“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”
Counseling is one of those professions where the difficulty of the work is inversely proportional to its prestige and pay. Working with the worried well, as they are satirically called, using insight-oriented therapy is the world of private psychoanalysts with fees often in the hundreds. At the other extreme, crisis work, perhaps the most difficult, is often the realm of interns and volunteers. Other low-status counseling situations include any residential treatment, working with schizophrenics, and sadly, working with children.
When my friend (I’ll call her, Danielle) told me that, for her first grad-school internship, she applied to work with chronically conduct-disordered teenaged boys, I thought she was nuts. I believed that she was in for more frustration and less progress with clients than was good for an intern. Was I wrong. Rather than being frustrated, Danielle thrived on the experience—expecting the smallest of movement with these emotionally damaged children. But that bit of movement can be more rewarding to a counselor, and a better learning experience, than conventional training in a more prestigious position in an outpatient clinic.
My attitude towards Danielle’s choice changed when I realized that this early counseling experience is similar to what mine was, which included work with autistic children, teens emotionally (not physically) dependent on drugs, and the severely mentally disturbed. When working with any of the above clientele, the bottom line is no bullshit. Because these client groups have severe trust issues, a counselor’s integrity matters above all. A designer leather couch in your office won’t help you. You have no choice but to be who you are, because all of this clientele are sensitive to pretense.
Because working with these emotionally injured boys rewarded integrity, Danielle gained confidence for her future practice. Skill and technique take experience to acquire, and there are no shortcuts, but integrity can’t be learned any more than it can be faked. So as these boys responded to Danielle, as positively as they were capable, she learned that she has the foundation to help people. And that becomes a positive reinforcement for her integrity—a virtuous cycle.
How do you tell if you are (as a counselor), or someone else is, unpretentious? Here are some guidelines: Are your actions for the benefit of the client, or are they to make you look like a better Freudian, cognitive-behaviorist, family therapist, or whatever you believe your professional identity depends on? Are your actions as a counselor designed to crank up your ego in some such way, or to be more showy to your colleagues? (Subtlety doesn’t show up in case presentations as well as drama does.) Do you explain to clients and acquaintances (with a hint of impatience) that counseling is superficial, psychotherapy, profound, and that you are a therapist?
Nearly all clients, as well they should be, are wary of giving trust to a counselor, and trust is a prerequisite for getting anything done in sessions. For those who try to get by on pretense, it only works on others who try to get by on pretense. It’s an agreement that, if you promise not to look at me carefully, I promise not to look at you carefully. Most people do not enter these (subconscious) agreements, and I would not count on such mutually agreed bullshit to impress your clients. Danielle has integrity, and it will work for her throughout her career.