Over the last few months at Interchange, we counsellors-in-training have focused on developing skills to help our clients heal old hurts, develop new resources, deconstruct limiting beliefs and overcome oppression. This month's work focused on integrating these approaches into our counseling sessions. To practice, we engaged in an exercise called Speed Counseling. It was like going on a date with your problems. (You can read previous Interchange-related updates here.)
The room buzzed with nervous excitement. Over 100 of us circled up in two rows of chairs that faced each other to engage in a series of counseling sessions in a format we’d never used before. One row would play the role of clients as the row opposite would serve as their counselors for five different six-minute sessions. After the six minutes was up with one counselor, a new one would shift over to resume the session wherever it had left off, and the six-minute clock would start again.
It was just like speed dating...except that all attempts to impress the person opposite us were thrown out the window.
As clients we'd been prompted to bring our core counseling concern into our sessions — the struggle and/or obstacles that we see as most pervasive in our lives; the thing preventing us from being whole and healed. I brought my perfectionism — specifically, my crippling obsession with needing to have everything figured out before beginning something.
My first counsellor was a woman whom I've only known from a distance. But, having recently learned that she's a writer, and having been intrigued by her confident demeanor, was glad to be paired with her.
The clock started ticking.
"My perfectionism is crippling," I said. "It keeps me from writing. I become editor before there's anything to edit."
"Ok," she replied, "I want you to write something right now."
"Right now?" I balked.
A tempestuous resistance flooded in just as it always does, but this time it was heightened by shame, as I was painfully aware that there was someone else present to witness my lack of confidence.
I wanted to run.
"This sucks," I said.
"It doesn't have to be perfect," she replied. "In fact, it can be really bad."
Before I could finish writing, the bell rang and a new counselor shifted over.
She was an older woman who I'd never interacted with, but perceived as joyful and aloof; someone to appreciate, but not trust.
She greeted me with a massive metallic smile that revealed fillings on her molars and I immediately felt like I was there to support her. I almost didn't speak because I wanted to see if she'd become more trusting as time went on. She continued to stare at me with a big grin as I waited for her to check in with my reality.
I helped her out by telling her that my counseling concern was about perfectionism and having everything figured out. I quietly noticed how my disdain for disorganization was showing up in our session.
"I just wrote a crappy poem," I offered.
"Ooh!" She squealed, "I'd love to hear it."
I honored her excitement by reading the crappy poem, then awaited her reaction.
Ironically, she honed in on one line that spoke of having trouble connecting with others. She said that must be so hard for me.
I could tell she was trying to be empathetic, but it was entirely misguided. I didn't have the heart to tell her that she was firing in the wrong direction, so I prayed for the bell to ring instead. When it finally did, I faked gratitude and she took the next seat over before engaging with her next client.
She was a woman whom I view as eccentric and bubbly. She makes me feel like nothing's off limits when I talk with her. But, because things hadn't been going well so far, I was feeling annoyed that she was there.
In spite of my desire to withdraw, I ended up improvising a metaphorical story for her about a rigid man who melted into the pressures of a cuddle puddle and emerged a newly enlightened being.
My counsellor seemed tickled by the tale, which made me feel happy for her and upset with myself. Somehow, my counseling session had become about entertaining her.
He was a man who leads my home group, so I had a greater trust in his intuition because I’d seen his counseling skill at work before.
"This is a mess," I said.
"This a mess," he mirrored.
"It's gotten way off track," I said.
"It's gotten way off track."
Then he grabbed my hand and began walking me around the room.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
He fought to conceal a smirk and kept dragging me around the room.
Then we went outside.
Another counselor-client combo were frolicking around the courtyard. They began to circle me.
"We're flying!" They exclaimed.
Then the client came up and nuzzled her head against my chest.
"Now, I'm nesting." She said.
I looked to my counselor and he shrugged.
"What the hell is going on?" I asked.
He grabbed my hand again and walked me back into the building.
"Oh!" I gasped. "I think I get it."
"You're wanting me to stand up and take the initiative to get what I want."
Then the bell rung. But before he left, he encouraged me to get exactly what I wanted during my next session. With a wink, he was off to client someone else.
He was a guy from my home group, a fellow student whom I knew to be intelligent and incredibly accurate in his ability to track someone's emotional state. But I had never worked with him before so I greeted him with a smile to conceal my nerves.
He looked at me with an intensely serious face and said: "I can tell there's a lot going on for you right now and you don't have to smile at me."
This time, I grabbed his hand and told him I wanted to go outside.
Once away from the clamor of incompetence within, I simply cried.
He encouraged me to stay with the pain and let it take its course without rushing past it.
"No one was actually listening to me," I mumbled, "they are all more concerned with trying out their new counseling tricks that they aren't even paying attention to the very people they are supposed to be helping."
Then my sadness began to transform into its more aggressive state: anger. This anger was accompanied by an impatient ferocity and decisive clarity which revealed that, for much of my life, I've allowed others — through their opinions, expectations, approvals and voiced disappointments — to determine how I would experience life.
I've had enough.
TURNS OUT, PERFECTIONISM ISN’T MY PROBLEM:
What I’d always perceived to be an insatiable need to have things in order (perfect) I now realize is a fear of disappointing others (people pleasing). In writing, and in everything, I am often impeded by putting other people’s priorities before my own. This way of being is often rewarded with a paycheck and/or acceptance.
Being vulnerable to state what I want is terrifying to me. What if it's seen as stupid? What if no one cares? What if I can't get it? Fear of being shut down or disregarded sees me shutting myself down instead. But, what I’m now getting in touch with is a warrior side of myself. And he's pissed about lost time spent cowering. I liken this anger to a bulldozer plowing a new path through a forest. It’s messy, but effective. In time, maybe it won't feel so violent.
For now, I’m beginning to practice radical honesty with myself and anyone else who crosses my path. Look out!
JUST LIKE REAL LIFE:
In reflecting on each one of my five counselors, I’ve noticed how their unique counseling approaches are similar to how people try to console, guide, and advise me in everyday life. This is where I think there might be something specific for you to remember when looking to others for support:
- Some people will have good intentions for you, and even push you in the right direction, but not have the time, energy, or bandwidth to see you through to the end.
- Some people will have good intentions for you (and boundless enthusiasm) but not possess the intuition or awareness to lead you in the right direction.
- Some people will fall prey to your defense mechanisms and applaud your false self.
- Some people will lead you into challenging situations that will put your convictions to the test.
- Some people will see past your mask and ask to see what’s really going on beneath the surface.
Ultimately, though, you're the one deciding what to do with yourself.
Peace and good,