For about the past 9 months I've been an intern at the counseling center of our local state college, Fort Lewis. It's part of my graduate program in social work. It has been, in short, life changing. It's interesting to me that the length of my experience this year has been about the same as it takes to grow a human. I have grown. I have changed, I have been held and supported and loved in ways that have literally taken my breath away. The director of the training program retired this year. It was heart-wrenching for so many that have had the good fortune to learn from him. In short, to learn from Colin Smith is to be loved by him. Colin is a Jungian scholar. He looks like John Lennon, with long, wild hair and thick round glasses. He often speaks in metaphors, and he has no tolerance for small talk. We fell in love with each other immediately.
At our orientation retreat, we sat in a circle at one of the senior counselor's homes. 7 staff members, 7 first year practicum students, 2 second year interns. When the sage was burned and the circle was created, I felt at home. What followed though, felt new. Colin read from The Little Prince, he read from the Velveteen Rabbit. He talked about what it means to become real, to be human, to be heard, to be seen. I tend to pay attention to my body in times like these. I have a pretty good bullshit detector, but it works in reverse. It works by making me cry when something is real. As Colin spoke and my tears flowed, I knew it would be good year. I also knew that I would be heartbroken when it ended.
Recently we had our year-end retreat. "The take out". We live in a small western town with a big rafting community. That being the case, it's inevitable that river metaphors abound. The orientation was the "put in", everyone into the boat, here we go. We've been moving down the river, most of us ending up in the water more often than not. But the line gets thrown and we hold on, and sooner or later we get pulled to safety.
So here we were again, this time at the Take Out. We sat in a circle as each of us were honored and given feedback on how we had come across, how we had shifted, how we had grown since that orientation day. We were held, we were challenged and we were loved.
We talk a lot about "the container", the space we create that allows our clients to open, to explore their hard stuff, their dark parts, their pain. At that orientation Colin talked about the container, and how it needed to be strong enough to hold everything we pour into it. But that's not enough. In order for change to happen, that container needs to be heated up. The heat gets turned on and it gets hotter and hotter until the contents begin to change. It's alchemy, and it's uncomfortable. One of Colin's favorite sayings is "the shit turns to gold". It's our hard stuff, the stuff we're ashamed of, that we never speak of, the parts that are too painful, scary and sickening to look at that is our richest material. That container needs to hold all of that without breaking apart, and there's only one way to make it strong, and that's through love.
Carl Rogers, pioneer of person-centered psychotherapy talked a lot about "unconditional positive regard". The idea that we should see our clients without judgement, to think the best of them. I do believe Rogers was right on in his approach with that, but he was afraid to call it what it is.
We love our clients. When they open up and let us in, when they share their broken parts, we fall in love with them. How could we not? That's when we know we have the container we need.
There's another part to all this. When we fall in love with our clients, when we hold that unconditional space for them do their work, we heal ourselves too. It reminds us to be gentle with ourselves. Another saying in the counseling center is "we're all in the soup together". There's no "I'm OK, you're not", there's not a separation. We all hurt, we all have to deal with our stuff. The more of our own work we do, the more we can help others. Period.
I have never felt so scrutinized as I have these past 9 months. At the beginning it was uncomfortable. My body language, my dress, my humor (especially my humor) was all open to interpretation. I'm no stranger to being judged, but that wasn't what they were doing. It was more of an exploration, an invitation to see what was going on under all that. It was all for my benefit, and I felt that.
The goal of the training program is to make sure we do our work. Their work is to hold us accountable to ourselves.
The staff of the Counseling Center do this by modeling the highest level of personal accountability and integrity that I have ever witnessed.
They do this by making themselves available to us in countless ways, both professionally and personally.
They do this by loving us into Being.