting” what it is like for my client to be in her shoes.

Empathy is very useful in counseling and operates using the mechanism of projection. The Golden Rule is related to projection and empathy. We do for others what we would want others to do for us. By gaining an awareness of what it would or might be like for me if I were in the midst of a divorce with kids at stake, I can refine how I provide support to my client. On the other hand, if I become too “married” to my own experience, I might miss key differences or make inaccurate assumptions about the client’s divorce experience.

The mechanism of inclusion is phenomenological inquiry, which I defined earlier. It is closely related to the Platinum Rule: We do for others what they want done.

There are two parts to inclusion. The first is the process of truly getting (Buber used the word apprehending) our client’s experience at a particular moment in the counseling session. The second part is conveying to the client that we do truly understand and have no judgment. If we can occasionally practice inclusion at this precise level, we have moved beyond empathy, and the result will be what Maurice Friedman called “healing through meeting.” He believed, and I agree, that these powerful moments of connection between counselor and client can occur in any psychotherapy approach.

6) The funny thing about change. The field of counseling is committed to helping clients change. Most counseling theories have some fundamental philosophy about how change occurs. The funny thing about change, however, is that it is always happening. The seasons change, our bodies change, the weather changes, technology marches on, etc.

Gestalt therapy’s view of change is called the paradoxical theory of change. Simply put, change occurs naturally and organically when sufficient attention, awareness and support exist around the “what is,” not when we are preoccupied with the “what isn’t.”

Inevitably, clients come to therapy of two minds. They are 1) seeking change and relief from struggle and 2) they do not want to change. The “do not want to change” agenda is typically less apparent. As a result, counselors can easily get swept into aligning with the “desire to change” side and miss its counterpart. When therapeutic progress is not being made and treatment goals are not being met, counselors often become frustrated and question their own effectiveness. In the worst-case scenario, the client is blamed and regarded as not ready to change or “resistant.”

In my supervision groups, there is an ongoing joke that if I hear my clinicians say, “I am trying to get my client to …”
I will push a hidden button and a red alert light will flash. Of course, it is absolutely normal, for new clinicians particularly, to be enthusiastic about helping our clients change. The critical question is how we as clinicians support the change process.

Returning to the paradoxical theory of change principle, sustained (not quick-fix) change occurs when clients are able to “stay with” present experience, not flee from it. I should point out that when clients report that they feel “X” and don’t want to feel “X” anymore, I would never say, “Well the only way to not feel ‘X’ anymore is to more fully experience and resolve the ‘X’ so you can move on.” Experienced Gestalt therapists realize that our change theory is not how most individuals in Western culture consider change.

One of the key contributions Laura Perls made to Gestalt therapy was emphasizing the importance of both individual and environmental support. Individual support is what the client brings to therapy. It is posture, the breath and all of the senses. Environmental support is provided by the client’s chair, the lighting in the office, but mostly by the therapist. I believe that one of the essential tasks of the counselor is to assess the client’s sources of individual support and, over time, to endeavor to determine the kind of support the client needs from the therapist.

This last task is complex because each client is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all kind of environmental support. Different clients — and even the same client at different moments — may need the counselor to take the lead, to self-disclose, to sit in silence and so on. This ongoing attention by the counselor to maximize the level of environmental support requires attention to process, which I addressed earlier. Connecting the concepts of change and support, if clients are going to examine the “what is” or stay with aspects of their present experience (say an uncomfortable feeling), both individual and environmental support will need to be enhanced, both in the therapy hour and in their lives.

7) Watch your language and your attributes. The “fundamental attribution error” comes to us from our friends the social and organizational psychologists. They point out our tendency to “blame” or attribute responsibility to the individual. For example, a client arrives late for a counseling session and the counselor assumes some version of the client lacking sufficient motivation, not taking therapy seriously enough or not being a punctual person by nature. This type of faulty attribution is related to the deep individualistic roots of U.S. culture.

I was drawn to Gestalt therapy because it is a theory of health, not pathology, and because context is always taken into consideration. Children learn quickly that certain emotions and behaviors are not OK to exhibit in the presence of their caregivers. Creative adjustments occur over time, become rigidified and carry into adulthood. Examples would be the inability to experience sadness or to ask for emotional support, or even a self-conception of being a worthless person. These adjustments, so critical for survival and safety in childhood, are typically no longer necessary in the adult context. These disconnects between the past and present create a disturbance that counselors and the medical model often classify as “symptoms.”

Gestalt therapists do not blame or pathologize clients. Just in the past week in the training clinic where I supervise doctoral students, I have heard the following: the client is resistant, avoidant, attention seeking and dependent. I suggest that we all, no matter our theoretical orientation, watch our language when referring to our clients. These types of judgments lack sensitivity, miss the bigger picture and do not inspire the formation of a compassionate therapeutic alliance. By regarding our clients as any of these terms, we fail to seek the purpose or meaning for their behavior in the greater context of their lives, present and past.

The scientist who is studying an iceberg knows that to truly comprehend “icebergness,” there is much to take into consideration, not just the tip visible on the water’s surface. There is the larger mass of ice below the surface, the water temperature and the entire ecosystem, past and present, that provide context for the iceberg. To label a client as “difficult” or “avoidant” is to form a judgment based only on the tip of the person.

8) Co-creation, not assimilation or adjustment. In a recently published article, I wrote, “Going forward into the 21st century, I would suggest that the term assimilation be replaced with the term co-creation. Our multicultural society will be an ongoing creation with no superordinate culture as the thickest thread.”

One of my first trainers and mentors told me that Gestalt therapy was the only counseling approach he could identify with as an African American because it is not an adjustment therapy. That comment has stayed with me many decades later. Although individuals must creatively adjust to their childhood circumstances, Gestalt therapists do not encourage their clients to adjust to the values and expectations of the dominant majority culture.

Assimilation has been used in the Gestalt literature to describe a process in which the individual selectively accepts the value of some aspects of the environment while rejecting others. The concept of assimilation is also problematic though because it suggests a process of “making like” or “causing to resemble.” In fact, there is another term, assimilationism, that is defined as “the policy of absorbing minority groups.”

At its essence, Gestalt therapy is about honoring the potential and unpredictable outcomes of the ongoing meetings that occur daily between individuals. Through those meetings, both parties are changed, and new experiences and realities are co-created. Given our current political context, I would assert that this concept of co-creation be embraced to counter a resurgence of xenophobia and “disinclusion” of non-like others.

Counselors have the privilege to participate in very special (dare I say sacred) kinds of meetings with their clients. I would urge all of us to be wary about becoming, wittingly or unwittingly, agents of systems or agendas that promote adjustment or assimilation to the “thickest thread.”

 

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

Jon Frew is a professor in the School of Graduate Psychology at Pacific University. He is an associate editor of the Gestalt Review and a co-author and editor of the book Contemporary Psychotherapies for a Diverse World. He is a co-director of the Gestalt Therapy Training Center Northwest in Portland, Oregon, and has been involved with the training of Gestalt therapists in the U.S. and internationally for more than 30 years. Contact him at jfrew@pacificu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

A scar is not a wound: A metaphor for counseling

By Peter D. Ladd November 10, 2016

In the client-counselor relationship, describing traumas from past experiences can reveal unresolved suffering in which a client’s beliefs, emotions and behaviors are filled with deep negative images. Ideally, clients will share their trauma with therapists and how images from the past continue to affect them. By describing their trauma, many clients can normalize past experiences and are able to face future traumas with more positive attitudes.

However, as counselors, we realize how accessible these traumas become for clients who slowly drift back into old patterns when new trauma enters their lives. New trauma that is even remotely similar to past trauma can resurrect old beliefs, trigger negative emotions and generate compulsive patterns of behavior. The question becomes, how do counselors stop clients from drifting back into old traumatic patterns when new traumas enter their lives?

 

Using metaphors

One successful possibility is the use of metaphors. According to Judy Belmont, metaphors allow counselors to unlock a client’s way of thinking by creating flexibility and evoking emotion. They allow clients to visualize their thoughts and connect them to their feelings.

Neurologically speaking, metaphors allow the neuropathways of the brain to realign in a way where thinking and feeling bring into account a similar picture from a past incident. This leads to a more comprehensive understanding of experiences such as trauma, abuse, loneliness and loss.

Let’s look at one such example with elements that most people around the world would understand — namely, wounds and scars. It may be impossible to get through life without experiencing some form of physical or psychological wound that affect a person’s everyday experience. You trip and fall down the stairs, you are in an accident, someone close to you dies … these are examples of wounds that hopefully will heal. If they do heal, many times you are left with a scar that reminds you of the incident that took place.

But there can be confusion over the healing process and how the person perceives his or her wounds developing into scars, especially if they are psychological scars. My hope is that the metaphor “a scar is not a wound” will help clarify this healing process with an emphasis on psychological healing.

42 QmF1bUhlcnpJK0YrUysyTy5qcGc=When someone has a wound, the healing process can involve suffering that may feel worse than the initial acquiring of the wound. However, most people find this experience tolerable based on a belief that a certain level of suffering is required to allow the wound to heal. In turn, people with a healing wound assume that they are “on the mend.”

In many cases, a healed wound may leave a scar as a reminder that successful healing has taken place. Although the scar may be ugly, annoying, a topic of conversation or not as favorable as regular tissue, it is still an image of success signifying that a wound has healed. If the scar begins to throb or becomes painful at a future date, many people still tolerate it as a reminder of successful healing. They do not hold the scar to the same traumatic standard as they do the original wound.

At this point, it may be safe to say that, metaphorically speaking, a scar is not a wound.

 

An overview

When helping clients understand their past traumas, it may benefit therapists to describe these traumas as open wounds that need to heal. In mental health, when someone experiences a past mental wound, the healing process can be quite similar to that of a physical wound. For example, in therapy, when exposing past mental wounds, the associated suffering may feel worse than the suffering from the original traumatic experience.

Furthermore, mental health clients can confuse the difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering with these wounds. When experiencing a physical wound, it seems much easier to accept suffering as necessary. A mental wound may be harder to accept or tolerate, however. Even when clients work through the suffering associated with mental wounds, they may remain anxious about the possibility of the wound returning.

Many clients in mental health are at a disadvantage when it comes to the healing process, in part because they cannot look at their wounds and watch them heal. Instead, they must trust in the therapeutic alliance between client and counselor to form a belief about how the mental wound heals. Neither can these clients look at their wound and visualize growth and change.

For therapists who find meaning in the power of images, this may be an appropriate time to introduce the metaphor “a scar is not a wound” to help clients visualize their healing. When normalizing past traumas with clients, therapists can describe trauma as an open wound that needs to heal. Eventually, the client and therapist may want to discuss turning wounds into scars.

A scar can be used as a metaphor that reminds clients of past open wounds but in a positive manner. Helping clients transform wounds to scars is a metaphorical way of making past trauma meaningful and positive. Instead of clients looking at new trauma as a return to an open wound, they can use the metaphor of a scar as reassurance that they have gained resilience for future traumas in their lives.

This begs a question: Can mental scars be more than reminders of past wounds? Can they be viewed as products of successful healing? The scar metaphor creates growth and change by using the natural process of healing as a model for mental health. Such a model can be used when future traumas that are even remotely similar to those from the past might suggest a traumatic relapse. Recognizing the difference between a scar and a wound can stop a continued drift into old beliefs, emotions and behaviors.

The scar/wound metaphor is a clear and simple way of reminding clients with posttraumatic stress disorder, secondary traumatic stress reaction, apathy, abuse, loneliness or loss that traumatic experiences can sometimes create resilience. Therapists can help clients learn from their scars. They can be symbols of successful healing. They can be viewed as a source of wisdom, similar to what is found in many survivors of physical wounds. Scars are not wounds, and when a new trauma is experienced, counselors can help clarify the difference.

This metaphor follows a growth and change model for treating clients. Ironically, it also follows a medical model by explaining the process of healing that takes place when doctors treat a physical wound. More important, it references the natural healing process, whether mental or physical.

This provides clients with a more holistic view of healing. It also allows clients to rely on a schemata or map of healing that they know and understand. Finally, it puts traumas in a different light in which necessary suffering is viewed as a natural process that can have positive results.

 

Multicultural implications

Metaphors are used in most cultures, making them especially useful in the field of therapy. Universal themes that transcend cultural differences give certain metaphors more reliability and validity. The “scar is not a wound” metaphor leaves little room for cultural misrepresentation.

Furthermore, the image of a scar is a universal concept that has deep meaning from a cultural perspective. For example, some African cultures create scars on their faces and bodies as a statement of rank, courage or pride in their communities. The scar may signify going through some difficultly and coming out the other side intact.

The “scar is not a wound” metaphor, therefore, becomes multicultural because scars and wounds are viewed as universal phenomena that can be interpreted in many different ways, with most of these interpretations symbolizing a sense of healing.

 

Group supervision

Because supervision and instruction are often provided in a group format, the “a scar is not a wound” metaphor can encourage more dynamic and inclusive results. Some examples of questions for groups are:

1) When is an effective time to bring up the “a scar is not a wound” metaphor when discussing the group members’ past traumas?

2) What were your experiences of having a wound turn into a scar, either physically or mentally?

3) What are your beliefs regarding your physical and mental scars?

4) Do you know of any culture that views scars as a sign of success when working through a difficult time?

5) Do you think it is ethical to use examples from physical healing to describe mental healing?

 

Potential problems

For those looking for a more scientific explanation of healing, the “a scar is not a wound” metaphor may be viewed as too conceptual, with little use of facts to back up one’s description. This may be especially true with new supervisees who are looking for factual definitions for such phenomena as trauma, DSM-5 disorders and other natural scientific concepts that make up the lexicon of mental health counseling.

There also might be those who question whether clients who have experienced trauma want to look at their scars in such a positive light. These clients may view their scars as grim reminders of past traumas that should be buried and not revisited. They may view these scars with failure and embarrassment and not appreciate the intrinsic value in seeing scars as a “success story.”

In addition, those who are looking for a more linear, step-by-step approach to healing may find such a metaphor too esoteric and not fitting for mental health counseling. These clients may want cause-and-effect answers that help control their anxiety about the possibility of future traumas.

Some counselors may find the use of the metaphor too nondirective, preferring more control over the information they share with their clients. In addition, it may not appeal to those therapists who hold little interest in the workings of the unconscious mind.

 

Additional applications

This metaphor can work well with groups whose members have suffered “wounds” that have produced negative results in their lives. For example, many individuals struggling with addiction have a history of trauma ranging from intrapersonal to interpersonal and leading them to their individual addictions. Some of these traumas remain open wounds that go even deeper than the addictions themselves. Blame, shame and low self-esteem may haunt these clients. Their open wounds have not turned to scars and may be the major cause of any relapse that takes place. Sometimes the open wounds become their own emotional addictions. In fact, healing the individual’s physical addiction may require healing his or her emotional addiction. This phenomenon can take place in both addictions counseling and mental health counseling.

In addition, counselors can build a repertoire of other metaphors grounded in the “scars are not wounds” metaphor. For example:

  • “You can’t see the picture while inside the frame.” — A metaphor for a therapeutic alliance
  • “A counselor should focus on trauma not drama.” — Staying with the counseling process
  • “It is the broken helping the broken.” — Getting away from counselors as experts
  • “No client is as sick as his or her file.” — Looking for possibilities, not facts
  • “It takes more courage than brains to be an effective counselor.” — Being a model for change

 

 

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Peter D. Ladd is a licensed mental health counselor and the coordinator of the graduate mental health counseling Program at St. Lawrence University. His interests include existential and phenomenological counseling and conflict resolution. He has written 10 books from this perspective. Contact him at pladd@stlaeu.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.