When I first started my counseling masters degree roughly three years ago, I remember distinctly being told the importance of “doing your own work.” Quite honestly, I felt perplexed. I was under the impression that I really had my self together – why would I need counseling? I did not feel the need to talk with anybody about my life, my family, my past and especially not how I was feeling. I realize now that my sense of self, while developed, was a long way from how I understand my self now, after almost four years of study and reflection.
In hindsight, if I had listened to others’ advice and started my own work earlier in the program, I might not have sought counseling with an underlying sense that I was in over my head. The culmination of three years’ work, writing about myself and my family of origin, multiple genograms, personal reflections, readings, journals, lectures, presentations, sitting with the self, development of the self and the concept of self care that I thought I was doing so wonderfully came to a screeching halt when my busy self was suddenly overcome with an unfamiliar feeling - I was overwhelmed and exhausted.
The advice to do my own work was delivered by practicing therapists, my professors – people whom I respect and with whom I have shared stories and experiences throughout my MA studies. So why did I think that I could ignore this particular, and often repeated advice? I do not know the answer to this question. I would guess a lack of time and illogical prioritization mixed with a sense that I was already coping with and managing my busy life just fine. There is some irony in the fact that therapy is offered for free on campus for students and yet, not only myself but my peers too often fail to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to grow and experience things from a very different and yet very significant perspective. I think it is worth stating at this time that I understand there are other ways to process the self and the work we do such as peer support, which in itself has been a wonderful part of practicum for me.
The gift that was given to me throughout this program was the start of a lifetime’s work and analysis about who I am, where I came from, why I do certain things and why I have formulated beliefs and values about many different aspects of my life, (although if I have to do one more genogram, I think I will scream). Becoming the client not only allowed me to understand and process - the how, the why, the who and the feelings amongst other things - but also to experience firsthand how it actually feels to be in therapy. It took a real leap of faith to make that first call but I am so happy I did. I found a therapist whom I like and trust and I continue in therapy myself. So for counseling students out there like me who read this blog - consider doing your own work, early and often. I think an ongoing exploration of the self helps us to see therapy from the client’s perspective and provides ongoing insight, development and self care, which I have found invaluable.
I wish I had not waited, like so many of us do, until things reached a relatively uncomfortable place and a fever pitch. Juggling school, full time work, family, relationships and your own interests, while developing your sense of self and dissecting your past, present and future self is a lot to manage. Throw in a few long assignments, some unexpected life events and successes/disappointments, and you have a veritable feast of discussion topics to share in counseling. Consider counseling a gift to yourself if you wish.
My personal acknowledgement that I was not very good at self care was an invaluable lesson. I am better able now to understand and appreciate who I am and to delve deeper into my own culture, beliefs and values, which has made me a healthier person and much better counselor.
So go ahead, start doing your own work today. What is stopping you?
(PS Doing your own work is seldom easy, but try it you might be surprised what you find out and trust me it is well worth the time and effort).
Christian Billington is a counselor in training. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, trauma and the development of training to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field.