1. SELF-CARE IS VITAL
Before I started interning, my academic advisor was always preaching that “Good self-care is good ethics.” Once I began working with clients it became more than a catchy mantra, it became a desired way of life. I realized that neglecting my wellbeing-- physically, emotionally, and spiritually-- meant that burnout would be just around the riverbend.
I especially began to feel the onset of burnout after my first semester, as I was balancing a nearly full case load and course load. Even though I was exhausted I wanted to keep working, thinking that I could somehow push through it.
After a reality check from my supportive supervisor, who encouraged me to rest and recharge, I did just that. During my second semester as an intern I made necessary changes. I went back to therapy, I joined a gym (still working on actually going), and I even went for a long over-due physical. Self-care is not always going to be fun activities like getting your nails done or reading in the park. Sometimes it's taking your butt to the doctor.
Now my daily check-up is HALT: Never allow myself to become too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Before a full day of clients begins I need to make sure I have adequate rest, snacks handy, a positive attitude on deck, and a prayer for God to encourage and strengthen me for this work.
2. YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES
This was initially hard to process as a recovering perfectionist. I knew from the start that there is no such thing as a perfect counselor, so I had to learn quickly to give myself the grace to make mistakes. I won't always have the right thing to say right away, and it's okay. To reference psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, I aim to be a good enough counselor. A good enough counselor will at times make mistakes, but because their work is rooted in a genuine love and care for their clients, they will try to make things right.
3. GOOD SUPERVISION GOES A LONG WAY
Having an insightful supervisor provided me with the guidance I needed to navigate whatever mistakes I made. I realize just how fortunate I am for her insight and support. She affirms me when I am doing good work, and will even call me out when she senses that I'm holding back or censoring how I feel. Meeting with my supervisor has allowed me to explore what it's like for me to be a therapist. Thankfully the staff provide a nurturing space for me to grow which is shown in their confidence in my abilities. Supervision has taught me when to confront my privilege, but also when to give myself credit.
4. YOUR PRIVILEGE WILL BE CHALLENGED
Part of checking my privilege has been realizing that what I think is best is not always best. This of course does not rule out concern for a client’s safety, but ultimately they are the experts of their own life experiences. My degree does not suddenly make me a know-it-all on the lives of my clients. It's a harmful assumption that can lead to judgment or assumptions. One of the best pieces of advice I've been given is that as a counselor we are not in charge of our clients, but rather we are in charge of their care.
5. NO ADVICE GIVING!
Nope. My job is not be Dear Abby or some of the "relationship experts" you may see on social media. Instead I see myself as in partnership with my clients, helping them to become empowered as they determine their own path. Nancy McWilliams said it best:
“Many of the standard features of psychoanalytic practice represent the effort to help patients find, embrace, and expand their power. For example, by withholding advice and personal influence, therapists implicitly express their confidence that patients can discover or craft their answers once they understand themselves better" (Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process).
As I said before, what I think is best is not always what's best. Working within the field of domestic violence, I have learned that in some traumatic or abusive situations, not everything is black and white. Giving advice may seem easy, but as counselors we don't have to live with the consequences. By walking in partnership with my clients, I can better assist them by helping them navigate the gray area.
6. SAFE SPACE IS EARNED
Trust is not something to be given freely. Very often therapists utter the term “safe space” and think simply speaking it will make the session comfortable for a client. I learned quickly that sharing about how much my counseling program values confidentiality is not enough for clients to open up about what they have endured. And rightfully so!
I have found it to be helpful in some cases to state what may be awkward. I call it out. If they are new to counseling, which I ask, then they are stepping into unchartered territory as they share their vulnerabilities with a someone they considered to be a stranger just moments ago.
To develop a sense of comfort and safety I engage clients on what may be their apprehensions about counseling and what they might have previously believed about the process. Especially for many people of color, mental health and mental illness have a stigma, which can hinder some from trusting therapy. In my experience, addressing concerns in the beginning sets the stage for building emotional safety with my clients.
7. YOUR CLIENTS ARE NOT A MONOLITH
Not all clients who share the same race, culture, neighborhood, etc, are the same. Making assumptions that the experience of one represent the experience of all is harmful, and is unfortunately made too often against minorities. Henry Louise Gates once said, "If there are 40 million black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be black." Groups of people may share cultural qualities, but they will still experience life differently. And so as a counselor I learned that no approach to therapy can be one size fits all.
8. NOT ONLY A COUNSELOR BUT AN ADVOCATE
Advocacy is making an impact beyond the four walls of a therapy room. It took me a while to understand that even as a counseling intern I was in a position of power. It seemed to go against working in anti-oppressive practice. However in attempting to abandon or separate myself from this power role, I would have lost the opportunity to use it for the benefit of my clients.
I was taught that there are three ways in which we can use our privilege or power: we can use it for someone, against someone, or over someone. Advocacy is using our power for the benefit of others. My role has allowed me to work on behalf of my clients, and not just in session.
9. BE RELATIONAL
The art of counseling requires us to be relational. Being a counselor does not mean we are to throw away the qualities that make us good friends, parents, spouses, siblings, etc. It's what allows me to connect and empathize, which is crucial to this practice.
10. CHALLENGING BUT FULFILLING WORK
I've been asked many times how I manage this work. "Isn't it heavy all the time?"
Working as a counseling intern has been challenging but fulfilling in more ways than I could have imagined. I came in thinking I would learn more about people from all walks of life, and I'm walking out also learning more about myself. My clients have taught me the beauty and hardship of resilience. They have pushed me to challenge my beliefs and and encouraged me to become more self-aware of my personal motives and emotions. At times my clients will thank me for a session, and every time I want to thank them in return.