WRITTEN BY Kathleen Choe
The horse doesn’t know who the client is! This is precisely why those of us offering healing services in this field, must make personal healing, growth, and insight a priority. This is one of the most important articles we have ever released and makes it very clear what underlies ethical and effective therapy, counseling, and coaching. Thank you Kathleen!
– Bettina Shultz-Jobe, NL co-founder
Qualified to Counsel
By Kathleen Choe
In the course of my practice as a Natural Lifemanship Certified Equine Assisted Psychotherapist and Natural Lifemanship trainer, I am frequently asked a variation of the following question by those seeking to enter the EAP field: “How do I know if I’m too damaged/broken/messed up/traumatized to be an effective counselor (or equine professional)?” My immediate response is always how encouraged I am that they are even asking this question, as it reveals a necessary level of self-awareness and humility which are two essential qualities for being an effective mental health provider. (It is the people to whom the question does not even occur that I actually worry about). While graduate-level programs in counseling are supposed to serve a gatekeeping function to weed out students who may need to delay or re-consider entering the profession, and licensing boards are further tasked with protecting the public from mental health professionals who knowingly or unknowingly harm rather than help their clients, aspiring, as well as established counselors and equine professionals, may want to consider the following factors in assessing their readiness/continued suitability to offer mental health services to others:
One cannot understand the unique experience of being a client unless one has actually been a client. We are not objective enough to rationally and realistically observe ourselves and the impact our experiences, particularly those early in our childhood, have had on our growth and development. The vulnerability of sitting in a waiting room after having filled out paperwork asking intrusive questions of a very personal nature, to see a stranger we have never met yet who will hear our deepest, darkest, most shame-filled utterances is an experience we need to keep fresh in our memories in order to meet our clients in that exposed, tender, sacred space with gentleness and respect for the tremendous risk these people are taking by even walking through our doors. The most effective therapists I know have an established relationship with their own personal counselor whom they check in with at regular intervals, whether that means weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly, depending on what they together determine is an appropriate level of support at any given time. Horses quickly discern dysregulation in a human and do not discriminate between the therapy team and the client; your equine partner will react not only to your client’s incongruence but also to any unfinished work you have to do yourself as well.
Whether you practice counseling from an attachment perspective or not, your attachment style, or the way you relate to yourself and others, is heavily influenced and shaped by your earliest interactions with your caregivers in infancy, and will have a tremendous impact on how you respond (or react) to your clients, horses, and other members of your therapy team. If you have an insecure attachment pattern that you have not recognized and done some work on understanding how it might influence your interactions with others (see point #1), you may get triggered by certain clients who activate coping strategies you developed earlier in life to keep yourself safe. Whether you lean towards an entangled, dismissive or disorganized attachment pattern, the goal is to continue working towards an earned secure attachment from which you can relate to yourself and others from a centered, compassionate, grounded, non-reactive stance. Cradled By Therapy is an excellent article on this topic.
Transference is when a client projects his or her feelings and perceptions onto the therapist, and counter-transference is when the therapist does this back onto the client. Both occurrences are inevitable in the counseling process, but it is the therapist’s responsibility to recognize when this is happening (see point #1) and bring the transference dynamic to the client’s awareness to explore how this unconscious process is affecting his or her relationships outside of the counseling office while managing the counter-transference dynamic so that it doesn’t sabotage the therapeutic process. When doing EAP there are even more moving parts as it relates to these concepts, as transference and counter-transference can also occur with the horse and within your therapy team. Self-awareness is key as we help our clients recognize and unpack projections, as we contain and process counter-transference, and as we model a healthy relationship between the mental health and equine professional.
This applies both to yourself, your clients, the therapy team, and your horses. Experiencing any type of trauma (and some would argue, who hasn’t?) does not disqualify a person from entering the counseling field, in fact, personal suffering can deepen our appreciation of and capacity for empathy for our client’s suffering. We do not have to have experienced exactly the same types of trauma our clients did in order to have a baseline of understanding for how they have been impacted, as we generally share similar neurobiological wiring and responses to fear and pain as humans. How our brains developed, and our personalities were shaped, however, will depend a great deal on the type of environment we come from (beginning in the womb), as well as our basic personality type, heredity, access to support, and ongoing life experiences. Having a coherent narrative of your life up until this point, especially about your childhood experiences, is essential to having an organized attachment style and the ability to contain your own trauma material when necessary to work effectively with a client (see point #1). The Natural Lifemanship Institute offers a variety of both live and online trainings with life-changing content concerning the science of neurodevelopment and the essential ingredients of trauma-informed care.
There may be clients you refer to other professionals when their particular presenting issues are potentially triggering for you or are outside of your scope of expertise and training. We cannot be the “right fit” for all the clients seeking our services. With the explosion of research and new information emerging daily about the origins and best treatment practices for various mental disorders, it is increasingly difficult to be a generalist in the counseling field any longer. Our responsibility as therapists and equine professionals is to make sure each client gets the best help possible, and this may require referring to a colleague who specializes in a particular area. This is particularly important in the field of EAP, as many clients seek this alternative form of therapy as a last resort. Additionally, in this field, making referrals can be difficult because often other programs that offer EAP services are not available. Nonetheless, understanding your limitations, working within your scope of practice, establishing clear social contracts with your clients, and setting realistic expectations for vulnerable populations is key. There are also times when we simply cannot contain our own trauma material sufficiently to remain effective with particular client populations. After my most recent assault, I stopped taking referrals for new clients presenting with this issue and was careful to seek peer consultation when working with clients with assault histories already on my caseload to deal with the inevitable triggers and counter-transference that surfaced during sessions to minimize the impact on my ability to continue to do good work. Of course, I sought personal therapy as well (see point #1).
While therapists often preach self-care to their clients, they are notoriously poor at practicing this themselves. I added the word “effective” because self-care can seem like an oxymoron as it is not always relaxing and soothing; it can be very hard work at times (going to the gym or the dentist come to mind). Generally, the four areas I explore with clients are (1) Nutrition (2) Movement (3) Sleep and (4) Stress Management. I challenge therapists to have a self-care plan in each of these areas. (If self-care is a challenge for you, see point #1).
The counseling profession can be extremely isolating. Even in a group practice or agency setting, counselors usually work alone in offices, spending hours each day listening to trauma-filled stories of people in extreme pain. Due to confidentiality constraints, counselors cannot share the content of these stories or any other identifying information with others. Supervision, mentorship, and consultation are all effective ways to seek support and input from colleagues in the field who can objectively offer guidance for difficult cases and validation when we feel overwhelmed or stuck. Another powerful avenue is seeking support from a personal counselor (see point #1). The Natural Lifemanship model of EAP involves a team approach to counseling by pairing a mental health professional with an equine professional to better serve the client (and equine!). Working as a team buffers some of the stress and isolation that solo practitioners may experience, providing opportunities for support during the session and debriefing afterward. The equine member of the team both offers (and requires) support as well!
While the capacity for empathy and a desire to help others are certainly necessary qualifiers for anyone interested in becoming a therapist, wishing to do good and being qualified to do so are very different things. While effective therapists tend to have good intuition and discernment, these alone do not prepare a person to be a skilled and effective counselor. There is a body of knowledge, including information about human growth and development, theories about personality development and how people change, ethics and laws governing the profession, etc. that provides a solid foundation for a would-be counselor to learn and integrate into their own personal style of providing therapy. Most graduate programs require their students to participate in their own personal counseling (see point #1).
The desire to become a therapist is often borne out of a personal experience with trauma that we wish to help others avoid or overcome. It is imperative that we not seek to heal ourselves by trying to help others heal. We need to have done significant work on our own issues before we presume to help others with theirs. This does not mean that we need to be “perfectly” healed. Some of our issues may remain a struggle for a lifetime. I believe the standard for therapists and equine professionals is “sufficient recovery” which means that our issues do not interfere with but actually inform and inspire our work with others.
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