One night last week as I was drifting off to sleep, I realized how much I really have changed since my very first counseling class two winters ago. Those changes have been subtle, which perhaps explains how I missed them for a while--they’re changes in my words. I speak quite a bit and write even more, both in counseling and my paid job as a fundraiser. Over these past two years, my language has shifted to reflect everything I’ve learned and how I’ve grown and changed as a person.
For example, I realized that the word “why” hardly exists in my vocabulary anymore. It’s just not that effective, and after a few slip-ups with clients early on, I totally get how it can feel accusatory. Actually, I sometimes feels a little defensive when it’s aimed at me (and I have to fight the urge to explain to the other person that there are far better ways to ask questions!).
In general, I find myself avoiding accusatory language (like “why”) and stating things in more neutral terms. This works well when sorting out issues between my internship residents--“You didn’t wash the dishes” is more likely to elicit a counterproductive defensive response than “The dishes haven’t been washed. Tell me more about what’s going on.” Bonus: I quickly learned that this also works well in my marriage.
Finally, I’ve become very conscious about labels.
Words like “Schizophrenic,” “alcoholic,” and “addict” (well, especially the vague and casual way everyone throws around “addict”) make me cringe inwardly, especially when my clients constantly label themselves. I want to say, “No, you have schizophrenia. You’re so much more than that diagnosis.” Sometimes I do. That change from being something to having something is indeed subtle, but critical in making sure we don’t pigeonhole ourselves and each other.
One of my biggest frustrations with my development as a counselor stems from language as well. Despite my own level of self-awareness and strong vocabulary, I still struggle to help my clients identify emotions beyond the basics. Are they mad, or furious? Sad, or despairing? I struggle--and thus, they struggle--because for whatever reason, all of the nuances between mad and furious or sad and despairing leave my head in the here and now. With time and effort, I’m confident that I can be more proficient in this skill and will someday suddenly realize how rich my vocabulary has become.
Naturally, with my interest in stories and language, narrative therapy grabs my attention. I have faced some client situations in which narrative therapy would have been appropriate, but just don’t feel comfortable with it yet. I think that will be one of my projects after graduation--read up on it and hopefully find another counselor who has successfully incorporated narrative therapy into his or her practice.
These changes aren’t big at all, but the insidious little changes that creep into daily life. They’re the little changes that add up, suddenly letting you know how much you’ve grown through your journey. In my life as a musicology student, those little changes were evident in everyday life when I could easily identify the classical background music in commercials or could read German without much trouble. The changes in how I speak and write today are little, but significant. They point out what I have learned and what I still need to learn, and that I am fundamentally a little different--a little better--than when I started this wonderful journey.
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.