“My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue, an everlasting vision of the ever-changing view.” ~ Carole King
Summertime often brings opportunities to gather with family and friends. Over grilled goodies and cold beverages, we wallow away the hours, reminiscing of old and fabricating new visions and ventures. It was during one such event that the conversation turned toward the topics of careers, financial advisers and retirement.
My husband and I have differing views around the idea of retirement. He has wanted to live a life of leisure from the time I met him in his early 30s. I, however, have fallen madly and hopelessly in love with my vocation and can’t imagine a life without a clinical practice … or academic appointment … or literary presence … or speaking opportunities … or … Well, you get the idea. I am smitten.
When asked why I am so devoted to the cause, however, I fumble and stammer. “Well, we help people! And there’s never a dull moment. And …” — I finally concede — “I don’t actually know.”
After meditating on the question, I have arrived at six possible answers (beyond the obvious altruism of the craft):
1) Diversity. My counseling career extends over several decades and has taken me from work in geriatrics to hospice care and bereavement. As a young counselor, my elderly and terminal clients offered me wisdom around aging well and examining life fulfillment. I have made midnight runs, pumping with adrenaline, as I responded to survivors of rape and we attempted to untangle the multiple violations they had experienced, both from their perpetrators and the systems designed to help survivors. I have gone into school systems and witnessed an entire faculty and administration rally around young children whose home lives left an abysmal track of trauma and abuse. I have watched couples choose to remain together despite a breach of vows. I have witnessed the selfless act of a young mother relinquishing her parental rights in an attempt to offer her newborn baby a life that she could not provide while struggling with addiction. I have counseled in clinics, hospitals and hospices and, over the past decade, have settled into a more routine private practice. Each placement offered me rich and varied clientele, experiences and life lessons.
2) Flexibility. Counseling requires flexibility. Agendas are fluid and cocreated with the client. And let’s face it … you never know what your client will present in session. So we wait in anticipation, realizing that counseling is a dance perfected between therapist and client, but that each client brings her or his own footwork to the session. The counselor must be versed in a variety of dance steps and be willing to freestyle when it is appropriate.
In addition to the flexible nature of the counseling session, counseling hours are rarely 9-to-5. Instead, being a counselor often requires evening or weekend availability. It’s hardly a banker’s workday; we must be prepared to navigate inconsistent schedules that may include a crisis call or hospitalization. At the same time, not being locked down by a set schedule also allows for an occasional two-hour lunch with an old friend, a midday stroll, a hair appointment or even a nap.
3) Contemplative practice. I don’t know of any other career that promotes (requires) reflexivity. We are encouraged to “do our own work” and continue to examine the dynamics that occur in the counseling session. We process our feelings and thoughts not only in relation to our clients but also around our personal experiences that are occurring simultaneously. Is our countertransference therapeutically employed or hindering the therapeutic alliance? Have we devoted time to our own processes?
I remember coming home one night following a very long day and beginning a processing session (de-identifying my clients, of course) with my husband the engineer. We have been married long enough for him to know that he is not being asked to FIX anything when I process. However, at the end of my discourse, my husband just shook his head and asked, “Doesn’t all this thinking tire you out?” I laughed and responded, “No, it’s actually one of the things I love most about my work!” As Irvin Yalom wrote in his novel The Spinoza Problem, “[Counseling] is a strange field because, unlike any other field of medicine, you never really finish. Your greatest instrument is you, yourself, and the work of self-understanding is endless.”
4) Community. It is true: We counselors are a curious people. As such, we benefit from other similar-minded and like-hearted folks. We seek each other out through conferences, workshops and supervision. Through the years, our practices and the clients we serve also become extensions of our community. After all, we journey with our clients during their most vulnerable times, including in the aftermath of cancer diagnoses, struggles with substance abuse, marital affairs, deaths, divorces and other instances of devastation. We create community in the most unlikely of places through our work on disaster teams and travel to locations where unspeakable traumatic events have occurred. We are experts at building community.
5) Creativity. The field of counseling is broad enough to embrace the creative in practice. Counselors welcome the creative, as evidenced by the fact that I will be presenting workshops on “Superhero Therapy 101” and “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Nature-Enhanced Counseling” at the Association for Creativity in Counseling’s national conference in September. (The Association for Creativity is a division of the American Counseling Association.)
In addition to a slew of creative practices, our clinical canvas includes other modalities of service to the field that may include mentoring and supervising neophyte counselors. It is a privilege to be part of the skill-building of hope-generating newbies whose desire to help others supersedes their own discomfort around presenting their clinical work in class.
Furthermore, opportunities exist to contribute to the field through research, writing and presentions at conferences. And if that isn’t enough, there is a plethora of administrative and advocacy roles to serve the many affiliations that support the counseling field. This profession offers endless creative avenues for practice and service.
6) Mystery. Psychologist, researcher, author and educator Kenneth Pargament, in his book Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred, wrote, “Spirituality is an extraordinary part of the ordinary lives of people. … It manifests in life’s turning points, revealing mystery and depth. … It is interwoven into the fabric of the everyday. We can find it in music, the smile of a passing stranger, the color of the sky at dusk or a daily prayer of gratitude upon awakening.”
Although counselors employ strong evidence-based standards of practice, pastoral counselors (in particular) are cognizant of the mystery in our work and in the therapeutic process. That mystery can be found in the experience of when, having exhausted all tools in the clinical toolbox and feeling incredibly ineffective, a random question pops into your head. Having nothing to lose, you pose the question to your client, which results in a flood of emotional release (or an epiphany of sorts) that propels the session toward healing.
The counseling experience is filled with the unknown and the sacred — mysteries of interaction between human and divine. It is that experience of mystery that I have trusted when positioned with a client in the cesspool of tragedy and despair, knowing that the light will shine … eventually … again.
Counseling has served me well over the past 25 years. I embrace counseling and counselor education as vocations filled with integrity, diversity, flexibility, community and creativity. Counseling is a field that promotes continued personal growth as well as professional competence and humility. Counseling recognizes the beautiful mystery that at times transcends logic.
A colleague described her experience as a counselor as “a quilt of many shades and hues that converge together in a beautiful tapestry.” It is a tapestry of many threads, woven over time and accommodating the varied fabrics of a lifetime — of my lifetime. Retirement? I think not, for I have only just begun!
Why do you enjoy being a counselor? Let me know. And don’t forget to stop by the Association for Creativity in Counseling 2017 Conference, Sept. 8-9, in Clearwater Beach, Florida, and visit me at “Superhero Therapy 101” and “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Nature-Enhanced Counseling.”
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. She will be presenting “Superhero Therapy 101” and “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Nature-Enhanced Counseling” at the Association for Creativity in Counseling Conference in September. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.