Confessions of a Counselor
What the Resiliency Literature Has Shown Me

by Craig Noonan, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
(Reprinted from the book, Resiliency In Action

As the newest editor at Resiliency In Action, my goal is to expand the focus of RIA into the realm of counseling and therapy. This is consistent with my life’s work as a counselor and therapist in a variety of settings: I have worked with adolescents, adults, and families experiencing a variety of problems, including alcohol and other drug use, mental health issues, relationship problems, being HIV positive, and problems connected to behavioral medicine, in schools, community agencies, medical clinics, and hospitals.

The resiliency literature offers an alternative and more positive paradigm for viewing and working with clients than I have observed in much of my practice. Unfortunately, most counselors and therapists are trained and taught to view clients primarily from a pathological or deficit perspective, focusing on assessment of problems. Rarely are counselors taught how to identify, appreciate, and utilize client strengths. As a result, all too often I have observed that counselors (including myself, at times) provide ineffective and even counterproductive services because of agendas, roles, and systems that restrain their humanity, are not research-based, and do not meet the needs of their clients.

I have seen clients blamed and labeled for their counselors’ failures to provide effective counseling or to even establish a positive relationship. I have had clients tell me about being burdened and limited by counselors’ low expectations regarding their ability to overcome the adversity in their lives or to succeed in specific activities. The really sad part of this situation is that most of these counselors are well-intentioned and only wish the best for their clients. I know that I have always been similarly well- intentioned and yet I, too, have fallen victim to some of the above practices at times.

The resiliency literature provides counselors with a more effective and personally satisfying way to work with and relate to their clients. I am specifically concerned with incorporating the six protective conditions associated with resiliency (caring and support, high expectations, meaningful opportunities for involvement, pro-social bonding, clear and consistent boundaries, and “life skills”) into counseling relationships so as to encourage the growth of resiliency in clients (see The Resiliency Quiz for more information on these six conditions). There is a robust body of research literature in the counseling and therapy fields supporting the importance of “therapist factors” (level of empathy, view of client, etc.) and the therapeutic relationship in promoting positive change. Although this literature does not often use the word “resiliency,” the power of the protective conditions mentioned above is at its heart.

I am also committed to helping counselors view client problems as just that–a presently occurring scenario upon the landscape of an entire human being, not the sum total of who the person is or can be. I have learned my most important lessons about the power of protective conditions and the limitations of diagnostic labels from my clients.

I remember a client in one group that I ran who had a history of torturing and killing small animals as a child, was very guarded and suspicious in all of his relationships, and displayed no empathy for other group members. Shortly after becoming a group member, his behavior terrified the other members of the group so much that he had to be removed for a short period of individual counseling and stabilization. When he returned to the group he remained largely uninvolved and withdrawn until he began doing volunteer work for the Red Cross assisting people who were experiencing catastrophes to access services. Within a month or two of beginning this work, he became an empathic and involved group member–often providing positive and empathic feedback to other group members. Other members of the group were astounded at the changes in him and became more hopeful regarding their own growth.

Sadly, when he lost his Red Cross position I saw him return to his former withdrawn and nonempathic behavior, though he did not again become threatening to the group. When I left the group, he and the new group leader were working hard at trying to reinvolve him in some new service-oriented volunteer work. My client had recognized its value himself and was seeking a new position.

Counselors need to know about protective factors, and the power of a diagnostic approach that focuses on a more complete picture of the people they counsel. With this knowledge, they can look for individual strengths and environmental protective conditions, nurture them, and try to facilitate their growth in the lives of their clients. This will no doubt result in changes in how we do our work, and how we view the people who come to us. I agree with the wisdom of Dennis Salleebey, D.S.W., who writes in The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice (Longman, 1997):

To really practice from a strengths perspective demands a different
way of seeing clients, their environments, and their current situation.
Rather than focusing on problems, your eye turns toward possibility.
In the thicket of trauma, pain, and trouble you can see blooms of
hope and transformation….Clients come into view when you assume
that they know something, have learned lessons from experience,
have hopes, have interests, and can do some things masterfully. These
may be obscured by the stresses of the moment, submerged under the
weight of crisis, oppression, or illness, but, nonetheless, they abide (p.3 & p.12)