Reflection of Feelings: An Essential Counseling Skill; Skill Can Be Particularly Difficult for Recovering Counselors

By Phillipsen, Ed | Addiction Professional, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Reflection of Feelings: An Essential Counseling Skill; Skill Can Be Particularly Difficult for Recovering Counselors


Phillipsen, Ed, Addiction Professional


Successful treatment outcomes are empowering, and when individuals discover they can successfully manage life without drugs, they often experience a sense of exhilaration and gratitude that propels them to explore their options for entry as a professional into the substance abuse treatment field.

As a counselor educator, I receive many inquiries from recovering individuals who wish to begin training for employment as addiction counselors. Generally, they are what are considered in higher education to be non-traditional students. They tend to be in their 30s and 40s, have families and jobs, may have completed some college, and are looking for a career change, but are concerned about their ability to compete successfully with younger students.

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In all areas of the counselor preparation curriculum, individuals in recovery are successful, and are often the best students in class. However, one area in which they struggle is the utilization of the reflection of feeling skill that is basic to many communication models of counseling.

The difficulty recovering counselors-in-training have in using the reflection of feeling skill has its genesis primarily in their prior history of substance abuse. For the most part, individuals use substances as a method of changing the way they feel. When an individual has spent years, perhaps decades, using drugs to avoid uncomfortable emotions, their present ability to identify feelings and give verbal expression to them may be limited.

It is not unusual to hear individuals in treatment question their ability to feel, and express their fear that sobriety will be impossible because of all the attendant emotions that are part of living a drug-free life. For varying periods of time following the completion of treatment, recovering individuals are often tentative about emotion, and unsure about the appropriateness of their feelings. They are hesitant to express emotions, and look to others for validation that the feelings they experience are normal.

This reality causes anxiety for recovering counselors-in-training when they are required, during counseling skills acquisition courses, to reflect the covert emotions of clients.

Beginning counselors-in-training who are not in recovery also seem to have difficulty in reflecting feelings, but for different reasons. The unspoken rules of behavior that structure relationships in the social milieu are often assumed to be required in the counseling milieu. In the social milieu, because the boundaries are different, reflecting another person's unspoken emotion by pointing it out is often considered intrusive and impolite. Thus, counselors-in-training are uncomfortable in the counseling milieu when they perceive themselves to be "telling other people how they feel."

It helps to draw clear distinctions between what is appropriate socially and what is appropriate therapeutically. In the therapeutic milieu, clients are "stuck" when they are unable to identify how they feel about what is happening in their lives. Effective use of the reflection

of feeling skill helps clients gain the self-awareness needed to get "unstuck."

Four methods are useful in reflecting client feelings:

1. Step into the client's shoes.

This approach involves the counselor stepping inside the client's reality and attempting to experience it. As the client describes the unexpected end of an important relationship, the counselor silently asks, "How would I feel if this were going on in my life?" Whatever emotions occur to the counselor are then verbally reflected to the client: "You feel lost and lonely without your partner."

2. Use emotional recall.

Many individuals have common reference points--past experiences that are similar. One example of this is that most people have experienced a romantic relationship end before they were ready for it to end. …

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