I’ve never liked being viewed as an expert but I do enjoy being interviewed by students. To those training in the healing and helping professions, I’m a cool old guy who has been doing this stuff since the nineties, which to most of them was a long ago period involving playgrounds.
I got to spend some time with an especially lovely student recently. He’s so young, handsome, anxious to learn and to get things right. We could have spent all day talking without running out of things to say. After he left I remembered an email interview I did with another student last semester that includes a lot of advice I wanted to share with him and to all who seek to serve others (brand new or otherwise):
Please know that you are supposed to be scared shitless every time you start something new. I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to be scared. For future reference, everything you feel is okay. It’s how you deal with it that matters. Don’t. Do. It. Alone. Enjoy brief periods of solitude. Beyond that, what you need to do alone should be limited to things that occur in a bathroom.
First and foremost: as you serve others, you have to be really, really, real. If you’re less than authentic, it’s just no good. If you serve people in recovery (whether from trauma, addiction, or other heinous shit that happens to people) you should know that we can read you like a book. Be less than genuine and you’re just another talking head who may mean well but is ineffective, which is a particularly empty experience.
Never judge anyone unless they take pleasure from hurting others who do not consent.
Reality Check: You have to get as healthy as you can emotionally, mentally, and most of all, spiritually. You need to have some sense of what you believe and be reasonably comfortable with it.
Ideal: At your best, you will be completely in the moment, without an agenda, without set ideas about where things need to go. This leaves you open to countless possibilities.
You must maintain empathy, which means you will at times connect to your own pain. We are all wounded healers. Visualize placing your pain on a shelf just long enough to help those before you. Then go back for it at the end of the day.
Always trust what you sense intuitively, especially when it’s time to point people toward truth they’re afraid to see.
If your client is lying to themselves, get some steal toe boots and lovingly kick their ass.
For God’s sake do not take yourself too seriously and seek every opportunity to laugh with those you serve.
Notice when you’re being a hypocrite – when you’re giving advice you don’t take and then take it. No one puts the guidance of a hypocrite into practice.
Journal, blog, write. Even if it’s bad poetry, write.
Take time off frequently. Burn out is a constant threat that deserves your respect.
Go to therapy. Always go to therapy. Before, during, and after, go to therapy.
Develop kick ass self care plans and actually do them – not just nice ideas with good intentions- things you habitually do.
Cope. You bear witness to suffering and you must not absorb it. Learn how to stand by the fire without getting burned. Empty yourself of what you inevitably internalize – the imagery, the painful words, and the sound of gut wrenching sobs – empty it all in writing, with colleagues, in art, in prayer. Empty it.
Learn from every person you ever serve.
Don’t focus on text books or self help books. Read the Tao Te Ching. Read Marianne Williamson, Mary Pipher, Brenee Brown, James Frey, and Tom Robbins, Read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and everything Narcotics Anonymous has ever published. Collect stories from your clients’ healing and pass them along as inspiration to others.
Discover what each individual is passionate about. Learn about them on their terms and in their language. Honor whatever they believe and help them utilize their beliefs as a means of healing.
Speak powerfully. Never speak like a social worker. If something fucking sucks, don’t refer to it as a “challenge.” Call a spade a spade.
Hug people. People need hugs.
When you find healthy people in the field do not ever lose track of them. You will need them and they, you.