A therapist friend of mine frequently tells me, “I don’t know what I don’t know, and you can’t know what you don’t know, Pam.” What’s becoming increasingly clear to me as I rack up client contact hours in my practicum is that there is so much that I do not know. I may not know what I don’t know, but I DO know that I don’t know very much at this point. And my quest to figure out what it is I don’t know has become very frustrating. It’s like I’m living in some sort of Buddhist koan, and I’m far too logical to unravel the mystery. I’m a fish trapped in a net, and the more I wriggle and struggle, the tighter I become entangled.
It has been a tough week in practicum land.
I keep asking the questions, and the answers are unsatisfying. How can I know what to say? What can I do that will help ameliorate the pain? What’s been most useful to me when I’ve been a client in therapy?
That’s the question that stops me—the answer right there, and obvious. What has been most useful? Someone who listens, who reflects, who provides a safe space in which I can rant and rail and reflect, where I can stomp my feet and declare the world unfair, without judgment, without problem solving. Though there has been some of that. I’ve had help, beyond listening, beyond creating a safe container, beyond empathy, concrete help that has made a significant, measurable difference.
One counselor literally held my hand while I phoned for help with out of control debt. The same one accompanied me to counseling sessions with my former partner, sessions that so disturbed me I felt my spirit leave my body. Her presence anchored me. Another therapist held me while I wept, sobbed from loneliness, and then guided me as I reassembled a support system. And it’s taken years. Years.
How many years do any of us have in which to make sense of our lives, to put this train back on the track and continue forward to some future unknown destination? And what sort of counselor do I want to be? The counselor who knows when to push a little harder to spur a client into taking an action that will change her life; the counselor who feels comfortable wrapping her arms around a client who is weeping uncontrollably because she feels completely alone and unloved. The counselor who has developed a relationship over years with a client who is bravely facing difficult life transitions and knows how to show up in the most useful way possible.
In my supervision class, I’ve talked a bit about re-learning how to be useful and giving myself the space to learn and develop new skills. I know I’m not the only one of my peers who is retraining, but many of them have had careers that are at least somewhat related to counseling: social work, case management, working in prisons or with domestic violence survivors or perpetrators. They seem to be able to draw on those experiences to inform their work as counselors. As someone who used to be an expert in IT/systems analysis, and computer repair (a field quite unrelated to therapy), I struggle with being a complete newbie, reliant on freshly acquired and nascent skills, awkward still with unfamiliar tools. I have high expectations for myself. I don’t want to let anyone down. Add to that the pressure of the loans I’ve accrued to get this degree and it’s no wonder I feel pressure to “do it right.” I know how to fix someone’s network, phone, wifi connection, server, or operating system. I know what to listen for as they tell me what went wrong and when. I am very good, excellent even, at IT work.
How can I relearn everything again? When will I feel competent? All this talk of being patient with myself, of trusting the process, just being in the moment with the clients sound easy, while I crave some reassurance that I’m doing it right. I am just like my client, the recent college graduate who wonders who he will be without his professors reflecting his worth back to him. His challenge, like my challenge, lies in finding the path to that becoming, seeking out the mentors and role models who will and can encourage me to trust myself and who will sit with me and listen as I muddle through these beginning steps and learn to trust myself again.
I picked up Irvin Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy again this afternoon, looking for some guidance. And I wasn’t disappointed. From the first paragraphs Yalom has me pegged: “My task,” he writes, “was to remove obstacles blocking my patient’s path.” Duly noted. I need to recognize and remove obstacles. In the following chapter, he goes on to write that psychotherapy is a gradual unfolding, a getting to know the client. Right. Time. I need to give the relationship space and time to unfold. Six sessions is not enough time to accommodate a gradual unfolding. Yalom ends chapter three with a quote from Rilke that I find instructive and useful: “Have patience with everything unresolved and try to love the questions themselves” and then he adds “try to love the questioners as well.”