Lessons from the 'wood
I was recently asked, “What are three things you’ve learned after working a year as a therapist?”, which is a really good question. I think my answers were pretty good, but I’m gonna be honest; I really don’t remember what I said. I’ve learned a lot, though most of it is super situational, where I won’t really think to mention it unless the context prompts it. Nevertheless, I will attempt to recreate here what I can only assume were life-changing insights. With that,
Three Things I’ve Learned in My First Year as a Therapist
1. People are not problems to fix
I am both a person and a man, which is information enough for you to be able to make several generalizations about me. Some of these are undoubtedly accurate, especially those based in physiology. The others are kind of a toss-up, though. For instance, while I do have a beard (and it is glorious), I am not a gifted huntsman/fisherman. I do tend to be pretty competitive, but I have never really been into boxing or wrestling, and I don’t really have a history of putting myself in physically dangerous situations as a result of impulse or peer pressure. I like to be clean, and I do occasionally enjoy going shopping for clothes. Occasionally.
One thing that I am absolutely guilty of, though, is wanting to “fix” things. If something is broken and I have the time, I want to make it work again. If the way I’m doing something is inefficient and I see ways I could change it to make it easier, I will make those changes (so long as I have approval). If, in my work, I need a list of _____, but a list of _____ doesn’t exist, I will make that list and make it easy to get to for when I need it next time. I’m a fixer.
But sometimes, I try to shoehorn this mentality into situations where it is totally inappropriate. I think the most significant one so far has been in my personal relationships, and especially my marriage. So, for instance, say my wife comes home and talks about how her school-issued computer isn’t working, and that IT hasn’t done anything about it. My man-brain goes, Aha! A solvable problem!, and I mention that she can probably just walk it down and leave it with IT, and then pick it up when it’s done. “I don’t have time for that during the day. My schedule is full.” Ok, then maybe shoot an email to the school secretary or the principal, and they should make sure it gets done. “They don’t need to get involved with that.” Frustratedly, I say to her, “then I don’t know how to help you”. “I don’t need you to help me. I need you to listen!”
Sound familiar? What happened? Consider the following saying: “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. We tend to operate under a fundamental assumption is that if something is wrong, that means that something needs to change, and it’s pretty accurate most of the time. The problem here is that the man-brain is very good at recognizing solvable problems, but it is also very bad about distorting the above fundamental into if something is wrong, that means there is a solvable problem to fix. I assumed that the solvable problem I had identified was truly the cause of her frustration or unhappiness, so instead of asking questions or, you know, participating in a conversation, I began telling her how she needed to fix things. However, if I had simply listening, I probably would have learned sooner that the real issue was that she was feeling unappreciated or neglected. Uh-oh, says the man-brain, I don’t know how to solve that problem!
Know why? Because people and emotions are not problems to fix. Before I got my first private practice client, I just KNEW I was going to fix everyone I saw like a superstar, and they would spread my name far and wide until the President of these United States called me up to ask if I would be his personal therapist (told you I’m competitive!). Of course, if this were to have happened, I wouldn’t be able to tell you about it, which tells you that it most certainly did not. I haven’t even heard from the Mayor yet. And that’s because I haven’t fixed anyone yet. In fact, I don’t think that’s possible, because people are not problems to fix. Have I made that clear? A therapist isn’t there to fix you. As my supervisor says, “You’re the one driving the car; I’m just helping you read the map”. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned, which is that…
2. You can’t be good at everything
I mentioned earlier that I’m a man (this is still true). Another stereotype that just happens to apply to me is that I tend to be a little proud, in a couple of ways. One aspect of this is that it’s sometimes very difficult for me to admit that I’m not capable of handling something by myself. When I was serving tables, I could very obviously be “in the weeds” and still decline help from someone who offered it. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to appear incompetent, or maybe it was a personal desire to overcome the challenge, and sometimes I felt like explaining what I needed done would take longer than actually just doing it. But either way, I was more inclined to get a round of bad tips than I was to accept help. Put another way, I was more reluctant to give up some perceived “control” than I was to let my income suffer. That’s a powerful fault, my friends, one that I was not exactly willing to admit to myself until I was confronted with it.
You’re also familiar with the other, more common meaning of the word “proud”, wherein you are pleased with yourself for some reason or another. One way this can get out of hand is when someone becomes so proud that they’re arrogant. I feel like I’ve done a fairly good job of keeping that in check, though I am positive there are those who would disagree with me.
What I am guilty of, though, is a little tougher to explain, but I will try. As long as I can remember, I have had at least beginner’s luck with just about everything I’ve touched. Like the first time I played pool, I won. The first time at a shooting range, I did a great job. I remember feeling like some undiscovered prodigy when I attempted some ridiculous basketball shot for the first time and nailed it. And so, I learned that I’m good at everything (to be clear, I understand this is not true), and what followed then was the desire to be the BEST at everything possible. When it came to things I was good at, I kept doing them until my domination was challenged. Like with Pokèmon cards, for instance; as soon as I met someone that beat me, I stopped playing for good and started playing something else. You see, it wasn’t that I failed, but I didn’t try. And if I didn’t try, you couldn’t prove that I just didn’t have the aptitude for it. One side effect from this, though, was that I became someone who too easily gave in to adversity, and then I started avoiding anything which I perceived might be difficult (again, you can’t fail if you don’t try in the first place). So, I became super proud of being a jack-of-all trades, especially things I was really good at, but got my feelings hurt if I couldn’t be the objectively best at something.
Fast forward to a year ago. I get into the work force in my field, and why is no one impressed with me? After all, this was something I put a LOT of effort into, so how am I not on a first-name-basis with Barack already? Fortunately, you learn quite a lot when you work in a hospital, and you learn it fast. Specifically, you gain a real understanding of how a team really works. Involved in the care of the typical ER Behavioral Health patient, you have: the nurse (and maybe more, depending on how long the patient is there); the doctor; the phlebotomist; the lab techs; housekeeping; security; and the BH screener. And that’s all before they get admitted to the actual BH unit. Moreover, you have the various floors/units in the hospital which deal with different problems (or variations on that problem). So, you learn that the hospital is an INCREDIBLY specialized place, and there is no way that one person could ever be skilled in every single aspect of patient care.
You can generalize that to anything and everything. Do you see furniture near you? Because someone went to school and had years’ worth of experience in design before that thing existed, and they probably spent a long time on it, too. Does it have a cushion? Well, friend, someone out there specializes in upholstery, while someone else learned exactly what materials would hold up best. Then, depending on the chair, someone figured out how to assemble the many components, and someone else figured out how to build machinery to do it quickly, and then someone else learned how to distribute them to where they need to go. The rabbit hole is as deep as you want it to go, and that is the truth with everything. And when you realize that, it gets pretty easy to not care whether or not you’re the best at Mario Kart 8, if it’s not your passion. And if you want to talk about it in terms of legacy, I don’t know who Michelangelo was because of how he was pretty good at a bunch of stuff; I know who he is because of how much of himself he put into the things he was passionate about and how incredible he was at that very specific discipline.
Likewise, in psychology, it’s good to know as much as you can, but no one is going to fault you for not knowing everything. I know what Behaviorism is, but I don’t know or care to know the results of every experiment that’s been done in the name of Behaviorism. With regard to counseling theory, there are so many possible orientations a counselor could choose from that it’s kind of staggering. So, instead of knowing a lot about all of them, it’s better to know a lot about a few of them.
And that leads me to the last thing I learned, which is…
3. The more you learn, the less you discover you know
Let’s go back to the chair. You could probably guess that different types of wood are ideal for different chair situations, but do you know why? Yeah, me, either. But a quick google search tells me that wood is not isotropic like metal is. I didn’t know that “isotropic” was a word, and I didn’t know that metal happens to be just that, and I didn’t know that wood is not. See? I learned something new, and then I realized that there are a bunch other things related to just that concept that I did not know existed.
When you endeavor to learn about something (which is a good thing; you should never stop learning), you invariably find that, not only are there more things to know than you expected, but if you intend to put time and energy into it, there are things you must know. Like, with music performance. If you’re just dabbling, you may be surprised to learn certain things that vary with performance practice, depending on the era the music is from. However, if you’re a cellist and you’re serious about specializing in Baroque music, you need to know that vibrato is highly frowned-upon in some circles, while it is not in others; perform something wrong way in front of the wrong people, and you’ve just jeopardized your credibility.
To bring it back to counseling, the only thing I really know about electroshock therapy is that it is not the same thing it used to be, and that people still do it. Now, I should learn more about it so I can make appropriate referrals as necessary, but I don’t need to know how to do it. And, in fact, I shouldn’t learn how to do it, because it’s not what I’m going to be doing in practice (probably). Instead, what I should be putting effort into is enhancing my understanding of the techniques that I intend to personally use, and I need to know as much as I can about them.
So there you have it, friends. In my first year as a therapist, I learned that I can’t fix you, I don’t know everything, and I don’t know as much as I think I know. But I also learned that I’m ok with that.