My career as a counsellor and trainer has taught me a lot. In fact, some of my greatest teachers have been the people I have worked with. One teaching I have been reflecting a lot on lately comes from Dave. Dave is a former client I invited to co-present with me at a training for working with men who have experienced trauma. During the question and answer portion of the training, a participant asked Dave, “What was most helpful for you in moving past trauma?” Dave responded, “John was the most helpful.” The person wanted more details so they asked, “But what did John do that was so helpful?” to which Dave replied, “John is a good guy.”
I often tell this story in trainings when talking about the importance of the therapeutic relationship. It’s not what we do that is the most important, it’s who we are and how we are with people.
It’s not what we do that is the most important, it’s who we are and how we are with people.
This is true in many helping relationships, particularly where relational trauma is a problem. When relationships have caused the damage, it is through relationships that there is healing. Dave gifted me this wisdom early in my career and I thank him for it. Being a “good guy” is an important and effective part of my counselling, but it takes work. What follows are a few areas that I’ve had to work on in order to be a “good guy.”
Constant reflection on the values that drive your practice
No one’s identity is static – we are always in a state of change. Once we are aware and intentional about how we want to be, we are more likely to embody the values/qualities that are important to us. When I think of how I want to be in the therapeutic relationship, Richard Swartz’s 8 C’s of Self-Leadership have been an influence:
As a trainer, I encourage other helpers to reflect on what values drive their practice. In doing so, I too am constantly reflecting on what is orienting me and how I am (or am not) living out my values. When I am more aware, balanced, and intentional, I can find daily examples of living out these qualities. However, when I am tired, overworked, stressed, etc., that is where autopilot kicks in – this not always beneficial.
When I’m on autopilot, my two boys are helpful in keeping me on track. Their sense of humour and keen observations are welcome, but every now and then they will joke with me when I am not living up to the qualities I strive to embody. Their smart-alecky comments keep me in check, and when I’m not being particularly understanding, patient, or curious, they may sarcastically ask me, “So…you are a counsellor, right? You work with kids and families around communication, patience, and understanding?”
Having a number of passions
When I began my career as a counsellor, I was fortunate to land my dream job. I was working with a great organization and experiencing constant challenges, growth, and validation. I was doing good work. I was thriving. And…I was working too much.
My work often included back-to-back clients, working long hours, and taking my work home with me. At the time this was okay, but in retrospect, if I had kept up this pace, I believe the downsides of helping (compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, burnout) would have led to problems.
Early on in my career, I received a gift that continues to inspire and influence me both personally and professionally: the birth of my boys. Becoming a father helped shift my identity from that of a counsellor to also include being a dad. In doing so, I needed to re-examine my values, priorities, and boundaries. As I placed value on being a present and involved father, I needed to scale back other priorities (i.e., work). My role as a father and being present with my family have been some of the most helpful things in remaining healthy in my work roles.
In addition to finding a good work-life balance, I have also found that it’s important to vary my tasks because I thrive on diverse experiences. I very much enjoy being a counsellor, trainer, and supervisor, but I have learned that if I only engage in one of these, I may lose interest. I love the interconnectedness of my roles because they inform each other, making me better at each. Having diversity in my work life keeps me on my toes so that I am constantly learning and growing. The day I think I know it all is the day I need to retire.
Being able to shift stories
Having spent the majority of my career working alongside people who are in crisis and trauma, I know far too much about the danger and cruelty of others. This is the downside of my work and at times it does get me down. However, there is also an upside to my work, which is the part I try to highlight. I get to see the amazing resilience of the human spirit – the creativity, strength, and resourcefulness that trauma forces on people. These are the stories I hold on to for inspiration.
However, I also need a means to deal with the stories of pain, suffering, and struggle. One of the many ways I shift these stories is to quite literally listen to another story. I am fortunate enough to live only 5 kms from my office, which is close enough to walk. Part of my walk includes a long stretch of gravel path alongside the beautiful and bold Red River in Winnipeg. As I walk, I listen to audiobooks and podcasts, which are very different from the stories I hear at work. By doing this, I find I can better gear up for my tasks at the office, and gear down for my family at home.
I found myself smiling last week after reading a set of evaluations from a training I facilitated. I had told Dave’s story, and how it showed me the importance of the therapeutic relationship. On one evaluation was a message written in big block letters: “JOHN IS A GOOD GUY.” I will certainly hold on to this feedback because it makes me think I can be a “GOOD GUY.” I can see this more clearly when I hold Dave’s teaching close, remember the values that influence me, keep family and other interests in check with my work, and focus on the stories I want to hold on to.
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