Mental health counseling is one of those rare professions that requires authenticity of the practitioner in order for the work to be effective. Even as we encourage our clients to live deeper, richer, healthier lives, this encouragement falls flat if we as counselors cannot or are unwilling to do the same. A good friend and mentor told me, “We can only take our clients as far as we are willing to go ourselves.” I think this sentiment embodies the concept of authenticity in practice, and is one of the foundations of counselor education, as it incorporates so many other concepts related to the work we do.
Authenticity resonates on so many levels of counselor education; it demands that we be willing to confront our lives and ourselves. During my coursework and training in clinical mental health counseling, I often had to turn inward, attempting to understand the dynamics at play within myself as much as I ever did my clients. Yet self-awareness is only part of this process, because authenticity then means applying the same knowledge to myself that I would offer to my clients such that growth takes place. That is perhaps one of the mysteries of being an authentic therapist; you cannot be involved in the work of changing others’ lives without experiencing change in yours as well. And what an unexpected gift to a counselor that is!
I believe that when we as counselors are living authentically, the therapy we do can be truly “client centered.” Our ability to connect and empathize with clients can be unhindered by any potentially progress-frustrating personal dynamics that we may bring to the relationship. The therapeutic relationship can be reinforced by clients getting our full focus, knowledge and perception, allowing us to apply our full skills to the therapeutic work. By others’ example, I came to realize what so many others have learned: that I am as valuable a tool to the work I do as any theory or technique that may be applied to a client’s problem – but that I am a tool that must be continually honed and calibrated.
Moreover, this process of honing and calibrating involves maintaining an intellectual curiosity that continually motivates new learning. Being an authentic counselor means being able to seek out and acquire those skills that will help us to take clients to where they want to go, because any practice is more than just a clinician’s internal dynamics. It is also the ability to apply the theory or technique best suitable to a client and the therapeutic relationship. Authenticity should drive us to pursue knowledge and understanding, so that lack of knowledge or experience does not put the client at a disadvantage.
I believe that to serve others as a counselor is a rare opportunity. Ours is a profession of authentic purpose, and as such it requires authentic living and practice from we who have chosen it. Here’s to living more authentically each day!