This September will mark ten years for yours truly working in the mental health field. That time frame includes seven different agencies and twelve different job titles ranging from intern to program supervisor. I worked with a plethora of individuals who were my clients, colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates.
It took me a while to develop a professional identity. It probably was not until grad school that I figured it out. It was during that first semester while taking an intro to counseling course. The course covered all the basics like therapeutic rapport, the helping relationship, and some basic techniques. One night, our professor reviewed the informed consent process (introduce yourself, talk about the client’s rights, and complete some paperwork). It is the same process where you show up fifteen minutes early to a new doctor’s appointment to fill out that giant packet.
It got me thinking. The informed consent outlines what the client can expect legally and ethically. However, it does not address the expectations of the intimate client-counselor relationship. I do not mean intimate as romantic but rather an individual sharing deep, dark details with a complete stranger. Laying the groundwork from the get go could spell the recipe for success or crumbling disaster.
Of course, my spiel took time to come together. I reflected on not only what I would want from a counselor, but more so someone I could trust. I thought about my closer relationships like my parents, best friends, and significant others up through my young adulthood. I thought about what worked in them and what they lacked. The counseling relationship was meant to mirror those relationships in a lot of ways.
After toying around with the wording, timing, and tone, I narrowed it down to three (well four) “guidelines.”
- Honesty. Just be honest. One of my biggest pet peeves is a liar. That also includes lying by omission, or leaving important details out of the story. Just be straightforward and forthcoming. It shows that you respect the other individual in the relationship. Also, if you are going to them for help, not having the whole or true story can hinder their ability to best help you. It truly is at the core of any relationship.
- If I ever offend or upset you, tell me. I am human. I am flawed. I make mistakes. It just so happens that my mouth and sometimes lack of a mental filter fall right into that category. As a result, I am going to say things that are not always the most politically correct or that come off as too harsh. Instead of bottling up your feelings and letting it interfere with the relationship, talk about it. I do not mean scream, yell, and talk over one another. I literally mean have a discussion. Hash it out. Talk about why it upset you and what I can do differently next time. Holding a grudge is not worth it. If the relationship is important enough to you, then mend it and move forward.
- Ask questions. Growing up, on nearly every first day of school, I remember the teacher saying, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” Unfortunately, there is, but I would rather that person ask me a stupid question than none at all. It could be a question about upcoming plans, something I said, or just asking to review a previous discussion. Asking questions brings clarity to communication. It ensures that both parties are on the same page and working towards a common goal.
- Have fun. I always think back to the movie Patch Adams with Robin Williams. Without spoiling too much. he played a doctor who provided
“unconventional” treatment methods at a time where doctors were trying to be taken seriously. You can already imagine what kind of shenanigans Robin Williams brought to the movie.
It emphasized the importance of having fun though. You cannot be serious all the time. I love cracking light jokes and being silly with my clients and coworkers. It is why I enjoy doing community-based work. I am not confined to a boring desk all day. I can play basketball and go for walks in the park with my clients. Even my office is fun to be in with funny paintings, a red clown nose, sensory toys, and much more.
I started going over these in my initial sessions with clients and during orientation with new employees. I found that it easier than assuming the other party knew what I wanted. I also made it clear that only I am expecting those things from them, but that they can expect them from me. I hold myself accountable to the same standards.
Now, when it came to my personal relationships, I went through these guidelines more informally, but they definitely carried over. I saw a vast improvement in my social life, dating, and communication. These rules could be different for you, but it might be worth putting some thought into.
-The Caring Counselor