20 years ago, I found myself working in the wilderness with “troubled teens”.
It wasn’t the job that lured me, because I had never heard of the kind of work that I was doing until I was doing it. It was incredibly difficult work, being exposed to the wilderness environment for 8-46 days at a stretch, with no “off shift”, entirely exposed to the challenges that 10-12 teenagers can bring… 24 hours a day, with no building or external “out”.
I learned to trust my team, to build rapport, to instill confidence even when I felt weak, anxious, or disconnected. I learned that physical presence, in the face of physical threat, has almost nothing to do with how big or strong you are… and everything to do with how you carry yourself and how you communicate. I learned that these “troubled teens”, so many of them, weren’t really the family member that needed the intervention; but that my work with them could absolutely be powerful, transformative.
I learned that direct feedback, to my clients, my co-instructors, and to me, is absolutely how people can grow quickly, can practice new behaviors, and how we challenge our own thoughts and patterns.
That first expedition led to several years of work in the wilderness. I fell in love with the work, with the teams with which I had the pleasure to serve, and I knew then that I had to go back to school to study to be a counselor.
Then, I joined “the field of counseling and social services”. My experiences as a wilderness therapy instructor, working for weeks on end, in incredibly challenging situations, drawing strength from my co-workers, and relying on my program managers in the front-country support roles… that was about as far from one can be from another.
What I found in the field of traditional, community-based practices were things that I won’t speak about in this message, but let me say that the difference was night and day.
Paycheck over passion.
Control over collaboration.
Hubris over humility…
20 years into the mental health field, over 10 years licensed or registered, and having worked across the country, across the field (social services, corrections, wilderness therapy, tribal health, low-fee downtown centers, psychological assessment clinics, on-call emergency response, disaster services, crisis intervention teams, university counseling centers, and private practice), doctoral researcher, as a board approved clinical supervisor, university professor, rural tribal healthcare executive leader, national conference presenter, and now as a full-time consultant and trainer… what I know now…
Do what it takes to get through, because you will come up against gatekeepers, and often.. there’s no way around them. You have to endure them, you must outlast them.
Seek out those that inspire you, truly teach you, and those who keep the flame alive in their lives. Remember why you started this in the first place. Never lose that passion. Kindle the flame inside yourself.
Find your niche.
Yes, you’ve got to take this or that class, complete x amount of cookie-cutter Continuing Education courses, and if you work for an agency or accept insurance in your practice… then you’ve got an ever-increasing amount of documentation and corporate policies… but, that’s the price you pay to practice your calling.
If it’s not working for you, and you wonder why you go to that job every day… don’t! Put in your notice and get out of there. Go where you need to go.
Don’t wait for others. In most cases, they won’t be there for you. You’re the one who wants change in your life, so you’re the one who needs to drive it. It’s yours to do, your race to run… and, as great as it would be to see a finish line filled with fans, friends, and a ticker tape finish… it’ll likely just be you, all alone at the finish line. And, if it means enough to you to run this course, then that’s enough for you.
There are some epic, great supervisors and professors out there, and a lot more that are fiercely protecting their turf. Don’t ask permission from your supervisors. They aren’t there to give permission… not for your growth, whether you’re at university or at your community mental health agency. They are there to enforce standards, not possibilities. Never confuse limitations with potential.
Don’t expect your peers and fellows to understand where you’re going. It’s probably not where they’re going. Yes... Reach out and seek counsel from those who inspire you, but don’t expect someone to understand your path. We each have a hard enough time understanding our own lives, much less to understand the motivations of another person… and beware of the counsel or anyone who pretends this isn’t the case, that they know better than you.
Don’t expect support. Don’t expect praise. Expect that you’ll raise eyebrows.
It’s a big world out there.
If you’re not where you want to be, then it’s time to make a plan to implement change. Get out. Go. If you aren’t willing to stand up when your time comes, to step into the fray, or to make the move when your opening arrives… then, how will you counsel others to do the same? We aren’t here to be comfortable. Our lives are short. We’re all going to die, and none of us knows when that day will come. Each day is a new chance to stand up and be counted.
Your clients don’t need the standard answer. They can get that from Wikipedia or pop-psychology. They want to see you as the rogue psychotherapist, who holds them accountable, who inspires them, who brings tears into session, brings fire and compassion in your very soul… they want the best of you. The world needs you to be the: scientist, healer, cheerleader, advocate, renegade, sounding board, comforter, rally leader, contrarian, peacemaker, and communicator that you always wanted to be.
You don’t need permission. Make a plan, get started, see how things go and make changes as needed, and become that master of your practice.
You’ve got one life, and this is your moment.
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