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Professional Issues

The journey to counselor educator: Deciding to get your doctoral degree

By Makeba Boykins February 21, 2017

The moment you decide to pursue a doctoral degree is one of the defining moments of your career. You have decided that you want to go further, push yourself and obtain the skills needed for training new counselors. You begin to research schools and their doctoral programs. A glimmer forms of what you would like to write your dissertation on. You apply to your favorite schools, plus some that you don’t like as much to increase the chances of your dream becoming a reality.

But when the interviews start, reality kicks in. For some people, that reality is the amount of work it takes to become a counselor educator. For others, it’s the reality that their favorite school might be just out of reach for a variety of factors.

And if you are a minority student, a different kind of reality starts to settle in. One that tells you your dream might be far more complicated to reach than it is for other students.

Growing up as a black woman in the United States, I was aware of the implicit bias that can affect who gets opportunities and who doesn’t. My father was born in 1928 in the South, so the history of being black in America is forever cemented in me in ways that are hard to describe.

This knowledge becomes personal when you enter the workforce and experience implicit and explicit bias firsthand. Even while obtaining my master’s degree in community counseling, I could see how this bias played into higher education. Once I completed my master’s and went into the field, I worked in social services, attempting to make a dent in the systems and make life better for those who may not be able to do so on their own. When I decided to get my Ph.D., I felt accomplished. I felt ready to go on an academic journey.

 

Roadblocks

Upon starting the application process, I quickly realized how exclusive the “doctor” club is. Most schools accept six to 10 students for Ph.D. programs, and you are competing with students from around the world. What you want to do research on becomes extremely important because some universities want you to participate in or further research that aligns with the research interests of professors who are already in the program.

What I realized very quickly was that even if a professor has interest in multicultural issues or even race, it is rare to want to tackle implicit bias head-on. Diversity and social justice, even in the counseling profession, can be dirty words.

Some research has shown that students generally give poorer evaluations to professors who teach diversity. If those professors are minorities, their evaluations are often even lower. Depending on the university, those student evaluations can be the difference between getting tenure and not getting tenure, so these things matter.

You can imagine that several programs would proceed with caution if a student of color applied and stated that he or she wanted to do research on bias. There is a fine line between telling students that they must change their research ideas (which often change anyway over the course of study) or setting them up for a hard road that may lead to limited academic success. This was the first lesson I learned in my journey.

The first school to which I was accepted did so on the condition that I change my research topic. I had somehow been naive enough to think that in the world of academia, pushing the boundaries was encouraged. Entire bodies of research exist on implicit bias and how it affects almost every facet of society. Given the popularity of the online Implicit Association Test and the ever-growing body of research on the topic, I assumed that research on bias was no longer that controversial.

But when the program chair discussed concerns about my topic with me, I got a rude wake-up call. It shook me and made me question whether pursuing my Ph.D. was really the right course of action. I pushed on and eventually found a school that I am proud to call my academic home.

Upon starting classes, I realized this road could be a constant battle unless I had strategies for success. I hope that some of the skills I learned and implemented can be beneficial to other students, particularly minority students who are pursuing their doctoral degrees.

 

Strategies for success

Being accepted to a school that was interested in my research topic and supportive of my inclination toward social justice was the first hurdle. So, when applying and interviewing for schools, remember that you are reviewing those schools as much as they are reviewing you. It is important for any student, but particularly a student of color, to find an academic home that is supportive of your goals. Do not settle for the first school that accepts you. Review your options carefully, and make a choice that you will be happy with for the next several years to come.

The second step was becoming knowledgeable about the difficulties that African American students face. Per a 2011 research study by Malik Henfield, Delila Owens and Sheila Witherspoon in Counselor Education and Supervision, many African American doctoral students in counselor education programs feel that they face discrimination and a high level of stress. Many cite feelings of isolation, lack of support from faculty and treatment by other students as reasons for not continuing their programs. The article cited additional research done in 1996 that showed that as many as 49 percent of African American doctoral students felt at least partially, if not totally, negatively about their doctoral experience.

I was shocked to learn about these statistics and this research, but arming yourself with this knowledge will allow you to be prepared for the road ahead. So much of completing any graduate degree involves the subjective experience we have in our programs. Counselors, specifically, can forget to check in with themselves emotionally because we are used to caring for everyone else. So do your research and allow yourself to be sad about the extra set of hurdles ahead, but allow those hurdles to motivate you to achieve your goals.

Once you have been accepted to a doctoral program for counselor education, seek out professors and campus organizations that are supportive of and foster your passions. When I began school, I joined the campus diversity department, I stood strong in my passion for social justice and multicultural competency. Basically, I began the ongoing process of carving out my own space — one that is filled with support and is uniquely my own. Universities, particularly predominantly white institutions, might not have a ready-made space for you. If you begin creating your professional and collegiate identity early, it will allow you to start to set your own metric for success.

Set small, achievable goals that remind you that you are making progress. Setting your own standard for success is crucial, particularly for minority students, because feelings of isolation and a lack of support can make it hard to recognize how far you have come. This is where your family and friends can come in because they don’t have to understand what you are writing about to celebrate that you have finished a huge paper. They can constantly give you encouragement, and although their emotional support may not equal an A in the classroom or create a more inclusive environment in your school, it can mean the difference between feeling completely isolated on your journey and feeling supported.

My next step was having frank conversations with family and friends. I had already done this prior to applying to my doctoral program, but after becoming more knowledgeable about all the hurdles that minority students can face even after acceptance, it was important to talk again. I let my partner, my family and my friends know that I might need additional support because I wouldn’t necessarily be able to get it consistently at school. I feel completely supported by my school and faculty, but I wanted to ensure that I possessed multiple levels of support.

As mentioned previously, counselors can be hard pressed to practice self-care. Do not wallow in feelings of guilt when you need help or support, and don’t feel bad about telling your support network early on that you might need them to help lift you up.

Directly correlated with creating your support network is learning to be patient and gentle with yourself. Obtaining any degree is difficult, and the higher you go, the harder it is. You must deal with life’s challenges, and if you are a minority, you may face extra hurdles.

For most people, it will be a year from the time you start submitting applications to the time you actually enter school. During that year, begin practicing your self-care techniques, and then take them with you into the program. If possible, attend campus and association events to begin connecting yourself to your colleagues. Research divisions of the American Counseling Association that you might be interested in joining; these divisions can provide opportunities to expand and affirm your interests.

Also remember that pursuing your doctorate is as much about your learning as it is your grade. Talk with your adviser and take the course load that makes the most financial and emotional sense for you.

Finally, stand strong and proud in your interests and in who you are as an individual. Getting your doctorate should be about more than calling yourself a doctor. You should pursue a doctorate to do scholarly work that matters to you and to be a part of training future counselors.

What drew me to this path and program was a desire to learn more and further the discussions on implicit bias and mental health. Shying away from that path would have been detrimental to my ability to complete my studies and feel fully engaged in my profession. Although it is possible that I will change my topic down the road, it is important for me to pursue what interested me. My end goal is always “scholar” and “educator” first, not “doctor.” So unless your goals or interests change, don’t back away from your passions.

 

Conclusion

The challenges that students face when applying for and entering a doctoral counseling program can be great. Those stressors can be compounded when issues of diversity and inclusion arise. Arm yourself with all the tools and supports available to you to make your journey as smooth and successful as possible. Always be kind to yourself and, remember, we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

 

 

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Makeba Boykins has been working in the field for more than a decade. She obtained her master’s degree in community counseling from Argosy University Chicago and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in counselor education from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact her at mboykins@ego.thechicagoschool.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.

APA accepting feedback for DSM revision

By Bethany Bray February 6, 2017

The American Psychiatric Association has created an online portal for the public to submit suggested changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Launched this winter, the portal allows clinicians, scholars and members of the public to submit suggested additions, deletions or modifications to the DSM.

Often called the “psychiatric bible,” the DSM-5 is a go-to resource for many practitioners when it comes to the classification and diagnosis of mental disorders. APA released this most recent version of the DSM in May 2013, after more than a decade of planning, research and review.

The online portal creates a way to keep the DSM updated in a more timely manner and make changes incrementally, as new information and research is available, according to the APA website.

This new medium offers an important and much-needed chance to have counselors voices considered in what has traditionally been an arena dominated by psychiatrists, says Stephanie Dailey, who was involved with the American Counseling Association’s DSM-5 Task Force and co-author of the ACA-published book DSM-5 Learning Companion for Counselors.

However, Dailey, a licensed professional counselor and associate professor and director of counseling training programs at Argosy University, Washington, D.C., expresses some skepticism about which submissions might actually be considered for changes to the DSM. She contributed some thoughts, via email, to Counseling Today:

 

“The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has long been criticized, amongst other things, for poor utility; inadequate psychometric evidence for diagnostic categories and specifiers; comorbidity issues; overutilization of ‘catch all’ diagnoses (e.g., not otherwise specific [NOS] and generalized anxiety disorder [GAD]); and underutilization of emergent genetic, neuroscientific and behavioral research.

While APA’s DSM-5 Task Force attempted to rectify many of these issues, there are still considerable challenges in regard to validity, reliability and clinical utility within the DSM-5. Clarification of diagnostic descriptions, criteria, subtypes and specifiers is needed and there is a significant dearth of information regarding sociocultural, gender and familial patterns for diagnostic classifications. There is also a lack of rigorous psychometric validation for suggested dimensional and cross-cutting assessments (introduced in the DSM-5) and no consensus was made during the last revision to the DSM in terms of modifications needed for the personality disorders category. Thus, this diagnostic category has remained unchanged and clinicians (and clients) are facing the same challenges as they did 20 years ago when the DSM-IV was released.

In terms of the new portal, it is important for individuals to understand the revision process of previous iterations of the DSM to really appreciate the magnitude of an ‘open’ call for revisions. The revision process of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 was a 14-year process, beginning in 1999, which originated with a research agenda primarily developed by the American Psychiatric Association

Image via Flickr http://bit.ly/2lfWuka

(APA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2007, APA officially commissioned a DSM-5 Task Force which formed 13 work groups on specific disorders and/or diagnostic categories. While the scope was broad, the intent of the workgroups was to improve clinical utility, address comorbidity, eradicate the use of not otherwise specified (NOS), do away with functional impairments as necessary components of diagnostic criteria and use current research to further validate diagnostic classes and specifiers. Having released the draft proposed changes, three rounds of public comment and field trials were conducted between 2010 and 2012. During this time, numerous professional organizations, including ACA, voiced significant concerns (See ACA’s 2011 letter to APA: bit.ly/2kxJBVY).

Despite attempts to become involved, at no time has any professional counselor ever served on APA’s DSM Task Force. In regards to the new portal, our time to have a foothold in changes to current diagnostic classifications is now.

In looking at the portal which lists specific kinds of revisions sought, one can easily see that APA is looking to remedy the long-term critiques of the manual, specifically validity, reliability, utility and the need to capture emerging research.

However, what proposals (and by whom) that are selected for inclusion remains to be seen. While the portal allows anyone to submit a proposal, there is a long history of bias in the type of research which is deemed appropriate for consideration by APA. While there is no dispute in terms of the need for rigorous research designs and large scale studies to validate criterion, these studies are not likely going to be conducted by anyone outside of APA, NIMH, WHO and other large scale ‘think tanks.’

The problem, particularly for counselors, is both philosophical and practical. First, the psychiatric profession as a whole is trained in the medical model, while counselors tend to operate on a more humanistic, holistic perspective. Next, while Paul Appelbaum, chair of the DSM Steering Committee, stated that acceptance thresholds will be high, reports from Appelbaum and others have ensured scrutiny for submissions which don’t provide ‘clear evidence.’ This is not only vague, but likely slanted towards the psychiatric community.

No one is disputing the need for the best available scientific evidence or the ability of the counseling profession to produce substantive outcome research for the mental health community. The American Counseling Association has members who have significant, scientific-based expertise in areas relevant to the DSM and strong research agendas which can support evidence-based changes. However, our seat at the table in these discussions has been scant.

Thus, counselors are strongly urged to contribute to the revision process by submitting proposals and working towards serving as unique contributors to the next edition. This is particularly relevant to counselors whose focus is on marginalized populations and underserved groups. Outcome-based research is needed, specifically that which has been repeatedly shown to improve treatment outcomes.

This is the time for counselors to become involved and make our experience known, and more importantly, our clients’ voices heard.”

 

 

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Find out more

 

Visit APA’s DSM portal at https://psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm/submit-proposals

 

See Counseling Today’s Q+A with Dailey: “Behind the Book: DSM-5 Learning Companion for Counselors

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

‘I’m not broken, just stuck’

By Timothy A. Sisemore December 27, 2016

Yet another model of counseling? I would have asked the same question before my introduction some years ago to acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT, and pronounced as the word, act). It is a model that stands on the shoulders of long-endorsed approaches to counseling, yet it takes these ideas into new and, I believe, more fruitful directions. So, if you’ll share with me a few minutes of your time, I’d love to introduce this intriguing model for clinical work. Maybe, like me, you’ll find this worth a closer look.

ACT actually evolved from behaviorism, although it is far from the old stereotypes of behavioral therapy. It draws largely on insights from a branch of behavioral research into language called relational frame theory (RFT). This fascinating approach concerns how our “languaging” about things can cause and perpetuate emotional distress. RFT is a bit difficult to understand, but ACT is like operating a car: You can drive it without understanding all that is going on “under the hood.” (By the way, my use of metaphors is deliberate. Part of RFT shows how metaphors are very beneficial in helping us understand and change how we see things.) One can be a competent ACT therapist without being an expert in RFT.

ACT also draws from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) but pursues goals that are quite distinct. Although thoughts and language play a role in ACT, ACT does not share CBT’s focus on disputing the thoughts rationally. Rather, the goal is to form a different relationship with one’s thoughts. I’ll share more on that a bit later.

In keeping with its heritage, ACT is built on empirical research and boasts a bevy of studies showing its effectiveness across a wide spectrum of problems. More than 120 randomized trials have shown it to be as effective, if not more effective, than traditional therapies. Counselors can utilize ACT with confidence that it can help. One encouraging note is that studies show that counselors starting out in ACT generally feel less confident than they do with CBT but see better results.

Central points

One of the attractions of ACT is that it is transdiagnostic. That is, it works across diagnoses and does not make much of traditional diagnostic categories. In the counseling world, the idea of diagnosis is being increasingly questioned, particularly because of the overlap of symptoms and the lack of discrete categories. Earlier efforts to find empirical support for counseling models focused on identifying specific therapies for each diagnosis. That is a challenge given that comorbidity is more the rule than the exception in diagnosis.

The search is now on for the core processes that account for emotional suffering rather than just naming more and more diagnostic categories. ACT enters this debate by suggesting a core concept that produces suffering across many diagnoses: psychological inflexibility.

ACT argues that some pain, including emotional pain, is natural and inevitable in life. ACT authors somewhat mischievously refer to counseling that tries to help clients never to feel any anxiety or sadness as pursuing “dead person’s goals.” These clients become intent on avoiding all suffering and discomfort, and in so doing become “stuck” in their thinking, feeling and behavior. They thus spend their days trying to avoid discomfort that is inevitable in life. This paradoxically results in more suffering and a tightening of the pattern’s grip — much like trying to escape from a Chinese finger trap. The more effort that is spent on trying to avoid pain, the more pain it causes. This “control” agenda is in reality hopeless. Only a dead person experiences no unpleasant emotions, so a different approach is needed.

An example might illustrate further. Juanita is depressed and feels ignored in all social situations. To avoid the resultant pain, she begins staying home and watching television by herself. Although this allows her to avoid the anxiety of being in social situations, Juanita is stuck because she lacks the social relationships that she needs. Her anxiety of being “out there” is replaced with the more intense loneliness and depression of avoiding people.

In contrast, psychological flexibility involves a person’s skill in adapting cognitive processes and behavior to the specific context that he or she is facing and to contact the positive consequences of present actions as part of pursuing a valued path (adapted from Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson, 2012). It requires flexible attention to the present moment and acceptance of some suffering, combined with a commitment to pursue values and the behavioral activation processes to do so.

For Juanita, psychological flexibility would mean examining her thought process, accepting the apprehension that comes with stepping into social situations and moving toward, rather than away from, those situations. She would learn skills for defusing her thoughts from those social situations, accepting the inevitable anxiety and stepping into occasions so that she can build the relationships she values.

The six skills of psychological flexibility

ACT focuses on six core processes that yield the goal of psychological flexibility. These processes are often diagrammed in a hexagon pattern, cleverly called the “hexaflex,” to show how each impacts the others (see figure below). We’ll look at each point on the diagram in the pairs they naturally come in, but only after a brief note on another important concept: namely, that ACT is not a preplanned, fixed approach. Rather, the counselor takes cues from what the counselee brings into session to determine which aspect might need work on a given day. (ACT texts also provide helpful assessment strategies.)

 

Open response style

This style is marked by looking at things as they are and not reflexively making unhelpful associations. The skills that constitute this style are defusion and experiential acceptance.

The first component, defusion, is one of the most difficult constructs in ACT and the most dependent on RFT. Skipping the technical explanations for our purposes, ACT sees comprehension of how we become fused to certain understandings of things and how we react to those understandings as being vital to change. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder might fuse the idea that anything they think must be true with a thought that they might kill someone. As a result, the mere thought that they might hurt someone else is tantamount to actually having evil intent in their core being and makes them a murderer. Obviously, this causes distress.

CBT might address this through a logical disputation of the irrational thought. In contrast, ACT teaches an awareness of this process and defuses the thought from the interpretation. One can look at one’s thoughts rather than from them.

A simple first intervention might be to have the counselee replace “I must be a murderer at heart” with “I had the thought that I might hurt someone.” In so doing, the person moves “from” the thought and seeing it as a statement of fact to seeing it merely as a passing idea in the mind. The popular “leaves on a stream” mindfulness exercise is helpful here too, with the person viewing thoughts as leaves to be observed and then released. The counselee thus learns to defuse rather than to debate. A phrase I often offer to counselees at this point is “You don’t have to believe everything you think” or, even simpler, “Thoughts aren’t facts.” The same approach also can be used with emotions.

The second component of the open response style is acceptance. In general, this term refers to an openness to accept things such as unpleasant thoughts or feelings. But in ACT, a more precise term would be willingness — the individual is willing to accept some thoughts and feelings in pursuit of a greater good.

A familiar illustration of this idea is the fitness mantra of “no pain, no gain.” Counselees often chuckle when I suggest that I want to lose weight without sweating or working out. They are aware that getting in better shape requires some discomfort. This allows me to ask a question: Why wouldn’t the same be true of mental health?

Numerous ACT metaphors illustrate this idea, but one of the simplest is the ball in the pool. Imagine that you have a beach ball in the pool with you. It annoys you, and you want it out of sight. You hold it underwater so that you don’t see it. That solves the problem in a way, but you also lose the mobility to do most of the fun things you normally do in a pool. Controlling the ball is so “expensive” that it costs you the pleasures of swimming. But if you are willing to accept the annoyance of the ball, you can reengage with the delights of life in the pool. An internet search of “ACT metaphor videos” will yield some short, clever resources that are very helpful in communicating these points to clients.

Now consider this as it relates to Juanita. You work with her to realize that her control agenda of avoiding all pain won’t work, so she is open to ACT. She is fused to the thought that whenever she goes to a social setting, she is shunned. Rather than argue with her about the objective truth of the thought, you guide her to realize that this is simply a thought. She need not hold on to it so tightly.  It is much like the beach ball metaphor. If Juanita can accept this thought in the background, she is freer to move toward people and relationships.

Centered response style

In the center of the hexaflex (conveniently enough) are the two skills that constitute this vital part of psychological flexibility. The two skills that keep one centered in responding to one’s immediate context are contact with the present moment (being present) and self-as-context.

Present moment awareness, the third element of the hexaflex, likely strikes you as being related to mindfulness, and you are correct. However, mindfulness serves a different purpose in ACT than in other therapies. Whereas mindfulness often is considered a way to decrease stress and induce calm, it plays a different role in ACT. In fact, relaxation may even run counter to ACT’s goal. ACT counselors use mindfulness as a skill to help clients keep in contact with the present moment, even if there is discomfort in it. Much of our thinking gets us lost in the past or anxious about the future, but the only time we can act is in the present. We use many strategies to avoid the present, such as constantly doing something, shifting topics, living in the future through worrying and thinking about everyone else’s business except our own.

This shifting of attention away from the here and now serves to avoid discomfort and unwanted emotions even as it perpetuates problems. We need a moment-by-moment awareness of our internal states and external contexts to respond appropriately in the present. Simple examples of activities for this in ACT include having the counselee relax, close his or her eyes and keep one thought in mind, raising his or her hand whenever the thought slips away. Alternatively, one of my favorites is helping the person become centered, then placing an ice cube in his or her hand (a paper towel is also needed for the inevitable dripping). I then guide the counselee to observe the changing feelings from holding the ice cube — wetness, coolness, maybe a slight burning sensation and so on. This exercise keeps the counselee aware of the present situation and teaches him or her to accept the sensations that accompany it rather than using avoidance strategies.

Perhaps the most conceptually challenging dimension of psychological flexibility is self-as-context, the fourth element of the hexaflex. ACT distinguishes several aspects of self. Self as concept is the way we say, “I am …” So I can say, “I am a counselor” or “I am an art enthusiast” and so forth. This can be destructive, however, when it includes statements such as “I am a loser.” We can become fused to such notions of the concept of the self.

The self is more than this. It is also the place from which we observe life. Consider yourself in a counseling session. If you are like me, you are largely caught up in the flow of what is happening, but a part of you is simultaneously monitoring progress — observing it rather than participating in it. I catch myself noticing that I’m talking too much, or that my mind is drifting when the counselee talks, or even that the counselee is making poor eye contact or struggling to maintain a stream of thought. So, I simultaneously participate in the interaction and observe it.

Once we are aware of this as counselors, we can help our clients develop this vital skill. As we have seen, often clients are fused to their thoughts, and defusion may require the ability to step back and take perspective. People are also often fused to their interpretations of their thoughts (such as Juanita’s fusion to the sense that if people don’t line up to talk to her, it means they are ignoring her).

You can learn to listen to how much interpretation people bring to their stories and descriptions. I illustrate this with the example of two broadcasters at a basketball game. One broadcaster, typically designated the play-by-play commentator, describes the action so that listeners have a sense of objective presence at the game. The other broadcaster is a color commentator charged with analyzing and interpreting events. Many of our counseling clients are all color commentator and very little play-by-play. Much of mindfulness in ACT involves learning to be the observer rather than the participant or analyst.

A popular metaphor for this is the chessboard (it may be beneficial to have one in your office as you share this with clients). Explain how the black and white chess pieces can represent thoughts in the counselee’s mind. They are battling with each other in different ways and causing distress, much like the little angel and demon that appear on the shoulders of old cartoon characters when they are contemplating an action. Clients identify with this struggle and feel caught up in it. Invite the counselee to consider if there is another participant in this debate/game of chess. The answer is the chessboard itself. Every move affects the chessboard, but the thoughts are not the chessboard. This is the self-as-context.

Returning to Juanita, consider what the centered response style would look like for her. As her counselor, you would guide her to greater skill in observing her thoughts (and, yes, this overlaps with defusion). You might begin with exercises to help her monitor her thoughts and feelings in the counseling office to develop better contact with the present moment (this is also helpful should a client wander “out of the office” into other topics, times or places). Then ask Juanita to imagine going to a party. Have her track her thoughts as a play-by-play commentator without attempting to escape or interpret the feelings, developing a better sense of self as the person experiencing the anxiety rather than being hopelessly wrapped up in the anxiety.

Engaged response style  

We have considered the “acceptance” part of ACT, but what of the “commitment” piece? This is the aspect of the psychologically flexible person that pursues valued directions through commitment.

One of the costs of avoidance is the loss of pursuing valued things in life. For Juanita, this is obvious. She avoids anxiety, but in the process she does nothing to move toward the relationships that she values. To borrow from our fitness metaphor again, the “gain” of working out is the reason one accepts the associated “pain.” One values fitness and health and understands those things cannot be achieved without doing difficult things to promote and maintain them.

The fifth element of the hexaflex is defining valued directions. Clients often are lost in escape and avoidance activities that cost them opportunities to have the things they value. Thus, a child who is afraid at night misses the opportunity for sleepovers with friends, even though he or she would value the fun of being at the friend’s house or, more precisely, the richness of a deeper relationship with the friend.

Values are life directions that are global, desired and chosen. They are “bigger” than goals. To illustrate, one may enter a counseling program with the goal of becoming a counselor, but the value behind it is investing one’s life in helping others. ACT offers a number of suggestions for helping clients clarify their values and how their inflexibility is keeping them from pursuing those values.

For example, you might ask clients to complete a “heroes worksheet” of people who inspire them or people they would like to emulate. Discuss what about the person speaks to the client. Another helpful technique is to have counselees imagine their 80th birthday party, attended by all the people they love most. Three of the people stand and state words of affirmation about what the counselee has meant to them. Who would those people be? What adjectives, descriptions or accomplishments would they speak about?

Values can lead to frustration if not pursued, so the sixth point of the hexaflex is committed action. The counselor helps the client translate values into committed action steps to take. Traditional behavioral activation or motivational interviewing strategies come into play here, with a focus on enduring any suffering the values might entail.

Think back to the Olympic Games that took place this past summer. So many of the stories of the successful athletes included conquering hardships, persevering through challenging contexts and overcoming various obstacles. We are well aware that sacrifice is necessary to achieve things in any area. ACT deliberately helps counselees make action plans based on their values and build patterns of action over time. Strategies might include encouraging clients to share their values with others and preparing them to stick to their plans in the midst of the barriers they will encounter along the way.

Values and committed action provide a natural home to the personal resources of counselees who value spirituality or religion in their lives. Properly understood, spiritual values are some of the more profound aspects of many people’s lives and a focal point to their getting out of bed in the morning. Furthermore, faith and spirituality can be helpful in moving reticent clients to action (Jason A. Nieuwsma, Robyn D. Walser and Steven C. Hayes, 2016).

Juanita just knows that she is anxious around people. She may not be aware that this is the flipside of desiring to have close relationships. As her counselor, you walk with her to help her recognize that intimacy is one of her core values and being around potential friends or lovers is a necessary step. She now realizes how her avoidance works against what she really wants, and she grasps that she wants intimacy more than freedom from anxiety. She develops a plan with you for attending a social event at work. Together, you and Juanita develop strategies to increase her motivation, including visualizing a friendship that comes out of the party. You troubleshoot how she will feel along the way and how to use the other skills as she willingly walks through the anxiety that awaits her. Together, you plan a celebration of her success at the next session.

Conclusion

The ACT model is a learning process. Clinicians will grow to use the six skills of psychological flexibility not only in counseling, but also in their personal lives. The growth I have personally experienced in learning ACT is one of my favorite things about it. My present moment awareness tells me how superficial this survey of ACT is, but I hope that this brief article activates your values of learning and trying new things, and that you will read up on ACT (a few resources are listed below), attend a workshop and test some of the techniques discussed here.

 

 

Additional suggested readings:

  • Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes with Spencer Smith, 2005
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change, second edition, by Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson, 2012
  • Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists by Jason B. Luoma, Steven C. Hayes and Robyn D. Walser, 2007
  • Mindfulness and Acceptance in Multicultural Competency: A Contextual Approach to Sociocultural Diversity in Theory and Practice by Akihiko Masuda, 2014
  • ACT for Clergy and Pastoral Counselors: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Bridge Psychological and Spiritual Care by Jason A. Nieuwsma, Robyn D. Walser and Steven C. Hayes, 2016

 

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

Timothy A. Sisemore is director of research and professor of counseling at Richmont Graduate University. Contact him at tsisemore@richmont.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Practicing cultural humility

By Sidney Shaw

Privilege is invisible to those who have it.” This pithy statement from sociologist Michael Kimmel reflects the state of research on privilege and also calls attention to the importance of counselors raising self-awareness about how privilege affects their work. A general consensus exists among counselors that they need to be aware of their own privilege and need to be multiculturally competent. These aims can be rendered inert, however, in the absence of a conceptual framework and process that guide counselors to embody cultural responsiveness within counseling sessions.

The Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCCs), a ubiquitous model in counseling, address three main domains:

  • Counselor knowledge about different cultures and cultural perspectives
  • Counselor skills to utilize culturally appropriate approaches
  • Counselor awareness of their own and their clients’ cultural heritage and the influence of culture on attitudes, beliefs and experiences

This tripartite, developmental model, developed by Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, has for several decades provided a foundation in counseling for how cultural competence is conceptualized, pursued and evaluated. In this article, the acronym MCCs is used to refer to this model. (Note that the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development endorsed the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies in June 2015. These competencies, which were also endorsed by the American Counseling Association Governing Council, revise the MCCs.)

Although the value of the MCCs in terms of counselor development is evident from research and counselor support, they have limitations related to counseling outcomes and the interpersonal process that unfolds between the counselor and the client in sessions. Specifically, outcome research connected to the MCCs has been based largely on counselors’ self-reports of their own levels of multicultural competence. Such evaluations suffer from self-assessment bias and do not capture the client’s experience. The few studies that have examined counselor multicultural competence from both the counselor’s and the client’s perspective have found that counselors typically view their own multicultural counseling competence much higher than clients view the counselor’s multicultural counseling competence. In other words, counselors often have an inflated view of their own multicultural competence in comparison with the client’s view.

This gap in perceived competence is concerning, in part because counselors’ beliefs about their general level of multicultural competence influence their behavior. Specifically, when counselors think they are high in multicultural counseling competence, they are less likely to put effort toward growing in this domain. Likewise, they are less attuned to responses from clients that might indicate the counselors are not as multiculturally competent as they think. Although the MCCs are useful for counselor development and self-evaluation, a more process-oriented framework is needed to address in-session multicultural processes and counselor multicultural competence from the perspective of the client.

With this in mind, multicultural orientation (MCO) offers an empirically supported model for counselors to understand how individual clients experience the multicultural dimension of counseling in the sessions. This article describes a framework for counselors to increase their multicultural counseling effectiveness, privilege the voice of clients and make the counselor’s own invisible privilege a little more visible.

Multicultural orientation

MCO consists of two major domains: the client’s perception of the counselor’s level of cultural humility, and the degree to which the counselor addresses culture and cultural opportunities in the session.

In the words of Joshua Hook and colleagues, cultural humility refers to the counselor’s “ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the client.” Cultural humility contains intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions. Intrapersonally, cultural humility encompasses counselors’ openness to accepting that their own cultural identities and experiences will limit their perspective and awareness in understanding the cultural experiences of others. The interpersonal dimension of cultural humility involves an “other-oriented” stance that includes openness, respect, consideration, humility and interest regarding the client’s cultural identity and experiences.

Cultural opportunities refer to moments in counseling sessions when counselors are presented with opportunities to address and focus on the client’s cultural identity. For example, a cultural opportunity may emerge in a session when a client of a marginalized racial group discusses depression that is linked to being treated unjustly in the workplace. This presents an opportunity for the counselor to explore potential discrimination and the client’s cultural identity.

An essential feature of MCO is that it is rooted in the client’s perspective. Specifically, counselors need to understand the degree to which the client perceives the counselor to be expressing cultural humility and the degree to which the client thinks the counselor seized on or missed cultural opportunities in the session.

Multicultural counseling outcomes

Despite several decades of calls for counselors to develop multicultural competence, scant research exists to demonstrate that counselors’ self-rated multicultural competence is related to counseling outcomes. This is partly because counselors’ self-evaluations of their multicultural competence, while important for self-reflection and understanding and guiding counselor development, do not address clients’ views of their counselors’ competence levels. Emerging research on MCO demonstrates that adopting an interpersonal stance that is focused on cultural opportunities and cultural humility has a positive effect on client outcomes and offers a practical framework for cultural engagement with clients in sessions.

Research in 2016 by Jesse Owen and colleagues found that cultural opportunities had a significant influence on client outcomes. Specifically, researchers examined the perspectives of racial and ethnic minority clients on “missed cultural opportunities” in sessions and the relationship of these missed opportunities to client outcome. Missed cultural opportunities were evaluated by client report on a scale to assess the degree to which the counselor missed opportunities to discuss important cultural factors in the session.

Findings revealed that client improvement and increased wellness at the end of counseling were strongly negatively correlated with missed cultural opportunities. That is to say, as missed cultural opportunities increased, client improvement decreased. Clients experienced better outcomes in counseling when they perceived that their counselor responded to in-session opportunities to address cultural factors. These opportunities are the moments in session when counselors either engage in a culturally responsive way with clients regarding their cultural identity or they miss the opportunity.

In addition, several studies have demonstrated the positive effects of cultural humility on the therapeutic alliance and client outcomes. Instead of assuming that they are high in multicultural competence based on their own self-evaluations, counselors who are high in cultural humility typically engage in collaborative, open exploration with clients regarding their cultural identity as a salient factor in treatment.

Indeed, two recent studies by Owen and colleagues found a strong positive correlation between the client’s perspective of the counselor’s level of cultural humility and client outcomes. Essentially, when clients viewed their counselors as high in cultural humility, those clients experienced much more improvement in counseling than did clients who viewed their counselors as lower in cultural humility.

Cultural humility also mitigates the impact of missed cultural opportunities. Put another way, when counselors miss important cultural opportunities in the session, the negative effects of these missed opportunities on client outcome are neutralized if clients see their counselors as being high in cultural humility.

Implications for counseling

Understanding the role of culture in counseling is a challenging and multifaceted endeavor. Despite the complexities, some distinct themes have emerged regarding the benefits of MCO when significant counselor-client cultural differences are present.

As already mentioned, client perspectives of the two domains of MCO (cultural humility and cultural opportunities) are good predictors of client outcomes. There are also several overlapping themes from this research that suggest why MCO influences client outcomes. These themes suggest that the MCO model can help counselors:

  • Reduce the frequency and impact of microaggressions committed in counseling sessions
  • Effectively utilize dynamic sizing in sessions
  • Create a culture of feedback with clients

Microaggressions in counseling

Overt forms of discrimination based on race, sex, age, sexual orientation and many other identities have a long history in the United States and still persist today, but a more subtle and pernicious form of prejudice manifests in microaggressions. According to Sue and colleagues, microaggressions can take at least three different forms:

  • Microassaults (e.g., purposeful actions of discrimination such as name-calling)
  • Microinsults (e.g., subtle communications that demean a person’s cultural identity)
  • Microinvalidations (e.g., subtle communications that negate a person’s cultural reality, such as displaying colorblind attitudes or telling a person of color that you don’t see color)

Microinsults and microinvalidations generally fall outside of the perpetrator’s conscious awareness. People of privilege frequently view these microaggressions as banal, trivial and not a source of harm for the recipient. However, in addition to promoting stereotypes, microaggressions often cause frustration, anger, low self-esteem and physical health problems for recipients. Although counselors take multicultural counseling courses in which they explore their own biases, research indicates that counselors commonly and unwittingly commit microaggressions toward minority clients.

At least four published empirical studies in the past 10 years have examined the role of microaggressions in counseling. Microaggressions have been found to be associated with weaker working alliances, fewer sessions attended and poorer counseling outcomes. The percentage of racial and ethnic minority clients who reported experiencing microaggressions in counseling in these studies ranged from 53 percent to 81 percent. The most common microaggressions committed by counselors included declarations of colorblindness, avoidance of discussion of cultural issues and denial of their own prejudices.

Mental health professionals commonly commit in-session microaggressions, despite generally having good intentions. Privileged counselors are unlikely to notice when they commit microaggressions in counseling and frequently lack awareness of the untoward effects of these subtle slights.

Several important research findings are instructive regarding in-session microaggressions. Namely, counselors who are viewed by clients as being culturally humble commit fewer microaggressions than do counselors who are viewed as lower in cultural humility. Additionally, when counselors who are high in cultural humility (as viewed by the client) do commit microaggressions, the negative impact of these microaggressions is lessened. A separate study found that the negative effects of microaggressions were mediated when the counselor addressed and discussed the microaggression that occurred. Thus, cultivating cultural humility can help counselors reduce the frequency and impact of inadvertently committing microaggressions and learn to recognize, discuss and attempt to repair microaggressions that they do commit.

Dynamic sizing

The concept of dynamic sizing, as articulated by Stanley Sue in 1998, refers to counselors’ adaptable skills regarding when to generalize cultural knowledge or norms about a client based on cultural identity versus when to individualize. For instance, in their training, counselors gain cultural knowledge about particular groups. For example, “Native people perceive direct eye contact as disrespectful” or “Asian people are collectivistic, not individualistic.”

Such statements may reflect cultural norms and general group characteristics, but dynamic sizing entails the counselor’s ability to know when and how to generalize cultural information about a client in a way that applies to the individual and is not simply stereotyping. My own experience working in Alaska Native health clinics was illuminating in this regard. Specifically, two Alaska Native clients independently pointed out to me that they believed the “direct eye contact is disrespectful” concept was a residual effect of their ancestors being taught to be submissive by white colonizers. Thus, they did not endorse avoidance of direct eye contact in sessions and explicitly preferred more maintained eye contact with me than did some other Alaska Native clients.

MCO provides a conceptual framework that promotes dynamic sizing because it takes an interpersonal stance that focuses on elements of cultural identity and cultural opportunities in the counseling session that are deemed salient by the client. Specifically, MCO guides counselors to understand cultural norms and characteristics but not to view these elements as fixed variables. Instead, this interpersonal stance promotes understanding how culture informs each client’s life from the client’s perspective.

Creating a culture of feedback

Counselors with privileged identities are often unaware of the impacts a lack of privilege can have on marginalized and oppressed populations. In counseling sessions, this privilege frequently manifests through unconscious biases. Well-meaning counselors frequently do not recognize when unconscious biases or microaggressions occur because these are, by definition, unconscious.

Given this reality, it is important that counselors create a culture of feedback. This involves providing space for clients to feel safe and open to explore topics such as discrimination, systemic inequality, microaggressions and their lived experiences of marginalization. More to the point, the MCO model pushes counselors to embrace the fact that these manifestations of inequality (discrimination, microaggressions, etc.) are not something that clients experience only “out there” in the world. These manifestations frequently occur in counseling sessions too. Even well-intended, thoughtful counselors can inadvertently commit microaggressions, engage in stereotyping or exhibit poor cultural awareness, thus setting back or severing the therapeutic bond with clients. MCO helps counselors create a climate of trust and safety in which they can engage clients in difficult dialogues to better understand their perspective.

Putting it into practice

The MCCs and MCO share some broad, overlapping aims of increasing culturally responsive counseling services, reducing disparities and their negative effects, increasing counselor awareness of their biases and reducing these biases. Both models point toward a few central (but certainly not exhaustive) steps to take outside of counseling sessions to increase counselors’ overall multicultural competence. In addition, MCO emphasizes what counselors can do within sessions to increase their overall multicultural competence.

Out-of-session recommendations

  • Assess your level of multicultural competence by honestly completing the Multicultural Competencies Self-Assessment Survey (MCSA) developed by Manivong Ratts.
  • Follow a four-step process toward increasing multicultural competence based on the MCSA. These steps involve assessing your areas of need, defining objectives based on what you learned from the MCSA, designing a plan to meet the objectives and evaluating your success.
  • Engage in intentional cultural self-exploration related to counselor development. For instance, address questions such as: How does my cultural identity and privilege limit my ability to see or understand lack of privilege and marginalization? What are my gut reactions to clients who have different cultural backgrounds than my own? How do I create space for or welcome clients to explore their cultural identities? How open am I to my clients’ feedback about my level of cultural competence and cultural responsiveness?
  • Educate yourself about microaggressions, including the types that counselors commonly commit. Because microaggressions are the behavioral manifestation of beliefs and attitudes, the process is not as simple as telling oneself not to commit microaggressions. However, when practiced in conjunction with evaluating your own privilege, learning about marginalized populations and taking a stance of cultural humility, you can improve your skills in noticing microaggressions and making the necessary repairs.
  • Don’t conflate biases or committing microaggressions with being a bad person or a bad counselor. Like everyone else, counselors absorb and internalize cultural messages and stereotypes communicated through the media and broader culture. Accepting your own imperfection around cultural biases is essential to maintaining a growth mindset, developing cultural humility and benefiting from a new awareness that emerges over time. Denying your own biases and microaggressions will cause them to persist.
  • Read some peer-reviewed articles and engage in ongoing professional development regarding MCO, the MCCs, cultural humility and microaggressions in sessions.

 

In-session recommendations

Although the MCCs and MCO share general aims, their paths to increasing multicultural competence are quite different. In many ways, they are complementary.

The MCCs guide counselors toward developing specific knowledge, skills and awareness through personal work done outside of counseling sessions. For example, the MCCs provide counselors a framework for examining their biases, exploring the influence of their own cultural identities, assessing their multicultural competence for areas of strength and weakness, and developing culturally responsive intervention skills.

However, the final word on the overall cultural competence of a counselor rests in the perspective of each specific client. In other words, “Does this client experience me as culturally competent?” As found repeatedly in the counseling research, the client’s perspective on a number of important elements of counseling is often more strongly associated with counseling outcomes than is the counselor’s perspective. This holds true for core predictors of outcome such as empathy, the therapeutic alliance and multicultural competence/responsiveness. Thus, putting MCO into practice involves establishing an interpersonal stance of cultural humility and a willingness to explore cultural opportunities that are relevant to the client.

With this in mind, some in-session recommendations follow.

  • Reconceptualize your multicultural competence to include an emphasis on privilege and power in relationships, especially regarding their effects in the therapeutic relationship. Counselors often think through the lenses of their theoretical orientations in sessions (existential, cognitive behavior therapy, Gestalt, etc.). Work toward adding culture and privilege to the lenses that you intentionally consider in sessions.
  • Begin by acknowledging, during the informed consent process, the cultural differences between you and the client that the client may (or may not) see as important. Do this by acknowledging, explicitly, your potential lack of awareness of the client’s cultural experiences. For example, “You shared at the beginning of our first session today that you identify as a transgender person, and I know that many transgender people experience discrimination. If this is your experience, then I really want to ensure that I am aware and sensitive to the effects of this. Even though I try to understand clients’ experiences, I may unintentionally miss something that is really important in this area. As a person who is not transgender, I may have blind spots about your experience, but I will work hard to overcome these. If at any point it seems that I am missing or misunderstanding something about your experience in this regard, then I really welcome your comments on this.”
  • Acknowledge your biases or the microaggressions you commit in session, either when you notice them yourself or when your clients point them out. Clients might point these out indirectly, so be sensitive to nonverbal or subtle verbal cues that indicate the client may feel devalued in some way. If you think you might have committed a microaggression in the session but are not sure, check with the client. Depending on the level of severity, this might involve a simple question to the client about your concern regarding something you said or did. In the case of more egregious microaggressions, you might need to discuss it with the client in more detail and apologize for your lack of awareness.
  • Develop a culture of feedback, beginning with the first session and continuing throughout. Although clients are not responsible for teaching counselors about their cultural identities, counselors cannot possibly have complete understanding of how culture influences a particular client. A general example of creating a culture of feedback is as follows: “It is really important for me to make sure that I understand your perspective in our sessions. For instance, although I know some things about your cultural background, I may not fully understand at times how this impacts your life and relates to challenges that have brought you to counseling. I welcome your thoughts about anything you think I may not be getting in our sessions about you, your values or your cultural experiences. I really welcome your feedback.”
  • Near the end of each session, check in with clients about the therapeutic alliance and the cultural dimension of counseling in that session. For example, “Before we end today, I want to ask about how things were for you in our session. How did you feel about our session today? Did I seem to understand things from your perspective? Were there certain things that I missed or misunderstood regarding how culture plays a role in what we discussed today?” Counselors can also ask scaling questions here. For instance, “How would you rate our session today on a scale from 1 to 10, specifically regarding how well I understood the influence of your cultural background in what we discussed today? I would really like your honest feedback about this. If you have feedback that seems negative in some way, I welcome that, and it won’t hurt my feelings.”

Summary

MCO cannot be scripted or manualized, but its central features include communicating respect, practicing humility, being receptive to acknowledging one’s own biases when they occur and practicing culturally inclusive engagement that resonates with clients. An essential element of cultural humility is nondefensiveness around one’s own lack of awareness or demonstrations of incompetence. Thus, before encouraging client feedback, counselors need to be clear about how willing and able they are to receive this feedback with humility.

Cultural competence is not adequately defined by counselors’ self-perceptions of competence. Rather, it is determined by how their clients — especially marginalized clients — view the counselors’ capacity and willingness to understand the cultural forces that influence clients’ lives. Comprehending clients’ subjective cultural experiences and acknowledging our own cultural blind spots in the process are central to cultural humility. This interpersonal stance can help counselors improve client outcomes, honor the cultural experiences of clients and clarify the effects of counselors’ own privilege.

 

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

Sidney Shaw is a core faculty member in the clinical mental health counseling program at Walden University, a certified trainer for the International Center for Clinical Excellence and a workshop presenter. Additional information on multicultural counseling and other counseling topics is available at sidneyleeshaw.wordpress.com. Contact him at sidneyleeshaw@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Is it OK to have it all?

By Kathleen Smith December 21, 2016

As Lindsey Mitchell approached the end of her doctoral program in counseling at George Washington University, she wasn’t quite sure what was next. After a decade of intense focus on her education, she found her career options in the field both exciting and intimidating. When Mitchell began talking to other women in her program about career choices, she realized that questions about ambition, leadership and family were common among female counselors.

Energized by these discussions with her colleagues, Mitchell decided to take the conversation to the American Counseling Association’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. Her idea took shape as a panel session called “To Lean In or Not to Lean In: The Diverse Experiences of Women in the Counseling Field.” The title alone was enough to catch the attention of many women at the conference and set the stage for an engaging talk between four ambitious and thoughtful counselors.

The phrase “lean in,” made famous by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is rife with connotations and criticisms. Sandberg encouraged women to take risks, not make sacrifices based on hypotheticals, and to pursue leadership by taking a seat at the table. A former chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury secretary and a leader in the tech industry, Sandberg draws from her years of experience in male-dominated fields.

But when Mitchell and others considered this philosophy of leaning in, they faced an important question: What does “sitting at the table” mean in the counseling profession when the majority of counselors and ACA members are already female? Weren’t they already at the table?

A colleague of Mitchell’s recommended that she recruit Desa Daniel, a doctoral counseling student at Kansas State University, as a compelling voice for the ACA Conference panel discussion. Daniel thinks that numbers alone aren’t enough to change leadership dynamics. Although ACA and the counseling profession as a whole may be filled with women, she notes that leadership positions within the profession don’t always mirror those numbers. “We still have a long way to go until women hold positions in universities and governance that reflect their presence,” says Daniel, adding that she’d like to serve as president of ACA in the future. She currently serves as the student representative for Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA, and as student liaison for Division 45 (the Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race) of the American Psychological Association.

Jessica Jackson, a licensed mental health counselor and a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at New Mexico State University, also joined the discussion. She points to the male-dominated foundational and theoretical influence in the field as a real challenge. “When you look in the texts, our foundational knowledge is coming from men of European descent, and the structure of the training is based on that,” she says. “No one deviates from the blueprint, so to me, that doesn’t feel like a field dominated by women.”

Jackson also points out that texts such as Sandberg’s, as well as feminist psychology and various waves of the feminist movement, typically failed to include black women in the conversation. Part of her role on the panel, she says, was to help remind counselors that women of color can still be forgotten or excluded in a space that is predominantly female.

Having it all

Comedian Tina Fey wrote that the rudest question someone can ask a woman is, “How do you juggle it all?” Fey suggested the question operates on the assumption that, for women at least, success in one arena of life (e.g., the workplace) implies failure in another (e.g., family life). The question is rarely posed to men. Members of the conference panel set out to consider what “having it all” looks like in the counseling profession and whether balance between multiple arenas of life is possible.

“Can women have it all? I think yes, but we may have to package what that looks like in a different and creative way,” Mitchell says. Currently serving as an Americans with Disabilities Act counselor at Houston Community College, Mitchell points to the male-dominated workplace models that create impediments to women who desire balance between work and family life. For instance, she observes, when their children are ill, some mothers in the workforce will hide that fact and instead claim a sick day for themselves because they don’t want their parenting responsibilities to hurt how they are perceived at work.

“You would think that in a female-dominated field like counseling, it would be better,” Mitchell says. “But we’re still using these male business models instead of thinking about how we can be greater leaders to women that maybe we didn’t have. Sometimes we don’t have a model for what that looks like, so we have to start creating our own.”

These sentiments reflect a common critique of Sandberg’s idea — namely that Lean In ignores systemic obstacles that are present and remain unchanged in the workplace, regardless of whether women make it to the top playing by the current rules. So what rules do counselors need to change to make the workplace and the classroom more flexible and empowering places for women?

Mitchell asked Megan Doughty Shaine, an assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Hood College in Maryland, to bring her voice to the panel as a professor and parent. Shaine shared how her desire to have a multifaceted career and also be a mother affected her path. “It does change the way you move through your education, from the internships you accept, to the jobs you consider, to how you prioritize things,” she says. For example, Shaine limited her search for doctoral programs to the East Coast because she wanted to be close to her family when she started one of her own.

Shaine recommends that women in counseling leadership model how conversations about “having it all” are OK and even encouraged at work. “You’re more likely to have a female supervisor than a male supervisor, at least in the clinical world,” she says. “We have to really evaluate how open we are with these issues of work-life balance.”

Jackson agrees, pointing out that real pressure still exists to choose between focusing primarily on career or family in academia. “People don’t feel comfortable choosing a middle ground because that looks like you don’t know what you want,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s impossible to integrate and have both. My idea of success is being able to acknowledge and appreciate the many roles that I have as a black professional woman without having to sacrifice what means the most to me.”

Finding balance

Members of the panel also considered how to model what good mental health looks like for women trying to balance multiple roles in life. “So many of the conversations that we have about self-care feel fake,” acknowledges Daniel, who does CrossFit every day as a self-care measure. “We have to show tangible examples of what it looks like and how people manage it over the course of their careers. We need to lead by example but also help people set objectives and deadlines for self-care.”

Mitchell suggests that establishing and maintaining boundaries is an important piece of achieving balance. “I feel the pressure to be everything to everyone, and I know that is not a realistic expectation,” she says. “There will be stages in my life where my professional career has to take priority and other times when it will take a step down in importance. I know I entered this profession because I care about people and want to help, so there can be a conflict when I have to put myself first and inadvertently disappoint somebody in another area of my life. So it is a bit of a Catch-22. But this conflict will have to be resolved by continuing to reevaluate my values, my stage of life and what my goals are at the time. It’s an ever-changing process.”

Rather than a detour from success, Jackson sees the pursuit of balance as integral to achieving her goals. “I’m a happier and better person when I can feed the many different parts of who I am,” she says. “By engaging in prayer, checking in and being honest with myself, and being present in the moment, I am better prepared to achieve my idea of success. Potential conflicts may arise due to this expectation that to be successful in your career, you must dedicate your entire life to your career. But I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe that I have to achieve burnout in order to be successful.”

An intersectional approach 

Another critique of the philosophy behind the “lean in” movement and second-wave feminism is the relative lack of examination of women’s intersecting identities. At the ACA Conference, panel members wanted a significant amount of the conversation to focus on the diverse roles and identities of women in the counseling field and the impact this reality has on what it means to lean in.

Jackson points out how traditional advice given in books such as Sandberg’s, including the call to be assertive, may not work for every woman. “As a black woman, being assertive comes across as being the angry black woman. So how do I navigate the need to be assertive without also coming across as angry, even when I’m not angry? Because as soon as I’m assertive, that’s what everyone assumes,” Jackson explains. “When people give you advice, it’s coming from their social identity: their privilege, their background, etc. So you have to figure out what you can take from that and what you can leave.”

Jackson also recommends that female counselors gather both mentors who share their identities and those who do not to help them better navigate the field. When her interest in pursuing a research career led her to apply to the National Research Mentoring Network, she decided to choose a white male as one of her mentors to give her a different perspective. “He gave some insight on how to approach challenges rather than simply focusing on why people don’t understand things the way I do,” Jackson says.

For Jackson, who aspires to improve pipelines for people of color into academia and the mental health field, leaning in also includes starting conversations about the changing landscape of counseling and the reality that counselors don’t provide services to just one population. “We have to expand our ability to provide therapy to people with multiple identities and make room for them at the table as well,” she says. “If the path to leadership was really so linear, there would be a more diverse group of people stepping into those roles.”

Shaine asserts that counseling programs also have to address intersecting identities for their students, particularly those who are considered nontraditional. She points to the young women in her classroom who also work full time and the middle-aged mothers who are returning to school after a long hiatus or a career change. “We have to support them and try to be creative in helping students navigate a program,” she says. “Otherwise, we’re going to lose their voice and we’re going to end up with this monolithic student body, which I don’t think any of us want. That feels very antithetical to the counseling profession, where we want a diversity of perspectives.”

Counseling education programs could also use creativity and a focus on intersectionality to prepare women for a variety of roles in the field. Daniel points out that these programs rarely focus on issues such as licensure, starting a business or management roles. “Counselor ed programs need to step up their game and talk to people about what’s possible on the ground,” she says. “It’s socially unjust to send women out into the field without the full resources of what it really means to have a clinical practice.”

Advice from the panel

When asked what advice they would give to women entering a counseling education program or their first job as a counselor, panel members provided a variety of suggestions.

Mitchell, who aspires to a major leadership role in university student services, says that surrounding herself with the type of women who prompted these conversations in the first place was her best resource. “Sometimes we’re afraid to do that because we don’t want to feel like the least intelligent person in the room,” she says. “But you have to put your insecurities aside and see what you can learn from these women because, someday, you’ll be the person in the room somebody else is looking up to.”

Jackson says that advocating for your interests can go a long way. “If other people have that interest, then maybe you have enough people to request a class on that subject,” she says. “To me, that’s how change starts — being vocal and advocating for yourself.”

Shaine says women in the counseling profession shouldn’t lose sight of the flexibility they possess. “You can make a choice and change your mind later. We have an incredibly flexible field that gives us many different options. Be gentle with yourself,” she advises, “and know that the choices you make now can always be adjusted if they don’t suit you in the future.”

Daniel, who aspires to be a faculty member in a counselor education program, says that supporting other women can be empowering in itself. “We need to be better about supporting all women in their journeys, even if it doesn’t look like [our] own,” she counsels. “At the end of the day, we are creating pipelines for little girls to be what they want to be.”

 

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Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Her book, The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal, was published earlier this year. Contact her at ak_smith@gwmail.gwu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org.

 

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