Tag Archive | education

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.

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!)

oil-massage-by-samuiblue-at-www-freedigitalphotos-net

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.

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.

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