As counselors, one of our main goals, if not the goal, is to encourage our clients to work towards their own self-development and to help them learn the necessary skills for them to do this on their own. As we work with our clients, we recognize that each person’s journey is unique and represents their own views of what it means to be happy and/or satisfied. By extension, shouldn’t this then be a requirement for us? Exploring own self-development should be a necessary step for us as we grow in our careers and practices, and as we move through the developmental stages of life. As more and more research is released, we have learned that happiness is not a destination; rather, it is an ongoing pursuit. In recognizing that there is no final destination of happiness, I think this removes a certain amount of pressure from us because there is no picture perfect destination to ascribe to. Rather, developing a more realistic view of feeling satisfied with one’s life allows us to include the regular ebb and flow of life. This view maintains the awareness that the only constant in life is change itself. Hence, with continued self-development, we are able to adapt to the twists and turns of life.
The Value of Self-Development
As an individual, I am highly aware of the fact that I am not the same person who graduated from my Master’s program with all sorts of views and ideas on how to succeed in this field. I am also not the same individual who worked with my very first client and struggled with building the therapeutic rapport. As individuals, we recognize the importance of self-development probably the most during the times we begin to feel stagnant in our lives. We begin to have a gnawing feeling in our stomachs or the whispering thoughts in our minds that seem to occur when change is needed. For many of us, it is the voice we may ignore as we are comfortable in our environment and with the things we know. For some of us, it is the sign that we need to make an active change in our lives and that it is time to redefine what makes us satisfied.
Self-Development encourages us to spend time with ourselves. The American society is fast-paced and content heavy. In our daily lives, there are so many things that demand our attentions; we can get through a day or an entire week and have not checked in with ourselves for 5 minutes. This can only lead to an automated life that is not fulfilling or meaningful. Self-development encourages us to spend time daily with ourselves to assess where we are and how we are feeling, and to work to make adjusts that fit our needs. Yes, life is busy and there will always be so much to do in any given day. But what we don’t think about is the fact that when we are at our worse (rundown, tired, stressed) we have nothing to give to anyone. So how can we serve our clients, our families, or even ourselves? As clinicians, we know the value of self-care. We have to be willing to take the time to be a little selfish, yes selfish, because if we don’t do it, who will? We have to take the time to care about ourselves, to explore our minds and our feelings; take time to relax and replenish ourselves so that our energy comes across to others that we are in charge of ourselves, our feelings and behaviors, and we are satisfied with who we are and what we can do.
In the last year, I have had the opportunity to be surrounded by interns and newly practicing clinicians like myself and have had the chance to hear some of their views on the field of mental health. It strikes me as odd that we as clinicians are unwilling to do the things that we ask of our clients. During my educational training, we were always told that it takes great courage to be the client sitting in the chair across from us. Whether it is the client who is forced to be there or the client that is always early and ready for the session, or the client in the middle of the spectrum. I believe it is our empathetic duty to appreciate and respect this opportunity. During our educational training, we were encouraged to go out and enter into our own counseling experiences, attend workshops to be among our peers, and even attend various anonymous groups, such Narcotics Anonymous or Alcohol Anonymous to understand some of the experiences that the clients sitting in front of us have had. With this being said, as the counselors sitting across from these clients, we have to be able to recognize the difficulties of the journeys the clients have embarked on. Whether it is the clients who have been abused emotionally or physically or it is the clients who have now realized 20 years into their marriages or careers that they are entirely unfulfilled and unhappy.
Approximately 1 year ago, Counseling Today, March 2016 issue asked members of the American Counseling Association about their influences. Bethany Bray in her article, posted some excerpts of the counselors’ responses and they were quite diverse, and rightfully so. A few of the counselors highlighted that their clients’ and parents’ influences have deeply affected their lives and their work. I appreciate their candor in recognizing that our surroundings greatly impact who we are. Therefore, I find it frankly juxtaposed when we ask our clients to do something we ourselves are unwilling to do.
In his article in November 2016, Kevin Glenn discussed the importance of self-education. He discussed the importance of being willing to learn from new sources and staying current in new research and new developments within our field. This is a sentiment expressed time and again by licensing and governing boards. This is basically already a requirement of all our certifications and licensing. With constant changes in state and federal law, changes in ethics and research, the necessity of continuing education has been proven time and time again. Change is never easy but as I am sure we have discussed with our clients, the mindset that we have affects how we feel about change. It is also important to recognize that self-improvement is not a destination. It is a continuous journey that changes as we evolve and move through different phases of life. One of the most important lessons I have learnt as an adult has been that the only constant in life is change. I suffered greatly when I kept trying to go against this rule. When I felt that I wanted to stay in a particular phase of life that I liked or when I was going through something painful that made me want to rush through that phase. Life moves at its own pace; everything in life has its own rhythm and timing. This tidbit has begun to serve me well in how I now view life.
As we experience growth as individuals, this is reflected in our work with clients. The questions we ask or how we ask questions changes; the way we reflect back to our clients adjusts; we begin to notice subtle changes in words and tones used; slight adjustment in body positions; all these things and so much more changes as we experience growth in our own lives. Generally, we also become more congruent. Our ideals and beliefs as individuals also evolve and change which is most important as the world around us changes. The clients we see are ever-changing. Changes in society have a direct effect on the clients that walk through our doors. If we do not experience our own growth and change, how can we authentically serve the clients we work with? One example was the recent presidential election. Merely days after Donald Trump became president of the United States, I experienced clients feeling terrified of losing loved ones and clients who wanted to know what this new presidency would mean for their loved ones and themselves. These are real life experiences that people are working through.
Engaging in our own self-development is crucial to our adaptability as clinicians and as individuals. So how do we engage in self-development? A few suggestions are:
- Reading – books, magazines, online articles such as these are great tools to help us learn information. It also helps us examine our existing ideas, adjust them as needed with the new information, and discard old concepts that are outdated.
- Exercise – there is no short amount of information on the benefits of exercise. Just taking the time to participate in any variation of exercise can be extremely beneficial as it impacts not only our physical health but also our mental health; this helps with clearing our mind and giving us a chance to refocus.
- Meditation – Again with health benefits that have been proven by research and within mental health, the increase in theories that focus on mindfulness have demonstrated the benefits of meditation.
- Personal therapy – If we encourage our own clients to pursue their own counseling to help them through difficult times. Would we not utilize the same tools available to us?
- Diet – You may ask why this matters. Or why is this separated from exercise? Some people may struggle with one or the other or both. The fact is what we put into our bodies reflect the disciplines we have and the choices we make.
The fact is there are numerous ways to engage in self-development. It can be recognizing when it is time to let go of something or acknowledging and listening to the voice inside that is saying we are unhappy and need to make a change for ourselves. The truth is change is hard for all of us, but we experience real change when we push ourselves outside of our boxes and our comfort zones because that is when we learn what we are truly made of.
In summary, I ask this of myself and all clinicians. I ask that we are all willing to experience growth and to be willing to work through our own personal feelings and experiences to improve our own self-development. I ask that we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves and our biases and prejudices to see where we can make changes that will have direct impacts on ourselves and the clients we serve. This can only serve us for the better as we work towards having more authentic therapeutic relationships and increase our value to the clients we work with and also in our own personal lives.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health, writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.