ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Sep 23, 2011

What Does Experience Have to Do With It?

I suspect almost every counselor has dealt with the question: ‘Do you have to have experienced it to be an effective counselor?’ Do you have to be married to be an effective marriage counselor? Do you have to have kids to effectively counsel parents having problems with their children? Do you have to have experienced unemployment to counsel those who have lost their job?

I don’t think so. Certainly if I as a counselor have experienced divorce or been in active duty, I have more resources to bring to counseling situations where divorce or battlefield traumas are major factors. On the other hand, I have also known counselors whose effectiveness has been compromised because they ‘have been through the same thing their client is going through.’ The models and assumptions from our own experiences which we bring to the counseling situation can hinder us from being completely present with our client and really listen to what our client is really saying.

I think this issue becomes so much more difficult when dealing with religious or spiritual issues. I believe our fundamental beliefs and spirituality begin to develop early—perhaps even in the womb. And if we were involved in a religious organization early on, that will continue to affect us the rest of our lives. The way we conceptualize ourselves and the meaning of life, what makes sense to us, what motivates and gives us our passion as well as how we understand others and what we believe about them. Our spirituality and often our religion are involved—either explicitly or implicitly--in the very reason we are here with this client in the first place. We carry it wherever we go; it is part of us. Jung understood this as well as any psychologist.

The question becomes: How can we use this aspect of ourselves as an asset and not let it compromise our effectiveness as counselors?
At first I thought of this as a rhetorical question. But the more I thought about it, the more I realize I really want to know how other counselors deal with it.
Certain responses present themselves to me:
1. We can check out our own spirituality to see if it is in complete conformity with the ACA Code of Ethics.
2. We can always train ourselves to be mindful of the fact that our client is the final source of meaning, value and power when it comes to counseling them.
3. We can make sure our spirituality and religion agrees that, as Eric Berne put it, ‘I’m OK; You’re OK’.
4. The more we are aware of our own spirituality and religion and the effect they have on us, the less likely we will project it onto our client.
5. Here I disagree with much current thinking about religion and counseling: I think that the study of so-called, ‘World Religions’, can be detrimental to my working with a client who belongs to a different religion than I do. If my client belongs to Christianity, I realize I would have no idea what that would mean to them as an individual without asking; however, if my client were a Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Wiccan, Bahai’ist or some other, I should likewise realize I have no idea what that would mean to them as an individual without asking.
6. Likewise, I’m not sure my exploration of various ‘spiritual disciplines’ I would enhance my ability to work with a client for whom spirituality is an important issue. It may even hinder it. Certainly if spirituality is a passion for a counselor, I would encourage them to ‘go for it’ while being aware of the increasing danger of their own spiritual discipline interfering with their ability to be completely present with an individual client.

Note that in the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul found that those who were the most passionate about their religion—a religion centered on a God of love—were the ones that seemed to create the most dissention, division, even hatred and death! I think that is an inherent danger in all religions.

Perhaps the ACA division focusing on spirituality, ASERVIC, could organize a conference to share our different ways of dealing with how to bring spirituality into the counseling situation in an effective way and ways of keeping a counselor’s spirituality from hindering the counseling process.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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