A new semester always feels like a new beginning. I spent last semester, my first in the program, studying, reflecting, and role playing. This semester is going to be different (even though I’ll still be studying, reflecting, and role playing) because I’ll also start working with my first real clients. Our first clinical experience in the program is called practicum, and it’s a chance for we counselors-in-training to begin work at various counseling agencies, seeing actual clients. This is both exciting and terrifying.
The process of learning how to do a thing involves doing it when you don’t know how to do it. This is true in all arenas of our lives. This summer, I took a drawing class, and I certainly felt anxious clipping my sketchbook onto an easel and showing my drawings that, unfortunately, looked nothing like what I was supposed to depict (I am not a natural) to the class. But if I drew a bad picture, it didn’t hurt anything. Maybe I was a little embarrassed. It was fine.
The first time I made a roast, I worried about over- or undercooking it, seasoning it properly, whether I would be able to make it taste good—it’s always a little more stressful to cook something you’ve never made before than something you’ve made a lot of times. You have to be alert in a different way, and willing to improvise. Now, I’ve cooked enough new things that I feel confident, and often prefer making something new. But it’s hard when you don’t know exactly how something is supposed to look or smell or taste at a given part of the process, when you have to just shrug your shoulders and roll the dice and hope you end up with something edible.
Or, the first time I put together a cheap bookshelf I’d bought at Target—24 years old, newly single, the first time I didn’t have a man to help me put everything together—I felt a good deal of apprehension looking at the parts and pieces, nothing close to a bookshelf yet, and the mildly confusing instructions. I bought a screwdriver but, once I got to work, realized I would need a hammer as well—luckily, my roommate had one I could borrow. It took at least three times as long as it would’ve taken a seasoned assembler, and I may or may not have cried from frustration at some point, but at the end of it I had a place to put my books and a newfound sense of accomplishment. I’ve built bookshelves since, and it’s been much easier—not because I’m any better at building things, but solely because, since I’ve done it before, I know I can do it.
But this semester’s first is different from those other firsts. If I’d failed with those other firsts, it was only some pencil marks on paper and my pride, the ingredients for a meal, or $24 worth of cardboard and imitation wood that hung in the balance. Seeing my first clients on my own will involve working with other people who have actual problems—it won’t be just me and some inanimate objects and my own feelings. It will involve the well-being of a whole other person. I decided to become a counselor because I wanted to help other people—I knew this day was coming, it’s the whole point of the thing. But, because our experiences shape and improve us, I’m necessarily going to be starting as the worst counselor I’m ever going to be. With my second client, I’ll (hopefully) be better than I was with my first. With my third I’ll be better than my second, and so on into infinity. There’s something encouraging in this—each experience will lead to some sort of improvement, and you have to start somewhere. At the same time, I’d rather be someone’s hundredth client than their twentieth or, God help us, their first.
I do think I am as prepared as it’s possible for a person who has never seen a client before to be. I feel confident that my capabilities as a first-session counselor are the best anyone could expect. And there are still a lot of steps between now and the time I’ll be seeing my first client on my own—I have to get to know how things work at my agency first, then observe some sessions, then I’ll co-counsel with an experienced counselor for awhile. These experiences will build my knowledge and skills and help me feel more prepared. But at the end of the day, the only way I’m really going to get better at being a counselor is by counseling people.
Even if I don’t help client at the beginning of my career as a counselor as much as I would if I saw them later, when I’ll be more experienced, I’m still capable of helping. My first time making chicken parmigiana wasn’t as good as my fifteenth, but it was still delicious. My third bookshelf was sturdier than my first, but that first one still sits in my bedroom, steadfastly filled with books. If I, as a counselor, can help contribute to even the smallest improvement in a client’s life, that’s something worth doing, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity.