Tag Archives: counselors

Should therapists talk about themselves to clients? Surprising information

How do you feel when your counselor begins to self-disclose during a session? When they do, is it helpful or a lapse in their judgment?

This is a common conversation in counselor training programs. Generally, most models of counseling and therapy discourage counselor-self-disclosure; some models do so more than others. The reasons for discouraging counselor self-disclosure vary from breaking the unconscious projection (analytic) to just confusing clients because we change the subject from client to counselor.

But a recent article in the April 2014 Journal of Counseling Psychology, suggests that self-disclosure might actually help more than we think. Henretty, Currier, Berman, and Levitt completed a meta-analytic review of 53 studies examining counselor self-disclosure versus non disclosure. And “overall” they found that clients have favorable perceptions of disclosing counselors.

Why? It appears that when a client perceives great affinity/similarity with a counselor, they rate that counselor higher. Also, when a counselor reveals something difficult or painful (a vulnerability?), it makes them more human to their clients. Some examples of this negative valence might include, “when you said that, I felt really sad.” Or, “Let’s talk about your anxiety, having suffering with it some years ago, I suspect you…”

Not so fast!

So revealing similarities with clients and being human make clients feel more similar and possibly more understood. This makes sense. Client/Counselor matching seems to correlate with better outcomes. However, before counselors go talking about themselves they ought to consider a few things.

  1. Why am I doing this? Is what I have to say for them or really for me? (Too often, we speak to talk about self)
  2. Is what I say really going to keep my clients focused on themselves or distract them to my story?
  3. Am I sure that what I say will show similarity? The truth is that we *think* we have a similar story but the times we are sure we know what our clients are feeling we are most likely to stop listening and then miss the client.
  4. How often do I do it?


Filed under christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

Clicking with your counselee

In every first session with a client I tell them that part of their job is evaluate whether I am the right therapist for them. While it is very important that your counselor is well-trained, if you don’t click with your counselor, the work you are trying to do will be much harder. Now, of course it often takes a few sessions to determine whether you can form a trusting, collaborative relationship or not.

I am always thankful when a client is willing to raise the “fit” problem with me. It gives us an opportunity to explore the disconnect, fix it if possible or happily refer to someone else. Too frequently disconnected clients choose to either keep plugging away (but being less and less vulnerable) or just fade away and you never know what went wrong.

But what if the counselor doesn’t connect with the client…and the client doesn’t know it? What should the counselor do?

1. Use supervision or consultation to explore the disconnect. Maybe the disconnect will reveal something useful about the counselee. Maybe it will reveal some pride or prejudice in the counselor. Maybe it will reveal some naiveté or lack of competency or empathy or conflict over goals. Or, maybe it will reveal some cultural differentness that is really hard to overcome.

2. Assess whether or not (again using supervision) whether progress is being made. Is the counselee growing in insight? Gaining control? Showing more fruits of the Spirit? Seeing a decrease in anxiety or depression? The counselor may need to reassess their goals for the client.

3. Consider attempting more “here and now” to explore what is going on in the relationship between counselor and counselee. HOWEVER, do not do this to tell them how you are feeling NOR to be condescending. This action is designed to help both of you to be more present and decrease disconnection.

4. If all else fails, refer. This would be appropriate if (a) you believe you are not competent to help them or impaired in some way (and you should communicate your lack–in a limited way–to the client when discussing referral), or (b) you believe the problem is that counseling is harmful (and again you should discuss why you think this way and what the options might look like for them. Remember to avoid abandoning them. Referrals are specific, take time, and are for their best interest, not yours.

The bottom line is that the onus is on the counselor to work through the disconnect and to do all that he or she can to fix the problem or to tolerate it if the client is making good progress. This is what it means to “love one another.” We fail to do so if we either ignore the problem or use the disconnect to get rid of counselees that do not feed our egos.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, ethics, personality, Psychology, Uncategorized

What is a competent counselor?

Today, I begin an introduction to pastoral counseling class for MDiv students with my colleague Jenn. In six short weeks we will expose them to biblical foundations of understanding people and their problems, the basic helping skills, and provide them opportunities to practice on each other.

So, what makes for a competent counselor? There is a famous book on this topic. Jay Adams focuses in his landmark, bulldozing book on the problems of secular psychology and the need for a new understanding of how people change that fits with Scripture and a confidence that all people, especially pastors, are capable of leading others to change.

Important work, but misses some of the nuances that we have now about Christian models of change. For some of my thoughts on a more robust model of counseling that I seek to impart here at Biblical, see this post from several years ago.

But I want to focus here on the talents or capabilities of the counselor. And here I list 7 factors needed to be a competent counselor

1. Spiritual maturity. Not only must the counselor know the bible, its story line, etc., they must also have understood and experienced the Gospel, show a maturing trajectory towards holiness and awareness of the diversity within the Christianity. In the words of one of my theology colleagues, they must know the difference between dogma and doctrine and opinion.

2. Self-awareness/insight. One can be spiritual mature, but not particularly insightful about the self. The competent counselor has a grasp of their own narrative (and how the Gospel story is changing it) and how it impacts past and present relationships. The competent counselor understands strengths and weaknesses and is not defensive.

3. Capable of building trusting relationships. Nothing much good comes from counsel provided by standoffish and stand-above kinds of counselors. The competent counselor is able to build trusting relationships by being interested in individuals (more so than in outcomes), able to walk in another’s shoes, cross cultural lines, and able to empower others more than tell others what to do

4. Flexibility in response styles. The competent counselor understands the need to use a variety of conversational responses depending on the needs of the client. This means sometimes questions are appropriate, other times silence. Other responses include reflections, summarizing, focusing, confronting, joining, problem-solving, self-disclosing. Counselors who only use one or two of these styles will not be able to work well with clients who find those particular styles problematic. The competent counselor is intentional in her or his choices of responses.

5. Assessment and Hypothesis skills. The competent counselor is able to move from their counselees problems and descriptions to a wider view of the person and their situation and back again. This counselor is able to pull multiple pieces of data into a cohesive understanding of the situation. In doing so she forms and tests possible hypotheses that clarify motivation for behavior as well as point to interventions. For example, is the child’s behavior merely rebellious or is it ADD or anxiety based?

6. Observation skills.The competent counselor not only understands people, their needs, solutions, and has the capacity to use multiple response styles, but also is observant regarding their own impact on the counselee. They observe subtle reactions form clients and seek to moderate their counseling style and/or gently explore the meaning of the reaction. Without these skills, the counselor blithely works toward a goal without knowing if the counselee is really following.

7. Ability to care for self. Finally, the competent counselor recognizes personal limits, boundaries and actively seeks to sustain a life of personal care. Far too many counselors confuse sacrificial giving with bypassing appropriate care for one’s own spiritual well-being. Just because one is spiritually mature one day does not mean such maturity is permanent. Neglecting personal care will likely diminish all other counselor competencies over time.


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills, education, teaching counseling

Things that scare counselors…

There are certain things that scare counselors. Some things are real, others are mere fantasies. Some are big scares others are smaller ones. When I teach ethics and we talk about liability, the tension in the room increases. When I teach about suicidal clients and the need for a proper response, the tension increases.

What do I fear? Not remembering a client’s name when I run into them in the public. I don’t think that has ever happened but I fear it nonetheless. More real is the fear of doublebooking, of walking into the waiting room and seeing two clients there for the same time. Now, that has happened to me and sometimes it has been my own fault. Even when it isn’t my fault, my stomach does a flipflop.

But now I have a new experience…being approached by a US gov’t official who flashes a badge and requests to speak to me in private about a matter. I had the feeling that one gets when the police car behind you starts flashing their lights. What did I do? Am I in trouble?

It turned out well however. After verifying his credentials and the release of information in hand, I learned a friend of mine was seeking national security clearances for his job. A couple of questions and the officer was on his way. Pheww…I’m not in trouble.


Filed under Anxiety, counseling, counseling and the law, ethics

“I apologize for being late…”: bad behaviors by your counselor

Just skimmed, “‘I apologize for being late’: The courteous psychotherapist” (in the 2008 (v. 45:2)Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, pp 273-277) by Rolfs Pinkerton. Pinkerton details how our bad behaviors can harm (gasp!) the therapeutic alliance but that courteousness and correcting the behavior can help alleviate the problem. No surprise here.

But wait, what are some of the bad behaviors (no not the really bad and really obvious ones) he’s concerned about. Let’s see how we rate:

1. Being more than 15 minutes late. Apologies help but if it is a regular problem then…

Hmm. I’m usually 5 minutes late. Does that count as bad?

2. Falling asleep or being obviously worn out.

I try to solve this by drinking caffeine.

3. Forgetting names, using the wrong one or the wrong pronunciation.

So, when I pray for my “brother” or “sister” is it obvious that I’ve forgotten their name? Actually, I do pray that way sometimes and I haven’t forgotten a thing.

4. Repeatedly checking the clock.

I have an internal clock and so I try not to ever look. Probably why I’m regularly 10 minutes behind by the end of the day. So, how much is too much?

5. Taking calls.

Never do that. But I have forgotten to silence the phone. I hate it when that happens.

6. Drinking or eating in front of the client without offering some.

Oops. Did I mention that I caffeinate? Didn’t think that was rude. Hmmm. I have clients coming in bringing their Starbucks and I never feel left out. I wouldn’t eat in front of them. Do I get partial credit?

How about you? If you are a counselor, what are your faux pas? If you ever were a client, what annoying (not illegal or immoral ones–those are pretty clear) habits irk/irked you? (Be gentle with us and be sure to protect the guilty. We’re rather fragile.)


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology, Relationships, teaching counseling

Are counselors and psychologists an impaired lot?

We’re closing in on the last of the school year. Two weeks to go. Tonight in our ethics class we’ll be discussing the matter of abuse of power, impaired clinicians, and similar issues. In the world of counseling we discuss the problem of impaired counselors/students/trainees when we talk about those who,

(a) do not have the requisite skills, 
(b) have character/attitude deficits, or
(c) reactions to current crises,

AND are unwilling or unable to repair the situation.

First, we ought to be aware of those who are attracted to being counselors. Jeffery Barnett, et al, report the following data from other studies (as cited in the 2007 Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 38(6), pp 603-612):

  • 70% of female psychologists had been either sexually or physically abused as children
  • 33% of male psychologists report the same
  • 33% of psychologists report being abused as adults
  • They feel the effects of these difficulties (and other family crises) just as non counselors
  • They may be less likely to get help due to knowledge and professional identity
    • 60% acknowledged being significantly depressed during some point of their career
    • 29% reported being suicidal at some point
    • 4% had made suicide attempts

Gizara & Forrest (2004 Professional Psychology: Research & Practice,35(1), pp 131-140) reported supervisors experiences of trainee impairment in APA accredited internships (doctoral level). Many of the supervisors had a hard time defining impairment in counseling but had sort of what I call the “I know it when I see it” mentality. What they often described were the disruptive, persistent relationalconflicts that are obvious to most. They did identify that it is hard for supervisors to address these matters because they (a) are trained to be empathic and to try to save everyone, and (b) not wanting to deal with conflict, destroy a career, or make oneself vulnerable to attack that they are holier than thou.

But, I noticed not much discussion or research regarding the one who doesn’t have obvious abrasive relational skills who is prone to using clients and others to make themselves feel good. This kind of person is dangerous not because they disrupt the counseling center but because they are so well liked that they make others overlook “minor” ethical infractions. Further, the person is rarely cognizant of their using others for their own sense of well-being.

To answer my question. No, I don’t think counselors are an impaired lot–at least any more than others. If we are aware of what drives us to be counselors (the good AND the self-serving), are willing to be counseled, discipled, held accountable, etc. (are willing to be transparent), and see our work as God’s first, then I think we are rather a safe lot.

Watch out for those of us who think we have arrived or no longer need teaching. I’m reminded of Aslan’s question to Prince Caspian at his coronation:

Aslan: Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the kingship of Narnia?

Caspian: I-I don’t think I do sir. I’m only a kid.

Aslan: Good, If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would had been a proof that you were not.     


Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology, Relationships, self-deception, teaching counseling