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Professional Issues

Choosing your path wisely

By Lindsey Phillips September 30, 2020

Some careers offer a limited number of pathways and opportunities after a person graduates. The good news is that counseling is not one of those careers. Counselors can work in agencies, community health centers or hospitals. They can start a private practice. They can run a clinic. They can work in or with schools. They can teach or do consultant work. They can get a doctorate and move into counselor education. They can pursue licensure and specialty certifications. They can even use the skills they have developed to work in positions outside of the field.

The bad news is that these myriad options can leave many counselors feeling overwhelmed and unsure about their next professional steps. What follows are a dozen common questions that beginning counselors (and even, on occasion, established counselors) ask about possible career paths. The insights offered by several different American Counseling Association members with varied backgrounds can provide some guidance on deciding which path might be right for you.

With so many options, where do I even start?

Start with the end in mind. To put career goals into perspective, Norm Dasenbrook, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) and owner of the private practice Dasenbrook & Johnson in Rockford, Illinois, as well as the consultant agency Dasenbrook Consulting, recommends that counselors ask themselves, “Where do I want to end up?” Or, as he sometimes phrases it, “What do I want on my tombstone?”

Do beginning counselors ultimately want to teach or do research? Do they want to treat clients? Do they want to own their own practice? These questions can help people figure out their priorities and chart their own path toward that long-term goal, he explains.

Shannon Hodges, a professor of clinical mental health counseling at Niagara University in New York, says determining a long-term goal and thinking through the steps needed to get there requires that counselors engage in self-reflection: What is their true passion? Do they want to be a professor, run a clinic, work in an agency, be a consultant or open their own practice? Furthermore, what do they know about the responsibilities involved with that career path? What are the steps required to make that career happen?

LeTea Perry, an LCPC at the Bridges Wellness Group, a counseling practice with offices in Washington, D.C., and Hyattsville, Maryland, recommends that counselors first figure out what is important to them. Do they mind working in the evenings or on the weekends? What are their personal obligations? Do they like conducting research, teaching, consulting or public speaking? Do they like working with clients? If so, what populations do they want to work with? Do they want to open a counseling office in multiple locations? Do they want to become known as the expert in a particular knowledge area?

No matter how counselors answer these questions, the important thing is that they choose a path that makes them happy both personally and professionally, Perry adds.

How do I learn more about my career options? 

Hodges, a licensed mental health counselor and approved clinical supervisor, advises counselors to interview others in the field to learn about the responsibilities and realities associated with a particular job. Running a clinic or becoming a professor may sound like a great idea, but unless you talk to others who are actually doing the work, you won’t really know if it is a good fit for you and your lifestyle, he says. For instance, Hodges finds that counseling students who say they want to be professors have often neglected to talk with faculty members about what’s involved in that role. Many of these students don’t realize that professors are often promoted more for their research and writing; it’s not just about their teaching skills.

Judith Wambui Preston, a licensed professional counselor and owner of the private practice Centered Counseling Services in Chesapeake, Virginia, says that leaders in the profession can be great career resources. For example, a counseling student could contact the director of a mental health agency and ask how that person wound up in that position and what they do on a daily basis.

Mentorship provides another way for counselors to learn about career options. Perry stresses the importance of finding good mentors because beginning counselors don’t know what they don’t know. In her experience, professionals in the field are typically willing and even excited to share their backgrounds and wisdom. But beginning counselors have to take the initiative and ask.

Counselors should also strive to get involved with local and national professional organizations, where they are more likely to find mentors and be exposed to other professionals who have done what they want to do. Perry says most of her career opportunities have stemmed from connections she made by being a member of the Maryland Counseling Association and ACA and by being an alumna of Bowie State University and Argosy University.

Dasenbrook, a past president of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association, agrees that joining a professional association is worth the money. Twenty years ago, a colleague at a conference asked if Dasenbrook would host a workshop on starting a private practice because of his experience. Today, Dasenbrook presents this workshop at both the state and national levels. He advises counselors to get involved with their professional organizations by volunteering to be on a committee or volunteering at their annual conferences.

Supervisors also serve as career support, Preston notes. “The supervisor is the bridge between being a master’s student and entering the world of being licensed,” she says. Several supervisors have guided her through her career journey, and now, in turn, she serves as this bridge for new professionals.

Should I get a job if I don’t know what I want to do yet?

Yes. In fact, gaining practical experience often helps you figure out what you want to do.

Community mental health centers and state-funded or federally funded agencies are great places to learn more about the type of client populations and diagnoses that you want to work with, says Dasenbrook, author of After 40 Years in Therapy, What Have I Learned? and The Complete Guide to Counseling Private Practice.

Perry recommends that counselors make a career list and pick three counseling pathways that sound interesting to them. “You never know what you like or what’s your superpower until you try it out,” she says.

While getting her master’s degree, Perry worked with clients with severe mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as a case manager at a group home. To make a more informed decision about her career path, she decided to work with other populations before deciding between mental health and school counseling. So, she volunteered as a Girl Scout troop leader at a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter. The children in the shelter were the members of her troop, and this outlet allowed the girls to have fun and engage with one another. After being drained by work and school, Perry found herself excited to see this group of girls. That’s when she realized that she wanted to work with children. She went on to be a school counselor in southern Maryland for more than a decade.

By trying out different jobs, “You’ll find the populations you thrive at working with,” Perry says. “You’ll see how much [money] you can make doing that and if you want to get further certified to move up in the ranks.”

What can I do with a master’s degree in counseling?

Many graduate counseling students come out of undergraduate psychology programs assuming that they’ll need to obtain a doctorate to have a successful career in the counseling profession, but that’s not the case, Hodges says. To reinforce this point with his students, he shows them that master’s counseling students at his university have a 100% placement rate and only around 10% pursue doctoral degrees. So, unless a student wants to be a full-time professor, they don’t have to earn a doctorate, adds Hodges, who has written several publications, including The Professional Counselor: Challenges and Opportunities and The Counseling Practicum and Internship Manual: A Resource for Graduate Counseling Students.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the journey from master’s degree to counselor licensure is an easy one, Preston points out. In fact, it is often a long and costly process. In Virginia where Preston practices, counselors have to accumulate 3,400 supervised hours before they can take their exams and become licensed.

But counselors who are working toward licensure still have lots of career options. They can work in mental health agencies, community mental health agencies, detox faculties, hospitals, residential facilities (e.g., psychiatric inpatient facilities), correctional facilities, schools and university counseling centers, Preston says. They can also find places to work that will pay for them to get supervision, she adds.

“The great thing about a training program like counseling is that the skills go well beyond the profession,” Hodges points out. He’s had several students who have used their counseling skills in professions outside of the field. For example, one student decided counseling was not for her, so she became a professional coach. Another former student served as the assistant director of human resources at a university and used counseling skills to handle sexual harassment claims, mediate disputes and talk with employees who were being fired.

Hodges has noticed that many colleagues working in student affairs (e.g., residence life, the office of the dean of students, student activities) also hold counseling degrees. “In this era of severe mental health concerns among college students, a counseling background is very helpful,” he adds.

Dasenbrook found a niche applying counseling skills such as “I” language, reflective listening and empathy to business and industry. For example, he has coached highly technical people who lacked the communication and people skills needed in their positions as directors or supervisors.

What are the benefits and challenges of getting a doctoral degree?

After Perry finished her master’s in school counseling, she got a job in a school system. That same year, she received notification that because of budget cuts, she might lose her job.
She was upset and angry because she had thought a job in public education was safe.

Perry took one day to cry about it, and then she made a plan to never be in that situation again. She decided to return to school and get her doctorate to increase her versatility and stability and to have more control over her future earning potential. With a doctorate, more opportunities have opened up for her, she says. She teaches as an adjunct in a counseling program, works in a clinical practice, and provides trainings on social-emotional intelligence, ethics and other counseling topics for community organizations and universities. The knowledge and expertise she acquired during her doctoral program have also put her in position to earn more money.

Hodges acknowledges that getting a doctorate can open up more job possibilities, but counselors should first weigh the benefits with the cost, he says. That cost can be high, involving several additional years in graduate school and a large financial commitment.

If someone is considering pursuing a doctorate, Hodges advises them to seriously consider the following questions: Will a doctorate help you achieve your career vision? Do you have a support system (e.g., family, friends, an active self-care plan) to assist you in this pursuit? What value will the doctoral degree add? What is the return on the investment? Given the high cost of education today, manageable debt is one of the first things that people need to consider, he adds.

Perry recommends that counselors figure out their motivation — their “why” — before investing time and money in pursuit of a doctoral degree. For her, that “why” boiled down to anger, fear and uncertainty at the possibility of losing her job to budget cuts and the desire to diversify her career options.

For Preston, the decision to get a doctorate was a long time coming. She had entertained the idea more than once over the years, but the timing never felt right. Her kids were young, or she was busy with her own clinical practice. Plus, after taking out school loans for her master’s-degree program, she had promised herself that she would not pursue a doctorate unless she had financial help. (For more on Preston’s career decisions after graduation, see her contribution to Julius Austin and Jude Austin’s Surviving and Thriving in Your Counseling Program, published by ACA.)

Now, 15 years after earning her master’s degree, Preston says it is finally the right time for her. She just finished her first year as a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at Old Dominion University in Virginia — with a tuition stipend.

What if I want to teach but don’t want to research?

There are ways to teach without having to research and publish. One option is to teach as an adjunct. Larger universities often require more research and publications, whereas adjunct faculty and some community college faculty positions don’t.

Conducting workshops is another way to teach others. Dasenbrook always wanted to teach, but because he didn’t have a doctorate, he knew it would be difficult for him to do so at a major university. Instead, he discovered that he could teach other counseling professionals how to improve their own skills and businesses through workshops. He has taught mediation skills for business and industry, and now he teaches workshops on how to start and build successful private practices. 

Hodges has noticed some universities are hiring clinical professors, which is a faculty position that focuses more on teaching and supervision. One of his colleagues at Niagara University was hired to oversee clinical placements and teach part time. She was drawn to the position because she doesn’t have any desire to do research. Hodges predicts there will be more options for clinical-type faculty in other university counseling programs in the future.

Should I get some work experience either before or during my doctoral program?

Preston thinks there is some value in having clinical experience before getting a doctoral degree. “When a professor is talking about a theory or technique in class, you’re coming in with another lens. You have familiarity with what that professor is talking about … because you have actually experienced it,” she explains.

But there is also a benefit in going directly from a master’s program to a doctoral program, especially because it can be challenging to readjust to academic life once you leave, she adds.

When Hodges was in graduate school, he wanted to get as much practical experience as he could. He did internships while also working at agencies and career centers. He also took two years after earning his master’s degree in counseling to work in the field. Then, when he started his doctoral program, he worked part time at an agency during the school year and full time during the summer.

This experience allows him to speak from a real-life knowledge base, not just a theoretical one, when he teaches. Students appreciate the practical examples he provides, he says.

Several of Hodges’ students have also chosen to work in the counseling field for a few years before returning to school to earn a doctorate. They say those experiences can help counseling students determine whether a doctoral degree is the right path to pursue.

Hodges believes that is a good plan. He often advises counseling students who aren’t sure whether they want a doctorate to get a job in a clinic and get licensed first. Then, they can teach part time in a counseling program and decide what the next steps for their career should be.

Do I need practical experience as an educator?

“Academics [often] have very little professional practice because they tend to be separate careers,” Hodges points out. “But it’s really an advantage to have several years of experience working in direct services or maybe even running programs because you understand practical, day-to-day issues.”

Dasenbrook thinks that counselor educators should be licensed in the field in which they are teaching, and Preston says that some universities prefer employing educators who are licensed. Having practical experience in the settings they are teaching about allows educators to discuss real-world examples, which benefits students who want to become clinical counselors,
she adds
.

Being licensed also provides counselor educators with more diverse career options, Preston continues. Even with a doctoral degree, they need a license to practice independently; otherwise, they can see clients only under supervision, she points out.

Of course, having practical experience is not required to make someone a better professor. Preston says she has had plenty of professors without clinical experience who were wonderful teachers because they found other ways to increase their clinical knowledge, such as interviewing clinicians in the field and regularly attending trainings and conferences.

How do I balance being both a clinician and an educator?

Trying to juggle multiple professional roles at once can be challenging. For their own well-being, counselors must establish boundaries, and if they have too much on their plates, they have to be willing to let something go, Perry says.

Counselors should take on new projects in small doses to avoid overwhelming themselves, Perry continues. For example, if a clinician is working full time in an agency, they could choose to teach just one class on the side, or a full-time professor could start by taking on only a limited number of clients to see how that goes.

Although working in multiple roles undoubtedly expands the potential of increasing a counselor’s earnings, experience and expertise, counselors should take into account the possibility of a learning curve for each new role or project, she adds.

Hodges knows the struggle of shouldering too many roles at once. During his doctoral program, he was a teaching assistant for both the psychology and counseling departments, plus he worked part time in an agency off campus. This schedule didn’t give him a day off and pushed him toward burnout, so he eventually had to quit one of his jobs.

“Part of why [counseling] exists is to help people have balanced, healthy, rewarding lives. We have to make sure we’re doing that ourselves,” Hodges says.

At another point in his career, he realized that he wasn’t meeting that goal. He was driving an hour each way to work at an agency that he loved while also teaching, writing, researching and serving on journal boards. So, he made the decision to adjust his career plan. He stopped working at the agency and focused his energy on researching, writing, and taking international service trips to Africa and to remote parts of Australia during the summers when he wasn’t teaching.

What nonclinical skills do I need as a mental health professional?

When Hodges was in his master’s program, an alumnus came to talk to his class about careers. The man asked them, “Who wants to be a counselor?” Hodges remembers that all 30 hands went up.

Then the man asked, “Who wants to be an administrator?” Only five students raised their hands, but the alumnus predicted that in five years, most of the class would be administrators of some kind.

In Hodges’ case, that prediction came true. In his career, he has served as director of a university counseling center and as the clinical director of a county mental health clinic.

After getting some clinical experience, counselors often move up the career ladder to management and administrative positions. At that point, “Your management experience actually starts to supersede your clinical experience,” Hodges says. In these positions, counselors can find themselves negotiating with unions and outside agencies such as family services, jails or hospitals. And they often have to interact with vice presidents and CEOs of organizations.   

When Hodges ran a clinic in rural eastern Oregon, he had to interact with the state hospital, testify in court, handle frustrated county deputies, oversee prison contracts and deal with a counselor who had an inappropriate relationship with an inmate. Such administrative skills aren’t covered in most counselor education programs, Hodges says, so he had to learn them the hard way — on the job.

Hodges is thankful for one supervisor who pushed him to develop those skills by posing hypothetical situations. One time, the supervisor asked Hodges to write a correction plan for how to handle a therapist who was not doing a good job at work. The exercise forced Hodges to consider how he would help the employee improve their job performance, how much time he would give the employee to get better, and what reasons he would recommend for retaining or firing them.

Is private practice a viable option? How do I learn the business side of it?

“There’s this urban myth in a lot of counseling programs that you can’t make it in private practice,” says Dasenbrook, who, along with Robert Walsh, helped launch ACA’s Private Practice Initiative many years ago. “But if you’re good at what you do and you can get yourself out there, you’re going to do just fine.”

Counselors have the clinical skill set needed to open a private practice, he emphasizes. The problem often lies with the business aspect — marketing and billing, for example. Dasenbrook’s advice is to get a mentor and learn the business side of running a practice. That mentor doesn’t have to be another counselor; they can simply be someone who has started their own business, he says.

Workshops, trainings and college classes are also great ways to learn these skills. As an undergraduate, Perry got a concentration in business, but if she were to do it all over again, she says, she would minor in business or double major in business and a study field related to counseling.

“Business majors have a personality and mindset that counselors can acquire,” she says. “We are the helping profession and givers by nature, but we also need to be business minded. It is important for us to brand ourselves and look at things from a business perspective to monetize our gifts and talents effectively.”

What is the likelihood that my career plans will change?

Be prepared for career plans to change. Counseling students often start graduate school with preset plans, Hodges notes. He once had a student who said she would never work in the area of addictions. When her first choice for practicum didn’t work out, she had to go with a backup plan — a substance use treatment facility. She ended up loving the job so much that she continued to work with the agency after she finished her master’s.

“Perhaps tolerance for ambiguity is a real career asset,” Hodges notes. “You never really know how you will feel about a job or career until you embrace it.”

Dasenbrook’s own career journey has taken several turns. He dreamed of opening a clinic for sex therapy after graduating. While he was working in a community mental health center, he put together a small team — a counselor, a psychologist, a gynecologist and a neurologist — and made his dream a reality. But because there wasn’t a high demand for sex therapy in Rockford, Illinois, at the time, the practice lasted only six months.

Even though that career path didn’t work out as Dasenbrook had envisioned, he made professional connections through the venture, and the other doctors began referring clients to him.

“You never wind up where you start,” Dasenbrook points out. For that reason, he advises counselors to “be open to possibilities, to be open to something new.”

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives (2017): “A path well chosen

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

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

Voice of Experience: The miracle of 28 days

By Gregory K. Moffatt September 17, 2020

When I began my life as a mental health worker well over 30 years ago, the words “managed care” weren’t even a blip on the radar. Almost everyone had personal insurance. People who had an HMO were mostly factory workers, and to have an HMO or a PPO was generally not regarded as a good thing. Otherwise, you could go to whatever doctor you wanted, there were no “referrals,” and both physicians and counselors had immense latitude in the first few weeks of treatment.

In those days, there was a joke in our profession that went something like this: “How long does it take to treat [fill in the blank with any issue]?”

The answer: “Twenty-eight days.”

The reason for 28 days is that insurance companies would reimburse for up to 28 days of treatment — even in-patient care — without question. After that, lots of other documentation was required. So, miraculously, in-patient care was often — you guessed it — 28 days.

Of course, no responsible therapist planned their treatments based on that 28-day ceiling, but we had tons of latitude on treatment plans. But the late 1980s brought us major changes in health care. Managed care (HMOs and PPOs) changed the way we did business. I was too new in the field to have an opinion at that time, but I remember the outrage among my supervisors and other veteran counselors.

In retrospect, the change in how insurance worked actually helped us (forced us?) to become better in how we provided services. For example, brief solution-focused therapy, which was something that didn’t exist when I was a graduate student, is a result of this change.

You may be asking yourself whether there is a point to this interesting trip down memory lane. Well, I think we may be seeing something just like I described above happening right now.

Americans are innovative. I am confident that the coronavirus pandemic has created a scenario that will permanently change much of our culture. In the 1980s, therapists didn’t have to think about being “brief” or efficient, but the rise of managed care forced our hands, and we got better because of it.

This virus has forced us into telemental health and other ways of offering services that, prior to March of this year, we didn’t have to think about unless we wanted to. I have encouraged all of my supervisees to pursue the telemental health credential in our state, and I have done so myself, both as a clinician and supervisor, but I suspect that lots of veteran therapists just didn’t want to mess with a new modality.

Imagine that. Once again, here is something that we were forced to do that we should have been doing already because it provides options and helps our clients. In my early years, I learned to be efficient — to do in one session what my teachers might have had the luxury of doing in five or 10 sessions. I did things efficiently because managed care forced me to do so. But shouldn’t we have been doing that anyway?

I’m not belittling my predecessors. My teachers and supervisors didn’t have to do something they weren’t accustomed to doing, so they only did it if they felt like it. Now I’m realizing that this current pandemic is changing the way we do business, and that change isn’t going away when the virus eventually fades away. I predict that some of our clients will never choose to go back to the way it was. And maybe they shouldn’t. Young therapists will probably look back on this time in history and say, “Why did my teachers need a virus to get them to routinely offer services that benefited their clients? Crazy!”

This will also affect me as a college professor. My students undoubtedly will be asking, “Why do I have to come to the classroom?” long after the pandemic is history.

My clients will be asking something similar: “Why do I have to drive all the way across Atlanta and deal with traffic every week when I can see you from the quiet of my home office (in my slippers and jammies) if I wish?”

So, in our very near future, I suspect that graduate programs will not offer telemental health as an optional certification. Instead, programs will be adjusted to provide telemental health as an expected option for clients who fit well with this modality.

If any of you reading this are holding your breath until things “get back to normal,” don’t hold your breath any longer. We have a new normal, and this will almost certainly, in some ways, be very good for us, good for the counseling profession and, most importantly, good for our clients.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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

Grappling with compassion fatigue

By Lindsey Phillips August 31, 2020

Compassion fatigue presents a paradox for counselors and others in the helping professions. As Alyson Carr, a licensed mental health counselor and supervisor in Florida, points out, it compromises their ability to do the very thing that motivated many of them to enter the field in the first place — empathically support those in pain.

Empathy and compassion are attributes those in the helping professions are particularly proud to possess and cultivate. Yet those same characteristics may leave some professionals more susceptible to becoming traumatized themselves as they regularly observe and work with those who are suffering.

Jennifer Blough provides counseling services to other helping professionals as owner of the private practice Deepwater Counseling in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She says many of her clients experience compassion fatigue. One of her former clients, an emergency room nurse, witnessed trauma daily. One day, the nurse treated a child who had suffered horrendous physical abuse, and the child died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

This incident haunted the nurse. She had nightmares and intrusive thoughts about the child’s death and abuse. She started to isolate to the point that she had to step away from her job because she refused to leave her house. She couldn’t even bring herself to call Blough. She just sent a text asking for help instead.

Blough, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and certified compassion fatigue therapist, asked the nurse to come to her office, but the nurse said she was comfortable leaving her home only when accompanied by her dog. So, Blough told her to bring her dog with her to the session. That got the nurse in the door.

From there, Blough and the nurse worked together to help the client process her trauma. Blough also taught the client to recognize the warning signs of compassion fatigue so that she could use resiliency, grounding skills, relaxation, boundary setting, gratitude and self-compassion to help keep her empathy from becoming unmanageable again.

Defining compassion fatigue

“One of the most important ways to help clients who might be struggling with compassion or empathy fatigue is to provide psychoeducation,” Blough says. “A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a name for what they’re going through or that others are going through the same thing.”

Blough, author of To Save a Starfish: A Compassion-Fatigue Workbook for the Animal-Welfare Warrior, didn’t understand that she was experiencing compassion fatigue when she worked at an animal shelter and as an animal control officer before becoming a counselor. After she started feeling depressed, she decided that she was weak and unfit for her job and ultimately left the field entirely. It wasn’t until she was in graduate school for counseling that she learned there was a name for what she had experienced — compassion fatigue.

According to the American Institute of Stress, compassion fatigue is “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from consequences of traumatic events.” This differs from burnout, which is a “cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with workload and institutional stress, not trauma-related.”

Although compassion fatigue is the more well-known and widely used term, there is some debate about whether it is the most accurate one. Some mental health professionals argue that people can never be too compassionate. Instead, they say, what people experience is empathy fatigue.

In an interview with CT Online in 2013, Mark Stebnicki described empathy fatigue as resulting from “a state of psychological, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and occupational exhaustion that occurs as the counselors’ own wounds are continually revisited by their clients’ life stories of chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief and loss.”

April McAnally, an LPC in private practice in Austin, Texas, is among those who believe that people can’t have too much compassion. Compassion involves having empathy and feeling what the other person does, but we have a screen — an internal boundary — that protects us, McAnally says. “Empathy, however, can be boundaryless,” she continues. “We can find ourselves overwhelmed with what the other person is experiencing. … So, what we actually become fatigued by is empathy without the internal boundary that is present with compassion.”

As Blough puts it, “Empathy is the ability to identify with, or experience, another’s emotions, whereas compassion is the desire to help alleviate suffering. In other words, compassion is empathy in action.”

McAnally, a certified compassion fatigue professional, also suggests using the term secondary trauma. She finds that it more accurately describes the emotional stress and nervous system dysregulation that her clients experience when they are indirectly exposed to the trauma and suffering of another person or animal.

Symptoms and risk factors

Anyone can be susceptible to burnout, but compassion fatigue most often affects caregivers and those working in the helping professions, such as counselors, nurses, social workers, veterinarians, teachers and clergy.

Working in a job with a high frequency of trauma exposure may increase the likelihood of developing compassion fatigue, McAnally adds. For example, a nurse working in an OBGYN office may have a lower risk of developing compassion fatigue than would an emergency room nurse. Even though they both share the same job title, the impact and frequency of trauma is going to be higher in the ER, McAnally explains.

Counselors should also consider race/ethnicity and contextual factors when assessing for compassion fatigue. Racial injustices that members of marginalized populations regularly experience are sources of pervasive and ongoing trauma, McAnally notes. And unresolved trauma increases the likelihood of someone experiencing empathy fatigue, she adds.

Carr, an American Counseling Association member who specializes in complex trauma and anxiety, and Blough both believe the collective trauma resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and exposure to repeated acts of racial violence and injustice could lead to collective compassion fatigue for all helping professionals (if it hasn’t already).

McAnally, a member of the Texas Counseling Association, a branch of ACA, says the current sociopolitical climate has also affected the types of clients she is seeing, with more individuals who identify as activists and concerned citizens seeking counseling of late. She has found that these clients are experiencing the same compassion fatigue symptoms that those in the helping professions do.

Blough and Victoria Camacho, an LPC and owner of Mind Menders Counseling in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, say symptoms of compassion fatigue can include the following:

  • Feelings of sadness or depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite
  • Anger or irritability
  • Nightmares or intrusive thoughts
  • Feelings of being isolated
  • Problems at work
  • A compulsion to work hard and long hours 
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Difficulty separating work from personal life
  • Reactivity and hypervigilance
  • Increased negative arousal
  • Lower frustration tolerance
  • Decreased feelings of confidence
  • A diminished sense of purpose or enjoyment
  • Lack of motivation
  • Issues with time management
  • Unhealthy coping skills such as substance use
  • Suicidal thoughts

There are also individual risk factors. According to Camacho, a certified compassion fatigue professional, individuals with large caseloads, those with limited or no support networks, those with personal histories of trauma or loss, and those working in unsupportive environments are at higher risk of developing compassion fatigue.

In fact, research shows a correlation between a lack of training and the likelihood of developing compassion fatigue. So, someone at the beginning of their career who feels overwhelmed by their job and lacks adequate training and support could be at higher risk for experiencing compassion fatigue, McAnally says.

One assessment tool that both Blough and Camacho use with clients is the Professional Quality of Life Scale, a free tool that measures the negative and positive effects of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. Blough says this assessment helps her better understand her clients’ levels of trauma exposure, burnout, compassion fatigue and job satisfaction.

Regulating the body and mind

“Having an awareness of our emotions and experiences, especially in a mindful way, can serve as a barometer to help protect us against developing full-blown compassion fatigue,” says Blough, a member of ACA and Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA.

Part of this awareness includes being mindful of one’s nervous system and the physical changes occurring within one’s body. When someone experiences compassion fatigue, their amygdala, the part of the brain involved in the fight-or-flight response, gets tripped a little too quickly, McAnally explains. So, their body may react as if they are in physical danger (e.g., heart racing, sweating, feeling panicky) even though they aren’t.

If clients get dysregulated, McAnally advises them to use grounding techniques to remind themselves that they are safe. She will often ask clients to look all over the room, including turning around in their chairs, so they can realize there is nothing to fear at that moment. She also uses the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, in which clients use their senses to notice things around them — five things they see, four things they hear, three things they feel, two things they taste and one thing they smell.

Research has shown that practicing mindfulness for even a few minutes a day can increase the size of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, McAnally adds.

Blough often uses the square breathing technique to ground clients and get them to slow down. She will ask clients to breathe deeply while simultaneously adding a visual component of making a square with their eyes. They breathe in for four seconds while their eyes scan left to right. They hold their breath for four seconds while their eyes scan up to down. They breathe out for four seconds while their eyes scan right to left. And they hold their breath for four seconds while their eyes move down to up.

Counselors can also teach clients to do a full body scan to regulate themselves, Blough and Camacho suggest. This technique involves feeling for tension throughout the body while visualizing moving from the head down to the feet. If the person notices tension in any area, then they stop and slowly release it.

Camacho once had a client lean forward and grab the armrest of the chair they were sitting in while talking. She stopped the client and asked, “Do you notice you are gripping the armrest? Why do you think you are doing that?”

The client responded, “I wasn’t aware of it, but I find it comfortable. I feel like I’m grounding myself.”

Camacho, an ACA member who specializes in posttraumatic stress disorder, trauma, and compassion fatigue in professionals who serve others, used this as a teachable moment to show the client how to ground themselves while also having relaxed muscles. She asked the client to release their grip on the chair and instead to lightly run their fingers across it and focus on its texture.

Carr finds dancing to be another useful intervention. “Engaging in dancing and moving communicates to our brains that we are not in danger. [It] allows us to develop and strengthen affect regulation skills as well as have a nonverbal, integrated body-mind experience,” she explains.

Creating emotional boundaries

Setting boundaries can be another challenge for helping professionals. Blough says many of her clients report feeling guilty if they say “no” to a request. They often feel they have to take on one more client or take in one more animal. But she asks them, at whose expense?

Blough reminds clients that saying “no” or setting a boundary just means saying “yes” to another possibility. For example, if a client wants to schedule an appointment on Thursday night at the same time that the therapist’s child has a soccer game, then telling the client “no” just means that the therapist is saying “yes” to their family and to their own mental health.

Blough and McAnally recommend that people create routines to help themselves separate work from home. For example, clients and counselors alike could listen to an audiobook or podcast during their commute home, or they could meditate, take a walk or even take a shower to signify the end of the workday, Blough suggests. “Anything that helps them clear their head and allows them to be fully present for themselves or their families,” she adds.

People can also establish what Carr calls an “off switch” to help them realize that work is over. That action might involve simply shutting the office door, washing one’s hands or doing a stretch. At the end of the workday, Carr likes to put her computer in a different room or in a drawer so that it is out of sight and mind. Then, she takes 10 deep breaths and leaves work in that space.

Exercising self-compassion

“Because a lot of helping professionals are highly driven and dedicated, they tend to have unrealistic expectations and demand a lot from themselves, even to the point of depletion,” Blough says. “Having low levels of self-compassion can lead to compassion fatigue, particularly symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.”

In other words, self-compassion is integral to helping people manage compassion fatigue. “Self-criticism keeps our systems in a state of arousal that prevents our brains from optimal functioning,” Carr notes, “whereas self-compassion allows us to be in a state of loving, connected presence. Therefore, it is considered to be one of the most effective coping mechanisms. It can provide us with the emotional resources we need to care for others, help us maintain an optimal state of mind, and enhance immune function.”

According to Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, caregivers should generate enough compassion for themselves and the person they are helping that they can remain in the presence of suffering without being overwhelmed. In fact, she claims that caregivers often need to focus the bulk of their attention on giving themselves compassion so that they will have enough emotional stability to be there for others.

People in the helping professions can become so focused on caring for others that they forget to give themselves compassion and neglect to engage in their own self-care. Blough often asks clients to tell her about activities that they enjoy — ones that take their mind off work, help them relax and allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then she asks how often they engage in those activities. Clients often tell her, “I used to do it all the time before I became a professional caregiver.”

She reminds them that they can help others only if they are also taking care of themselves. That means they need to take time to engage in activities that relax and recharge them; it isn’t a choice they should feel guilty making.

Self-regulating in session

As helpers, counselors are likely to experience symptoms of compassion fatigue at some point. This is especially true for clinicians who frequently see clients who are dealing with trauma, loss and grief.

For McAnally, that experience came early in her career. During practicum, she had a client with a complex trauma history who couldn’t sleep at night. In turn, McAnally found herself waking up in the middle of the night, worrying about the client. She knew this was a warning sign, so she reached out to her supervisor, who helped her develop a plan to mitigate the risk of compassion fatigue.

It almost goes without saying that counselors should take the advice they give to their own clients: They should establish a self-care routine. They should seek their own counseling and support. They should set boundaries and find ways to recharge outside of work. And they should exercise self-compassion.

But counselors also need to find ways to self-regulate during sessions. “If you are tense and you’re hearing all of these heavy stories, you’re at a much greater risk of being vicariously traumatized,” Blough says. Self-regulation can provide a level of protection from that occurring, she notes.

Blough often uses the body scan technique while she is in session. Doing this, she can quietly relax her body without it drawing the attention of her clients. In addition, as she teaches relaxation skills to her clients, she does the skills with them. For example, she slows her own breathing while teaching clients guided breath work. That way, she is relaxing along with them.

Likewise, McAnally has learned to be self-aware and regulate her nervous system when she is in session. If she notices her heart rate accelerating and her stomach clinching when a client is describing a painful or traumatic event, then she grounds herself. She orients herself by wiggling her toes and noticing what it feels like for her feet to be touching the ground. She also looks around the room to remind her brain that she is safe.

McAnally also uses internal self-talk. She will think, “I’m OK right now.” As with the body scan, this is a subtle action that clinicians can take to ground themselves without the client even being aware that they are doing it.

Helping the helpers during COVID-19

Recently, Carr received a text from a counseling mentor who has been practicing for 40 years that said, “I am falling apart. I am lost. I don’t know what to do, but sending a text to someone I trust felt right. Write or call when you can.”

Carr quickly reached out, and her colleague said he was experiencing a sense of hopelessness that he hadn’t in many years. He worried about his clients and feared he wasn’t doing everything he could for them. He was also anxious about finances; several of his clients had become unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he started seeing them pro bono. All of this was taking a toll on him personally and professionally.

Before the pandemic, McAnally managed her compassion fatigue symptoms in part by checking in with other therapists who worked down the hall from her office and by participating in in-person consultation groups. Now that she is working from home full time because of the pandemic, she says that she has to be more intentional about practicing self-care and accessing support. She calls her colleagues to check in, practices mindfulness, and schedules breaks to go outside and play with her dog.

Even when counselors recognize that they need help, they can encounter barriers similar to those their clients face. For instance, they may not be able to find in-network providers, and only a small portion of the hourly rate may be covered by their insurance. This problem made Carr pose some questions: “Who is helping the helpers right now? How can we take care of others if we aren’t able to more easily take care of ourselves?”

Then she decided to take action. She created Counseling for Counselors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the emotional and psychological impact on mental health providers during a time of collective trauma. The organization’s aim is to generate funding that would allow self-employed licensed mental health professionals in need of treatment to more easily access those services.

“Although the heightened state of anxiety around the pandemic may have exposed this critical need, the demand for quality, affordable mental health care for counselors is ongoing,” Carr says. “Counselors are not immune to trauma and, now more than ever, licensed mental health professionals need access to mental health services in order to effectively treat the populations we serve and to continue to play an instrumental part in contributing to the well-being of society at large.”

Fostering compassion satisfaction

People in the helping professions often feel guilty or ashamed about struggling with compassion fatigue. They sometimes believe they should be immune or should be able to find a way to push through despite their symptoms. But that isn’t the case.

“I think the biggest takeaway when it comes to compassion fatigue is that it’s a normal, almost inevitable consequence of caring for and helping others. It’s not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. It’s not a mental illness. It affects the best and brightest and those who care the most,” Blough says.

For that matter, compassion fatigue isn’t something you “have” or “don’t have,” she adds. Instead, it operates on a spectrum, which is why it is so important for helping professionals to be aware of its warning signs and symptoms.

Blough acknowledges that compassion fatigue is always present in some form for her personally. She often manages it well, so it just simmers in the background. But sometimes it boils over. When that happens, she knows to regulate herself, to increase her self-care and to get support.

It is easy for a negative experience to overshadow a helping professional’s entire day and push aside any positive aspects. That’s why Blough and McAnally both recommend setting aside time daily to list three positive things that happened at work. A counselor or other helping professional could focus on the joy they felt when they witnessed an improvement in their client that day or when they witnessed the “aha!” moment on their client’s face.

Blough often advises clients to journal or otherwise reflect on these positive experiences before they go to bed because it can help prevent rumination and intrusive thoughts that may disrupt sleep. Celebrating these “little victories” will help renew their passion for their job, she adds.

As Blough points out, “Empathy can definitely lead to compassion fatigue, but if properly managed, it can also foster compassion satisfaction, which is the antithesis of compassion fatigue. It’s the joy you get from your work.”

 

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

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

Primum cura te ipsum: First, heal thyself

By Samuel Kohlenberg August 17, 2020

During this bizarre and painful epoch beset by pandemic, racial trauma and social injustice, there is a growing emphasis on clinician well-being and self-care, and rightfully so.

Countless articles and blogs have been written about self-care for counselor clinicians, and here is one more. Why write another one? Because as a counselor educator and supervisor, I want to sell you on a goal other than being OK enough to work. Because avoiding burnout is not enough. We need to set the bar higher to competently render care. Make no mistake, this is an ethical issue.

Like many, perhaps, I have always found Latin venerating in a way that underscores the importance of a phrase or idea. Whether carved into cornerstones or encircling university seals, the tradition has gravitas. One idea I find worthy of such reverence, as it pertains to psychotherapy and behavioral health, is that clinicians need to “do their own work.” Therapists need to heal.

Whether it is through traditional talk therapy or other means, therapists need to attend to their own trauma, developmental journeys and growth. While the oft-cited phrase attributed to Hippocrates, “primum non nocere” (first, do no harm), is a vitally important doctrine in mental health, I am suggesting that there is an overlooked and more sequentially vital step in terms of primacy required to avoid doing harm: that therapists confront and deal with their own issues.

Although therapists are often told that they need to take care of themselves and “do their own work,” I do not believe there is enough understanding regarding why this is so crucially important. Yes, it benefits the therapists, it may mitigate burnout, and it may increase professionals’ longevity in the field. But from my perspective, not enough emphasis has been placed on the idea that people who are not OK do not make competent therapists.

This is not to say that people who have endured trauma or have previously met criteria for a behavioral health diagnosis should not pursue jobs as therapists. Far from it. Many of the best therapists I know are as good as they are in large part because of the difficult roads they have had to walk.

There are many ways to describe how therapists doing their own work might affect them professionally, but I am going to focus on three ideas:

1) Your nervous system is an instrument for attachment work and relationship, and it is shaped by how much work you have done.

2) Doing your work helps you project less and become more aware of your projections.

3) Having done the work means being able to genuinely relate to what your patients are going through instead of just understanding. (Note: Although I say “patient,” please feel free to substitute “client.” The reason I prefer patient is that I feel it better emphasizes the connection between the physical and psychological realms, and given the field’s current understanding of the interconnection between the two, I intentionally use language that fits in both lexicons.)

The nervous system

In a typical stress response, a perceived threat can activate the amygdala, leading to the release of epinephrine and coordinating a sympathetic response to the stressor. Typically, this sort of sympathetic activation means that you are no longer using the circuits associated with optimal social engagement (consider, is it harder to tell how other people feel when you are angry?).

The social engagement system is characterized by the feeling of social connection, the ability to read social cues, eye contact, voice modulation and comfort. All of these things shut down when we go into sympathetic activation as part of a stress response.

Imagine a therapist who has yet to “do their own work” sitting in their office listening to their patient describe a traumatic event. Even if an activated therapist gives no obvious facial expression or gesture, how do you think the person sitting across from them will be affected by the therapist’s nervous system switching gears from social engagement to fight-or-flight?

Imagine for a moment a scared child running to a parent or caregiver and being met with warm eyes, a soft smile and a soothing voice. Now imagine the same child being met with scared eyes, decreased facial muscle tone and a flat voice. In which situation is the child going to be more OK?

Similar dynamics play out in therapy. This means that therapists’ ability to stay in their social engagement system affects patients’ likelihood of being OK while doing things such as trauma work. Part of a therapist’s work is using their nervous system to help resource a patient’s nervous system. For some, it will take significant and ongoing work to be able to do this well. 

Awareness

Awareness and projection share a simple relationship: The more aware you are of your projections, the less likely you are to inadvertently allow those projections to affect your relationships with others.

Regardless of theoretical underpinning, modality or clinical philosophy, virtually all types of psychotherapeutic work regard the relationship between therapist and patient as instrumental. Thus, if the therapeutic relationship itself is one of the primary means by which therapists ply their trade, and a lack of awareness can lead to one’s projections interfering with relationships with others, there is an argument to be made that therapists are on ethically dubious ground if they practice without having cultivated enough awareness and done enough work to overcome this potential pitfall.

You are missing your patient if all you can see is your projection. You are not going to realize that it is a projection if you have yet to cultivate enough awareness. 

Relating

There is a difference between understanding what someone is going through and being able to truly relate to it. While psychotherapists are undoubtedly an empathetic bunch, helping someone engage in the process of developmental therapeutic growth beyond where you yourself have grown is no easy task.

Imagine for a moment a 40-year-old in the midst of an existential crisis. Now imagine an empathetic and well-meaning 14-year-old attempting to help that 40-year-old. Unfortunately, a developmental stage is not always as clear as chronological age, and this can lead to blind spots for clinicians that may negatively affect quality of care. Being able to genuinely relate to what your patients are going through is important, and the 14-year-old is going to have a heck of a time helping the 40-year-old.

Keep doing your work

The thing that all of the above ideas boil down to is relationship. It is your job to ensure a helpful clinical relationship, and the relationship itself is the greatest clinical tool that you have. Ensuring that this primary tool is going to be functional, let alone optimal, can require time, effort and a willingness to endure the discomfort necessary for growth.

Of course, more basic day-to-day self-care is still important for fighting burnout and for resourcing one’s self, especially when you are tasked with taking care of others and especially during times in which nobody seems to be OK. The invitation, the challenge, the mandate, is to not stop at “resourced.”

Aim higher. Embrace catalysts for growth and development. Get comfortable with discomfort when it means a potential breakthrough. Do it for you. Do it for them. Do it like it’s your job.

 

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Samuel Kohlenberg is a clinical psychophysiologist, licensed professional counselor and behavioral health educator specializing in the treatment of stress. He is a master of education in the health professions fellow at Johns Hopkins University and a postdoctoral fellow at Saybrook University and works in private practice in Denver. Contact him through his Facebook page or through his website at denverstressclinic.com.

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

Encountering and addressing racism as a multiracial counselor

By Michelle Fielder and Lisa Compton August 11, 2020

It was a simple question, “How are you doing?” that started us on a path of discovery. I (Lisa) wanted to check in with Michelle, my teaching assistant, after racial tensions consumed the news. George Floyd had just been killed, and the media were focused on his death, the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, and the outcry for justice for the African American community.

Michelle was initially numb, unsure of how to articulate the different thoughts and feelings the recent events had triggered for her. I could tell she needed a break from our usual academic work, so I assigned a reflective activity to give her space for introspection.

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The events brought to my (Michelle’s) mind a comment that actor Will Smith had previously made on a late-night television show: “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”

As my ideas began to crystallize, Lisa and I began to share our perspectives on the sobering current events. The result was a rich dialogue between us — raw, authentic and refreshingly open.

What follows is an excerpt from our discussion. We hope that it will stimulate other discussions and encourage counselors to not fear engaging in dialogue about race. We believe that such open communication will help us to better understand one another and the reality of systemic issues, to identify our blind spots and areas for growth, to improve our care for clients and to move our profession forward.

Racism at first glance

Lisa: Michelle, you told me how triggering the recent acts of racism in America and subsequent protests have been for you. Could you share some of your background?

Michelle: I was born to an African American father and a Japanese mother around the civil unrest and well-publicized riots of 1968. The United States was embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam, and racial tensions at home were an additional black eye on our status as a world leader. It is sobering to consider that the institutionalized racism which led to the widespread violence and destruction of many cities, including Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, has not been eliminated over my lifetime.

My first understanding of racism occurred when I was in the first grade. My mother would meet me after school each day to walk the mile or so back to our house. One day, a white pickup truck pulled alongside us, and two Caucasian men started yelling racial epithets and throwing beer bottles at us. My mother grabbed me and ran into a nearby park where they could not follow in their vehicle.

My mother reported the incident to the police, but it was not investigated, and the matter was dropped. It was not until several years later that I understood what transpired that day and the reality that the very notion of my existence was abhorrent to someone simply based on how I looked.

The path to becoming a counselor

Lisa: That must have been a terrifying experience for you. What impact did your childhood have on your career path as a professional counselor?

Michelle: I became driven to prove my value and worth to society through academic and athletic achievement. When it came time to apply to college, I wanted to mark the “other” box because, back then, “multiracial” was not an option.

My mother surprisingly challenged my decision: “Michelle, whether you like it or not, the world is going to look at the color of your skin and decide that you’re African American. Why not show them you are also kind, driven, intelligent and talented? It doesn’t have to be either-or.”

My mother’s advice empowered me to look beyond my neighborhood and the typical path of my peers, which was community college or service and retail jobs. I applied to the United States Naval Academy and was accepted into the 10th class that allowed women. As a midshipman, it was not lost on me that there were few black or brown faces, and I was often reminded that there were 20 other applicants for everyone who was accepted, so I had to make my presence count.

I found my follow-on experience in the Marine Corps to be a great example of inclusion, as we all worked together toward a common mission. There were not black, white, brown or yellow Marines — we were all “green.” As an intelligence officer, I became adept at understanding the human nature of our enemies and advising appropriate responses to conflict. This intuitiveness and desire to bring healing to suffering led me straight to my next career as a professional counselor.

Experiencing racism with clients

Lisa: Have you experienced racism in your interactions with clients and, if so, how have you managed it?

Michelle: Depending on how I wear my hair, it has apparently been difficult for others to determine my race. Over my lifetime, I have been mistaken for Filipino, Puerto Rican, Thai/Burmese, South Korean and Samoan.

As a licensed professional counselor, I have had clients decline to meet with me because I was not pale enough for their liking or not dark enough “to understand their experience.” Several clients have made racially disparaging comments about African Americans or Asian groups in my presence because they were unaware of my multiracial background. One Caucasian client made the flip comment, “She [a Hispanic friend] is so stupid. What did she expect dating a Black guy? They’re all dogs and can’t keep a job!”

Those comments were spoken so casually that it is not hard to imagine that worse was being said in other settings. It is a sad reminder that racial prejudice and stereotyping are still at the forefront of some people’s minds. Sad because such views prevent the speaker from seeing the potential good aspects of another race and benefiting from their culture. Sad because such divisiveness prevents unity that could make us stronger as neighbors, co-workers or fellow journeyers on this path through life. My identity is not the “little mongrel” girl who had to hide in a park, nor are those individuals being described the sum of those demeaning or devaluing statements. We can and need to do better.

Early in my career, I had a Caucasian client tell me he hated “Black people.” I was quite surprised, and it must have shown on my face because he immediately added, “But you’re all right. You’re not like the other ones I’ve met.”

As you can imagine, I was angry at his audacity and saddened by his views, but I knew based on where he was in treatment that it was not the time to get into a heated debate about his racial beliefs. However, I realized that his sharing of those ideas with me indicated that he felt safe to do so in my presence and that I had been entrusted with a variable that I had not known about him previously. While I was offended by his remark, I remember thinking, “Stay focused on the client. This is not about me; it’s about the client.”

I am going to be judged, fairly and unfairly, but I choose to live in a manner to be a credit to my race rather than a detractor. I also recognize that every instance of racism is a learning opportunity — for me to better understand how the other person came to their beliefs and for clients to perhaps expand their views to see past a person’s appearance to their character. We are all a product of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experience. A client’s life may have taught them to hate, but if we, as counselors, do not believe in the potential for people to change and grow, we are in the wrong profession.

Racism can come in many forms. It can be overt or covert, generational or situational, and institutional or individual. As counselors, we need to be prepared for however it manifests and to recognize that some people are not even aware of how hurtful their beliefs are until they are uttered out loud and someone checks them on it. When working with clients, I have come to recognize that racism is often based on fear, and the more information the client is willing to learn about the object of their fear, the less impact it has. Working with a client’s racist remarks takes the same unconditional positive regard that you would give any client, and it is an opportunity to model healthy self-concept and emotional regulation.

So, take the client I mentioned previously who stated that he hated Black people. For this interview, I will call him “John.” When John made that statement, I did not react to his remarks, but I was able to work with him later in therapy surrounding some of his distorted schemas when he was ready. The following are some practical suggestions for working with clients who show signs of racism:

1) It’s not about you. (Do not personalize clients’ racist remarks).

Me: “It sounds like there are anger and pain behind that statement. Tell me about the Black people you’ve previously met.”

John: “Well, they make me sick. They’re lazy. They lie around doing drugs and collecting a welfare check while I bust my butt working all the time.”

2) Gently challenge any overgeneralizations.

Me: “Who are ‘they’? Are you talking about specific people you know?”

John: “No, you know what I mean. Just Black people.”

Me: “I know some Black people, but they don’t do drugs and they have jobs.”

John: “I know they’re not all like that. Like I said, you’re all right because I know you work for a living.”

Me: “So you don’t hate all Black people, just the Black people who are uneducated or unemployed?”

John: “Yeah, I guess.”

3) Help clients clarify their feelings.

Me: “Some might take your response as jealousy rather than hatred. You work hard, but they get by without working. Would you consider jealousy to be a better word?”

John: “No! I’m not jealous of those Black people. Shoot, I’m way better than them. I’m financially secure with a good job and a house. There’s nothing to be jealous of.”

Me: “You do work hard and have a lot going for you. So, why are you comparing yourself to them?”

John: “I’m not! They’re a drain on society. They could be doing as well as I am if they would just apply themselves.”

Me: “So, help me understand. If there is no comparison in your eyes, why do you even care?”

John: “Because my taxpayer dollars are going to finance their lifestyle.”

Me: “Actually, your and my tax dollars are going to finance a lot of things, like the military, Social Security and the national debt. Do you hate them too?”

John: “No, that’s just stupid. Of course I don’t hate the military. They’re necessary for our nation’s defense. It’s just our precious resources should only be used on important things that benefit all of society.”

Me: “If hate is too strong, or not the right word, what is a better way to describe how you feel?”

John: “I guess you could say I’m frustrated.”

4) Help clients clarify their beliefs.

Me: “OK, you are frustrated with some uneducated or unemployed Black people.”

John: “Yeah, because they’re on welfare.”

Me: “I also know a lot of people on welfare — White, Black, Hispanic, etc. Are you frustrated with them as well?”

John [staring at me]: “I know what you’re doing. No, I’m not frustrated with all of them. You are just twisting things around.”

5) Follow up with psychoeducation.

Me: “I’m just trying to understand what you believe and why you believe it. Words matter, and I hope you can see there is a big difference between ‘I hate Black people’ and ‘I’m frustrated with what I believe is the misuse of taxpayer money.’

Some people are where they are due to a lack of nurturing, growing up in an unsafe environment or even traumatic experiences. But when you are hindered by those things, which are outside of your control, and the color of your skin habitually prevents others from seeing you as a person or recognizing your worth, it is hard to have hope of living any other way.

We all have biases — because of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experiences — that can incite our emotions and distort our thinking. Racism occurs when we start believing those distortions about an entire group of people without considering individual differences. It may be easy to blame an entire group of people in a situation, but it is much more helpful to honestly examine why we feel the way we do and, when in our power, to do something about it.

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Having an open conversation about race with a client is possible, but counselors must consider the client’s readiness and make sure the discussion is integral to the context of the client’s presenting issue. The counseling office is not a bully pulpit, nor is it a place for counselors to get their own emotional needs met. However, when a client is ready and open to discuss the subject, counselors should be ready to “go there” while maintaining empathy and without allowing countertransference to interfere with their effectiveness.

Experiencing racism within the profession

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your experiences and such practical suggestions for working with clients. I think we are often caught off guard by comments made during sessions, and it is very helpful to think ahead of time about what to do in those situations. In addition to interactions with clients, have you experienced racism within our professional field?

Michelle: Sure. I once had a colleague tell me that she was no longer going to take Medicaid clients because they were “all Black, unemployed and unmarried with a gang of kids.” Another colleague commented that the Black clients brought their kids in for testing for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “just so they can get a check.” These were seasoned professionals who had been seeing clients for many years.

Lisa: How disappointing to hear such comments from your peers. As a Caucasian, I have noticed that many of my White colleagues feel content in knowing that they do not personally hold prejudiced feelings against others. However, I realize that a lack of personal hate does not do enough to confront systemic racism. What can we do as a profession to make progress and move forward in this area?

Michelle: The first thing is to stop apologizing. I cannot speak for all people of color, but we are not looking for apologies. Now, let me caveat that: I always advise my clients to “own what’s yours.” If you personally contributed in any way to the oppression of a person of color, then apologize to that person. Otherwise, a blanket apology often indicates that someone does not understand the nature of institutional racism.

Secondly, ask, listen, learn and act. We will never solve the problem if we do not understand the nature of the problem. Ask people of color about their experiences. You may be surprised how many instances of racism — such as inappropriate comments or jokes in the workplace — individuals have had to push aside or ignore. Question formal processes at work that have been in place for a long time because “that’s the way we’ve always done things” attitudes can indicate tacit approval of an oppressive infrastructure (e.g., not taking Medicaid clients because it does not pay as well as commercial insurance).

Listen to the conversations being held when people of color are not in the room. They may be an indication of an undercurrent of racism (e.g., gossip or complaining regarding people of color) that needs to be exposed.

Learn by reading books, listening to podcasts or subscribing to YouTube channels by people of color.

Act by speaking up when you hear racist comments or when you see acts of discrimination. Be willing to get involved with faith organizations, social justice movements and causes of people of color (e.g., speaking at a city council meeting about trauma-informed care for African American neighborhoods or joining a peaceful march). Lastly, help affect the future of the counseling profession. Become a supervisor and share the wisdom you learn about institutional racism and the need to work with people of color to fix the system.

Thirdly, for supervisors, it is important to recognize that our supervisees are coming from different backgrounds and are at different levels of multicultural competence. I hold an initial interview with my supervisees to get a sense of their goals, strengths and weaknesses. Included in this interview is a question about their ethnicity, nurturing, environment and experience as it pertains to working with race and other marginalized groups. The answer is usually, “I had a multicultural awareness class as part of my master’s degree.” I take that to mean that they do not know what they do not know, so the onus is then on the supervisor to prepare counselors-in-training in this area of competency.

I take a developmental approach with supervision and challenge supervisees to take multicultural considerations into account as they approach each client and their diagnosis. Our discussions also include case studies tailored to increase their ability to recognize their own biases and blind spots.

These past weeks, with all of the media coverage of the racial unrest, have offered a rich environment for my supervisees to learn about institutional racism and to ask questions about social justice for their clients. It is not just a multicultural issue but also an ethical one. So, I try to ensure that my supervisees are not only comfortable working with people of diverse backgrounds but also willing to admit their own areas of cultural ignorance and work toward increasing their knowledge.

Connecting multicultural competency and trauma-informed care

Lisa: Is there any other area where we can look for change?

Michelle: All professional counseling organizations have submitted statements of support to the current nonviolent protests and offered ways to help support the victims of racial trauma. This is a great start to addressing the issue. However, if we want to make a difference, we need to reevaluate the profession’s approach to multicultural and trauma-informed education because they go hand in hand.

Most counseling programs have one mandatory multicultural class and may offer some trauma electives. However, multicultural competency should be infused throughout the program, and trauma-informed care should be a required part of every curriculum. Recognizing that the design of the master’s programs is toward clinical competency as determined by face-to-face hours, how well do practicum and internships expose and evaluate multicultural and trauma care competencies? Your new book, Preparing for Trauma Work in Clinical Mental Health, addresses concepts such as historical trauma, disenfranchised grief, advocacy and ethnic identity strength and would really fill this curriculum void.

For provisional and licensed counselors, in the same way that ethics continuing education is required every year, multicultural and trauma refresher training should be required on an annual basis to ensure that counselors are maintaining the best practices. To obtain licensure, counselors should demonstrate competency in working with diverse clients and various trauma backgrounds. In addition, all professional counselors should take an active role in advocacy work on behalf of their clients and in their communities.

Just as the color of my skin is going to be subconsciously noted by the people I meet, similar experiences are happening to our clients of color, most of whom have lived with some form of oppression during their lifetime. Counselors need to be prepared to approach multicultural considerations in trauma-informed care to understand how to appropriately establish strong therapeutic alliances with clients and enhance safety and stabilization. This is a herald’s call for counselors to change the way we approach the effects of institutionalized racism if we truly want to be agents of change.

 

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Michelle Fielder is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in private practice. She is also a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at Regent University. Contact her at michfi3@mail.regent.edu.

Lisa Compton is a certified trauma treatment specialist and full-time faculty at Regent University. Contact her at lisacom@regent.edu.

 

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