Welcome to my section of the ACT at Duke website.
I will be calling my blog articles: Lisa. Learning.
Let me tell you a little about myself, and why I chose this particular title.
When I began my graduate training in 1999, I was electrified with excitement! I couldn't wait to learn as much as I could about being a therapist. My first two semesters, I read text after text with enthusiasm. I asked questions. I volunteered for role plays. I took copious notes and re-wrote them over and over. But before too long I found myself doubting everything I knew about myself and this profession I had proudly signed up to join.
It started when a brilliant professor asked my class a question that went something like this, “given that you are all probably very good listeners, and wonderful caring friends, I imagine you entered this program with a desire to put these skills to use. You wanted to help people, right?”
Of course the professor was greeted with a chorus of yes’s and head nods.
“Wonderful,” he continued, “then I suppose that each of you hope you will be gainfully employed as counselors after you earn your degree, true?”
Again, heads nodded across the room.
Finally this professor got to his main point and asked his happy students, each dreaming of their future career, the following question, “then imagine for a moment that you are in this job. You have a client sitting before you. This person has probably paid upwards of $80 to spend 50 minutes with you. Tell me, what are you going to do better than their friends and family that will be worth $80?”
I still remember how my heart stopped. My mouth went dry. I was shaken to the core. Oh. My. God. Nothing!?! I can think of nothing. I certainly haven’t acquired any skills that make me worth that amount of money. It was, after all, my skills as a novice counselor to friends and family that I believed would ensure my success! Gulp. I felt myself start to slowly freeze. My confidence shaken, I returned to my textbooks no longer interested in simply learning, but in answering this question about my worth.
From that moment on, I was honestly a much different student. I still volunteered for role plays. I still wanted to learn – oh yes, I wanted to read and listen and try desperately to acquire enough skills to make me worthy of a salary. What I didn’t want to do was talk to clients. I knew I wasn’t ready – I couldn’t answer the question yet!
But the two-way mirror waits for no fearful student.
Meeting a new client made my stomach ache hours before the meeting was to take place. I recall fantasies like – maybe I’ll get into a car accident and I won’t be able to make it. Not a big one, obviously, just a minor fender bender that will prevent my appearance in front of that dreadful mirror.
I would still show up though. I would pray for a talkative client – someone I could easily validate until a gracious professor would leap forth from behind the two-way mirror and save us both from my helplessness.
After a while, you can imagine how exhausting this process became. The sickening feelings. The blank mind. I tried everything I could think of. I got busy preparing what I would say or do with my client – they never cooperated. I studied books with techniques and read as many therapy scripts as I could get my hands on. Again, my client didn’t show up the way the individuals in these books did. They didn’t want to just come in and talk about one issue – they had complicated, multi-layered, messy lives!
I felt like I had no road map. I had theories and techniques that I pulled things from here and there, but I had no real framework. I had Beck, Glasser, Minuchin, White, Perls, Whitaker, Satir…but always that question came to my mind. Was I worth it?
So, I longed for a clear cut direction. Something that allowed me to say – I am an XX therapist and I believe x, y, and z. I am DONE. I am done learning – done thinking – done struggling. I wanted to say: I. am. worthy.
I persevered, and I graduated, but I never felt confident that I could answer that question. So I practiced. I became a little more willing. I explored new theories. Then a good friend introduced me to the ACT model. Because I was in love with Michael White and Narrative Therapy at the time I saw similarities here and there that excited me. As I read, and learned, and grew as a therapist, I realized that what the ACT model had given me that other models and theories hadn’t, was a road map that I could fully embrace. Could I both understand and find motivation to help almost any human being that walked through my door if I thought about what they were avoiding, how they were stuck, and what they truly cared about in life? YES!
I allowed myself to open up, and I found personal willingness to continue to learn and grow. It happened slowly, and sometimes painfully, but eventually I felt more excitement than dread when a new client arrived at my office door.
Today, I am proud to say that I am still learning. I will never be done learning. I am still learning because in some ways I believe that is what life is about.
I have stopped praying that clients won’t show up. And I think I can finally say that I can do things in the therapy room that my clients best friends and kindest relatives are not able to do.