Monday, October 19, 2009

All Things to All People?

I LOVE counseling. LOVE IT. I'm not sure of any other profession where you are actually able to reap the rewards for your hard work almost on a daily basis. Two weeks ago, I spent a little over an hour with a student who is committed to working on some personal issues that hamper her relationships. As we sat there, she realized the root of her inability to maintain intimate personal relationships, and I could almost see the light bulb turn on in her head. That epiphanic connection made the late stay at the office worth it for me, and I can truthfully say that I experience those moments almost on a weekly basis.

However, there are times when I just want to walk away from the profession. For all of the beautiful moments and the rewarding outcomes of my job, the times where I can't help a student are the ones that weigh heaviest on my heart.

I utilize a variety of counseling techniques based on several theories that resonate with me. I love Carl Rogers' Person-Centered theory, Albert Ellis' Rational Emotive Behavior therapy, even my homeboy Fritz Perls with his Gestalt therapy gets some play. (WHAT? I'm a counseling geek!) I also keep student development theory in mind when working with my college-aged students. I try to work with students on the level of development they demonstrate when they come to me, while attempting to motivate them to push themselves to the next level. This usually works for me. However, I have encountered a few challenges that no theory could withstand. One is that I may not be privy to important information about the student that could assist in my work with that individual. Another is the student's desire (or lack thereof) to be helped. Oh, and then there's the challenge of working with a student without the support of his or her parents or other professionals when the student cannot make rational decisions of his or her own volition. These issues lead to crises that are antithetical to the rewarding moments in my job. These crises are similar to holding the entire weight of another's life in your hands, and then dropping it.

I had such a moment very recently. The details don't matter. What matters is that I had no reassurance that the student would get the help he or she needed. I knew it was beyond me, but I could not understand why practically everyone else involved seemed to be okay with washing their hands of the "problem" (aka the student). I was AFRAID. What does a counselor do when she has done all she could, and it wasn't enough?

After crying and writing and praying and crying some more, I realized a very important fact about my job that I had forgotten: I CANNOT BE ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE. Sometimes what I do is not going to work. Sometimes legislation, bureaucracy, and apathy will win out. Sometimes I have to let go, and let that blossoming adult make his or her own decisions and deal with the consequences. That doesn't take away from the light bulb moments. As a matter of fact, it will make the next light bulb moment that much sweeter.

Am I right or what? I don't know. I really don't.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The CTC Moment

Lunch with a few counselors can be somewhat exhausting, especially when it's three women who are coworkers as well as friends. About a year ago, my two coworker/friends and I were eating lunch in my friend CC's (not her real name) office. We were sharing personal stories, which is what we do when we escape to CC's office for an "all-girls'" lunch. A simple "what are you doing this weekend?" led to a story about CC's father and stepmother. She went through the myriad of emotions many of us feel around our families: guilt, sadness, guilt, frustration, guilt. (Did I mention guilt?) She talked about how she always has to make plans to see her father because he doesn't seem interested in making time to see her. She felt obligated to drive an hour to see them early so that she wouldn't interfere with the rest of their day's plans, but she was tired from work and didn't really want to. As I listened to her and watched her get teary-eyed, I gave her the best counseling advice I could give during lunch: "CUT THE CRAP!"

She was a bit taken aback, but what I said afterwards clarified my little outburst. The real issue was that her mom died and her brother is estranged, so her father is the only family she has, and he's only in the upstate New York area for six months out of the year. I told her to accept the truth that he is her only family and to suck it up, because if SHE wanted to see her father, SHE had to make the plans to see him. What was most important was not who initiated the contact, but that they actually spent time together. I told her she had already lost her mother and that she should make the best of whatever time she had with her father. After the initial shock of my sage but tactless advice, she agreed. She dried the tears, and thus the phrase "CTC moment" was born.

After I saw how well CTC worked with my colleague, I decided that I might have to use it with my students. The opportunity came up when I received a phone call that a student was having some academic and emotional difficulties. That student was referred to me, and as she talked about her self-destructive behaviors, she also provided the reasons for, as well as how she rationalizes, her harmful activities. There was nothing for me to figure out, nothing to look for, because she provided it all for me. The only solution, as I saw it, was for her to "CUT THE CRAP!" She knew the root of her problems. She had the resources to get well. All she needed to do was make the choice to get well. Did she? I'm not sure, but I know I made it pretty clear that her rationalizations were "crap" and she needed to get past them so that she could achieve her academic and personal goals.

"CUT THE CRAP!" is the crudest way to describe my counseling philosophy. As I get older, I find that my patience for whining grows thin pretty quickly. If my students don't understand the reasons for their behavior, I help them get to those reasons, and then make an action plan for moving past them, so that they can achieve their goals. Truly, if we cut through the excuses, rationalizations, and fears that guide our (in)action(s), we would get to the true desires of our hearts.

The CTC Moment is a catalyst for change in an individual's life, whether he or she needs to change a thought, emotion, or behavior. Am I right or what?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Wisdom of Youth

As a teenager and even as a young adult, I was very naive. I swear, whatever I heard on TV and read about in books, I believed. I was quite sheltered (with 2 much older parents, 5 older brothers, and 3 older sisters, sheltered = practically imprisoned). Everything was absolute - lying is a venial sin (Catholics know what I'm talking about), good girls were to remain virgins until marriage, and if you tried to smack your mom, you would die with your arm sticking straight up (What? That's not true?). I'm quite the late bloomer when it comes to developing wisdom from my experiences, mainly because the experiences that truly impacted my life came late in life.

I'm learning that this is not so with the generation of young people I work with. They are wise beyond their years. Perhaps it's because they've had to deal with so much at such a young age. Life was sometimes challenging for me, but compared to most people I know, I really did have a good childhood. My parents were together even though they could barely tolerate each other, we had dinner on the table at the same time every night, my family came to see me in school plays and shows and all that good stuff. By contrast, I've worked with middle school kids who'd been sexually abused by their biological fathers. Most don't have a father figure in their lives. Some have been in the foster care system. The stresses of life during my formative years were nothing compared to what young people currently face.

A lot of what we hear, read, and see about young people is so negative. Yes, young people are committing murder, joining gangs, having babies, doing drugs and drinking, and performing oral sex in the back of the school bus. These images in the media just perpetuate a stereotype that further pulls the generations apart. What I encounter in my work are young people who are concerned that their being in college is contributing to their family's dire financial situation, people whose parents are too sick to care for themselves, people who have been in abusive relationships, people who are in the closet and won't come out to their family and friends for fear of being ostracized, and people who suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Yet, they are capable of learning from the hand they've been dealt. They may feel insecure at times, but they'll come to me for encouragement and a listening ear to help them persevere. They seem to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if they don't see it right then and there.

There's a very pretty young woman who comes to see me quite often. Although she is not on my caseload of students, we've developed a mentoring relationship. Sometimes I wonder who the mentor is, though. As with most of my female students, we talk about men and relationships a lot. Looking at her, one would assume that she has her pick when it comes to boyfriends. However, though she would love to be in love, she chooses to be single. When I listen to her talk about relationships, sometimes I just want to take notes. It is so rare to hear someone in their early twenties talk about how she wants to wait for the right person, that she doesn't care how long it takes, that she has career and academic goals she wants to focus on now. She only really feels conflicted because it's "normal" in her culture to settle down, get married, and have children at around her age. She feels pressure from her family to do these things, but every time she tells me she's content with her love life (or lack thereof) right now, I believe she's telling herself she doesn't have to live the life her family expects her to, and that she can choose her own path.

Another female student, whom I'll call Elle, literally compels me to pull out a notepad and take notes. She's so profound. There are times when I find myself recounting some of my relationship woes to her (we have that kind of relationship), and if it were not for Elle's sage advice, I would lock myself in solitary confinement so as not to deal with the issues that come with dating at my (30-something) age. When I first began dating after the longest dry spell ever, I was so anxious, and Elle put it in perspective for me. "You don't know how to operate in this new season because you're scared. You're holding onto the expectations of previous relationships, when you should be focusing on what you're learning." WHOA. Where did that come from? Elle doesn't have the age, the experience, or the counseling degree. What she does have is a strong spiritual foundation, an incredible talent for observation and a true gift of discernment, and she trusts herself enough to make these profound statements that continue to resonate within me long after she's uttered the words.

I know that as a counselor, I need to be completely there for my students. I know that I'm supposed to be the one imparting wisdom, helping them find the right path for them and encouraging them to follow their path. Sometimes, though, I'm the one that feels guided and encouraged. I receive so much more than I could ever give from these young people with so much wisdom, no matter how it was gained. They are open to learning from whatever life hands them.

Are young people wiser now because of their life experiences, whether positive or negative? Does spirituality play a role? What about parental influences? Can we, as adults, truly learn from young people, and what stops us from doing so?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Just checking...

I'm a counselor who works with college students. In past lives, I was a teacher, a resident director in a freshman residence hall (gasp!) and I also worked as a high school counselor. Basically, my career has been built around talking to people. Sometimes I talk AT them, but I usually try not to do that. Over the years, I have found myself giving advice (though I try not to do that), and some of it has been helpful to the people I've worked with. Most of the time I try to help people come to their own resolution, because I believe you really know the answer to your predicament; I just have to help you cut through all the crap that stops you from thinking clearly.

One of my former students told me I should write a book with all of the tidbits of "wisdom" I give to my students, but Lord knows, half the time I don't remember what I tell people. So I thought I might start writing some of it down here, and you (whoever takes the time to read this) can tell me if you think I'm right or what. Honestly, I know I'm not always right, I just couldn't think of a catchier title for this blog.

I'm good at receiving constructive feedback, whether positive or negative, but don't ridicule me, or I'll have to hunt you down. (I should say here that I'm originally from Brooklyn, and have a tendency to talk tough, even though I'm not even 5 feet tall. Take it for what it is.)

So, here goes...

In my line of work, I get a lot of people who make excuses. Now, I do understand that everyone has certain circumstances that might have held them back from succeeding at whatever they set out to do. I understand that we're not all born with the tools necessary to achieve the "American Dream". I know. I was raised in public housing in Brooklyn, my mother was on welfare and my father was on disability, and I have eight older siblings. I witnessed some scary stuff as a child - people on drugs, people in gangs (though they didn't really shoot each other back then, they just "rumbled"), even some traumatizing stuff in my own family. Something told me that I needed a good education in order to have a different life from those I saw around me. Something told me that the responsibility lied with me if I was going to succeed in life. So, although I have been known to make excuses for not doing certain things, most of the time I just did what I needed to do to get where I needed to go.

Here's just one example of some of the things I hear:

Me: Why aren't you going to class?
Student: It's too early.
Me: What time does it start?
Student: 9:55 - too early for me! The teacher doesn't want me coming late, so I don't go at all.

Are you serious? 9:55 is almost 10 am! Most people have to get up for jobs that start at 9 am. My job starts at 8, and I live 40 minutes away. That means, pretty much, that I have to get up around 5:30 (it takes a while to look this good). I understand that, as a college student, you have late nights. I understand that you need to get some zzz's at some point. But if you can't get up for a class that starts at almost 10 am, something is wrong.

And that's why you're failing. Am I right or what?