by Tammy Donovan
You know the point that people inevitably reach when working toward big goals — when you’re so tired that you can’t remember why you started in the first place, you’re mad at yourself for even starting because you could be napping or eating pizza instead, and you’re unsure if you can actually make it to the finish line?
That’s me right now: almost finished my practicum and 1 oral exam away from completing another degree. God willing (and I’m not even religious).
One of my wrap up tasks is to reflect on what I learned during my practicum. It feels like parents asking me what I learned today at school. The tired part of me just wants to say “I need to commute less and nap more. Can I go to my room now?” in the exacerbated tone that teenagers naturally master. The keener part of me won out over the tired part and I managed to find enough energy to reflect on what I learned about practice and myself this past year (see below).
What I learned is likely irrelevant to you (beyond voyeuristic curiosity). My hope is that reading about what I’ve learned will prompt you to reflect on what you’ve learned lately, because my guess is that I’m not the only one with an inner teenager :)
What I learned about Practice
1. “The Right Way” versus Fit — in classes, I devoted a lot of effort to trying to find “the right way” to work with clients. I wanted to find a way of working that could help everyone with everything because it felt like the key to getting up enough courage to actually work with people.
Boy did I stop searching for “the right way” during practicum. Working at 4 sites and with 6 supervisors taught me that everyone brings something different to counselling: each supervisor emphasizes different aspects of the counselling process and each counsellor brings a different combination of strengths to their work.
I tend to think more about fit now. What are my strengths? Who could benefit from them? How can I adjust how I work so that it’s more intuitive for different clients?
2. Practice Setting Trade Offs — the most satisfied counsellors I met during my practicum understand which practice settings fit best with their values and preferences. Private practice offers counsellors freedom, flexibility and independence, but also requires a willingness to market yourself, pay for supervision, establish your own support network and tolerate uncertainty, financial risk, and loneliness. Agencies offer counsellors stability, camaraderie, free supervision and a sense of community connection, but also require a willingness to accept lower wages, work within set parameters, and complete lots of paperwork (why did no one warn me about the paperwork!?).
3. Spectrums — fielding intake calls during my practicum taught me that there are a few spectrums that are relevant to counsellors.
There’s the generalist/specialist continuum: some counsellors love the variety of working with multiple populations and spotting common denominators between issues, while other counsellors prefer to work with narrow range of issues and develop deeper knowledge sets.
There is also a short-term/long-term continuum: some counsellors seek out tough issues and long-term work (like angry couples, complicated family systems and personality disorders). At the other end of the spectrum are counsellors who are happiest doing lighter, more short-term work.
From what I have seen so far, there’s room for everyone on the spectrums and it’s not necessary to try to force yourself to find a place along a spectrum that doesn’t really fit you.
4. Inexperience can be Useful — in school, I spent a lot of time mulling over whether counsellors need direct experience with issues to be positioned to help clients.
I realized the answer is no during my practicum. Having direct experience can be helpful (for example, shared experiences can accelerate relationships with some clients), but there are also advantages to not having direct experiences (for example, some clients appreciate working with counsellors who are not part of their communities (LGBTQ2SAI+, religious circles) because it contributes to a sense of confidentiality and safety).
Lacking direct experiences also forces me to be more thorough. Without direct experiences, I make fewer assumptions because I can’t fill in the blanks based on my own experiences and need to listen more carefully. I also can’t use what worked for me as a starting point and need to research best practices.
5. All Channels of Communication Matter — counsellors pay attention to some channels of communication more than others. I typically pay closest attention to what clients say and the words they choose.
During my practicum, I came to understand the benefits of focusing on other channels of communication and discrepancies between channels of communication (like when body language and verbal expressions don’t line up).
The benefits of attending to more than just words came to light after several supervisors advised me to pay attention to clients’ movement: never mind what clients are saying, what are they doing? With a few clients, a radically different picture emerged when I watched for what they were doing. Some clients who sounded like they weren’t progressing were actually taking huge steps forward and other clients who could speak eloquently about insights and rattle off goals were largely inert.
What I learned about Myself
1. I Really Want to Quit When Things Get Hard — I assumed that being a beginner in a second career would be relatively easy because going into it, I understood that there would be a learning curve, that beginners need time to learn and that improvement comes with practice.
Turns out being a beginner again is harder than I thought. People are more complex than I imagined and the learning curve in counselling is much longer than I anticipated. I care about being great at this job in a way that I didn’t with my first career and that makes being a beginner more painful.
I find myself fantasizing about quitting and finding something different (read: easier) to do. It’s partly due to feeling burned out, but it’s also a long-standing pattern. When the going gets tougher than I expected, I want to find something easy. Thankfully, I’m smart enough now to know that I could switch careers again (like people switch spouses!), but I’m just likely to find myself again in the next career. I suspect it will be easier to work on my frustration tolerance and adjust my expectations.
2. Resilience and Humility — at one of my practicum sites, students were forced to stop seeing clients due to an unexpected supervisor change. The break helped changed how I think about clients and my role as a counsellor. I assumed the break would be very disruptive for clients. And it was — for some. But on a whole, clients were understanding and did perfectly fine with out me. The experience helped me to recognize that I had been under-estimating some clients and over-estimating my importance.