How Self-Awareness Makes You a Better Counselor

As a counselor, you are trained to observe your client’s behavior. It is equally important for the counselor to look within.

One of the most effective tools you will use, as a counselor, is your self-awareness. Self-awareness is having an objective knowledge about your strengths and areas in need of growth, within your personality.

In a therapeutic session, this perspective allows the counselor to question his or her own thoughts, feelings, and biases. Without this process, counselors may react to their own and their client’s subconscious programming.

Increasing your self-awareness, helps you become a more effective counselor in how you relate to your clients. This skill can advance your professional and personal development.

What is Countertransference?

It is important to address any kind of unconscious or conscious transference in the therapeutic relationship. This helps maintain appropriate therapeutic limits and allows you to offer empathic care to the client.

It is normal, as a counselor, to have positive or negative feelings towards your client. Countertransference often begins as unresolved issues related to the counselor’s family or cultural upbringing. When counselors become aware of these internal reactions and gain understanding from them, they become more successful counselors. Without proper understanding, countertransference can interfere with the therapy process.

Listed is the ethical code from the American Psychological Association (2017) regarding competence, personal problems, and conflicts.

APA 2.06 Personal Problems and Conflicts

“Psychologists refrain from initiating an activity when they know or should know that there is a substantial likelihood that their personal problems will prevent them from performing their work-related activities in a competent manner.

When psychologists become aware of personal problems that may interfere with their performing work-related duties adequately, they take appropriate measures, such as obtaining professional consultation or assistance and determining whether they should limit, suspend or terminate their work-related duties. (See also Standard 10.10, Terminating Therapy.)”

How to Recognize and Avoid Biases

When counselors are engaged and working to increase awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, and biases, this will benefit the therapeutic relationship and avoid harm to the client. Knowing your personality and biases, allows you to manage your internal reaction and stay present with the client.

This is stated in The American Counseling Association Code of Ethics (2014) A.4. Avoiding Harm and Imposing Values:

A.4.a. Avoiding Harm and Imposing Values

“Counselors act to avoid harming their clients, trainees, and research participants and to minimize or to remedy unavoidable or unanticipated harm.”

A.4.b. Personal Values

“Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.”

When diagnosing mental disorders, the American Counseling Association’s Ethical Codes (2014) E.5.c. Historical and Social Prejudices in the Diagnosis of Pathology states,

“Counselors recognize historical and social prejudices in the misdiagnosis and pathologizing of certain individuals and groups and strive to become aware of and address such biases in themselves or others.”

Having and Maintaining Competency

A part of competency is having the awareness of your skillset and admitting that you may not be qualified to work with certain client issues or populations. This does not make you less of a counselor. It is impossible for counselors to know about all topics in psychology.

Some of your clients may benefit from having other supportive services in addition to the therapy you offer. When you refer a client for additional services, obtain a release of information between yourself and the other provider to effectively coordinate care. If you determine you do not have the appropriate training or experience to work with a certain client issue, your client would need to be transferred to another therapist.

Various ethical codes from the American Counseling Association (2014) outline professional competence and also highlight the importance of maintaining competency throughout the professional career of the psychotherapist.

C.2.a. Boundaries of Competence

“Counselors practice only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience. Whereas multicultural counseling competency is required across all counseling specialties, counselors gain knowledge, personal awareness, sensitivity, dispositions, and skills pertinent to being a culturally competent counselor in working with a diverse client population.”

C.2.b. New Specialty Areas of Practice

“Counselors practice in specialty areas new to them only after appropriate education, training, and supervised experience. While developing skills in new specialty areas, counselors take steps to ensure the competence of their work and protect others from possible harm.”

C.2.c. Qualified for Employment

“Counselors accept employment only for positions for which they are qualified given their education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience.

Counselors hire for professional counseling positions only individuals who are qualified and competent for those positions.”

C.2.d. Monitor Effectiveness

“Counselors continually monitor their effectiveness as professionals and take steps to improve when necessary. Counselors take reasonable steps to seek peer supervision to evaluate their efficacy as counselors.”

C.2.e. Consultations on Ethical Obligations

“Counselors take reasonable steps to consult with other counselors, the ACA Ethics and Professional Standards Department, or related professionals when they have questions regarding their ethical obligations or professional practice.”

C.2.f. Continuing Education

“Counselors recognize the need for continuing education to acquire and maintain a reasonable level of awareness of current scientific and professional information in their fields of activity.

Counselors maintain their competence in the skills they use, are open to new procedures and remain informed regarding best practices for working with diverse populations.”

Using Transference to Help Your Client Grow

Clients often subconsciously transfer feelings towards someone in their past, onto the therapist. It is important for the therapist to maintain proper boundaries and self-awareness to recognize this common phenomenon. Often, client transference originates from their unresolved family issues and cultural upbringing.

One way to increase your self-awareness is through education. Research what types of reactions clients have with certain diagnoses. This way you will be more prepared in session when you encounter them.

As a counselor, you can decrease a client’s defensiveness when you point out your client’s transference in a reflective and empathetic manner. Rather than avoiding transference, which arises naturally, the counselor can utilize these feelings within themselves to direct and inform the work with the client. A part of the counselor’s job is to identify transference and interpret it to your client. Any transference can help your client gain awareness of their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

When transference happens, your job as the counselor is to not get caught up or attached to what is happening. Your own self-awareness can help act as a mirror, reflecting back to the client his or her emotions. It is best to have a curious attitude rather than a judgmental one when working with clients.

Remember that we all have preconceptions that can interfere with seeing each other clearly. Counselors and clients are going to be affected by one another.

Remember Your “Why”

Counselors can encounter doubts with their career choice as a counseling student, early in their careers, and even after many years of practice. Self-awareness can serve the counselor not only clinically but also personally.

Accessing this inner knowledge helps you connect with the reasons why you wanted to be a counselor in the first place. This reminds you why you chose to go to school or enter the field.

You may find your initial reason for entering the counseling field is not the same one as today. It is not unusual for your values to change over the time of your career. As you gain more experience, you grow and shift.

When you remember your “why,” you find purpose in the work you do. Your purpose becomes your professional identity. Knowing your personal “why” reminds you to hang in there when the clinical work gets tough and you need to find your direction again.

Four Ways to Build Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is one of those concepts that sounds easy, yet can be challenging to practice. Counselors can start by increasing self-care, practicing mindfulness or meditation, journaling, and seeking out support.

1. Increase Self-Care – NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals Code of Ethics (2021) Principle III: Personal Responsibilities and Workplace Standards states,

“III‐18 Self‐Monitoring: Providers shall engage in self‐care activities that promote and maintain their physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual well‐being.”

Self-care boundaries help you increase self-awareness by creating a distinct line between your inner experiences and those of your client. The more you care for yourself, the better able you are to be present and conduct therapy for others. It is important to give yourself times of silence and space away from the counseling work you do, in order to process and integrate. Make five to ten minutes each day to connect within, without any distractions.

2. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation – Mindfulness helps counselors become reflective rather than reactive, by keeping their focus on the present moment. This allows counselors the opportunity to release any triggering material from the client.

Mindfulness allows you to become aware of your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, which could contaminate the counseling process. The more aware you are, the better able you can identify these sensations and thoughts as they arise. With this understanding, you can choose to release whatever internal blocks you have and move onto the next course of action.

Mindfulness and meditation help you learn how to observe your own thoughts and feelings without attaching a personal meaning to them. If you find you are having difficulty letting go of a certain sensation, thought, or feeling, take a mental or handwritten note of your reaction and revisit it later.

3. Journal Writing – Writing can help you reduce negative thoughts, emotions, and biases by focusing your internal experience outside of yourself onto the page. If you have made a notation during the session, later in the day you can explore your thoughts and feelings more in-depth through journaling.

After you have completed your writings, choose an alternative form of action through self-care, supervision, or your own counseling.

4. Connect with Support – It can often be helpful to gain an objective opinion from other counselors, whether it is through professional supervision, peer supervision, or your own counseling. Utilize professional and peer supervision, especially with challenging cases. Supervision sessions can help you identify countertransference and transference. Obtaining your own counseling can help you gain a different perspective, while you connect more in-depth with your feelings, thoughts, and biases. Cognitive-behavioral and affective techniques can help you reduce biased thoughts and emotions.

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She works for professionals who want to treat and prevent compassion fatigue. With over 18 years of psychotherapy experience, she helps her clients assert themselves, set boundaries, and increase their coping skills. Her specialty is decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing realistic methods of self-care for those who help others. Ms. Hutchison’s psychological advice has been featured in Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines, including Grief Digest and Today’s Caregiver.

Lisa is the bestselling author of I Fill My Cup: A Journal for Compassionate Helpers and a faculty member writer for NetCE. Her latest continuing education unit publication is “Setting Ethical Limits for Caring and Competent Professionals.” She has taught creative writing in colleges and presented on boundaries for the compassionate helper; the use of expressive art to heal grief, anxiety, and depression; inspirational and motivational topics; and creative writing techniques.