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.

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