Domain II: Challenge Social Injustices, and Critique Their Impact on Client–Counsellor Social Locations

CC6 Identity Development

Articulate the relationship between social location and cultural identity development and management.

Recommended Reading

Collins, S. (2018). The impact of social injustice: Client–counsellor social locations. In S. Collins (Ed.), Embracing cultural responsivity and social justice: Re-shaping professional identity in counselling psychology (pp. 239–247). Counselling Concepts.

The sixth core competency in the CRSJ counselling model (Collins, 2018) draws attention to the ways in which cultural identity development and management are influenced by one’s relative positioning within society (e.g., social location) and the interplay of both dominant and nondominant group affiliation. One of the tricks that cultural encapsulation can play on the minds of the privileged, in particular, is assuming cultural identity development is significant only to those who are marginalized in society by virtue of ethnicity, gender identity, age, religion, and so on. However, it is important for all learners to grapple with the multiple, intersecting dimensions of their personal cultural identities and relationalities against the backdrop of dominant social discourses and norms, nondominant cultural contexts, socialization experiences, and life transitions. It is important also to consciously shift the reference point for cultural identity development from dominant White, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class narratives. In so doing, learners prepare to meet their clients wherever they are at and to explore and support their unique, fluid, contextualized, and recursive cultural identity development and management (Johnston-Guerrero, 2016; Kenneady & Oswalt, 2104).

CRSJ Counselling Key Concepts

The activities in this chapter are designed to support competency development related to the key concepts listed below. Click on the concepts in the table and you will be taken to the related activities, exercises, learning resources, or discussion prompts.

Dominant Cultural Identity Development

Critical reflections on self-talk (Self-study)

There is a tendency for members of dominant populations to view the concept of cultural identity development as applicable only to those who are part of nondominant groups. Helms and Cook (1995) introduced a model, later revised by Richardson and Molinaro (1996), for white racial identity development, which has been adapted further (below) to be more inclusive of other aspects of cultural identity. The model is not intended to be linear or prescriptive. If you are positioned by dominant cultural identities, your lived experience may align with some elements and not with others. In the last column, the sample self-dialogue is intended to illustrate the inside voice of a practitioner at each stage of consciousness-raising and identity development.

Phase I: Uncovering Culturally Oppressive Components of Identity
Stage Description Sample Self-Dialogue
Contact Satisfaction with the status quo and lack of awareness or denial of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, ableism, and other forms of cultural oppression by the dominant population. “In my opinion, differences exist in society, because people make different choices and set different priorities for themselves.”
Disintegration Exposure to circumstances that make it difficult to continue to deny the existence of cultural oppression and one’s role in that oppression; this leads to confusion, disorientation, and fractured loyalties. “Sam seemed really offended by that remark. I wonder where he grew up. I was just kidding about the “wrong side of the tracks.” How often do I make him feel uncomfortable?”
Reintegration Retreat into active valuing of dominant cultural identities and denigration of nondominant populations with consequent reduction in anxiety and increase in socially acceptable forms of sexism, racism, classism, and so on. “I think Sam brings this on himself. Look at how he dresses. He meets the basic office attire requirements, but the rest of us try to elevate things a bit. I’m sure he brings his own lunch to the restaurant just to make a point about choosing a less expensive place.”
Phase II: Development of Positive, Culturally Sensitive Identity
Stage Description Sample Self-Dialogue
 Pseudo-Independence Rationalization of one’s own group norms and designation of others as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on. Separation of self-identity from other group members who may be guilty of cultural oppression and of expecting nondominant groups to conform with dominant cultural norms. “I can see that there are a few counsellors here who have a bit of an elitist attitude. But this is a private practice not a not-for-profit agency, after all. Perhaps I can give Sam some tips to help him draw less attention to himself when they are around.”
 Immersion Active, committed search for understanding of one’s own identity as part of the dominant European, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, male culture. Honest quest for information, self-evaluation, and redefinition of self.  “Boy, I really missed the mark with that client. I realize I’ve been really blind about my own social class. Why has it take me so long to actually get it? What do I do now to rid myself of these classist responses so I can be a supportive colleague and work effectively with my clients?”
 Emersion Solidarity with like-minded individuals who are also seeking a culturally sensitive personal identity and searching for ways to oppose oppression.  “I’m so excited to have attended this seminar and to have met other counsellors who are talking about class consciousness. They are working hard to redefine their ways of being with clients and their counselling space and to practice, nonexclusionary ways.”
Autonomy Thoughtful analysis of cultural factors in self and others in organizational and systemic contexts, and taking actions that support nonoppressive practices. “I wonder if being in private practice is just an excuse for maximizing profit at the expense of inclusivity. Some of our agency materials clearly have a class bias in language. I know Sam sees a few clients who don’t fit our policy statements. I will ask if he wants to work with me on some proposed changes, including a sliding fee scale.”

It is often our self-talk that provides the clearest clues to our biases or growing edges. Use the Dominant identity development template (MS Word version) to reflect on your self-talk in relation to one aspect of your personal cultural identity about which you may have assumed dominance at various points in your life or at least not invested the energy to bring your social location into conscious awareness. Then, set an aspirational self-change goal in terms of your ongoing identity development.

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Nondominant Cultural Identity Development

Exploring nondominant identity development with clients (Self-study or partner activity)

Early models of nondominant cultural identity development tended to be linear and focused on a single dimension of cultural identity. Individuals were thought to progress roughly through the following phases (Atkinson, 2004; Barret & Logan, 2002; Helms, 1995; Worell & Remer, 2003).

  1. Conformity or unawareness Idealization of the dominant culture and denigration of one’s own cultural heritage or emergent sense of cultural self (related to ethnicity, sexuality, ability, class, etc.).
  2. Dissonance Lack of fit or experiences of marginalization or oppression within the dominant culture that lead to a questioning of previous blind allegiance and emergence of confusion, ambivalence, or identity conflict.
  3. Resistance and immersion/emersion Rejection of the dominant culture and idealization of nondominant cultural values, worldviews, and lived experiences, sometimes accompanied by solidarity with other nondominant populations based on shared experiences of cultural oppression.
  4. Introspection and internalization Positive views of personal cultural identities, alongside loosening of rigid either/or positioning (recall the skill of cognitive complexity), which enhances interactions with, and respect for, both dominant and nondominant cultures and communities.
  5. Integrated or synergistic awareness Critical analysis (i.e., open and thoughtful) of both dominant and nondominant cultures; active construction, affirmation, and valuing of personal cultural identities; and consciousness of, and sometimes commitment to work against, all forms of social oppression.

Currently, dialogues about identity development in the professional literature assume a more fluid, cyclical, and recursive process that recognizes the complexity and multiplicity of identity development. I have designed the following questions to invite conversations with clients about the common elements of cultural identity development, rather than positioning clients in particular phases or steps.

  1. What has led this client to question their cultural identity or to perceive themselves as different from norms and dominant discourses around sexuality, ethnicity, ability, class, and so on?
  2. What is this client’s relationship to the dominant culture, and how has that evolved over time?
  3. What is this client’s relationship to their nondominant culture(s), and how has that evolved over time?
  4. What are the contextual and systemic factors that have influenced, and may continue to influence, this client’s sense of self and their identity development process?
  5. How conscious is the client of the parallels (and differences) between their lived experiences and identity development challenges and those of other nondominant populations?
  6. What other elements of the client’s personal cultural identities intersect with the dimension(s) they are exploring or struggling with, and how do these intersections influence identity development?
  7. What does the client want from, or envision through, their identity development process?

At some point in the process of nondominant identity development, most clients internalize negative messages based on dominant cultural norms or discourses. Select a client description from each of the columns below. Each of the clients below is struggling with their nondominant identity development.

Gender Identity

Sexual Orientation
George is a female-to-male transgender person, who identifies as male. He is of slight build, in his mid-twenties, and works in a male dominated blue-collar industry. He has not undergone surgery, because he does not have the financial resources to do so, although he is taking hormones. He does not have a family physician and has been accessing the drugs on the street through an underground network within the trans community. He can pass as male, but he is very unhappy with his physique and longs for an opportunity to undergo surgery. However, beyond the trans community, he has not revealed his identity to anyone. He had two terrible experiences with doctors in the rural area where he grew up, and he is convinced no one will see him as worthy or fit for surgery. Elsie is 69 years old. She is a retired secondary school teacher and has lived with her lover, Mary, for 30 years. They have not used the word lesbian to describe their relationship, but live as intimate life partners. They live in a small, rural community and are known fondly as the “spinster sisters.” The acreage they live on is out of the way a bit and provides enough privacy that they are able to conceal their day-to-day lives from others in the community. Mary has recently been diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s, and Elsie is facing the possibility that Mary’s estranged daughter may choose to place her in a seniors’ care facility. Mary’s daughter recently came to visit for the first time in five years, and Elsie found her in the study, making notes of various pieces of furniture, art, and other memorabilia that she and Mary had collected over the years.
Lisa is a counsellor in a small community agency, funded through the Anglican Church. She is 45 and has never had a sexual relationship. She dresses in a very androgynous fashion, and she often is mistaken as male until people see her up close. Her work is her life. When she is not working, she is actively involved in outreach activities through the Anglican women’s group. She has a lot of friends, but none who are particularly close or with whom she talks freely. Recently, she has been experiencing bouts of anxiety and depression that are interfering with her ability to focus on her clients. She has been asked to take a senior leadership role in the church, and she wonders if she is having performance anxiety of some kind. Jennifer is a successful businesswoman in the oil and gas industry. She is bright, assertive, and task-focused. She is well-respected and is being groomed for a senior management position. She has had both male and female lovers over the years, but has always maintained her own home and kept her private and public lives completely separate. One of these men has continued on as her best friend. She recently broke up with a woman she had known for only a short time. Her ex-girlfriend has begun to call her at work, follow her when she leaves her home, and leave notes in her mailbox begging her to reconsider. On the day of her internal interview for a new position, her ex-partner showed up at the office with flowers for her and insists that she be called to the front to receive them.

Self-study: Write a list of questions that you might use to assist each client in exploring their identity development.

In pairs: Role play a counselling session, taking turns in the counsellor role, working with a client from each column to explore their cultural identity development.

Although most identity development models propose some form of identity integration (e.g., bicultural identity), and in some cases identity disclosure (e.g., coming out), as the end point of development, there have been many challenges to this assumption because identity integration and disclosure are, themselves, normative expectations. What might these clients gain from greater integration of identity? What might they stand to lose? How can you avoid imposing your own agenda about the right developmental path? What are the potential risks of identity disclosure? How does cultural and systemic oppression potentially influence the self-perceptions and choices of these clients?

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Nature versus nurture versus choice (Class discussion)

Some researchers continue to look for possible biological explanations for diversity in sexual orientation. Other researchers are examining how gender and gender identity develop pre- and post-birth. There is also a typically nonscientific argument that diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation is a matter of personal choice.

Some argue that the nature versus nurture debate is only relevant as long as society preferences heterosexuality and cisgender identities. Others argue that establishing a biological foundation for gender and sexual diversity will help foster sociocultural equality.

Engage in a debate about the significance of establishing a genetic or biological foundation for diversity in gender and sexuality. You can choose which side of this debate you want to argue. Regardless of your choice, think critically about your position from the perspective of shifting dominant, culturally oppressive discourses, including cisgenderism, heteronormativity, homophobia, and androsexism. To support your position, take some time to search the internet for diverse perpectives on this topic (use only credible sources please!) or draw on position statements or research reviews on professional websites.

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Identity Conflict

Creating internal and external space for dissonance (Partner or small group activity)

Identity conflict can occur within clients for a number of reasons: (a) they have internalized negative sociocultural messages about one or more aspects of their cultural identities, (b) they hold multiple identities that are in conflict with one another, or (c) they hold one or more identities that create tensions in various relationships or contexts of their lives. When identity conflicts arise, our role as counsellors is to support clients to navigate, and find ways to address these tensions, drawing on dominant and nondominant identity development processes.

Similar identity conflicts or tensions can exist between various groups or communities within society, diminishing the social, cultural, psychological, and spiritual safety and inclusiveness of shared spaces (both physical and psychosocial). Identify two higher order values, virtues, or ethics that might allow persons or peoples to create space for diverse perspectives, values, beliefs, relationships, and so on (e.g., the practice of cultural humility may counteract the human tendency towards judgement and ethnocentrism).

Reflect critically on these higher order values in light of processes of nondominant and dominant cultural identity development. How might working from these higher order principles enhance your readiness to work with all clients? How might you draw on these principles to support clients to hold space within themselves for dissonant experiences, messages, or identities, while they engage in their idiosyncratic process of cultural identity development?

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Identity Disclosure

In praise of coming out (Class discussion)

Identity management and choices around identity disclosure can be significant areas of person stress and distress for members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. They can also cause conflict within their relationships and communities.

Many of the older models of identity development focused on coming out as the epitome of sexual or gender identity maturity. However, there are as many ways to live a healthy and happy life as a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ population as there are among heterosexual and cisgender populations. There are also numerous factors in the familial, cultural, school/work, social, economic, and political contexts in which 2SLGBTQIA+ persons live that either support or pose barriers to disclosing their gender or sexual identities to others.

Work together to critically analyze the concept of coming out, drawing on your understanding about the tendency in our culture to view people and experiences in either/or terms, what you have learned about nondominant identity development, the potential for microaggressions in counselling, and the principles of affirmative practice.

Reflect on what it is like or might be like to have to make these choices on a moment-by-moment basis every day.

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Atkinson, D. R. (2004). Counselling American minorities (6th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Barret, B., & Logan, C. (2002). Counseling gay men and lesbians: A practice primer. Brooks/Cole.

Helms, J. E. (1995). An update of Helm’s White and people of color racial identity models. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 181-198). Sage.

Helms, J. E., & Cook, D. A. (1999). Using race and culture in counselling and psychotherapy: Theory and process. Allyn & Bacon.

Johnston-Guerrero, M. P. (2016). Embracing the messiness: Critical and diverse perspectives on racial and ethnic identity development. New Directions for Student Services, 154, 43-55.

Kenneady, D. A., & Oswalt, S. B. (2014). Is Cass’s model of homosexual identity formation relevant to today’s society? American Journal of Sexuality Education, 9(2), 229-246.

Richardson, T. Q., & Molinaro, K. L. (1996). White counsellor self-awareness: A prerequisite for developing cultural competence. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74(3), 238-242.

Worell, J. & Remer, P. (2003). Feminist perspectives in therapy: Empowering diverse women (2nd ed.). Wiley.