The way we dress says a great deal about who we are. Counselors, in my opinion, are no different. I recently led a counseling group in a local school for sixth grade boys, and they would come in regularly talking about their “shoe game”. For those of you who don’t know or simply forgot, shoes mean a lot to a middle schooler (and in actuality most adults as well). The young men in my group would trade shoes and take turns wearing each others’ shoes on any given day, so they could appear as if their “shoe game” was up to par. Shoes, they explained, say a great deal about who you are. I don’t recall the exact wording but they further explained my boat shoes told them I was less boring than a teacher, but still an adult. Although still unclear, I took it as a compliment...
What an interesting concept. As those sixth grade boys wanted to relay a certain message via their shoes, counselors typically try to show their clients they are professional but also relatable via the clothes they wear. For me, this ends up looking like button up shirts and khakis. I purposely choose not to wear a tie, and never a suit. Not because my clients are not good enough to dress up for, but because our relationship will hopefully be genuine enough to dress casually. And hopefully, my clients will feel more comfortable because of my attire, not in spite of it. After all, my aim is not to show clients I would like to sell them a nice pre-owned vehicle. I want to show them I would like to relate to and understand them as best as I can.
Mental health clinicians of course have differing opinions when it comes to attire, but I would like to share some of the meaning it has for this counselor specifically. When I dress casually in the counseling room it is part of the relationship I try to build with clients. While I have read volumes about mental health and have trained for many years to hone my skills as an expert in psychology; I can never be an expert on someone else’s life. Only they can claim that role. I believe my job as a counselor is to help this expert better navigate the world they know so well. If I am to be effective in this effort, then I must grasp this person’s perspective. How can I do that to the utmost if I am just some guru training a mental health novice in the mystical ways of the mentally healthy? An exaggeration of course, but nonetheless this is the task at hand: understanding clients as well as possible while forging a collaborative bond to work together towards positive goals.
So am I really still talking about clothes? No. I’m talking about the tightrope counselors walk between professional and human being. In the words of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, “Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul.” It is of course important to be constantly reading, learning, and training, but when in the counseling room the client is what matters. The very human relationship that is happening in real-time is what matters. Understanding a client’s specific strengths and encouraging them to use these strengths, allowing them to tackle life’s struggles with more confidence and grace, best happens in an authentic therapeutic relationship.
Is superficial attire a part of the depth that makes up a counselor’s professional identity? I’ll let you decide, but I am of the opinion that casual counselors do not dress as such because of a view that clients’ difficulties are not worth taking seriously. Casual counselors do so because they do not take themselvestoo seriously. Life is serious. Our clients’ difficulties are serious. We must honor their emotions and experience, but we must also be able to relate and empathize with them to truly do so. Being casual is much more than a style of dress, it is a style of life. I am the casual counselor, but I strive to ensure my counseling relationships are anything but.