Counselor failures: A short series


I recently passed my 29th year anniversary of mental health practice and 18th year as a psychologist. I’m not quite old but also have a few years under my belt. When I first began counseling as a counselor in my very early twenties I was fairly committed to proving my value. I wanted to diagnose problems and offer wise solutions. I’m embarrassed to say that I often thought I could do so in the first 15 minutes of a session. Sometimes I was right, but I can say for sure I hadn’t earned the right to speak. Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly helpful in those early sessions. Thankfully, I learned that if I was going to be helpful I needed to stop worrying about whether I sounded smart and had something valuable to say and instead spend my energy entirely on the work of listening and understanding the person in front of me.

Not listening to clients might be the first and most common failure counselors make. It can happen throughout a session or for just thirty seconds during a momentary lapse of concentration. While beginner counselors may struggle to listen well, seasoned therapists can lose their edge without even recognizing it.

Not listening can happen by means of trying to dictate goals. It can happen when we therapists talk about ourselves. It can happen when we misdiagnose a client. It can happen when we are bored, or irritated, or caught up in our own world of pain.

This little series is dedicated to therapist failures. We’d rather believe that our mistakes are really client resistance or family interference. But as we own our mistakes, we acknowledge that counseling is a human interaction that requires our willingness to evaluate our end of that interaction. While this series is written for mental health practitioners, I suspect clients will also benefit from this look inside, if for no other reason than to identify when they are not feeling heard.

Some related thoughts previously written

I’ve written a couple of blogs recently on related topics. The first is embedded in my last blog,

I’m going to skip over the large problem of counselors pressing for any change whatsoever. (Suffice it to say that pressing a client for forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, or any other action rarely works and more often causes harm. You cannot heal a trauma caused by misuse of power with more force–even if your goal is good.)

https://philipmonroe.com/2019/11/24/some-thoughts-on-when-restoration-hurts/

I will write more on the problem of choosing the wrong goals for counselees–or the problem of choosing goals in the first place. A few months ago I wrote about the problem of choosing reconciliation as a goal.

Some years ago, I wrote this list of common mistakes made by novice counselors.

Come back for the first post exploring the setting of goals in counseling and how not listening leads to the likelihood of failure.

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Some thoughts on “When Restoration Hurts”


In case you haven’t seen it, Christianity Today recently published an essay entitled, “When Restoration Hurts: Christian counselors grapple with how to encourage reconciliation while protecting victims.” Not quite an expose, it does detail some of the damage done by biblical counselors pressing victims for forgiveness of and reconciliation with those who abused them.

The essay details some of the experience “Amanda” had, both when looking for help as a 17 year old after sexual abuse by her father had come to light and then later when she brought a complaint against the organization that had certified the counselor. The writer of the essay goes on to describe the landscape of biblical counseling, integrationist counseling, and a new version of Christian psychology before returning to the challenge of what Christian counseling care is available for victims and perpetrators. Of concern in this essay is how the biblical counseling group views the bible’s place in counseling victims of abuse.

Before I make my observations, which will only be a small portion of what could be discussed, I want to give some background. I was first trained by CCEF (mentioned in the article) and worked as a part-time counselor there. I still have many friends at that organization. I’m quite impressed with Darby Strickland’s teaching on abuse in families. I’m acquainted with ACBC (formerly NANC) and know many who have been certified by them. I got my psychological training at Wheaton College and there became good friends with Eric Johnson mentioned in the article and was present for the early days of the Christian Psychology movement. Then, I spent 18 years leading a MA counseling program at a seminary. While this background does not mean I am smarter than anyone else, I repeat here to say I know the people and the conversations well. Over the years I have listened to stories of pain and healing at the hands of counselors from all parts of the professional, biblical, and pastoral counseling worlds.

Some Observations

Here are some thoughts of mine about what problems lie behind the misapplication of spiritual principles in these cases of abuse.

Restoration over protection. When restoration is valued over protection, it can only be for the benefit of the one pressing for restoration. What benefit do they get? They get to feel that God is indeed in control. Why do you think that false prophets told the exiles in Babylon that in 2 years they would be back in the land? Was it to earn money? Doubtful. Was it to appear wise? Maybe. But, most of all, it was likely that in repeating this belief (based on knowledge that God would redeem) they could take comfort now rather than sit in the reality that life was broken and not likely going to be restored in their lifetime.

Misapprehending fruit of repentance. I’m going to skip over the large problem of counselors pressing for any change whatsoever. (Suffice it to say that pressing a client for forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, or any other action rarely works and more often causes harm. You cannot heal a trauma caused by misuse of power with more force–even if your goal is good.) One of the great mistakes counselors make is speaking as if they know the heart of another. In no case is this more true than trying to speak with confidence about those who have a long pattern of deception. Tears, time, nice words are not evidences of a changed heart. It is ironic that those who are caring most about righteousness, who seem to be aware of “bad” fruit of not reconciling with someone who has done harm, appear naive in recognizing that tears and the right words are not evidence of change. For example, if a parent who abuses a child seems wholly focused on return home and to church life, is it possible that they only want the benefits of repentance without the work? Might better evidence be a willingness to die to own desires and to ask, “what do those I harmed most need?” while looking for the answer from others.

I conclude this point noting that those in the biblical counseling tradition have been quite willing to acknowledge the problem of evil and deception in the human heart. It is strange, then that some hold those who resist reconciliation to a tougher standard than they do those who have been harming others in the dark but now claim repentant hearts.

Restoration to what? One disheartening experience mentioned in the essay is when those in power demand that the primary goal of forgiveness is restoration and reconciliation. The essay quotes Heath Lambert, former ACBC head, “the goal in ministry to an abuser–as long as he will receive such ministry–is to see him be restored to his family, and ultimately to Christ.” In Ezekiel 34 God charges the priests of Israel with abusing the people, as shepherds who feed on the sheep. In chapter 44 he announces judgment on these idolatrous priests. He will restore them but only to the work of cleaning up the mess after the sacrifices. They will not be restored to their previous position. Today, the modern equivalent would be for an abusive church leader to be allowed to clean the church and the toilets but not to preach, teach or lead. Lambert is right in desiring to see restoration to Christ but his apparent assumption that the restoration would be to position (family) seems faulty. The goal should be to be present with the perpetrator on their journey rather than focus on the final destination.

Pride is the issue. “…Several victims pointed out the difficulty of knowing when real change [in perpetrators] has happened, and that it was prideful for their counselor to assume they knew the hearts of their abusers.” Pride is one of the greatest sins of counselors and pastors. We think we know the problem/diagnosis and therefore we know the solution. The great trap for spiritual leaders and helpers is that we want to be seen as such.

Do you want to be a leader? Be a servant. In this case, be a student of those you want to help. Learn from them. Stop trying to dictate what they do and how they do it. When we experience pride as therapists we stop asking questions of ourselves, stop evaluating our motives and our hypotheses, stop desiring to learn. This can happen to licensed therapists as well as pastoral counselors. Those who want to work with trauma should ready widely those who have the most experience with trauma–regardless of their religious and philosophical moorings. Those who want to work with people who have abused power ought to learn from those who have worked most closely with patterns of deception. Don’t assume you know something just because you know basic categories of right and wrong. Your pride may be evident to those practiced in deception who will tell you what you want to hear (your greatness) in order for you to do their bidding.

Nothing harms the bible and Christian counseling more than someone with half understanding of basic ideas acting as if their opinions should be taken as pure doctrine. If you are facing a situation where you are wanting either a perpetrator or victim to progress, take a moment and write down what you think their most pressing need is today. Take a moment to listen well and see if they also agree. When pressures mount to get to some destination, resist it. Pray for God to give light to the path today. Let him hold the concern for where the journey ends. For that we can be sure he will be faithful to complete in his timing.

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When a woman’s first sexual experience is forced, a look at the impact


Laura Hawkes and colleagues have published a prevalence and impact study of American women and their first sexual experience. The sample of women between the ages of 18 and 44 (13,000 plus) records that 6% experienced rape as their first sexual experience. On average, the rape took place when the woman was 15 years of age. The perpetrator was, on average, 27 years of age. (For a news oriented summary of this study, go to this story on NPR.

Force (of any kind) + unwanted sex = rape

When you think of the term rape, you may immediately imagine physical violence. And certainly, many sexual assaults and rape are unimaginably violent acts. But, it is important to realize that verbal and emotional coercion may also play a very large role in forced sex/rape. When a person uses their position, status, verbal power, threats of violence, threats of loss of safety, emotional manipulation and the like to get another person to engage in sexual intercourse, this can be defined as rape. If it was unwanted but the person did not physically fight back, it is still considered rape.

Rape of any kind is destructive and traumatizing. For some, emotional coercion adds an extra layer of shame and trauma because either they or others may not consider the experience an assault. “Well, he didn’t hold a gun to my head…” or “I didn’t fight him off…so maybe it wasn’t really an assault.” Common but destructive questions such as, “What were you wearing? Why did you go there” add additional trauma.

What impact might that have on a person?

When forced sex is the first sexual experience, there are a cascade of potential health problems that may plague the victim. Reproductive health consequences loom large as to be expected. Many of these continue long afterwards. Mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addictions also may become chronic experiences. In what may be often overlooked, chronic insomnia (a not surprising result) can lead to long-term auto-immune disorders and cancers. No wonder we don’t just “get over” something like this.

Discouraged? Yes. Helpless? No.

You can read a study like this and leave feeling discouraged about our society. That would be an appropriate response. And, you may also leave knowing that you can do two things that do make a difference:

  1. Increase your awareness of and compassion for those who have experienced rape/sexual assault. Your capacity to hold their stories and acknowledge the impact may actually begin to lessen shame and isolation and improve quality of life.
  2. Be willing to speak up about any and all behavior that minimizes abuses of power, especially as it relates to sexual activity.

To read the official abstract of the study, go here.

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Free webinar on the impact of child abuse on adult mental and spiritual health


Consider joining me September 4, 2019 on a webinar hosted by The Partnership Center: Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, US Dept of Health and Human Services. I will be presenting on the spiritual impact of child abuse on adult survivors.

Part IV: Mental Illness 101: Childhood Trauma and Mental Health Impacts

Wedneday, September 4, 2019 | 12:00 —1:00 p.m. EDT

Register at: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/437d661ca5d8d0c434538d7d4481ef37  

Trauma ― specifically trauma experienced as children or adolescents ― can significantly impact individuals across their entire lives. In fact, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (@NCTSN) notes that survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to have long-term health problems or are at higher risk to die at an earlier age than their peers.  With so many walking wounded souls in our midst, people are starting to ask, “How can I make a difference?” Our July webinar will focus on this important factor impacting many people who are struggling with mental illness concerns – untreated childhood trauma. Our goals are to equip local faith and community leaders with the signs and symptoms of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and provide the proven resources they can incorporate into their congregational and community outreach efforts.  Register today for our September 4th webinar, and invite a friend

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Initial and Advanced Trauma Healing Training Sessions, Philadelphia, October 4-7, 2019


If you are looking to become certified in using the Healing the Wounds of Trauma curriculum, consider the next Philadelphia equipping sessions, October 4-7, 2019 at the Mother Boniface Spirituality Center.

These sessions are for both initial and advanced participants. If you have not been trained to use Healing the Wounds of Trauma healing group curriculum, this would be a great first experience. The 4 days will give you a first-hand experience of a healing group plus the training you need to lead healing groups for adults.

Already completed the initial training? Then come to the advanced session to deepen your healing group facilitation skills and to learn how to train others to become healing group facilitators. You will need to provide proof (in advance) that you have already led two healing groups.

I’ll be present for parts of the training and would love to meet you there and talk about ways we we make the church a safer place for trauma victims.

Register now. There are both residential and commuter pricing.

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Why reconciliation isn’t the best objective


At some point in our lives, we all experience a breach in a relationship. Division happens among friends, family, acquaintances, and members of the same faith. Sometimes the breach we experience is the result of a perceived wrong, sometimes a true injustice. Sometimes we are the ones who are hurt, other times we are the offending party.

Reconciliation a bad objective?

Not convinced? Consider this example. I grow tomato plants. I have the goal of eating tomatoes by early July. I set objectives such as when to plant seeds or purchase plants; when to water, fertilize, cage, etc. But, I cannot set an objective of producing tomatoes. It is not something I can make happen. I can only cultivate the plant in ways I understand will encourage tomato production.

When a breach happens, and you want the relationship restored, it is common to seek reconciliation as the primary objective. I want to argue that reconciliation is a mis-guided objective. Even though we are called to be agents of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16f), it is not a direct objective that any of us can accomplish. Recall from your strategic planning training that objectives ought to be tangible and obtainable. Objectives are designed to move toward an overarching goal or dream. Since reconciliation requires at least two parties to agree, it makes for a bad objective since we can’t guarantee that the other will be willing, able or ready to reconcile.

Better objectives

If you desire to reconcile with someone after a breach in a relationship, there are some achievable objectives you might want to consider. If you are the offending party, you might consider objectives such as,

  • Offer to hear (face-to-face or through others) of the damage you have caused or allowed due to complicity
  • Acknowledge the impact of your attitudes and actions, the harm done.
  • Make an apology
  • Provide ongoing evidence of repentance…without grumbling
  • Make sacrificial amends, seek to return what was wrongfully taken
  • Avoid pointing out the wrongs committed by the offended party; make no explicit or implicit demand for reconciliation

If you are the offended party, you might consider objectives such as

  • Speak the truth in love
  • Assert need for justice and grace
  • Avoid vengeance taking
  • Acknowledge evidence of repentance; point out evidence of deception
  • Clarify concepts of forgiveness, grace, restitution, reconciliation
  • Ask God for a heart prepared to forgive

When reconciliation isn’t possible

Notice that the above objectives can be met even when the overarching goal of reconciliation fails. There are times when reconciliation is not possible or desirable. Attempts to force the outcome will do significant damage—not only to victims but also to those who foreclose on repentance. Just as forcing a diseased tomato plant to produce fruit may result in the destruction of nearby plants, so also forcing reconciliation when repentance is not present may result in more injustice and deception.

So, the next time you find yourself in a broken relationship, focus first on objectives within your grasp and give back to God the final goal. Be open for him to do miracles but stick to the thing he has placed in front of you. Like the widow who has just enough oil and flour, bake your cake. Let God take care of the bigger picture.

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Initial and Advanced Trauma Healing training sessions, Philadelphia May 8-11, 2019


If you are looking to become certified in using the Healing Wounds of Trauma curriculum, consider the next Philadelphia equipping sessions, May 8-11, 2019 at the Mother Boniface Spirituality Center.

These sessions are for both initial and advanced participants. If you have not been trained to use Healing the Wound of Trauma healing group curriculum, this would be a great first experience. The 4 days will give you a first-hand experience of a healing group plus the training you need to lead healing groups.

If you have already taken the initial training and you would like advanced training to become a healing group facilitator or to become a trainer in this train the trainer program, then come to the advanced session. You will need to provide proof (in advance) that you have already led two healing groups.

I’ll be present for the training and would love to spend the 4 days with you thinking and experiencing how we make the church a safer place for trauma victims.

But register now. There are both residential and commuter pricing.

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2019 Global Community of Practice Livestream


The 2019 Trauma Healing Global Community of Practice is fast approaching. The event will be held in Philadelphia, PA, USA from March 12-14th.

This years’ COP will explore the family’s vulnerability to trauma as well as family restoration. Attendees will hear from a wide range of global speakers while networking with peers from around the world. While registration is closed for in-person participation, we will be livestreaming the event and are looking for individuals to host interactive viewing parties. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, please click on the following link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/host-a-live-stream-viewing-party-for-the-global-cop-registration-55242162796 or email Lauren Popp at lpopp@americanbible.org. The eventbrite link above contains the schedule of plenary events. As you watch you will receive information on how to submit comments and questions. So, even though you may not be in person, you can still have participate!

Only a party of one? You can still access the livestream. Click on this link: http://thi.americanbible.org/cop-live

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Advice for church leaders when dealing with abuse in congregant families


Looking for a good introduction and tips to respond well when abuse is alleged or exposed? Dr. Diane Langberg has a great blog as your launch point: http://www.dianelangberg.com/2019/02/recommendations-for-churches-dealing-with-abuse/.

I could summarize it but I’d rather you just go and read it!

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Philadelphia area Healing the Wounds of Trauma Initial Equipping


Announcing the initial equipping training for those interested in becoming certified in the Healing the Wounds of Trauma curriculum. This will be offered at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA, July 18-21, 2018. There are three ways the course is offered:

  • Graduate credit (2 credits, with pre and post course work)
  • Audit (shows up on a transcript)
  • Continuing education (NBCC approved CEs for social workers and professional counselors)

Teachers will be Heather Drew and myself.

For more information, start here. If you are interested in learning this train-the-trainer model of trauma care designed to raise up safe faith communities, this might be the training for you.

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