Last week I briefly touched on a few of the challenges rural counselors face regarding maintaining confidentiality and personal privacy. After re-reading an article from the April 2010 issue of Counseling Today on this same topic, I'd like to delve a little deeper.
In the article http://ct.counseling.org/2010/04/learning-the-ropes-of-rural-counseling/ author Jonathan Rollins discusses a sense of “being on display” as a counselor in a small town. The phrase aptly fits. In places like these, word spreads quickly when someone new comes to town. Especially when that someone works at the community mental health clinic. People are curious about you, because that's just how they are. But people also want to know if you're going to be practicing what you preach.
Rollins presents a scenario I myself have experienced: eating out and having a glass of wine with dinner, as someone who also does substance abuse counseling. In a place where drug and alcohol abuse are significant concerns, is it hypocritical of me to drink when in class we talk so much about the negative impacts of alcohol on the body? This is likely to be a bone of contention between myself and my clients – especially those court-ordered for treatment. For those voluntarily recognizing the need to explore the extent of their substance use, they may more readily draw the distinction between responsible alcohol consumption and abuse. At least I like to believe so. Still, I've felt myself a bit more hyper vigilant about how I relax in my downtime when I know so many others may be watching.
In another, perhaps simpler sense, what about exchanging harsh words with your boyfriend at the gas station? Is that ok? What if you're toddler is throwing a tantrum in the frozen food aisle at the grocery?
There's a temptation to think we must strive to be perfect when the lens is focused so sharply on us. We may aim to always be the best we can be, but perfection is unattainable. And worrying what our clients think if they see us in our less-than-perfect moments will quickly ratchet up stress levels in an already stressful occupation.
I prefer to think it's how we handle these things that matters, even if we falter. Let's face it. We aren't always great at observing the “fair fighting” rules we teach in couples therapy. And we don't always have ready command of our Love and Logic parenting techniques when our kids have a meltdown at the store.
But that's just reality, isn't it? We all have our moments.
While this lack of personal privacy thing may be seen as a challenge in small towns, I wonder if there aren't some hidden benefits?
There's a saying (and I have no idea who said it) that goes, “Live your life as if others are always watching.”
If we know others are always watching, can this lead us to being healthier ourselves? Modeling good self care is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps it's good when I run into my clients on a hike, at an art class, or if someone sees me having one glass of wine with dinner. This gives an opportunity to do exactly for myself as I've asked clients to do for themselves. Get out in nature, maintain healthy social connections and, yes, drink responsibly, if you don't suffer from an addiction and there are no legal mandates barring you from doing so.
Sometimes a client will approach me in the community and want to talk about the same challenges we've been tackling together in session. This is yet another opportunity to model, this time appropriate boundaries. I may say something like, “Let's talk about that the next time you and I get together at the office.” This says, we talk about counseling during counseling. At the gas pump we can talk about the price of gas. At the store, we can marvel at the skyrocketing price of that delicious, local, grass-fed beef. There is a time and place to address the more serious, private concerns of our lives. And Saturday at the public skating rink with our families is not that place.
But let's go deeper still. If you are a Person-Center practitioner, as I am, you know that in the session room the key to counseling success is providing Rogers' three imperatives: empathy, unconditional positive regard and authenticity. The last of these, in it's barest sense, means I have to be real.
Any opportunity for clients to observe me in everyday life, allows them to see who I really am.
That means they might see me in less-than-optimal conditions, under strain, angry at my boyfriend or rolling my eyes at my child. This means, in order for the pressure of the lack of small town privacy to not get to me, I have to allow myself to be authentic outside the session room. To be vulnerable in front of people who may be looking up to me.
And when a client sees me struggling with the same or similar situations they struggle with, this achieves another important imperative counselors are trained to impart: the normalizing of difficult life experiences.
So, while it may be a challenge to have so many eyes on you as a small town counselor, it's also an opportunity to connect with and bond in a more meaningful way with our clients. Counselors are not all powerful, perfect professionals up on the health care pedestal.
Stormy Filson is an independently licensed counselor living and working in Wyoming, with special interests in treating trauma, community building, and empowering women. She is also passionate about writing, photography and film.