Vulnerability. I am bad at it. As a recovering perfectionist, I seek to embrace my vulnerability rather than reject it (or at the very least I try). I have learned in my personal and professional life that vulnerability breeds authenticity, creativity, and growth. But make no mistake–this is not easy.
Being a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor is one of my favorite professional roles. I love aiding new counselors in their professional development, and I am honored to learn from them as well. One thing I ask—that they be honest. Honest about their victories and milestones as well as the times they goofed up. This vulnerability not only protects them professionally by ensuring they seek consultation but it also facilitates self-awareness and growth. It makes them, and me, better at our job. And since we want the same for our clients we are responsible for living what we teach.
So in the name of vulnerability (and perhaps humor) I have decided to share three of my biggest “Oops” moments as a counselor. After all, as a recovering perfectionist I must embrace my imperfection. So here goes:
The time with the throw up
I spent most of my early career at a residential childcare facility where I facilitated Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) alongside my good friend, Reccia Jobe. This particular story involves our work with an avoidant and sometimes passive aggressive teen. She was, at times, resistant to counseling. To be fair, counseling was difficult for her as it is for many. In EAP, the focus revolves around building a healthy, safe connection with a horse. If your insides don’t match your outsides the horse can tell, and he won’t trust you. Because it confronted her relational issues head on, we felt this was the perfect intervention.
We picked our client up for her session and, unsurprisingly, she did not want to attend. She told us she was sick. Did we listen? Nope. We brought her to the horse barn anyway and preceded to confront her avoidant behavior (i.e. I lectured). I explained that we understood counseling was hard but it was important for her to be honest so we could work through the hard stuff. She glares and me, turns to Reccia, and asks, “so where can I throw up?” To which Reccia replies, “It’s a horse barn you can throw up wherever you want”. Our client then proceeds to throw up all over ground and her shoes. I believe my next words were something like, “I owe you an apology”.
It’s fair to say this was a much needed, humbling lesson for me. I was too quick to assume that I knew better than my client. The good news is that this story has a happy ending. This client continued in counseling with me for several months, and we grew very close. In our last session we recalled this story with laughter, and I asked her if I could continue to share it as it was such a valuable learning experience for me.
The time with the power struggle
This one is hard to recall. Not because it was so long ago but because I cringe thinking about it. I was working with two siblings alongside another facilitator doing ropes course work. This was not intended to be therapy. It was intended to help the siblings connect, work together, and create positive memories.
We had decided (or maybe it was just me since I know it all) that the pair would start with ground initiatives and work toward high ropes activities. I thought this would give them small challenges to build on while giving them something to look forward to. The older sibling thought my ground games were stupid. She refused to participate and only wanted to do the fun stuff—the high elements. Obviously since I knew best I would not compromise and insisted they start on the ground. Looking back, I’m not sure what I was trying to accomplish. I think maybe I wanted to create boundaries and challenge her out of her comfort zone. But really it was probably that she triggered me in some way (definite vulnerability). I dug in my heels and so did she. As a result, I accomplished nothing other than stealing a fun experience from both her and her younger brother.
Once our time ended I immediately knew I had messed up. I was able to process this with my very patient co-facilitator and reconcile with both siblings. I’m not sure I ever really recovered with these kids though. Sigh. . .
The time when I lied (gasp)
This last one is probably the most difficult for me in terms of vulnerability. I was an LPC-Intern at the time and had only been working at my organization about 5 months. I was barely scratching the surface and my perfectionism was in full swing. I was ending my session with an adolescent girl. Right as we were parting she turned to me and asked a very personal question. The kind of question I was hoping to forever avoid (I’ll have to leave it at that since I’m still working on this vulnerability thing). I became flustered and did the first thing that came to mind. I lied. I was triggered to the point of complete regression. What made things worse is that she knew I lied. I knew she knew I lied. Despite this, I kept lying anyway to convince her I wasn’t lying. Worst counselor moment ever!
After she left I immediately contacted by LPC-Supervisor (who was also my boss at the time) and asked for a meeting ASAP. My assumption was that I might be fired and my client would never trust again. Our conversation, however, was full of grace. We discussed my botched reaction and where it came from. We then worked out a plan for reconciliation with my client. We even discussed scripts to use in the future for when I am caught off guard (and I use them still)!
I began the next meeting with my client by apologizing and telling the truth. It was a great exercise in how to be genuine while also holding professional boundaries. Her response? “Geez ma’am, it’s not like you started World hunger!” Wow did I feel egocentric. After agonizing all week and believing I ruined my client and my career she immediately moved on.
Counselors are human. We are going to mess up. These are only three examples, and chances are I have messed up many more without even knowing. The beauty of mess ups is that they give us a chance to increase self-awareness, practice humility, reconcile our mistakes, and provide valuable learning experiences for ourselves and our clients. If we are not messing up, trying new things, getting it wrong, and sinking into our vulnerability and discomfort then we might not be growing. I think I’d rather grow than pretend to be perfect.