When I'm getting to know someone, it's not uncommon for my new friend to ask tentatively, "So what does a counselor DO?" It's a question I've asked myself many times through the years (almost 21 years now, if you can believe it). In most professions, a job description is pretty clear--make money for the company, for example, or sell widgets, or write copy or fix plumbing. But because therapy is an art as well as a science (and shame on the counselors who don't take both aspects seriously), it's important that we're constantly refining and defining the subjective nature of what we do in the secrecy of the counseling room.
I was taught in graduate school that my job would be to identify people's faulty thinking and help them make adjustments that would lead to better mental health. There's a lot of truth to that--faulty thinking is actually the root of many problems people have--and I spend a lot of time doing it, but it's not really at the heart of what I do.
As a beginning therapist, I thought it was my job to help fix people. I wouldn't have said that out loud but I know this is what I thought because I remember the anxiety I felt when people wouldn't cooperate and get fixed or when what was wrong wasn't fixable. To be honest, I still understand a part of my job to be solution-focused--people should be able to point to something that happened in counseling that made things better. That's what they're paying for and it borders on the unethical to poke around in people's psyches and indulge our curiosity about what is going on in their lives without offering them real and practical help.
I sometimes think of myself as offering the emotional version of physical therapy--I diagnose and then help a person regain function--sometimes I can help a person make adjustments that lead to better health and other times I help them cope by learning new ways of doing things. As with physical therapy, there's no magic--it's hard work and the client has to do the bulk of it. That's a good analogy and does accurately describe a large portion of what I do as a counselor. But it's definitely not the whole picture.
A few years in, I started thinking about the heart of therapy as hospitality--creating safe and welcoming space where transformation can occur. The earliest mental hospitals were actually inns formed in the deserts by monks and nuns as places of refuge for those who were mentally and spiritually broken. I still use this model as a way of understanding that my role is often actively passive--I work hard to create that safe and welcoming space in my office (it's harder than it looks!) and then I wait and wonder with the client to see how healing will come.
It's hardest to understand my role in the face of the deep pain and anguish that my clients often bring and pour out into my lap. That's when the self-doubt can get vicious--who do I think I am, anyway? What on earth do I have to offer?
I've been deeply touched lately by a paragraph written by Ziya Meral, a human-rights advocate who stands faithfully and often helplessly with the oppressed and persecuted. He writes, in part:
"Whenever I look into the eyes of people who suffer and I have the privilege to be welcomed into their most intimate hurts, I know all too well that there is no quick fix for their afflictions. No smart line from a pop-psychology book can ease their continual pain. In such moments, God often reminds me to shut up and simply be present. I stand as desolate as they, and choose to stay awake in their Gethsemane, hold their hands, pray, and cry with them."
Did you catch the key phrase? " . . . choose to stay awake in their Gethsemane . . . " This is what I do.