No One Cares If You Know Their Name

No One Cares If You Know Their Name

The lessons I’ve learned from my students and clients have become a part of who I am, how I parent, and how I view the world.  My mistakes shaped me.

I was 25 years old when I first started working as a middle school counselor in southern CA.  Excitement bubbled throughout me because I was fulfilling my dream of “making a difference” in the world.

I remember gluing copies of prior year school photos for each student on index cards. My goal was to learn all 323 names prior to the start of school so that I could welcome my caseload on a first name basis. I imagined the delight on my students’ faces when they heard me call their names. They’d feel seen, heard, and important. I had no children at this stage, so devoting more than twenty-five unpaid hours to this mighty endeavor seemed logical. I began my first year of counseling with gusto and the confidence that all of the students would love me.

There I stood, outside my office on the first day of school, ready to whip out Sarah’s name and positively impact her educational progression and success. However, the student photos I used were taken a full year prior, which translates into innumerable changes for tweens and teens. More than half of the students were unrecognizable from their 2×3 inch photo.

But whether or not I recognized them didn’t matter. I was an adult in their eyes and tweens and teens don’t care about the adults on the first day of school, or for most of the days of school. They care about who they are going to sit with during lunch, what friends are in their classes, whether or not their outfits are cool, if the teachers are mean or nice, will the curriculum be exciting or boring, and a million other things. The overly eager new counselor calling out random names registers as strange and slightly creepy.

Twenty plus years later, I can confidently say that I wasted so much time memorizing faces and names. My attempt at “knowing” the students was totally off base. They had never met me. I had never met them. Connection is made through personal interactions, being there when needed, and remembering important details after getting acquainted.  

I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be important. I wanted students to need me. But what I wanted doesn’t matter. What matters is following through with commitments, reacting without judgment or opinion, developing trust, listening, being an advocate, creating a safe space for students to come on their own accord, and providing thought provoking and enriching social-emotional curriculum and programs. Proving that I know a student’s name means nothing in the absence of a relationship.

It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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?

Parenting: The Course No One Teaches

Parenting: The Course No One Teaches

Whenever I’m unsure professionally, I call my psychiatrist father. It’s instinctual and immediate. My father’s psychiatric expertise is based upon years of medical school and residency. He taught psychiatry to residents so of course he knows the right course of action in a psychologically charged situation. Student in crisis, ask Dad. Parent off the handle, ask Dad. Tricky diagnosis, ask Dad.  He provides great, solid advice.

Why then didn’t I run to my father for parenting advice as soon as my children where born?

‘Hang on. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Apparently that’s not a good idea.’

My mother and father did a good job with me. They weren’t perfect; notebooks of EMO poetry from my teen years clearly highlight my discontent. Despite their errors, I turned out relatively self aware and stable (in my humble opinion). My parents were present, loving, and involved. I felt loved and loved them in return.

So, I’ve spent quite a bit of time contemplating why I never solicited my parents for advice or suggestions about parenting. In fact, the moment my mother or father offered a suggestion or idea about how to do something differently, an eruption the magnitude of Niagara Falls went off inside my body (and possibly out of my mouth).

What do they know?

How dare they!

They don’t know my children better than I do.

They’re old school.

Life is different now; they don’t get it.

What I’ve finally come to understand is that my insecurities hijacked my rational thoughts. I heard every suggestion as a criticism. Their advice somehow meant that I wasn’t a good parent.  I expected myself to “know better”. 

But there’s no way to “know better” when you’ve never done it before! Just as I wouldn’t expect myself to land a triple axle in ice skating on the first attempt, so should I not assume to get parenting right on the first go (or second or third). Plus, there’s not only one correct way to approach parenting.

There isn’t a course or a degree you can earn to become an educated and verified parent. There’s no outside agency to provide a credential or stamp of approval. It’s trial and error. It’s being OPEN to making mistakes. It’s about listening to other opinions and scanning through the advice to make sure that it resonates with our own values and ethics.

Now, I welcome my parents’ insights. They provide a different perspective, which I appreciate rather than feel embarrassed or ashamed by. Sometimes I agree. Sometimes I don’t. Most importantly, I forgive myself for parenting gaffes. I expect to make mistakes as I expect my children to make mistakes. Together, we learn and figure it out. For better and for worse.

Whisper Words of Wisdom, Let It Be

Whisper Words of Wisdom, Let It Be

When our minds fester and stew in negativity, usually the first suggestion is to let go.

Just let it go. What’s done is done.  Worrying won’t change the outcome.     It’s more painful to hold on than to let go. 

Letting go is sound advice because worry and self-blame do us no good. However, as true as it may be, letting go is not that simple. For most of us, when we try to let go of something, it either keeps nagging at us or only comes back with more energy.

​Jack Kornfield said, “To let go does not mean to get rid of. To let go means to let be. When we let be with compassion, things come and go on their own.”

It might sound ridiculous and impossible to let these dreadful thoughts and feelings be when there’s an urgency to get rid of them as quickly as possible. However, the energy we spend trying to pretend that these uncomfortable, negative feelings or thoughts don’t exist is precisely what feeds them.

Rather than rejecting or fighting the persistent, negative thoughts and feelings in our minds, look at them. It’s important to observe without judgement. Be compassionate and kind to yourself. Acknowledge the thoughts, recognize them, but do not chase after them.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” It’s not easy to relinquish control and let be. It’s uncomfortable to sit with the fear, anger, or embarrassment we feel, but it’s important to do so. We can hope for immediate transformation, but retraining our minds to be patient, present observers requires steady effort.