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Designing lives and empowering clients: the case of Sue.

This case response centers on the client Sue, a professional mediator who seeks counseling to resolve a conflict with her employer that threatens her vocational identity (M. C. Rehfuss, 2003). P. B. Baltes's (1997) Selective Optimization With Compensation model of human development and J. Heckhausen and R. Schulz's (1995) Life-Span Theory of Control are used to frame Sue's career development, identify her current control orientation, and assist her in making the transition from compensation to an optimizing strategy. Such a strategy aims to preserve her vocational identity while satisfying the needs of her employer.


A persistent theme discussed in contemporary career literature is that a gulf exists between career counseling and empirically based career theory and research. Practitioners argue that current research is too far removed from the client's subjective experience, whereas researchers argue that practitioners use antiquated instruments and obsolete career orientations in an attempt to resolve contemporary problems. A potentially fruitful approach to overcoming this stalemate and moving the field forward would be to demonstrate how recent theoretical advances can actually inform and enhance practice. Thus, in this response to the case study of Sue (Rehfuss, 2003), I combine some of the latest developmental theory with a subjective approach in order to assess and work with the client, Sue, as she finds her way through her career crisis.

Because many readers may be unfamiliar with the theoretical orientations that I use in this case response, I provide a brief orientation to Baltes and colleagues' (Baltes, 1997; Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 1998) Selective Optimization With Compensation (SOC) meta-model of human development and Heckhausen and Schulz's (1995) Life-Span Theory of Control. These contemporary models of human functioning can serve the interests of researchers and practitioners and act as a bridge linking the interests and needs of both.

The SOC model suggests that during the process of goal selection individuals examine their perceived sphere of influence, identify potential resources and deficits that are internal and external to them (e.g., talents and social supports, respectively) and that will facilitate or impede their goals, and then move toward achieving their goals by mustering their resources and minimizing the impact of their deficits. Aside from the person-specific resource/deficit ratio, however, the SOC model provides little guidance concerning the universal human motivations that affect target selection and subsequent action. Heckhausen and Schulz's (1995) Life-Span Theory of Control addresses this omission by providing a target-preference hierarchy that is centered on the construct of control and defines the distinction between primary and secondary control.

The SOC process model of human development (Baltes, 1997; Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Baltes et al., 1998) asserts that development proceeds in the face of an ever-changing and developing person--context unit. This unit of study can be defined in terms of the unique facilitating and constraining conditions within the context of human needs and resources. Human development, from the SOC perspective, continues in an optimal fashion when a person develops and pursues a series of goals (selection) that maximize person-level and context-level resources (optimization) and mitigate current and anticipated weaknesses and deficits (compensation; Baltes, 1997).

Heckhausen and Schulz (1995) asserted that humans prefer to select and control targets that are external to them (primary control) as a means of achieving goals and acquiring and maintaining resources. In plain terms, individuals prefer to change other people or things rather than central features of themselves. If a person experiences sufficient barriers that preclude exercising primary control, then internal targets like values, beliefs, and goals become the object of control (secondary control) in such a way that the chosen internal targets are modified to become more congruent with prevailing external limitations and realities.

The SOC metatheory and the primary--secondary control model, therefore, are in a conceptually hierarchical relationship; the control model is situated within the SOC metatheory and provides a motivational process to explain the reasons and circumstances in which people aim to change either the context or themselves. Although exceptions exist, primary control strategies are typically used during the selection--optimization process, when a person is selecting a goal and attempting to maximize the impact of his or her resources on an external target. Secondary control strategies, on the other hand, are typically used when primary control strategies have failed and the person is in the process of compensating for what is perceived to be an immutable and debilitating aspect of the person-within-context situation.

Within this process model, neither a primary nor a secondary control strategy is categorically more advantageous than the other. However, primary control is theorized to be the preferred mode of agentic people, because it involves the person as an agent changing and influencing elements outside of the self. Although certain circumstances favor the use of either primary or secondary control, in many circumstances using both strategies, either independently or in combination, can lead to adaptive outcomes. However, an exclusive reliance on or a tendency to reflexively use only one control strategy is generally maladaptive. Simply stated, a person cannot function well over the long term without occasionally yielding to environmental pressures or, at other times, altering some aspect of the environment.

Prior to the development of eyeglasses, for example, people with poor visual acuity most likely spent a considerable period engaging in primary control strategies like moving objects closer or enlisting the assistance of others as a means of compensating for their disability. When this was no longer effective or feasible, most people probably compensated for their immutable disability by shifting to a secondary strategy that served to minimize the importance or value of objects outside the range of their visual acuity. This shift to a secondary control strategy usually meant giving up something that was important (e.g., reading) and involved a significant personal sacrifice. Today, individuals might spend a brief period following this historical pattern, but most would quickly purchase eyeglasses (primary control) and change personal habits (secondary control) to include the act of wearing eyeglasses on a daily basis. Note that the typical pattern in both the historic and contemporary examples is optimization coupled with primary control, first, and compensation coupled with secondary control, second. One critical factor distinguishing the historical example and the contemporary example is that the personal cost of the secondary control relative to the primary control orientation is vastly different across the two cases, which in turn dictates how much effort is expended in a primary control orientation.

I now consider the case of Sue (Rehfuss, 2003). Sue's life choices and reactions to adversity demonstrate a clear and consistent tendency to use primary control strategies to overcome adversity and to achieve her goals. In other words, Sue has a tendency to seek out ways to modify her environment rather than to modify her personal orientation, values, or goals as a means of maximizing personal gain and facilitating optimal personal/vocational development. This way of facing and addressing life challenges is contrasted with a secondary control orientation, whereby a person modifies his or her values and goals to become congruent with the opposing social pressure and circumstances. This often occurs through the use of compensatory strategies that emphasize minimizing loss rather than maximizing gain to acquire needed resources. Frequently, secondary control involves a person redefining what is and is not needed.

How can the combined SOC and control models apply to an examination of Sue's current career crisis? Sue has attempted to use a primary control strategy that aimed to selectively optimize her role and skills as a mediator by changing her employers' expectations and demands in the face of a threat to her vocational identity and has failed in this attempt. Having failed, she is now trying to compensate for the perceived loss. Although the cause is not certain (I would pursue this further through a direct discussion centering on Sue's interaction with the judge), Sue may have failed because her primary control strategy was too strong and apparent, which fostered a defensive and rigid orientation in her employers. Sue related the discussion with the judges, "'This [being an arbitrator] is not within my scope.' And they say, 'Oh, but it is, I'm paying you'" (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 294). Sue, perceiving few choices to optimize her current resources, used a compensatory approach and two control strategies to resolve her c areer crisis. Unfortunately, Sue's control strategies led to unacceptable and probably unnecessary losses.

Sue has demonstrated strong personal agency in the face of overwhelming adversity; therefore, her predilection is probably to use primary control strategies despite the fact that a secondary strategy may be the optimal initial choice. This is not to say that Sue is unique. The Life-Span Theory of Control model supports the view that the human tendency is to resist modification to core values and beliefs, hence the use of the primary-secondary distinction within the control model (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995).

Drawing from the narrative (Rehfuss, 2003) to underscore the primary-secondary distinction, Sue used a successful primary control strategy when she separated from her husband. Rather than believing that she was in some way culpable for her daughter's disability and ultimately deserving of her husband's brutality (this would be a dysfunctional secondary control strategy), she elected to resist her husband's insults by escaping to a shelter that (appropriately) supported her control strategy and ultimately served to maintain her belief that she was innocent and that her husband was abusive. Presumably, the intensity of this experience, coupled with the effectiveness of Sue's control strategy, served to reinforce her tendency to jump to (rather than deliberately choose) primary control strategies during times of perceived threat.

During the divorce process, Sue realized that a primary control strategy, which aimed to change her husband or in some way retaliate against him, was ineffective. Sue effectively used a secondary control strategy that involved a change in her "attitude," a conscious refusal to retaliate and an effort to "find some... common ground" (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 292) between her and her husband. Although her goals remained constant across both circumstances (i.e., to satisfy her needs and maintain the integrity of her values and identity), the target of her efforts shifted toward a strategy intended to effect change in the environment through a change in herself. In the face of an untenable primary control strategy, Sue shifted to a secondary control strategy that proved to be effective, inspired a "moment of enlightenment" (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 293), and ultimately led to a turning point in her vocational development.

Shifting away from a behavioral assessment and returning to a personality-level feature alluded to earlier provides a different perspective on Sue's case. Sue stated, "I was a knee-jerk [reaction] type of person, but now I take time to say to myself, 'What's the next best step that I can take?"' (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 294). Quoting Savickas (1989), "[people] actively master what they passively suffer" (p. 296). I believe that Sue is struggling to actively master secondary control strategies, because she consciously realizes that an exclusive reliance on and her tendency to jump to primary control strategies has led to untenable situations. Sue has demonstrated this struggle in both her personal (e.g., her divorce) and professional experiences. This is poignantly underscored in her description of her experience as a mediator for the couple divorced for 10 years. During a mediation session with the couple, Sue said she felt a panicked "need to keep control" (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 293) at an intense cathartic moment the couple experienced. The moment of personal enlightenment for Sue during this session was the direct result of the former husband's effective and emotionally powerful use of a secondary control strategy to resolve his long string of failed and inappropriate primary control strategies (i.e., his attempt to change his wife's view of their failed relationship in a way that would deflect blame away from his drug and alcohol abuse). Sue's tearful and panicked response to this event in the counseling session is interesting and clinically meaningful. Discussing her reaction to the situation with Sue in the counseling milieu could lead her to a better understanding of her personal struggle with internal change strategies and the aspects of her identity that led her to choose a career of divorce mediation.

Sue has created an exaggerated "if this/then that" choice structure; namely, if she changes her professional stance on mediation and pursues the agenda of her employers, then she loses her vocational identity. In other words, she has forced herself either to take primary control of the situation or to lose her sense of self. Sue described herself as

struggling with being blackballed from ever working in my community as a mediator again, because I'm refusing to buy into the "good old boys" system [a dysfunctional secondary control strategy]. I'm refusing to just go along with what the judges want [a dysfunctional primary control strategy]. (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 294)

Sue's description of the dilemma is revealing of how the situation evolved to this crisis point. It seems likely that Sue used a "knee-jerk" primary control strategy with her employer that contributed to the employer's resistance (this needs to be pursued further with her to be certain). Having failed with this strategy, Sue shifted to a compensation mode and developed two unsatisfactory options. Sue believes that her only options are either to use a secondary control strategy that would compromise healthy aspects of her profession and her identity or to use a primary control strategy that would effectively remove her from the profession she so clearly enjoys. Certainly, other options exist. Sue has a sense of these alternatives, but at this point, she only hints at them when she concludes the narrative with "I don't think I can keep doing it [mediation]. At least, doing it their way" (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 295).

Although Sue views her current career crisis as a threat to her vocational identity, asserting her mediator identity may, in fact, be the key to resolving the problem. Rather than entering discussions with her employers from the perspective that the solution is an either/or choice, she could be encouraged to try to find some common ground shared by her professional objectives and the needs of the court.

To begin the process of resolving the immediate crisis, I would focus on Sue's desire to be a "designer of better lives" (Rehfuss, 2003, p. 292) by first encouraging Sue to think about and become an interactive designer of better court-ordered mediation. The designer metaphor is interesting and could be useful, considering the tension that Sue exhibits between primary and secondary control. I interpret the designer role as inferring a change to the environment based on one's idea of what is optimal, that is to say, the role infers a primary control orientation. I intentionally qualified the term designer with the "interactive" adjective to suggest that, as an agent of change, Sue needs to engage in a transaction with the problem; that is to say, she needs to be as open to the idea of changing herself as she is to the idea of changing others. Discussions centering on her definition of the role of being a designer of better lives could lead to a better understanding of the tension between primary and secondary control that she is experiencing.

After this discussion with Sue, I would encourage her to use a combined primary--secondary control strategy to change her personal orientation toward the problem and her contribution to it so that she can become a designer who is also an object of the design. As a means of supporting her in this change of orientation, I would return to the means by which she resolved her almost irreconcilable dispute with her former husband during the divorce proceedings. This was obviously a powerful and transcendent moment in her life, and with some care it could be accessed to support her current shift in thinking.

If Sue is willing to take on the challenge of shifting her orientation and becoming a slightly modified designer of better court mediation, then I believe the result will be a balanced primary-secondary control orientation and a shift from a compensation to an optimization strategy. Such a change would permit Sue to remain true to, and to optimize, her central professional and personal values and strengths while also shifting her professional stance to meet the critical needs of the court. Certainly, her employers do not want her to be the judge, but they may want her to provide a professional assessment of her cases that will assist them to arrive at a more sound and prompt judgment (a typical objective in the judicial system).

Shifting to this orientation moves Sue away from a complete compensatory orientation and toward a selective optimization mode, making choices to optimize her role as a mediator and ultimately regaining the sense of agency that drives her and most human beings. Negotiation between Sue and her employer (a combined primary and secondary control strategy in which both parties change) could center on the definition of the term professional assessment. This shift would presumably not only permit Sue to use her agentic qualities, but, what is more important, it would also prompt Sue to further develop the balance between primary and secondary control that she is actively attempting to master in her personal and professional life.


Baltes, P. B. (1997). On the incomplete architecture of human ontogeny: Selection, optimization, and compensation as foundation of developmental theory. American Psychologist, 52, 366-380.

Baltes, P. B., & Baltes, M. M. (1990). Psychological perspectives on successful aging: The model of selective optimization with compensation. In P. B. Baltes & M. M. Baltes (Eds.), Successful aging: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences (pp. 1-34). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Baltes, P. B., Lindenberger, U., & Staudinger, U. M. (1998). Life-span theory in developmental psychology. In R. M. Lerner (Ed.), Theoretical models of human development (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 1029-1143). New York: Wiley.

Heckhausen, J., & Schulz, R. (1995). A Life-Span Theory of Control. Psychological Review, 102, 284-304.

Rehfuss, M. C. (2003). Vocational identity at work: Mediating between essence and occupation. The Career Development Quarterly, 51, 291-295.

Savickas, M. L. (1989). Career-style assessment. In T. Sweeney (Ed.), Adlerian counseling: A practical approach for a new decade (3rd ed., pp. 289-320). Muncie, IN: Accelerated Development.

Erik J. Porfeli, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, The Pennsylvania State University. Correspondence concerning this article should he addressed to Erik J. Porfeli, The Pennsylvania State University, 201 Henderson Building, University Park, PA 16802 (e-mail:
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Author:Porfeli, Erik J.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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