I often describe my introduction into family work as an accident. But the more seasoned I become in this field, the more I realize that nothing happens by chance and my introduction was no accident. My work with families began when I provided in-home services to first time expectant parents or parents with infants under three months of age who were referred by the Healthy Families program. I was naïve and thought I would be doing parent training and supporting the parents as they learned how to bond with their babies. Guess what? I was WRONG! I was thrown to the wolves and found myself doing couple work with teens who were first time parents. There were sessions where I had to ditch my plans and incorporate the families because their parents could not get along and were still disappointed that they were in this predicament. As you could imagine, the family sessions were filled with, “aha moments”, enlightenment, and understanding! Yeah, you’re right that didn’t happen but a therapist could always dream.
Though, the sessions did not always appear productive in the moment, I realize now that the families were doing the work. The families continued to show up (physically and emotionally) to every session and were open to little ol’ me pulling their cards and disrupting their dysfunction. As I worked with these families, I observed generational cycles that had not been acknowledged but accepted. What do I mean by that? Well, many of the mothers I worked with often spoke about their mothers having them at a young age and the hostile or absent co-parenting relationship between their parents. And that is why my therapeutic collaboration was with the entire family. Thankfully, I was able to dig in my Family Systems bag of treats and unpack issues that existed well before the new bundle of joy arrived. These dynamics are often times exacerbated with the arrival of a baby because of the unresolved problems within the family that already existed.
My clients looked to me as the “expert” but to be perfectly honest, I felt like an impostor. I had never done family work before; not outside of graduate school classroom role plays. Even so there was progress not only for the families but for myself. My confidence as a clinician was tremendously shaped by the highs and DEFINITELY the lows of each one of those sessions. If I as a clinician ends a therapeutic relationship having learned nothing about myself professionally and personally, I do not feel that I did my job. Each one of my professional experiences (and there were PLENTY) has pushed me out of my comfort zone and into my purpose. After a while, I stopped fighting it and learned to accept it. Cliché? Yeah, well its something I often tell my clients so I’m practicing what I preach.
Those early career moments were frightening but necessary. The population I was working with taught me valuable lessons. Those lessons were:
1. Planting seeds is progress! When clients allow clinicians in their space during their most vulnerable moments, they are open to the therapeutic process. Then and only then can you begin to disrupt whatever dysfunction or unhealthy pattern(s) that are being presented. You may not observe a complete change but there will be moments where clients let you know that they were listening and that my friend is a job well done.
2. The therapeutic process could not care less about what I wanted and when I wanted it. Yep, I said it and I will say it again for the people in the back! I was not about me or what I felt was appropriate. Interacting with clinicians fresh out of graduate school is funny to me. Now, don’t get me wrong I love the ambition and their drive to move through the process. But, to understand the process is to understand that it is not on the terms of the clinician. There is an art to this balancing act. Of course, you will push where clinically appropriate and you will confront challenges. But, I learned quickly that the clinician absolutely cannot do the work for their clients.
3. You do not have to understand someone’s position to respect their perspective. The two at times correlate but not always directly. I cannot tell you how many times I sat in a family session trying to get everyone to understand where the other person was coming from. It was like pulling friggin’ teeth! The reality of it was that the understanding could possibly never come. It was not my job to push for understanding, though it definitely would help. My job was to navigate conversations about the family’s ultimate goal(s) and how each person could play their part in accomplishing that goal. Then, the understanding slides right on through without having to beat a dead horse to death (pun intended).
Essentially, what I am saying is be open and learn to flex and flow. I encourage clinicians new to the field and those in training to trust the process just as you would encourage your clients to do. Whether you are beginning an internship or starting with a new agency, MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU. You never know, you may just find your niche. And even if you don’t, it is not the end of the world because where you are, in this moment is preparing you for your purpose.