Thursday, February 27, 2014

Blending Roles and The Art of Practice

I grew up with roles being defined by the notion of "multiple hats." I had my daughter hat, my sister hat, my student hat, my friend hat, and so on. As I got older, my hat closet expanded. I had my employee hat, my coworker hat, my tutor hat, my roommate hat, my researcher hat, my band member hat. Graduate school has added even more hats. My primary hats now include a counselor hat, an instructor hat, a peer hat, a group leader hat, a friend hat, a supervisor hat, and an interviewer hat.

Last semester, it began to appear that this hat metaphor was lacking. This semester, this realization has become increasingly clear.

Last semester, as I began my clinical internship as a counselor, my counselor role and friend role began to compete. I remember visiting home for a weekend and spending time with one of my best friends. As she told me about an area of personal growth she was working through and she asked for my input, I told her that I was having a weird experience of disconnect, where I knew what my counselor brain would say, but my friend brain was unsure whether or not it agreed with my counselor brain. My friend asked to hear what my counselor brain would say in order to evaluate if it matched with her perception of my friend brain. She said that it did. Maybe my hats were not so separate after all.

Also last semester, I remember a meeting my assistant and I had with one of our residents regarding some expressions of discontent. After the meeting, while my assistant and I were processing, he made a comment that he could imagine that my interaction with this resident was similar to my interactions with my client. I agreed. Maybe my hats were not so separate after all.

There is a concept in social work called "the art of practice" or "the art of social work." What this means to me is that social work programs can teach theory and intervention all day long until professors are blue in the face and students are asleep in their seats, but the ability to be in the room, to be fully present with a client, and to find one's own style of practice simply cannot be taught. In my opinion, this is a major philosophical reason behind the emphasis on internship experience in social work programs. Up until recently, "the art of social work" did not mean much more to me than learning to be comfortable being myself with clients to the extent that it is relevant and therapeutically helpful.

This semester, my hats have begun to blend even more.

Two weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to teach a personal development class. Being close in age to the students in my class (and younger than quite a few) made it feel natural to interact as a peer. This peer hat was in competition with my instructor hat. I had had a similar experience during my first semester of graduate school when some of my supervisees were younger than me, but I had since grown accustomed to emphasizing my supervisor hat over my peer hat. Taking on this instructor role reminded me of this.

Recently, my internship supervisor and I have been talking about the benefits of taking more time to establish rapport before jumping into problem-solving and coping strategies and goal-setting. We have discussed how integrating friend-like conversations into the first few sessions with clients can be extremely beneficial to long-term effectiveness because of having a strong therapeutic alliance. I have since been experimenting with bringing more of my friend hat into the room when I am wearing my counselor hat.

All of my current primary roles are similar in terms of leadership and empathy: counselor, instructor, peer, group leader, friend, supervisor, coworker, and interviewer. The hat metaphor is lacking in that there are no times when I need only one of these roles. There is a great deal of overlap and many recent experiences have warranted a blending of roles, such as instructor (with aspects of peer, counselor, group leader, and friend), counselor (with aspects of friend, peer, interviewer, and instructor), and supervisor (with aspects of counselor, peer, group leader, and friend). There is no one role that does not warrant the use of portions of other roles. The hat metaphor is limiting because it precludes us from this blending. If there is one hat on my head, how can there be room for pieces of other roles? There does not need to be conflict between roles. There is no need to leave certain roles at the door when stepping into a certain other role.

This is the art of practice. This is the art of blending roles. This is the art of blurring the lines between professional self and personal self. This is the art of developing an integrated sense of whole self.