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Clinician's Corner: 10 Things You Didn't Learn in School: Remixed

When I had my first group of masters’ level counseling interns, I decided it would be a great idea to do a weekly group supervision. The purpose of the group was to provide additional training, create a sense of team and to figure out which of the group had no business working in the mental health profession. I also wanted to provide these budding ambition mental health professionals with information I wish I had been given when I was coming into the field.

I developed a list entitled “The 10 Things You Didn't Learn in School". It became an instant hit and it was much discussed within the department. In the past 10 years spent in middle and senior management, I have learned a few more things and some caveats to my earlier lessons. The following is a revised list of the 10 things you didn’t learn in school with some additional insights and anecdotes.

10. Be Selfish- Being able to say no and take care of yourself is the best thing you can do as a service provider. People call it setting boundaries. Saying no is a good thing, being a martyr is not. In my previous position at an agency in San Francisco, I had a colleague who never missed an opportunity to talk about how hard she worked. Her daily lament was "I was at the program until 8 pm last night. I had so much to do blah blah blah. Honey get down off the cross we need the wood. She and I had the same job with the same responsibilities and I managed to get home by 6 pm every night. My programs ran just as smoothly as her programs. However, my colleague felt the need to make her personal sacrifice known. Girl Bye.

In this work, you do not get extra credit or more money for doing more than is asked of you. And you will burnout which will make you useless to your clients.

9. Look the part- I currently work in the Bay Area around 20 somethings who think that hoodies and skinny jeans are fashion (thanks Mark Zuckerberg). If you are from a marginalized group including blacks, Asian, Hispanics, gay/lesbian or gender non-conforming you need to wash your hair, shave, and put on some decent clothes. The deck is stacked against you and if you don’t look like you should be there you will be treated that way. Some people can wear hoodies and ripped jeans to work. That is not your privilege. As a mental health professional, you are a role model for the clients you serve including how you present yourself.

8. Leave your soapbox at home- Do not be preachy in the workplace. It is not helpful and it will not serve you well. I know that you got into this work because you have a passion and you care about a cause. So do most people who get into this work. I had a supervisee who was an advocacy for transgender people in the workplace and in treatment. This person took every opportunity to accuse her peers, her staff, and other clients of being transphobic. This staff person’s preachy attitude alienated everyone in the organization which was not a benefit to her cause. No one wants to be constantly reminded of where they fall short. If you want to assist your organization in getting better find the right opportunity to share your thoughts and find a better way to get your point and ideas across to people.

7. Listen and ask smart questions- There are stupid questions and they are usually asked because people are not listening. I have a colleague at my current organization who knows everything so she does not listen and ask questions that have already been asked. She makes a decision based on her previous work experience which is not related to the current setting. After she makes a mess which is daily then she wants to ask questions. The information she is seeking has been given but she is too busy knowing everything to listen. So ask thoughtful questions and track the information so if you have to ask a follow-up question it will further your knowledge.

6. Organization gossip and politics can ruin your career- Every place I have ever worked has history and gossip. When you have so many different types of people from different walks of life and different points of view it is inevitable for misunderstandings and communication issues. At an organization in New York, a fellow assistant director was always spilling the tea and spreading tales of who did what when and who is getting fired. He was so busy running around sharing information he did not notice his programs were suffering and he was about to get fired. At my current organization whenever someone says “Did you hear?” my response is no because I cannot be bothered. You need to develop your skills, understand your role, and build your professional reputation. Everything else is a distraction.

5. Stop complaining- There is a fine line between advocacy and complaining. You need to find that line for yourself and hold it. One of my biggest gripes about social workers is their inability to advocate for themselves or their clients. When it comes to complaining everyone seems to be great at that skill.

4. Respond don’t react- When you learn the difference between complaining and advocacy, then you need to learn how to respond and not react. A response is a thoughtful well-timed answer or set of solutions to a particular situation. A reaction is an impulsive poorly timed answer which is not helpful and usually makes things worse. People who react to situations lose credibility and are not the type of people anyone wants to follow. I have many examples of reactionary leaders but I will save those tales of foolishness for my post on leadership.

3. Answer the Call- When an opportunity comes your way, take it. There are all these rules about how long you should stay at a job. Most of those rules are crap. I stayed at a job for 5 years because I thought I was being loyal. Despite being lied to, abused, set up to fail, marginalized, and minimized I felt like I had to stay. I had other professional opportunities that I passed on because I knew I would be rewarded for my hard work. I wasn’t. I was passed over for a less qualified candidate who ended up being fired after 2 months on the job. By the time I came to my senses and decided to leave the opportunities had passed and I was forced to make a step down just to get out of a bad situation. Loyalty is for dogs not for your career. Don't confuse loyalty with laziness.

2. You are not special- When I started working in social services in the 90s I knew I was not special. It was me against the machine. The work was what was important. The current cohort of mental health professionals is entitled and slighted in the same stroke. You make be special to someone but when it comes to doing mental health work you are not special. I am liked, I am loved, I am admired, and some people do not like me at all. But I am not special and neither of you. It may seem that I am targeting people in their 20s and 30s but my older colleagues also think they walk on water and want the rest of us to dry off their feet. Knowledge and experience do not make you special. It may mean that you old and probably pass your prime.

1. You don’t know anything- The graduate school experience is the start, not the end. No matter how much education you have and how many trainings you attend you are always going to feel unprepared as a mental health professional. I thought I had seen it all and about 13 years into my career in got a part-time job in the psychiatric emergency room. I didn’t know as much as I thought and it was a pretty humbling experience. Just when you think you know it all someone or something is going to come and change the game. I hear many young social workers and mental health counselors complain that their program did not prepare them for the workforce. They are correct. And with the growth of online social work and counseling programs, graduates will be less prepared and less skilled for what the field has to offer. Embrace the not knowing and dig in for the experience. Let your clients teach you what you need to know and believe me they will give you a much better education than the one you got in school.

There are many other lessons and experiences I could and will share at some point in my blog post. I know some of you reading this post will debate my point of view because you are that person so do what you gotta do. I wanted to share these thoughts and teachings to other people in this field or getting into this field because I wish someone had told these things to me. It would have saved me disappointment, sadness, anger and overall confusion.

I hope this helps the next generation of social workers and mental health counselors.


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