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Archive for September, 2011

#2 — On Being Trained: “If I knew then, . . .”

September 27, 2011 2 comments

Not long ago one of my clients offered up her view of me and how I deal with life.  Clients do this from time to time, and the results are always the same.  She saw me as simply “floating through life, handling everything” and always knowing where I was going.  And as always, I thought to myself, “If she only knew . . .”  I tried to disaffect her of the idea that life is somehow smoother for me than it is for other people, but she wasn’t buying. 

People often come to me with the belief that I know some secret about how to deal with life and that if I will only share it with them, all their troubles will go away.  Not surprisingly, they often don’t react well when I tell them that the secret is there is no secret.  As difficult as this sometimes is, it is also an important point in the work.  Therapy cannot truly begin until the client understands that the therapist is not some kind of superstar but simply an ordinary human being dealing with life.  I point out to my clients that, while my path may be different from theirs, I am still on the same journey through life that they are and that my road has the same sorts of potholes in it. 

To be sure, my journey could easily be described as long and meandering.  I came out of college in the mid-1960s with a Bachelors degree in Behavioral Science.  At that time the only career paths open for someone with my degree involved armor, artillery, or infantry.  Moreover, going to graduate school for Psychology meant studying rats in mazes, something I couldn’t imagine doing even today.  At the behest of the U.S. Army, I was invited to spend two years in a computer installation, where I got a first-hand look at what was clearly going to become an important industry.  After leaving the service, I took advantage of the GI bill and did some graduate work in Computer Science.  From there, I pursued a career in systems analysis and design that proved lucrative and allowed me to start and raise a family.

Still, as successful as I was, I always had the sense of not being in the right place.  I soon recognized that the problems people struggled with in every organization, large and small, had little to do with what was going on inside the computer.  The real problems involved what was happening around it as people tried unsuccessfully to deal with each other.  Ironically, I found myself increasingly drawn away from the technology and into the middle of these intramural squabbles.  For reasons I didn’t fully grasp at the time, I was frequently asked to “investigate and intervene.”  As one department manager put it to me, “Get them to play nicely together.”  

Eventually, I moved out of the field of computer systems into organizational consulting.  I actually did a fair amount of what today is often called “executive coaching.”  Oddly enough, I found that many of these executives in the privacy of their offices would want to talk with me about things that had nothing to do with their work.  They talked, I listened, and they kept inviting me back.  During this time, I also met a number of independent consultants who had previously been therapists.  Some of them suggested that I consider going in the other direction.  As one put it to me, “You’re kind of doing therapy now, but in a backwards sort of arrangement.  You go to someone’s office each hour and have a one-on-one conversation.  If you were a therapist, someone would come to your office each hour and have a one-on-one conversation.”  The logistics appealed to me, so I started to investigate. 

As it turned out, I was working at the time for a corporate client just two miles up the road from what was then one of the top graduate programs in counseling in the country.  After completing my courses and starting an internship in a psychiatric facility, I soon realized that it was time for me to leave corporate America.  In starting to see my own therapy patients, I felt like a duck who had been lost in a forest and had finally found water and begun to swim.  From there, I invested my time, obtained my license, began my own practice, and have continued ever since. 

So why does all this matter?  Sometimes over the years I would look back and think to myself, “Damn.  If I had only known when I got out of college how important this work would be to me, I could have gone to school and gotten licensed back then.  I could have been doing this important work for all those years.”  And then I would remember and say back to myself, “Sure you could have, and you might have been pretty good.  But you wouldn’t have done that work the way you do it now.”  It turns out that during all those years when I seemed to be going through life like a pinball, I was really being trained.  To be sure, it would have helped a lot if I had known that I was being trained and what for.  But life just doesn’t work that way.  Life rarely gives us straight-line options.  Instead, life mostly intends for us to follow a more meandering route, something like following the yellow brick road, only without knowing anything about Oz being at the end of it.

The punch-line here is that everything we go through in life is in some way preparing us for what comes next.  So, as we look back on our lives and find things to regret and even mourn, we might also consider asking ourselves, “What have I learned, and how can that help me going forward?”  If we can keep taking a fresh look at ourselves and our lives, past and present, then perhaps we can put some of our training to good use.

#1 — On Getting Started: Seeing the whole field

September 20, 2011 1 comment

My Dad was a great baseball fan.  He taught me a lot about the game and, in the process, about life.  His favorite team was the Red Sox and so, naturally, our summer vacations would always include a number of trips to Fenway Park in Boston.  As a result, over the years I came to have a rather intimate sense of the place.  Mostly we sat in the middle of the grandstand, but on a few occasions we actually got seats in the front row right next to home plate.  We were close enough to hear each pitch coming in from the mound and to hear the players talk to each other and curse the umpire.  The sense of intimacy was unmistakable.  Those were special times.

There were also times when we sat in the very back row at the top of the grandstand.  Fenway didn’t have an upper deck back then, and this was about as far away as you could get and still see the entire field.  Today these are often referred to as “the cheap seats.”  The players seemed a lot smaller from up there, and you couldn’t hear anything but the crowd.  Yet there was something special about being able to take in the entire scene with a single glance.  As each batter approached the plate, you could see the catcher flash a signal and then watch the infielders and the outfielders all adjust their positions.  You could see the coaches flash signs to the runners, who would then adjust their leads as they stepped off each base.  And when there was a hit with runners in scoring position, you could see everyone on the field, including the umpires, make their individual movements and then converge on the play.  The view of the game was very different from the one in the front row.  There were things you could see from up in the back row that you couldn’t see from anywhere else.  As a youngster, I learned a new word for all of this: perspective.

During my years as a therapist, I have been fortunate in that some of my clients have also been some of my best teachers.  Working with them, I have had those familiar experiences of extreme intimacy and broad perspective.  Many of my clients, past and present, are adult survivors of child abuse.  The healing process with these clients has of necessity taken us into some very personal and private places together where very little can be hidden.  Through these experiences I have come to see and respect how people often struggle as they try to find and understand themselves, try to make sense of their lives, and try to grasp why they have had to live with so much pain.  I have witnessed the awesome capacity of people to endure and through that endurance to heal and to grow.  Through my experiences with these people, I have also learned how their struggles can sometimes offer us insights into our own.  This is the basis for a long-standing truism in the clinical community that therapy changes the therapist as well as the client.  The reason for this is that therapy is about life, and not simply life in the abstract, but about actually living it. 

And so, through my writing I plan to share some of these experiences and the things I have learned from them.  I hope this will be helpful, not just for other therapists but for everyone who struggles to come to terms with what life is about and what it means to be healthy.  Some of the accounts may reflect intimate encounters — much the same as sitting next to home plate.  Overall, however, I hope my observations will offer some useful perspective.  After all, sometimes the best view is from up in the cheap seats.

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