the longest lesson

There are few things I appreciate more than a really good question.

You know, that moment when someone inquires or speaks in such a way that the entire conversation shifts to something that touches the experience of being human. I often lean in closer, unable to contain my interest in where the answer might go. I live for those moments.

I suppose it is a good (and necessary) thing that I enjoy the act of questions and dialogue – this is much of what goes into becoming a therapist in the first place.

Oprah has this fantastic question that she has used when filming her Super Soul Sunday series. During interviews, she will skillfully ask, “So, tell me, in your life what has been the lesson that has taken the longest to learn?

Uh, BRILLIANT.

This question is striking because it is asking so much more than what appears on the surface. Essentially, this question is asking about what life has taught you. When you boil it all down, what have you had to endure to learn (usually again, and again, and again)?

When interviewing Julia Roberts last fall, the actress responded in such a profound way that I could barely contain myself. She shared that the life lesson for her was, “…that I think, we as people or as women, or me as myself, who I am in this world, that I had to make myself less for someone else to feel more of whatever that thing was.”

I think the dynamic quality of this question is that it reminds us that we are more similar than different. I would guess that most of us have actually had to learn similar sorts of things – sure, we might use different language or words to describe the actual experience, but if you’re talking about identity, love, feeling worthy or enough, or whatever it might be, chances are someone else has had to journey through that as well.

I wonder, too, if what we learn changes. Is what I have had to learn over and over again now going to be the same as when I am, say, seventy? I suppose I don’t really know.

The lesson I have had to learn repeatedly so far, across multiple domains of my life is this:

I am loved just as I am. I don’t have to do anything to earn it. I don’t have to be someone I am not. And, most importantly, I don’t have to give parts of myself away to find love.

This has been my life lesson – one that I have been learning a long time.

In elementary school I was afraid to share with friends that I liked country music – I thought that if I was honest, they wouldn’t like me. Though I found my niche as an athlete in high school, I feared that if I dressed to much “like a boy” then I wouldn’t be able to keep the friends I had. Later in life, I felt that I had to serve and give to be valuable. In this context, love was no longer love – it was transactional. And of course, for a long time I hid my own sexual identity, fearful that if I was honest about who I was, then I would be rejected and no longer worthy of love – whether it be from family, friends, acquaintances, or broader society.

Breaking through these barriers has been a big, big deal. Today, I am continuing to find the power of being honest, speaking my truth, and not molding myself to what I think others might want of me. When I do acts of service it is because I want to, not because I have to. While the difference is subtle, it is incredibly important. This work is extraordinarily challenging, however, when I actually do it, I feel like the most powerful woman in the world. When I am honest, genuine, authentic and still know that I am loved (and that I am enough), there is a small spark that fills my body.

This is what it feels like to take up space and to not apologize for it.

So, what is that thing for you? What is the lesson that has taken the longest to learn?

In all likelihood, you (we) are still learning it. That is the beautiful journey of life: always learning, always growing.

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Growing & Learning (a lot)

I started graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) about 6 months ago. It is just the beginning of what will be a long (but significant) journey; my schooling (inclusive of practicum and internship) will last over three years, then, for two years I will work under supervision before I can become officially licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

I joined UCD’s Counseling Program specifically because of the program’s multicultural focus, fusing psychological approaches with specific cultural contexts for people of all backgrounds.

Originally, a few years ago, I had thought I had wanted to be a social worker.

Post-Peace Corps, I applied to the University of Denver, got in (twice) and subsequently decided that I didn’t want to fork over that much money simply to be qualified to help people.

There was more too – I realized that while social work is an incredible profession – creating ways for individuals to access important resources – I wanted to help individuals, groups, and communities in a more relationally focused way. I started researching and exploring and found that counseling was a great fit for my interests and skillsets.

Social workers work within systems, usually matching services for the needs of a client.

Counseling, however, provides treatment (often in the realm of mental health) for clients in a setting that prioritizes a professional relationship so that a person can slowly heal, grow, and become fully empowered in their life. I like to think of this more positively; instead of focusing on a person’s shortfalls, a lot of constructive change can occur when a person knows (and uses) the assets and strengths they hold. Leveraging these, I’m learning, is a powerful way to pursue health and wellness.

Upon starting my program, I was ready to learn about the ins and outs of counseling, therapy modalities, and techniques to use when working in therapeutic settings. I had a vision for the kind of therapist/counselor I wanted to be – one that worked with individuals from different trauma backgrounds (like refugees), cultures, and age groups.

As with any formidable learning opportunity, already a lot has changed.

My coursework has challenged me; I have had to confront my own bias’s, beliefs, opinions, assumptions, and understandings about people. In just a handful classes, I have also re-explored some of my own past to understand better why I do what I do. In doing so, I can see where some of my perspectives have come from, and while I can hold onto these, I must also see where my blind-spots exist, too.

You see, what I forgot to consider in starting my path as a counselor-trainee was that I would need to continue to do “work” with myself. After all, without self-awareness and knowledge of self, how can I possibly begin to help the clients I work with in the future? As a result, It feels like the door has opened and that this journey has brought far more emotional healing than I could have otherwise found. That has been a pleasant surprise.

I have also felt overwhelmed at my interest areas, not unlike a child in a store filled with candy:

Do I want to focus on trauma? How can I use narrative therapy? What if I want to work with older adults? Can I specialize in working with LGBTQ+ populations? Do I want to work in an agency or focus on private practice?

 The questions have felt endless, but I do believe this is ultimately a really necessary step within a much larger process. I am beginning to filter through where and how I will work. I mean – how cool is that?

In the meantime, I am learning to be kinder to myself, to let myself dream, to imagine what my profession will be like as I learn, and to enter it all with fearlessness, grace, and patience. It isn’t easy – but it is necessary.

Here’s to growing, learning, and doing it all with some humor, sass, and fun.

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