The more I read and study and think about it, the more convinced I become that studying other cultures, other religions, other ways of thinking and being in the world more often than not compromises my effectiveness as a counselor. I realize that that multicultural awareness is intimately woven into the ACA code of ethics and CACREP requirements and I can get CEU’s for studying such topics. However, since I have never come across anyone else who has questioned this trend, in part I am writing this blog asking for help. What am I missing here?
First a couple of items:
Whenever I taught World Religions, I felt really good about covering the other religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, American Indian Spirituality, etc. Much good stuff there for reports and tests; new ideas; new perspectives. But when it came to Christianity, it seemed so misleading and inadequate and hardly captured any of my experience as a Christian. If I were a Buddhist, I would probably have the same misgivings about the way Buddhism is presented.
An important report comes from Daniel Schacter’s ‘must-read’ book, The Seven Sins of Memory, about our memory’s ability for noting differences or changes: He reports an amazing experiment in which an individual would approach a college student on campus to ask directions. Before the student could respond, two men carrying a door would pass between them. Unbeknownst to the student, the stranger who approached to ask directions would have been replaced by another person (hidden behind the door). If the stranger asking direction was dressed as a construction worker, only 4 of 17 students were aware of the fact that it was a different person after the door passed! Seeing it was a ‘construction worker’ blocked the awareness that it was a different person. Familiarity with a category tends to cloud our attention to details. Seeing a beautiful ostrich would probably prevent us from seeing this particular, unique individual.
What we have absorbed (unconsciously) from our culture and daily reports supplemented by what we might ‘learn’ about those who are different from us cannot help but make it difficult to fully experience that unique client in front of us—especially because that client in front of us is there, more likely than not, because they are outliers. Our preconceptions (conscious and outside our awareness) can only limit our perceptions, understanding and expectations of them and thus prevent us from curing them.
The same danger comes from trying to ‘diagnose’ a client. Here I am heavily influenced by Eric Berne’s perspective. I can imagine a dialogue with him as my supervisor going something like this:
Me: I have a case I would like help with.
EB: Did you cure him in your last session?
Me: No. He is a 46 yr old alcoholic and has been depressed for the last 10 years, since his wife left him—he has a Major Depressive Disorder.
EB: No wonder you didn’t cure him. With everything you told me, you will never be able to cure him. In fact, you might even exacerbate his emotional dysfunction. At your next session with him, forget everything you think you know about him and see if you can really experience him and notice how he is discounting his ability to cure himself. Then give him the permission and potency and protection that he needs to reclaim his own abilities. Then tell me what you experienced.
If you are an administrator of a counseling program, the articles and reports and studies in counseling journals could be very helpful in deciding what programs to offer—veterans, bullying, eating disorders, etc. But if you are a counselor, reading such reports could only compromise your judgments and hinder your effectiveness with that person in front of you. And sharpening your DSM-IV-TR diagnostic skills might even make you dangerous as a counselor of a client. An ‘intake’ interview should not last more than 5-10 minutes. That is enough time to get informed consent, contact information, insurance information and a contract for treatment. In my opinion, most information gathered at an initial interview—especially in a clinical setting—already begins to limit the effectiveness that clinician can offer.
So what’s the solution? This is what I would suggest (and it’s based on Berne’s basic assumptions):
Since our own subconscious is so heavily involved in our perception of and response to a client, let us use its power to provide the permission, protection and potency we can give our clients to get back in touch with their natural abilities. Let’s feed our subconsciousness with a vision of a future which brings about hope to this particular individual. The client in front of us is a unique creation but our prejudices are not. So in order to benefit our client, we need to readjust our prejudices and expectations by exposing ourselves, for example, to successful black, rebellious, teenage gang members or creative, happy, divorced 63 year old women or cured ‘paranoid schizophrenics’ or alcoholics; etc.
Berne suggested that after every session with a client we ask ourselves whether the client had been cured. If not, ask ‘Why not?’ If I think that it is in any way something wrong with the client then I either need to refer the client to another counselor or take an assessment of myself (yes, give myself the assessment tests) to determine what about myself prevented the cure and take steps to change that. We need more doctoral dissertation developing assessments of us a counselors and our ineffectiveness than of our clients—as if they are the problem.
Another way of putting that, after our first session with a client, we need to assess ourselves concerning how we might limit that client because of our own perceptions and experiences. We should write a treatment plan for ourselves because we are the ones who are bringing ourselves into that counseling room and we need to make sure what we bring will not only do no harm but has the possibility of helping the client be cured.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD'