Lessons I Learned As A School Counselor

Lessons I Learned As A School Counselor

There is not a day that passes that I don’t think of one of my old students. Sometimes I see a teen that bears a resemblance and that triggers a memory. Or, I look at social media and one of them has posted a picture that elicits a smile or a cringe.  On rare occasions, I receive a sweet note of gratitude. More often, however, it’s in the quiet moments that I find myself remembering. Remembering the connection. And missing it. 

I remember the time my 11th grade academic support class awaited my arrival in a circle on the classroom floor with all the desks pushed to the edges. This was my male dominated class with 14 males and 4 females and they were sitting in a circle waiting for me.

I remember the 10th grade circle that made me weep as I witnessed the most authentic displays of compassion between students as they shared their struggles with their families and mental health.

I remember the tangents the students would take during discussions just to see how far off topic I would go. Miles and miles it turned out.

I had teachers and fellow counselors tell me that my “circles” would never work.  

Teens, especially males, won’t want to share in front of their peers.

School is for learning and academics, not warm and fuzzies.

“Those” kids are difficult and don’t care about school.

I ignored the warnings. I dismissed the criticisms. Instead, I held each student to the highest standard and expectation. Regardless of the failed classes, drug and alcohol use, poor behavior, lacking social skills, risky decisions, or poor self-control, I expected their best version, as best as they could muster on that day. Days varied. Mistakes happened. Successes achieved. All were celebrated.

There’s a lot of research and focus around resiliency and the strongest predictors of success: grit, growth mindset, adverse childhood experiences, past success, self control, ability to delay gratification, self esteem, and conscientiousness to name a few. I believe there’s value and truth in every one of these traits and/or factors. 

In my twenty years of working with youth, I have come to believe that there is not just ONE answer or ONE method. There isn’t a neat box that each youth fits into or one specific protocol to follow. The buzz word in the educational realm is best practices. Research based best practices. In the world of psychology, “best practices” is more nebulous and highly subjective, in my humble opinion.

 My “best practices” was different for every student. I met each student where he or she was. I didn’t expect an Algebra 1 student to miraculously take Calculus the following year. Nor did I believe that the chronically absent student would attend every day. But I expected growth. Because I believe that we are all capable of growth when given the space, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and resources needed. Growth happens at frustratingly varied rates, but it happens.

Just a few years ago, I received the most lovely and thoughtful gift in the mail from a former student. It was a Yoda patch with the saying, “There is no try. There is only do or do not.” I said that line to my students a thousand times a year, if not more. (Often I attempted Yoda’s voice, which sadly sounded more like Kermit the frog.)

I couldn’t “try” to believe in my students. I had to DO it. Most of my students had lost hope in themselves. They failed to see their light, their brilliance. With so many setbacks and disappointments, it was easier and safer for them to expect failure.  

I understood and I listened to the litany of reasons as to why failure was imminent and fated. I kindly agreed to disagree. Embedded within the job description of school counselor (and therapist), comes the unique and difficult task of maintaining hope and finding alternatives in dire situations. School counseling is not for the faint at heart. Working with youth never is. It was brutal some days – and I’m not just talking about the mistakes made by the students; I topped the charts with some cringe-worthy whoppers. Counselors are human too, after all. I don’t have a road map with the location of a unicorn carrying the happy, perfectly adjusted teen.

I do have one piece of advice, however. It has to do with Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard. According to Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard creates an environment that allows for healthy development. Unconditional positive regard, “…means caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs,” explained in Rogers in a 1957 article published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology. “It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences.”

Simply stated, practicing unconditional positive regard means accepting and respecting others as they are without judgment or evaluation. You accept them, no matter what they say or do. You see them as a person, not a set of behaviors and operate under the assumption that they are doing the best that they can.

 I’ve compiled a few tips to help integrate more unconditional positive regard in your interactions with others:

 Expect people to have internal resources. 

How often do you assume that others don’t have the skills or knowledge to figure things out by themselves? How often do you give advice under the guise of being ‘helpful’? Did the person ask for advice? When we immediately move into “fix it ” mode, we risk sending the unintended message of “you aren’t qualified to handle this on you’re your own.” Teens especially get irritated and hurt by their parents’ good intentions.

Suspend judgment or bias. Begin to notice the lens through which you view others.  Notice if you’re picking out only the negative behaviors or choices of others and try the opposite. See others in a positive light regardless of whether or not you approve of their actions.

Listen without a soundtrack. Many times we think about our own similar experiences while someone else is talking. If we’re rehearsing what we’re going to say, is that listening? It might be interesting to clear your thoughts and focus on hearing what the other person is saying. This can deepen connections between people. To be truly heard feels great.

Allow others (and yourself) to be different. Notice how often you use the phrases ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘you’re wrong’ or ‘I’m wrong’. What if it’s just different? What would happen if you stopped seeing yourself and others in terms of right and wrong? This is about practicing self-compassion. Accepting and not judging your own mistakes helps remove judgment about others’ mistakes. 

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear from you. Questions? Comments? Concerns?

Nothing Compares? Meh.

Nothing Compares? Meh.

Parenting is relentless. An undo button – so helpful when playing a game of solitaire on a phone- is not available. Therefore, parenting blogs and instagram accounts are often a welcome respite from the day-to-day drudgery of motherhood. Some offer practical tips for natural wellness , healthy food choices and recipes. Others connect with moms on an emotional level providing much needed compassion, humor and empathy. If you find the right community, it can feel like a sisterhood or a tribe.

17 years ago, I needed that sisterhood but it was a couple of years too early.  So, I joined a mommy’s group. I filled the last spot of a group of eight. I can’t remember how I found the group. Maybe a friend of a friend told me? My ObGyn? I don’t remember much from those early days, in all honesty. Brain fog. I do remember being hopeful, however. Sure, I had friends to talk to, but none of them had children back then. I assumed that being with other moms would feel different and maybe lighten they burden from all my conflicting feelings.

How do I juggle work and home?

What about the changing relationship with my partner?

Is okay if I don’t love all aspects of being a mom?

Does anyone else feel bored being with her baby and then guilty?

Anyone else want her boobs back?

And what about the drudgery of the repetitive day?

I figured we’d connect as women and complain about motherhood together while our babies played. It would be the perfect combination.  These women would feel the same way I did.

Alas, I was WRONG. All of the women in the mommy group were lovely. They were intelligent, caring, and friendly. There was nothing wrong with any of them, and that was the problem. I felt like I was holding on by a thin thread, and they appeared perfectly blissful.

Motherhood is such a blessing.

Isn’t this the most incredible experience?

Breastfeeding is a miracle.

Don’t you just get lost watching them sleep?

Nothing they said resonated with me. In fact, it made me feel more alone.

They’d talk about the color, size, smell, and consistency of their babies’ poop. It wasn’t a three-minute conversation either. It was an in depth exploration of shit. 45 minutes of SHIT. I wasn’t interested. I could care less that my son’s shit was a little runnier than normal so I really didn’t want to listen about someone else’s shit. Once, two moms opened the diapers to compare colors. 

And the breastfeeding. Oh boy. Now, I’m not prude. I don’t mind seeing naked bodies or talking about the body. But, sitting in a circle with 6 out of 8 women breastfeeding and dripping milk wasn’t on my list of favorite things. So after about 5 or 6 meetings with this group, I politely excused myself. I made up a bullshit excuse so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings; something along the lines of – it’s not you, it’s me.

But, I should have said the truth. I should have told these women, “I don’t love the baby stage, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love my baby son something fierce. I’m leaving this group because I need more than SHIT talk. I’m looking for friendship and to get to know you all as women in addition to being mothers.”

In hindsight, had I been honest, the group probably would’ve rallied around me and we could have gotten to a different level. Maybe they could’ve helped me through that not so delightful stage and then I could’ve returned the favor. But, I was afraid to share my true feelings. I was afraid to be me. I was afraid of judgment.

Not anymore.

I don’t like the baby stage. Or the toddler stage.

Bring me your adolescents (ages 10-19). The more the attitude, the more I like. Obnoxiousness is not a problem. Bring on the sassy talk. I love watching a little being twist and turn and morph into a larger being. Many people look at me incredulously when I reveal my preference for the teen and tween. That’s okay! I feel that way when they gush over a baby. We’re all different and that’s the beauty of human nature and motherhood. The only “right way” is your way. Be you.

I’d love to hear your experiences with mommy groups or being a mom! Please comment below!

Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a badge of honor.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a badge of honor.

Over the years, I’ve heard people tell me that they’re “too emotional”. Usually, they say the word emotional as if it’s dirty, something to be avoided. Males especially, cringe at being labeled emotional or sensitive.

Why is being emotional synonymous with weakness?   

Feeling deeply is a good thing. The problem is that it doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes, it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable.  If experiencing emotions is painful, then how can someone who subjects himself/herself to this pain be weak?

I believe that feeling and expressing the emotions is incredibly brave. Brave and messy. (Brene Brown does an incredible job of unpacking emotional vulnerability and strength. She is a must read/watch.)

Why then, should you open yourself up to feel uncomfortable, anger, disgusted, hurt, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, etc…?

Because avoidance is a temporary solution. Feelings always come back. They settle inside of us and fester and create havoc.  Have you seen Disney’s Inside Out? It’s a wonderful example for people ALL ages on how emotions – fear, anger, joy, disgust, and sadness – work in concert to affect us. Researchers have discovered that people who experience “emodiversity,” or a multitude of both positive and negative emotions, have better mental health.

Plus, pretending that our feelings don’t exist only reinforces that voice in our head that tells us feelings are bad. Research in neuroplasticity has shown us that our brains can grow and change and learn with practice, support, and proper brain fuel.

Imagine a field of grass with blades 4-5 inches high. As you walk across the grass, it flattens. The more you walk on those same blades of grass, the more it flattens and exposes the earth and a very well worn path. This is synonymous to what happens in the brain. If the path most travelled in the brain avoids discomfort at all costs, then we reduce our ability to face or tolerate future distress because continually avoiding feelings strengthens the neural pathways that tell us, “emotions are bad.”

AND Emotional avoidance is exhausting. Think about the amount of energy we spend avoiding. I like to compare avoiding emotions with sitting on a beach ball in the deep end of the pool. For me, trying to stay afloat while sitting on a beach ball in the pool is not an easy task. I wobble. I shake. I tip over. The ball shoots up from the water explosively. Can I do it? Yes, but not without a lot of force and constant expense of energy. Unprocessed or expressed emotions can actually become stuck in a person’s body affecting a their health and well-being. The mind body connection is no longer just theory; there is research to support the claim. Avoiding emotions can cause:

  • Bodily stress
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Poor Memory
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Immune system loss

To quote from the movie Thanks For Sharing, “Feelings are like children, you don’t want them driving the car, but you don’t want to stuff them in the trunk either.” It’s time to explore, express, and examine our emotions.