Carl Rogers espoused the idea of “unconditional positive regard” – accepting clients without critical judgment of their self-value. While this sounds like a very basic building block of counseling, it may be more difficult in practice than in theory. What if a client admits to a behavior that you find distasteful, but is not illegal and maybe not even be unethical? Or perhaps a client does something that you find particularly unethical due to your personal or spiritual beliefs, but that others may deem acceptable?
Clients come to us will all sorts of issues and are all on different parts of their life journeys. Each of their stories is unique, as are the events that led up to their actions. As such, it is not wise to judge what transpired – who is to say that under those very same conditions, you would not have acted the same way?
When a client does disclose a past action that they are struggling to come to terms with, they are most likely giving themselves a lot of grief about it. We are not in the counseling profession to add insult to injury. It does not help clients to berate them over making a poor decision – especially if they are already beating themselves up about it. That is where the challenge comes in. Counselors must put their judgments aside and help the client put their lives on the right track and make better, healthier decisions moving forward. Remembering that the client is a human being – someone’s child, or father, or sister, or spouse – may help counselors keep the client’s humanity in perspective and allow for constructive therapy to abound.
This acceptance is not only imperative for our colleagues working in the justice system or highly troubled populations, but for all counselors, since we never know precisely what a client may disclose to us. It is up to us to ensure that no matter what our clients say, that we handle the situation legally, ethically, and above all, in a way that honors the intrinsic value of the client. As Walt Whitman once said, “Be curious, not judgmental.”
Tara Overzat is a counselor-in-training at Mercer University in Atlanta and a counseling intern at a substance abuse treatment center. Her interests include multicultural issues, acculturation amongst college students, and substance abuse recovery