Tag Archives: Counselor Wellness

Counselor Wellness

Adjustment disorder in the time of COVID-19

By Laura Sladky April 21, 2020

The inability to leave home; constantly accessing the 24-hour news cycle; fervent hand-washing and disinfecting; increasing anxiety; sleeplessness. These are just a few facets of the world’s new “normal.”

Doubtless, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the necessity of personal hygiene and the fragility of life. But while projections of decreased mental health states have been rolling in aside a slew of seemingly never-ending bad news, the media have generally failed to normalize the struggle for (nearly) everyone to adjust to this new way of life.

As professional counselors, we are braving telehealth, juggling our own mental health needs amid those of our clients, and helping friends and family members adjust to uncertainty and unemployment, all while trying to pepper in some self-care and generally navigate this unprecedented time for ourselves.

To begin, I would like to normalize adjustment disorder for ourselves as professionals. Depending on the timeline of our geographic location’s response to COVID, we may be relatively early in the process of testing, diagnosing and surviving this pandemic. As a result, most of us (understandably!) meet the criteria for emotional and behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor occurring within three months of the onset (read: the genesis of COVID-19 and adjustment disorder). Furthermore, we are remiss if we do not acknowledge our own social and occupational impairment as a result of this pandemic.

I share this not to wallow in the current reality but to normalize it. I see my friends and colleagues pouring out their every waking moment to address the needs of clients and families alike. Most counselors have seen a rise in their caseloads as the result of COVID-19, many times taking on new clients without having met them in person. Given these circumstances, truly, when are counselors given the space and time to not be whole? To not “have it together”? To not have the “answers”?

On a personal level, I have consumed more coffee, slept more disruptedly, worked out more, and nibbled on more snacks than I care to admit. I have unceremoniously become a school counselor who works from home (with a 12-step commute) and shares “office space” with my spouse. My cat is thrilled by the constant access to affection, but I cannot help but view my life in terms of discontinuity and extremes.

To you, my dear friends, comrades and colleagues, I say that we are in an unprecedented time with no predictable end date. We are responsible for ourselves both personally and professionally. We must take care of ourselves before we can help others (similar to the guidance we give to our clients). We must practice self-care. We must resist the urge to assuage our lack of control with overexposure to the news. We must resist the downward spiral.

A favorite text to which I often return in trying times or times of uncertainty is The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb. In this accessible text, Korb highlights how seemingly everyday behavior can improve our neurochemistry and continue to spiral us upward toward healthier levels of functioning. Lately, the aspects of this text I have found most salient are:

  • Work it (out): “Movement increases the firing rate of serotonin neurons, which causes them to release more serotonin.”

Fortunately for those of us quarantined at home, there is an endless supply of free streaming content from major workout companies, live workouts from trainers, and general gym enthusiasts who are willing to share their routines online. Whether you are a novice or a natural, make sure to get your body moving daily.

  • Set goals: “We are often under the impression that we are happy when good things happen to us. But in actuality, we are happiest when we decide to pursue a particular goal and then achieve it.”

This may seem counterintuitive in a crisis, but setting goals for ourselves can help increase our personal happiness. Personally? Running a marathon on my balcony won’t spark much joy, but for you, it might.

  • Get outside: “Bright sunlight helps boost the production of serotonin. It also improves the release of melatonin, which helps you get a better night’s sleep. So if you’re stuck inside, make an effort to go outside for at least a few minutes [in the middle of the] day. Go for a walk, listen to some music, or just soak in the sun.”

I cannot stress this enough: Whether it’s in between seeing clients or on your lunch break, if safety allows, please get outside. Nature provides us one of the most natural ways to improve our mood and connect to something larger than ourselves. This also might be an excellent time to assist your local animal shelter by taking some furry friends out too.

  • Maintain a sleep/wake schedule: “[Q]uality sleep is essential for learning and memory. In particular, sleep selectively enhances memory for future-relevant information, which helps you be more effective at achieving your goals. Furthermore, sleep enhances the learning for rewarding activities, which means you’ll have an easier time focusing on the positive.”

The best thing about sleep is that it resets reality and let’s us try again tomorrow; the worst thing about sleep is that it seems harder to attain in times of high stress. One of the best ways to ease your way into REM is to develop and uphold a sleep schedule that creates predictability for your body between night and day. Resist the urge to check your phone, consume caffeine or alcohol, work out, or engage in emotionally stimulating activities before bed. When we sleep at regular intervals, we are able to do our best thinking.

  • Practice gratitude: “Gratitude is powerful because it decreases envy and increases how much you value what you already have, which improves life satisfaction.”

This one hits differently, doesn’t it? We encourage our clients to practice gratitude and mindfulness often, but how much do we really practice it ourselves? I have recently encouraged myself (OK, maybe held an intervention with myself after a COVID-centered news binge) to begin the practice of physically writing down what I am grateful for on a daily basis. In my “regular life,” I often dismiss this practice on account of time and because it is something I “practice in my head.” Now that I am swimming in nothing but time, I am honing my practice.

While I cannot offer my friends and family members a timeline for this pandemic, I can offer them hope. While I cannot change each aspect of the world that is hurting, I can render psychological first aid to my corner of the world, help clients improve their mental health, and continue to grow despite hard times. Finally, while I cannot (and will not) offer my colleagues empty platitudes about how we can “live, laugh, love” our way through this, I will remind each of you that you are not alone. Your struggle is not a weakness, but rather a sign of your humanity. You are allowed to embrace your adjustment disorder to your new normal, and when you do, I’ll be right alongside you.












Laura Sladky is a licensed professional counselor intern and licensed chemical dependency counselor who currently works as a school counselor in Dallas, Texas. Contact her at l.perry09@gmail.com.


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.

Marathon vs. sprint: Building a sustainable career as a professional counselor

Compiled by Bethany Bray March 27, 2020

Professional clinical counselors who sustain their careers over decades have literally thousands of clients come through their doors. There’s no denying that the job is rewarding, but the daily grind of helping people overcome trauma, loss, addiction and other “heavy” challenges can wear on even the most resilient of practitioners.

This begs a question: How do counseling professionals maintain their energy and motivation across the years? What does it take to stay fresh and inspired day in, day out, rather than growing stagnant over time?

Lynda Diane Noffsinger, a licensed clinical mental health counselor supervisor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has found that her answer to this question is to stay curious. Noffsinger has been a professional counselor for close to three decades but says she is still learning every day. Just last year, she earned her credential as a certified eating disorder specialist.

Noffsinger has worked as a counselor in a variety of settings — at a mental health hospital, at a residential substance abuse program, at a college counseling center and in a private practice that she owned for 20 years. She says each role taught her not just new counseling skills and techniques but also more about herself.

For instance, when she worked briefly as a clinical counselor at a residential and outpatient eating disorders program, “I learned that I do not like an administrative role. I missed direct counseling, and I missed the community I called home,” says Noffsinger, a member of the American Counseling Association since 1999.

Most recently, in her role as a counselor at a practice that specializes in helping adults and adolescents with mood disorders, she immersed herself in a 30-hour online training program in dialectical behavior therapy. “From this work experience, I’ve learned I’m a clinician, and that’s what I do best. I have spread myself too thin at times, experienced burnout at times and, some days, I’ve ended the day bone-tired,” Noffsinger says. “However, since 1993, I wake up every workday and, as Viktor Frankl would say, I know what my purpose is and [that] my life has meaning. Twenty-seven years later, I still love the counseling profession.”

What does it take to stay fresh, inspired and energized over the long haul of a counseling career? Counseling Today recently collected insights about career longevity from American Counseling Association members of varied backgrounds and practice settings. Read their thoughts below.

What has kept you energized across the years of your career? How have you avoided stagnation? Add your voice to the conversation by leaving a comment at the bottom of this article.



In my 33rd year of private practice, I am grateful for a profession where we can work as long as we choose and our clients often see working with an older counselor as a good thing.

Compared with the early years of my practice, my clients have become a more diverse group. Half my clients are under 40. They come from a variety of ethnicities, races, religions and sexual orientations. My days are both busy and varied — what one client brings to therapy looks very different from the previous client or the next one. Along with continuing to work on my professional skills, maintaining cultural competence and relevance helps keep my professional life from becoming too routine. My clients challenge me to see life from fresh perspectives.

For more than 15 years, I’ve been part of a small peer supervision group. The group has been an enormous gift. We support and challenge each other and provide different points of view. As someone in a solo private practice, relationships with peers have helped me avoid feeling isolated or stale.

In talking with newer counselors — and in reflecting on my own development — I’ve often thought that counselors prioritize caring for clients over self-care. That’s hazardous. I’ve learned not to be endlessly accommodating of clients’ need to reschedule if that would overload my schedule and leave me exhausted. And I’ve learned to become comfortable with the business side of my practice.

As a young counselor, I knew I wanted a practice where my clients and I would make decisions about our work without interference from insurance providers. Choosing not to sit on insurance panels meant that my practice grew more slowly. In the early days, I worked part time for nonprofit [organizations] to make ends meet. Having a vision of how I wanted to work has allowed me to build a practice where I can earn a comfortable living while also maintaining reduced-fee spaces for limited-income clients.

Someone told me early in my career that the world doesn’t need any more “burned out do-gooders.” I have taken that advice to heart, and I’m grateful to my younger self for the faith, patience and commitment needed to build a professional life that sustains me while allowing me to be useful to my clients.

— John Ballew, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a solo private practice in Atlanta



What an honor it is to have been providing counseling services for over 35 years. I may be simply lucky, but I’d like to think that the fact that I have never experienced burnout and am still in love with my profession has more to do with an intentional emphasis on taking care of my own mental health.

There are a number of intentional activities that have sustained my balance, hope and energy for the profession over three-and-a-half decades. The most potent of these might be to stay in my own lane. Regardless of the job I do, I recognize that others will do it differently and not comparatively. I’ve both supervised and provided counseling for other professionals who find their energy zapped, their attitudes hostile and their work disrupted due to a comparative evaluation of colleagues as either better or worse in some area of the job.

An early mentor of mine encouraged me to realize that what another [counselor] does — except in cases of gatekeeping — is none of my worry and that others might rise if they feel support and care. This has led me to celebrate my peers’ work, to be open to learning from them, and to generally feel positive about heading into the workplace in each of the venues [in which] I’ve been honored to work. The closest I’ve come to burnout involved colleagues who were unjustly negative. It’s truly an art to turn that around.

This leads me to the second most powerful agent of enthusiasm building: learning. I am a lifelong learner. I deeply value finding new theory, technique, strategy and skill and, even more, a deeper understanding and wisdom regarding the human condition. I just reread, along with one of my Gonzaga classes, [Viktor Frankl’s] Man’s Search for Meaning to jump-start our trek of discovery this semester.

This is related to a third factor: I mix up my work and the populations I serve. I teach, provide community prevention services, crisis intervention, group work, couples and family work, and individual counseling with as diverse a set of individuals as I can in my community. It’s never dull, I am never bored, and I am constantly learning more about each person and about humanity at large. I’m constantly reminded to advocate where needed but to not turn my attention to embitterment.

  Elisabeth Bennett, a professor at Gonzaga University who has had a counseling practice treating couples, families and individuals in Spokane, Washington, for 35 years



Sixty years ago, with new graduate degree in hand, I was hired as a school counselor. My counseling career had begun. Over the years, it has taken different shapes as jobs, settings, responsibilities and functions changed. Then, 21 years ago, I gave up tenure, license, income and position to retire. From the beginning to the official end of my active career, I have been energized, shaped, nurtured and sustained by an intense fascination with people.

My graduate education, combined with my fascination, shaped the way I interacted with people when I wore the hat of counselor or educator. Focusing on how people communicate and relate as casual friends continues to hold my attention. In both my professional and personal life, I have worked to be aware of that fuzzy line that separates intense conversation from therapeutic response, and I have worked hard to respect boundaries — both for myself and for the person or persons in the other half of the communication.

Early in my graduate education, I was given the maxim: “Counselor, know thyself.” It has been a guiding principle. Throughout my active career, regional and national conferences fed me with new ideas, refined techniques, and gave me rewarding interactions with professional colleagues and friends. I have always tried to have a group to whom I felt some accountability and who could assist me in that self-knowledge arena. In retirement, I have a regular group of friends to keep me grounded but without the professional expectation.

In retirement, I increased my volunteer activities in noncounseling situations that still required that I be a listening, caring individual. As example, for several years I facilitated a group of caregivers who met to share the pain and stress accompanying that role. I was facilitator, not group therapist. It worked for them and for me and was richly rewarding.

There came a day when I realized that my hearing loss and my inability to keep all the details of a conversation in my mind were affecting my facilitation skill. I knew myself. And I knew that my performance fell short of my expectations. Knowing myself means knowing what to do; it also means knowing when to quit.

I have had a good professional life. The fascination with people that moved me into my career remains high. It continues to sustain me in retirement. I hope it will continue to do so.

  Brooke B. Collison, an emeritus professor of counselor education at Oregon State University and a fellow and past president (1987-1988) of ACA



When I started my counseling training in 1990, I knew I wanted to pair expressive arts therapies with counseling. That has helped me build a long-term career. We artists recognize creation as a metaphoric marathon versus a sprint. The first draft of an art project does not have the rich depth of the final product.

Artists recognize that the path of producing a work of art — like an actual marathon in comparison to a sprint — travels a variety of landscapes such that the path often doubles back on itself. You revisit various aspects of each work of art and massage each aspect until each art piece feels completed.

Others, of course, have spoken of the art of counseling. I add to their words as I invite the dance of creation, which is different than a marathon or a sprint because creation involves movement that is more varied than running. When we are schooled, we are advised to do our own therapy, and that is key.

As we do the energetic dance of relationship with our clients, those dances will stir the dances we have shut down. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory and Peter Levine’s understanding of trauma patterning help us recognize the burst of intense feeling that awakens moves that have been mired in shutdown.

When we lose interest in expanding our movement repertoire because we sense an intense awakening, we may push ourselves to work robotically and eventually burn out. When we risk the drama, we awaken a presence that brightens our time with our grandchildren [and] helps us appreciate the journeys of our adult kids and those of our lovers. Finding presence allows us to pause to snuggle with our cats and walk our dogs around the block.

  Dee Wagner, an LPC and board-certified dance therapist at The Link Counseling Center in Atlanta for 26 years



What does it take to sustain a counselor over the long haul of a professional career?

For me, it has taken a lot of work on myself and paying attention to my needs outside of the counseling chair. If I have put my mask on first for oxygen, I am much more able to help others with theirs. When I haven’t done so, I struggle more, I stagnate more, and I find myself more frustrated. I also have truly come to believe that everything you ask a client to do, you better have done yourself. Whether that’s a sand tray therapy exercise, an expressive art technique, thought stopping, or getting to the gym, you have to do the work too.

What has kept you passionate?

There are two things that have really kept me passionate. First, every kid and family I have worked with and their willingness to show me their world and be vulnerable. This inspires me each day, and I try not to forget it. Second, supervising counselors-in-training, seeing them wade through this wonderful process, and being a part of their professional journey.

What are some lessons you’ve learned?

I think the biggest lesson I have learned so far is that I really feel like I know less and less each day. What I mean by that is I have learned to trust the process and pay attention to when I am trying too hard. When I first started practicing, I had no idea what this phrase “trust the process” meant. Now, I can feel it, see it, and have really come to appreciate it.

What does it take to stay fresh, day in, day out, and avoid stagnation?

Kids in the playroom always keep things exciting. Moreover, I try to remember that counseling is difficult for people, and I will never be doing them a service by merely making them feel good about themselves. Care is only shown in the tough stuff. Remembering that it is an honor and privilege to do this work always pulls me out of a jam in my own headspace.

  Quinn K. Smelser, an LPC, registered play therapist and doctoral candidate in counseling at George Washington University who has specialized in play therapy and trauma training. She is also a clinical instructor at Loyola University Maryland, where she teaches school counseling students and will soon offer play therapy courses.



When you’re at the beginning of your career is probably when you have the most stamina. You’re excited, you’re pumped, and you have great ideas. You’ve spent years and years learning and deciding on what you’ll do, and you’ve been dreaming about the day when you’re finally there. You get the career, and the hardest part in the beginning is [that] you still have to learn some more. You must master the specifics about your colleagues, your location and your administration. More importantly, you have to learn what you’re capable of. The first few years is more learning, and you need the patience to dedicate the time to observe. Whenever a race is started, we all fight the instinct to jump out of the gate, but you need patience and persistence if your goal is long term.

As you’re learning the career and carefully collecting knowledge, it’s important to build up your reputation, also known as your street credibility or “street cred.” You build up your reputation by showing up, being reliable and completing tasks. Be careful not to overcommit because if you miss deadlines or turn in inferior work, that becomes your reputation. The learning years help you figure out what that perfect balance will be — how much you can handle, what you can complete quickly, and what requires more effort and dedication on your part.

Once you have a good reputation and you’ve figured out the key players, you build up your crew, your squad, your allies, etc. Finding this group will help you brainstorm when you’re stuck, vent when you’re fed up and considering quitting, and inspire you to keep going. How do you meet these amazing people? Professional organizations. Attending conferences, meeting like-minded professionals and joining committees is where you’ll find these treasures. Stay in touch, and make the effort to stay involved with each other in between conferences. Having good people in your inner circle is worth their weight in gold.

Lastly, create healthy boundaries. We are not only our careers. We are family members, we are artists, we enjoy hobbies, and we’re involved in our communities in different capacities. Make sure you are getting fulfilled in all areas of your life, and dedicate time to all the things that matter. Practice makes perfect, and you will find out the equations and quantities that work best for you.

  Margarita Martinez, an academic success counselor and curriculum chair for student development at Northern Virginia Community College who also serves as vice president for Latinx concerns for the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD), as secretary of the Virginia Counselors Association, and as co-chair of the strategic plan committee for the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling



The person of the counselor is one of the most important elements in the counseling office. Participating in one’s own counseling, then, is crucially important. Creating a space to address one’s own past hurts and current relational self makes a counselor more able to see and to have compassion for themselves and for those sitting across from them.

When I participate in my own counseling, it helps me to remember what it is like to sit in the waiting room, in that awkward space of waiting, with ambivalence and yet longing to be seen. It helps me to remember the anxiety over what to say or how to answer a difficult question. But most importantly, tending to my own ongoing healing creates a generativity in me for this work. It produces more space within me to care for others in deep and authentic ways.

Also, we must continue to cultivate our own interests. This year I have been on a growth edge, learning how the feminine body holds stories in its fiber and its tissues. I have found a renewed sense of excitement as I learn. Learning can be fun, and it can also be restorative. Such learning, then, has a direct impact in the counseling room. When I am excited and growing, my work with others is much more fluid and energetic.

In addition to the above, gathering a good community of people around oneself bodes well for long-term health. Health is found in belonging. Counseling is often isolating, and it can be an easy place to hide. Such hiding and isolation are the stuff of guilt and shame and not of health and healing. Because of such potential workplace hazards, I have a consult group of friends and colleagues whom I respect. They are people who push deep into my life and into my work. They are people who challenge me and know my inner world. I would not be able to do the work I do without having these people — and others like them — in my life, caring for and loving on me, in my goodness but also in my messiness. Honesty with my consult group turns into honesty in my counseling office, all the while keeping me grounded in remembrance of how hard it is to be vulnerable.

  Laura Wade Shirley, a wife, mother of three, licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and teacher in Washington state. She worked with children and families in community mental health for three years, prior to opening a private practice in 2003. Since 2006, she has also taught and supervised students at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in practicum and case conference classes.



When I reflect on lessons learned to sustain my counseling career, two thoughts come to mind. The first is accepting who I am and who I am not. The second is the importance of a peer group whom I can be completely vulnerable with.

We often talk to our clients about being true to themselves. Previously, I was comparing myself to other counselors, which is not mentally healthy. I saw other counselors were receiving the most up-to-date training in their niche areas, and I wondered if I was doing enough. However, in checking in with myself, I was setting myself up for burnout. Comparing myself or going for training because I see others doing so, not because it is my area of specialization, is not what is going to sustain me for the long haul. However, I also know the importance of avoiding stagnation. It is then that I realized I need to attend my own training to keep my clinical skills sharp, while focusing on pursing additional training in my own area of focus. One cannot be an expert in everything. I had to be true to myself, just as we ask of our clients.

The second realization I had is how invaluable a group of peers is who will listen and not judge. In Irvin Yalom’s book Becoming Myself, he discusses a peer group he met with where they could talk about anything that might be impacting their practice while [still] respecting client privacy. This could range from personal problems to countertransference. While I am an advocate of counselors attending their own counseling as needed, I have also found my group of peers — whom I know I can have honest discussions with about myself, or them with me — to be the primary source of keeping me fresh and available, day in, day out, to my clients. Having peers who are available and nonjudgmental is fundamental.

Having a solid identity as a clinician and knowing who my people are, are major factors in not only sustaining my career but maintaining my inspiration and motivation.

  Deanna Johnston, an LPC who owns a private practice in College Station, Texas



When I think about [career] sustainability, I think about feeling appreciated and respected by my immediate supervisor and included by my colleagues with whom I have a trusting and supportive environment. And, of course, I need to feel compensated for my work and feel that I am valued by the institution in terms of my pay. With those things in place, I’ve always felt that I can tackle the tasks at hand and be creative. That being said, I have enjoyed collaborating with colleagues, early career professionals and students at all levels — undergraduate, master’s and doctoral.

This is how I would define workplace sustainability and job satisfaction. These are my most critical factors in remaining in a career for the long haul. This has been especially true for people of color and members of other marginalized groups. Research findings have suggested that we are far too often not supported by our peers nor by our supervisors and, as a result, we become targets of workplace bullying and implicit bias. This has led to the exodus of many talented counselors [and] counselor educators who are pushed out of promising careers.

What keeps me passionate about the work are, by far, my mentoring experiences. In every position that I’ve held, I have tried to pass on my knowledge about leadership, research, teaching and relationship-building. It has been a tremendous pleasure to see my former students acquire jobs and begin mentoring others. I feel content knowing that there is another generation of counselor educators and practitioners who have embraced the ideals that I have shared and wish to pass on these ways of being to others. I am thrilled to see how they have owned and advanced my research and teaching philosophy. And I am constantly challenged by new ideas and beliefs that they hold.

My most important lesson learned is that I am only a cog in a wheel. I have contributed to the profession to the best of my ability, but my ultimate goal is to be replaced by more energetic and passionate early career scholars and practitioners. I love to stay, but I’ll love to go even more. Generativity is a good thing.

  Cirecie A. West-Olatunji, a professor of counseling and director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Research at Xavier University of Louisiana. She is also editor of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development and a past president of both ACA (2013-2014) and AMCD.



There are many things that I have worked on in order to prevent burning out. One of the main factors in preventing burnout has been maintaining strong boundaries when it comes to my family. It is necessary for me to put my family first and not allow my work to overshadow them. The first thing I did after establishing my LLC [limited liability company counseling practice] was to purchase a separate phone so that I could shut it off when necessary. I do not take on more clients or supervisees than my schedule can handle, and I have learned to say “no.” This can be challenging when, as counselors, we just want to be there for everyone.

What has kept me passionate? Clients. Listening to, processing and being a part of clients’ stories gives me life. There have been times in my career when I was not seeing clients due to school or pregnancy. When I stepped back into the counseling space, I was renewed and reminded of what I love about being a counselor. I have also found that working with students and young professionals has been rejuvenating. I can recall being in their shoes. Assisting them on their journey to become a counselor is immensely rewarding.

A valuable lesson that I have learned is to live each moment of your process rather than completing things simply to check boxes. I did that, to a degree, early on in my training and career. I have since learned the importance of growing with each experience and not for a moment thinking that I have it all figured out. Continuing to learn from my peers, my clients and my mentors is a process I will never outgrow.

Education and learning have always been central in my life. Staying interested in what is new or on the horizon helps me to avoid stagnation as a clinician and supervisor. I can always try something new — or even something old in a new way. Working with populations that I love and feeling that I am helping others in some small way allow me to continue without feeling my work is mundane.

Clients and supervisees will never cease to amaze me with their stories, their strength and their resilience. I feel honored to be able to be a small part of their story.

  Christina McGrath Fair, an LMHC at GentleWave Counseling, Consultation and Clinical Supervision in Stuart, Florida



The challenge to remain fresh depends greatly on my ability to effectively manage my time. Revelations surrounding my career — sex therapy — are an everyday occurrence, with issues ranging from sex education [and] advocacy [to] societal influences and legislation. My task is to discern how much time and energy are placed on the given subject. One day, a legislative bill threatens the rights of sexual minorities; the next day, multicultural interventions for the trans community are explored.

Human sexuality is so fluid, any staleness on my part would deem me an ineffective counselor. I often choose topics [to explore] that I am unfamiliar with or that are highly controversial. The opportunities to stay fresh on things relevant to sexuality are ubiquitous. It is just a matter of allocating the appropriate time to the appropriate issue.

I truly believe that I embarked on my counseling career decades ago, although I have been seeing clients for [only] two years. A long-term counseling career is synonymous with a long-term parenting career or long-term partner career. Counseling, similar to parenting and partnering, is innately what I do and have done for years. The particulars — CEUs, licensure, certifications, etc. — are the extenuating factors, but I have been educating, advocating, learning and counseling for years.

For me, building a long-term counseling career comes as natural as breathing. The less organic aspect is establishing a business based on my counseling career. Fortunately, my awesome support system and deep respect for entrepreneurship allow me to feel optimistic and excited about building a business around my career as a sex therapist.

Sustaining my motivation or passion for sex therapy is relatively easy. I don’t have to plan for it or think about it. When I awake in the morning, I’m reminded of the importance of intimacy and communication with my partner. As I interact with my daughters every morning, I’m reminded of the importance of sex-positive messages that occur throughout their formative years, particularly as they develop their sexual identities. When I talk or listen to people about their insecurities or their level of dissonance, I’m reminded of how misinformation, society, trauma and self-perceptions can adversely alter the trajectory of a beautiful soul.

There is no plan or preemptive thought of how to stay motivated. Life is gracious enough to constantly remind me that people deserve to exist without the harsh barriers that impede sexual wellness.

  Cheryl D. Walker, a sex therapist and associate professional counselor in private practice in Atlanta



The climb to a successful career as a licensed mental health counselor has been both challenging and satisfying.

As a middle-aged woman returning to higher education, this was my first challenge as I struggled just with that decision. Did I really want to dive in, and would I be ready for the rigor of learning? Would I do well with the time and expense commitment? Would my children and husband be supportive … and was it truly OK to be self-full? I knew it was now or never as the clock ticked on.

I know now it was the right timing and decision. I know appreciating the classroom learning, possibly for the first time in my life, was a huge benefit because I could fully direct my focus without the distractions of starting and caring for a young family.

No sugarcoating here: Working in agencies was truly brutal from a systems perspective. I took some solid lumps by inadvertently stepping on management toes. The challenge of working with clients, while most important, became second to fulfilling the job requirement of productivity. I remain very grateful to have survived the mill-type atmosphere of clients in and out. I gained such amazing clinical experience and somehow managed to be regarded as a good counselor professionally. I would encourage people going through this portion of the climb to connect with counselors, co-workers and physicians with whom they feel commonality because they will be your future collaborators and colleagues in private practice or agency [work].

What sustained me was keeping my focus on my professional goal to be a licensed counselor and eventually to own my private practice. I look back and realize I was strong even when I felt inadequate or resource-less. I’ve learned these feelings are transient and never fixed, so I trust the journey.

Seeking your professional “peeps” in regular monthly meetings that you commit to in your schedule is golden and leads to the gifts of shared respect, as well as referral pools for your — and their — clients.

I’ve learned to value what I still need to learn, [including] aspects of private practice not covered in my education or practical work and the business end of owning a business. [I recommend that counselors] hire out what you don’t know or aren’t great at until you learn it yourself. Also, keep up with learning new theories because the freshness of exploring interesting trainings [will] always complement what you know so well already. My practice is eclectic because I enjoy variety, and it has been truly exciting.

The best advice I can give now that I’ve been self-employed for a while is to allow yourself regular self-care with vacations or staycations filled with calm, fun and levity. The balance is needed, not at all a luxury.

  Lena Kieliszak, an LMHC in private practice in Rochester, New York



We all sing the songs we need to hear. By trade, I am a counselor educator and a counselor whose practice is made up largely of clients who are serving in helping, healing or ministry positions. Really, in many ways, my clients are people just like me.

So, what’s your song? Kindness? Self-compassion? Tending to empty thought patterns? Engaging in better self-care? It is our humanity that frees and guides us in our work with others. It is our humanity that breeds care and compassion, the hallmarks of neural/psychological/interpersonal integration, per Dan Siegel. Because I am human, I have needs and wants, not all of which get met. I know what it means to suffer. I know what it means to experience pain and to wish for ways to relieve it or deny it. I know what it’s like to find myself returning to unhelpful patterns of thinking and acting, time and time again. Because I am human, I have a song to sing.

I hope it can be said that I am far more human than I was when I first started this work 20 years ago. If we are all on a journey of becoming who we already are, then engaging with the work of others has offered me tender moments of being mirrored in my own humanity. The reality is that I need connection just as much as my clients do. Our profession has nomenclature — countertransference, getting triggered or activated, projection, collusion, etc. — that can tend to pathologize the humanness of the encounters we may experience with those who sit across from us. But part of the rich delight in doing this work — and part of what has allowed me to log 20 years at it and to be ready for another 20 more — is that I get to hear myself say things that I need to hear as much as my clients [need to hear them]. The frame of counseling and the counseling relationship holds not just my clients, but me too.

For me, what’s most sustaining is what inevitably comes when I am full and receptive: [being] open to hearing, in whatever form and from whatever voice possible, the song I need to hear. My humanity, my work and my longevity in the field all depend on it.

  Doug Shirley, an LMHC with a private practice in the Seattle area and assistant professor of counseling at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology



Early in my career as a professional counselor, I began to see that stepping into the world of [my] clients on a regular basis with my full attention and whole heart could leave me depleted and carrying concern for these clients long after the sessions were over. In response, I took care of myself by journaling, drawing and painting to allow space for my mind to simply be and to process my experiences. I began to set boundaries to remind myself when I could just be “Adele,” take care of my own needs, and engage in living life to the fullest.

There were times I took a break from the counseling field and worked in other similar people-oriented fields, but I missed that deep personal meaning from the counseling experience. So, I sought variety in the positions or environments in which I could engage in this role rather than stepping out of it completely. Through time, I also found a wider range of ways to express myself and release tension, stress or worry, such as running, taking drawing classes and enjoying acupuncture or massage.

Later, I invigorated my therapeutic approach by becoming trained in using sand tray therapy to bring clients’ experiences to life in ways they could not simply tell me. Seeing the power of clients exploring their experiences in the sand and seeing their issues in a new way was so exciting. Most recently, I became certified in yoga to apply the powerful healing effects of mindfulness, meditation and release of tension. Invigorating my counseling practice by attending more specialized workshops allowed me to draw upon new methods and delivery of a range of treatment strategies that are impactful, effective and, at times, even fun.

Compassion fatigue from the demands of this role can take its toll on counselors. During my doctoral studies on this topic, I uncovered that counselors continually engage in empathy but may not find ways to close the deep concern needed to draw upon empathy. This was a real “aha!” moment for me. No supervisor had ever quite framed it for me this way. So, I developed ways to extend client empathy with purpose but then to step back out of it with clear intention.

Focusing on growing, being curious, and engaging in self-care has helped me to stay buoyant while navigating these powerful and deeply fulfilling experiences over the past 25 years.

  Adele Logan O’Keefe, an LPC and owner/director of Sage Counseling & Wellness in Lexington, Virginia



I have managed my own private practice since 2006, and maintaining meaning and engagement has been a purposeful and intentional goal. I enjoy the marketing aspect of being a business owner, and I have made it a priority to stay current with technology and move into areas that do not come naturally to me, such as blogging and social media.

Thanks to Twitter, I follow meaningful cultural shifts worldwide. I listen to radio stations and podcasts with differing political views, as well as trending corporate leadership. Our mental health care reach is limitless, with DIY videos on YouTube, numerous virtual specialty groups on Facebook, and compelling personal disclosure at the hands of terrific authors with diverse backgrounds. I enjoy reading the Stoics as well as firsthand accounts of military culture from Navy SEALs [and of] high-achieving athletes — true psychological warriors reminding me to be the best version of myself.

It is healthy and appropriate to recognize my own areas of expertise and competence (therapists can be ambitious and confident too). As I learn my strengths and feel confident in that footing, I am more comfortable admitting to areas that need more growth and insight.

I so appreciate colleagues who have become friends. We chat often, consult, meet for walks and coffee. This is integral to my well-being and mental health. Private practice is a lonely proposition, and no one should go it alone.

I recently organized an open house for my office building. It was a true hodgepodge of small business owners with the primary goal to provide public awareness. The secondary gain was cross-referred business and a budding community.

An annual live continuing education training is always beneficial, and preferably not in my own backyard. Most recently, I drove an hour away, checked into a hotel and ordered room service (an act of self-care). The next day brought new friends and colleagues.

I encourage fresh ideas and the continued advancement of our field, such as Silicon Valley’s tech money currently being invested in psychedelic research.

My daily unwind is a meditative, 1,000-piece puzzle in the evenings. If my family feels like chatting, they can find me there. A completed puzzle gives me a sense of accomplishment. Every piece found its niche and is perfect in the end.

  Christina Neumeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Carlsbad, California



My identity as a professional counselor has grown in importance to me over the years as I’ve come to witness and experience the extraordinary need for our work and the positive impact we can make for individuals, families and communities. Witnessing growth, change and increased well-being with clients has been a sustaining factor in my ability to stay fresh, passionate and engaged during my career. Also, the ability to shift my focus from being a school-based counselor to becoming a health educator/coach while using my skill set and strong commitment to wellness has fed my ability to sustain. Becoming more involved in cross-cultural trainings as a trainee and then facilitator has been integral these past few years to actively address injustices and inequitable situations that clients suffer from. I feel strongly compelled to do this work as our world becomes more challenging to live within for so many people.

Keeping myself well so that I may do this work includes intentionally eating healthfully, physically moving my body in ways I joyfully anticipate regularly, drinking lots of water, getting adequate sleep and rest, receiving supportive supervision and personal counseling, and pursuing my pleasures as often as possible (time with family and friends, reading, traveling, and playing with my kitten, Daisy).

I never want to leave the profession because it is a part of me. I think I will always want to do this work in some capacity for at least a bit of time as I age.

Knowing what I know now, I could give this advice to myself at the beginning of my career: “Relax! You’ve got this. You are well-suited to share love and support with those you encounter. Take care of yourself as well as you encourage others to do for themselves.”

  Julie Bloomfield, an LPC and health educator and coach at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson, Michigan




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


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

@TechCounselor: Managing the culture of breaking news

By Adria Dunbar March 23, 2020

In the very beginning, social media sites, such as Facebook and Instagram, were more about connecting with people you know in real life or updating your profile to reflect the ways in which you hoped others would see you. The addition of the Facebook newsfeed (and its Instagram equivalent), however, changed everything.

The definition of news is “newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events.” I don’t know about you, but in my experience it has become harder to filter that which is noteworthy and important from that which is not. My newsfeeds are filled with everything from sponsored advertisements to photos of random acquaintances’ travel adventures. Mixed in, there are local events that I’m interested in attending, close friends’ and family’s announcements of major life events, and comments addressed to me. The problem is a newsfeed treats each of these pieces of information with the same attention. It’s all breaking news, and we receive it as such, and this has an impact.

Breaking news! Someone I haven’t spoken to in 20 years made pancakes for breakfast.

Breaking news! A close friend is in need of help finding a counselor for her daughter.

Breaking news! A piece of legislation that impacts counselors and other mental health professionals has been introduced and needs counselor support.

How do we, as counselors, regain control of our newsfeeds? How do we help clients do the same? The first step is reflecting on the impact of this breaking news culture on your personal and professional life. Consider the following:

  • How much time do you spend filtering through your newsfeed? Is this an amount you feel comfortable with?
  • After reading your newsfeed, how do you feel? Happy? Productive? Or distracted and stressed?
  • In what ways do you find yourself mindlessly or mindfully interacting with your newsfeeds?
  • How do you access your newsfeed? Does the context affect your behavior? For example, I do not have the Facebook mobile app on my iPhone. I only check my newsfeed from my laptop to ensure that I am not filling random 5-15 minute downtime intervals with mindless scrolling.
  • Think about the timing of when you ingest breaking news. For example, checking a newsfeed first thing in the morning can set the tone for your day or decide how you direct your morning energy and attention.

The next step is to make changes that help you manage breaking news, such as:

  • Consider removing apps with newsfeeds from your mobile device.
  • Hide your newsfeed completely from the desktop version of social media sites.
  • Eliminate—or hide– people, pages or accounts that are not having a positive impact (both Twitter and Facebook allow you to “mute” rather than unfriend or unfollow).
  • Narrow your follow or friend list to 25-50 people and pages that are most meaningful to you.
  • Turn off notifications to avoid constant distraction

Technology, while helpful in many ways, has created a daily existence that calls for our attention to be pulled in many different directions at once. This can leave us, and our clients, feeling distracted, scattered, and stressed. By intentionally filtering our newsfeeds to better match our values, we can stop the relentless breaking news from breaking through so only that which is most important gains our attention.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves when filtering information through social media and traditional media outlets. Let’s all please take care of ourselves so that we can continue to do the work of taking care of others. It’s OK to set boundaries, create buffers, and take breaks.



Adria S. Dunbar is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She has more than 15 years of experience with both efficient and inefficient technology in school settings, private practice and counselor education. Contact her at adria.dunbar@ncsu.edu.

@TechCounselor’s Instagram is @techcounselor.



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.

Counselors as human beings, not superheroes

By Bethany Bray September 23, 2019

I’m only human after all

I’m only human after all

Don’t put the blame on me

Don’t put the blame on me

These lyrics played over and over on radio airwaves in 2017 as the rock-and-blues-infused single “Human,” by British singer-songwriter Rag’n’Bone Man, topped the charts.

Given the role they play in helping others to overcome challenges and live their best lives, professional counselors are sometimes assumed to themselves be impervious to life’s challenges. But in truth, they’re “only human after all,” not superheroes. The personal and intense nature of professional counselors’ work can spill over into their lives outside of the office — and vice versa. And the very skills and instincts that make them good counselors, including a passion for helping others, can leave them vulnerable to “what if” thinking and even burnout if left unchecked.

“One of our strengths is also one of our weaknesses. We have a lot of emotion and empathy, and we have to channel it. It can be like a river that overflows its banks,” says Samuel Gladding, a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and a past president of the American Counseling Association. “It’s kind of like water and a spigot. If you don’t turn off the water in your house, you either run out of water or pay a very high price to the water company. If you don’t cut off your thoughts about clients, you also pay a very high price.”

Clinical counselors may routinely second-guess whether they are doing enough to help clients or wonder how a client who is no longer under their care is now doing. If left unchecked, such thoughts can become all-consuming and impede on a counselor’s personal relationships and overall wellness.

Neither are counselors automatically immune to the problems with which clients struggle, from anxiety and depression to grief, trauma and unhealthy coping behaviors. Holding a counseling degree or license also doesn’t guarantee that practitioners will make all the right decisions when it comes to their own personal relationships. A misunderstanding with a spouse or partner or a discipline issue with a child can seem all the more frustrating for a professional counselor who works on relationship building and communication with clients on a daily basis.

Learning to manage such issues often comes with time, as counseling professionals gain experience. But it also takes a measure of intentionality, from consulting with colleagues and engaging in professional development activities to practicing good self-care and setting boundaries, Gladding says.

It’s also helpful to accept that it is not a matter of if: Personal and professional issues will intertwine, and challenges will crop up throughout a counselor’s career. The key, Gladding says, is recognizing them and being open to growth — the same mindset that counselors use with their clients.

“We, as counselors, have our struggles,” he says. “If we’re wise, we acknowledge them, are aware of them, and work with others to resolve them and open up. Like Albert Ellis said, we’re fallible human beings. We’re not going to be perfect, and we’re going to make mistakes.”

Blurred lines

It’s likely that counselors will face a personal crisis, loss or upheaval at some point (or at various points) throughout their careers. Counselors are no strangers to mental health disorders, divorce, trauma, addiction problems, and other issues that bring clients to therapy. In most situations, however, it is not feasible for counselors to stop working until their personal issues resolve.

The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics does not address this scenario directly. However, it does caution against practitioner impairment (see standards C.2.g. and F.5.b. at counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics). Professional counselors are called to “monitor themselves for signs of impairment from their own physical, mental, or emotional problems and refrain from offering or providing professional services when impaired.” At the same time, the ethics code urges counselors to help colleagues and supervisors recognize when they are impaired and to “intervene as appropriate to prevent imminent harm to clients.”

This begs the question: How does a counselor know when he or she is becoming impaired? Self-awareness and honesty — with self and with colleagues — are imperative, Gladding says. Warning signs will be different for each individual but might include feeling hesitant or reluctant to go into client sessions or experiencing intense emotions, including anger, during and after sessions.

“Just like we would report a client who is a danger to themselves or others … when we see our colleagues or fellow counselors being impaired or not doing well, we have a responsibility to confront them, talk about it, and offer them help,” says Gladding, a licensed professional counselor (LPC).

Practitioners need to know their own boundaries and to be able to recognize when they are “tiptoeing on boundaries” that can signal impairment, says Jessica Lloyd-Hazlett, an LPC and an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Being able to admit that you’re impaired as a counselor is difficult but vitally important.

Lloyd-Hazlett experienced the depths of grief after her mother passed away in June 2018. She continued teaching through the summer, but that fall, she found herself feeling irritable, becoming easily overwhelmed, and “struggling to simply show up to class and be in front of students.”

She could still push herself to do what needed to be done, but on most days, she struggled, Lloyd-Hazlett recalls. It was then, through a combination of self-awareness and some gentle intervention and support from friends and co-workers, that she realized she needed to take a step back and seek counseling herself.

“The things that you want to sweep under the rug, those are the hardest and are the things that are going to come back and bite you,” says Lloyd-Hazlett, a member of ACA. “Realize that. Recognize when you’re trying to sweep things away.”

Although it is vital to have a support system in place, Lloyd-Hazlett says no amount of preparation will fully shield counselors from situations that can cause professional impairment. That’s why it is important for counselors to be able to recognize when they’re in over their heads and to be willing to seek help.

“In our profession, one of our responsibilities is being well so that you can bring yourself [to clients and students] authentically,” she says. “My mom’s death was a huge experience, but we have little ones all the time that give us a chance to practice self-care and self-reflection. Have an ongoing willingness to practice what we preach. [Self-care and self-reflection] can be buffers prior to coming into something severe. At the same time, there’s a measure that you can’t prepare for. It’s going to be hard and nasty. It’s important to have those skills and practices to be able to come back to, and [to] seek outside help.”

When helpers need help

Lloyd-Hazlett had assumed she was ready for her mother’s death because she and the rest of her family had so much time to prepare; her mother had been ill for more than 20 years with multiple sclerosis. When she visited her mother in hospice for the final time, they were able to share a special connection and say goodbye, even though her mother had lost the ability to speak.

Cognitively, Lloyd-Hazlett understood grief, both from her counselor training and from having personally counseled clients who were grieving. But when her mother actually passed away, Lloyd-Hazlett found that she wasn’t as prepared for it as she had thought. She describes the experience as a “ripping open,” as something that shook her to her core.

Lloyd-Hazlett was in a work meeting when she got the phone call telling her that her mother had passed away. Despite her mother’s many years of declining health, the news still came as a shock to Lloyd-Hazlett. She recalls returning to the work meeting and trying to function until a co-worker pulled her aside and urged her to take some time for herself to process the news.

Lloyd-Hazlett recommends that counselors dealing with personal issues make a point of identifying the “safe people” in their lives who won’t shy away from talking with them about tough topics and personal struggles. Determine who can “help you recognize what is going on and be there with you — not try and fix [you], but provide hope,” she says, adding that she learned that recommendation in a grief support group.

Many factors have played a role in bolstering Lloyd-Hazlett through her grief, but she says the most important was making the decision to seek individual and group counseling for herself. It was freeing, she says, to participate in group work simply as “Jessica, who is grieving her mom,” instead of “Jessica, the counselor.”

In addition, the experience of being guided and cared for by another practitioner helped her let go of nagging thoughts and feelings of “I should be able to do this,” she says. It was liberating to accept that she did not have answers at that time in her life, she adds.

Another aspect of Lloyd-Hazlett’s healing process has been learning to label her struggles as grief instead of shortcomings. After the death of her mother, Lloyd-Hazlett initially felt a sense of shame that she was somehow slacking or falling behind in her work as a counselor educator. Supportive co-workers suggested to her that she might want to rethink and adjust the schedule of classes she had set for herself. After seeking help and attending counseling, Lloyd-Hazlett came to realize that her need to lighten her workload now and then was a symptom of grief, not a personal failure on her part. In the months that followed, she canceled classes on a couple of occasions or had someone else fill in for her when she needed a break.

Lloyd-Hazlett says the experience of processing her mother’s death while working has taught her that personal struggles “are going to happen in our lives and our careers as we develop and grow.” It has also allowed her to experience the full length and depth of the grief that often brings clients to counselors’ doors, while giving her greater appreciation for the supports in her life, including her co-workers, friends and loving husband.

In addition, it has sparked an interest in providing grief work or hospice counseling to clients at some point in the future. For now, however, Lloyd-Hazlett knows she has more grieving of her own to do before she is ready to help those going through their own seasons of loss.

“The human experience is hard. It’s OK, and it’s good and beautiful,” she says. “There’s going to be loss and change [during a counselor’s career]. It’s going to be part of the process. There’s a reason why our code of ethics talks about these things. It’s not that you’re a bad counselor; it’s that life intersects.”

Challenges at home

Counselors need to remember that, as Irvin Yalom has written, counselors and clients are “fellow travelers,” says Doug Shirley, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) with a private practice in the Seattle area. “It’s important to tear down the model that helping professionals are healed and well. We are all on a healing path and have needs and vulnerabilities,” says Shirley, an assistant professor of counseling at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.

One of the vulnerabilities that can easily throw counselors for a loop, says Shirley, is when challenges arise in their personal lives that also fall directly in their professional wheelhouse. That might include a discipline issue with a child, struggling to connect with a spouse during a disagreement, or missing the cues that a loved one is sliding into substance use or mental illness.

Counselors might find themselves frustrated, thinking, “Why can’t I figure this out?” notes Shirley, who wrote an article for Counseling Today in 2012 titled “Why counselors make poor lovers.” The skills that practitioners hone to become good counselors — such as keeping a professional distance from clients’ emotions — can actually hinder their ability to make personal connections if they’re not careful, he says.

Adding to the issue is that counseling professionals typically spend their workdays seeing clients (or teaching students) who are paying — even clamoring — to hear their thoughts and feedback. It can be jarring to come home and find that they aren’t capturing their spouse’s full attention or that their teenage son or daughter views them mainly as a conduit to obtain permission to play video games or go out with friends, Shirley notes.

“We’re all people before we’re professionals. But sometimes the cart gets before the horse — sometimes the professional comes before the personal — and it keeps us from the more advanced and sophisticated work of being human,” says Shirley, a member of ACA. “We can amass a lot of head knowledge about people, psychology, health and wellness, but it doesn’t necessarily help us to attend to our own wounds.”

Shirley met and married his wife, who is also an LMHC, when he was in his late 20s. They had both spent years building their professional careers and developing their counseling skills before they met each other. However, the couple soon discovered that their counseling skills did little to help them find intimacy and connection. In fact, they were often a hindrance, Shirley remembers. As a result, they had to unlearn some of the boundary setting that their counseling training had instilled in them.

What has helped, Shirley says, is counseling, both individually and as a couple. Shirley and his wife have continued to see counselors throughout their 15-year marriage and are “doing better than ever,” he says.

Shirley recommends that counselors find a practitioner who has experience with or specializes in working with helping professionals. “We [counselors] all have this defensive structure that makes us a lousy client,” Shirley observes. “So often I’m sitting there [in counseling] and thinking, ‘Oh, I know what he’s doing here,’ wink, wink. Will I answer his question honestly [or play into his technique]? We need a therapist who understands that and won’t defer to that.”

Similarly, if counselors don’t learn to step out of the “head knowledge” gained in a graduate counseling program, it can detract from their personal interactions, Shirley asserts. “We become very top-heavy. We have all of these facts and theory, but it’s not wisdom and patience and vulnerability. Those aren’t typically the things of graduate training programs,” he notes. “For me, as an intellectual, it doesn’t always help me when I’m talking with my wife or my sons. If I have information that should help me navigate the situation and I don’t allow myself to not know [that information], I overreact and walk away with some sense of guilt or shame.”

Shirley says his best interactions with his family happen when he shuts off his counseling skills and intentionally works to “know better.” This was the case in a recent conflict with his 12-year-old son, during which Shirley’s initial reaction was to turn to discipline. But a family trip to see the new Lion King movie, where Shirley watched the father-son dynamics of the story’s main characters play out on screen, sparked a realization that allowed him to take a step back from his professional knowledge.

“As a dad, I was inclined to be too firm, too reactive, before connecting relationally and personally with my son,” Shirley says. “There needs to be a resonance between parent and child that is palpable to the kid, and that’s what was [missing] with my son. I was reacting instead of knowing better and practicing what I preach.”

Shirley appreciates the reminder he often hears from his own counselor to take “three steps back” — a call to be an observer in personal interactions. “Because counselors have set ourselves up to be knowers, we’re not very good at allowing ourselves to receive. Often, the hardest work is to be willing and able to receive,” he says. “In our personal relationships, we need to remember that all of our work is to receive from others. I’m a much better husband when I can hear and listen and receive from my wife, as opposed to feeling that I know all the answers and know what’s going on. It’s being open and taking a step back when needed.”

Leaving it at the office

“It’s so easy to go home and think about a session you just had and what you can suggest next time, the tools you can use, and how to best help [a client],” says Ashley Waddington, a provisionally licensed LPC who works in a private group practice in the Columbia, South Carolina, area.

The challenges that counselors’ humanity can bring — concern for clients who have left their caseload, second-guessing themselves, “what if” thinking, empathy fatigue — often have no black-and-white answers. Professional community, personal therapy, boundary setting and self-care become all the more important when work begins spilling over into the personal realm.

The counselors interviewed for this article cite the following ideas and techniques as being particularly helpful when it comes to counseling professionals wrestling with their humanity.

>> Connect with peers: Waddington, an adjunct instructor in the counseling education program at the University of South Carolina, is a big proponent of supervision, not only for the hours required by graduate programs and state licensure boards, but across one’s entire career. She currently has three supervisors and finds it vitally important to talk things through with professionals of various perspectives. “Counselors are lucky to have the practicum experience. Not every profession gets that,” says Waddington, who recently served as co-chair of the ACA Graduate Student Committee and co-presented a session on “survival tips” for graduate students and new professionals at the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo. She also finds support via a Facebook group for counselors in private practice, where members bounce ideas off of one another, ask questions, and share tools and techniques.

Shirley also recommends that counselors debrief with other counselors via regular consultation. He is part of a long-standing professional consultation group that meets regularly in his area, but he also seeks additional input if challenges arise between meetings. He believes it is important for counselors to consistently pursue consultation, even when things are going well, he says, to gain perspective and to benefit from the rhythm of meeting regularly with fellow counselors.

In a similar vein, Gladding recommends that counselors attend professional development events such as ACA’s annual conference to stay up to date and to seek feedback from peers on challenges that are unique to the profession. For counselors who aren’t connecting naturally with their co-workers, or for those who work alone or in a setting dominated by colleagues from other professions, Gladding shares a little advice (via lyrics from Gloria Estefan): “Get on your feet, get up and make it happen.” Counselors need to be more intentional about finding community, he says, whether online, through travel to state or regional conferences, or by other means.

“Don’t let yourself be in isolation,” Gladding says. “That almost [never leads] to good mental health. We learn from others and thrive when we’re social. We’re not lone wolves; we’re gregarious. That’s how human beings are.”

>> Write it down: Transferring one’s inner thoughts to the page can help counselors process what they’re feeling, quell rumination, and spark self-reflection. “I keep a journal, and I would be the first to say there’s research out there that [maintaining] a journal helps keep us healthier in the short and long run,” Gladding says. “It helps us be more attuned to how we’re doing and how we’re living.”

Journaling can also spur deeper thought about what is and isn’t under a counselor’s control, Gladding says. “We can check up on [clients], but if we can’t, we let it go. In the end, we don’t have complete control over people. They’re not robots,” he says.

The same process applies to people and events in counselors’ personal lives. “My oldest son and his wife are teaching French in Casablanca, Morocco. I can’t obsess about that too much, even though it’s such a long way away and a land with different customs and culture,” Gladding says. “I have to trust that they can do that and do it well.”

>> Shake it off: Maintaining a schedule of back-to-back client sessions, each with the potential to bring intense and heart-wrenching issues to the table, can be draining, both mentally and physically, for counseling professionals. Clinicians who are intentional about resetting themselves between each client are more likely to keep sessions from blending together and may be better positioned to head off burnout.

Waddington had a supervisor who kept a feather duster in her office so that she could figuratively dust herself off after each client. The ritual helped her visualize closing the prior session and preparing herself for her next client, Waddington explains.

In between clients, Waddington often steps outside, stretches, or even lays on the floor of her office to reset and clear her mind. She also finds that leaving her office and finding another secured area to record client notes after an appointment helps her find closure and “finish” the session.

It can also be helpful, Waddington suggests, for counselors to take a shower once they get home, not necessarily because they’re dirty, but to “wash off the day.” They can visualize rinsing away the heavy topics and client issues they have been wrestling with all day.

“By simply using the basic cognitive approach of reviewing our day, picking out the emotions we felt, and using them to uncover our dysfunctional thinking and belief systems, we can address them so the day’s detritus can be left at the office and not remain in our head,” says Robert J. Wicks, an ACA member, professor emeritus at Loyola University Maryland, and author of numerous books, including The Inner Life of the Counselor. “When you go to the bathroom in a restaurant, there is a reminder [to wash your hands]. The same can be said metaphorically of counseling. We need to psychologically and spiritually decontaminate ourselves before returning to the rest of our lives.”

>> Get by with a little help from your friends: While professional connections can be a vital part of a counselor’s support network, connections with friends who aren’t helping professionals can be equally as valuable and refreshing, Shirley notes.

Spend time with “those who will stick with you through the bad and good and tell the truth,” he says. “Friends who aren’t counselors are key. These are the people who will keep us sane and give it to us straight. They often have their feet on the ground more than we do.”

Wicks agrees, asserting that counselors need “a robust and balanced circle of friends” to be able to thrive. He goes into more detail on this topic in his book The Resilient Clinician. Practitioners can benefit from encircling themselves with a variety of personalities, Wicks says, including friends who will challenge their thinking; be sympathetic and supportive; keep a counselor from taking themselves too seriously through good-natured teasing; encourage a sense of wonder; provide guidance without giving answers; and spur them to be their best.

>> Take care: The introduction to Section C of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics urges counselors to “engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities.”

When it comes to self-care, it’s important to have a plan in place before challenges arise. Not only will the methods that counselors find effective vary from practitioner to practitioner, but a self-care routine will also need to evolve to meet changing needs throughout a counselor’s career.

Gladding suggests that counselors be intentional about spending time engaging in hobbies that help them decompress and find connection. Perhaps that’s singing in a choir, playing golf, watching birds — whatever piques their interest, he says.

Wicks advocates for alone time and spending time in reflective silence and solitude. As she has navigated her grief journey, Lloyd-Hazlett has found yoga helpful, as well as trying new things such as entering some of her paintings into a local art show. Waddington recharges through reading books on mental health topics in her personal time (she recommends Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy and The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman).

Shirley emphasizes the importance of wellness, including nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep, and drinking enough water. These elements are often the first things to go when counselors get stressed, he notes.

Finding spiritual community is also essential, Shirley adds. The community doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious one; it can include spiritual connections found through group yoga classes, volunteering in the community, or other means, he says.

>> Keep it real: Professional boundaries must be maintained, but occasionally, “being human” in interactions with clients or students can be a powerful way to connect, Lloyd-Hazlett says. When it comes to self-disclosing to clients or students, such as mentioning that she is struggling with a loss, Lloyd-Hazlett says she lives by the philosophy “less is more.” However, self-disclosure, when done appropriately, can also serve as an example for others to be honest and open about their own struggles.

“The question needs to be, is this going to benefit my client? What is my motivation for wanting to disclose?” Lloyd-Hazlett says. “Being a human and having a human experience is so important to the counseling relationship. We can do that through different ways, including self-disclosure. When you’re struggling, just showing that and acknowledging that can be very powerful. What that disclosure looks like depends on the client or topic and where you are in your process.”

Counselor training teaches practitioners to remain professional and keep an emotional distance from clients while in session. However, Waddington urges counselors not to hold back if they are connecting with a client during an intense moment in session.

She recalls one client who was grieving the loss of her sister, who had died tragically in an automobile accident. The client’s pain was so raw that she couldn’t bring herself to say her sister’s name out loud. Waddington found herself with tears streaming down her face in session and apologized to the client for losing her composure.

But in their next session together, the client thanked her. “She said, ‘I’ve never had someone cry with me like you did. That was the first time I felt really heard, and [I knew] you understood what I was saying,’” Waddington recalls.

>> Know that you are enough: Waddington leaves notes for herself in her office with positive messages such as “You are enough” and “You just need to show up today.” These simple reminders help her curb overthinking and the urge to come into sessions with a mindset of fixing clients. “You don’t have to have this crazy technique to do with a client. Showing up is enough. … It’s not [our] job to fix them but to show up and work with them where they are,” Waddington says.

It’s a lesson Waddington has learned over time. She recalls one client who was severely depressed and unable to work. He left his house only to come to therapy once per week. Initially, she worked with him on big goals to improve his situation, including applying for jobs.

Waddington finds it helpful to check in periodically with clients in session to see how they are feeling about their work and progress in therapy. During a check-in with this client, he gave Waddington feedback that served as a reality check for her: You can do less for me. The client was feeling guilty about his lack of progress, and his self-esteem was taking a dive as a result.

After some self-reflection, Waddington changed her approach, working with the client on smaller goals and steps that could help him feel better day to day. In turn, his quality of life improved, she says.

“One thing I’ve had to learn and practice myself is that you don’t have to have all the answers and be the solution [for clients],” Waddington says. “[That’s] not our job. It’s our job to show up and listen.”

When self-doubt kicks in, Shirley urges counselors to remember that they’re part of a bigger picture. “When we get hung up on ‘Did I do that right?’ remember that we’re all in this together and doing the best we can do. Rumination and anxiety are really common when we’re in the messy business of helping people. Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing the best we can do. And, quite frankly, sometimes that is enough. And when what we have to offer isn’t enough, we need to go out and get extra support through referral or consultation, etc. That’s not a reflection on us as people, it’s just information.”

Boundary setting off the clock

Years ago, when Gladding was a new practitioner with a young family at home, a couple he was counseling called him on a Sunday afternoon with an urgent request to see him for an emergency session.

“I agreed to see them — and soon realized that they weren’t in crisis. They just wanted to blame each other for some things,” Gladding recalls. “I learned from it and [eventually] said, ‘I’ll see you during office hours, but I can’t see you now.’ That was a mistake on my part.”

It wasn’t the last time a client would contact him outside of working hours. In one instance, a client even showed up at his home on the weekend. While it’s certainly possible for clients to spiral into crisis situations at any time of day or any point of the week, Gladding says he has learned the importance of prioritizing boundaries. If clients contact him outside of working hours, he makes sure they’re stable, ensures they have crisis hotline numbers, and agrees to see them at the next possible opening during business hours. “I don’t want to downplay [clients’ pain], but boundaries have to be there, or we don’t do anyone any good at times,” Gladding notes.

The same goes for family members or friends who approach him for advice because he is a professional counselor. Gladding says he typically uses humor to diffuse the situation and redirect their questions. There is a reason that ethics guidelines urge against counseling family members and friends — because counselors simply cannot be objective in those situations, he says.

If Gladding notices an issue going on in the lives of those he knows personally, he says that he might make a gentle observation to them about what he’s seeing — without engaging in a counseling intervention — and offer to connect them to another counselor.

“I have a colleague who is always saying, ‘Check yourself before you wreck yourself.’ I like that because we can get into trouble if we get too much into something that’s happening” in the lives of family or friends, Gladding says.

Waddington sees such situations as opportunities to coach family members and friends on the benefits of professional counseling, and then supporting them through the process of finding a counselor clinician.

“When anyone knows that you’re a therapist, the floodgates open,” Waddington says with a chuckle. “People will start sentences with, ‘In your professional opinion …’”

In those situations, Waddington has a phrase that she responds with: Do you want my ears, do you want my advice, or do you want me to step in?

“Then, I am clear about what they really want from me. Often, they just want me to listen. I can listen all day, but it’s not my job to be your therapist, and I don’t want to be,” she says. “Often, I will say, ‘Let me help you find someone to talk to.’ … It’s not my job to help my cousin get through this [problem], but it is my job to help them find help.”



Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:


Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)



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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org




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

Advice for the highly sensitive therapist

By Lindsey Phillips September 20, 2019

Erica Sawyer, a licensed mental health counselor and art therapist in private practice in Vancouver, Washington, knows firsthand the benefits and challenges of being a highly sensitive therapist. (Approximately 20% of the population has an innate temperament trait referred to as sensory processing sensitivity; individuals with this trait are categorized as “highly sensitive people.” Right after graduate school, she started working 40 hours a week at an enhanced care facility for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. She quickly realized that the constant needs in the 16-bed locked unit were overwhelming for her.

“It was very intense,” Sawyer says. “There were times I couldn’t even get out the door to take a break because there was a crisis with a resident trying to leave the facility, so we couldn’t open any of the doors. So, on my break time, I had to sit in an office where there were constant interruptions.”

Sawyer tried to escape the overstimulation by visiting the restroom, but she couldn’t stay long in there because there was only one bathroom in the entire facility and other people needed it.

On the positive side, she found she was able to connect with many of the residents in a way that surprised and baffled the other therapists. She realized, however, that being good at this type of work didn’t mean that it was a good fit for her.

In fact, Sawyer says she was on a path to quick burnout, so she determined to figure out what she could control — such as her work environment, her hours worked, and the type of clients she saw — and start making changes.

She went from a full-time inpatient position to a part-time outpatient position, but even that was too much because of the hours needed to get all the work done for her caseload of 70 people. “The quantity of clients, along with being assigned the higher needs cases, was far from optimal,” Sawyer says. “I was experiencing my own anxiety and had to go out to my car and do some tapping [therapy] to just manage the day.”

Now, Sawyer is working part time in her own private practice so that she can control the amount and type of clients she sees and the days and times she works. She also lets clients know that she can’t guarantee a response to an email after 5 p.m. Highly sensitive therapists have to recognize their stress points and the environments that aren’t conducive to their temperament because it’s not good for them or their clients, she adds.

Because highly sensitive people process more deeply, counselors with this trait may have difficulty leaving work at work, notes Heather Smith, a licensed professional counselor and an assistant professor of human development counseling at Vanderbilt University. It’s important for highly sensitive counselors not to compare themselves to counselors who do not have this trait, she says. Instead, they have to figure out their own needs and best practices. For example, they may need to see fewer clients per week or work fewer hours.

Elaine Aron lists some possible self-care practices for highly sensitive therapists on her website:

  • Practice “The Five Necessities” — believe your trait is real, reframe your childhood in light of this trait, heal from past wounds, don’t try to live like the other 80% of the population without the trait, and find a group of other highly sensitive people
  • Reduce therapy work time (ideally, no more than 20 hours a week)
  • Screen clients
  • Have downtime
  • Don’t take your work home
  • Charge clients appropriately
  • Find a good consultant
  • Seek out your own therapist
  • Take frequent vacations

Julie Bjelland, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in California who specializes in working with people who identify as highly sensitive, recommends that highly sensitive therapists see no more than 10-12 clients per week. “You can’t see seven clients in a day as a highly sensitive person and be well because you’re taking in too much information,” she notes. Bjelland also suggests other ways that these therapists might reduce potential overstimulation and burnout. For example, they could increase their fees and see fewer clients per week, or they could see clients three or four times a week and then have three or four days off.

Smith, an American Counseling Association member who researches the sensory processing sensitivity temperament trait, advises highly sensitive therapists to create healthy habits to reduce overstimulation and to give their brains extra time to process. For example, counselors could schedule breaks between sessions, or they could make a point to finish their work notes before leaving for the day to avoid continuing to process this information when they get home. “Some of these practices can help over time to decrease the susceptibility to burnout,” Smith says.

Louisa Lombard, a licensed professional clinical counselor in private practice in California, makes a point to practice self-care habits. For instance, she takes a 30-minute break between clients so she can finish writing her notes, eat a snack, or engage in activities that she finds soothing, such as meditation or using essential oils.

Sawyer, also an ACA member, has colleagues who perform a ritual of literally washing their hands between clients as a way of letting that session and all of its associated information go down the drain before the next client.

Even though highly sensitive therapists have particular needs that must be addressed to avoid burnout, they also bring unique gifts to therapeutic sessions. Highly sensitive counselors “are well wired for this type of work,” Smith notes. “They’re going to process information more deeply. There are new research findings that suggest they have more mirror neuron brain activity and, thus, possibly stronger empathy.”

These counselors often have deep intuition and more attunement with others, and they tend to make clients feel safe and easily build rapport with them, Sawyer adds. As she points out, these qualities are “huge assets in being a good counselor.”

Bjelland, an author and global educator on the highly sensitive person, agrees that highly sensitive therapists have a lot to offer to clients because of these qualities. She finds that these therapists often have a strong connection with clients, are able to pick up on patterns and connections, and sometimes know things even before their clients do. She has had clients who weren’t able to reduce their anxiety even after working for years with other therapists. But within two to three weeks of working with her, their anxiety started to decrease.

Bjelland says highly sensitive therapists can benefit from thinking about the way that healers used to operate within a tribe: They had their own hut, and after they did their healing, they would spend a lot of time alone. “If you see one client, you’re going to need to process that session and then … rest and restore after that session,” Bjelland says. “Because if you take care of yourself well in this field, you can be a powerful healer.”



Look for a related article, “Finding strength in sensitivity” in the October issue of Counseling Today magazine.



Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.




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.