When working from a strengths-based perspective, practitioners draw out and highlight the protective factors of their clients. We do this to remind clients of their strengths within that they have previously used to overcome obstacles. Clinicians will use their own theoretical orientations and clinical skills to uncover and process these strengths.
I personally choose to use narrative therapy techniques (Madigan, 2019; Rice, 2015). Storytelling or offering one’s testimony is a very powerful tool, especially for communities of color (Chioneso et al., 2020; French et al., 2020). As I listen to my clients tell their stories about themselves, though I can hear pain, suffering, and blockages, what always stands out to me more are the inspirational moments of these stories: The moment a client leaned on a good friend for support; or the instant they stood up to a bully; or even the time they packed their bags to leave the violence and abuse of their society and journeyed thousands of miles to seek refuge in a new home. Listening between the lines for forgotten story lines of strength, resilience, and creative coping. Bringing attention to these story lines allows the clients to re-author their story from one of weakness and stuckness, to one of resiliency and hope.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized my nearly 15 years as an English teacher has influenced my counseling practice. Yes, as an educator, there are some skills that can transfer to the counseling profession (writing articles for example!). However, I did not realize how the use of the narrative archetype of the hero’s journey (Kaufmann, 2019; Lawson, 2005) or the myth of ancient Greek King Sisyphus (Camus, 1983) can create meaningful moments in counseling work.
I attended the 2021 Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) conference and sat in on a session about using creative strategies to cultivate resilience (Pearson et al., 2021). One of the presenters demonstrated a haiku exercise. I have not thought about haikus since I taught them to about 30 high school freshmen. Suddenly I thought, well no wonder I am drawn to using narrative techniques, or why I have clients use songs or poems to help express their thoughts and feelings, and even why I assign chapters or even whole books to clients. The creative arts techniques are just as valuable to my clients as they were to my students.
Thoughts and memories about techniques I have used with clients flooded my head and I began to write down all the creative and expressive arts techniques I have used. I want to share a very powerful one that I have used with clients and now plan on using with my supervisees. For decades, counseling research shows the effectiveness of using poetry (Gladding, 1979; McNichols & Witt, 2018) in therapy. As an English teacher, I saw the power of poetry in my classroom. I used to teach, amongst other poets, Emily Dickinson. Her life story and worldview connected to many of my students. One of the most meaningful of her poems about hope (Dickinson, 1891) embodies the resilience and strength within each person:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
I have used this poem when working with clients who described feeling like that “little Bird.” The various storms they have experienced have weathered them down and fear they do not have the strength anymore to fly. However, as we work through this poem and process the metaphor in comparison to their life, they begin to recognize that no storm had YET to stop their flight. The recognition of what they have already endured, survived, and thrived allows them to lean into their strengths once again and recognize if they may need additional resources for this current storm. This is the meaning-making moment.
As a newer counselor supervisor, I recognize how these same creative arts techniques can be applied to the supervision experience as well (Deaver & Shiflett, 2011; McNichols & Witt, 2018). My supervisees frequently discuss their anxieties related to feeling inadequate, not having enough clinical competencies, and worrying how this will impact their clients. I feel there is an article written every day on the phenomena of imposter syndrome (Clark et al., 2021). It is real and debilitating. As described in Dickinson’s poem, my supervisees in fact have what they need to ease their anxieties and succeed in their new counseling experience.
My supervisees forget how they have life experiences similar to this one. They forget to lean into these experiences and the protective factors and strengths that have carried them out of these experiences before. As it did for my clients, I believe the Dickinson poem can be used as an exercise to highlight the supervisees’ assets that they can use to ground themselves, reduce their anxieties, and lean into their strengths that have helped them to succeed in difficult situations in the past. They may also be able to find areas for growth to process what else they may need in order to increase their professional identity and development, therefore increasing their assets and improving their self-efficacy.
I plan on continuing to explore techniques and create new ones based on my time and experience as an English teacher. I feel motivated to discover new techniques to support the growth and wellness of my clients and supervisees.
By the way, in case you were wondering, I engaged in the haiku activity at the 2021 ACES conference:
I feel inspired.
I cannot wait to begin.
Camus, A. (1983). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Chioneso, N. A., Hunter, C. D., Gobin, R. L., McNeil Smith, S., Mendenhall, R., & Neville, H. A. (2020). Community healing and resistance through storytelling: A framework to address racial trauma in Africana communities. Journal of Black Psychology, 46(2-3), 95–121. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798420929468
Clark, P., Holden, C., Russell, M., & Downs, H. (2021). The imposter phenomenon in mental health professionals: Relationships among compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction. Contemporary Family Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-021-09580-y
Deaver, S. P., & Shiflett, C. (2011). Art-based supervision techniques. The Clinical Supervisor, 30(2), 257–276. https://doi.org/10.1080/07325223.2011.619456
Dickinson, E. (1891). “Hope” is the thing with feathers. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314
French, B. H., Lewis, J. A., Mosley, D. V., Adames, H. Y., Chavez- Dueñas, N. Y., Chen, G. A., & Neville, H. A. (2020). Toward a psychological framework of radical healing in communities of color. The Counseling Psychologist, 48(1), 14–46. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000019843506
Gladding, S. T. (1979). The creative use of poetry in the counseling process. The Journal of Counseling & Development, 57(6), 285–287. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2164-4918.1979.tb05391.x
Kaufmann, D. A. (2019). Counselor development as the hero’s journey: Reflections from a counselor educator. Journal of Instructional Research, 8(1), 17–32. https://doi.org/10.9743/JIR.2019.1.2
Lawson, G. (2005). The hero’s journey as a developmental metaphor in counseling. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 44, 134–144. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2164-490X.2005.tb00026.x
Madigan, S. (2019). Narrative therapy (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association.
McNichols, C., & Witt, K. J. (2018). The use of poetry in counselor training and supervision. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 31(3), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.1080/08893675.2018.1467820
Pearson, Q., Davis, A., & DaSambiagio-Moore, C. (2021, October 8). Meaning making and mindfulness in counselor education: Creative strategies for fostering student resilience. [Conference session]. Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), Atlanta, GA, United States.
Rice, R. H. (2015). Narrative therapy. In E. S. Neukrug (ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of theory in counseling and psychology 2 (pp.695–700). SAGE Publications, Inc.
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