Saturday, April 4, 2009

Getting the Imprint

An argument was raised in class last month: is a therapist born or made? The fundamental components were broken into 2 categories: empathy and skills. 

I do not believe that empathy can be taught, it can be developed but you have to have "it" - it is innate. So empathy either is or it isn't. Skills, for the most part, can be taught.  But you need some sort of a natural framework. Like you come with the basic internal foundation from which skills can be learned. 

Now then, can a therapist be made? Sort of. If one has empathy and the ability to hone the skills, then yeah, you can. If they don't have empathy? I think it is a disservice to clients. I believe that being a counselor is a vocation - in the sense that it is a calling. That is why I think that the born argument is significant for counselors. 

So where do I fall into this? I have always believed that I am meant to be a helper, particularly with youth. A therapist? I don't know. A counselor of some sort? Yes. Lately I have been convinced that while I think I came pre-made in the empathy department - I was seriously concerned about my skills. Can I do this? Nothing in my role plays really says I can. And I began to believe that I am trying to make myself into a therapist. It made me sad. How could I have been such a fool? 

Then in a conversation I had on Wednesday it was brought to my attention that I am basing this on very false situations. Role plays in a class are not the same as real life counseling. When have I been the happiest? In working with youth and often as some form of a counselor or mentor. There is nothing that has made me happier career wise. Even when I worked in the crisis center and it was violent or messy in many ways I came back because I believed that I could connect with those kids and that being there with them was such a privilege that I needed to do it and that I was good at it. And I loved it - well, a lot of it. Talks with kids there stand out as some of the most meaningful moments in my life. 

Then today, the final day of our Advanced Family Therapy class, I was doing my final role play and it clicked. I definitely missed a lot and when my professor came in she showed some profound areas in which I was lacking (she did not point them out, she role played for us and I saw them) but for a little bit there I felt natural. I felt okay in my own skin. Even as I fumbled through some techniques. I felt like I had skills!! 

At the close of class my professor said that she hoped we knew that these role plays are not really examples of how we are as therapists - and that this is why she cannot grade us on them (an opinion not shared by other professors apparently). She also said that this is a time for being befuddled. While you are in a role play it is when you are getting the imprint. The imprint of a model or a theory or of some of the process. Learning how to mirror what you hear. 

So, am I a therapist? Or a counselor? I still don't know. To be a good therapist, you have to be a counselor. But you can counsel in different ways. Career wise, to be a counselor is a different job where you aren't really doing therapy. 

On that note, I need to decide what I am doing soon. I go back and forth on switching my programs still from school counseling to MFT. Much has to do with the job market, much has to do with my family therapy class. It is the class I have found hope in.

It is also where I found some sadness because every MFT student that I have come to know even in the slightest way is going onto internship next year. No more classes with them. It makes me really sad. In large part because I am supposed to be with them. And if I were there would be no crisis. If I had already been in all of the classes there is no way I would have even considered switching programs. 

I apparently beg existential crises to come my way. Well, whether or not that is true what is learned today is that there is hope for me. I needed that hope. 


The Princess Abdicated said...

I am glad that you know that you have had these experiences. Not the sadness but the realization of the Skills, and that you now know that the role playing in classes is not how you would really be as a therapist/counselor. I have faith in you and know that you will be good at whatever you do. You are an amazing person, and I am proud of you :)

mle said...

i think i would argue that while empathy cannot be "taught," it can be learned by example. as a parent, i have seen time and time again how respectful, warm engagements with children help them reflect those attitudes with their peers. while it might not be teachable per se, i think there is great promise for growing empathy in others when we model it ourselves. (i guess we could go on to discuss the fundamental nature of humankind, and whether we all have this innate capacity for other-love, or whether that is reserved for only the few...) anyway, i believe that children in particular are all capable of learning empathy. grownups, however, i cannot speak for universally. :)

i am interested to see where your journey takes you, heather!

a work in progress said...

Mle, I agree completely. Which sounds like I am contradicting what I wrote. But I think I would be remiss to say that empathy cannot be developed - because if it is only innate in a few then I am claiming essentially a world of sociopaths. Also I would be saying that people cannot grow and change - which I do not believe at all. If I did I have no right to work in any part of human services!
I think modeling is one of the key ways to nurture and develop all parts of our selves - especially for children. Grown ups have the responsibility to model love, grace, empathy and truth - to form the secure attachments that help children become and open up who they are both innately and by the influence of their world.
I also know in therapy that a good therapist, like mine actually, is a surrogate that holds the space where you can re-learn a lot of interpersonal skills, over come a lot of emotional fractures and develop your empathy and ultimately experience of life. Of course friends do that as well, but differently. And parents, well ideally that is what you get in the first place. Ideally being a sad term to use - I wish this were more universal.
As for therapists and empathy, I think it is hard for me to explain what I mean and still make sense. What happens in the therapy room and what the therapist needs to come with has an innate quality. It can be developed, but it is, I think a type of empathy that a lot of people have, but is also given to some people to use for this task. I think we are all made for our callings - as parents, partners, professionals etc.
I think that for a therapist their empathy does need to be honed in a certain way so that they can sit with a person in their deepest despair and have a truly intersubjective experience. I am not claiming that I have that - which is where the development does definitely come in.
But I think it is what I was meant to do, be in the presence of other people's stories and experience the privilege of hearing the sacred parts of their lives. And through that of course my empathy will deepen. Because the more humanity you encounter the more human you become. (which i think makes sense)

I also know plenty of people, I consider you one, who have that same brand of empathy if you will, who are not professional counselors. So I guess it isn't field-specific.

I don't mean to sound at all like I am back pedaling, because I do think empathy comes in different ways. It is probably judgmental of me to say that though. I see the development of others, and of myself, and I think that while what we are witnessing in class is not really what the client will experience (I hope!) it is still a small window into that.

I think now that my response is as long as my blog, I will stop.
Thanks for writing this. I really appreciate it.

Stephanie said...

Wow--and all I do is complain about stress! I wish I was half so articulate and verbose. :)

I think you make lots of excellent points, H. I think that some people truly have a heart for service such as this and you are one of them--whether ultimately you end up a school counselor or an MFT, only you can make that decision. But either way you will knock everyone's socks off!

mle said...

that was really beautifully put, heather. i am happy to be in the presence of your story, however the ending may reveal itself.

About Me

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Portland, OR, United States
I am a daughter, sister, friend, wife, counselor and colleague. I am a work in progress. There may be some pieces out of place and things might be messy, but it's okay. I would rather accept that I am still unfinished than think that this is it. You can find my comments on faith and spirituality on my blog: And my comments and anecdotes on life at:

Books That Matter. Well, some of the many that matter.

  • Magical Shrinking: Stumbling Through Bipolar Disorder, Chris Wells
  • Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • An Abudance of Katherines, John Green
  • Dave Pelzer
  • Franny & Zooey, J.D. Salinger
  • I Was Told There'd Be Cake, Sloane Crosley
  • The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris
  • The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, Daniel J. Siegel