Having been a client myself at various points over the years (as well, of course, now being a provider of counseling services) I thought I would share some of my thoughts about selecting a counselor for oneself. The title of this post is a little misleading in that I don’t think there are any perfect counselors, nor do I think it would be good for us as people if there were. While I think we may at times long for someone who has no struggles of their own and would care for us perfectly, I think that such a person would feel so different from ourselves that it would make it hard to experience their help as being relevant. In my past experiences as a client, I have found it comforting to experience my counselors as being human, just like me in that they have imperfections and frailties, and yet having walked further down the path of growth than I yet had. In short, working with a counselor who is human like you and yet has grown in places that you have not yet grown instills hope that you too can grow in those places. A counselor who presents themselves as completely without struggles, limitations, weaknesses, etc. can in comparison feel hard to relate to since deep down we all know ourselves to be imperfect.
If a super-human, perfect counselor is not what one really needs, then what are qualities to look for when selecting a counselor? In order for a counselor to be more helpful than a good self-help book they must be healthier (i.e., have grown more) in the particular area that you are feeling stuck and are wanting help growing in. Fortunately for all of us (when we are seeking a counselor) it is not necessary for the counselor to have walked through every single particular life experience that a client has–such a thing is impossible. Rather, what is essential is that the counselor continues to work on the broad categories of struggle that all people deal with to varying degrees in their lives. For example, all of us have to learn how to deal with, and work through constructively, emotions like fear, shame, sadness, hurt, and anger. A counselor who continues to work at growing in facing and walking through their own emotions is much better equipped to help their clients to do the same.
Ultimately, you want a counselor who takes their own medicine (i.e., they walk the talk). This is something that I believe very strongly in. It is ineffective (and also feels a bit unfair) for a counselor to ask/encourage their client to walk out difficult growth processes (e.g., learning to face fears, work through pain, etc.) that the counselor is not willing to do in their own life. The reason this is so problematic is because of how our brains work. When we are stuck in a particular place our emotions are typically a significant part of that stuckness (otherwise, we would be able to get unstuck relatively easily by just getting better information, such as by reading a good self-help book, Dear Abby, etc.). These emotional parts of us cannot be rewired by simply providing new data. You might identify with having times in your life where one part of you (e.g., your cognition) knew what was a healthy response to have to a situation, but another part of you (e.g., your “gut”, your emotions, etc.) felt pretty disconnected from that data and continued on with the response you didn’t want to have. These emotional responses get wired in place in the context of relationships, and consequently it takes a relational context to rewire these parts of our brain.
There is more to all this than I will unpack in this post, but in short, it is necessary that the counselor is able to handle their own emotional struggles better than you can in order for them to be a safe, secure anchor for you as you work to build your own emotional muscles. For example, if the counselor has trouble working through pain in their own life, then that will be a significant limiter in their being able to help a client work through their pain. It is not that the counselor has to able to perfectly work through their own issues–that would be a return to the super-human counselor that none of us could relate to–but rather that the counselor just needs to be further along in working on their issues than the client is. As long as the counselor continues to work at growth in their own life then they are less likely to encounter places where the client is needing help to go someplace emotionally that the counselor is not able to go to themselves.
So how does one evaluate how well and/or much a counselor is working on their own growth, particularly in an area that you as a client are wanting help growing in? Unfortunately, there is no magic litmus test, but there are some things that can provide helpful clues. Start by having an interaction with the counselor you are considering and then listen to what your gut tells you about the experience with them. This could initially consist of processing your gut reaction to their website and how the counselor presents themselves. Next you might try a more direct interaction through telephone or e-mail. Ultimately I think that doing a trial session with the counselor can be most helpful because you get the most experiential data that way. Here are some questions to consider asking: “I (the client) am struggling with __________ (e.g., feeling anxious); can you tell me some about how you deal with such struggles in your own life?” “Have you (the counselor) ever been in counseling yourself? If so, what did you find to be most helpful?”
Though you can certainly ask questions like these over the phone, I think you’ll likely get fuller answers in person (in part because there is more time, but also because as the counselor gets to know you a little they can better speak to where you are coming from). The point of questions like these is not to ask the counselor to divulge personal details as much asking them to share more broadly some of how they approach growth in their own life. You want to experience that they know what it is like to deal with the broad emotional experiences you are wanting help with (e.g., loss, fear, pain, sadness, anger, etc.). If their responses feel a little hollow, simplistic (e.g., “I just try to look on the bright side”) or lacking in the feel of any emotional connection then that should give you some pause.
What we all ultimately need in a counselor is someone who is safe and accepting of themself and others, and strong enough to face their own struggles day by day, not perfectly, but persistently. Such a person who knows what it feels like to persist at the hard work of their own growth can help give us courage and hope as we embark on learning to do the same for ourselves.
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