Tag Archive | counseling

Treading Water

Yes. I am surviving (see my last post.) And no, I still have not capsized. So far, so good!

At the moment, I am in Calgary Alberta, and doing the face-to-face portion of my course. In a week, I will be heading back home, but in that week, I know that I will become a better person and a better counsellor. (And yes, in Canada, that’s spelled with two Ls, haha).

This coming Tuesday, I will be facilitating a portion of one of the sessions from my 6-session program (again, see my last post). I got marks in the 90s on both the program outline and the manual (a monstrous document 25 pages long, single-spaced…. gulp!) While I am nervous about my session, and the resulting assignment that will come out of it, what I believe is most transformational about the past week is getting to know these people very well in such a short time. One of the components of our classroom time is to be able to participate as members of a counselling group facilitated by our instructors, and to spend time reflecting on what that process is like for us as future counsellors. What our prof and instructional assistant are trying to do is to model how a counsellor works in a group, working with the raw material of the things we talk about and co-constructing meaning in the midst of all of that, and getting us in touch with how we are feeling and what those feelings tell us.

You will recall that in my last post, I referred to sailing through a gale not knowing how to swim.  Well, I don’t know quite how to “swim” yet, but I have learned that I can tread water – and I won’t sink. The water is still quite choppy, but I think I can see a light in the harbour, and someone – well, several someones – have thrown me a lifeline in case I need it. I know I switched metaphors there, but you get the idea. 🙂

Having this opportunity to be away from the pressures of the office and to focus solely on my studies has been a Godsend… I have even had some time for some much-needed self-care … and to my surprise, I am learning self-compassion. Just yesterday morning, I called my mother at the hospital where she is awaiting placement in a nursing home for dementia. She still thinks she is there for “a rest” and that she will soon be going back home. While we were speaking and she was telling me that so-and-so never visits, when I know full well they go and see her at least 4 times a week, I found myself thinking that she probably tells folks that I never even call her, and that they would believe her and think I was a horrible daughter. That notion would have bothered me a lot even a few months ago. But as I thought about it, I began to understand that it doesn’t matter what she thinks of me, or what anyone thinks of me. It doesn’t even mater that 30 seconds after she hangs up the phone, she’s forgotten I even called. What matters is that I know I have brightened her day, even only ten or twenty minutes out of that day.

And that is okay. I don’t know when it started to be okay, but I know that it is – that I have grown into it in tiny increments over the last few months and finally, throughout this week, it’s like I have given myself permission to be human and not to be able to do it all or do it perfectly. (WOW.)

Does that mean I’m growing up?  I guess it does… it has taken me a while though. Oh well. That’s one more proof that I’m human, and knowing that helps me let others off the hook when they make mistakes too.

So it’s all good. I’m treading water, and I’m okay with that. Maybe by this time next week, I’ll have done a little dog-paddling. 😉

Not knowing

There has been a recurring theme in my graduate studies in counselling. I keep coming back to what my professor called a “not knowing stance” when I was at Summer Institute in 2016. Every course I take, every experience I have in this program, keeps circling me back to this one inescapable truth, a certainty that bases itself in not being certain … of anything.

When counselling, when researching, even when faced with an ethical dilemma, it all boils down to this: I don’t know.  I might think, or believe, or even suspect, but I don’t know.  I am not the expert; I am not even AN expert!  Guess who is?  The client!! The client is the expert in the room, the expert in whatever situation or problem brought them into counselling.

I am learning to take that stance, to not have my mind made up, to be curious and compassionate, to gather more information, to encourage the other person to fully be who they are and feel safe in doing so.  Does this mean that I have chosen a theoretical orientation, as psychology graduate students have been expected to do for generations? Absolutely not!  Even regarding theory, I am on the proverbial fence.  I can see good in almost all therapeutic approaches, and I think that each of them would work best in different situations for different types of people with different backgrounds.  One person might need to explore their family-of-origin dynamics, delve into their childhood issues to uncover something in them that affects today’s functioning.  Others might find more help in a short-term solution-focused approach to a specific problem. Many people respond to identifying and countering their negative thoughts with positive ones.  Still others could be looking for a way to relieve stress in the moment and would respond to a mindfulness-based thrust.

“Man Lying on Chaise Lounge” courtesy of Ambro at www.freedigitalphotos.net

Regardless of where I end up on that spectrum, or whether I just take an eclectic approach, I know one thing: I don’t know.  Not knowing has become something of a pattern, a habit, a rhythm of life for me. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be qualified to be a counsellor.  In fact, it might mean that I’m better qualified than I ever thought possible.  Not knowing will force me to ask questions, really listen to the answers, and then ask more questions. It will help me to understand my clients’ experience from their own perspective.  I won’t assume that I know about someone’s life just because it might look like they belong to this or that group; instead, I will ask them to help me understand how it is from their point of view.

This not knowing mentality has so many applications, not just in counselling but also in relationships, work, and family.  When people understand that I am not prejudging them, when they know that they are safe with me, they will feel more free to open up and share their experience.  It feels good to be with someone who accepts you unconditionally, and who creates that atmosphere of caring and respect.  I want to become that someone.

In my last post, I spoke about health issues from pre-cancer in my uterus, in addition to my brother’s colon cancer.  I am happy to report that they got all of my brother’s colon cancer, literally saving his life, and I underwent a hysterectomy in early January, saving mine.  I feel very grateful, and even more so now that my winter term is done and I got a great mark on Professional Ethics.  I have plans to practice a fair bit of self-care over the next couple of weeks, and I hope to squeeze in a visit to see my brother and my mother; it will be the first time since his surgery.

There’s a lot that is up in the air of late.  I’ve been acting as a team lead at work since October, and the employer has been conducting interviews to fill that role on a permanent basis.  So, I’m waiting for the results of that, at the same time as I am reaching almost the half-way point of my degree.  I decided to slow down my degree so that I could do my practicum in September of 2018, so I am hoping to be a little less stressed than I would have been going full bore.  And even making all these plans, I still don’t know what will happen.  All I can do is take each day as it comes, do the best I can, and keep asking questions.

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.

psychologist-listening-to-patient-by-daivd-castillo-dominici-at-freedigitalphotos-net

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”.

Reference

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