Last week in my counseling and professional identity class, a class I should have taken four quarters ago, we spent a good hour and a half debating what we should call ourselves: counselors or therapists? I like therapist, personally, and was more than a bit frustrated that we’d spent so much time splitting hairs, focused on semantics rather than content. At my current tuition rate, this inane conversation cost me approximately $150. Yes, we are studying in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. And yes, as a group, we are referred to as counselors. But on a daily basis, in my practice, I will call myself a therapist.
Evidently, in the fine state of California, the marriage and family therapist lobby has legally taken the name of therapist for themselves. No one can call themselves a therapist if they are not, in fact, a licensed MFT. But I do not live and practice in California. Nor do I plan to.
Some of my classmates (well, one in particular) thought that therapist reeked of white, upper class privilege. She actually looked across the classroom at me and said something to the effect of “therapy implies rich housewives going to whine about their lives once a week.” Others in the class thought therapist has a negative, destructive connotation, as in electroshock therapy and reparative therapy.
I tried not to take these opinions personally, but I do use the term therapy when I go to see my Licensed Mental Health Counselor once a week. I do not go to whine about my life, however. I go seeking healing and strategies for making my life richer and more meaningful. I go to get help making sense of my history, to learn how it impacts me now. I go to figure out how I can be happier, more fulfilled, less stressed. In short, I seek therapy in order to heal and live better.
In fact, the root of the word, thera, traced back to its origins means “forward” “progress” and “healing,” all of which make me want to be a therapist, to call myself a therapist, even more. To be someone who helps others move forward, to progress, and to heal? Sign me up.
Counselor, on the other hand, to my ear sounds like someone who gives advice, and, in particular, legal advice. Or, like a school counselor–someone who talks to children who have misbehaved. If there’s one thing I don’t want to do it’s work with children. And, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my five quarters of school, it’s that we counselors/therapists are not to dispense advice. We are to listen, to guide, to inquire, to reflect, to mirror, to ask questions, but we are not to give advice or tell our clients what they should or should not do.
The American Counselors Association (ACA) Code of Ethics tells us that we are to avoid imposing our values on clients (Section A.4.b.) What is advice if not an imposition of values?
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what I call myself if I practice in Washington State. I can get my degree in mental health counseling and call myself a therapist or I can call myself a counselor. I can see upper middle class white housewives or I can see lower socioeconomic white people. I can see whoever wants to come and sit across from me and tell me their struggles. I can offer them a chance to heal, a way forward, a path of progress. I can give them therapy.