I walked into the first day of my internship back in August and thought, “How am I going to relate to the residents?” How was I going to build that all-important relationship? The residents in the living room that day looked at me kind of skeptically, and I don’t blame them. Most of the residents come from very different backgrounds and have lived very different lives than me. They are White American, African American, Southern, facing serious mental disorders, legal issues, estrangement from families, and rebuilding their lives from the ground up. They aren’t over-eager White East Coast counseling students by way of Nebraska that moved to Louisiana six weeks ago. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to relate to the staff.
That fear of not being able to relate stems from my own innate shyness. I love learning about people by talking to them, but that first step--saying hello--can sometimes seem insurmountable. What if the other person hated me, or we have absolutely nothing in common? I spent the first 21 or so years of my life generally not saying hello, waiting for the other person to do it or retreating into myself if that person did not.
This actually worked out pretty well for those first 21 years, until I decided to spend a semester in Vienna, Austria. For the full cultural immersion experience, I chose to live with an older, strict, and very proper Viennese woman. To put it bluntly, she intimidated me and we didn’t get along right away. One evening, in a huff, she announced that she thought it very rude that I never said “Guten Morgen” to her while making breakfast. Oops. I took her suggestion and made a point to do so, little by little forming a bond. I returned to Austria the next summer, and she welcomed me as she would one of her nieces or nephews. I realized that saying hello is a powerful first step in building a relationship and bridging gaps.
The same challenge lay in front of me at my internship. Because of my shyness, I actually had to remind myself each day to say hello to the residents and ask how the day has gone. So far, this approach has worked well. I think they’re starting to trust me because they know I see them as people, care about them, and don’t judge them--these were general concerns brought up at my first group session. We’re starting to form relationships and I’m beginning to tackle some tougher issues with the residents. It feels great to know that we can bridge some of our differences in order to form a relationship and work together to heal.
Emboldened by my success at my internship, I’ve been saying lots of hellos these days and there are more to come. I start my new job next week, and my first Louisiana Counseling Association conference is the week after. I’m excited about who I may meet by saying hello at these new experiences. After saying so many goodbyes in Nebraska, it feels great to be starting relationships again.
Kristen Eckhardt is a counselor-in-training at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, completing her internship this year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Read more about her experiences and her takes on counseling issues at www.feetintwoworlds.wordpress.com.