Mental health is such a interesting (and, I would argue, new) focus in the world. It’s this intangible, invisible plane of existence where everyone sees immensely universal themes of human experience with a beautifully unique lens. Often, that lens is kneaded and dyed and cured from the kiln of deep-seated psychic pain. Sometimes this pain is birthed deep within the miraculous chemistry of the brain. Other times it is violently stabbed into existence through trauma that callused, buried, and festered over time. In the case of many, it is a lethal combination of these two origins that mutilate and poison worldviews in such subtle ways that the Devil himself would be impressed.
I had the redemptive blessing of entering into this treacherous world with various transcendentally beautiful souls. I am just shy of completing the practicum segment of my Master’s degree in counseling: in other words, my first real experience in the field of mental health counseling.
I’ve always felt called to work in schools. The certainty of this specific calling made adjusting to a mental health setting extremely frustrating. Long hours, back-to-back clients, inconsistency, and feeling like everyone’s emotional trashcan were among some of the more trivial hardships. On a deeper level, I had to learn to communicate in a brand new way: open-ended questions, intentional listening for patterns/themes, and confronting inconsistencies in client stories are not methods I used to communicate every day. Honing these skills simultaneously in two languages (English and Spanish) brought on anxiety I had no idea I could feel. It also caused me to communicate this way in my own head, bringing to light my own psychic wounds–and often, some healing.
This experience educated my relationship with my boyfriend, my family, my friends, and my self-esteem. It has made interpersonal conflict more honest and focused on change, but has also made it more intense and difficult. It challenged me to a new sense of courage in balancing my needs and meeting the needs of others, which can be an overwhelmingly convoluted process. And, finally, it helped me take away some serious learning experiences that I hope I never forget. So, I’m writing them here.
- Focus on the redeeming qualities. I have always loved people. So it was surprising to learn for the first time in a real way that people can really suck. From dealing with a client who skips multiple appointments to hearing about pure evil acts of sexual abuse, it can become extremely easy to make the generalization that people just aren’t worth the effort. But to get hung up in this generalization is to be, at the very least, a selfish counselor (which is a complete oxymoron in my opinion). Sometimes all I could do to get through a hard day was find the redeeming qualities about my clients and counseling in general and repeat them over and over in my head. I owe that discipline to some great advice from my supervisor. Focusing on the strengths of a person or a situation diminishes a selfish mindset and places focus on the person who was courageous enough to place their mental health in your hands. I have to do whatever it takes to honor that courage because it is central to change.
- The statement behind the statement is the best kept secret of human communication. How often do people get stuck in recurring arguments that last for years? Extremely often, as I found out. This type of argument is not only annoying and circular in its resurfacing, but it often neglects larger themes that can fester and poison self-esteem and relationships. Too often, we keep conversations to a superficial level because of the fear of what it means to go deeper. Call it the effect of a culture of immediacy or technology, but to sit in the comfort of superficial exchanges often disguises deeper themes that need to be acknowledged in order to grow. All actions, statements, and behaviors can be traced ultimately to the meaning of one’s life. I believe that meaning in life is central to who we are. Some people may disagree, but I have grounded myself in this idea that we are all worthy of encountering meaning in life. Superficial exchanges do not equate our entire identity, but they certainly reflect them. As a counselor, I learned that valuing clients’ holistic identity as a sum of its parts can be therapeutic. Granted, this was a lesson I learned primarily by painful confrontation of my own “statements behind statements”, but it happened. A statement is never just a statement. A behavior is never just a behavior. A shift in focus to deeper themes of meaning and existence will always be more productive (albeit, sometimes painful) than the superficial exchanges we have with ourselves or others.
- Balance is everything. A focus on identifying meaning in life (again, a concept to which I adhere as a counselor but others may not), brings along with it certain inevitabilities. These include death, freedom, isolation, and the threat of meaninglessness in the classical existential sense. I value Viktor Frankl’s approach that also emphasizes suffering and responsibility. Most humans I’ve met in and out of the counseling environment are willing to admit that absolute bliss and contentment in life is not realistic or even something desired. Learning to balance things like suffering and meaning, personal needs and collective needs, rights and responsibilities, past and present, and present and future, are just a few things people strive for. For me, balance has come to mean sitting comfortably with my “monsters” or inevitabilities. Recognizing insecurities, anxieties, fears and strengths as all part of my journey and relating it to a quest for meaning in my life. It’s okay to have monsters. It’s okay to be scared and hurt and angry sometimes. But to let them overcome you or to completely deny them can stifle growth.
- Dignity is central to humanity. A central struggle I’ve had throughout this process is the reconciliation of my Catholic faith and the practice of counseling. My Catholic faith has become central to my identity and an absolute non-negotiable. Place this idea in a professional field that seems to, at times, embrace relativism above everything else and you can easily find yourself confused or offending someone. Often, it seems to me the idea that “the client’s reality and truth is his/her own” is beat into us pretty hard. I am not willing to abandon my faith for this idea. By the same token, evangelizing in a counseling session is not something I believe is productive. A mental counseling session is a space for a client to grow and heal, and not a space for me to disclose anything unless it is productive to this client growth. But holding fast to the ultimate dignity in human beings (something that my faith strongly advocates) has really educated this struggle. No one client is less worthy of healing and growing than another. Every human person has the right to recognize their own dignity and value their unique place in this world. Whether their past or presenting issues are in accordance with my faith is irrelevant. I am not there to agree or disagree with them. I am there to help them see their infinite worth. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I reflect. Sometimes I tear up with them. But my ultimate vocation as a counselor is to allow a space for reaffirming dignity we all possess as humans made in the image and likeness of God.