An Existentialist Approach to Career Development in Victims of Domestic Violence

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Existential counseling is tailored to a client’s issues, such as domestic violence victims experience, while explicitly addressing life, and implicitly addressing death (Epp,1998). It emphasizes the responsibility of freedom, the value of choice, the anxiety that comes with wrong choices, such as the choice of an abusive partner, and the uncertainty of everything (Christian Existentialism, n.d.). It uses the harsh realities of life to prompt the search for love and meaning. Career counseling with victims of Domestic violence is in a sense also a search for meaning in their lives. Clients such as these are seeking to find happiness and peace in their lives, as well as employment where they will feel fulfilled and useful, and have economic stability. The Existential counselor and client interact with equality and honesty, which are important factors in dealing with victims of domestic violence, with the counselor being an ally in the client’s life review, and a facilitator of self-reflection in the search for a better life, including the career development aspects of it. The existential counselor together with the client, examine every area of the client’s life to discover which parts may be unfulfilled. Career counseling may be part of that process.

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Existential counseling focuses on the issues of love, suffering, meaning, and death that everyone faces, and which should be addressed in counseling sessions with a victim or survivor of domestic violence. When these more important issues are confronted first, the results of counseling are more lasting than when just addressing the immediate issues the client is struggling with at the time, such as career development issues. The counselor, while confronting the deeper concerns the client may be facing, doesn’t direct the client to these issues, but brings them out of those issues already presented by the client. (Epp,1998). Existential counseling is a holistic approach that can be integrated easily with career counseling for victims of domestic violence. Counselors can be both directive and existential when the aim is to confront the ineffective behavior patterns of the client, such as remaining in an unhealthy relationship, in order to prod her own thinking. The goal of existential counseling is to encourage clients to take responsibility for their own lives, which is consistent with the goals of career counseling for victims and survivors of domestic violence as well. Counselors can encourage those victims who dwell on their helplessness that they can do something to make their lives better. They have choices, but sometimes must depend on their own inner inspiration to find them (Epp,1998).

Existentialism emphasizes the responsibility for a person’s choices of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. There is no motivation for change without owning responsibility for the conditions of a person’s existence. Existentialism stresses that everyone has an active contribution to their own situation. They may not be directly responsible for certain situations such as domestic violence, but they are responsible for how they react to that situation. They can choose how to feel about it, what to think about it, and how to react toward it. Victims of domestic violence often experience existential anxiety concerning their spiritual context, fear of isolation, and decision-making anxiety, which stem from their personal need to survive due to the continued threat to their existence and the values of that existence.

While existentialism insists on personal responsibility, it does not ignore how others actions can affect the decision making process. Many victims of domestic violence have no significant history of employment or other activity outside the home, with their self-esteem being quite low, based solely on their partner’s negative perception of them. In Phillip’s Developmental-Relational Model of Career Development, one theme is how the actions of others relate to career decisions. One category in that theme is listed as criticism, which tells a person what they can or cannot do in a very negative statement about that individual (Sharf, R.S., 2006). This very aptly describes what domestic violence victims may have experienced from their partners, while making career related decisions. Sharf states that some interactions are not helpful, and examining how those relationships affect career development may lead toward better career decision making in the future.

Author Kimberly Hartfield’s A Little Redneck Theology

Victims and survivors of domestic violence face exceptional challenges when it comes to career development issues. Many of these women are now in or have been in dominating and abusive relationships that have greatly influenced their career decisions (Hagen, 2002). Many women in these kinds of situations have been told by their partners that they cannot work outside the home because their partners fear loosing control over their victims, both physically and economically. Others have been forced to work and give up most or all of their paychecks against their will by their controlling husbands. Most women in or who have been in domestic violence situations have a very low self-esteem, finding it difficult to believe they can be good at anything. If they have been out of the work force for some time, they may not know where to begin and may seek Career counseling. Women who have been abused need a supportive, empathetic, and nonjudgmental therapist to help them rebuild trust and feel safe again (Smith, Kelly, 2001.). Counselors can be supportive, without taking control, which is essential in the existential therapeutic process of victims and allows women to regain control of themselves and rebuild their lives. Counselors must be a mentor that helps victims gain the courage needed to reach their potential and complete their journey to recovery, including going through the career development process to find meaningful and economically successful employment.

Most women who separate or divorce substantially decrease their standard of living, whether or not they have experienced domestic violence. For those of them who have experienced this devastating life conflict, the challenges are that much greater. Finding and keeping substantial employment for victims and survivors of domestic violence can be almost an insurmountable obstacle, but it is particularly important as a victim’s resources are often a determining factor in women being able to stay out of a domestic violence situation and provide the needed support for themselves and their children (Hagen, 2002). And yet, new federal welfare laws may put victims at further risk for remaining in or returning to the abusive relationship, by forcing them into employment before they are ready, and by limiting their opportunity for obtaining further education.

The Personal Responsibility and Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 established TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which places a five-year lifetime limit on benefits and states that no more than 30% of cases can participate in vocational education and training. Although there is a possible exemption from these requirements for victims of domestic violence, caseworkers, “who retain significant discretion in the delivery of services”, must be able to identify those clients in need of such exemptions, and not be resistant toward granting the exemption due to personal biases. There are no clear criteria for deciding which clients may fall into this category, nor any significant training for workers to help them identify domestic violence victims. Insensitive responses from caseworkers and inadequate information have caused many women to remain in abusive situations (Hagen, 2002). The writer of this paper was one of those neglected and uninformed women, never being told of the Family Violence Option, even when the caseworker was clearly informed of the domestic violence situation.

Because of these requirements and other problems with “the system” many victims of domestic violence who have recently separated, divorced, or relocated will take any job they can find regardless of the pay rate and feel lucky to get even the most menial employment opportunity. Often, when they do obtain employment, if they are faced with an overbearing boss or a dominating co-worker, many will begin to miss work or quit to avoid further conflict. Some who have freed themselves from their partners’ tight grip have difficulty re-entering the work force because they find it hard to work under another dominating person, which many in leadership positions tend toward dominating personalities. Another career problem faced by victims of domestic violence is being harassed by their estranged partners, not only at home, but at work as well. Their abusive partners may call them on the phone continually while they are at work, threaten them and their co-workers, or stalk them to and from work, etc. Women are often harassed by their partners more after they leave the relationship than they were before they tried to leave it. Many are forced to move from job to job and town to town just to avoid continual harassment from their previous partners. Most victims and survivors of domestic violence switch jobs often, running from one conflict to another, for at least part of their career path. Many wind up with a string of unrelated jobs from which they have quit for various reasons. To an untrained eye, who knows nothing of the history of a domestic violence victim, they may simply appear to be undependable or just plain lazy.

Yet, even with the impossible odds they face, many survivors have overcome these and countless other challenges and gone on to find and maintain significant and substantial employment. While many do move directly into the full-time work force taking any job they can find just to put food on the table for themselves and their children, others choose to take on part-time employment and further their education, in spite of the severe restrictions on educational activities by TANF programs (Hagen, 2002), in order to bring more fulfillment to their career development process. Those who have had difficulty dealing with dominating bosses usually eventually choose employment where they can be virtually independent of direct supervision, such as a sales person in a large department store or a small establishment with just a few employees. Others eventually choose various forms of self-employment, where they can “be their own bosses”.

Women in Christian Ministry

Women in Christian Ministry

A Journey of Faith

Authored by Sis. Kimberly M. Hartfield

Women in Christian Ministry is the culmination of my writings on women’s ministry and related topics of concern. It is a reflection of my personal journey into Christian Ministry and my search for truth in questions concerning a woman’s place in ministry, types of ministry, and whether or not she should be ordained for that purpose. It was an answer to God’s calling on my life and God’s confirmation of that calling. I hope that my journey of faith may help you in your search for truth and encourage you in your calling. This book includes samples of a Baptism, Wedding, and Funeral ceremony. God bless to all!

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Career counseling must be looked at in the cultural context as well, in order to be effective with victims of domestic violence. As a general rule, very few programs exist for victims of domestic violence in rural areas, which causes crime victims to have even greater difficulty getting their needs met. Today, about 46% of American Indians live in rural areas, which means that Native American victims in those locals are both physically and emotionally isolated (Native American Circle, 1998). Opportunities to escape the violence are more limited, especially if they are economically unable to support themselves. Lack of employment opportunities, phone service, and transportation are significant challenges for many of these women. For women in rural areas, these obstacles can be even more overwhelming for those of minority races, such as American Indians. In rural communities where employment is limited to begin with, if the employers are primarily white males who are biased against women and other races, then finding employment is likely to be even more difficult. Police Officers in small communities may even be hesitant to arrest the perpetrator, if he has influence in the community, particularly when an inter-racial relationship is involved with the woman being the minority. Any kind of racism has a particularly negative affect on victims of domestic violence. The fear of prejudice and of alienation from friends and family in the cultural community are particularly strong reasons to remain in the home with a batterer (Native American Circle, 1998). When victims justifiably show a lack of confidence in a system that often doesn’t protect them from further victimization, doesn’t provide them with suitable shelter or gainful employment, nor protects them from an offender who usually doesn’t even spend the night in jail, and in turn she is judged by a society that doesn’t understand why she stays, then she may have lost all confidence in that system and in her own ability to support herself and her children, many of them “choosing” to not report the violence, seek economic assistance, or leave the abusive relationship.

Don’t be Silent:Stop Domestic Violence

Fear of being asked to leave one’s familiar environment and go into a strange shelter prevents many victims from asking for the help they so desperately need. When the victim is the one who is forced into leaving her home, family, and sometimes even her children and job for safety and protection, while the perpetrator is allowed to stay in his own home, then the victim’s rights have been compromised and she and her children have in essence been re-victimized. If there is no local shelter, then often women are forced to depend on state programs some distance away from her family, cultural, economic, and spiritual support systems. Women tend to resist this kind of “help”, which deprives them of their traditional sources of strength and comfort (Native American Circle, 1998). As victims and survivors of domestic violence have already been victimized by isolation, the prospect of further isolation from loved ones and cultural ties in an unfamiliar shelter is unlikely to appear a good idea to them and can be quite distressing. If she does choose to leave her partner and go to a shelter, and then finally locates housing, schooling for her children, and employment, the school change may not be in her children’s best interest, her job is likely to be minimum wage, and the housing is likely to be in an unsafe low income apartment building, where she may be relocated by her abusive partner, not to mention the likelihood of herself and her children being surrounded by total strangers. When victims face these kinds of realities, the abuse often seems to be the safer choice for herself and her children (Native American Circle, 1998).

A minority victim being counseled by a non-minority may resist conventional counseling methods if they feel intimidated or confused by the counseling environment. She may leave the counselor’s office or shelter if her environment is perceived as victim blaming, condescending, or lacking in empathy. Often the abusive partner inadvertently receives more support than the victim, who is often “counseled” by well-meaning others to give in to her husband’s demands, no matter how extreme they may be, by those who don’t understand that the violent behavior does not depend on the victim’s actions. Unfamiliar surroundings are intimidating enough for most anyone, but particularly so for a victim escaping domestic violence, who is separated from her family, cultural, economic, and spiritual ties (Native American Circle, 1998).

Although the issue of Domestic violence seems to be barely mentioned in the DSM, and is listed under the Problems Related to Abuse or Neglect category on page 738, one of the most extreme stressors identified under Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the presence of ongoing physical abuse, or “re-experiencing the traumatic event” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). Often victims experience similar symptoms with that of PTSD. The feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, fear, and anxiety, which are associated with the repeated battering and isolation that domestic violence victims have experienced, are often overwhelming enough to keep them from seeking help. This learned helplessness can usually only be overcome through the combined efforts of the counselor, the community and the woman involved. So we may ask ourselves, what can counselors and others in the community do to help improve the picture for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

An Existential counselor’s first order of business is to give hope for the future to their clients. Domestic violence victims especially need this. Career counseling efforts can help to give this hope to the client. Counselors should be knowledgeable about all support services available to victims, including legal aid, health care and emergency services, childcare, and transportation. They should be willing to help victims access those community resources needed. Counselors should also be well informed about specific issues, which may have an impact on the career decision-making of victims (Issues in the Career Development, 1998). Domestic violence is clearly one of those issues. Some of these survivors have begun to think so little of themselves, they may not believe themselves capable of finding a job and maintaining it immediately upon getting out of a domestic violence situation. There are many physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual obstacles they must overcome first. Then the economic barriers can be tackled, one step at a time through the career development process. But since many believe, as they have been repeatedly told by their abusive partners, that they are not capable of much, anything that can be done to boost a domestic violence victim’s self-esteem, or to help her find meaning and worth is a valuable endeavor.

An IQ test may be in order to show her she’s not the stupid idiot her partner always told her she was. Then an assessment of her abilities and interests may help her to see that she is capable of finding and maintaining a job that she is good at and that she enjoys. Job shadowing is one effective means of exploring the world of work without actually taking on a job. Taking a class at a local community college is a good start for some domestic violence survivors just to build their confidence in themselves and their ability to effectively complete a career-related task. These options give survivors a chance to try out different areas of interest without having to take a job that they may not want to stay at.

Some survivors need to be educated on how to present themselves to potential employers and how to affectively communicate with their bosses and co-workers. Many victims have not learned to say no to others at appropriate times. A good book to recommend to them is Boundaries: When to say yes, When to say no to take control of your life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Setting appropriate boundaries is foundational to a sense of identity and gives a clear sense where a person begins and ends (Townsend, 1991). They state that the most basic boundary-setting word is no. The word no lets others know that you are in control of yourself. Learning to say no is vital to drawing the boundary lines between their responsibilities and that of others, while the inability to do so is self-defeating. Victims of abuse learn that they have little control of their person and have great difficulty establishing clear boundaries. They may have been inappropriately or excessively criticized by a demanding boss or had extra work incessantly dumped on them by advantageous co-workers in their past jobs. Those who have a pattern of unexplained and sudden job endings may be running from these kinds of conflicts rather than facing them. Assertiveness training may be necessary for those who are very timid or who have habitually quit their jobs.

Many domestic violence survivors need the most basic help, such as learning to dress appropriately for job interviews and some may even need assistance obtaining appropriate clothing, as they have likely left the violent situation with only a few pieces of clothing. A few may need assistance with make-up techniques and alternate hairstyles that are appropriate. A total “make-over” by a trained volunteer may even help maintain their privacy from their abusive partners. Counselors need to be prepared to recommend people and organizations in the community who are willing to help survivors with these vital career-related tasks.

After the primary process of individual existential therapy, including any career development projects, a group experience may be helpful in a continuing therapeutic role for victims of domestic violence. Participation in a Group Experience can be recommended during the course of or at the close of the individual therapy. In the group experience, survivors may overcome their incapacitating idea that their problems are unique by sharing their stories with others in the group. Hearing others who are experiencing or have experienced similar issues of victimization may help reduce the sense of isolation that survivors feel and validate them as normal human beings. Group experiences also allow members to help and comfort each other by giving support, reassurance, and suggestions. Participation in group therapy helps members to recognize that human existence is limited and occurs in uncontrollable contexts, and that they are ultimately responsible for themselves (Waldo, 1985).

The existential counselor believes the quality of the client’s physical world is important to connect us to our natural state. A periodic return to nature is mentally beneficial, as in an Adventure Based Counseling experience. Adventure-based Counseling (ABC) is a therapeutic group-based, experiential approach to personal development. Adventure Based Counseling experiences can be a great self-esteem building exercise for survivors who are not quite ready to take the next step in their career development. This experiential learning exercise is often quite effective in facilitating a lasting change in the group members. (Neill, J. (no date). Adventure-based Counseling). Adventure Based Counseling is an approach that is engaging, active, challenging and places high expectations for victims and survivors of domestic violence within a supportive and caring atmosphere. Since domestic violence victims often have trust issues that need to be worked through, the Adventure based group experience can be especially beneficial to them, before moving on to more challenging career development processes. The program’s careful selection and sequence of activities, which are tailored to each group’s particular needs, build feelings of trust, unity, camaraderie, and cooperation.

The program is designed to take individuals beyond their own expectations. Those who do choose to move passed their self-imposed limitations have more self-confidence and self-awareness and ultimately become stronger from the effort (Baack, S., Hill, H., and Palmer, J.,1989, Adventure Recreation: An Adventure in Group Building). The overall program goals, which are consistent with both existential and career related goals are: to increase self-confidence and self-esteem, to improve anger management, to develop more responsible behavior, to challenge inappropriate behavior, to encourage appreciation and respect for individual differences, to develop communication skills, to improve problem solving techniques, to develop and improve trust in oneself, other individuals and groups, to increase personal responsibility and social maturity, and to participate in a variety of physical activities (Overall Therapeutic Approach, no date). The specific program components of Adventure Based Counseling are: stress management, trust development, problem solving and decision making, values clarification, self-esteem and self-image, and communication skills, which are important skills for career development as well.


Victims of domestic violence often just need someone to believe in them and tell them they can do it. Tests and assessments that show them their strengths and abilities can be a great benefit to both the career-counseling relationship and the client’s self esteem issues. Career counselors must work to gain the confidence of domestic violence victims, as their trust level is likely very low. Complete physical, economic, emotional, mental, and spiritual renewal needs to take place before a woman can truly be free from the effects of domestic violence. Career counselors of domestic violence victims and survivors who take an Existential approach, need to be willing to address and discuss each of these issues within the context of career counseling in order for the counseling relationship to be most effective. Group experiences, such as Adventure Based Counseling experiences, are often a good follow-up activity after the initial stage of individual counseling and before moving further in the career development process.


About mamaheartfilled

I am a mother of eight wonderfully challenging children and nine grandkids, of whom I am very proud. I am also a bi-vocational ordained evangelical minister, and a Christian Counselor. I received my B.S. degree in 2004, studying primarily in the areas of Psychology, with minors in Religion and English. I received my Masters Degree in 2009 in Psychological Counseling with an emphasis in Christian Counseling. I have endeavored to paraphrase the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, for the last ten years or so and am working on a final edit, now. It is my hope that it will be of some use in the great commission of Christ. My ministry is primarily geared toward victims of sexual and domestic violence, including victims of childhood sexual abuse, whether currently or in the past. Since I have personally experienced the healing hand of God in overcoming many of the life issues that Christians may face, I feel qualified and compelled to discuss them in a truthful and open manner, as God’s word tells us that “We shall know the truth and the truth shall set us free.” God has brought me through such diverse tribulations as sexual, physical, and mental abuse, being a victim of a drunk driving accident, spousal pornography addiction, adultery, divorce, remarriage, a very brief, though unjust, incarceration, and having experienced multiple miscarriages and various other trials. I have been asked to leave two Southern Baptist Churches, due to my being a female, ordained as a minister, and fired from a SBC sponsored Christian School (mostly white) for speaking out against racial prejudice in the Family of God. Through God’s merciful forgiveness of my own sins and inadequacies and God’s grace given to me to forgive those who have been a stumbling block to me, I have overcome many of these adversities. God’s word tells us that “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to the purposes of God." Since I have this hope, I believe that God has blessed me with the ability to confront and relate these issues to the Christian community around the world. I hope to be able to use my personal experiences as a ministry of God’s grace and in the comforting of the people of God with the truth of God's mercy. I claim II Corinthians 1: 3 & 4 as my calling, which states: “Blessed be God, the Origin of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Origin of mercies, and the God of comfort; who comforts us in all our troubles, that we may be able to comfort those who are in trouble, by the comfort we ourselves have been given by God.” As I have received the gift of God’s healing, I hope to be able to bring the peace beyond understanding to others with the message of God’s mercy and grace. My love for the Sovereign Lord of my life, Jesus Christ, along with my passion for writing has drawn me to explore these commonly experienced crisis issues from the perspective of my own experience in the hope that I may bring an empathetic and compassionate insight to God’s people. I am now a published author and have several books in publication, including my autobiography, "A Little Redneck Theology." The views expressed in my writings are strictly my own insights, acquired from personal experience and diligent study of the related topics and God’s word concerning them. Though I am an ordained minister, my views should not be considered authoritative. I believe that the Christian community’s ultimate authority is the guidance of the human heart by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
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6 Responses to An Existentialist Approach to Career Development in Victims of Domestic Violence

  1. Pingback: Opening a Transitional Housing Shelter for Abused Women | Go Fish Ministries, Inc

  2. Nell says:

    Excellent piece.

    Would add that the emotional and *cognitive* toll wrought by abuse can impact a woman in impactful, pragmatic ways. An abused woman’s performance at work – her task focus, working relationships, ability to contribute to business goals – is likely to suffer. All her energy is devoted to mere survival, at home and work. She cannot be the new entrepreneurial worker who thrives in an increasingly competitive economy. What is the likelihood she can obtain a supportive reference from a former employer? That she can approach the preludes to a ‘successful’ (or even ‘necessary’) career with confidence? Volunteering, or a return to education, require financial and emotional resources that may be immediately unavailable.

    This woman’s sense of competency and self-efficacy has been systematically eroded – by, very likely, negative feedback from co-workers and supervisors, as much as by direct assaults from her partner. Her self-belief and search for meaning are intrinsically linked to her very survival.


  3. Pingback: A Critical Review of Boundaries: When to say yes, When to say no to take control of your life | Go Fish Ministries, Inc

  4. Pingback: Safely Home | Go Fish Ministries, Inc

  5. Pingback: After Domestic Violence | Go Fish Ministries, Inc

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