Tag Archives: Professional Issues

Professional Issues

Finding Power and Purpose Within Yourself

By Olivia Fadul, LPCC January 31, 2024

headshot of Olivia Fadul

Olivia Fadul, LPCC

We are often taught in society that we should fit in and avoid sticking out in any way. If we are different or break the accepted “cookie cutter” mold, then we face negative consequences of being shamed, “othered” or silenced.

This is a lesson I learned at an early age. As a second-generation Filipinx American woman growing up in Huntsville, Alabama (the first city in Alabama to integrate schools), I am no stranger to standing out in a crowd. I was 5 years old when I first realized I was different from others. I was the only kid in school wearing hearing aids.

After being diagnosed with hearing loss in 1989 (one year before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law), I struggled with my sense of identity. I noticed that unlike me, all my family and classmates had “normal” hearing. I remember being on the playground one day shortly after realizing I was different and throwing my hearing aids on the ground. I was attempting to “throw away” my deafness.

Throughout most of my childhood, I struggled with feeling different and stigmatized until I met my middle school counselor, Donna Clark. Her empathy and compassion helped me realize that I added something valuable to the world and that I shouldn’t let one aspect of my identity define my entire existence. She also connected me to resources that would help me advance.

This experience inspired me to become a counselor and help others who are struggling with accepting who they are. I now help clients embrace their identities — especially the ones they feel make them “different.”

In 2010, I reconnected with my middle school counselor at the annual Alabama Counseling Association Conference, and she became one of my first counseling mentors and my biggest cheerleader. With her support, at age 30, I became the youngest person to serve on the Alabama Counseling Association Executive Governing Board.

Accepting who you are is a lifelong process. I still have moments where my own imposter syndrome makes me feel like I should quit. As a disabled counselor, I continue to work on this. Because I have made a conscious choice to own my imposter syndrome (which is a form of internalized ableism), I can now say “yes” to opportunities and willingly embrace and share my story.

I am inspired by the disability rights activist Judy Huemann. When she started school in the early 1950s, the school administrators denied her entry, saying she was a “fire hazard” because she was in a wheelchair. Huemann went on to become a lifelong civil rights advocate for people with disabilities. Her story taught me that advocating for my community is how change happens.

Our stories and wounds are our truth. My disability shaped who I am personally and professionally. I am one of the founding members of the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association’s Accessibility Task Force, which provides guidelines and strategies to confront ableism and ensure accessibility at conferences. During my doctoral program, I founded a deaf and hard of hearing peer support group for higher education students at the university. I also serve as a board member for the Albuquerque chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America and on the City of Albuquerque’s American with Disabilities and Advisory Council.

I have come a long way from the 5-year-old girl who tossed her hearing aids out of anger, frustration and shame. I now know that my disability is a part of me — one I’m proud of. And it serves as motivation as I continue to help improve mental health and education infrastructure for the next generation of clients, students and professors with disabilities.


Olivia Fadul, LPCC, is a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at the University of New Mexico and owner of the telehealth practice Olive Tree Counseling and Wellness.


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. 

The Fraud Factor

By Christine Yu  January 9, 2024

headshot of a woman with a neutral face and then a shadowed version behind with her hand touching her forward and a concerned look

Illustration by Stefania Infante

When Ayanna Harley, PLPC, started her master’s degree in clinical rehabilitation and counseling at Louisiana State University, it had been 10 years since she had last been in the classroom, as an undergraduate student. She was also the oldest person in her program and the only person of color.  

Despite having similar credentials as her classmates, Harley doubted herself and whether she was qualified for her graduate program: “Is this the right career choice for me? Am I too old for this? Do I belong here?” As the doubts chipped away at her self-confidence, she felt she had to work harder, overprepare and excel in her courses to prove she deserved her spot in the program. 

Looking back, Harley recognizes that she was experiencing imposter syndrome, that pervasive feeling of being a fraud. “None of the other students were concerned that I was the eldest or the only person of color,” she says. “These were things that I was questioning and thinking about. I was in competition with myself.” Even now, as a new professional practicing in Louisiana, Harley still finds herself doubting her abilities as a counselor. “These are real human beings seeking help,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do.” 

Harley is hardly alone in second-guessing herself and her abilities. “It’s part of the human experience,” says Francisca Mix, LPC, CEO and founder of Francisca Consulting and Counseling in Colorado. “There’s a negative core belief that gets triggered — the question of ‘Am I enough? Is this good enough?’ — especially when we’re learning something new.” 

 The Fraud Police 

While it’s not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon. “It is self-doubt ramped up,” says Laura Smestad, PhD, LMHC, who’s based in Washington. “It boils down to this fear that I’m not actually enough as I am, that I’m going to fail, that I have somehow convinced everyone that I’m competent, but they don’t know the truth and I’m afraid people are going to find out.”  

This critical voice surfaces despite a track record of accomplishments. “Imposter syndrome distorts your perception of reality and how you’re doing. You don’t see your own achievements,” explains Michael Drane, PhD, LMHC, whose doctoral dissertation examined the experience of imposter syndrome among counselor education and supervision students.  

The term “imposter syndrome” was first coined in 1978 as “the imposter phenomenon” by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, and Suzanne Imes, PhD. Their research focused on the experience of high-achieving women. They found that the imposter feeling can be caused by family dynamics such as when women were compared to a sibling who was considered smarter. 

“That inferiority in childhood causes you to overcompensate and develop unrealistically high expectations of yourself. You’re trying to outrun that feeling of incompetence,” Drane says. In other cases, women who their parents deemed as the exceptional one in the family felt like a fraud. They didn’t necessarily trust their parents’ steadfast belief in them.  

Clance and Imes’ seminal study led to research with additional populations. Soon, others found evidence that the crippling sense of self-doubt wasn’t unique to women. Men experienced it too, and it was found in people across disciplines, including health care, STEM, education and business. A 2020 systematic review, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found the prevalence of imposter syndrome as high as 82%. “It can affect anyone stepping into a new role or who has new responsibilities,” Drane says. This includes counseling students and new counselors.  

And that feeling of being an imposter doesn’t disappear once you gain more experience. While it makes sense to feel unsure when you’re starting your practicum, for example, the feeling doesn’t always dissipate as you rack up achievements.  

“I had imposter syndrome about this interview,” admits Smestad, who has been practicing for 10 years. “My immediate reaction was ‘Why me? I better prepare because otherwise they’re going to find out I don’t know anything about imposter syndrome,’ even though I’m actually qualified. I’ve presented on this. I’ve done a podcast on this.” 

The Impact of Imposter Syndrome 

The feeling of constantly being on the lookout for the fraud police can be exhausting. It can lead to experiences of anxiety, depression, exhaustion, perfectionism and procrastination. But more than that, imposter syndrome can have a real impact on personal and professional development and career opportunities.  

Imposter syndrome can stunt skill development. Students end up turning down new opportunities because of the perceived risk of failing when stepping outside their comfort zone. Anna Flores Locke, PhD, LPC, owner and mental health and infertility counselor at Charlandra Consulting and Counseling Services in New Jersey, sees how some students choose not to pursue research and writing because they don’t believe they’re good enough. Locke says that can snowball into turning down opportunities to present at conferences and shying away from networking and leadership opportunities, ultimately slowing their academic and professional growth.  

Similarly, when new counselors don’t acknowledge areas where they might be struggling, it can hinder counseling skill development. “You can’t be a counselor without competencies in your skills. You have to practice those skills,” says Locke, an approved clinical supervisor. 

There’s also a connection between imposter syndrome and burnout. When people feel like a fraud, they may work overtime to prove they are qualified, both to themselves and those around them. As a result, students and new counselors can deplete their emotional, mental and physical reserves in ways that can affect not only their well-being but their work with clients. “It’s compassion fatigue. It’s a lower self-concept. All those things will lead to burnout,” Harley says. In some cases, people have dropped out of graduate programs or have left the profession. 

The Role of Supervisors and Mentors 

One critical area where imposter syndrome shows up is in clinical supervision. It makes sense: New counselors want their supervisor to see them as competent. They may also compare their skills and abilities to their supervisor, whether consciously or subconsciously, despite their supervisor’s longer tenure in the field. Plus, there’s a power differential between supervisors and those starting off in the profession. How can new counselors have an open dialogue with their supervisor about the challenges they face when they’re being evaluated? 

man standing behind large mask, hiding in the shadows, while two people stand looking at the large mask

“Clinical supervision is powerful, and it really is on the supervisor to nurture trainees and co-create a container where it’s normal to feel these feelings,” says Mix, an approved clinical supervisor and board-certified dance/movement therapist. “How a supervisor speaks to this point directly truly does soften the pressure and the fear of ‘I’m being evaluated and I can’t be honest.’ It supports their process of finding the courage to speak to the more challenging topics while stepping further into the shoe of a clinician.”  

It’s through this supervisor-supervisee relationship that new counselors can begin to move through their feelings of unease and intentionally develop self-confidence. Supervisors and mentors can help new counselors reflect back their experiences and flush out their doubt. “You help them work that edge and intentionally develop self-confidence,” Mix says. 

Mix says her role is also to highlight the predictable experiences new counselors can expect in the first three months, six months, nine months and beyond. “Orienting new trainees to potential experiences allows for a more open conversation about their self-doubt and struggles in those experiences,” she says. In doing so, supervisors reassure their supervisees that they are on track and there is a path forward.  

Reframing Imposter Syndrome 

While imposter syndrome can be a universal experience, who does — or doesn’t — second-guess their abilities is more than a matter of self-confidence. “It’s part of the systemic oppression and living in a racist society. To maintain racism is to make one group feel inferior,” Locke says. 

Research suggests that people from marginalized groups experience imposter syndrome at higher rates. Locke says imposter syndrome is especially common among colonized ethnic groups because they’ve been taught to be submissive. “There’s an element of: ‘You’re not entitled’ or ‘You should be grateful to have a seat because someone else can take it from you if you make a mistake,’” she says. It can feel particularly acute if no one else in the room looks like you or you’ve experienced microaggressions, which sends the subconscious message that you’re not good enough.  

For instance, growing up Puerto Rican in a working-class home, Locke, who is an award-winning author, never believed she could be a writer. “Puerto Ricans are a colonized ethnic group. Because of that, we were limited in the education we received. There were language barriers and a generational belief that we were inferior, which carried over into my upbringing,” she says. She, in turn, developed an internal belief system that told her writing wasn’t for her. It was a luxury afforded to other people. “It wasn’t for us,” she says.  

Locke felt that straying outside of her culture’s norms would be a betrayal of her family and disrupt the status quo. “For me, it created a sense of shame,” she says, which then fueled her imposter syndrome. 

When Locke contextualizes imposter system as a systemic issue, it helps her students and supervisees understand that their experience isn’t unique to them. “It’s something that happens across the board in our communities because of how we’ve been colonized, oppressed and told we’re inferior,” she says. “That helps them a lot.” 

Quieting the Imposter Voice 

Humans tend to focus on the negative, which only feeds the imposter within. But there are strategies that can help reframe the inner critic. 

Rather than focus on the bad, Harley makes a point to look for evidence of success and keep track of it. Then, when the next bout of imposter syndrome strikes, she’s armed with examples of how she’s succeeded in the past. It also allows her to be more transparent with herself about her own journey from graduate student to practicing counselor and ultimately to licensed professional counselor.  

Locke has cultivated her own personal “dream team,” trusted people in her life who can be a sounding board and offer support when doubt strikes.  

When confronted with feelings of being an imposter, Smestad reminds herself that it’s a fear-based response. Instead of making a decision based on fear, she considers whether her reactions and decisions align with her values. For instance, if she’s asked to present at a conference and notices that she’s shying away from the opportunity, she asks herself if she genuinely isn’t interested or if she’s afraid she’s going to mess up. “Doing it from that lens takes it one step deeper,” she says. 

Drane believes that graduate programs should incorporate discussions about imposter syndrome during orientation. “Normalize that you’re not supposed to know what you’re talking about yet. Have the professors, the ones who are supposed to be the experts, share what they’ve been through,” he says.  

“The No. 1 thing we can do is recognize it and normalize it,” he says. Through his doctoral studies, Drane realized that the colleagues he was intimidated by felt the same way he did. “If we had just had a conversation about this in the beginning, we could have supported each other this whole time instead of being intimidated by each other.” 

 


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. 

 

How to manage sexualized transference

By Scott Gleeson December 7, 2023

a man wearing glasses sits in front of his laptop and stares off to the side; he holds a pencil over a sheet of paper beside the laptop

Image Credit: Andril Zastrozhnov/Shutterstock.com

Amar Davé, a licensed professional counselor in Maryland, sat in his therapist chair puzzled after a client made an indirect romantic pass at him. After discussing the situation with his clinical supervisor, he broached the exchange with the client, who proceeded to confide his feelings for his therapist in an even more direct way.

Like Davé, other clinicians may find themselves in the discomforting yet common scenario where clients develop sexualized or erotic transference in the intimate environment of a counseling session. This type of transference occurs when clients develop romantic or sexual feelings for the counselor in the one-on-one relationship.

“Erotic transference is taboo for a variety of reasons,” says Davé, a lead clinician at Unbroken Family Counseling in Downers Grove, Illinois. “I would argue that it’s far more present in our therapy sessions than we tend to realize. From a client perspective, it’s an awkward thing to talk about or bring up. And from the clinician perspective, it’s maybe not talked about as much as it should be because of a fear of ethics and needing to protect professional credibility.”

Ryan Howes, a licensed clinical psychologist and counselor educator in Pasadena, California, with 20 years of experience in private practice and academic settings, says he has seen an overwhelming number of clinicians abruptly terminate sessions and refer out immediately after clients disclose erotic transference, which leaves clients feeling betrayed or abandoned.

Therapists may also shut down the conversation completely. Howes has heard of counselors who respond to clients who admit they have romantic feelings or are fantasizing about a life together with their therapist by saying, “Oh, we can’t talk about that here” or “You can’t have those feelings here.” The situation, he says, can be completely devastating for the client because they feel discarded.

“Unfortunately, erotic transference is widely misunderstood by a lot of clinicians,” Howes adds. To overcome this, there needs to be more understanding within the field and training around what to do when erotic transference occurs.

Understanding the why and how

Howes says that for clinicians to understand the nuances of sexualized transference, they first need to grasp how and why it develops during session.

“When clients come to therapy, it’s often the first time or experience when they’re in an environment where they’re feeling listened to [and] being paid close attention to,” Howes says. “For some people who may have been neglected or abused throughout their lives, they might think, ‘I’m being cared for and listened to; someone thinks I’m of some value.’ There are natural warm and loving feelings that can emerge from that. They might think, ‘I want to be with this person all the time because this feeling feels so good.’”

Howes says any type of therapeutic alliance between a counselor and client is built with the possibility to foster healthy transference — where the client relates the therapist to a life template rather than a professional connection. For clinicians, gently pointing out differences between the template and therapeutic relationship can help a client realize they may be reenacting a past relationship or one they have been longing for in session.

“It’s no different with erotic transference,” he adds. “We should understand as therapists that transference happens all the time, and not just in therapy. Your new co-worker might remind you of an old friend or your grandmother. The same thing happens in the therapy room where maybe you remind a client of a brother or a cousin that can help them feel safe. For most therapists, those feelings are manageable.”

Sexualized feelings between the client and counselor, however, may also evoke complex emotions for the clinician. “The feelings are more intimate and vulnerable because they may bring up a therapist’s own needs of love, desirability and yearnings for close connection. That’s why it can be fraught with anxiety,” Howes says.

Paul Hoard, a licensed mental health counselor in Washington, says clinicians are trained and often equipped for instances of regular transference with clients who project their trauma and feelings onto therapists. But the extra layer of sexualized feelings from a client can often intensify tension between a therapist and client.

“There are so many unconscious processes at play in a therapy session, and the dynamic between two people in a room talking about intimate things is far more permeable than what any of us want to think,” Hoard says.

“In our Western culture, sex has a way of sucking all the complexity and curiosity out of the room,” he continues. “We’re able to sit with anger as therapists, differentiate the thought of a client being angry at us while not being at risk with our safety. Yet for many therapists, conversations about sex or intimacy can push us into panic mode. Then we’re unable to recognize what may be being played out through sexualized feelings.”

Even counselors who have been trained to talk about sex with clients can neglect what sexualized transference may stir up for them internally, says Hoard, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. If that internal processing is worked through, sexualized transference can have a similar playbook to treating other types of transference.

“So many therapists are trained in the simplicity of erotic content,” he adds, noting that clinicians are often trained only in the basics of sexual discussions during graduate school. “That simplicity leaves us vulnerable to where we cannot clearly conceive what’s going on with a client. If therapists are in fight or flight because erotic transference is happening, then they get swept up in the reenactment instead of being more curious and understanding of what’s happening.”

Responding to sexualized transference

Caitlin Ziegler, a licensed professional counselor at Bliss Counseling in the greater Milwaukee area, says she’s had clients who have shown signs of developing sexualized transference and notes that many times clients will subconsciously — or consciously — seek out therapists during intake who they’re attracted to as a way to feel safe and heal.

“I’ve had clients who have asked to work with a therapist who has my hair color and looks exactly like me,” Ziegler says. “So, from the onset, they’re asking to be in a therapy room with someone they’re [likely] attracted to.”

Ziegler says in those types of instances, she respects the client’s emotional autonomy and won’t always bring up sexualized transference right away unless the client mentions it. Instead, after making sure there are no barriers that would prevent them from working together, her main focus is being empathetic.

“I always try to lead with empathy. If a client doesn’t have a healthy female relationship in their life and they’re seeking a female therapist, I know there’s a lot of loneliness and isolation that goes into that,” Ziegler explains. “Just scheduling the session can be brave. We can then see what clients are reflecting with emptiness and what they may be wanting in a relationship.”

Katie O’Connell, a licensed clinical social worker at AMK Counseling in Chicago, says there are inherent power dynamics at play with female counselors seeing male clients that can complicate matters. She once had a prospective client go on her company’s website and send her a message expressing their feelings for her in a derogatory manner. This exchange left her feeling shaken and unsafe leaving and entering work, so she spoke to her supervisor who initiated new safety guidelines at the practice.

“It’s important to make sure you feel comfortable and are the best version of yourself as a counselor to be able to help someone in need,” O’Connell says. So, if a client or situation makes you feel uncomfortable, then it may be necessary to refer out or take other precautions such as having other staff members present at the office during the session, she adds.

Hoard says one common misstep clinicians can make, even if they are able to emotionally bracket a client’s erotic transference, is resorting to the power they possess in the room by listing theories and pointing out what erotic transference is defined as in books.

“Any time we move to interpret a client’s feelings, without honoring and affirming those feelings, that’s unfair to the client,” Hoard says. “It’s an example of a therapist not tolerating [their] own anxiety or discomfort. It robs the client of the empathy they may need in that moment.”

The client’s attraction to their therapist does not have to be a deal breaker, Davé stresses. And he discourages counselors from making snap judgments about needing to terminate treatment because of a potential distraction.

“I’ve had clients flat out say, ‘I’m very into you,’” he says. “So, I’ll say, we can terminate our work and I can help you find another clinician, or we can continue our work by going through the erotic transference together [and] mitigate that because what’s happening in our clinical work is a microcosm of what may play out outside of here.”

Lauren Lucas, a licensed clinical social worker with Fox Valley Institute in Naperville, Illinois, says she’s experienced a variety of forms of sexualized transference but is intentional about separating those deeper feelings of transference from general attraction and clients who try to flirt to push boundaries.

“I’ve had experiences where the client’s perception of my acceptance and support or the way they perceive me due to my appearance or fashion choices develops into erotic transference,” Lucas says. “It’s based on the idea that I could be ‘the type of person’ that they didn’t feel they could connect with in the past, but who is now offering them time and positive regard.”

Lucas says it’s important to acknowledge and name the feelings the client is experiencing as soon as possible. “A large majority of the time, discussing the presence of erotic transference is the most effective way to help the client and preserve the therapeutic relationship,” Lucas notes. “Naming it helps develop a deeper understanding and make meaning of the feelings that are arising for the client, while providing evidence that the therapist remains supportive of the client and committed to maintaining the relationship in a securely boundaried way.”

But if it’s unclear whether the client’s actions or feelings are romantic or if the client is ready or able to name them as romantic, then Lucas will address her interpretation of the client’s feelings with more inquisitiveness. “When the erotic transference is showing up in ways that are less aggressive, I’ll approach it the way I do with other observations I may make in session: I’ll be curious, share what I’ve wondered and make space for them to consider their own experiences of our time together.”

Davé says the barometer he will use to determine if an intervention is needed in discussing sexualized emotions is whether clinical progress is being made.

“In one session, a gay male-presenting client was showing signs of erotic transference but there was no self-disclosure, so I brought up that there was no progress being made and asked what that was about,” he recalls. “I also had to ask myself, ‘What was his work and what was my work?’ I realized it was an us thing. A therapist cannot just say, ‘those are your feelings.’ They’re happening because of the relationship and power dynamic in the room.”

Lucas says that therapists need to be cognizant of that power dynamic and hold themselves accountable to determine whether it’s possible to foster a corrective emotional experience with a client by working through the transference together or whether they need to refer out because it wouldn’t be in the best interest of healing for the client.

“I absolutely think there’s opportunity for a corrective emotional experience,” Lucas says. “Many times, the act of assertively and nonjudgmentally naming emotions and identifying behavioral responses has been unfamiliar for clients with partners or parents, so it’s possible for repair to begin with even just the initial conversation with their therapist.”

The nuance of boundaries

Howes has noticed that therapists often falter with clients experiencing sexualized transference because they struggle to understand the nuance of boundary setting.

“I think it’s important for therapists to know that just because a client is experiencing feelings toward a therapist, it doesn’t mean that a boundary is necessarily crossed,” Howes says. “It’s when clients begin to act on feelings that it becomes a problem. That’s when a therapist needs to be clear about what the boundaries are and not avoid that conflict in a conversation.”

Howes recalls clients who have told him something to the effect of “I’m fantasizing riding off into the sunset with you.” He clarified the client-counselor relationship by saying, “I just need to reiterate to you that our relationship is based on me helping you, not based on meeting all of these unmet needs. But I’d like us to understand together where those feelings are coming from.” Establishing and clarifying these professional boundaries with the client helps the therapist show unconditional positive regard toward the client while still also acknowledging what’s being experienced in the room.

“We have to leave room for a grieving process to begin after the boundaries are regularly set because they [clients] will slowly have to let go of the idea they had in their head,” Howes adds.

This means that counselors also need to allow clients the space and freedom to discuss all their feelings and thoughts in session. “If we come in suggesting we’re that safe container, then they spill their guts and a therapist says you cannot have romantic feelings here, they can feel shame on a deep level because they’ll believe they crossed a line with their feelings,” Howes says. “So knowing the difference between a client crossing the line and having feelings about crossing the line is important.”

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be an ongoing process that often needs to be repeatedly reinforced, Lucas adds. “If I have expressed the boundaries and expectations of the therapeutic relationship, and a client continues to push them through flirtation, insinuation, observations about my appearance [or] questions about my personal life, I will have a conversation about the fact that this dynamic is now a barrier to the therapeutic process,” he says.

O’Connell admits that setting boundaries is not always easy because clients can push those boundaries. “The feelings a client expresses can have a vulnerable motive, but they also can have a more aggressive motive,” she says. “I’ll always try to honor a client’s feelings, but when they start to bend boundaries on a regular basis, then it may call for a more permanent change in the best interest of the client and therapist.”

The importance of self-awareness and supervision

Hoard, who has presented professionally on the need for sexual education for therapists, says clinicians’ own stigma of sexuality and unresolved romantic emotions in their personal lives can work as a barrier to clinical progress and indicate the need for self-awareness. As a result, he says that the best treatment approach for sexualized transference starts with strong supervision so that the therapist can better understand what’s happening internally in response to the client’s emotions. That can be a challenge, however, because of the supervisees’ fears and concerns related to ethics and their own stigma and reluctance to discuss sexualized and romantic emotions in supervisory sessions.

“The more isolated a therapist is, the more vulnerable they are,” Hoard says. “A key aspect in our work is being able to look at ourselves as clinicians and question whether our gut [feeling] in a given moment with a client is a useful guide or whether it’s leading us in the wrong direction. If we don’t talk about sex in other aspects of our lives, particularly in supervision, we can have a defensive retreat and it can be hard to stay in that therapeutic space.”

“If there is no space to go to a supervisor and make sense of this, then we’re more likely to go into a reenactment with the client and less positioned to work through it with them,” he adds.

Howes says that’s why it’s integral for supervisors to foster an environment for therapists and supervisees to comfortably talk about erotic transference. “Supervisors need to really create a safe space where they can let the therapist explore their own feelings so that whenever erotic transference arises, it’s not the first time they’ve talked about romantic emotions,” he explains.

Processing romantic feelings in supervision or therapy can help counselors discover their own feelings and needs about the situation and prepare for any potential dangerous or unethical issues such as developing feelings for the client, Howes says.

Ziegler considers the self-awareness she gets through her own personal therapy and supervision as a form of preventive treatment. “The most important thing we can do as therapists is know these emotional pieces about ourselves through self-reflection,” she stresses. “It’s an essential part of our learning and we have to have a consistent amount of reflecting so that we’re ready for instances that could challenge us like erotic transference.”

Davé has a good relationship with his supervisor, which helps him unpack areas of discomfort. He says that having this strong relationship allowed him to feel comfortable enough to mention when he once had a gut feeling that erotic transference was happening with a client. In supervision, they discussed what he thought he was feeling from the client, how the client’s feelings manifested and what he needed for support before he could provide support to the client.

“If I didn’t have that relationship with my supervisor, I could easily see where I maybe wouldn’t have brought it up,” he adds.

Lucas says that counselors owe it to their clients to process their own emotional responses before and after they enter the therapy room. “Just as we’ll support our clients as they process these emotions, it’s important for therapists to have a colleague or supervisor to process the emotional impact on them too,” he explains. “I think a large piece is that as therapists we make a serious commitment to maintain firm boundaries with our clients, so when there’s an indication of a sexual or romantic feeling coming from a client, that can elicit discomfort and uncertainty from the therapist.”

 


Scott Gleeson is a licensed clinical professional counselor in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent over a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists. He’s collaborating on a book about fighting cancer with legendary broadcaster Dick Vitale, which is set to hit bookshelves in March 2024. His debut young adult fiction novel, The Walls of Color, comes out the following year.


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.

3 Takeaways from the 2023 ACA Professional Practice Summit 

October 26, 2023

ACA Professional Practice Summit banner about registering for on-demand access until November 20,2023

The 2023 ACA Professional Practice Summit (ACAPPS) featured sessions that addressed the most pressing topics in the counseling field. The speakers shared valuable insights, tips and practical tools to help you stay up to date on the best practices.  

Here are three key takeaways from the event:  

If you were not able to attend the live sessions, don’t worry. You can still access the valuable content on-demand through November 20. Register and watch now at counseling.org/conference/professional-practice-summit 

What I’ve learned as a new professional counselor

By Wallace K. Pond October 23, 2023

At the age of 55, I found myself facing a mental health crisis. I had spent the previous 35 years of my life focused on achieving career success while I worked in educational and corporate settings, both in the United States and abroad. This success often came at the cost of my own needs. In addition, I was also experiencing a late midlife crisis. So, although I was already working on an exit strategy from my career, it was too late to prevent this mental health crisis. When the dam broke, I wasn’t prepared.

On the one hand, being broken open, as Elizabeth Lesser describes in her book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, was a blessing because it forced a full, painfully humbling reckoning. A half century of denial and repression came tumbling down. On the other hand, my crisis led me to the path I’m on now. I discovered that sometimes our denial and dysfunction are so profound that only by being truly broken can we learn to start again.

About a year into my healing journey, I started to think seriously about becoming a counselor. This career choice was not something I had considered before, but after I found myself in need of and benefiting from psychotherapy, I wanted to help others who found themselves in similar situations. I asked my own therapist, Ron Andes, if he thought I was too damaged to be a good clinician. In his usual brilliant but understated way, he replied, “No, you’re damaged just enough.” That simple but profound answer gave me both the permission and the confidence to pursue a new focus in life. And I’m happy to report that I recently graduated from a clinical mental health program, and I have about 800 hours of counseling under my belt, including practicum, internship and my supervised work as a licensed professional counselor candidate in Colorado.

I wasn’t a typical intern. I was 57 years old when I saw my first client. My master’s in clinical mental health is my third graduate degree and fourth college degree. I’ve run corporations and universities and spent 12 years in K-12 and higher education classrooms. But, most importantly, I’ve been part of a 33-year-long team with my wife, Natalie, having raised three adult children and, in later years, an adult niece. I also have my own addiction history.

two books stacked on top of each other with the words "lessons" and "learned" written on top of the

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Transitioning into counseling work later in my career has given me a unique perspective and insights, which I want to share in the hope that it will help others who are considering becoming a counselor, those just starting out as interns and even counselors who have been in the field for a while. Here are the most important lessons I have learned as an intern and new counseling professional:

A counselor’s life experience can be more valuable for clients than their counseling experience (or even their technical skills). Regardless of how old an intern or newly licensed therapist is, everyone brings critical life experience and insights to their practice. One’s personal challenges, failures, victories, insights and own mental health journey are powerful and can be every bit as essential as one’s clinical experience to both the therapeutic alliance and client outcomes.

It’s OK to be a beginner. One of the hardest things for me during practicum was being a beginner again. I had built expertise and competence in my previous jobs, and while some of that transferred into counseling, much of it was still new. Whether you’re in your 50s or 20s, when you first start seeing clients, you will be a beginner, and in some ways that can facilitate curiosity and humility that will actually help you be a better clinician. A corollary to accepting that you’re a novice is admitting it and asking for help when you need it.

When in doubt, just be there for the client. As a counseling intern, I found myself often doubting or being unsure of what was happening or what to do in sessions. The reality is that interns and new professionals are just learning how to be in a room (or video conference) with someone for an hour. They are figuring out how to be present, engaged and empathetic and how to embody unconditional positive regard even in difficult situations. I discovered that counseling isn’t about solving your client’s problems; it’s just about showing up and being there for the client. Once I accepted that, things got a lot easier, and I became a better counselor.

Learn more than you have to. For students who are going to graduate school, working with clients and living the rest of their lives, which likely includes both work and family obligations, doing anything else may seem like a tall order. However, I’ve found that it is possible to build clinical knowledge and skills via online courses, videos, seminars, workshops, magazine and journal articles, or a certification program in far fewer hours than one might think. I studied several counseling modalities, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), internal family systems (IFS) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). I have earned about a dozen continuing education credits and obtained a basic CBT certification, and after going through EMDR training, I am practicing as an EMDR therapist — all of which I did while I was a counseling student. Dedicating a few hours per month to continuing education is a great investment and will build good habits for the future.

Every counseling student should leave school with some expertise in at least a couple go-to modalities. Although graduate counseling programs usually provide good surveys of theories and modalities, I think they fall short in terms of helping interns develop at least a couple go-to interventions that they can use while learning to just be there for the client. CBT, IFS and trauma-focused interventions would be helpful to know as a beginning clinician because those modalities have application in multiple contexts for a broad range of client symptoms. I sought additional training outside of my counseling courses to help me develop these skills, but it would have been nice to have the counseling curriculum focus less on theoretical and historical criteria and more on applied skills and interventions. For example, the curriculum at my program required us to take an introduction to research course, but it did not offer an elective in CBT or IFS. I would also like to see sexuality counseling and grief and loss courses become requirements, rather than electives.

Being able to treat trauma may be the most important skill a counselor can have. Whether you are an intern, a counselor practicing under supervision or a licensed clinician, you will see clients with trauma issues, and often some with severe trauma histories. Early in my internship, I discovered that most of my clients either had trauma or their presenting symptoms could be traced to earlier trauma, so I began studying trauma and shame treatment, especially EMDR and IFS. I would strongly recommend that any new therapist read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (a book that has been life-changing in my own mental health journey) and Gabor Maté’s The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. I consider both books to be “trauma bibles” and indispensable in becoming trauma informed. In fact, I would argue that these books are more valuable than all the textbooks I read during my counseling program.

Different therapeutic choices can all be valid. While it’s true that evidence-based approaches tend to make sense under certain circumstances, I’ve also learned that if a solid, trust-based relationship exists between client and therapist, many modalities can support positive clinical outcomes. In other words, a strong therapeutic alliance is often more valuable than an evidence-based intervention. Relatedly, I’m learning that an integrated approach is often more powerful than any one intervention in isolation, and as a client progresses, it’s helpful to modify treatment choices. For example, I might start with a person-centered philosophy, then use mindfulness to reduce anxiety so that a more cognitive behavioral approach can be effective with specific symptoms. Then I may incorporate direct trauma work with EMDR or IFS, and if appropriate, I may also use a feminist perspective to provide social context and even engage in direct advocacy for the client.

Just because someone has a lot of experience doesn’t mean they always give good advice. While I’m grateful to the people who have helped me so far in my counseling career, I’ve also received advice that I genuinely believe was not helpful. For example, I had a university-based supervisor suggest that I stop leading a DBT group because I cared too much about the group members. The problem, however, wasn’t that I cared too much but that as an early practicum student, I was simply learning boundaries. Leading DBT groups is now one of my most rewarding activities and I’ve become good at it. It would have been a terrible mistake to follow that initial advice.

I also had a site-based supervisor suggest that I was being too directive with a client. Of course, that is a potential concern, but in the case in question, I had been working with the client for months and used my emerging clinical judgment, which told me that under the circumstances, the client’s instability was compromising their ability to see connections and make choices in their best interest. Ironically, the client later thanked me for “keeping them on track.”

Sometimes a situation is beyond your scope of practice. Occasionally a client presents with something that is simply beyond our scope of practice, and I have been told this happens no matter how long someone has been practicing. If a client needs help outside the counselor’s area of competency, then the danger is not in listening to and validating the client but in “guessing” about which interventions to use or trying things we just don’t know how to do.

I once worked with a client whose long-term relationship no longer included sexual intimacy with her partner. Since this isn’t my area of expertise, I consulted with an experienced sex therapist, which ended up being invaluable. In another case, I referred a client to a neuropsychologist who ended up effectively treating the client with neurofeedback. These situations taught me two things: It’s OK not to know everything, and it’s OK to reach out for consultation or make a referral.

Learn to practice self-care early. It is truly an honor to have others share their deepest concerns, fears, aspirations and problems with us as counselors. It reflects a kind of trust and vulnerability that is rare in life. It can also be overwhelming at times. At the extreme, we can experience secondary trauma, but it also just takes a lot of energy and empathy to be there for others in their time of need and that often comes at a cost to the therapist. I’ve learned that some basic self-care techniques can make a big difference. For example, I allow myself a few minutes between sessions to reflect and reset by engaging in grounding breathing and visualization, and I schedule downtime where I can just read, hike and recharge. Making time for self-care is critical, and it’s important to learn early in the process so that it becomes habitual.

Clients are often profound teachers. I am grateful to my clients, many of whom have bravely asserted themselves and their needs in session. I have been questioned, corrected, redirected and challenged in numerous ways. I am a devotee of person-centered approaches because I’ve learned that clients are almost always capable of figuring things out, leading their own healing and offering profound insights into their own realities as well as into life in general.

I recently told my adult son that although I’ve been alive for a long time and studied a lot of things, I’ve learned more in the past couple of years as a counselor-in-training than I have in any other period in my life. Learning new approaches and skills, combined with my own personal growth and self-discovery, has been transformational. I’m a better listener and more authentic, and I’ve learned to honor a huge variety of human experiences with curiosity and without judgment.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to pursue this later-life career change and to get closer to achieving some of the goals in my personal vision. As I begin the work of building my own practice, I have no doubt that the learning will continue. In fact, my therapist reassured me that the learning never stops, which is exciting.

 


headshot of Wallace K. Pond

Wallace K. Pond is a licensed professional counselor candidate pursuing full licensure. He also holds a doctorate in education and has been fortunate to have served in various roles from bilingual kindergarten teacher to university president and corporate CEO. He has traveled to 39 countries and lived in five, while raising three, now adult, children. He currently resides with his wife of 33 years in the mountains of Colorado. Contact him at wallacekpond.com.

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