I think most counseling students alternately feel like experts one moment and complete frauds the next. I know that describes my own experience pretty well. The field is so wide and varied that at the moment I think I’ve really mastered something, I realize that I’ve actually mastered about 4% of whatever it is and still have to learn the other 96% of it.
I attended my first-ever counseling conference this week, held by the Louisiana Counseling Association, and felt this conflict through the whole thing. Don’t tell anyone, but I snuck into an advanced-level session on transformation through adversity. Despite feeling a little guilty for this mistruth, this was the best choice I made at the whole conference. The presenter’s take on grief work resonated deeply with me--finally, a resource for exactly the type of counseling I want to do!
I felt a little like a fraud in a few other sessions, too, like the session on emerging drug trends and the session on treating binge eating disorder. The other counselors nodded knowingly and shared their own stories from the trenches. Having no clients with binge eating disorder or a current dependence on a drug other than nicotine, really, I took notes frantically to save for later. Someday, that client will be sitting across from me, and I’m determined to be as prepared as possible so that I don’t feel like a fraud.
At the same time, I realized that I am really starting to feel like a counselor now. I have my little caseload, I have paperwork, and I have a few stories from the trenches, too. Another session that resonated deeply focused on establishing professional counselor identity. We discussed the importance of a strong identity for all counselors, because it keeps the field as a whole strong, vital, and in the public mind.
During the session, I began to think about my own recent job hunt. Although I couldn’t apply for most of them, I kept my eyes open for counseling positions just to get a sense of the field. I realized two things: many jobs are labeled as “counselor” jobs but aren’t, and many jobs use counseling skills but aren’t labeled as such. Seeing listings for “counselors” that required a degree in social work stung a bit, but seeing listings for college positions that relied heavily on counseling skills without calling them such reminded me that I have something really valuable to offer employers.
I realized by the end of the session that I’ve done a pretty good job of forming a professional identity as a counselor. I read the literature, participate in conferences and other events, network with other counselors, and--most importantly for me--write about counseling a whole lot. All of these things have helped me develop that strong identity. Even in my current job as a fundraiser, I still feel like a counselor--and pitched my unique people skills as an advantage during the interview process for my job.
For any counseling students or new counselors out there reading this, I challenge you to do the same in forming a professional identity. We sometimes go through a lot of our programs feeling like we’re playing at the role of counselor instead of actually feeling like one, but one day we’ll wake up and realize, holy cow, we really are counselors! Our field is changing quickly to keep up with changes in society, and as the next generation of counselors, we will define what it means to be a counselor and have the responsibility to keep the field vital and relevant. Keep reading, writing, and talking about what being a counselor means and how we can shape the field in the future, and encourage your classmates to do the same. Doing so strengthens identity more quickly and creates connection among counselors. And I’ve found that it closes that gap between the 4% of what I know and the other 96% a little more quickly, too!
Kristen Eckhardt is a counselor-in-training at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, completing her internship this year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Read more about her experiences and her takes on counseling issues at www.feetintwoworlds.wordpress.com.