Question from the field: What makes an addiction counselor a “Master Craftsman”?

May 27, 2023
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A colleague in the field (a professional addiction counselor of 30+ years) sent me an email and suggested I respond here on Recovery Review. It’s a great topic with good questions. I’ll place the questions in quotation marks as they were written and reply to each.

The field of Substance Use Disorders and becoming a Substance Use Disorder provider is a “craft” all of its own. Question… Does obtaining a “Master’s” degree in Substance Use Disorder counseling make a person a “Master Craftsman?” I’d be interested in hearing the feedback on that one. What do you think?

To answer this question, first I’ll take the question literally about that exact degree.

I’ll say this…in my 35 years of clinical work in our field I have known less than 5 people who had a terminal master’s degree in Addiction Counseling. Such degrees do exist – as do master’s degrees in mental health counseling, clinical psychology, social work, etc.. But the master’s in Addiction Counseling is a specialty degree. I would hesitate to answer because I have so few to base my answer on. I can say, however, my experience is that such people seem no more or less effective than any other counselor with any other level or type of degree(s).

With that part of my reply out of the way, I’ll be less literal and answer more broadly. And to do that I’ll modify the question a little bit and phrase it as follows: “Does obtaining a Master’s degree that is academically and clinically relevant to providing addiction counseling make a person a “Master Craftsman”?

In my experience the level and kind of degree one has seems unrelated to the primary factor(s) that drive effectiveness in professional addiction counseling. The factors that seem primary to me include inherent personal attributes. These include the capacity for attunement, for not taking things personally, and for compassion in all circumstances. I’d like to emphasize that I literally mean inherent personal attributes, rather than only meaning behaviors one can demonstrate.

Upon the base of those qualities, it seems to me that some addiction counselors also build a particular kind of framework. I think I’ve noticed the best among us have formed a personal framework that consists of at least 3 things.

1. Being emotionally and behaviorally nimble, yet non-reactive.

2. Holding mindfulness of the illness, general and individualized recovery, and the big picture of the entire clinical portion of the patient’s journey, in view.

3. Emphasizing partnering as a working process over almost any other consideration (e.g. even while providing clinical opportunities or challenges).

If such a thing as a “master craftsman” in addiction counseling exits, and I think it does, then I’ll say some addiction counselors with those inherent personal attributes I listed, and who build such a framework, also commit themselves to relatively constant personal and professional growth and improvement. And that they especially do so through the three channels of patient feedback, results/outcomes, and clinical supervision (aside from their own work on their own person). What I am describing are the counselors that commit themselves to this craft, and the improvement of their work, through those three channels, for the lifetime of their work.

Were you a “Master Craftsman” upon Graduation? I’m pretty sure I know what your “personal” answer would be. It would be very interesting to hear from the rest of the field. At “all” levels of “years of experience.”

I will say, “No, I was not.”

  • And I will say this question makes me wonder if I did, however, show up holding the essential capacities?
  • And the question also makes me wonder if one is able to increase those capacities on purpose, regardless of the scale of those capacities when one arrives in the work?
  • The question also leads me to think about the critical formula of (time x intentional effort), and persisting in or sustaining the formula of (time x effort) over the long haul. And the results that can be had by sustaining that, and can be had no other way.

Another question to present would be. Has your opinion “changed” over time and if so why.

I think my answer has changed from what I would have said in my first several years. Back then I probably would have said that the “Master Craftsman” must have the required knowledge and skills, and really develop those. And that one must really ask oneself if one is effective, efficient, and holds the knowledge and skills that are necessary and sufficient.

But at this stage in my career, I would disagree with the idea that “effective/efficient/necessary/sufficient” are in fact primary. Now, I would claim that more key than those are the combination of:

  1. the inherent personal qualities, and
  2. the personal clinical framework one builds upon those inherent qualities.

as I described above.

And I would also claim the combination of those is the essential base within or upon which feedback and development can really be maximized over the long haul. I have met some counselors in my career who are like that.

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