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Defining Our Profession

June 2, 2010

I just received my June issue of Counseling Today, the monthly publication I get for being a member of the American Counseling Association.  Normally, I don’t pay a great deal of attention to the magazine, but this month caught my eye as it had an article discussing a definition of counseling.  Apparently, a group of delegates from 30 major counseling organizations have been meeting since 2005 to ensure a healthy future for counseling, and one of their primary initiatives was to define the profession.  Here is what they came up with:

Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.

I think it is a pretty good definition, and here’s why:

  1. First and foremost, counseling is a relationship between two human beings.  A counselor is not a blank slate, or brick wall, or a mythical un-relating figure in a chair.  I have my junk from my story just like the client.  I am a fellow traveler.  A wounded healer, and for the therapy hour, I set aside my junk to focus exclusively on the growth of the other.  I am glad the ACA used the word relationship in their definition.
  2. The next word I really like is “empower”.  As a therapist it is not my job to fix the client, although clients directly and indirectly ask repeatedly for this to be so.  Counseling instead helps the individual, family, or group to find their way – to find the strength within themselves to live responsibly.
  3. The third and final aspect of the definition I really like is the focus on health and wellness.  Therapists do take note of symptoms, and we do recognize mental illness; however, our focus in counseling is on moving the client forward.  We are not in the business of symptom alleviation.  We want to help the client find the strength to change the lifestyle that brought upon “illness” in the first place.

So, all in all if the ACA asked my opinion I would give them a hearty two thumbs up.  However, I think all therapists should have their own definition of what they do.  Their elevator speech – if you will.  Even though I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in an elevator where someone stepped on and said, “Ah, and what do you do?”  In fact, come to think of it, I couldn’t tell you the last time someone said anything in an elevator…

Anyway, taking the ACA definition as a framework for my own definition of what I do, here is what I came up with:

Counseling is a professional relationship that utilizes this relational contact in the here-and-now of the therapy hour to bring about a corrective experience in order to move the client toward mental health, wellness, meaning, and life goals.

Admittedly, my definition seems a little more complex, but I’m ok with that.  Since my definition is specific to my own style of therapy, it makes sense that it would be more narrow and focused.  Let’s break mine down a bit for clarification.

  1. At first glance it is easy to see the existential theme in my definition.  The words, here-and-now, corrective experience, and meaning, highlight this approach.  And what I mean by existential is quite simply that your life – your existence – has meaning.  In order to live a satisfactory life one must be able to identify some overarching purpose for their existence.
  2. Second, I too chose to emphasize the relational aspect of therapy; however, my definition takes it a step further.  In my work I don’t merely acknowledge the relationship.  I use the relationship.  Almost every session my clients can expect to get a question similar to, “How has it been for you interacting with me today?  How are we doing?”  In using my relationship with the client, I can give very accurate and pertinent feedback on how the client affects others relationally.  This interaction can sometimes be outside of the social norms of communication, so it is valuable information to the client as they may never even taken a look at it.
  3. And lastly, my definition also focuses on health and wellness, not merely symptom alleviation as the ACA one did.

So, hope you enjoyed this little foray into defining the counseling profession, and if you are a prospective client, I hope this clears the air a little bit around what you can expect should you choose to work with me or Matt.

For those of you following my journey into the Sabbath, I plan to post another aspect of the book tomorrow, so check it out if you have a chance.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 22, 2010 2:32 pm

    I really like the stated definition. I especially enjoy the focus on the “here and now”-the live moment. I would include two more components though:

    1) Spiritual development: Spiritual development, along with mental health, wellness, education and career goals. Does this mean beat our clients over the heads with Bibles? No. But some form of spirituality is projected on our clients whether we want to admit it or not. Any therapist who claims that he/she never imposes values has no real grasp on who they are or what counseling is.

    If, like Yalom says, we are in a constant state of self actualization, we are in a constant state of searching for something bigger than ourselves…some kind of spiritual meaning. If we never encourage our clients to at least think about their own personal spirituality (no matter what their notion of spirituality is), we do them a massive disservice.

    2) Modeling: More than anything else, we help our clients through here and now corrective emotional experiences. This can be done much more effectively if we are engaged in our own counseling and are constantly learning more about ourselves. Our clients can grow tremendously just by processing important things with healthy therapists who model mental health-not in a “I’ve got the answers” way, but in a “let’s walk through this together and explore because doing so in my own life has aided me in being more self aware” way.

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