by Caroline

it’s a little bit me & it’s a little bit you, too

We’re in the middle of another weekend of advocacy training right now (the final training!), and tonight’s sessions touched on a lot of the same stuff we’ve been touching on in my for-credit classes this semester. One theme that’s been really emerging for me lately is diversity in terms of the strengths and the weaknesses that a cohort of counselors brings to the table, and in turn, then, what I bring, as a part of that cohort.

I talked a bit in my last post about some of the weaknesses that I bring – and probably will continue to discuss that, for whatever the duration of this blog is – and so tonight I think I’m going to spend a little bit of time writing about what I think is probably my biggest asset when approaching both clinical work and advocacy work, which is: in most aspects of my life, and especially, so far, in my professional life, I don’t really have an ego. Or anyway, as someone who did recently manage to pass an exam covering Freud, I have a very relatively small ego, and I don’t tend to let it get in the way very often.

We did a small ice-breaker in my development class yesterday wherein she created a maze taking up the room with a bunch of obstacles throughout. She divided half the class into “counselors”, who were not blindfolded, and half into “clients”, who were blindfolded. (The metaphors, they abound.) When she called “start”, we all, simultaneously, had to either guide our clients, or be guided by our counselors, through the maze.

During the debrief, many students mentioned that they were much more stressed out as the blindfolded client than as the counselor, because they “didn’t have control of the situation” as the client, but as the counselor, they could see the obstacles and felt confident guiding their clients through a (relatively simple) maze. This theme came up very frequently, and almost everyone in the class mentioned some derivative. I, however, had exactly the opposite experience. Having control over a situation, I’ve realized, doesn’t calm me. I don’t crave control. I have never been a person that needs to be specifically and pointedly in control of a situation. All I want is to help, whether I’m seen or not, and then slink back out of a situation.

The other thing that struck me is how often people tended to comment on having trouble with getting their clients to do what they told them to do, which is just… mind-boggling to me. “I instructed my client to step over a book,” one girl said, “and we had trouble because she didn’t know how high she needed to step.” We had that trouble too, but the second my client said he was uncomfortable attempting to step over an obstacle he couldn’t see, I made a mental note. No more “over”; looks like we’re going around things from now on. And we did, and we finished the maze without ever hitting anything. I’m not afraid to be wrong. This has always been true. I’m very quick to go out on a limb, see that I was wrong, talk about my error with my peers/supervisors, and immediately refine my approach. This has always served me well in academia, and I think it’ll serve me even better in counseling.

Tonight, in class, we talked about the fact that usually, being a crisis intervention advocate means that you’re dealing with people at their worst: you’re dealing with people who are drained, whose emotions are frayed. We talked about the fact that often, you’ll get yelled at, or snapped at, or have a door slammed in your face. This seemed to make a lot of the class really uncomfortable, but before the instructor even mentioned reasoning, I knew where she was going: sometimes, you’re going to get yelled at because you’re the only person in her life that she feels safe yelling at. Being someone who shoulders pain is important to me, but, if your advocacy is going to be a long-term part of you, so is understanding what that means: sometimes, shouldering pain is a matter of allowing another person to release something, directed at you, without letting it hurt you.

Without going into too much personal detail, there are definitely a lot of relationships in my life that survive because of how willing I am to be this person. It takes strength and skill to do it right. I suppose the most concise way to say what I do well is: I don’t take things personally. I’m very good at listening to very sad, angry, disappointed people rail through an entire spectrum of emotion, and knowing that everything they’re throwing at me isn’t directed at me. It’s flying in my direction, but that’s because I’ve chosen to stand there and listen, not because I’ve caused it. A lot of people have a far harder time than I do making that distinction, and I am grateful for this trait literally, now, every day.

What I need to get better at is remembering this on the days that things don’t go well. We open each and every session in my skill-based class with an informed consent policy & multicultural statement, even though you probably wouldn’t go through it more than once or twice with a real client. It’s so that you can get practice: not only is the content itself incredibly important, but it sets the tone for the rest of your session. On Wednesday, I bungled mine. Hard. So far, it’s the worst I’ve felt about anything I’ve done as a counseling student. It’s so easy, during these moments, for me to think, “OBVIOUSLY NOT A GOOD COUNSELOR!!!!1!” What I need to do is think, good counselor, bad moment. I’ve learned to play a lot of instruments in my day, and the best thing about that is that it taught me how to practice. Fall. Get up. Fall again. Get up again. Rise. Sometimes things are hard. Sometimes things fall into place, though, and I need to remember the things about myself, many of which have been true all along, that are going to keep me being good at this.

new days to throw your chains away

Tonight’s post is going to break with tradition (? we are apparently defining words very loosely right now) and not really discuss my classes, per se, because I just finished the first big chunk of a very intensive training for a new volunteer position. I’m going to be working for a minimum of six months as a crisis intervention volunteer on Washtenaw County’s domestic violence response team. The work amounts to having three or four day-long shifts per month where I (and a partner) respond, somehow, to every call related to domestic violence that gets routed through WC’s police switchboard. We respond to survivors at their home or in the hospital (if an arrest of their assailant has been made), over the phone (if an arrest has not been made), or at the jail (if the center believes that an arrest has been made, but that the police’s suspect is actually the survivor in the grander picture, which apparently happens depressingly often). The main objectives here are: to comfort/reassure/empathize with the survivor; to assess whether shelter is an appropriate/accessible option for them; to go over the legalities of their position with them and help them to determine what their next step is in that sense; to safety-plan with them, if they’re ready to do so; and generally to ensure that we’ve done everything we can to advocate for the survivor in a short-term, crisis setting.

Obviously, a position like this requires an immense amount of training, and I’ve spent about twenty-four hours this weekend receiving it (I’ll do more next weekend, as well). I was nervous going into the training, and here’s why: this is my first major responsibility in a counseling role. What if I hated it? What if I was bad at it? (I couldn’t decide which would be worse.) Either way, I felt like, one way or another, this training would represent a big change in my life.

Three days later, I can tell you that I didn’t hate it, and I wasn’t bad at it. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that it seems like there are two major parts of counseling: knowing what to say, and knowing how to say it. I think I can pretty confidently say that I’m pretty good at the second one. As long as I can remember, people have told me I’m a good listener. My mom always compliments me on how quickly I form relationships with people: tellers, cashiers, baristas, etc. I taught classes for a year and a half, and one of the biggest pieces of feedback I consistently received, both informally and on written evaluations, was how approachable I am and how comfortable my students felt with me. It took me a long time to feel comfortable talking about this, but I think now I can pretty safely say that I am one of the more empathetic people I know, that I’m a good listener, that I’m just good at getting people to trust me. I don’t think about it. It just happens.

The big difference, though, between establishing an immediate rapport with a barista and establishing one with a client is that after the barista hands me my drink, I get to look at her, thank her for doing such a lovely job as always, wish her a good day, and peace out until I need coffee again the next day. When I establish trust with a client (or a, uh, student playing a client, heh), it’s so that they can look over at me and I can say, “It sounds like you’re saying you’re uncomfortable with how your mother-in-law talks to you. How does that make you feel? No wait, shit. I didn’t mean to say that. I meant, er, does that make you feel, er… uncomfortable?” Well, yeah, the client says. I actually just said that.

What I’m getting at is that I am pretty clearly way better at one of the skills necessary for counseling (knowing how to speak to people) than the other (knowing what to say to people). I blank a lot of the time. So today, during training, our facilitator was wrapping things up, and asked whether anyone had any questions.

“I do,” one girl said, and cleared her throat: “I guess I still don’t really know what we actually say on a call.”

It was like the whole room had let out one collective breath at that (thank god I hadn’t been the only one thinking that). The facilitator explained that it was okay that we were feeling that way at this point. Almost this entire weekend was spent talking about the social context for domestic abuse, i.e., rape culture, etc.; about barriers that survivors face, and how those barriers change depending on a survivor’s specific social context; and with a panel made up of four survivors who number among the most admirable women I’ve ever met. Next weekend, we’ll spend a lot of time talking about specifics and logistics of a response call, learning about legalities, and learning about exactly what the hell it is that you say to the woman in front of you.

Either way, I was glad that she had spoken up, because I feel that way pretty much always. During my classes I’m never really able to fall into a groove, never really able to just slip into the conversation the way that some other students in my work group are able to. My brain has to keep working constantly, scrambling to make sure I’m keeping up with the client, and to make sure I don’t look like I’m scrambling. I felt really self-conscious about this for the first two days of training, but then I realized: this struggle is one of the reasons I decided to volunteer for this job in the first place. Getting a lot of training, and later a lot of practice, talking with clients will be good for me, and I’m excited to do it in a context that really, really matters, and to learn how to even out my skill-set a bit. People start somewhere. Anybody who’s really good at something learns how to be so. I probably need to get better at remembering that.

back to school

After months of anticipation, I’ve finally started my counseling degree, and I turned in my first assignment yesterday. The assignment was for my Basic Skills class, and we’d been instructed to create an outline of meeting with a client for the first time. We focused on covering informed consent protocol and multicultural competency. Throughout the semester in this Basic Skills class, we work in counseling dyad teams (one “counselor” and one “client”) and tape each other, preparing an analysis of last week’s session to hand in for each new week we meet. This allows us to get both practice speaking with “clients”, and feedback on the work we do on a regular basis.

For me, this assignment encapsulated everything I’ve been excited to start working on since I was accepted to the program. My entire reason for leaving geology in the first place stemmed from what I perceived as an unacceptable lack of focus on social justice work in my potential career. Writing an outline of how I would be doing my job seemed like such a fitting introduction to this new part of my life. I worked for ages on making each word perfect, and getting across exactly what I wanted to say, and, and, and —

and it turns out that counseling isn’t really about writing papers at all.

I was so proud of what I’d written, but the second the tape recorder clicked on, everything blanked out for me. I could have looked down at my paper, but the lecture that night had been all about earning trust. If I were a client and my counselor read a statement from a piece of paper, I would have left. So I blazed my way through it, trying ridiculously hard to remember the bolded headers in my outline, making sure I got all the points out without using five-dollar words, and doing my best to keep my tone conversational. When I was finished I turned off the tape recorder, let out a big enormous breath because WOAH, and looked at my partner for feedback.

“You did really well,” she said, “but honestly, between us, if a counselor had said all of that to me on our first session, I’d be out of there.”

I want to make it clear that she wasn’t putting me down. We’d been given the main points that our outline needed to contain, and you couldn’t pare it down for the purposes of this exercise. She was just airing a general grievance about an assignment that she had to do as well — on this particular instance she disagreed with the instructor’s method of gaining trust, and felt that a wordy, monologue-esque outline of informed consent and multicultural competency got in the way of the counselor/client relationship. And I can totally see that. I think that maybe for a lot of (most?) people, that’s true.

However, I had never even considered that someone might feel that way. When we got this assignment, I was excited because it was meaty. Something I could sink my teeth into, something I could use as a platform to fully articulate how I want social justice, diversity, and multiculturalism to fit into my professional life. I’m at a point in my life right now where from a professional standpoint, that’s about all I want to talk about. And so it was such a strange, foreign feeling to me to hear a classmate saying that the speeches we had to prepare were what she was specifically not looking for from a client/counselor relationship.

It didn’t make me feel any worse about what I had written, or about how I’d performed. (For what it’s worth, I listened to the recording to write my analysis tonight and I am honestly pretty proud of myself.) It was just a difference of opinion, and I respect that, and I think it’s really important to talk about it because if a counseling student feels that way then the chances are good that I’ll work with a client sooner rather than later who feels the same way, and I need to recognize that. What it did make me do was think about the concept of eagerness.

I am so excited to be in a field where we are finally encouraged to talk about these things. We are asked to “break the ice” with a client that might initially be skeptical about relating to us by immediately acknowledging our very superficial & obvious differences, which is a) not typical of all other interactions I’ve ever had and b) terrifying. frankly. But it also feels good, to me, because I’ve spent the last two years of my life coming to terms with what makes me different from others, and what that means for both my own humanity and others’. I’ve thought this entire time that that interest, which translates practically into an eagerness to discuss this huge “multiculturalism” word that keeps getting thrown around in all of my syllabuses, would be a good thing, would be a driving force. And I’m sure that there will be many instances throughout this degree where it will be, but last night was the first time I’ve ever come face-to-face with the notion that sometimes, it will not be. Sometimes, I will sit down with clients and the last thing they’ll want to hear is a little excited young white girl talking about how different I know we are, and isn’t that wonderful and beautiful, and we’re going to have such a great time together, aren’t you excited!!

Writing the outline was a good experience for me. It was hard. It forced me to think about myself from a professional standpoint in a counseling context, which I had honestly never done before. It made me articulate my goals, both as a person and as a person practicing counseling. But I think that carefully presenting the outline verbally to someone who was less than impressed was maybe even a more valuable experience.

© 2019 Caroline Horste

I am neither a professional nor an expert, and nothing here should be taken as counsel or legal advice. Along the same vein, nothing here should be taken as representing the views of anybody but myself, including my employers or the organizations I volunteer for. -CH