These days, when I’m not working with clients, I find myself spending more time in my home woodshop, a place where I feel free, creative, expansive and courageous. In spite of this, it is also a place where I have made plenty of half-hearted attempts and experienced numerous failures.
Recently, I have noticed several meaningful connections between the art of therapy and the art of woodwork. I have a profound love and admiration for both of these pursuits. They have both challenged me in manifold ways and exposed me to growth experiences.
Allow me to further explain. I love working with reclaimed wood — that is, wood that has been used before in another capacity. Reclaimed wood tends to be old and scarred. It is often discolored from weathering and the simple fact that it has existed in the world for years. For this reason alone, much of it ends up in the landfill. Some people might describe reclaimed wood as “unworkable” or “not worth it” or “no good.”
I have seen that people can be like this reclaimed wood. Their years in the world and their experiences often leave them marked, hardened or scarred in certain ways. They can even come to think of themselves in the same terms that get applied to reclaimed wood: “I’m no good.”
My primary task as a counselor is to see past this patina, weathering and scar tissue left by old traumas. Often with clients, I can clearly see their potential, but they cannot … at first. Sometimes I need to hold their potential in my mind until they can see it. This is often as vital as establishing rapport — maintaining a solid belief in the client’s intrinsic value, beauty and purpose in life, even when the client can’t.
The first thing you need to know about any wood is that as long as it’s not rotten, then it has beauty and purpose left to offer the world. Because my belief is that no person is ever truly rotten, I operate from the assumption that all people have this beauty and purpose just waiting to be discovered and expressed in their lives. This assumption is not born of unrealistic naïveté but rather of my actual experience of working with clients in the counseling profession. A big part of my task is simply to help my clients rediscover their beauty and purpose.
The second thing you need to know about wood, especially battered and bruised wood, is that sanding it can make a world of difference. Another way of saying this is that helping to smooth out the rough edges can work miracles. But let me tell you bluntly, if you don’t like sanding, then you won’t like woodworking.
So it is with my profession. If one doesn’t like working to help people smooth out their rough edges, then one won’t like being a counselor. From my perspective, the first way we go about removing a rough edge is to learn better communication skills. This skill can transform yelling, cursing and sullen withdrawal into “I feel” statements and assertive feedback. We help clients learn how to express themselves so that others can and will hear them, and that opens the door to greater mutual understanding. Just as sanding the wood makes it more pleasing to touch, better communication makes whatever a person has to say more accessible and easier to receive for the listener. When we remove harsh angles or tones, the overall experience becomes smoother.
Counseling and woodwork require a remarkably similar approach. Over the years, I have discovered that I do my best work in the woodshop when I approach the art with humility, patience and few if any judgments about what I “should” be doing. Conversely, when I approach my woodwork or my clients with frustration, impatience or hidden agendas, the work gets tends to stall and get bogged down. Thus, the hidden truth of success as a woodworker or counselor lies less in specific technique and more in how one shows up to each encounter. So, I strive to live my life in such a way that I can show up for my clients and practice my craft with skill.
Patience did not come naturally to me. I had to practice … a lot. And I have gotten better at it. In both counseling and woodwork, an old saying holds value: One can either do it quickly or well … but not both. So, it holds true again that specific techniques are less important in both disciplines than having patience and awareness of my own emotional state as I engage in the process.
This leads us to another noble truth about these pursuits: There is no substitute for the process of trial and error. There is no 60-minute class that will lead to mastery of woodwork once the hour has concluded. Likewise, there is no miracle intervention I can offer to clients to make them get well. Practice makes the master, and this is the case in counseling. Developing skillful means in woodworking, counseling or one’s life requires the same elements: desire, courage, the proper tools and a tolerance for discomfort, diligence and flexibility.
Our culture places a high value on giving advice. Although I do provide skills training and psychoeducation as a counselor, I rarely provide advice to clients. I have found that advice is often given to manage the speaker’s anxiety rather than to assist the listener. This is no different in the counselor-client relationship. Counselors can fall into the trap of needing to “fix,” or being the expert. Then we may dole out advice and thereby attend to our need to be competent rather than attending to our clients. Even a master woodworker’s instruction alone cannot turn another person into a master woodworker. Only many hours in the shop can produce a master.
Rather than giving advice, I try to offer clients an experience in which they can experiment with new modes of thinking, feeling and being. I provide a safe place to conduct these experiments and inquiries into the nature of self. This is what my woodshop offers to me: a safe place to try and to fail, to learn and to grow.
After such experimentation, trial and error, frustration and retooling, the client decides what works well and what doesn’t for his or her particular context and values. Whether working with humans or old wood, what works well and what doesn’t becomes clear in time. So, ideally, we will begin to apply the lessons of any given experience to the next experience coming up. That is called growth and change.
Sometimes in session or in the woodshop, I find myself going back to old habits. I get impatient; I have an agenda. Each time I have this experience and become dissatisfied with the results, I am less likely to duplicate it in the future.
To revisit a theme I mentioned earlier, my discipline becomes less about figuring out what is “wrong” with clients or how to “fix” them and becomes more about caring for myself so that I may be present with people when the time comes. I do my best woodwork when I am curious, patient and attentive to conditions in real time. I always start with a vision and some idea of direction, but I remain flexible enough to take in new information and change course if that is indicated. Working with clients is exactly the same. I never know what may come up, so I remain fluid in my approach.
In woodworking, people often mistake hard work for talent. In my case, I started off with very little talent for the art itself, but my diligence and practice paid off. The first time I tried to make dados with a router, it was a miserable failure (forgive the shop talk). The 10th time I tried it, it went pretty well. I am proud to be a novice woodworker because it means I have so much wonderful learning ahead of me.
Likewise, in counseling, talent has little to do with success and results; hard work has everything to do with success and results. If we are developing, for example, the skill of holding boundaries with other people, it is likely that we will have great difficulty doing so initially. However, it is highly unlikely that this will be difficult to do the 100th time we attempt it. By the 1,000th time, we no longer try to hold boundaries; we hold boundaries. After trying to route dados dozens of times, I longer attempt it; I simply do it. It’s become a skill instead of a challenge.
Clients do this same thing over and over in counseling. They turn challenges into skill sets that they become confident in using. Whether I’m in the woodshop or the client is in my office, as our skills sets increase, the possibilities of what we can achieve also increase.
I like to build simple furniture such as coffee tables and farmhouse benches. I also like to help my clients assemble new selves from all the various pieces they have been working on. A bench is assembled one piece and one step at a time. Each piece requires a certain skill set to complete. And so must a client work on communication first, and then emotional awareness and literacy, and then distress tolerance or emotional regulation, and then boundaries, and so on and so forth (or this order could be completely different).
Whatever path the client takes, once these pieces have been developed, they can be assembled and integrated into something — or someone — that is greater than the sum of its parts … just as the bench is greater than the old, landfill-bound individual pieces of wood that compose it. Having done this hard work, in no way has the fundamental character of the wood or the client been altered. We have simply cleared away the obstacles blocking a full realization of the inherent potential contained within.
To paraphrase what Michelangelo famously said about his statue David, the sculpture was inside the marble all along; he just had to clear away whatever was incongruous to David. A person’s beauty and purpose have been there all along. As counselors, we simply work to clear away what prevents that beauty and purpose from being realized and expressed.
Peter Allen is the program director for College Excel (collegeexcel.com) in Bend, Oregon. The company helps college-bound young adults who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and executive functioning deficits to succeed academically. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.