Putting first things first

I think that I’m safe in saying that so far in my graduate program in counselling, the course for which I just submitted my final assignment earlier this evening has been the most technically difficult one so far – it was on research methodology and made it necessary for me to use something that I abhor: statistics. But … let’s not go there tonight, except to say that two weekends ago, I got a brand new book: Statistics for Dummies. And I plan to read it!

All that drama aside – there is something so satisfying about passing in a final paper. No more schoolwork for four weeks! And you can bet that I’ll be squeezing as much enjoyment out of those four weeks as possible!

The course taught me a lot of things, and not just about research design and how I am drawn to qualitative rather than quantitative research (the latter being about numbers – numbers being about statistics – and here we are back at the boogey-man again!) In the course, I worked in a small group to conduct a tiny research project over the course of the term, and the topic we chose was the relationship between burnout and self-care in online graduate students. Learning more about the factors in burnout made me re-think the pace of my education plan. (Of course, there were other reasons for re-thinking it as well!)


Photo “Oil Massage” courtesy of samuiblue at www.freedigitalphotos.net

In fact, there were four major reasons for me deciding to turn my program from a 3.3-year program to a 4.5 year program.  The first was purely practical and self-serving: I have an opportunity to get a good practicum if I defer it to September 2018 rather than 2017.  That was the first domino, so to speak. Then I figured that if I were to defer the practicum, I could stand to slow down the pace from a  total of four courses per year (over three terms) to a schedule of three courses per year (one per term). Doing this allows me to take more electives as well, which I am enjoying the thought of doing. The pace of the online program being more manageable is reducing my stress levels and making it more possible for me to sleep at night.

My physical health is another reason why I’m slowing down my program. I believe you know that I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes last May.  But after a procedure to test me for cervical and uterine cancer, and the lab finding that I have pre-cancerous cells in my uterus, I am scheduled for abdominal surgery on January 9, 2017. Yes, that’s right – a hysterectomy.  This will mean a three to six-week recovery period at home, and the less stress I pile on myself, the better my body will be able to recover.  I will be able to do my schoolwork but not much more during my recovery period – and it will be good to get away from such a hectic pace and to regroup.

One more reason I’m spreading my courses out is that there are some possible opportunities at work that I may be able to benefit from – and pushing forward on my practicum date to 2018 instead of 2017 gives me the time and space I need to explore those. That has meant that I haven’t been able to avail myself of that volunteer opportunity, at least not yet. Perhaps in time…

And finally, my brother was just diagnosed with stage one colon cancer this past month. His surgery to resect a section of bowel (major abdominal surgery) is set for around the end of December. Hopefully, with me spending a bit less time with my nose in the books, we will be able to spend a bit more time together, especially as our mother’s dementia is getting worse.

Self-care takes many forms. Sometimes it means going for a massage, a manicure, or a spa treatment. But for me lately, it means making every moment count with family and friends, looking after my health, and being able to sleep without stressing about deadlines, and it also means not falling asleep in front of the computer screen.

It means putting first things first. Prioritizing my life makes for there being more room for the important things and then, if there’s room, adding in some nice-to-haves. It means having it all, but not all at once: each thing in its own time. And it means being satisfied with what I have for as long as I have it. That’s something that I think I could get behind.


Time to breathe

It’s hard for me to believe that I’m officially into my second year of my 3.3 year program of graduate studies in counseling. This semester, I’m taking a course that many consider pivotal in the sense that it is foundational to the culminating experience of the program.  Contrary to what one might think, it’s not the practicum, but comes after the practicum: producing a publish-ready research article. The course I’m taking now is about how to do psychological research (both qualitative and quantitative studies). So this course is essential to being able to complete the final course… even though that is 2 years away!

In the midst of this course, though, I had to take some time to look after a health issue, and right now I’m recovering from a surgical procedure that needed to be done for diagnostic purposes.  It’s given me time to breathe, time to reflect and think about my school work, and about putting balance into my life: home, work, school, and hopefully volunteering.


This photo “Psychologist Listening To A Client” is provided courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at www.freedigitalphotos.net

Through a friend who volunteers her time, I managed to get in touch with someone who operates a not-for-profit center for young mothers at risk. The organization offers life skills instruction, low-cost baby supplies and clothing, and counseling to pregnant mothers and mothers of toddlers and young children. At this point, I am seriously considering putting in about 3 hours a week volunteering at this place, getting to know the clientele, teaching some cooking perhaps, so that I can perhaps provide some counseling to them if they need it. It will mean that I need to re-jig my hours at work, but I’m starting to see a way clear to do that. I’ve had a few discussions with the Executive Director and she has asked me to stop by.

Part of me wonders if I’m not biting off more than I can chew. However, if I am busy, perhaps I can budget my time more appropriately and ‘work smarter.’ It doesn’t sound like something that would be overwhelming. And I might get to connect with people a bit more, which could prove to be rewarding! The mentors in my program tell me that it is a good idea to get some counseling experience before I start my practicum – and since that will start in less than a year, I think that it might be good for me to get my proverbial feet wet.

Once I do that, I can tweak my professional c.v., and start casting around for a practicum site, which must be set up and approved by my university before May 1, 2017. I had a meeting last month with a local representative of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, and she suggested some quality sites for me to look into.  So that will keep me busy the next little while, as well as my assignments in this course – and work – and family most certainly.

Even though life has been kind of closing in on me with all the extra stuff on my plate, I think that it’s just that my world is expanding so much that it only feels as though I have less mental and emotional space.  Still, I am learning to practice self-care and I plan to make it a part of the every day.  And at this moment, I am not sure exactly what form that will take! All I DO know is that I’m on my way and that the path ahead goes farther than I can see.

A Sneak Peek

About a week ago, I got back from a three-week, concentrated, six-hour-a-day face-to-face finish to a couple of courses I was taking in my Master’s program. They call it “Summer Institute” or “SI” … but near the end, one of the students said that SI should stand for “Summer Intensive.”  I think she was right!

The first day, we got to practice one skill and one only: listening. No uh-huhs, no mm-hmms.  Just eye contact, facial expression and paying attention to what the other person was saying. The exercise was only a few minutes long. Yet it highlighted the importance of being present with the client. And over the course of the next several days, we added new skills, techniques and strategies to that one until, by the end, we were counselling each other in 45-minute sessions, using all the things we had been learning, finding our own style, and creating a trusting atmosphere. Some techniques were a little harder to master than others.  But still, it was almost like magic… how much easier it got even after a night’s sleep.

Photo "Opening Door Knob" courtesy of sixninepixels at www.freedigitalphotos.net

Photo “Opening Door Knob” courtesy of sixninepixels at www.freedigitalphotos.net

And there were a few times when I caught myself actually DOING what I had dreamed of doing since I began this program!  As each of us “practiced” our developing skills with the others, taking turns being client and counsellor under the watchful eyes of our instructors, we used the raw material of our lives, and each of us found ourselves touched and transformed even while we learned how to help those in need. Friendships were forged in the fires of care and empathy; we got to know each other better in those three weeks than many do in years. There was a spirit of camaraderie and caring that infused us, where we cooperated, cheered each other on, helped each other succeed.

It was marvellous.

It was a foretaste, a sneak peek into the lives we had chosen for ourselves, one on which we would soon be building in the months and years to come.  Our confidence in ourselves and in each other blossomed and thrived in that atmosphere of acceptance, respect, and genuineness.  We started to see how therapy could be a conversation that in itself is helpful regardless of the theory or orientation chosen by the therapist.  We saw – some of us for the first time – a clear picture of ourselves as counsellors.  That was the most powerful experience, one which I will carry forward into the rest of the program and into my counselling career.

Change is good – but it’s hard

In my last post, I talked about my multiculturalism course.  I said it was outside my comfort zone – and it was – but what I was unprepared for was how FAR outside my comfort zone it was!  The readings, assignments and discussions confronted me at every turn with how wrong my thinking had been all of my life about people who were different from me: different in belief, dress, class, religion, skin colour, ability, and sexual orientation.

Most of my life I have been in this white, Christian, heterosexual bubble that not only tries to pretend the non-existence of other ways of thinking and acting, but (when confronted with them) says they are automatically wrong… because they don’t look like me or think like me or act like I do.  I guess our society is set up to compartmentalize people into categories.  And it’s a given that the church does – to the point of excluding everyone who doesn’t follow the pattern. (I could be pulled off on that bunny trail, but let’s not do that right now.)

People are different. Different is good.

In the last 13 weeks, I have been exposed to the dangers of non-acceptance, of judgment, of abuse done in the name of love (whether that is familial love or romantic love or Christian love), and of viewing someone, ANYONE as “less than” just because he, she or they are different.  I have been outraged at the holocaust perpetuated in this country over the years by those whose stated mission was evangelism but whose real agenda was cultural genocide.  I am referring, of course, to the tragedy of the residential schools and the fact that generations of First Nations peoples had their culture, their very identity, ripped from them in an effort to ‘better’ their lives.

I have talked with people who are of different races, genders (and yes, there are more than two), religions, classes, and sexual orientations.  I have learned that “treating everyone the same” is not enough.  People who have been oppressed need greater consideration, more access to the things I take for granted.  For example, some people cannot even go to the bathroom without their identity being questioned.  Think about that.  I don’t need to pass an inspection or show my ID every time I go to a public washroom.  These people need laws to help them carve out a place to exist in our society, to even have the right to have their significant others make decisions for them in hospitals … or funeral homes. The level of oppression is unbelievable, and by far, most of that oppression comes from those with privilege.  White privilege, cis-privilege, (cis is identifying as the same gender as the parts you were born with), middle-class or rich privilege, and Christian privilege (link) are the chief offenders.  And it is rampant.

I didn’t understand privilege (most privileged people don’t) until I had someone explain it to me.  Privilege is an unfair, unearned advantage that someone has over another person on the basis of some part of their identity: skin colour, gender identity, religion, and so forth.  Here is a short video explaining the basics of white privilege : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysj_8fqnNcY

Change is good. But the process of changing is hard.

The amount of change that this experience has challenged me with has been overwhelming at times.  I am not one who likes confrontation (who does?) but I felt confronted … and I felt ashamed of my ignorance and unthinking attitudes toward people who were different. It was really hard for me to address those things in my life because I had thought a certain way my whole life … and then there were these readings – and these discussions – that really pushed me to the limit (and perhaps beyond the limit) of what I could endure. It was rapid-fire, too; there was no time to recover from one body-blow before the next one came.

I am coming to terms with the idea that becoming a counsellor means a great deal more than it did when my parents were my age. It involves scary things like being an advocate for my clients and maybe even fighting the bigotry of the very groups of which I am a member in order to gain a hearing for those who seek my help. It might mean that some people might not like me anymore – a fate that a younger, more impressionable me might consider as worse than death.

However, I am slowly seeing that if I want to make a difference in my world, I cannot just stop at helping people cope with (for example) racism that exists in our society; I need to empower people to stand up against it … and that will involve me standing up against it too.  I cannot sit by and listen in silence while people call every Muslim a terrorist when I know for a fact that this is not true. I cannot look the other way when someone is bullying someone of another sexual orientation, or when someone is loudly protesting against “those people” coming into our country.  Silence is not a luxury I can afford anymore.

In a way, it’s like learning to drive.  My daughter studied and got her learner’s permit a while back.  Knowing the rules of the road and learning how to put those into practice has opened her eyes to a number of things she never expected: among these is her awareness of how other people are breaking the law when they go over the speed limit, or don’t come to a complete stop at a stop light or stop sign, or don’t signal before changing lanes or turning.  Before she got that permit, she never noticed these things. Now she does.

And just so, I am seeing more and more the multitude of examples of racism, sexism, classism, FATism, and heterosexism (homophobia) that people demonstrate in my interactions with people, as well as in the media, even so far as in comedy shows that take pot shots at folks who are different in some way.  (By the way, I no longer laugh at such humour, simply because I don’t find it funny any more!)

What is all of this going to mean?  Well, as I continue my grad school journey, I suspect that I will be more sensitive to the needs and feelings of those who are different.  I suspect that, as I enter the profession of counselling, I will be more likely to set aside my personal beliefs and listen to my clients, so that I can understand what it is like to be them.

And that will make the biggest difference of all.

Outside my comfort zone

My first course at Athabasca was great!  It did challenge me to think in new ways, but in another way it opened new vistas for me in thinking critically about what I learn.  Plus, it made me think about where  I want to go on this learning journey.

This term, it’s completely different.  I am taking a course in multicultural counseling.  And, since I am part of a privileged culture (white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant), of Loyalist descent, cisfemale, heterosexual, and steeped in Judeo-Christian values since birth, this is a difficult course for me because there is no way that I can fully relate to someone of another race, religion, or gender / sexual identity.

I am distinctly outside my comfort zone.  I am hovering above myself, keenly aware that anything I say can be perceived in any number of ways, and I don’t want to offend anyone…. which, I guess, is as good a place as any to start.

I’ve spent the better part of the last four years or so coming to terms with the fact that one of my children is on the LGBTQIA spectrum (I had to learn what each of those letters stood for and why they are there, because I was – and still am to a great degree – so green to all of it).  And for those who (like me) are still learning, the acronym above is for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Twin-spirited, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual.  I am learning and understanding terms I never thought I would, like “cis” as a prefix for male or female (meaning a person identifies as the gender for which their body was born with the parts).

The knowledge that my daughter is on “the spectrum” was not nearly as scary for me as the fear I had that she would end up being bullied or ostracized for who she was… particularly by people very much like I once was.  I have become extremely sensitized to the issue of accepting people for who they are instead of brandishing placards decrying it as “unnatural” or “a choice.”  I hardly think that my little girl chose to be ON the spectrum, much less at the “A” end of the spectrum; she just never, EVER, had any interest in sex – or romance, for that matter.  And truth be told, she has been instrumental in teaching me that someone is not less of a person because he or she is different.

Anyway, I am finding that I am treading a very fine line as I stick-handle my way through this class, mostly because I am so afraid of saying something unintentionally that would offend a classmate or the professor. However, I do think that this is a learning experience for me, so perhaps my fears are normal, my attitude is at least teachable, and I will do well.

Time will tell.  Time will tell.

Not in Kansas anymore

I watched “The Wizard of Oz” last night – and when Judy Garland (as Dorothy) said that classic line, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” I nodded in agreement.  Much of my student experience is just like that.

Just eight weeks into my program, I am coming to realize that the profession of psychology is not the same as when I was taking my undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree back in the 1980s.  Back then, the professors who taught at my university learned their psychology from a school of thought known as modernism – the idea that ultimate truth could be known – and they were busy feeding into what I have dubbed the ‘theory wars’ – a perpetual struggle between behaviourism (B.F. Skinner), humanism (Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl, and others), and psychodynamism (Sigmund Freud), and their various offshoots, including cognitive therapy (such as Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and so forth).  All of the theorists and their disciples were waging war, arguing about which way was the right way to do therapy to produce maximal results.

Perhaps five or ten years after I graduated, an ideological concept known as post-modernism emerged, which questioned everything and stated that there were no absolutes.  I heard a lot of preachers trying to say that this idea would be the death of society as we knew it. However, the critical thought process that it proposes asks important questions like, “Why do we do what we do?”, “What is working about this method, and what is not, and why?”  Post-modernist thought, like it or not, is here to stay, and I must say that in a way, it is quite liberating because it calls into question all of those polarized arguments of who is right and who is wrong.  And, as difficult as it is to get my head around the idea, the freedom to be able to be eclectic in my therapeutic approach (although some take offense at that word and prefer the term integration) opens the door for me to construct my own therapeutic style, one that is unique to me, one in which I can be genuine and empathetic, where I can truly accept those who come to me for help, while still working on the problems that trouble them.

This is exciting!  I remember going to therapy several years ago; I was referred through my Employee Assistance Program.  The counsellor was very technique-oriented, heard maybe 20% of what I said, and ignored the rest once he had made up his mind what my problem was.  According to his rule-book, I had to do A, B, and C in order to get better.  What I wanted out of therapy was something completely different – I wanted to be able to make peace with my past – and he wanted me to yank someone out of my past and make them pay for what they had done.  That was not helpful, I was not after vengeance.  All I wanted was peace, a path to forgiveness.  I left therapy after the required six sessions and found help elsewhere – but it still took me considerable time to silence the monsters.

I want something better for my clients.  I want to be able to truly hear them and to be able to use tools to help them that we both agree to.  In my program, I am learning that this is the kind of counsellor that I can be; I do not have to be limited to one theory or type of therapy.  I can bring others into it, depending on the needs of my client.  Fit the therapy to the client, not the client to the therapy!

Yet … the landscape of this new learning environment is so different from the one I was in when I was in my undergrad.  Back then, people were all into teaching your baby to read at the age of six months, studying rats in mazes, and making people lie on couches and spill their problems to a psychoanalyst that they couldn’t even see, much less relate to (or have their therapist relate to them!)  Person-centred therapy had been around for a while, but was largely misunderstood and often mocked.

Winding Road by pixbox77 at freedigitalphotos.net

Photo “Winding Road” courtesy of pixbox77 at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Now, there is a vast body of scientific evidence proving that the therapeutic relationship (including the person-centred elements of genuineness, unconditional acceptance, and empathy that so many made fun of) is a large part of successful therapy, twice as much as techniques are (Leibert, 2011).  While this is amazing, and makes me very happy, it also makes me realize that much more than I ever realized, much of my own success as a therapist will depend on my own ability to establish that bond, no matter what techniques I use. And so, I get the feeling that this is all new territory – that I am ‘not in Kansas anymore’ – and that much more than just my age has changed since the last time I was in academia.

I will therefore need to be very careful when it comes time to choose a practicum placement (not until April 2017), for the people that will help to shape my approach will need to be at least supportive of my approach, and in that atmosphere, I can learn from them.  With that in mind, perhaps I had better start looking around now, if I am to find something that will work for me.  The yellow brick road is unwinding before me, and I have my ruby slippers.  All I need now are good mentors, and I will “get there”.


Leibert, T. W. (2011). The dimensions of common factors in counselling. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling. 127-128. doi:10.1007/s10447-011-9115-7

Meet me here

I’ve just been accepted as a student in the Masters in Counselling program at Athabasca University. There, I’ve said it. It’s REAL!

This means that I’m officially in a transition phase between my current career as a public servant and a new one as a servant of the public. I was in Yorkville University’s Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology (MACP) program from September 2013 to August 2014 – until I discovered that my province doesn’t accept degrees from Yorkville U as sufficient for a person to go into private practice.

That’s when I discovered Athabasca. My experience with this school has been wonderful ever since my first communication with them back in January of this year when I started to get my credentials together for my application.

So, due to that one-year delay, and the time difference in how long it takes to get a degree, as well as the fact that I need to continue working while I go to school, my career plans have been set back by a few years. However, I believe I’m now on the right road and that within four years, I will be a Canadian Certified Counsellor.

I’m sure that I will learn so very much in this process. Hopefully that will make me a better counsellor. 🙂