Generic Characteristics of Counseling

Generic Characteristics of Counseling/Therapy

All theories of counseling and psychotherapy are influenced by assumptions that theorists make regarding the goals for therapy, the methodology used to invoke change, and the definition of mental health and mental illness (Corey, 2013). Counseling and psychotherapy have traditionally been conceptualized in Western individualistic terms (Ivey, Ivey, Myers, & Sweeney, 2005). Whether the particular theory is psychodynamic, existential-humanistic, or cognitive behavioral in orientation, a number of multicultural specialists (Ponterotto, Utsey, & Pedersen, 2006; Ivey, Ivey, & Zalaquett, 2014) indicate that they share certain common components of White culture in their values and beliefs. Katz (1985) has described the components of White culture (see Table 7.1) that are reflected in the goals and processes of clinical work.

TABLE 7.1 Components of White Culture: Values and Beliefs

Rugged Individualism Individual is primary unit Individual has primary responsibility Independence and autonomy highly valued and rewarded Individual can control environment Competition Winning is everything Win/lose dichotomy Action Orientation Must master and control nature Must always do something about a situation Pragmatic/utilitarian view of life Communication Standard English Written tradition Direct eye contact Limited physical contact Control of emotions Time Adherence to rigid time Time is viewed as a commodity Holidays Based on Christian religion Based on White history and male leaders History Based on European immigrants’ experience in the United States Romanticize war Protestant Work Ethic Working hard brings success Progress and Future Orientation Plan for future Delay gratification Value continual improvement and progress Emphasis on Scientific Method Objective, rational, linear thinking Cause-and-effect relationships Quantitative emphasis Status and Power Measured by economic possessions Credentials, titles, and positions Believe “own” system Believe better than other systems Owning goods, space, property Family Structure Nuclear family is the ideal social unit Male is breadwinner and the head of the household Female is homemaker and subordinate to the husband Patriarchal structure Aesthetics Music and art based on European cultures Women’s beauty based on blonde, blue-eyed, thin, young Men’s attractiveness based on athletic ability, power, economic status Religion Belief in Christianity No tolerance for deviation from single god concept
Source: From The Counseling Psychologist (p. 618) by J. Katz, 1985, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Copyright 1985 by Sage Publications, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

In the United States and in many other countries as well, psychotherapy and counseling are used mainly with middle- and upper-class segments of the population (Smith, 2010). These have often been referred to as the “generic characteristics” of counseling (see Table 7.2). As a result, culturally diverse clients do not share many of the values and characteristics seen in both the goals and the processes of therapy (American Psychological Association, Task Force on Socioeconomic Status, 2007; Reed & Smith, 2014). Schofield (1964) has noted that therapists tend to prefer clients who exhibit the YAVIS syndrome: young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and successful. This preference tends to discriminate against people from different minority groups or those from lower socioeconomic classes. This situation led Sundberg (1981) to sarcastically point out that therapy is not for QUOID people (quiet, ugly, old, indigent, and dissimilar culturally). Table 7.3 summarizes these generic characteristics of counseling (culture, class, and linguistic), and compares them to four groups of color. As mentioned earlier, such a comparison can also be done for other groups that vary in gender, age, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and so on.

TABLE 7.2 Generic Characteristics of Counseling

Culture Middle Class Language
Standard English Verbal communication Individual centered Verbal/emotional/behavioral expressiveness Client-counselor communication Openness and intimacy Cause-effect orientation Clear distinction between physical and mental well-being Nuclear family Standard English Verbal communication Adherence to time schedules (50-minute sessions) Long-range goals Standard English Verbal communication

TABLE 7.3 People of Color Group Variables

Culture Lower Class Language
Asian Americans
Asian language Family centered Restraint of feelings Silence is respect Nonstandard English Action oriented Different time perspective Immediate, short-range goals Bilingual background
Advice seeking Well-defined patterns of interaction (concrete structured) Private versus public display (shame/disgrace/pride) Physical and mental well-being defined differently Extended family
African Americans
Black language Sense of “people-hood” Action oriented Paranorm due to oppression Importance placed on nonverbal behavior Extended family Nonstandard English Action oriented Different time perspective Immediate, short-range goals Concrete, tangible, structured approach Black language
Latino/Hispanic Americans
Spanish-speaking Group centered Temporal difference Family orientation Different pattern of communication Religious distinction between mind/body Nonstandard English Action oriented Different time perspective Extended family Immediate short-range goals Concrete, tangible, structured approach Bilingual background
American Indians
Tribal dialects Cooperative, not competitive individualism Present-time orientation Creative/experimental/intuitive/nonverbal Satisfy present needs Use of folk or supernatural explanations Extended family Nonstandard English Action oriented Different time perspective Immediate, short-range goals Concrete, tangible, structured approach Bilingual background

Although an attempt has been made to clearly delineate three major variables that influence effective therapy, these are often inseparable from one another. For example, use of Standard English in counseling and therapy definitely places those individuals who do not speak English fluently at a disadvantage (Ngo-Metzger et al., 2003). However, cultural and class values that govern conversation conventions can also operate via language to cause serious misunderstandings. Furthermore, the fact that many African Americans, Latina/o Americans, and American Indians come from less affluent backgrounds often compounds class and culture variables. Thus it is often difficult to tell which variables are the most important impediments in therapy. Nevertheless, this distinction is valuable in conceptualizing barriers to effective multicultural counseling/therapy.

Culture-Bound Values

Culture consists of all those things that people have learned to do, believe, value, and enjoy. It is the totality of the ideals, beliefs, skills, tools, customs, and institutions into which members of society are born (Ratts & Pedersen, 2014). Although being bicultural is a source of strength, the process of negotiating dual group membership may cause problems for many marginalized group members. The term marginal person was first coined by Stonequist (1937) and refers to a person’s inability to form dual ethnic identification because of bicultural membership. Persons of color are placed under strong pressures to adopt the ways of the dominant culture. The cultural-deficit models tend to view culturally diverse groups as possessing dysfunctional values and belief systems that are often considered handicaps to be overcome and a source of shame. In essence, marginalized groups may be taught that to be different is to be deviant, pathological, or sick. Several culture-bound characteristics of therapy may be responsible for reinforcing negative beliefs.

Focus on the Individual

Most forms of counseling and psychotherapy tend to be individual-centered (i.e., they emphasize the “I-thou” relationship). Ivey et al. (2014) note that U.S. culture and society are based on the concept of individualism and that competition between individuals for status, recognition, achievement, and so forth, forms the basis for Western tradition. Individualism, autonomy, and the ability to become your own person are perceived as healthy and desirable goals. Pedersen and Pope (2010) note that not all cultures view individualism as a positive orientation; rather, it may be perceived in some cultures as a handicap to attaining enlightenment, one that may divert us from important spiritual goals. In many non-Western cultures, identity is not seen apart from the group orientation (collectivism). The notion of atman in India defines itself as participating in unity with all things and not being limited by the temporal world.

Many societies do not define the psychosocial unit of operation as the individual. In many cultures and subgroups, the psychosocial unit of operation tends to be the family, group, or collective society. In traditional Asian American culture, one’s identity is defined within the family constellation. The greatest punitive measure to be taken out on an individual by the family is to be disowned. What this means, in essence, is that the person no longer has an identity. Although being disowned by a family in Western European culture is equally negative and punitive, it does not have the same connotations as in traditional Asian society. Although they may be disowned by a family, Westerners are always told that they have an individual identity as well. Likewise, many Hispanic individuals tend to see the unit of operation as residing within the family. African American psychologists (Parham, Ajamu, & White, 2011) also point out how the African view of the world encompasses the concept of “groupness.”

Collectivism is often reflected in many aspects of behavior. Traditional Asian American and Hispanic elders, for example, tend to greet one another with the question, “How is your family today?” Contrast this with how most Americans tend to greet each other: “How are you today?” One emphasizes the family (group) perspective, while the other emphasizes the individual perspective. Likewise, affective expressions in therapy can also be strongly influenced by the particular orientation one takes. When individuals engage in wrongful behaviors in the United States, they are most likely to experience feelings of guilt. In societies that emphasize collectivism, however, the most dominant affective element to follow a wrongful behavior is shame, not guilt. Guilt is an individual affect, whereas shame appears to be a group one (it reflects on the family or group).

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