“How could you have been so stupid?” was what my clinical supervisor asked me early in my career as a counselor. This was after I questioned the fit of a model of treatment for a particular family and contacted our consultant with my concerns. At the time, I had graduated from an accredited master’s program, was working toward licensure and was eager to do good work. But this question, and my supervisor’s derision, left an indelible mark on me when I was training to become a licensed counselor.
Research shows that experiencing shame as a counselor-in-training is a normal part of counselor development. It occurs throughout the training process and in various contexts. However, shame can also alter or impede a counselor’s development. According to Ryan Cook and Laura Welfare’s study published in Counselor Education and Supervision in 2018, counselors-in-training limit disclosure of information to instructors and supervisors because of the shame they feel. This was my experience when my supervisor questioned my intelligence: I no longer felt safe to question the process or to share my internal experience as a counselor.
Supervisors’ Role and Responsibilities
The ACA Code of Ethics calls for supervisors to “aspire to foster meaningful and respectful professional relationships,” and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision states that supervisors should operate with the understanding that the supervisory relationship is key for supervision to be effective and for the supervisee to grow and develop. However, few counselors who end up in supervisory roles receive training in how to be an effective supervisor, despite this also being listed in ACA’s ethical code.
Relationships are the backbone of counseling, so perhaps we often assume supervisors will work to develop healthy, productive relationships with their supervisees. But counselors are often promoted to supervisory positions based on how many years they’ve been at a workplace or their productivity and organization skills, not on their ability to foster relationships with colleagues and coworkers.
Authority comes with the position, but trust develops and is earned over time through relational leadership. In his 2020 dissertation on shame and coping in clinical supervision, Conrad Burbank found that supervisors can be a cause of a supervisees’ shame, which was my personal experience. This type of shame impacts not only the supervisee’s own development but also potentially the efficacy of counseling practices. If I am not open and honest with my supervisor about concerns that I have regarding a client because I fear being shamed by the supervisor, it could lead to detrimental outcomes for my client.
In a 2001 article published in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, William Hahn hypothesized that shame may be inherent in supervisory relationships. After all, a power differential exists between an experienced counselor and a new counselor. Supervisors and counselor educators need to advocate for healthy relationships in supervision so that new counselors continue to grow and develop, bolstering the profession, and clients are not impacted through their counselors’ avoidance of being shamed.
Steps to Avoid Shaming in Supervision
Supervisions can take action to avoid causing shame in supervision. Here are 10 recommendations to help supervisors identify and manage their supervisees’ shame:
- Create a safe atmosphere. Creating a safe environment includes having positive regard for your supervisee, being warm and responsive to their needs, and having a welcoming physical or online space to meet. This environment allows supervisees to feel secure discussing difficult topics and exploring feelings of inadequacy, experiences with countertransference and ethical dilemmas when working with clients. Without a safe atmosphere, supervisees may not disclose and may avoid bringing up these issues. My supervisor’s response, for example, shut down what might have been a productive and important learning moment for me as a new counselor.
- Intentionally build the supervisory relationship. As the more experienced member of the supervisory dyad, the supervisor has the responsibility to build the relationship. The supervisor should do so with intentionality and not assume that the relationship will automatically happen. Good relationships are formed when supervisors and supervisees share information about themselves in a mutual way — either formally in supervision meetings or informally at lunches, trainings or other times spent together. Supervisors can also ask their supervisees about their lives outside of counseling. For example, what do they enjoy doing outside of work? Get to know them not only as a counselor but also as a person and be willing to share about yourself with them.
- Encourage supervisees to be open, explorative and sometimes disagreeable. The supervisor should encourage supervisees to be open in their thinking, explore their feelings and potentially disagree with the supervisor by modeling these forms of critical thinking during supervision meetings. Disagreements can become a normal part of supervision if done in a professional manner and after a healthy relationship and a safe environment have been established. To do so, supervisors can regularly ask supervisees, “Tell me where you might disagree.”
- Discuss the differences between the supervisor and supervisee. Acknowledging differences between the supervisor and supervisee is helpful to normalize and model how to discuss these differences. Cultural and identity differences must be broached to dispel shame that is enacted by society and majority groups onto marginalized individuals. This also acts in parallel process to what supervisees must do with clients who are different from themselves. Supervisors must discuss topics such as age, race, gender identity and sexual identity; if they avoid discussing these differences, supervisees may get the message it is not OK to do so, thereby increasing felt shame.
- Invite the supervisee to openly critique the supervision. To normalize the process of the supervisee giving direct feedback to the supervisor, supervisors may want to build in time during supervision to invite the supervisee to openly critique the supervision itself. This also means that the supervisor needs to be willing and able to hear critical feedback. If this proves difficult, the supervisor should consider obtaining supervision themselves. (See number 10 for more information about this.)
- Practice well-timed and appropriate self-disclosure. Supervisees may believe that supervisors always know what to do and rarely make missteps or struggle with negative emotions. Appropriate self-disclosure can help to dispel these ideas and normalize the experiences all counselors have working with other people. A well-timed story of how you went through a similar experience may go a long way to assist the supervisee in their own management of shame. Be sure not to fall into the trap of storytelling and reminiscing about past cases and experiences; self-disclosure should be used only for the supervisee’s benefit.
- Acknowledge hierarchy and power. Supervisors must openly acknowledge the hierarchical nature of the supervisory relationship and the power differential that exists between the supervisor and supervisee. The supervisee and supervisor can work together to openly discuss their relationship, including the fact that it’s common to experience feelings of shame within supervision. When hierarchy issues emerge, supervisors can immediately reflect back to supervisees how they feel about them.
- Recognize how social and organizational structures may shame supervisees, especially those who identify as members of marginalized groups. Counselors do not operate in a vacuum; social and organizational structures can enact shame on different groups or individuals. Supervisors can explore supervisees’ thoughts and feelings on these systemic injustices within the safety of the well-bonded supervisory relationship. Supervisors must believe supervisees when they disclose these experiences and never minimize them.
- Understand that shame may need to be explored from a cultural lens. Both power and privilege exist in the supervisory relationship, which can affect not only the experience of shame but also the expression of shame. If supervisors recognize cultural differences (see number 4), then exploring supervisee shame can advance supervision, contribute to the supervisee’s learning and help develop a competent counselor.
- Manage your own feelings of shame. Managing a supervisee’s feelings of shame is difficult if the supervisor is also struggling with their own feelings of shame. If you notice countertransference related to supervisees sharing their feelings of shame, consult with colleagues or obtain your own counseling or supervision as needed. This may also have the added benefit of modeling to the supervisee that growth and development in the counseling field are ongoing processes.
Shame can often go unacknowledged by supervisors because they simply do not know it is happening. Therefore, it is important to increase awareness of shame in supervision. Feelings of shame force us to hide parts of ourselves and our actions to make us less vulnerable, but this is detrimental to counselor development, the clients we serve and the counseling profession. Instead, supervisors must help supervisees identify shame and then normalize and process it together.
Erin Goedegebuure, LPC, is the owner and director at Courtyard Counseling Center in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and a doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision at Shippensburg University. Her dissertation explores the relationship between shame and self-compassion across the span of counselor development, from individuals thinking of entering the field to those who have been counselors for 20 or more years. To be a participant in her research, please click here. To contact Erin or learn more about her research, please email her at email@example.com or visit her website at https://eg9034.wixsite.com/website.
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