Am I Doing Enough? How to Embrace the Role of Advocate and Bypass Feeling Guilty!

Right before the pandemic, I was amongst a dedicated, engaged, and accomplished group of colleagues who had been having deep, meaningful and inspiring (to me) conversations about training and practice.  When my time came to lead a discussion about advocacy, I noticed a shift in the group.

The group was a little more reserved.  They seemed more reflective. They were…quiet.

Although my nerves about presenting to such a fabulous group may have been at work, I was pretty sure I was picking up on something.  I appreciated those in that group who took the risk to mention a feeling emerging for some of them:  guilt.

Thinking about or talking about how they were (or were not) engaging in advocacy elicited feelings of guilt, of being overwhelmed, of not doing enough, or of not being enough.  This was the last reaction I anticipated, and certainly the last one I wanted!  This was also a familiar reaction, one that I have encountered when we talk about “self care.”  How many times have we counseled our students, our clients, and our colleagues to “engage in self-care?”  To take time for ourselves, to ground and affirm and re-energize and heal?  And yet, assessing the self-care we provide to ourselves…often elicits expressions of guilt: we are not doing enough self-care, we are not good enough at self-care.  We know we should do more. We feel bad that we’re not better at it, and we feel guilty about not practicing what we preach. This leaves us stuck.

Indeed, I had no doubt that this esteemed group of counseling psychologists (and some other allied professionals) were advocates.  They were engaged in advocacy on a regular basis, but maybe had never really labeled it as such to themselves or others.

The Role of Guilt

Feelings of guilt do no one any good.  I learned early in my graduate studies (especially being right “outside the Beltway” at the University Maryland) that only a handful of letters to a legislator’s office about a given issue was considered enough to trigger a response.  Getting that first written response from Senator Mikulski as part of an Advocacy Activity in Ruth Fassinger’s Gender Seminar was a revelation.  The Senate stationary and signature were official!  And so was my excitement.

Fast forward years later, advocating on the Hill for women and anti-gun violence legislation as part of the Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology (LIWP) re-awakened a part of my civic spirt I thought 2016 had completely flattened.  It made it much more natural, then, when I had to put my full force into advocating for my students when my institution suddenly closed and there was no one to help.  I was moved beyond words to see my students and colleagues rally, contact legislators, and meet with congressional staffers.

To be able to offer some guidance and mentoring in that process of speaking truth to power was humbling and sustaining.  In the wake of injustice, I fought.  Nothing else in that moment would have affirmed my spirit.  Advocating was the only way to take care of myself and my students.

Of course, legislative advocacy is only one type of advocacy, and if I were to guess, this is what gets most of us:  it’s daunting. When we equate advocacy with engaging one system in narrow ways, we miss so much of the richness of what we can do as counseling psychologists and what we already do!

Advocacy and Counseling Psychology

Certainly, counseling psychology literature has called for more centering of advocacy, with recent research investigating advocacy activities and barriers for counseling psychologists. Indeed, one team designed and implemented a Scientist-Practitioner-Advocate training model to train students in social justice advocacy. This model has been adapted in the counseling world as the Counselor-Advocate-Scholar model. Yet, even for counseling psychologists who are not in social justice-oriented programs, advocacy is part of our core values.

A recent study of medical students indicated that a focus on advocacy in a first year course helps medical students identify themselves with the label “advocate.” Dr. Anneliese Singh’s presidential theme “Building a Counseling Psychology of Liberation” has been a chance for us to explore what a counseling psychology of liberation would look like, feel like, be like. I echo her thoughts and others that a liberatory vision includes embracing a broad, inclusive view of the work we do to address the systemic contributors to injustice and oppression. In this spirit, I encourage you to consider some dos and don’ts as you work (or continue) to view yourself as an “advocate.”

What can we do to push past the barriers (feelings of guilt, awkwardness, and fear of not being enough) to make advocacy core to how we care for ourselves and others? Here are some suggestions: 

  • DO an advocacy self-assessment. What do you think about when you think of advocacy? How do you feel?  How do you see that as a part of your professional and personal identity (or not)?  What do you or do you want to speak out for? How do you advocate for and with your students, clients, colleagues, and profession? How do you advocate for yourself? What people or things help you, and what things (or people) get in the way?  If you were an advocate, how would you see yourself differently?  If you don’t like the word “advocate,” what feels better for you to describe how you show up for yourself and others?  Are you an activist?  Supporter?  Backer?  Hell-raiser?  Try an honest appraisal of the ways in which you are engaged and complacent, and think about why.
  • DON’T let advocacy be the new “self-care guilt”:. bypass the guilt and paralysis. The existential guilt of so much we could and should be doing just helps preserve the status quo and makes us feel bad. Blurg! No one needs that.  Engage how you can, where you can, when you can, and tap out when you need to. You see something from a friend to call your representative with a script and a phone number and you’ve got 2 minutes?    You’re supporting a student addressing an issue at their training site? Great.  Feel like joining a march or even organizing one? Great.  You’re working with a system to insist a client get appropriate care?  Great.  You need to “not right now” because it’s too much right now?  Great.  Make advocacy work for you in your life.  The people and the issues you care about need you, yes, but not all the time, and that’s okay.

Remember that in our guilt about not taking care of ourselves enough, of not advocating more, we also forget that unless we are in systems that provide meaningful structural support for self-care and advocacy (time off, sick days, social gatherings, protected time and allocated resources), self-care and advocacy take time and energy.  They can be, in an of themselves, subversive acts!  Examine those feelings of guilt and see if they are misplaced.  But…

  • DON’T get comfy in complacency. It’s one thing to need a break or to tap out. It’s another to step out of the ring permanently. So, as part of your honest advocacy self-assessment-where can you actually be doing more, and how can you commit to stepping up?  Some feedback from those you trust may help.
  • DO let advocacy be the new self-care: fighting the fights worth fighting can feel good. We know that engagement in meaningful activity improves mood and well-being and contributes to overall health, and that includes activism. It might be that writing a blog post or sending that postcard or speaking up in that meeting are exactly what you need to feel like you are an agent of justice and fairness. And, just like self-care, embedding opportunities for advocacy work into our systems and workplaces can give people the space they need to engage.  Do you incorporate an advocacy activity into classes?  Do faculty and students talk about advocacy as part of professional identity? Do you bring it up to clients when it makes sense?  Advocate for space for advocacy!
  • DO realize how broad advocacy can be! Advocacy is multidimensional, and it can take place within the individual (including your self-self-advocacy is a thing!), amongst people, and at systemic and institutional levels. You may find that you have more interest or energy in a single focus, or you might feel better about tackling issues at different levels in different ways at different times.  Don’t get caught up in feeling guilty about not contacting your legislators (or even perhaps knowing who they are) or knowing the intricacies of government and seeing advocacy through this narrow lens.  Keep track of the ways you continue to fight the good fight, and appreciate the range of skills and abilities you employ.
  • DO recognize that you’re already an advocate. As counseling psychologists, we already recognize and build on our strengths. While it’s possible embracing the role of advocate is new, it’s unlikely that the skills and actions of advocacy are unknown to you. Look at what you do, consider the ways you already advocate, and then use those skills to build from there.  Again, return to that advocacy self-assessment.
  • DON’T go it alone. Maintain connections with colleagues, friends, and see what interdisciplinary coalitions you might create. See what SCP and other organizations you belong to are doing.  See what a difference your advocacy efforts might make might make to yourselves, each other, and the world.

As I discovered in my early political advocacy work, advocacy can be invigorating, energizing, and can offer opportunities for mentorship. Opportunities for advocacy are also literally all around us! When we, as counseling psychologists, act in line with our values, we move past guilt and into fulfillment. What is the point of self-care, if not to energize us and to repair our spirits? When we learn to advocate with less guilt, awkwardness, and in the truth that we are enough, advocacy becomes a powerful form of self-care.

So, as one of my favorite fictional political figures, Leslie Knope said, “Now go find your team, and get to work!

 

Penelope Asay PhD, ABPP, is a Board Certified Counseling Psychologist.  She is the Director of the M.S. Counseling Program at Marian University in Indianapolis, IN, where she is excited to be incorporating advocacy into the curriculum.

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