Like most mental health professionals who enter the field, I began graduate school thinking I could help others overcome their hurts. I came from a divorced family that was very messy and painful, so I went to college and on to graduate school to obtain a great deal of information to help others. Yet, subconsciously I applied the information to my own life and practiced some of the techniques and tools on myself. By doing so, I believed I would be healthy and able to help others. We are the “wounded healers.”
Like most programs, I completed a psychological evaluation and received feedback about my strengths and weaknesses. I had to participate and complete my own individual therapy as well as a processing group, attend classes, write papers, and complete a supervised practicum, internship, etc. With degree in hand, some book knowledge and limited experience, I set out to start my career as a mental health counselor, because I was equipped, ready and now self-actualized, right?
Fast forward about 5 years, I was working in a State Correctional Facility as a counselor, and there I began to see and understand a difference between mental health counselors and substance abuse counselors. In fact, after starting my own recovery journey, I had this joke, “What’s the difference between a mental health counselor and a substance abuse counselor?” Answer: “The substance abuse counselor is out of denial in regard to their issues.” Most, if not close to all, substance abuse counselors are in that line of work, because they themselves were once addicted to drugs or alcohol. They found themselves at the end of their rope “admitting they were powerless over their addiction.” Where are those words from? All recovering addicts who have completed a 12-Step program know this is Step 1 of the 12 Steps.
It was in the middle of my career in corrections that I too came to the end of myself with my sexual addiction and intimacy anorexia. I began to discover the miracle of the 12 Steps. All the work (individual counseling and processing groups) I did in graduate school was nothing compared to the 12 Steps and “self-actualization” I gained by going through them. I realized I was more messed up than the clients I was trying to help. No wonder so few got better or returned for more than a few sessions.
You see, this is the self-deception of those of us who have gone through a mental health program. We (counselors and psychologists) are told and believe we can help others when we have done very little work on ourselves.
You see, mental health programs often deceive the student by teaching and making one think you cannot have any beliefs while serving clients you see in your office. You should have no opinion and make no judgements to help the client discover themselves. Now, for the most part, I agree with this. However, if you think for a second you can leave your beliefs, values, moral compass, life experiences, feelings, hurts, traumas, and abuses at the door and don’t believe that is going to influence you as a counselor,…you are D-A-N-G-E-R-O-U-S to your clients. Because, if you do not know what you believe and why you believe it, you are going to have clients who may not share your values and need to be referred to another therapist.
If you do not know your limits, you may potentially hurt your clients. Are we not to “do no harm?” Do you think you can just be a blank sounding board only reacting and mirroring your client’s beliefs, values, thoughts and emotions? Should you not be able to be yourself? This is one of the first words we learn in recovery, and it’s called codependency. Everyone in recovery knows codependency is not good and is unhealthy. Yet, as mental counselors, is this what we are trained to do?
Now, I know this is going to get a lot of my colleagues upset and offended, especially those who have never personally completed a 12-Step program. In the Power of Vulnerability, Brene Brown, Ph.D. speaks and writes about living “wholehearted.” As you begin to be authentic and vulnerable, you are going tick off a lot of people. I’m okay with that. This article is going to tick off a lot of people, especially my most unhealthy colleagues, as it will not make sense to them. They will be the ones commenting and emailing me about my wrongness. Those of you who have done recovery step work… get it, and this information will make sense to you. This article is not meant to be about right and wrong rather about what is wise or foolish.
Let’s start with my conservative colleagues on the right who are considered the faith freaks. They believe faith, prayer, deliverance and Jesus will heal them, yet they have done no work in recovery. All faith and no works. To this group, the 12 Steps are “too secular” and “not spiritual enough.”
To my liberal colleagues on the left, you are not off the hook either. They are what I refer to as the faith weak, and it’s all about works. They believe in more therapy, more knowledge, more techniques, more science, more “evidence based,” and that faith is for fools. This group believes the 12 Steps is “too spiritual,” and a “faith-based program” is a swear word for this group.
In the middle of these two extremes is…say it with me…R-E-C-O-V-E-R-Y. Recovery is the healthy balance and the middle of these two extremes. Both have what the other needs. The faith freak needs to do the work, and the faith weak needs to consider the spiritual part of their humanity.
Our humanity is made up of the physical, emotional, sexual, relational and spiritual. Those of us in recovery know we are not just a human having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. You cannot fully physically quantify or measure the spiritual part of our humanity.
Here is what recovery and the 12 Steps have taught me, and I did not learn any of it in my mental health training.
- I do not need to be perfected to be loved.
- A mistake is an event, not a person.
- Vulnerability is a strength.
- I was powerless over my addiction.
- I lie to myself before I lie to others.
- Denial and deception are both very deceptive, and I could not overcome it on my own.
- I was not alone.
- I could ask for help from others.
- I had many character defects and learned how to make amends quickly.
- I am not a victim to my circumstances.
- I am not only responsible for the people I have hurt but also to forgive the people who have hurt me regardless if they ever ask for my forgiveness.
- Forgiveness is not about forgiving people in their wrongness and in my rightness. True forgiveness is when I stop or cease to accuse those who I believe, real or imagined, have hurt me.
- I learned I had an addiction to being offended. I had a heart at war.
- I could choose how I would feel, and I did not need to be a victim to my emotions. Emotions are real but not always reality. I could act how I wanted to feel, and the feelings would follow. I no longer have to let my emotions dictate how I act.
- I learned what codependency is and is not.
- I learned how to set boundaries personally and professionally.
- I learned how to love myself enough to say “no” and not feel guilt or shame about it.
- I learned about self-care.
- I learned I could not save everyone.
- I learned not to care more than my clients or work harder than my clients, as not everyone wants to get well. Some people want to stay sick.
- I learned to believe behavior, not what people say.
- I learned shame will kill you, and fear will paralyze you.
- I learned how to identify my feelings and express emotions in a healthy way.
Now, I am not saying you can’t help your clients if you have never done a 12-Step program. In addition, I’m not saying all mental health therapeutic techniques out there are unhelpful, because they are very helpful. However, I am saying you will be a more effective clinician once you do your own 12-Step work. If you are a clinician and have never done a 12-Step program, I would encourage you to do so. We can only take our clients as far in their healing journey as we have been ourselves.
There are many roads to healing. To not acknowledge the benefits of the recovery or use of the 12 Steps, in my opinion, is foolish. Mental health can learn from the substances abuse counselors, and substance abuse counselors can learn tools, techniques, and the language of the DSM from the world of mental health. As my friend Marlene, who is a certified life coach would say, “It does not have to be an either/or, but it’s an and.” As mental health providers, we need science, techniques, evidenced-based outcomes AND the 12 Steps.
If you are a clinician, you are worthy of doing quality recovery work for yourself to better equip the clients who come to your office. If you are a client, ask your mental health provider if they have completed a 12-Step program. If so, great! You are in good hands. If not, ask them about their thoughts regarding the 12 Steps and begin to have a dialogue.
Cory Schortzman is an author, speaker, teacher and licensed mental health professional. Since 2008, he has served as the Executive Director of Transformed Hearts Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He is the founder of SARA, the Sexual Addiction Recovery Association. Cory is passionate about helping couples and individuals overcome sex addiction. He is also passionate about bringing awareness to the public and supporting the elimination of sex and human trafficking. Cory has been married since 1998 to his beautiful wife, Kerry, and lives in Colorado with their four daughters. He and Kerry have been seen on the CBS Early Show, Inside Edition, and ABC Good Morning America, Fox 21 News, and TLC/Discovery discussing the harm of sex addiction and the joys of recovery. He has also been heard on numerous radio programs.
Cory’s books include: Out of the Darkness, Into the Light the Workbook, Into the Light the Steps, Ashes to Beauty the Steps, 301 Dating Ideas, 301 Conversational Ideas, 301 Ways to Say I Love You, 301 Ways to Love Your Children & 301 Recovery Tools & Tips.