Becoming the Counselor: Beginner’s Notes

I am currently one-and-a-half years into a three-year graduate-level mental health counseling program, at the end of which I will (hopefully) be well on my way toward becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) – and, after that, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). The weight of the expectations that hang upon those seemingly innocuous letters are not lost on me. What started out as a blind stumble toward something “better” is slowly becoming a one-step drag and shuffle, and the road I’m seems to stretch miles in every direction.

I come to this profession wounded in my own right, though not broken, with no formal experience in any type of clinical setting, and no solid idea of which shape I’d like my vocational path to take. Around every corner I’ve turned, I’ve come up against thoughts of self-doubt, disappointment, confusion, and feeling somewhat like an impostor. I wondered if my own special brand of neuroticism would somehow disqualify me from being an effective, knowledgeable helper – certainly someone who experiences bouts of depression, anxiety, loneliness, fear and existential dread isn’t the ideal candidate to provide guidance and explore the deeper stories of others who experience the same?

As I continue to learn, explore and develop, I’m coming to find that my previous fears aren’t necessarily true. Working as a counselor will, of course, require me to have a handle on my own emotional functioning, but being a sensitive receptor to this messy human experience doesn’t disqualify me from being there for others. I’m simply acquiring the skills, knowledge, and practice necessary to do what comes naturally to me within the capacity of a licensed professional.

As such, I can’t even begin to explain how deeply this adventure has affected me so far, or how it’s been one of the most profound sources of growth for me in my adult life, second only to my divorce which was finalized in early 2015. This program has confused me, stirred up anger and guilt and desperation, widened my perspectives on just about everything, gutted me emotionally, filled me back up with inspiration, and given me a sobering look at what might actually be in store for me as I begin my practice with REAL LIVE HUMANS in the fall.

I will say it upfront: I don’t know a lot about this whole thing. I’m learning as I go, sometimes painfully, often with joy. But through a combination of reading, writing, self-exploration, intensive practice, deep conversations, personal experiences in therapy, and talking with others who have gone through the same, I’ve (finally) started gaining some useful traction in my journey toward becoming a counselor. That is the purpose of this space: for me to jot my thoughts down as I continue to gain new experiences, and to hopefully learn some things about myself and the process as I go.

And so, without any further introduction, I’ve written down below some of the basic lessons I’ve learned over time, mostly as notes to myself but perhaps as notes to others, which I hope to expand upon in the future:

Speak your truth

My program is a distance-based program out of New England. As such, one of the requirements for students is to attend two separate, one-week long intensive residencies, where we practice our skills and participate in experiential learning with one another.

This spring, I attended a residency out at my university campus, where we focused on practicing leading group therapy sessions. Over the course of a week, we applied some of the more basic forms of group leadership skills to our work: linking, referencing, summarizing, drawing out, confronting, cutting off, and concluding. We took turns as both group members and group leaders. There was no shortage of ah-ha moments, tears, laughter and growth.

At the beginning of the week, I sat in my small group and we began talking about establishing group norms: respect, honesty, confidentiality, etc. One thing my professor asked of us, on top of the expected group norms, was that we speak our truth with each other throughout the week. This meant ignoring our minds and speaking from our guts.

Of course, there’s a difference between speaking your truth with clients and self-disclosure, and there’s an even bigger difference between self-disclosure and over-sharing as a counselor. To me, as far as I understand, speaking your truth as a counselor means being honest with a client through the process of counseling: don’t be afraid to ask questions, make observations, clarify meaning, or show them when something they’ve said touches you deeply. Don’t self-censor because you’re afraid of being wrong. Pay attention the process of counseling and be forthcoming about what you notice happening between yourself and the client. Thinking too much about saying the right thing will compromise your ability to connect on a more intimate level. Honesty and genuineness, to the extent that you can be honest and genuine without compromising the client-counselor relationship, will take you a long way.

Know thyself

In psychotherapy and related fields, there’s a concept known as transference, which occurs when a client unconsciously transfers their feelings about a person or situation in the past onto a person or situation in the present; counter transference, on the other hand, is a process that occurs when a counselor transfers their own emotions onto a client they’re working with in therapy, often as a reaction to the initial transference. While this isn’t always problematic, issues can arise if the counselor’s emotions or reactions trigger issues that the counselor has with someone or something is their personal life. This may lead the counselor to recapitulate (repeat) behaviors from their own lives within the therapeutic relationship, and often happens as a result of the counselor not being fully aware of their own reactions, behaviors, or thought processes, and may even indicate issues with boundary setting or problems that the counselor needs to resolve in their personal life.

And so, one of the first and most important lessons I’ve learned so far is that we, as helpers, must know ourselves inside and out. We have to not only be aware of our hot-button issues, but we must be aware of how we react to these things with our bodies, thoughts, words and actions. We have to know the topics that are likely to stir uncomfortable, painful, or excitable reactions within our minds; we have to know when it’s time to step aside and refer a client who we simply cannot help because of our own mental barriers.

More than that, we must have a deep and solid understanding of our values and how those values impact our interactions with the human experience. Knowing our values also means knowing that nobody else will share them exactly; every person has their own sweet concoction of values that we should always try to respect, so long as those values don’t cause harm to others.

We must know our biases and blind spots – with these, of course, being harder to find, and which might require an outsider’s perspective to better understand. These biases and blind spots might be brought up to us in the course of therapy, either by a client or supervisor or peer, and we should be willing and open to listen to what they have to say, rather than seeking out someone else’s opinion that will serve to reinforce our personal confirmation bias.

Now, counter transference is only one part of the bigger equation, though it’s one of many important reasons that counselors – especially us new ones – must be ready and willing to take on this vocation with the condition that we never stop learning about ourselves, and taking what we learn as an opportunity to grow. Being the most effective counselors possible means uncovering our own internal biases, expectations, blind spots, values, ethics, and morals; it means being willing to set boundaries and learning how to stick with them; it means radical acceptance of the self, and all the possibilities and limitations implicit in that idea of self; and it means being willing to open our hearts and doors in every way possible, to everyone possible, for as long as we possibly can – within reason, of course. We can only really do this if we commit to knowing ourselves fully, inside and out.

Passion =/= possibility, & it is an extreme privilege to be here

I’m guilty of spouting off the “do what you love” trope. It’s catchy and inspirational and leaves a warm fuzzy feeling in the center of your gut. The problem, though, is that for the majority of folks out there, love doesn’t put food on the table, and passion is not always equal to possibility. This attitude is at best annoying, and at worst damaging, especially when applied to a therapeutic relationship where our clients are looking for tangible ways to find their way out of a desperate situation. There will always be clients who won’t have the ease or privilege of using the “passion” fix, and we have to be hyper-aware of that fact.

As a college-educated, gainfully employed white girl from a progressive city and blue-leaning state, it is both my privilege and responsibility to understand how my worldviews and expectations are incongruent with the way much of the world actually works; it’s my responsibility to know that “do what you’re passionate about and the rest will follow” is shit advice that isn’t rooted in reality, that won’t help the vast majority of my clients, and that essentially functions to erase the struggles of millions of people who are constantly told that they could have whatever they want, if only the tried hard enough to get it.

Counseling is no glamorous profession, and to get here takes hard work, but for many of us, it’s a career that we pursue out of passion, one that we’ve had the fortune and privilege to attain. We cannot take advantage of that, or use our own experiences of doing what we love as a way to perpetuate the harmful idea that the sweet American dream is within everyone’s reach. Do what you love, sure – but don’t expect the rest of the world to automatically follow suit.

Lose the ego & don’t get too attached to the outcome

No counselor is perfect, ever. Every counselor will make mistakes, say the wrong things, piss off a client, or even unintentionally cause harm by attempting to help while looking through the lenses of assumption, judgement or bias. We are imperfect, and just as human as everyone else. Expecting perfection in an inherently messy, emotional, intense field just isn’t realistic. Even on your best days, you’ll probably walk away feeling like you didn’t do enough, say the right thing to that one client, or dig as deep as you wanted.

And that’s okay. Counselors are not know-alls. We’re humans with confusing inner lives, humans who make mistakes all the time, and humans who will say the wrong things a lot of the time – even those of us humans who are “supposed” to know what to say next. It’s okay to feel confused, lost, or disappointed. The key to navigating this is twofold: 1) own and acknowledge the mistakes as you make them, and don’t let your ego get in the way of using that valuable “mistake” data to do better next time; 2) don’t get attached to the outcome you want for your clients. With your human honesty and genuineness, your clients will probably find their own way to whatever outcome they’re supposed to arrive at. You’re not there to do it for them, or to do it perfectly – you’re there to gently guide them and offer support along the way.

Don’t expect to fix anyone

I once had someone call me broken and insecure, someone who I cared a lot about, and who I know cared about me. Messy as the situation was, and as confused and angry as I happened to be, that accusation was both far from the truth and incredibly hurtful. I carried those words with me for over a year before I finally had enough. I metaphorically slammed my fists on the table and refused to give into the idea that I was some kind of fragile, cracked china. Nobody is inherently broken; even those of us with the heaviest burdens don’t need to hear that we need to be “fixed.”

And there’s the crux of the problem, really: as counselors, one of the biggest things that compels us into this field is our desire to care for, help, and “fix” people, or at least “fix” their problems. But the problem with that is that other people aren’t ours to fix; they are not projects to meddle with and experiment on, and their problems are not our problems to solve. Who’s to say that we know more than our clients do about what is going to work for them? And why do we continue to give clients, and people in general, the idea that we’re the ones who can “tighten the loose screws” or “fix” someone else’s brain?

We don’t, we can’t, and we shouldn’t even try. That’s not what we’re there for.

As counselors who care for our clients, we cannot imply to them that they are somehow less whole without our assistance, or that they are broken and need to be put back together; as counselors who want to do the best by our clients, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we have all the answers, or that a snap of our magical fingers (or an offering of advice) will solve their problems.

Put your own oxygen mask on first

Self-care is a word that has been thrown around a lot in my program, for good reason. While “take care of yourself” seems like obvious advice, we counselors seem to be a stubborn bunch when it actually comes to taking the necessary steps to protect our precious inner resources – or maybe that’s just me?

Anyway, the general idea is that you can’t be of much use to others when you’re not much use to yourself. It’s important to know when to press the brakes and take the time you need, even if it’s only five minutes out of every day, to help you maintain your homeostasis. For myself personally, I did a horrible job of this during the Spring 2017 semester. I overloaded myself with full-time work, school and social obligations, and nearly broke into tears on several occasions as the end of the semester was nearing because I was so exhausted and depleted of anything to give. My shoulders were so tense I could feel them crowding my ears, and I woke up every day barely able to drag myself out of bed.

What kind of counselor would I be if I showed up like this to my appointments with clients who needed my full attention? Probably not a very good one. Mediocre at best. I failed to acknowledge the time and space I needed to take care of myself, and by the end of the semester it was showing, yet I would’ve been the first to deny that I was genuinely doing too much, had somebody brought it to my attention. It was only at the end of the semester that I threw my hands up and yelled enough. Not so good.

Long story short, don’t be like me. Do what you can, whenever you can, to take care of yourself. It may not be perfect all the time, but it’s better than not trying at all, and ending up in an exhausted ball on the floor.

Refuse to reinforce systematic barriers

For the vast majority of psychology’s history, the words and definitions for pathological behavior, mental illnesses, dysfunction, abnormality, “normal” people and “crazy” people have all been created, maintained, altered and reinforced by people who hold the most power, and who have the most to gain by keeping control over these definitions. While this is slowly changing, we’ve got a long way to go as a field, and it’s our responsibility as counselors to make sure we’re not perpetuating the systematic barriers put in place by those who have their hands on the pen for hundreds of years.

For example, we’ve got the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition), which is regarded as the “bible” of mental illness diagnoses, and within its covers lies a whole massive list of mental illnesses outlined and defined by the folks at the American Psychiatric Association. This is all well and good, and absolutely important for many people who rely on the treatment guidelines to find relief, but it’s dangerous to think of it as the be-all end-all resource for how we approach, classify, diagnose and treat people.

We have to think carefully and with intention before simply assigning someone a code. The way we diagnose, treat, and interact with our clients matters – a lot. It impacts outcomes and can cause us to ignore or rule out behaviors that don’t “match” the initial diagnosis. Diagnoses can both help and haunt a person for life, impacting their chances at securing employment, housing, government assistance, and maybe even health insurance. We have to make sure that with every diagnostic decision we make, it’s in the interest of the client’s welfare, and we have to ensure that a diagnosis isn’t simply reinforcing social barriers by placing them in a pre-defined box.

Be there

One of the biggest, most important things in building the type of client-counselor relationship that we all dream of is actually really simple: just be there. Get out of your head, work from your heart, and speak from your gut. Be genuine, warm, and accepting. More than theoretical approach or intervention type, a warm, non-judgmental affect is one of the most effective therapeutic tools you can carry. There’s plenty of research that supports this. Trust me on that.

When it comes down to it, isn’t one of the major sources of relief for clients the realization that they’re finally with someone who they know will accept them, hold a scared space, and keep their deepest fears and secrets in confidence? You might be an expert in CBT or DBT or EMDR or existential therapy, but if you can’t show the clients you’re there – really there – their experience with you as a counselor might be mediocre at best.

And while I’m thinking of it, another huge part of being there with someone is this idea of letting yourself be present in the moment, and allowing yourself to be moved, humbled, touched, or even taught by your clients. When you take away the labels, what you’ve got are two humans sharing a potentially life-changing exchange. I can’t think of any greater gift than letting your clients know that you’re really, truly there with them through all of it – from the beginning to the scary, wonderful end.

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