Years ago, as a first-year counseling student, I attended a course called Fundamental Therapy Skills. It was the introductory class to my upcoming practicum and internship, and the coursework prepared students for counseling real people. The final week was deemed “tears week,” because it had a reputation of eliciting many tears from the students. During “tears week” we were put in groups of three and given the task of counseling one another while a supervisor observed and took notes.
I can remember how tense my recently-traumatized body felt and how triggered my nervous system was as I sat in the “counselor” chair for the first time to “counsel” a friend. Because I was so aware of being observed, I struggled to stay present and offer connection to him, and I so badly wanted to do it right. I tried hard to calm my internal activation while simultaneously trying harder to recite the correct phrases I had learned. It felt as if my heart was going to beat out of my chest.
It was a train wreck, and when it was over, the supervisor in the room affirmed that fact. She gave me the most direct feedback I had ever received. She ended it by saying, “Heather, your clients will never feel the care and presence you want them to feel if you remain so distracted with what is going on inside you. You cannot take someone somewhere you have not been.”
I burst into tears. I felt so exposed and embarrassed. I had desired to care for my friend, but I couldn’t. I was wrestling spiritually and emotionally with PTSD and severe anxiety, while at the same time trying to become a counselor to help others. I was attempting to hold it all in so I could perform, but it wasn’t working. At that moment, I hated her words, and yet I knew they were true. I didn’t need to try harder—I needed more care.
I needed to follow my own healing path in order to walk with others in the way I desired.
For nearly fifteen years, her words remained and invited me to go deeper in my journey. Over time, the words that felt so harsh on that day began to feel kinder. I began to feel thankful for her honesty. Her feedback directed me to keep going during the times I wanted to quit because the work of finding care for my trauma and wounds felt like too much.
Recently, after a joint session, a colleague commented that I had been remarkably present and engaged. I felt the warmth of tears filling my eyes as I received his feedback. I knew it was true, and I felt thankful for that first supervisor and for the years and care that had birthed that ability.
Heather Medley is a woman who is learning to be present and kind to herself and to the people she loves. She is drawn to engage her world with hope of restoration and redemption and gets to do this professionally as a therapist. She loves deep conversations over hot beverages, neuroscience research papers, and bargain shopping. Heather, her anchoring husband, and two delightful kiddos reside in the Northwest Georgia Mountains