Building Awareness of How our Identities Impact our Clients and our Work. By Maura Huebl
There has been hesitance on my part regarding the writing of this blog as another white presenting, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied woman in the counseling field (yes, my identity is more nuanced than this, but it’s my privileged locations that are causing the hesitation so I will name them from the very beginning). What if I say the wrong thing? What if my privilege shows? What if my implicit bias sneaks in? The truth is, I likely will say the wrong thing, some of my privilege will always be visible, and my implicit bias will likely make an appearance. Allowing these worries to stop my writing protects my shame, which prevents my ability to continue doing my work and my ability to focus on promoting social justice and honoring diversity and multiculturalism in the counseling relationship and the counseling field.
We can’t look at the world without seeing systems of power, whether we are aware of what we are seeing or not. Our mental health is being impacted by the interplay between these systems and our social/cultural identities, thus it is crucial that we are addressing this in the counseling setting to prioritize the health of our clients as well as serve a much larger change and healing that is needed in our society. My desire runs deep to be part of this change and I engage from my heart, but sometimes the emotional labor and my whiteness make me feel fragile and avoidant of the work. With the support of my self-care practices and a strong professional network (shout out to the Whole Connection team and all of my CU Denver people!), I push through those moments and remember the code of ethics I adopted as a counselor:
“Counselors are expected to advocate to promote changes at the individual, group, institutional, and societal levels that improve the quality of life for individuals and groups and remove potential barriers to the provision or access of appropriate services being offered” (American Counseling Association, 2014, p.3).
So, what does advocacy look like? Well, that full conversation is much larger than this blog post, and by all means let’s keep having it. (Seriously! Let’s talk more over a cup of coffee. Send me an invite and a place to meet in Denver or Boulder.) What this blog post is large enough to contain is a glimpse into how I have approached my first steps regarding this call to advocacy.
IDENTITY - I walk into each counseling session as Maura, and I carry many locations of identity with me everywhere I go. Some of them have power and are privileged, and some of them do not. But have I looked closely enough at how these locations move throughout the world to be aware of how they show up when I have the added power of being in the counselor's seat?
Early on in my counseling education, I was blessed to find myself in a classroom with Dr. Carmen Braun Williams at the University of Colorado at Denver and she set my self-reflection in motion with Pamela Hays’ ADDRESSING Model (2008). I believe this was the best way for me to increase awareness about how my intersections of identity function in spaces of privilege and oppression. So with Hays’ comment that “by recognizing the areas in which [therapists] are members of dominant groups, [they] become more aware of the ways in which such identities can limit their knowledge and experience” (2008), I set out to do my work. Fortunately, Hays’ made the framework quite simple with the ADDRESSING acronym.
Here is my example:
Age and generational Influences - I am the oldest of the millennial generation.
Developmental Disability - I am able-bodied, able-minded, and really just super ABLE.
Disabilities acquired later in life - I have experienced chronic back pain that caused debilitation.
Religion and spiritual orientation - I was raised in a progressive Christian household, and now consider myself to be spiritual.
Ethnicity and racial identity - I am a white Chicana - mixed race and deeply rooted in the history of CO and Northern NM.
Socioeconomic status - I was born into, and still am lower middle class.
Sexual Orientation- I am heterosexual.
Indigenous heritage - I am not registered with any Native American tribal groups.
National Origin - My family has had United States citizenship for multiple generations.
Gender - I am a cisgender woman using she/her/hers pronouns.
What intersections of identity are missing? Here are a few that I added and feel free to add any that feel important for you as well.
Body - My spirit inhabits a fat body.
Education - I have multiple post-baccalaureate degrees.
I kept this brief in respect to the blog format, but what can be done here is anything but… There are many questions to take into consideration once listing out each location. Here are a few:
Where do I hold privilege and how might these areas affect my work?
How have these cultural influences shaped who I am, how I see myself, how I see my clients, and how my clients see me?
How have they influenced my comfort level with other groups?
What kind of assumptions might be made regarding my visible identities? How have I made assumptions about other visible identities?
How can I go about seeking spaces to further develop my awareness of biases that may exist because of my privileged identities?
Multicultural mindfulness and multicultural competence ask us to have a regular practice of asking ourselves these questions (i.e. journaling about them, consulting about them, working on them in our own counseling relationships, and constantly returning to a process of checking in with ourselves since everything shifts as society changes). Taking into consideration the ACA Code of Ethics, Section 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 into clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature” (2014, p.5), the call for continued self-reflection will never be done. Especially since I find it is my implicit biases that barge into the counseling relationship most frequently. Let’s continue to try and make the unconscious conscious! Make it a habit. Learn to revere the process. The work of developing awareness about our values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors makes us better counselors. If you have already started this identity work, keep going! There is more to uncover. If you haven’t started, get to it! You can do it! I’m here for support if you want some.
As I encourage us all to keep going, and as I invite you to join me in the conversation, I will leave you with these last words from Pamela Hays:
“Although it may never be possible to completely escape the influence of societal biases, it is possible to gain an awareness and knowledge base that can help individuals recognize the influence of these biases on ourselves and others. Such awareness and knowledge increase the likelihood that individuals’ decisions, beliefs, and behaviors will be conscious and well-informed. The key lays in one’s commitment to assessing—on an ongoing basis—one’s own experiences, beliefs, values, knowledge, and information sources.” (Hays, 2008)
I admire the work you do!
Hays, P. A. (2008). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy. (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
American Counseling Association (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Dr. Carmen Braun Williams: Writings and edited books regarding ethics in a multicultural setting
Kimberlé Crenshaw: More on Intersectionality in this video
Check out the Relational Cultural counseling theory and ideas of “power with”
Use Janet Helms’ Racial Identity Development model to explore all of our identity locations