This is the second installment of life lessons counseling taught me. Being a therapist has led me to a better understanding of humanity and myself. (In Part One, I discussed life lessons on calmness, silence, active listening, partial truths, and hidden agendas.)
Working with addiction and mental illness has gifted me with the capacity to better recognize why people do what they do, which in turn enhances how I relate to others. As a result, I’m more effective in my personal and professional life. I have a sense of peace and “okayness” in the world.
One thing I hadn’t previously considered was brought up by Quora user and mental health professional, G. Bernard (MA Counseling); he shared that counseling revealed the truth about change. “It has really reinforced that idea that people who want change will work harder to achieve it; those who are forced (legally, by parents, spouse etc.) probably won’t.”
I agree with this 100%. People can’t be forced into change; and when they are, their efforts lack fortitude and it doesn’t last. Those who are internally motivated will fight for change, making it worthwhile and enduring.
Here are additional truths and life lessons I gained through my counseling career.
What counseling taught me (the second installment of life lessons):
1. A new perspective
The DSM – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the “Bible” for mental health professionals) – uncovered a whole new world for me. Sure, I was familiar with mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, and anxiety before grad school. I took Abnormal Psych in college and even before that, I’d read books on schizophrenia, eating disorders, and other mental disorders. (Guess who did their middle school science project on schizophrenia? Me!)
But my fleeting knowledge was laughable compared to what I found in the DSM; it provided me with information on every single diagnosable mental disorder. When I started working with clients, I was able to see how mental illness manifests in real life.
The more I learned (and saw), the more I was able to make sense of behaviors. Consequently, this led to me looking back on people I’ve encountered throughout the years. I realized how many of them had been struggling with a mental illness. (At the time, I probably just thought they were just a jerk, or acting inconsiderately.)
I also became more aware of the prevalence of severe mental illness and the way it presents in society. This led to increased tolerance and patience regarding behaviors I’d previous found annoying; counseling taught me to recognize them for what they were.
Mental illness can easily be interpreted as something it’s not. By having an awareness, I’m more compassionate. Instead of judging, I observe. Someone who seems snobby may have social anxiety. That coworker who calls out sick every Monday may be struggling with addiction. A friend who never wants to go out anymore could be depressed.
Mental illness is everywhere if you know what to look for. Counseling taught me to strive to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, which is better for my mental health.
2. Don’t give money to the homeless
I worked with a client at a residential program who had an amazing talent for creating clever signs. He’d use markers to write his message (“Will dance for food!”) on a piece of cardboard before grabbing his pail to hit the streets. He didn’t need the money; he received government benefits (funded by taxpayers). The money he earned panhandling funded his K2 habit or the occasional beer.
Many of the “homeless” people you meet are not homeless; they’re con men (or women) who make a profit on your sympathy. Some are either addicted to drugs/alcohol and/or severely mentally ill; they need treatment, not the crinkled dollar bill in your pocket. Giving your spare change isn’t helping that person. Instead, offer to buy a meal, give them a pair of socks, or hand them a bottle of water.
3. Telling someone what to do is not helpful
Giving advice rarely leads to lasting change.
There are a few different reasons why advice, no matter how well-meaning, isn’t helpful. Firstly, it doesn’t account for the person’s full experience or struggle; it could seem ignorant or insensitive. (For example, “Why don’t you just get a divorce?” is not helpful to a woman struggling with her husband’s infidelity; the problem is more complex than just getting a divorce. Children could be involved. Maybe she’s financially dependent on her husband. Maybe she’s still in love with him. Or maybe it’s against her religious beliefs.)
Advice also robs a person of the ability to solve their own problem. We need to learn to find solutions in life in order to grow and to be effective. If someone is always told what to do, they’re not going to learn to function independently.
Lastly, if advice is taken, and it works, the credit goes to the advice giver, not the taker. The results are less meaningful. Alternatively, if advice is taken and it doesn’t work, it becomes the advice giver’s fault. Advice deprives a person of being able to take full ownership of their actions.
Counseling taught me that if you own your decision and fail, the blame falls on you (helping you to grow as a person) or if you succeed, the triumph is yours alone. Either way, you’re better off finding your own solutions; this allows you to feel capable and you’ll become better at solving problems in the future.
4. The value of transparency and honesty
Counseling taught me that people like to know what’s happening and what to expect. I get better reactions from clients when I explain why I’m doing or saying what I am. I’m honest, and when I can’t be (or believe it would be inappropriate to do so), I tell clients exactly that. For example, if a client asks about my religion, I’d let them know I don’t feel comfortable sharing personal aspects of my life.
Personally, I prefer the company of others who are straightforward. I don’t like having to guess if someone is upset with me. I don’t like it when someone is nice to my face, but gossips when I’m not around. Those types of games are played by people who are insecure or who are attempting to manipulate you. Life is complicated enough. With me, you’ll know if your fly is down, and if you ask for my opinion, you’ll get it. (There’s much to be said for tact though!) Gentle truths are worth more than flattery.
5. You can’t demand respect
It’s something that’s earned through words and actions, not freely given. Forced respect is not true respect; it’s fear or deception. And while I believe in treating everyone with respect, I don’t truly respect someone until I know what kind of person they are.
Furthermore, I’ve learned that if someone chooses to disrespect me, it’s not a threat. Respect is powerful, but disrespect? Feeble and pathetic. If someone is disrespectful, it won’t harm you or make you less of a person (unless you give it that control).
Throughout my career, I’ve been disrespected on many, many occasions by clients who don’t want to be in treatment (and even by colleagues with differing opinions). Counseling taught me that my sense of self-worth is not dependent on how others treat me. As a result, disrespect from angry clients (or rude salespersons or drivers who cut me off, etc.) doesn’t faze me.
In sum, being a counselor is life-changing. I imagine many professions are to a degree, but I can’t picture any other job leading to such a deep understanding of humanity. Entering the mental health field is like having horrible vision and then finally getting glasses (except it happens over the course of years). I have an enhanced awareness of who I am along with an unforeseen sense of serenity.
Every single client who’s shared a piece of their story has contributed to my awareness (and to my own personal growth), and I owe them gratitude for the life lessons I received. I’m more cautious in life, yes, but I’m also more compassionate. Instead of having high expectations, I have high hopes. I don’t attempt to control things I have no control over; and I don’t get angry over the decisions, views, or actions of others. Instead, I channel my energy into something more productive; I’m passionate and I’m an advocate. My beauty pageant answer to the stereotypical question is not “world peace”; it’s for everyone to have a deeper understanding of each other.
What life lessons have you learned in your career? Please share in a comment!
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