As a new counselor we have all sorts of expectations. We have expectations for ourselves, how we “should” respond, what techniques and theories we “should” use, how quickly we “should get it” or conceptualize the problem, that we “should” be able to fix it, or help. We also get caught up in the expectations we have for our clients, how they “should” behave and what they “should” get out of each counseling session. I end up making quite a mess of things when I “should” all over the place. This was an ongoing battle for me and every other student in my Internship class. It was my last semester, the one that brings everything you have learned about counseling into consolidation. The class was much different than I thought it was going to be. I was convinced I would get all kinds of useful information and techniques about how to do counseling right, but the lessons I learned in my final class were less about techniques and more about bringing an awareness to myself. Sure we talked about ethics, termination, safety, but instead of focusing on figuring out the client, we were instructed to pay attention to what was going on within us. How were we feeling during a session? How were we sitting and breathing, and how did that affect our work with the client? How was our perception of expectations and attachment to our expectations for our clients and ourselves getting in the way of being in the present?
I recall an example that may make this a bit clearer. One thing I have been working on is emotional differentiation, because I noticed that when a client is telling a very compelling story and begins to get emotional, I get drawn in. Then I use my coping mechanism, which is smiling and humor, to pull myself out, but when a client is in such an emotional state, a counselor must stay congruent or you run the risk of seeming fake or uncaring. I had this client with a great sense of humor. He was a member of one of the groups I co-led. I stopped to talk to him one day to check out some observations I had made. I wanted to make sure we were on the same page and I had not offended him with comments I had made in group. I had this idea that the questions I had for this client were about him, little did I know that he would give me some great feedback that would change my world. After we talked for a few moments and he let me know things were good and that I had not offended him, we began to walk to the group room. As I walked in from of him, he said “you smile a lot.” I was perplexed. I recall feeling uncomfortable, confused and not sure how to proceed. We did not have the opportunity to talk about it further because group was about to begin. Looking back, I am glad things went the way they did. Sometimes it pays to marinate on what may be seen as a random comment. If it creates a strong emotional response, even if it is confusion, it may be worth looking into.
So, I had to wait 2 days to see this client again, and after I had spoken to my Internship class, my teacher and my site supervisor, I had a semi-plan. My teacher challenged me to talk to him about it, my supervisor suggested against it, because it was the client’s last session, he was graduating that night and didn’t want us to open up some stuff we couldn’t work with him on. The cool thing about life is that when you pay attention, opportunities present themselves. After the session, the client and his wife were standing around talking to different people. I walked over to congratulate him. He said to his wife, “I told her she smiles a lot.” I could not have orchestrated a better opening to this conversation if I tried. I said to him, “I’m so glad you mentioned that, I have been wondering what you meant by that.” What I realized about this client was that humor was a deep seeded coping mechanism for him. His statement, “you smile a lot,” was his way of telling me that it made him uncomfortable and that I did not seem genuine. After talking for a while, I admitted that I am an emotional person and that smiling is my way of helping myself to deal with the emotions of others. I thanked him for his feedback, and in that moment, the client became the teacher. It was a beautiful way for him to graduate and leave the program. He had the opportunity to teach me something about myself in a deeper way. This also offered the client an opportunity to feel empowered. His simple comment gave me the fuel I needed to dig deeper on my work with differentiation. I could have thought it was all about the client when the statement first came up, but instead I used it as an opportunity to investigate and grow. I didn’t let my expectations of him or myself get in the way of helping us both grow and learn from each other. I allowed myself to be present in the moment and captured the space to see things in a whole new way. Engaging in counseling in this way opens up the opportunity to leave expectations at the door. “Should” we have a plan, an idea, a foundation for counseling? Of course, but how would it be to allow the client the empowerment to guide us through the type of counseling they need?
As a last comment, I have to thank Dr. D for his incredible impact on my counseling education. He has 35 years of experience, and a subtle humbleness with a kick of ego and humor that draw you in and help you see different sides of yourself you have never explored. He sees things in you that give you pause, he asks those questions that at face value may seem like they are in left field; then in seconds– it’s like a right hook to your subconscious. This teacher is inspiring, genuine, and a true legend of the field. I know that I speak not only for myself when I say thank you, Dr. D, thank you for being you!