Do Counsellors Have It All Together?
Spoiler alert: Counsellors have their own life issues.
I’m hoping that this does not come as a surprise, although if some of you have raised one or both eyebrows, I’m actually not shocked. The public perception that counsellors have it all together is something I’ve heard a lot in my career.
In this article, I’d like to explore a few questions:
- What are some of the problems counsellors encounter in their daily lives?
- Why is there a myth that counsellors don’t have life problems and if they do they have them “handled”?
- What is “handling” problems, anyway?
- How to still be a client if you suspect that your counsellor is too distracted to help you?
- What responsibilities do counsellors have to their clients if their lives are excessively challenging?
Life Issues are Universal
I’d like to start with a paradox: How human do you want your counsellor to be?
Many counselling clients, myself included, have an allergy to “perfect” counsellors. Counsellors who are smooth, scripted and groomed to perfection can feel un-relatable (although if that works for you, no shade intended).
Conversely, counsellors who are unprofessional, harried and inattentive are equally noxious.
So what is the right mix? I’ve written articles on finding the right fit—which is a separate question not covered in today’s article—but it’s important to be aware that yes, counsellors face a variety of life challenges.
There should be no surprises here, but some of problems counsellors may face in their personal lives include:
- Grief and loss
- Acute and chronic illness (self or others close to them)
- Counsellor disabilities or having a loved one with a disability
- Relationship crises including relationship breakdown, separation or divorce
- Caregiver burnout
- Parenting challenges
- Challenging family relationships, which may or may not include family of origin trauma
- Severe and unexpected life events
- Financial stress and resource deficits
- Racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sexism, ageism
- Mental health problems, including anxiety, OCD, phobias, panic, depression, PTSD, eating disorders
- Internal strife such as feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, insecurity, avoidance, perfectionism, people-pleasing, anger, discomfort, worry, guilt, shame
- Life transitions
The trick is that these problems may be going on for therapists while they are also actively helping others. It’s what we signed up for, but is it a problem?
A Counsellor Archetype?
I explored this topic in detail in a previous article, but I would argue that part of the problem is that counsellors are often expected not to struggle in their own personal lives.
What contributes to this stereotyped image of counsellors? Factors may include:
Societal Stigma around mental health and “Getting Help”
Influenced by historical, outdated ideas of the “all-knowing” therapist and the “helpless” client who is dependent on the therapist for their healing.
I first want to say that counsellor websites have come a long way over the course of my career. When I first started my practice, it was a “big deal” to even have a website and those that existed were often very therapist-centric, focusing on the therapist’s qualifications and learnedness. While perhaps a comfort to some clients, I found them to be cold, alienating and marked in their distinction between therapist and client.
Current websites, while much improved, typically reflect a desire to help others, including providing help with specific concerns. And this sentiment is great on one level, because such websites are client-focused, however potential clients may still get the erroneous impression that the therapists behind them are beyond their own life struggles. This is one reason why it can be helpful to dig a little deeper into counsellor websites, particularly articles and blog posts, where counsellors may share more personal aspects of themselves.
Therapists may be avoiding bringing too much of their ‘humanness’ to the counselling room because of an intention to practice ethically. Scenarios where counsellors are using paid client time to talk about their struggles isn’t helpful to clients, although when expressed in small doses and for specific therapeutic benefit for the client, this can be useful for clients and also a sign of the counsellor’s genuineness.
Additionally, a counsellor generally framing what is going on with them can be orienting to clients, as counsellors may inadvertently gaslight clients when telling them nothing, prompting clients to doubt themselves and their experience in session.
As someone who has attended counselling throughout her life, I recognize that when we do so, we are in a position of vulnerability, often because we’re also struggling emotionally. And additionally for some counselling clients, the way we were raised also influences our reactions to others’ pain—including a counsellor’s—such that we might feel responsible for supporting the counsellor in their pain! If counsellors are feeling needy and expressing that to their clients, whether consciously or not, this is an unacceptable burden to clients and counsellors need to have a self-care plan in place if their personal life is interfering with their ability to counsel.
I’m a big believer in walking the walk and not just talking the talk. I feel very strongly that counsellors should only offer help and strategies that they have personally used themselves. This is important to me because of my desire to work authentically with my clients and bring my genuine self to counselling sessions.
This ‘walking the walk’ also goes for what is happening outside the sessions to support counsellors in dealing with their own life circumstances and supporting them to counsel sustainably over the long-term.
What are some of the ways that therapists support themselves with their own life challenges? Not surprisingly, there is little difference between what is also recommended to counselling clients and includes things like:
- Social Support – Having reliable, empathic people in your life to talk to
- Counselling – Counsellors benefit from counselling too! Humanness is the common factor here; education and training does not set us apart from the perils of life and the human need for support.
- Clinical Supervision – My work-life balance has blossomed over time, and especially when I hired a clinical supervisor many years ago. I continue to see her monthly and I have no intention of letting that go. Therapists, I highly recommend it!
- Motivating Activities – Things to look forward to and which brings us joy
- Spiritual Health – some (not all) of us benefit from this and can include things like time in nature, helping others, connecting with cultural traditions or a religious or spiritual practice
- Movement – The joy of moving one’s body in ways that reflect our abilities and limits
Addressing Client Concerns
In an ideal world, most counsellors would have elements of the above in place, but there can be various reasons why this may not be happening including acute and catastrophic life events, grief or loss that derails, resource deficits or systemic oppression.
What are counsellors and their clients to do in such a situation?
Depending on how resourced counsellors are, they may or may not be able to take time off of work; when the option exists, the benefits to both clients and counsellors can be enormous.
Clients may suffer emotionally when counsellors are persistently distracted and consequently, counsellors benefit from time and space to process and look after outstanding issues. This can be difficult on clients and this should be acknowledged. When possible, clients should be given a general reason for the counsellors’ absence, as well as notice for planning purposes. If counsellors’ absence will be extensive, it is important to offer alternative counselling resources/options.
It can be a tricky balance, but I believe that there is merit in letting clients know generally if something is up in counsellors’ lives that could have an effect on the quality of the counselling provided. There is no need to burden clients with unnecessary details and it is equally important to communicate to clients that there is no need for problem-solve counsellors’ situations – therapists should have a plan in place already for their own self-care.
As I mentioned above, I do feel that a basic level of honesty is important, because to completely deny the existence of anything being wrong with the therapist is a form of gaslighting clients, particularly if they already suspect that something is not right with the therapist.
Acknowledgement can also come with an invitation to clients to express if they had any concerns about their session which need to be addressed. This can be done as a “heads up” at the start of the session, or as the session is winding down, or both.
Acknowledgement also is an opportunity for therapists to recognize their own humility and humanness which is an excellent cure for therapist egos (which do not benefit clients).
Therapists should be open to hearing any client concerns about them as therapists. I’ve written about this previously and I’ll say it again: If you have concerns about your therapist/therapeutic relationship, bring it up with your counsellor and see how they react. Do they listen? Ask questions? Show concern? Offer solutions or ask what might help? If not, please find someone who does.
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