Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Next Step vs. The Final Step

For the first 20 or so years of my life, I knew I was going to be an elementary school teacher.  I could envision writing on the chalkboard, decorating the room, and being the person holding the big book up front with all the answers in it.  I had my own little chalkboard, and I used to teach my dolls my homework.  I used to cut out Christmas trees for December calendars and hearts for February calendars.  I used to help my teachers grade papers in elementary school, and I thought that was fun. I was absolutely certain I was going to be a teacher when I grew up and would be one for the rest of my working life.

I went to college and majored in Elementary Education. Somewhere around the first semester of my senior year, I began to sense that teaching was not my calling, but I persevered.  I slogged my way through student teaching, and I eventually found a job teaching middle school science.  To be fair, neither middle school nor science were my target demographic, but that was where the job was.  After two years of struggling with class discipline, lesson plans, and difficult parents, I knew I needed to do something else.  I was taking a Disciple bible study class at the time, and I thought "I could talk about that all day." I also thought that I would prefer to teach college where classroom discipline was not such a big deal and where I could connect with students outside the class in office hours. So, off I went to seminary to work toward a Ph.D, so that I could teach something religion-related in college.

Seminary and I did not agree with each other as well as I might have liked.  Other things were happening in my life that did not help, but I ended up taking a year off in which I reconsidered my options.  I found theology and philosophy interesting, and I had enjoyed learning about the history of the church, but I realized that I did not think like the other students who were going into Ph.D. programs.  I didn't have a specific theologian or belief system that I wanted to research for several years. I was interested in the impact of beliefs and tenets on people, but not as interested in the beliefs and tenets themselves.

During that year off, I got a job at a department store and had a lot of time to think.  What I realized was that I wanted to connect with people, and I had hoped that I could do so through whatever subject I taught.  Eventually I thought, "cut the middleman" and realized I could be a therapist and do what I wanted to do without having to go through another medium.  I went back and finished my M.Div, and then enrolled in a counseling program.  That program made sense to me and fit the way I understood people and life. I found joy in studying the material and found my internships energizing and exciting.

As I look back, a part of me says that I should have been a psychology major, gone straight to counseling school, and have skipped all the in-between steps (my bank account would certainly prefer it).  Another part of me, however, realizes that those other experiences helped set the stage for what I do now.  My experience in education helps me with groups and with explaining terms and concepts to my clients. It helps me to understand how people learn and various ways to reach them.  My experience in theology helps me respect and process my clients' religious and spiritual views in a way I might not have been able to before. I not only learned about Christianity but about other belief systems as well.  If philosophy is how one understands life, and theology is how one understands God (or lack thereof), then counseling allows me to address both together.

So, what is my long-winded point?  My clients often come to me laden with heavy decisions about what to do next in their lives.  They think about the next forty steps in any possible direction and get exhausted and bogged down to the point of intellectual paralysis.  It can help to reframe the decision as the next decision rather than the  ultimate decision.  Very few decisions cannot be worked through or changed. Certainly, those decisions require much thought and deliberation. Otherwise, however, all we can do is go with what seems best at the time.

We can never know in advance everything that will happen.  We don't have control over everything. We cannot control other people's choices, the weather, the economy, etc. After a point, all we can do is take appropriate precautions and trust ourselves that we can get through whatever choices we make.  Every choice is not the be-all end-all, but it can certainly feel that way.  Trauma survivors, in particular, tend to struggle with trusting themselves and getting overwhelmed by everyday decisions.  A safe person in your life can help you explore your decision-making process and grow in trusting yourself.  A different perspective can be very helpful.

Your path may not always seem to follow a straight line, but I believe that, if you trust yourself, the line will take you where you need to go. If you can allow yourself to look for the next step rather than the last step, it can free you up to go places and learn things you never knew you could.  You can learn a lot about yourself along the way. I wonder what your next step might be? I'd be happy to help you figure it out.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On Trying Something New

I remember well the day that I chose to leave my last job.  Things had been stressful there, and I knew it was time to move on, but the decision was difficult to make. Despite the stress, I had a regular salary. I was never going to get rich off of it, but I was able to do most of what I needed to do. I liked and cared about the population I was serving.  I also had benefits like health insurance and life insurance that helped to protect my family and me. More than that, I knew how to do what I was doing there, and the routine was familiar.  As much as I knew I needed to leave, the choice to move on was scary.  Ultimately, I worked with my support system and found the courage to move into private practice. I am blessed to have the support I do, and I am grateful.

The transition has been interesting and challenging. The world I am in now is very different from the one I left. I've been reconnecting with myself as a therapist and enjoying being in an environment in which I can continue to learn and grow both as a person and as a therapist.  I still miss some of the "benefits" of my old job, but I am finding much more benefit in what I am doing now.

All of this change has led me to wonder what allows change and how to face it.  What I find is true is that change happens under specific circumstances.  Generally, it occurs when we are at a point that not changing is more painful than the idea of change.  Frequently, it happens in the course of a crisis. "If I don't leave this relationship, my spouse might start harming the children and not just me." "I've been fired from my job. Now what do I do?" "My spouse just got transferred to another state. How am I going to handle this?" "I'm having nightmares and I'm afraid to sleep."  People often come to therapy because they have hit a crisis point.  Crisis is beautiful in that it gives us the energy to make change and take on opportunities.

I think, though, that crisis is not the only motivating factor.  Support is a huge facilitator of positive change. When we feel that others are behind us and that those relationships are safe, it is easier to find the courage to try something new.  I moved more often than I would have liked in my childhood, and it was always hard to make new friends. I didn't have cooties or anything, but I was shy and somewhat insecure. What was almost universally the case was that I became more confident and more outgoing as I developed connections and friendships. I would even take on leadership positions that I would not have dreamed of in the beginning. For me, it took time and connection for that courage to build and for me to allow myself to change.

Therapy is helpful because it provides a safe space to practice new things. We therapisty types talk about "safe spaces" a lot, and perhaps that can be unclear. Safety and comfort are two different words.  Change will be uncomfortable. In the therapist's office, however, you can try new skills and take risks without the threat of being insulted, made fun of, ridiculed, attacked, or embarrassed. I tend to focus on effort rather than outcome, and I enjoy helping people build on their strengths. My goal is to accept my clients where they are and not to impose my idea of change on them. The safety lies not only in knowing that you will not be abused in my office but also in knowing that you do not have to be any particular type of person or feel any particular kind of way to be accepted.  Who you are and what you need will be respected. When we know that we have a safe space to fall, it is easier to take the leaps.

The other piece that I am trying to embrace as I face this change is recognizing that this is simultaneously like what I used to do and very different from what I used to do.  I have to be careful not to impose unrealistic expectations on myself. How do I do that? Well, what I am trying is to allow this to be a new experience and to try to explore it as a new thing rather than expecting myself to have it mastered already. I am trying to be childlike in looking at it in different ways and exploring different options. I know I have necessary skills to do what I want to do and will continue to learn more, and I know what my ethics are, so I do not have to worry about those components not being available to me. This frees me to allow the experience to unfold organically and to allow myself to learn without being embarrassed or ashamed at not already knowing everything. I expect to make mistakes, and I plan to learn from them. We all make mistakes as we learn, and I can accept that.

Have I mastered the art of change? I don't think so. Do I have the perfect answer? Probably not. For that matter, my answer may not work for you, and that's okay. We're all different. I enjoy learning from you, too. If you are having trouble making the change you want, I encourage you to build your support system. Obviously, I am a strong advocate for therapy, but support can also come from family, friends, faith groups, community organizations, and other sources. Having a sense that you matter and that others care about you very much helps with taking the risk of change. Every change does not work out the way we would like, but at least you can credit yourself with taking the courage to make a change for yourself. I definitely think that is an accomplishment to be proud of.