The process of engaging with something with which we have no or very limited experience with can be a difficult undertaking – particularly, I have recently learned, as adults. The brain (and ego) suddenly create barriers that can make tackling a new skill overwhelming and challenging in ways vastly different than we experienced as children. This came to my attention as I embarked on learning how to play an instrument and learn a new language a few months ago.
The last three decades have been spent figuring out what I’m good at and then doing everything in my power to hone those skills. At the very least, I’ve picked out areas that I have some ability to perform well enough in and with minimal embarrassment. As I struggle now with learning two entirely new skills, I find that this lesson in learning is something that can be applied to my work as a counselor. Here are four things I learned about counseling and the counseling relationship based on my experiences with tackling new tasks.
1. Patience is a virtue. This particular phrase always made me grimace, perhaps speaking to a shortage of this particular virtue, but learning how to do something new really drives this point home. New skills do not come overnight. It takes time, patience, and a positive attitude to learn something new. The same goes for working with clients. What we discover in one session might not stick until session 10 or 20. Being patient with myself and with the client can go a long way in building a positive therapeutic relationship.
2. Practice makes perfect. Learning a new instrument and language have been difficult for me because I have to deal with the many imperfections and negative feelings that present themselves when trying to get it right. With time and practice, new skills and concepts get easier to manage. Struggling with this first hand has helped me empathize more with clients and truly appreciate the way they grope and struggle with new ideas and ways of being. It’s important to guide them, give feedback and acknowledge the bravery that it takes to show their “imperfections” week after week. Freeing oneself of phobias, anxieties and those pesky automatic thoughts is no easy feat (if it were, we would be out of a career) and I can truly appreciate the tenacity that clients have to engage in the process of therapy.
3. Get creative. If there’s one thing I despise, it is doing the same thing, the same way over and over again. I always thought this is what real practice was but I’m finding as an adult learner, I have to spice it up in order to stick with it. Not only does it make the concept of practice less daunting, but new ways of practicing skills enhances my ability to successfully use them in a variety of contexts and allows me to constantly engage and challenge myself. Practice makes perfect but it should not have to induce boredom. What would make you practice your new skill everyday? Figuring out what works for me has lead me to exercise more creativity with how I work with clients.
4. Create building blocks of learning. Imagine your frustration if when walking into a Learning to Paint class, the instructor asked you to replicate the Mona Lisa. You might become enraged that you’re being asked to do such a thing without leaning the basics or you might skulk out of the classroom feeling hopeless and embarrassed. I am guilty of trying to fast track my own learning. I skipped a few core lessons in my language practice and attempted to complete a benchmark exam at the end. The failure was epic and I grudgingly went back to the lessons for novices. What I thought might be a nice challenge turned into a complete failure due to my inexperience and gaps in necessary knowledge. As I move closer towards the language benchmark exam (for round 2), I realize the importance of starting small and creating concrete steps of skill acquisition and a solid knowledge base. As it applies to counseling, what might seem to be a reasonable challenge for me may seem an insurmountable task to my client which can breed negative emotional states and put the counseling relationship at risk. Building blocks need to be set to allow the client to successfully meet benchmark goals and to try out more advanced challenges. These are the foundations to long-lasting change.
You do not have to be in your client’s shoes in order to experience some of the things they might be facing as they come into therapy. Bring your own experience in learning something new to the table and you might find that suddenly your patience is renewed, your empathy greater, and your focus shifted to finding new ways to engage and help your client practice the many new tools all that they are learning in therapy.