Bradley-TThe Who, performing “Who Are You?,” was playing in my head this morning. The song was released in 1978 but easily could have been inspired by the events of 1964, when the band transformed its identity and went through four name changes in a single year: from The Detours to The Who to The High Numbers before finally returning to and etching the identity of The Who in history.

We are all familiar with Erik Erikson’s fifth stage: identity vs. role confusion. Normally in adolescence, people develop a personal identity and cogent sense of self, usually after much experimentation with different roles, behaviors and activities, and no small amount of soul searching. We all strive to gain direction in life and fit somehow into society, even if we find that “fit” by acting against society. We are told that if we receive encouragement and reinforcement throughout our exploration, we are likely to emerge with a strong identity; confusion and insecurity await those unsure of their beliefs and mission. What is sometimes lost in the discussion is that identity — knowing who you are — is a critical precursor to the future tasks of intimacy, generativity and integrity. Thus, a strong identity is critical to a meaningful and productive life and career.

This month’s Counseling Today cover story focuses on professional identity — a topic I believe is perhaps THE critical professional issue of our time. Who we are as professional counselors today is very different than who we were 35 years ago (before licensure), 65 years ago (before ACA) and 100 years ago (when the counseling profession was born).

We all come from diverse cultural and experiential backgrounds, and we draw strength from this diversity, both singly as individual counselors and collectively as a profession. How each of us got here is like a confluence of small streams flowing into what is now a major river of the counseling profession. Our past shapes our future and how we make sense of the present.

I majored in biology as an undergraduate. Yes, my mother got a deathbed promise that I would become a doctor (she just didn’t say what kind of doctor). I still remember the class discussions concerning how biological systems are defined and operate. A viable system must establish and maintain a clear boundary to protect itself from harm. But the system’s boundary must also remain permeable to outside influences so that it can exchange substances needed for growth and survival. If the system becomes rigid and impermeable, it will atrophy and eventually die. The counseling profession is a system, and we need to remain permeable to outside influences to thrive, even while protecting ourselves from harm.

At the core of our professional identity are specialized educational standards, knowledge and training in a number of essential areas. Our core principles are focused on wellness and strengths so that our clients and students not only become “not sick,” but also actually become healthy and thrive. These core principles, among others, form our identity as professional counselors.

Growing pains inevitably will occur, but there is a reason why they are called growing pains — we are growing and developing, becoming different and better than we were. In just the past few years, we have wrestled with and are still in the process of overcoming a number of developmental challenges, including requiring all core faculty in CACREP-accredited counseling programs to have degrees in counselor education, standardizing counseling degree programs by moving to 60 credits for all CACREP-accredited master’s degree programs, viewing school counselors as counselors who practice in educational settings rather than educators who have specialized counselor training, and requiring supervision of counselors-in-training by professional counselors (credentialed supervisors). Years from now, these practices will have become so woven into the fabric of our professional identity that we will question what took us so long to adopt them. And 35 years from now, after facing many more challenges and growing pains, we will be in a very different place and share a more unified identity and advocacy voice.

Given our professional focus on human development, I have recently wondered why we do not have an overriding stage theory or task model of professional counselor identity — a theory or model to help us explain how to promote and attain a unified identity, and perhaps stave off “multiple professional identity disorder.” Certainly such a theory would espouse a common core of educational and training standards, attainment of appropriate licensure and certification, and participation in professional counseling associations. Although these components all exist today and are paving the road to a more unified profession in the future, a great number of challenges still exist, and some backsliding is sure to occur.

For example, I recently wrote a letter to the 2016 CACREP Standards Revision Committee. Among other issues, I asked the committee to reinsert what seems like a minor clause, but one with vast implications for professional identity. The revised standard requires that “faculty must identify with the counseling profession through sustained memberships in professional counseling organizations.” The previous standard inserted the parenthetical phrase “… through memberships in professional organizations (i.e., ACA and/or its divisions).” Removal of that phrase would certainly lead back to “multiple professional identity disorder.”

But if we really want to have an impact on future generations of professional counselors and build a unified profession, accrediting bodies and universities must require counselors-in-training to participate in professional counseling associations. In a recent “round” at an ACA Governing Council meeting, a question was posed: How did you become involved with ACA? No less than 90 percent of us responded that we were “told” to join ACA by our graduate faculty. We had a firm professional counselor identity because our faculty and mentors had firm professional counselor identities. So, I also requested that CACREP establish a standard requiring graduate counseling students to identify with the counseling profession through sustained memberships in professional counseling organizations (i.e., ACA and/or its divisions). Exposing all of our counselors-in-training to the world of the professional counselor would be a giant step toward a unified professional counselor identity. The current reality is that most counselors-in-training do not belong to a professional counseling association. That is troubling.

A larger question is how we develop and maintain an appropriate professional identity (boundary) while still benefiting from the input and strengths of our interprofessional colleagues (permeability). After all, we share the same literature, have similar training standards and often receive similar supervision. But will we, as a counseling profession, mirror the mistakes of other mental health professions that seek to create impermeable barriers between professional groups? That seek to restrict counselor practice through legislation and regulations?

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but just as our appreciation for classic rock has matured, so will the counseling profession mature … over the next 35, 65 and even 100 years. But for now, enjoy reading this month’s feature articles and answer this question: Who are you?

The counseling profession really wants to know!