What Counseling Has Taught Me (Part Two)

Learn to be more effective in your personal and professional life! This is the second installment of how counseling has led to a better understanding of people. Working with addiction and mental illness has gifted me with the capacity to better recognize why people do what they do, which in turn enhances how I relate to others.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

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This is the second installment of how counseling has led me to a better understanding of people. (In Part One, I discussed calmness, silence, active listening, partial truths, and hidden agendas.)

Working with addiction and mental illness has gifted me with the capacity to better recognize why people do what they do, which in turn enhances how I relate to others. As a result, I’m more effective in my personal and professional life. I have a sense of peace and “okayness” in the world.

One thing I hadn’t previously considered was brought up by Quora user and mental health professional, G. Bernard (MA Counseling); he shared that counseling revealed the truth about change. “It has really reinforced that idea that people who want change will work harder to achieve it; those who are forced (legally, by parents, spouse etc.) probably won’t.” I agree with this 100%. People can’t be forced into change; and when they are, their efforts lack fortitude and it doesn’t last. Those who are internally motivated will fight for change, making it worthwhile and enduring.

Here are some additional truths and realizations that I gained through my counseling career.

What counseling has taught me (the second installment):

1. A new perspective

The DSM – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the “Bible” for mental health professionals) – uncovered a whole new world for me. Sure, I was familiar with mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, and anxiety before grad school. I took Abnormal Psych in college and even before that, I’d read books on schizophrenia, eating disorders, and other mental disorders. (Guess who did their middle school science project on schizophrenia? Me!) But my fleeting knowledge was laughable compared to what I found in the DSM; it provided me with information on every single diagnosable mental disorder. When I started working with clients, I was able to see how mental illness manifests in real life.

The more I learned (and saw), the more I was able to make sense of behaviors. Consequently, this led to me looking back on people I’ve encountered throughout the years. I realized how many of them had been struggling with a mental illness. (At the time, I probably just thought they were just a jerk, or acting inconsiderately.)

I also became more aware of the prevalence of severe mental illness and the way it presents in society. This led to increased tolerance and patience regarding behaviors I’d previous found annoying; I learned to recognize them for what they were.

Mental illness can easily be interpreted as something it’s not. By having an awareness, I’m more compassionate. Instead of judging, I observe. Someone who seems snobby may have social anxiety. That coworker who calls out sick every Monday may be struggling with addiction. A friend who never wants to go out anymore could be depressed.

Mental illness is everywhere if you know what to look for. I strive to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, which is better for my mental health.

2. Don’t give money to the homeless

I knew a client at a residential program with a talent for making clever signs. He’d use markers to write his message (“Will dance for food!”) on a piece of cardboard before grabbing his pail to hit the streets. He didn’t need the money; he received government benefits (funded by taxpayers). The money he earned panhandling funded his K2 habit or the occasional beer.

Many of the “homeless” people you meet are not homeless; they’re con men (or women) who make a profit on your sympathy. Most are either addicted to drugs/alcohol and/or severely mentally ill; they need treatment, not the crinkled dollar bill in your pocket. Giving your spare change isn’t helping that person. Instead, offer to buy a meal, give them a pair of socks, or hand them a bottle of water.

3. Telling someone what to do is not helpful

Giving advice rarely leads to lasting change.

There are a few different reasons why advice, no matter how well-meaning, isn’t helpful. Firstly, it doesn’t account for the person’s full experience or struggle; it could seem ignorant or insensitive. (For example, “Why don’t you just get a divorce?” is not helpful to a woman struggling with her husband’s infidelity; the problem is more complex than just getting a divorce. Children could be involved. Maybe she’s financially dependent on her husband. Maybe she’s still in love with him. Or maybe it’s against her religious beliefs.)

Advice also robs a person of the ability to solve their own problem. We need to learn to find solutions in life in order to grow and to be effective. If someone is always told what to do, they’re not going to learn to function independently.

Lastly, if advice is taken, and it works, the credit goes to the advice giver, not the taker. The results are less meaningful. Alternatively, if advice is taken and it doesn’t work, it becomes the advice giver’s fault. Advice deprives a person of being able to take full ownership of their actions.

If you own your decision and fail, the blame falls on you (helping you to grow as a person) or if you succeed, the triumph is yours alone. Either way, you’re better off finding your own solutions; this allows you to feel capable and you’ll become better at solving problems in the future.

4. The value of transparency and honesty

People like to know what’s happening and what to expect. I get better reactions from clients when I explain why I’m doing or saying what I am. I’m honest, and when I can’t be (or believe it would be inappropriate to do so), I tell clients exactly that. For example, if a client asks about my religion, I’d let them know I don’t feel comfortable sharing personal aspects of my life.

Personally, I prefer the company of others who are straightforward. I don’t like having to guess if someone is upset with me. I don’t like it when someone is nice to my face, but gossips when I’m not around. Those types of games are played by people who are insecure or who are attempting to manipulate you. Life is complicated enough. With me, you’ll know if your fly is down, and if you ask for my opinion, you’ll get it. (There’s much to be said for tact though!) Gentle truths are worth more than flattery. 

5. You can’t demand respect

It’s something that’s earned through words and actions, not freely given. Forced respect is not true respect; it’s fear or deception. And while I believe in treating everyone with respect, I don’t truly respect someone until I know what kind of person they are.

Furthermore, I’ve learned that if someone chooses to disrespect me, it’s not a threat. Respect is powerful, but disrespect? Feeble and pathetic. If someone is disrespectful, it won’t harm you or make you less of a person (unless you give it that control).

Throughout my career, I’ve been disrespected on many, many occasions by clients who don’t want to be in treatment (and even by colleagues with differing opinions). But my sense of self-worth is not dependent on how others treat me. As a result, disrespect from angry clients (or rude salespersons or drivers who cut me off, etc.) doesn’t faze me.

In sum, being a counselor is life-changing. I imagine many professions are to a degree, but I can’t picture any other job leading to such a deep understanding of humanity. Entering the mental health field is like having horrible vision and then finally getting glasses (except it happens over the course of years). I have an enhanced awareness of who I am along with an unforeseen sense of serenity. 

Every single client who’s shared a piece of their story has contributed to my awareness (and to my own personal growth), and I owe them each a gratitude. I’m more cautious in life, yes, but I’m also more compassionate. Instead of having high expectations, I have high hopes. I don’t attempt to control things I have no control over; and I don’t get angry over the decisions, views, or actions of others. Instead, I channel my energy into something more productive; I’m passionate and I’m an advocate. My beauty pageant answer to the stereotypical question is not “world peace”; it’s for everyone to have a deeper understanding of each other.

What insights have you gained from your chosen career? Please share in a comment!

What Counseling Has Taught Me (Part One)

Counseling is generous in that it’s supplied me with the tools needed for not only professional growth, but personal success, emotional well-being, personal development, and effective communication. It’s also taught me about various aspects of human nature, from the brightest to the murkiest.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

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In grad school, I learned theories and techniques of counseling. I learned basic and advanced counseling skills; I practiced various interventions and methods. My professors taught developmental theories and multicultural competence. I took classes in career counseling, family counseling, and couples counseling; I studied research and ethics.

And when I accepted a substance abuse counselor position at a drug and alcohol treatment center… I had no clue what I was doing… or how to be a counselor. I went into my first year as a clinician with self-doubt and uncertainty.

Negative thoughts consumed me. I questioned myself and wondered if I was in the right field.

“Do I have what it takes to be an effective counselor?” 

“Should I have pursued a career in research instead?” 

“Should I have pursued anything instead?” 

“Am I capable of helping others?” 

Furthermore, social anxiety crippled my ability to relate to clients; being genuine was difficult. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to other “seasoned” clinicians, which only made things worse.

Gradually, my doubts and fears subsided; I felt more comfortable in my role. I accepted and settled into my new identity as a professional counselor; it was a good fit. I stopped trying to “fix” or control clients.

Anxiety no longer dictated my actions; I found a way to take ownership of my mistakes and accomplishments. Moreover, I learned to be okay with making mistakes. I accepted that I would never have all the answers. I let go of irrational beliefs that had previously plagued me. I thrived.

Today, I can reflect on my journey and on the positive changes I’ve made throughout the years. My chosen career is generous in that it’s supplied me with the tools needed for not only professional growth, but personal growth — success, emotional well-being, personal development, and effective communication.

I’ve learned a lot the past ten years. This post explores the discoveries I’ve made and how I apply that knowledge to my life. But before delving into what I’ve learned, here’s what a few other clinicians have said on the topic:

Nancy Lee, MA, LPCC, Psychotherapist in Aurora, CO

“Being a counselor has shown me that it’s possible to live on the edge of what I know and don’t know. In a single moment, I can feel strong and confident, yet small and humble. Counseling isn’t about fixing problems. It’s about believing in my client’s capacity to connect with their own solutions, insight, and growth.”

Robert Martin, M.Ed Early Childhood Education & Counseling, Francis Marion University

“There is no learning … if there is not a relationship… The foundation of counseling and teaching is [the] relationship. There must be a connection. The student must know that you care about them personally and it is ok to make a mistake … Consequences and corrections can be given, but always directed at the behavior [and] never the person … That you are only talking about their behavior when you correct them … and not them. They must feel that you respect them … and if you make a mistake say, “I’m so sorry. I made a mistake.” … [Always respect] their differences, their hopes and weakness, their failures, their dreams, their divinity. There is nothing more important than this…”

Bridget Cameron, Artist, Depth Psychologist, Stress Counselor (1992-present)

“To accept people as they are, to be non-judgmental, to be directed by compassion, and to know how to be impartial so that I am fair-minded with all people and do not project any of myself into my client’s history and am non-attached to the outcome.”

In comparison, while I’ve learned much about compassion, connecting, and being okay with being wrong, I’ve also learned how to use counseling to be effective, both personally and professionally… and I’ve learned to be more guarded due to the darker aspects of human nature.

Here’s my list of small wisdoms, or, what counseling has taught me (the first installment):

1. How to remain calm

Emotion regulation was difficult for me as an adolescent and young adult. My emotions ruled me – lorded over me, even! Then, as a counselor, I observed emotion disregulation in clients. I realized how truly counterproductive (and ridiculous-looking) it can be.

I made a choice to stop engaging in negativity, with both self and with others. Feeding into an argument solves nothing, but the effort leaves you emotionally and physically drained. Luckily, my personal transition from chaos to calm was painless. By the time I learned how to remain calm, I was in my mid-20s; the intensity of my emotions had already naturally subsided. Today, calmness is my natural state.

2. Comfortable silence

In grad school, I learned to use silence as a counseling technique. Instead of filling up every minute of a session with reflections, open-ended questions, and paraphrases, we were encouraged to use “comfortable silence.”

Silence allows the client time to process and/or collect their thoughts. To me, it always felt horribly awkward (remember, social anxiety!) and wrong. I wanted to rush on to the next topic or to ask a question or… anything.

I’m not sure when it finally stopped feeling awkward. I just knew that one day I was sitting in silence with a client and it felt natural. Today, I use silence in my professional and personal life all the time. It feels nice to sit quietly and not feel pressured to talk.

3. Active listening

Counseling taught me to really listen. I learned to quiet my internal dialogue to hear and comprehend what’s being said. Instead of thinking about how I’m going to respond, I give my full attention to the speaker. I’m aware of body language and other nonverbals. Counseling has strengthened my communication skills.

4. Partial truths

Counseling taught me that people don’t always say what they mean. They often tell partial truths. There are many reasons for this: Fear of being judged, not fully trusting the therapist, feeling embarrassed, etc.

For example, a client who isn’t ready to change their drinking probably wouldn’t tell me they drink three bottles of wine every night. Instead, they’d offer a partial truth. “I usually drink a glass of wine with dinner, but that’s it.”

Partial truths are not lies; they allow for a certain measure of comfort. (A lot of people feel uncomfortable with lying because they were taught it was wrong, or possibly because they view themselves as honest – and honest people don’t lie.) Partial truths, on the other hand, don’t feel wrong (or less wrong, at least). Plus, they’re safe. A person can be partially truthful and still protect their secrets.

When I realized how common partial truths are, I changed the way I listened to clients… and to everyone. Instead of taking things at face value, I listen to what is being said while recognizing that much more is not being said.

5. Hidden agendas

I also discovered that there are plenty of people out there who seek counseling with hidden agendas. For example, a man sees a therapist, stating he wants to learn anger management techniques. What he doesn’t reveal is that he’s abusive to his wife. He recently lost control in an argument and pushed her down the stairs. She gave him an ultimatum: Therapy or divorce. He doesn’t believe he needs counseling, but he’ll do it to save his marriage. And he doesn’t tell his therapist this (of course). Why would he? It’s none of her business.

Both partial truths and hidden agendas happen outside of therapy (and for similar reasons). Words paint a very limited piece of the entire picture. People often show only what they want others to see while keeping their true motives hidden.

Because of counseling, I have a better awareness and understanding of why hidden agendas (and partial truths) exist. It’s not cynicism, but a form of acceptance. I recognize that half truths and hidden agendas serve a purpose. While I may never understand their purpose, I’m okay with it.

This awareness fosters caution; I’ll never be caught off guard.

There’s more to tell, but for the sake of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’ll save my remaining insights for the second installment of this post (in which I’ll discuss giving money to the homeless and demanding respect, among other “lessons” from counseling).

161 Questions to Explore Values, Ideas, and Beliefs

Open-ended questions are important in therapy. They allow a client to explore his/her values, ideas, and beliefs. A list of 161 questions for group therapy, journal prompts, conversation starters, icebreakers.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC

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The questions in this post ask about recovery, spirituality, personal growth, and other relevant topics. As a counselor, I’ve used the questions with adults who struggle with mental illness and addiction, mostly in a group setting. Asking open-ended questions is a basic counseling skill. Open questions invite the client to explore his or her thoughts, beliefs, and ideas. In contrast, closed questions can be answered with a yes or no.

The first section, “Conversation Starters,” is comprised of questions that can be used as icebreakers, at a party, or even on a date.  In a clinical setting, use a “Conversation Starter” as a group check-in. It provides an opportunity for group members to engage and to learn about their peers.

Additional ideas for groups

Choose 10-15 questions and either print them out or write them on small pieces of paper. Fold the paper slips and place in a container. Clients can take turns drawing and answering questions. Alternatively, they can choose questions for each other.

Select up to 20 questions. Pair the clients and have them take turns interviewing each other.

Select 5-10 questions. Each client writes out his or her answers. Read the answers to the group and have group members take turns guessing who wrote what.


Conversation Starters

  1. What is the most interesting thing you heard this week?
  1. What’s the one thing you really want to do but have never done, and why?
  1. Would you take a shot if the chance of failure and success is 50-50?
  1. Which one would you prefer; taking a luxurious trip alone or having a picnic with people you love?
  1. If your life was a book, what would the title be?
  1. If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
  1. What is your favorite day of the week and why?
  1. What do you do when you’re bored?
  1. Shoe size?
  1. Favorite color?
  1. Favorite band (or artist)?
  1. Favorite animal?
  1. Favorite food?
  1. One food you dislike?
  1. Favorite condiment?
  1. Favorite movie?
  1. Last movie you saw in a theater?
  1. Last book read?
  1. Best vacation?
  1. Favorite toy as a child?
  1. One item you should throw away, but probably never will?
  1. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman?
  1. Chocolate or vanilla?
  1. Morning person or night owl?
  1. Cats or dogs?
  1. Sweet or salty?
  1. Breakfast or dinner?
  1. Coffee or tea?
  1. American food, Italian food, Mexican food, Chinese food, or other?
  1. Clean or messy?
  1. What is your favorite breakfast food?
  1. What vegetable would you like to grow in a garden?
  1. Tell about a childhood game you loved.
  1. What’s your favorite dessert?
  1. What’s your favorite day of the week and why?
  1. Who is your favorite celebrity?
  1. Which celebrity do you most resemble?
  1. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
  1. Share about one of your hobbies.
  1. What’s a unique talent that you have?
  1. Introvert or extrovert?
  1. Describe yourself in three words.
  1. Tell about a happy childhood memory.
  1. Name three things (or people) that make you smile.

Mental Health and Addiction Questions

  1. On a scale from 1 to 10, where are you at in your recovery and what does that number mean to you?
  1. Tell about a healthy risk you have taken this week.
  1. What brought you to treatment?
  1. How has your life changed since getting clean and sober?
  1. What do you miss the most about drug/alcohol?
  1. What would your life be like if you weren’t addicted to something?
  1. What makes your addiction possible?
  1. What are your triggers?
  1. Name at least three ways you can cope with cravings.
  1. Name three of your relapse warning signs.
  1. Tell about someone who is supportive of your recovery.
  1. What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about mental illness?
  1. Is it okay to take medications if you’re in recovery?
  1. Is it possible to get clean/sober without AA or NA?
  1. Do you have a sponsor? What’s helpful and what’s not?
  1. Do you think you’re going to relapse?
  1. What’s the difference between helping and enabling?
  1. Tell about a time you were in denial.
  1. Do you have an enabler? Explain.
  1. Is it possible for someone in recovery for drugs to be a social drinker?
  1. How have drugs and alcohol affected your health?
  1. Is addiction a disease?

Personal Development and Values

  1. Are you doing what you truly want in life?
  1. What are your aspirations in life?
  1. How many promises have you made this past year and how many of them have you fulfilled?
  1. Are you proud of what you’re doing with your life or what you’ve done in the past? Explain.
  1. Have you ever abandoned a creative idea that you believed in because others thought you were a fool? Explain.
  1. What would you prefer? Stable but boring work or interesting work with lots of workload?
  1. Are you making an impact or constantly being influenced by the world?
  1. Which makes you happier, to forgive someone or to hold a grudge? Explain.
  1. Who do you admire and why?
  1. What are your strengths?
  1. What are your weaknesses?
  1. Are you doing anything thatmakes you and people around you happy?
  1. Tell about a short-term goal you have.
  1. Tell about a health goal you have.
  1. Tell about a long-term goal you have.
  1. Tell about a value that is currently important to you.
  1. What do you like most about yourself?
  1. What do you like least about yourself?
  1. What in life brings you joy?
  1. What are you grateful for?
  1. Who is the most influential person in your life and why?
  1. Tell about one dream you have always had, but are too afraid to chase.
  1. What is something you want to change about yourself and what are two things you can do to accomplish this?
  1. Describe your perfect world. (Who would be in it, what would you be doing, etc.)
  1. Where were you one year ago, where are you now, and where do you want to be a year from today?
  1. Share about a character flaw you have.
  1. What kind of a person do you want to be?
  1. When is the last time you helped someone and what did you do?
  1. Tell about a problem you have right now. What can you do to solve it?

Family and Relationship Questions

  1. Have you ever failed anyone who you loved or loved you? Explain.
  1. Who is your favorite person?
  1. What was it like growing up in your family?
  1. What makes someone a good friend?
  1. What happens when you’re rejected?
  1. What makes a relationship healthy or unhealthy?
  1. Would you rather break someone’s heart or have your heart broken?

Education and Career

  1. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
  1. Tell about something you do well.
  1. What’s your dream job?
  1. What are your career goals?
  1. What classes would you be most interested in taking?
  1. Tell about a job you would hate doing.
  1. Would you prefer to work with people or by yourself?
  1. Would you ever do a job that was dangerous if it paid a lot of money?
  1. Would you still work if you didn’t have to?
  1. What do you want to do when you retire?
  1. If you have a job, what do you like about it? Dislike?
  1. How do you deal with difficult co-workers?
  1. What qualities would you like your supervisor to have?


  1. When was the last time you laughed, and what did you laugh at?
  1. If happiness was a currency, how rich would you be?
  1. How do you express happiness?
  1. What are three healthy ways you can cope with anger?
  1. What are three healthy ways you can cope with anxiety?
  1. What does being happy mean to you?
  1. If your mood was a weather forecast, what would it be?
  1. Tell about a time you were happy.
  1. Tell about a time you were heartbroken.
  1. What is the difference between guilt and shame?
  1. Is guilt a healthy emotion?
  1. Can guilt be excessive?
  1. Is there a such thing as “healthy shame”?
  1. What makes you happy?
  1. What makes you mad?
  1. When do you feel afraid?
  1. When do you feel lonely?
  1. Share about the last time you felt guilty.
  1. What embarrasses you?


  1. How does one practice forgiveness (of self and others) from a religious point of view and from a non-religious point of view?
  1. What does it mean to forgive?
  1. Do you have to forgive to move forward?
  1. What brings you meaning in life?
  1. How do you define spirituality?
  1. What’s the difference between religion and spirituality?
  1. When do you feel most at peace?
  1. Do you meditate? Why or why not?

Additional Thought-Provoking Questions

  1. If you could travel to the past in a time machine, what advice would you give to the 6-year-old you? Would you break the rules because of something/someone you care about?
  1. Are you afraid of making mistakes? Why or why not?
  1. If you cloned yourself, which of your characteristics would you not want cloned?
  1. What’s the difference between you and most other people?
  1. Consider the thing you last cried about; does it matter to you now or will it matter to you 5 years from now?
  1. What do you need to let go of in life?
  1. Do you remember anyone you hated 10 years ago? Does it matter now?
  1. What are you worrying about and what happens if you stop worrying about it?
  1. If you died now, would you have any regrets?
  1. What’s the one thing you’re most satisfied with?
  1. If today was the end of the world, what would you do?
  1. What would you do if you won the lottery?
  1. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  1. How do you think others see you?
  1. What is your biggest fear?
  1. How do you get someone’s attention?
  1. What masks do you wear?
  1. Tell about a poor decision you made.
  1. When is the last time you failed at something? How did you handle it?