Having worked as a substance abuse counselor for over 16 years, I have worked for, worked with and supervised a lot of counselors. I have seen some who were excellent counselors that found their jobs challenging and rewarding. I have also seen counselors who got discouraged, burned out and even regretted ever getting into the field. So before you invest time and money, be sure you have what it takes to be a quality counselor and to be happy doing it. I have listed some qualities that I believe are important, if you are planning on becoming an addictions counselor, or if you are in a position to hire addiction counselors.
Be Caring. This seems like it should be obvious, but I have seen counselors who don’t really care about their clients. Maybe at one point they did, but for some reason they lost their compassion. It is critical that you genuinely care about the people that you are treating. Perhaps you can fake it for a while, but eventually they will be able to see if their recovery isn’t important to you.
- Optimistic. One of the most important things that you are selling is hope. During their active addiction, you clients may have lost family, careers, health, freedom and much more. They may feel like their life is ruined beyond repair. Negativity is very contagious and being a counselor, doesn’t automatically make you immune. (Counselors have bad days too.) I have found this to be especially important in group settings. If negativity starts to take over a group, then it will not be beneficial and no one will want to be there.
- Self-Confident. A good dose of self-confidence is good in any profession. In substance abuse counseling it is important to realize that your self-worth is not dependent on the success of your clients. Every good counselor enjoys seeing his clients have success in their recovery and is disappointed when they have setbacks. Hopefully, you will strive to be the best possible counselor that you can be, but you have to understand your role and your limitations. Early in my counseling career, I would feel like a failure when one of my clients relapsed. I have learned not to take credit for their success, nor am I responsible for their setbacks. If you are a counselor for any length of time, you will get to see some great success stories, but you will also see some who continue to struggle, some who end up in jail and even some who die.
- Non-Judgmental. One of the quickest ways to lose rapport with your clients is to come across to them as judgmental or condescending. Being non-judgmental may be tougher than it sounds, because you will have some clients who have done some pretty bad things. This doesn’t mean that you are condoning their actions, but means that you don’t look down at them because of some poor choices they have made. It think it is important to recognize the power of addiction and that in active addiction people will find themselves in places that they never could have imagined themselves and doing things that they never would have considered. Maybe it is also important to recognize that their life experiences are likely much different than ours and that our life would likely resemble theirs if we had lived their life. Having an addiction or growing up in a bad environment does not justify negative behavior, but it might help explain it. I have heard others say, “I don’t know how you work with those people.” Well, the fact is that they are people just like the rest of us. They just happen to have some issues that we don’t have. However, we all have issues and we have all made some poor decisions. Maybe our issues are just more socially acceptable or maybe our consequences just haven’t been as severe.
- Trusting. I know this seems out of place in this list, but hear me out. Addicts have been known to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate and use various other forms of deception. So why on earth would you trust them? This goes hand in hand with not being judgmental, and someone having a little faith in them could be the confidence builder that they need. I am not suggesting that you loan anyone your car or have them babysit your kids, nor am I suggesting that you be naïve and ignore symptoms that they are getting off track. Over years of counseling, what I have noticed is that counselors get tired of being lied to and get to the point where they assume that everyone is lying to them. It isn’t fair or beneficial to your clients if you just assume that everything that they are telling you is a lie. I think that it is better to give them the benefit of the doubt. Are they going to manipulate us or “pull one over on us” from time to time? Absolutely they will, but I’m afraid that we worry too much about them getting away with something or that we might appear gullible and naïve. Look at the big picture. In the long run, the lies usually come out and having some faith in them might be what gets them started toward successful recovery.
- Professional. There are whole books written on this point, but for the purposes of this article I want to focus on not allowing your personal problems affect your professionalism. Being a counselor does not make us immune to having family problems, financial problems, health problems or any other problems. As professionals, however, we need to be able to “compartmentalize”, meaning that we deal with our issues at the appropriate time, but when we are with clients, we must focus on them and their issues.
- Organized. Often counselors enjoy the counseling part of their job, but will get discouraged by the amount of paperwork that goes with it. I have even seen counselors, who were good at counseling but end up losing their job because they couldn’t keep up with all of the other responsibilities of their job. The amount of paperwork you have will vary from job to job, but it is always going to take up a significant amount of your time and it is an important part of being a good counselor. Self-discipline and time management are important in staying on top of things.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of characteristics of a good counselor, but just a few that I feel are important and sometimes overlooked. I’m certainly not trying to discourage anyone from becoming a substance abuse counselor, but if you don’t have the heart of a counselor, then you will not be happy in this career. If you do have the passion for this, then it can be a very fulfilling career.