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An emergent theory of altruism and self-interest.

The person of the counselor is at the center of counseling identity. Ethically, counselors are not to allow their needs or self-interests to impede the client's growth (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2007). If counselors allowed their self-interests to emerge unchecked, it could create situations in which the counselors' needs took precedence over their client's, thus creating a potentially harmful situation for the client. Client protection and welfare are critical to successful therapeutic outcomes; however, the manner in which the ethical standards for counselors are proffered may lead some counselors to conclude that they are required or expected to deny, diminish, or acknowledge any professional or personal gains (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005). The counseling profession, through its ethical standards, may be sending a contradictory message (i.e., counselor wellness is important, yet clients' needs are superior to counselors' needs). These ethical codes and values may inadvertently communicate that the work of counselors is primarily steeped in self-sacrifice, which may lead to counselor burnout.

Ignoring appropriate self-interest holds a variety of negative consequences for counselors, particularly those who work in community mental health settings (Bemard, 2006; Hill, 2004; Lambie, 2007; Myers, 2003; Myers, Sweeney, & White, 2002). Examples of these consequences include overriding unselfish concern, ignoring one's stress level, frustration, job dissatisfaction, stress-related health problems, lowered work productivity, inability to cope with occupational stress, interpersonal conflict, apathy, burnout, poor boundaries, feeling pulled in too many directions, vicarious trauma, and role ambiguity (Bernard, 2006; Hill, 2004; Lambie, 2007; Myers, 2003; Myers et al., 2002; Nelson & Southern, 2008; Trippany, White Kress, & Wilcoxon, 2004; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006) and seem to pervade the field of counseling. The counseling profession has literature, leadership mandates, and ethical codes focused on the altruistic values of practitioners (e.g., Chi Sigma Iota Academy of Leaders for Excellence, 1999; Lawson & Venart, 2005; Meara, Schmidt, & Day, 1996; Stevens, 2000), and, with the exception of the construct of wellness, little emphasis has been focused on what constitutes appropriate self-interest.

* Altruism and Self-Interest

For centuries, scholars have attempted to describe the inherent and dynamic tension between the promotion of needs and wants of self (self-interest) relative to the promotion of needs and wants of others (altruism). Individuals who seem focused on meeting the needs of self have often been described in negative and derisive terms (e.g., egocentric, hedonistic, selfish), whereas individuals who seem focused on the needs of others have often been described in positive terms (e.g., giving, altruistic, selfless). The English language reveals a value-based dichotomy that has implications for the counseling profession.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow believed that human beings had a tendency toward positive growth that encouraged humans to reach for fuller development. Instead of clarifying the relationship between altruism and self-interest, Rogers's theories served only to further the debate. Rogers rejected Freud's notion of the innate selfish nature of the individual and promoted the belief that humans had the capacity for innate positive growth and self-actualization that involved a sense of self-preoccupation (Rogers, 1951). According to Mayeroff (1990), Rogers believed that the ability to help others was innately tied to one's own development; so to be truly altruistic, an individual must be somewhat self-focused.

Maslow (1950) researched the behaviors of members of society who displayed self-actualizing tendencies. He also focused his study on the altruistic traits of the self-actualizing individuals. Initially, Maslow recognized his study participants' humane behavior as self-serving because of their overt enjoyment following these altruistic deeds. Later, he established that the self-actualizing individuals were both altruistic and self-interested (Maslow, 1970). Of importance is that this is one of the first instances in which the related nature of these two constructs was recognized.

Altruistic values and behavior have been highly prized in the counseling profession. Corey et al. (2007) posited that a practitioner's best strategy for maintaining an ethical position is to put his or her clients' interests before all others. In addition,

the counseling profession promotes both mandatory and aspirational ethics in which counselors are encouraged to surpass mandatory standards of care (ACA, 2005). Stevens (2000) described this aspiration poignantly: "As a profession, we hold a social responsibility to model and mentor the highest possible level of ethical/moral behavior. We are society" (p. 178).

The construct of self-interest, as it relates to the counseling process, can be complicated; confounding; and, at times, contradictory. Elements described as useful in increasing counselor effectiveness and helpful in avoiding burnout include effective boundaries; optimal wellness; self-advocacy; reciprocity; positive belief about self, others, and the world; self-care; and the development of self-regulatory systems (Hendricks, 2008; Hermon & Hazler, 1999; Myers & Sweeney, 2008; Myers et al., 2002; Osborn, 2004; Trippany et al., 2004). The importance of counselor self-interest has been demonstrated in the findings of the aforementioned studies. These findings are at odds with what current researchers depict as negative effects of working in the mental health field. Lawson and Venart (2005) described how counselors working in the field are often told indirectly and directly that they ought to see more clients, work longer hours, and produce effective therapeutic results in a small time period. This is often an institutionally based request designed to increase counselor productivity. Skovholt, Grier, and Hanson (2001) shed more light on this systematic communication breakdown by describing "high touch" (e.g., personal exposure to client pain and counselor inability to deny client requests) hazards, which often led to counselor burnout.

The purpose of this study was to investigate how counselors and counselor educators personally and professionally experienced altruism and self-interest and to propose an emergent theory of the promotion, initiation, and maintenance of altruism and self-interest within the counseling profession. Following the tenants of grounded theory, we collected data from the following sources: the Self-Report Altruism Scale (SRA; Rushton, Chrisjohn, & Fekken, 1981); a focus group; semistructured individual interviews; a topic analysis of the 10 previous years of journal articles in counseling, counselor education, and marriage and family counseling; participant artifacts; and participant member checks.

* Method

According to Strauss and Corbin (1990), a grounded theory is an analytically oriented schema of a process. The rationale for a grounded theory method was twofold. First, we desired to deeply and broadly examine the potential influences of the phenomena of altruism and self-interest in the lived experiences of counselors and counselor educators. Second, we sought to systematically describe the relationship, if any, between these constructs.

Researcher as Instrument

The nature of qualitative research requires that investigators provide transparency as to their assumptions and biases. This includes a brief description of each of us, the researchers as instruments, which is intended to provide a contextual understanding of our perspectives. The first author is in his 2nd year as an assistant professor of counselor education and supervision at a state university. In addition to his faculty duties, he serves as the director of the counseling and school psychological training center. He has 8 years of experience as a counselor in a variety of settings. Throughout his doctoral training, he encountered mixed messages regarding the role of altruism and the importance of service and stewardship in the counseling profession. Some of these messages focused on altruistically oriented issues (e.g., pro bono service, volunteering, and stewardship) as well as cautionary issues (e.g., counselor burnout, vicarious trauma, and low wages). It was curious to him that his training program provided few conversations about self-interest-oriented topics (e.g., wellness, fee structure, and internal/external benefits of counseling); thus, he concluded that his natural empathic and compassion orientation along with the altruistically oriented nature of his education could set him up for counselor burnout and an expectation not to be compensated (financially and interpersonally) at a level commensurate with his training. The second author is a counselor educator and supervisor with 12 years of experience in higher education. Her professional background includes 22 years as a counselor in a variety of mental health settings and 10 years experience in the business sector. The first and second authors often discussed the need for balance between an ethic of caring, service, stewardship and the manner in which one sought balance with personal, spiritual, and financial well-being.

Criteria for Participation

Crotty (2003) defined criterion sampling as all people experiencing the construct being studied; therefore, we were intentional about identifying, recruiting, and selecting participants from a variety of counseling settings through criterion-based and snowball sampling procedures. Participants were included in the study if they met the following criteria: actively providing counseling services or counselor education and supervision training or scholarship and were licensed (i.e., licensed professional counselors, licensed marriage and family counselors, counselor education faculty) or were current graduate students (e.g., master's or doctoral) in a counselor education program.

Participants in this study were recruited by the first author through three processes: (a) an e-mail notice sent to a regional counselor education electronic mailing list to solicit participants for a focus group, (b) an in-person group invitation, and (c) an in-person or telephone contact based on the recommendation of another professional (e.g., snowball recruitment).


Twenty-five participants were involved in this study, seven who were drawn from the focus group and 19 individual interviews. One member participated in both a focus group and an individual interview. The sample was composed of 10 women and 15 men who ranged in age from 25 to 79 years (M = 49.76). The self-reported ethnicities of participants were Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Arabian, and Jewish.

With respect to professional identity, seven participants were professional counselors, 14 were counselor educators, three were marriage and family counselors, and one was a psychologist who was licensed as a professional counselor. In terms of program affiliation, 16 participants worked at, or were being educated at, a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, and two participants were affiliated with the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education program. One counselor educator worked at a nonaccredited program, and six participants described their occupational status as not involving academia.


Potential participants were given informed consent forms regarding the study's intent and purpose. Additionally, participants were asked to complete a self-report measure of altruism (i.e., the SRA), engage in an individual interview or a focus group, and provide artifacts (digital photographs) that represented their professionally based self-interest and altruism. The SRA served as an advanced organizer that would allow participants to conceptualize and reflect on their altruism prior to the interview or focus group and served as a point of triangulation. As a way to protect participant identity and maintain anonymity, participants were identified by a single letter unrelated to the participant's name.

The focus group and all individual interview sessions were transcribed by the first author and subsequently subjected to member checking. Simultaneous to the interviews, the first author conducted a review of the previous 10 years of journal articles to examine the presence and relevance of these two constructs in the field of counseling. The individual interviews and the focus group were used to explore participants' perceptions of altruism and self-interest. The artifacts (digital photos) provided a bridge between the philosophical nature of altruism--self-interest and a real-life example of the relationship. The journal analysis was used to determine whether the counseling profession addressed issues of altruism and self-interest (e.g., wellness, burnout, vicarious trauma, ethical violations) in the previous decade. Finally, the member check was conducted as part of a rigorous trustworthiness process. The second author served as the auditor for the researcher epoche, three levels of coding, the thematic analysis, and the emergent theory.

Trustworthiness Procedures

The following procedures were undertaken to ensure trustworthiness: researcher epoche, prolonged engagement with the data, reflexivity, researcher journal or field notes, depend ability and confirmability audits (audit trail), triangulation, member checks, thick and rich descriptions, nominated sample, and negative case analysis (Crotty, 2003; Merriam, 1998; Schwandt, 2001). In the researcher epoche, the first author bracketed and rebracketed his beliefs, opinions, and assumptions prior to the start of the study. These data, along with the researcher journal, were examined at three points in the data analysis process by the second author to further ensure credibility and prevent an overly biased analysis or writing from an opinionated standpoint. Confirmability and trustworthiness were further ensured through triangulation of the data and by examining information from multiple perspectives and data points. To ensure transferability of the data, the first author asked participants open-ended questions that evoked a detailed narrative. This process provided the material for a thick description of distinct, yet related, categories that were then distilled into emergent themes. All themes were deliberately written to include nuances of the themes; subthemes; and, where warranted, pictorial descriptions.

To improve the dependability and confirmability of the findings, the second author conducted an audit to determine whether the thoughts, procedures, and strategies on particular themes were both verifiable and dependable. As a way to refine and contextualize the analysis, a negative case analysis was used. This involved searching for and discussing elements of the data that did not support, or seemed to contradict, patterns or explanations that emerged from data analysis. This additional analysis allowed for revising, broadening, and confirming the patterns emerging from data analysis.

Data Analysis

Data (i.e., quantitative measure, focus group transcript, individual interview transcripts, artifact pictures/descriptions, and journal analysis) were combined and analyzed for all significant themes or patterns. First, data were analyzed holistically through open coding (Merriam, 1998). Memos were written that identified the directions, impressions, and thoughts of the first author. Next, the memos were analyzed in conjunction with the interviews and field notes. The causal conditions, strategies, intervening conditions, and consequences were examined and contextualized in order to form an axial coding paradigm (Strauss & Corbin, 1997).

Axial coding was used to uncover the core phenomena of the investigation. The first author ascertained the causal conditions and linked them conceptually to the overarching strategies. These overarching strategies were the main patterns that emerged as a result of the open coding procedure. The intervening conditions were isolated to determine which ones were most likely to influence the strategies. The consequences of the strategies were distinguished in the final aspect of this process. Finally, a selective coding method was used as the third step in the analysis. Propositions about data were written in narrative form in order to describe the interrelationships of the emergent categories and, thus, the foundation of grounded theory. Data was examined using foundational rules for inclusion or exclusion. The second author contrasted the codes with the first author's field notes, journal entries, and feedback from the member checking process. Data (i.e., proposed theory), in their final form, were represented in a series of propositions (Creswell, 2007; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and submitted for a final audit.

* Results

Self-Report Measure of Altruism

All 25 participants completed the SRA, a brief measure of personal altruism. Although the SRA is a quantitative measure, the scores from this measure were not used in any formal statistical analysis but were used to generally describe the sample. The overall SRA scores for all participants in the study were between 29 and 66, with a mean of 48.88 and a standard deviation of 11.61. In comparison with Rushton et al.'s (1981) original study on the SRA, the scores in the present sample were similar in terms of means and standard deviations. Thus, the measure was deemed to be a credible introduction to the evaluation of personal altruism for participants in this study.

Focus Group and Individual Interviews

A focus group was conducted at an Association of Counselor Education and Supervision regional conference in 2008. The only criterion for the focus group was that all participants must self-identify as a professional counselor. The focus group process allowed for exchanges, uncovering, and production of thoughts on the relationship between altruism and self-interest within the counseling and counselor education professions. The focus group (n = 7), which lasted approximately 65 minutes, was composed of three women and four men. Nineteen individual interviews were conducted, and the group of interviewees was composed of eight women and 11 men, ranging in age from 25 to 79 years.

Journal Analysis and Participants' Artifacts

A topic analysis was conducted on articles published in the Journal of Counseling & Development (JCD), Counselor Education and Supervision (CES), and The Family Journal (FJ) for the 10-year period of 1998 to 2008. Both JCD and CES were selected as relevant journals because of their salience in the counseling profession. FJ was chosen because of the systemic nature in which many participants described the altruism-self-interest phenomenon. The goal of analysis was to identify the nature and extent of professional literature dedicated to counselor altruism or self-interest. The keywords used in the search process included altruism, self-interest, counselor role, burnout, wellness, and counselor identity. The journal analysis identified 19 journal articles during the established time frame that described or discussed the concepts of counselor altruism and/or self-interest. The content of the articles was openly coded and produced a total of 238 codes, which were synthesized into 12 main themes.

Eighteen of the 19 participants sent photographs of artifacts that represented their altruistic and self-interest sides. The artifacts were discussed with the participants and their derived meanings incorporated into the 12 emerging themes. The self-interest-oriented artifacts ranged from photographs of high performance vehicles to exercise clothing. The altruistic artifacts ranged from photographs of meaningful letters from past clientele to pictures of God and Buddha.

Synthesis of Data

After gathering all the data from the six data collection points, we combined all transcribed data and conducted a combined analysis of the findings. The focus group and individual interview transcripts were coded and analyzed directly. Next, all participants described their felt experience with completing the SRA and their rationale for choice in artifact. These experiences were transcribed and coded for the focus group and individual interviews. Last, the SRA scores, physical pictures of the artifacts, coded quotes within the journal analysis, and information gleaned through the member check were all included in the combined final analysis.

The emergent themes from this study are reported in a format consistent with Strauss and Corbin's (1990) model. This model identifies the following structure: causal conditions, intervening conditions, contextual conditions, action/interactions/routines, and consequences. The conditions, actions, and consequences derived from this study were independent of one another and interrelated on a number of levels (see Figure 1). The causal conditions were events that led to the identification of a dynamic relationship between altruism and self-interest. Contextual and intervening conditions referred to the particular sets of conditions that intervened with the causal condition--a broader set of conditions. Action/interaction/routine strategies referred to the actions and responses that occurred as the result of the phenomenon, context, and intervening conditions. Finally, the outcomes, both intended and unintended, of these actions and responses were labeled consequences.

* Causal Conditions

Conflicting Beliefs and Perceptions

Participants repeatedly expressed conflicting beliefs and perceptions regarding the altruism--self-interest phenomenon. Participants' beliefs were defined as aspects of life that they learned about through values, morals, and culture, whereas perceptions were defined as actions the participants engaged in related to their beliefs. Participants as well as their beliefs and perceptions were, at times, in conflict.

The greatest sense of discord between and among participants' actions, perceptions, and speech was the manner in which they perceived that the counseling profession promoted

altruism as a required trait or action among counselors. Eight participants stated that the counseling profession was very altruistic, whereas four others believed that the profession was not altruistic enough. This perception is illustrated by Participant S in her description of her dismay with the profession's lack of an altruistic tendency. She remarked,
   Well ... [long pause] I don't hear therapists ... contributing
   at a community level. I ... I think that's very limited....
   Secondly, I don't hear many therapists having a very mindful
   practice around pro bone clients. Thirdly, I hear a lot of
   people in my profession ... which pains me actually to be
   very oriented around private pay, because they don't want to
   ... do billing for insurance.


In contrast, Participant F believed that the counseling profession was more altruistic. Speaking of counselor educators, she said,
   Most of my colleagues are very professionally and personally
   altruistic. For example, one of my colleagues does tremendous
   research and service related to suicide and suicide prevention
   and has grants, does presentations all over the state, all over
   this region of the country in suicide gatekeeper training, collects
   money in terms of organizing walks, teams for walking
   to raise money for suicide prevention and awareness.... I
   mean, she is altruism from start to finish.

Covert Values and Attitudes

Participants repeatedly expressed covert values and attitudes within the counseling profession. Covert values were those unique rules that members of the counseling profession (educators, supervisors, peers) presented and promoted yet were not prominently communicated in the professional literature. A covert attitude may represent a meaningful or superficial belief or behavior that was not widely documented or researched.

Five participants noted covert values and attitudes related to counselors' altruism because they believed that counselors make a quiet difference in the lives of clients and should not be grandiose about their successes. Participant S spoke to this covert expectation:
   You know, I think that people in our profession do ... not have
   much grandiosity. You know, we're silent in our successes
   ... because of confidentiality, which, of course, is by nature
   part of the work, we don't get to ... celebrate in a big way
   about the work. You know, like, we did this, or this, or this ...
   maybe with a family or individual. But it's quiet ... it's quiet.

A Richer View of Self-Interest

Participants frequently expressed a richer view of self-interest (i.e., helping myself allows me to help others) as opposed to narrow vision of self-interest (i.e., helping myself is a purely selfish endeavor). Participants who proudly accepted their self-interest voiced that they did not appreciate many of their professional colleagues' misunderstanding of what appropriate self-interest meant. A richer view of self-interest meant expanding the concept beyond what some may define as meeting one's own needs (e.g., a focus on wellness).

Fifteen participants described how an adherence to their health and wellness was an appropriate use of their self-interest. Participant Z reported on the passion she puts into teaching appropriate boundaries and wellness. She described,
   I think I work hard and train students in ethics and related
   course work on good self-care ... and taking time to instill in
   them the idea that self-interest in modest amounts is healthy
   and that they wouldn't want their clients or their loved ones
   taking up 24/7 and so, learning to say no, learning to set
   boundaries, and learning to tune in to some of the other
   definitions of self-interest besides just feeling really good
   about oneself.

* Intervening Conditions

Mixed Messages

Participants consistently expressed experiencing mixed messages within the counseling profession as related to the articulation of altruism-self-interest. Furthermore, the theme of mixed messages refers to conflicting or different overt messages received by participants. These messages differed from the conflicting beliefs and perceptions discussed earlier in that they were viewed as less personal and seemed to emanate from a source external to the participants. There is, however, some overlap insofar as participants' expectations were violated.

Fifteen of the 19 individuals interviewed demonstrated conflicting perspectives as to whether counselors ought to engage in enterprising behaviors. Several participants who identified enterprising in counseling as appropriate would later reject certain aspects of the very same behavior(s). For example, Participant S highlighted the nature of the mixed message of helping (altruism) and self-interest (enterprising) when discussing whether counseling was or was not a business:
   Counseling as a business sits funny. See now, I recognize if
   I were in private practice, I would agree with that statement.
   But I've never been in private practice. I've always been employed
   by universities and school districts. And ... because
   back as a young professional in the early '80s, I worked for
   a small business college.., a privately owned business college.
   And the profit motive of that organization I found to be
   very distasteful and very contrary to my own value system.

This quotation represents a mixed message. The individual who made this comment described the confusion that many other participants reflected in their statements. Specifically, this participant found some of the institutions (e.g., schools and universities) eschew a business orientation, whereas other organizations (e.g., private practice and private college) are centrally organized around a business model.

Career Choice

Participants reported that counseling, as a career choice, was related to personal values and an expected set of behaviors developed by counselors who occupy the profession. Although the choice in becoming a counselor was affected by a number of circumstances, on the macrolevel, participants noted that counselors seem to exhibit an internal decision-making component about becoming or being a counselor and an external presentation regarding what a counselor should "look like" (e.g., expected behaviors and ways of being). Seventeen participants believed that the choice of counseling as a career was a deep and meaningful experience. Participant F described that her choice to become a counselor was dependent on a calling and love for the work:
   You know, people go into this work [counseling and counselor
   education] because they love the work and they feel a calling
   to it, not because they'll ever be ... I mean, hopefully people
   will be able to make ends meet. But, I ... I know certainly
   as a counselor educator [the financial compensation] is not
   commensurate with contribution in the world, it just isn't, so
   you do it because it's the right thing to do.

Status and Competition

Participants frequently expressed a sense of competition and status within the counseling profession and among allied helping professions. Status was interpreted as how counselors view themselves, how other mental health professions viewed counselors, and how counselor status compared with all professions.

Five participants reported that counselors have lost status because counselor education programs are overproducing counselors. Participant W described this dimension:
   Our field has lost status, horribly I think, and it ... but it's
   become a different world. We've created this group of, and
   I hate to say it when it's been used in other literature, we've
   sometimes been called drones. And I'm talking master's-level

Eight participants saw the counseling profession as having lower status when compared with other mental health professions, particularly psychologists. Participant S described her awareness of counselor identity and the mental health hierarchy: "I think counseling, as far as counselor identity, we're definitely struggling with that. It seems like, we absolutely aren't looked at as highly as a psychologist or a psychiatrist or another profession"

* Actions/Interactions/Routines

Competing Definitions of Altruism and Self-Interest

Participants seemed to struggle when defining altruism and self-interest. Sixteen participants described the terms in relation to each other and noted the discordant nature of their narrative. For example, in attempting to define altruism and self-interest as a process, Participant K suggested the following:
   Doing things that are of my heart and are generous for no other
   reason ... simply because I want an authentic connection with
   another human being.... To me it's funny. I mean, that would
   be my definition of it, whereas others may see it as a
   I don't experience it as a selflessness. I experience it as
   a give/give [as opposed to give/take].

Most participants' descriptions involved the significance of giving to others and an inconsequentiality of receiving personal or monetary benefits. Personal dissonance emerged within and among narratives when altruism was linked to self-sacrifice.

The Process and Action of Altruism and Self-Interest

Participants expressed a process and action within the altruism--self-interest phenomenon. This theme centered on participants' conceptualization of altruism--self-interest as a psychologically based process.

Ten participants described altruism and self-interest as an interrelated and dynamic phenomenon. This was often related to a variety of counseling behaviors and tasks that had at their core mutual interest for all involved. Participant J described the phenomenon's nonstatic, interrelated, holistic nature. He reported,
   Because when I give freely and I can be of service to somebody
   ... which ... you know, an act of service can boost my immune
   system. An act of service creates some really cool endorphins
   in the brain, that I think as a social human being, I'm wired
   to be altruistic at least part of the time and if I can see that as
   a part of my self-interest and I can then look at self-interest
   and say, "If I'm the best therapist that I can be and the most
   ethical therapist I can be," that's in my self-interest to do that
   ... then, I will also probably be more helpful to my clients.
   So I see them as ... two sides of the same coin.

* Contextual Conditions

Following are the contextual conditions that served as antecedents for the emergence of the altruism--self-interest phenomenon: counselors' gender, professional tenure and experience, cultural expectations,

the economy, overt and covert messages within the counseling profession related to altruism and self-interest, and allegiance to counseling subprofessions (e.g., couples and family counselors, group counselors, career counselors, and counselor educators).

In general, the contextual factors of gender, cultural expectations, overt and covert messages related to altruism and self-interest, and the economy were factors over which participants expressed that they had no control; however, participants believed that these factors did affect the counseling profession. All participants were significantly affected by the cultural expectation that caring or helping was to be done for the greater good and not for any form of remuneration.

The contextual variables that were viewed as somewhat within the participants' control were professional tenure and experience and allegiance to counseling subprofessions. Professional tenure and experience were usually related to issues of burnout, working with professionals who are impaired, adherence to the expectation of a substandard wage or vow of poverty, being stretched thin, feeling used by counseling organizations or professors, and establishing professional boundaries. These experiences encouraged participants to move toward altruistic intentions or self-interest. For example, many participants mentioned an experience of being on the verge of, or actually experiencing, burnout and reacted with an increase adherence to self-interest (e.g., wellness).

* Consequences

Benefits of Caring

Participants repeatedly acknowledged the benefits of caring within the counseling profession. Participants mentioned a variety of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards from being in the counseling profession.

Six participants mentioned an intrinsic deep satisfaction in seeing clients grow and begin to take control of their life. Participant Z described this deep satisfaction as lucky:
   Because our work is so directly with people that we know,
   well I hope, we know we're making a difference and, getting
   to be part of someone's change and growth. So I think that's
   the experience I have at conferences or hanging out with other
   counselor educators.

Negative Consequences of Caring

Participants consistently articulated the consequences of caring within the counseling profession. Participants experienced these consequences intrinsically as well as extrinsically. The term consequence in this context refers to a negative happening, which was a direct result from being a member of the counseling profession. Participant W described the reality of the professional expectations for a vow of poverty and the tolerance or expectation of burnout within the counseling profession. Thirteen participants described the tolerance within the context of private practice, agency work, and training settings, as well as in casual conversations with other professionals. Participant W stated,
   We do another disservice in saying, "You need to have social
   justice and advocacy." I told my class the other night, I said,
   "That's a really absurd thought, thinking you're all going to
   go work for an agency and make, you know, $15 to $20 an
   hour, like you're gonna have a bunch of extra time to go out
   and do that [social justice work] on top of it, when you're being
   pumped to work ... in the agencies ... long hours, back
   to back, it's exhausting work with difficult clients. And then
   you wanna go advocate for them?" Back to altruism versus
   self-interest ... You're gonna advocate for yourself in the end.

Eight participants described their struggle in dealing with insurance companies. Participant L stated,
   We work in organizations or systems that are, um, exhausting
   and, uh, sometimes can take away from why we all got into
   this profession in the first place. And, um, you know, or just
   dealing with insurance agencies, and, you know, insurance if
   you're a private practice. There's just a lot of things out there
   that, structurally, are, urn, consume a lot of energy.

Professional Mistrust

Participants continually expressed a sense of professional mistrust. The theme professional mistrust referred to the lack of safety felt by participants while talking about one's self-interest or altruistic sides with other counseling professionals. Professional mistrust was expressed as a concern for 11 participants who noted that they did not typically talk about their personal needs, wants, and desires to other professionals because of a lack of trust. Participant K noted,
   Just to be totally honest there's been a couple of times that
   I felt I may have opened up a little side of myself and the
   person didn't keep it confidential and in fact kind of used it,
   I thought, against me a little bit. You know, you think, "I don't
   know if I can really trust a lot of people [other counselors] to
   talk about my personal needs."

It seemed that describing self-interested behaviors exposed some participants to the judgment or criticism of their peers.

Varying Descriptions of Counseling

Participants repeatedly offered varying descriptions of what counseling is. Five participants described the main purpose of counseling as an act of charity or as a way to give back to the community. Participant Y described counseling as helping others and the community:
   There's a lot, just hearing, just being able to see progress in
   people, see people grow. I think that's rewarding. I think it's
   ... there is reward in making a difference in the community
   ... the impact you can have on people, as a supervisor ...
   and as a counselor ... an educator.

Counseling was alternatively viewed as a business and an interpersonal transaction. Eight participants expressed pride in how counseling is a business and not a service to be given away freely. Participant J commented,
   Yeah, I'm not here as a nonprofit thing to help the [his
   community] or [nearby community] community.... I'm
   here to do work that I love, to give freely as I do that work.
   ... I give 100%, I try to be as present as possible with
   my clients during sessions.... I try to do the best work
   that I can for them. But, yeah, if your check bounces, we
   have a problem.

A dynamic tension between and among participants seemed to exist and center on whether counseling was service to a group (a verb) or a service provided to a group (a noun). This same tension was reflected in the descriptions of altruism and self-interest.

* The Emergent Theory of Altruism and Self-Interest in Counseling

The theory of the promotion, initiation, and maintenance of the relationship between altruism and self-interest within the counseling profession has been depicted in a pictorial representation (see Figure 1). The double-ended arrow between causal conditions and intervening conditions represent the interaction of the themes depicted within each category and functions as a theoretical starting place. The double-ended arrow connecting intervening conditions and consequences portrays the connection and interaction between the antecedents of the theory and its consequences. The double-ended arrows connecting contextual conditions and actions/interactions/ routines to both intervening conditions and consequences represent factors that interacted and were interdependent with all levels of the grounded theory.

This grounded theory represents a multidimensional and recursive phenomenon that is affected by perceptions of self, others, and the profession. The altruism--self-interest phenomenon was initiated by causal, intervening, and contextual conditions. Causal and intervening conditions set the stage for the theory of altruism and self-interest. For example, the covert profession-directed value of solely rewarding altruism was a causal subtheme, which interacted with the theme career choice, because participants believed that the counseling profession typically drew individuals who were inclined to be altruistic. The contextual conditions were assessed as antecedents to other conditions because they were innate to the individual (e.g., gender), environmental (e.g., economy and cultural expectations), and the profession (overt/covert messages and counseling subprofessions), and thus did not follow a particular condition. These contextual conditions were also salient in maintaining the altruism--self-interest phenomenon. For example, the economy maintains a certain level of reimbursement for counseling services and, as such, remains a factor in how counselors identify their own altruism and self-interest.

Current and historical factors contributed to a promotion of the altruism--self-interest phenomenon; however, none punctuated the rift between altruism and self-interest more than the historical dichotomy between academia and business. Participants' expressed conflict related to the degree counseling ought to be considered a business, there was ambiguity associated between the professional roles of a counselor and the business world, participants' frequently disagreed on the importance and appropriateness of blending the roles of counselor and entrepreneur, and there was conflict over the purity of academic pursuits. For example, Participant I's (a counselor educator) statement reflects this internal conflict:
   It's true [counseling is a business] in the sense that any
   profession has a business aspect. It's untrue in the sense that
   a lot of the people who get into counseling truly are dedicated
   to helping others. And they would do it for free.

This information seems to indicate that counselors experience altruism and self-interest as a single unifying phenomenon. Thus, we have named this interrelated set of intervening and contextual conditions the altruism--self-interest phenomenon. The dash between altruism and self-interest demonstrates the interrelatedness of the traditionally dichotomous happenings.

* Discussion

Counselor Educators

The present investigation into the altruism--self-interest relationship within the counseling profession revealed three points of discussion for counselor educators. First, what constitutes appropriate professional altruism--self-interest among counselors and counselor educators? Although participants described positive reactions (i.e., support or emotional recognition from altruistically oriented colleagues), they simultaneously described covert mandates they believed encouraged counselors to remain humble and silent about their successes. Counselor educators and the professional literature seemed to focus on counselor wellness as the primary professional practice related to appropriate self-interest. Participants' comments reflected this as well because they stated that this type of self-interest involved creating effective boundaries, achieving optimal wellness, and maintaining a positive belief system (Hendricks, 2008; Hermon & Hazier, 1999; Myers & Sweeney, 2008; Myers et al., 2002; Osborn, 2004; Trippany et al., 2004).

A second point of discussion centers on the importance of trust and acceptance between and among counselor educators. Participants either admitted to having their trust breached or encountered derogatory comments related to other professionals' perceptions of colleagues' inappropriate self-interest. Antecedents to this breach of trust centered on betrayals of trust, privacy, and apparent professional jealousy. For example, participants often disparaged certain enterprising practices (e.g., frequent and repeated updating of textbook editions) of those with whom they were not acquainted or whom they deemed to be overly self-interested. Moreover, these same participants spoke as if they knew the enterprising professional personally (when they did not) and continued to assail the entrepreneur's character, intent, or behavior. Faculty can model acceptance, authenticity, appreciation, and appropriate criticism of enterprising individuals in the same way they accept the impoverished clients for whom they often advocate.

The final discussion point centers on curriculum, internship, and course work that could enrich and strengthen students' understanding of basic professional business skills (e.g., fee structure, consulting, and marketing). Counseling is an art and a science and, at its core, is a service provided to clients. The omission of business course work in professional training is curious by its absence. Counselor educators may unwittingly be consigning future generations of counselors to "life in the mill" (mental health clinics) without recognition that counselors are also being trained for independent practice. Most of the student participants admitted that they received very little information within their training that would help them understand a basic business structure, counseling's place in the economy, or how to market/advertise a service. In addition, numerous participants noted that counselor educators seemed quick to state that "people don't get into counseling for the money," "counselors are stretched thin" or "you must hear a calling in this profession." However, participants were concerned that their faculty held no conversations related to addressing these concerns via social advocacy or the curriculum. Counselor education curricula should reflect the multiple roles that professionals will enter, including those of educators, scholars, supervisors, advanced clinicians, program managers, consultants, and leaders (Bernard, 2006).


At the core of the altruism--self-interest relationship is a deeper, more accurate understanding of practice-based issues in regard to the conflicted relationship between optimal wellness and burnout. Participants who were counseling practitioners stated that they felt called to give themselves in a primarily altruistic manner to clients and communities. This, in their words, often led to burnout. The wellness mandate embedded within the notion of self-interest instructs clinicians to attend to their physical, mental, and spiritual health on a regular basis. This wellness mandate seems somewhat hollow when contrasted with the many conflicting messages in the counseling literature (e.g., expectation of low pay [i.e., vow of poverty] and excessive workloads) and a counselor's natural sense of compassion and empathy (Baker & Baker, 1999; Ben-Dror, 1994; Hill, 2004; Osborn, 2004; Rohland, 2000; Trippany et al., 2004).

Counselors need to be aware of how their assumptions and beliefs related to status, power, access, and worth may create a reality that is not conducive to the promotion of counseling as a profession. Numerous participants commented on how counseling was perceived as a profession of low status, including voicing concerns that clinicians did not achieve a financial compensation commensurate with their education and training. To participants, this seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This finding is consistent with the professional literature that describes a lack of clinical marketplace, not being compensated in a manner commensurate with training, reluctance of JCD editors to publish counseling research, lack of uniform licensing standards, lack of parity in insurance reimbursement, and overlapping mental health services (Bernard, 2006; Hendricks, 2008; Hill, 2004; Lambie, 2007; Myers et al., 2002; Nelson & Jackson, 2003; Osborn, 2004; Weinrach, Thomas, & Chan, 2001; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006). Counselors need to be intentional about advocating for themselves and the profession and demonstrating a positive outlook on counselor status and influence, or practitioners may follow a negative trajectory into professional irrelevance.

Finally, participants who were clinicians continually described the negative consequences of working with insurance companies. The tedious and bureaucratic nature of working with third-party compensation caused several participants to start all-cash practices. Clinicians would benefit from models of self-advocacy related to the financial compensation aspects of their practice. Clinicians will be better compensated and have a more effective relationship with insurance companies if clinicians become actively involved in legislative efforts at the national and state levels for mental health pay parity.

* Limitations of the Study

Three potential limitations should be considered when examining the findings of this research. First, altruism and self-interest are rich and expansive concepts that have been reviewed and analyzed by ancient and contemporary philosophers alike. Although the present research has shed some contemporary light on the current social and personal experiences of these particular philosophical stances, the altruism--self- interest phenomenon warrants much more attention. The emergent theory presented here is only a beginning.

A second limitation of this research was the taboo nature of self-interest talk in the counseling profession, which may have caused participants to be reluctant to express their experiences or to downplay their thoughts and feelings about self-interest, or may have caused them to present in an ideal manner in order to reduce the likelihood of negative self-evaluation. Because authenticity is a salient feature of qualitative research and for this research in particular, it was essential to set a comfortable and accepting atmosphere during individual interviews and the focus group. This atmosphere demonstrated a profound openness and acceptance of all points of view. Although this atmosphere encouraged openness, along with maintaining the participants' anonymity, there was no guarantee participants felt the necessary conditions to fully disclose their own self-interest.

A third potential limitation to the present investigation was the relative homogeneity of the sample. We recognize that qualitative research paradigms primarily focus on the transferability rather than generalizability of results and acknowledge that this sample of participants was unbalanced with respect to participants' ethnicity and gender. Despite the representation from six self-identified ethnicities, it is plausible that a more balanced sample may have yielded different results given that the constructs of altruism and self-interest seem to have a cultural component.

* Areas for Further Research

This investigation into the promotion, initiation, and maintenance of the relationship between altruism and self-interest within the counseling profession begins to provide some understanding for a relatively new query into the foundation of the counseling field's philosophy and meaning. Through this inquiry, a number of areas for further research have emerged.

Up to this point, much of what has been discussed and investigated in the areas of altruism and self-interest has sought to isolate the two factors while at the same time suggesting an inherent overlap. Indeed, this investigation is unique in that participants found both altruism and self-interest to be a single interactive phenomenon. Conducting research to empirically support this finding could help counselors and counselor educators alike begin to understand some of the ambivalence they may be experiencing in terms of appropriate boundaries, wellness, and other effective forms of self-interest.

The next areas warranting further empirical support are the impact of a counselor's multicultural background (e.g., race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, country of origin) on the altruism-self-interest phenomenon, the need for more business-oriented training and internship in counselor education, and the need for an empirical measure related to the altruism-self-interest phenomenon. This research could add understanding to multicultural issues related to the clients counselors serve, demystify the false dichotomy between business and academia, and create a potential instrument to protect counselors from burnout and compassion fatigue.

* Conclusion

This research represents a first attempt to develop an emergent theory that explains the promotion, initiation, and maintenance of the phenomenon of altruism and self-interest within the counseling profession. The results of all six data collection points revealed a false dichotomization of the words altruism and self-interest. Specifically, both altruism and self-interest were found to be two parts of the same whole. This whole functions as a single, self-sustaining phenomenon. The present research represents an initial step in the reduction of the unspoken double bind that seems foundational to such ailments as counselor burnout, impairment, and compassion fatigue. Our hope is that this theory will inspire counselors to achieve wellness so that they can effectively help others.

Received 02/23/10

Revised 08/20/10

Accepted 12/05/10

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Stephen V. Flynn, Department of Counselor Education and Supervision, University of South Dakota; Linda L. Black, Department of Counselor Education and Supervision, University of Northern Colorado. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Stephen V. Flynn, Department of Counselor Education and Supervision, University of South Dakota, 414 East Clark Street, Vermillion, SD 57069 (e-mail:
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Author:Flynn, Stephen V.; Black, Linda L.
Publication:Journal of Counseling and Development
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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