I think it’s true that we can improve at anything. This even applies to being a beginner! There’s no doubt that I’m a far better beginner than I used to be. Perhaps it’s because I’m more appreciative of the joy to be found in learning something new. Perhaps it’s because I’m less bothered by not being able to do something; less self-conscious and embarrassed. It might also be because I’ve learned to enjoy, and trust in, the process rather than be too fixated on the result. This is certainly the case in my new hobby - going to the gym to try to ‘bulk up’ and build some muscle. Now, I’m a healthy bloke and a reasonable runner, but lifting weights is in a room full of people is way outside of my comfort zone! I’ve tried before but felt out of my depth, so this time I decided to hire a personal trainer to teach me the correct techniques and provide me with a strategy. So, I find myself back to being a complete novice, needing guidance and instruction on the very basics. What a revelation! I’m a much-improved beginner! Ultimately, I think the thing that’s changed the most for me is that I’m able to leave aside my ego. I’m pretty sure my ego that has prevented me from reaching my potential in many things, or at least slowed me down. I put drumming in this category (I made a living out of playing the drums for many years but still feels miles away from reaching my full potential). When I was in my initial stages of development, I was far too worried about ‘getting it wrong’ and feeling embarrassed. This stifled me, leading me to play safe and stick to what I knew, rather than step out of my comfort zone, take risks, and develop my style and creativity. When lifting weights, I’m happy to make ‘mistakes’ because getting things wrong provides me with instant opportunities to improve and get better. This is so rewarding because it helps me to (slowly) develop a good foundation upon which to build. Plus, I get to enjoy the satisfaction of developing new skills and working towards new goals. But perhaps the most satisfying thing is that it reminds me how it feels to be a beginner, to feel awkward and out of my comfort zone. This is how many people feel when they arrive for their first counselling session. But if we can learn to embrace those initial feelings and take those first steps, there is so much to be gained.
Is counselling an art or a science? Or perhaps both? Over the last few years there has been an increasing trend for counsellors to adopt ‘evidence-based practice’ and to use research studies to inform our approach. That’s all well and good, but we know that research papers can be quickly superseded and that what’s ‘flavour of the month’ one year can be old news the next. As a counsellor, where do I sit on the science or art spectrum? Well, it can be useful to know the most recent statistics and to be challenged by new findings. Certainly, it’s never good to become complacent. But, personally, apart from learning through experience, I believe I gain the most insight from art. Surely it’s impossible to read a classic novel without being drawn into deep reflection and contemplation, or to listen to the work of a great composer without connecting to a deeper sense of being. Art can give insights into something outside of our cognitive reasoning, into something bigger, deeper, more profound. Of course, it’s hard to quantify the benefit art provides, but if I can tap into the collective wisdom contained in books, paintings, music, sculptures and all the other creative endeavours, I’m convinced I will become a better, wiser, more creative and more insightful counsellor. I just don’t know how to prove it through Randomised Controlled Trials!
I recently took part in my first long distance running event, a 52km ‘ultra’ marathon in the Peak District. It was a great experience and brought excitement, nerves, a degree of anxiety and, ultimately, a great deal of satisfaction. Five days later I’m left thinking “I actually did that, and what’s more, I feel okay!”. I’m happy to admit that, with 1 or 2 kilometres left, I cried a few times. Just a few small blubs, rather than full on wailing, but it felt quite overwhelming and oddly euphoric. I think this was the realisation that I’d completed, or was about to complete not only the run, but several challenges I’d set for myself, professionally, personally and physically. Added to the sense of satisfaction was also a feeling of knowing some rest was approaching, not just in running terms, but in life, emotionally and perhaps spiritually. Big changes have taken place over the last six months or so, things that I’ve wanted to happen, yet which required a lot of thought and effort. So, now I’m into my ‘rest’ period and I’m trying to resist the urge to go and sign up for another, ‘bigger and better’, challenge, though the pull is quite strong! I think it wise to let the dust to settle and allow some new ideas and goals to develop ‘organically, without too much thought.
So, what have I learned from the run? Well, it’s about process and taking charge of what’s within my control. I genuinely didn’t know if I could complete the distance as it was significantly further than anything I’d done in training, which had to fit in with my other commitments (primarily family and work), but by living healthily, concentrating on sleep, food, rest and listening to my body, I was able to complete the challenge. During the run I focussed on keeping to my own pace, listening to the feedback my body provided, and tried to maintain clarity of mind. From a broader perspective I realised that when a process is followed and good habits are developed, over a prolonged period of time, great results are not only achievable, but highly likely.