An article by Fiona Griffith
Who are we and where do we belong?
In my practice as a counsellor, a profession embedded in reflective practice, I’ve often found it insightful to reflect on the principles of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development to help frame our human quest for deep connection to self and others. This lifelong process of discovery towards meaning is a pathway for my clients, for myself as a counsellor and myself as a supervisor. As a reflective tool regarding the state of the counselling profession in Australia, the adolescent existential tasks of, “Who am I and where do I belong?” seem to be pertinent and resonates with what I am experiencing as a counsellor of nearly 20 years. Various discussions with colleagues over the past few years point to us floundering in role confusion and a sense of isolation. The existence of a real uncertainty about our professional status and role as counsellors suggests we have some unblocking of ‘arrested professional development’ to do.
The identity of counsellors has been a long time maturing in Australia. Before the 1980’s, counselling training in Australia was often delivered as an adjunct to other professions. Counselling was viewed as a professional set of skills rather than a profession in its own right. The term ‘counsellor’ was routinely attached as a descriptive addition to the label for some other professional activity (rather than being a single standalone term). In 1998, recognition of counselling as a profession arguably began with the creation of two peak Counselling Associations (PACFA and ACA) and then the joint establishment of the national register of counsellors, ARCAP (O’Hara & O’Hara 2015 p. 9) However, the academic recognition of counselling as singular profession did not magically transform the understanding by the public at large of counselling as a profession. Non-inclusion in the Better Health Access Scheme (some 15 years ago), dealt a serious blow to the relevance and standing of the counselling profession in Australia. Our task remains to resolve the confusion that still plays out across other professions, institutions and the general public. “The primary issue confronting the profession is one of recognition”, (O’Hara & O’Hara 2015 p,11). Four years on, my experience has been that no matter how vigorously we ‘wave our arms’, too often we are still simply not visible enough when in the company of other helping professions, organisations and government.
For example, I recall a recent case involving an Australian university, currently providing a Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy, which advertised for counsellors for their student support program and interviewed only those with social work or psychology qualifications. I have attended professional development events in Australia where presenters ask for a show of hands of those present who are psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and mental health nurses, and fail to ask if there are any counsellors present. I feel a small consolation whenever I hear presenters from the UK and the US seeking to identify counsellors in a show of hands. I now recognise that this Australian bias of not recognising counsellors, has led us into a position in which we seek professional validation from elements outside our profession. Unfettered, such an external locus of control is indeed disempowering and self-sabotaging. Thankfully, the PACFA College of Counsellors, our community of counsellors, is beginning to take these developmental tasks on for the Australian Counselling Profession, in a very practical way.
Where there is scope there is hope
The formation of the PACFA College of Counselling has set the stage for a clear and secure foundation to be built for the counselling profession in Australia. PACFA has worked hard, recruiting external academic consultants and consulting widely to develop the PACFA Scope of Practice for Registered Counsellors. The College of Counselling Leadership group were heavily involved, taking the role of a reference group in developing the final document. The Scope details the definition of what PACFA registered counsellors do, how they do it, how the profession is regulated and what Australian training standards apply (AQF 7 and above). The arrival of this document has enabled the communication of a clear structural understanding of Professional Counselling to the Australian public, government entities, other professions and not least, each other.
I was excited to be part of the reference group for the Scope. I have no doubt that this document is the beginning of a very organic process and will be further refined as time goes on. That said, at last we have a clear document that creates a grounded and strong identity for the professional body of counsellors; who we are and what binds us together. We can refer to this document and declare that Professional Counsellors are skilled at working with a person-centred paradigm using evidence-based techniques and strategies. This means that counsellors tailor the client sessions to the client’s needs using multiple lenses selected in response to the client’s context and contract clearly for a mutually agreed outcome. The therapeutic relationship anchors the counselling process, no matter which of the diverse modalities and tools we draw from. This scope of practice gives us a way to relate to each other, to belong closely and securely with each other with a sense of trust and confidence. This has made what has seemed intangible, tangible. Likewise, the Scope of Practice anchors the profession:
“Professional counselling is a safe and confidential collaboration between qualified counsellors and clients to promote mental health and wellbeing, enhance self-understanding, and resolve identified concerns. Clients are active participants in the counselling process at every stage.” Scope of Practice for Registered Counsellors (P. 2)
When I first read and understood the document, something profound happened for me. Counselling as a profession had been validated from within. I felt anxiety, confusion and uncertainty slipping away. I realised I had stepped out of the shame that comes from a sense of inadequacy as result of being externally defined all these years. I had found a professional home, a place of meaningful acceptance, a place for counselling. I had gained control over my professional identity. I can only begin to imagine the empowering ripple effect to our clients and the general public of our own shift from role confusion to a solid shared identity.
How can we strengthen the Profession’s presence?
In my view and based on many conversations with colleagues, counselling has a visibility problem. In order to develop a stronger presence in the wider Australian community, we need to have a stronger sense of presence with each other in our counselling community. The establishment of the College of Counselling created an opportunity to connect and collaborate with counsellors on a national level. While college Webinars are ostensibly CPD events, my involvement in them has the additional aim of promoting community, the creation of a ‘safe home’ so we as counsellors can grow more into our profession with confidence, trust and knowing. Using online technology to reach all our members will continue to be an important part of the growth of the Counselling community’s maturity and its empowerment.
In the poem, Our Deepest Fear, Marianne Williamson (1992 Pg. 190-191).) expresses how we humans can sabotage our own success.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful
Beyond measure …
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so
That other people won’t feel insecure
Around you …
This poem leads me to ponder many questions. Could an over-amplification of our deep conviction of holding empathy, make us ‘play small’? Are we perhaps afraid of the success that empowerment may bring? Have we stepped so deeply into ‘other’s shoes’ that we have forgotten our own?
I sense echoes of the meta systems and structures we live in. To what extent are we constrained by the myth of altruism, of helpers being selfless and having no needs? What of the undercurrents, the murmurs and whispers, the reinforcers supporting these myths, such as the gendered socialisation of women and the Australian “tall poppy syndrome”? The majority of the counselling profession in Australia is made up of women. Maybe counselling has remained a largely unrecognised profession because of gendered and other cultural inhibitors: not being too prominent; not ‘beating our own drum; putting other’s needs before your own; careful to not compete with other professions, or ‘’quelle horreur”, compete with other counsellors! Looking for respect has been how males stereotypically find belonging in Australia, woman have searched for acceptance. I propose it’s time to find an intrinsic sense of both respect and acceptance, regardless of gender.
Any value or belief either held rigidly, over or under-done, becomes maladaptive. It’s timely that we attend more deeply and with empathy, to our own professional needs. Let’s recognise ourselves so others can recognise us as professionals in our service to others. In my psychosocial history, in order to get the recognition I needed, I learned to gives others full attention and listen deeply, being quiet and undemanding. This works well for me in some contexts but is not useful in many others, particularly if you need to be seen and taken seriously . How much of our adapted selves is manifested in our profession in Australia? Is this the part we’ve played in our lack of status? As a supervisor, I observe that our continued inner work as professionals requires flexibility in the renewal of the Eriksonian stages; trust (hope), autonomy (will), industry (competence), identity (fidelity), intimacy (love), generativity (care) and integrity (wisdom). I believe a new flexibility is also required by us, so that we may see to our ‘unfinished business’.
Too much tolerance may be another over-amplified quality of our profession. We will remain invisible if we continue to be overly tolerant of our professional status quo. The Scope of Practice provides the opportunity to consistently and robustly assert our professionality. We can make these assertions as individual counsellors and as a counselling community, every time we are left out of the helping conversation, job application or professional training event.
‘Playing small’ (an over-amplification of our professional humility?) does not offer the public and other professionals sufficient confidence in our professional capability. At every opportunity, we need to ‘own’ our title as counsellors and state that our work has distinct and specific parameters. We work alongside, rather than inside, the medical model. Medical diagnosis is not in our scope of practice, even though we have a trained understanding of medical manuals and can speak that language as part of a support team. We address the client’s individual quality of life and work with that uniqueness.
Eriksonian principles state that a sense of Fidelity blooms when identity is established. As professionals we need to belong through our shared identity as counsellors and at the same time, embrace our differences and distinguish ourselves from other professionals. I am inspired by the counsellor’s belief in their client’s capabilities and by the authentic humility required to offer unconditional positive regard. I’m guided by striving towards the challenge of practising highly developed ethical thinking. Above all, I treasure a profession that honours the vulnerability required to co-create the environment which supports personal change and growth. With the strength that comes from knowing who we are and where we belong, we can now better carry and model that vulnerability.
As a member of the Leadership Group of the College of Counselling I invite all counsellors to engage with the PACFA College of Counselling, to belong and collaborate deeply with your counselling community, to grow in professional confidence side by side as counsellors, so that the general public and the outside professional community can experience a deeper confidence in our service.
Griffith., F. 2019 Counselling – Recognising our profession in its own right, Psychotherapy and Counselling Today PACFA Melb Australia
Erikson E. The Life Cycle Completed, W. W. Norton, NY London. 1982
Erikson, Erik H., Erikson, Joan M., The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version, 1998
O’Hara, Denis & O’Hara, Fiona., Counselling and Psychotherapy: Professionalism in the Australian context., PACJA 3rd ED Vol. 3., no. 1 July 2015
PACFA Code of Ethics Melbourne, Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Melbourne (2017)
PACFA Scope of Practice for Registered Counsellors, Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Melbourne (2018)
Williamson, Marianne., A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” USA HarperOne; Chapter 7, Section 3 (Pg. 190-191), 1992