"Why did you do that? You should have..."
"You know better than that!"
“Try this instead...”
These phrases echoed throughout school corridors, provider offices, and homes during my 5 year tenure as a social worker for children and teens in the NYC area.
Improving mental health has long fascinated me, so it was only natural that I took a position working with kids recently discharged from psychiatric hospitals after college.
I was part of a team of mental health professionals dedicated to helping keep these kids in their homes and communities.
I was assigned clients and then given a large binder chock-full with: the client's demographics, history, diagnoses, medications, problem behaviors, strengths, and a list of goals each client was to meet before being discharged from the program.
I loved this job. But one thing became clear to me.
My clients weren't getting better. Not really.
They would only experience temporary relief, at best.
In fact, over the course of 5 years, I cannot think of one client who experienced long-lasting results. Not one person shifted from living mostly in distress to living mostly in well being.
I see now, this is because the traditional approach is not aligned with how personal transformation really occurs. The way change can only occur...from the inside-out.
Every person, including those kids, has access to fresh thoughts and insights. And fresh thought allows someone to see something differently about themselves or the world around them. This shift in personal perception is at the core of all lasting, personal change.
But, there was little, if no, space for fresh thought to come through in those days.
Everyone’s minds were so busy! Sessions were spent ruminating on past behaviors...busy with the should do's and you know better's...with both client and provider busy trying to prove their point.
It was a job where stress, pressure, and heaps of effort were the cultural norm. A field that assumed that the counselors were the experts and that we could do or say something to control, fix, or change the clients.
So, I spent a lot of time trying to create the perfect goal. Or plan the perfect session. While in sessions, I was preoccupied looking for the right thing to say. Or the right question to ask. Or the right therapeutic technique to try.
This resulted in my own busy mind. A mind filled with worry, expectation, and personal pressure. And this prevented me from listening deeply most of the time. I was too busy with my own inner dialogue..."Will this finally help them?"..."Will they get offended if I say this?"..."I should try that thing I learned in from that book yesterday...What was it again?"
I see now I was more accurately, a mental illness professional back then... focusing mostly on dysfunction by managing symptoms, identifying triggers, suggesting coping skills, and doing crisis intervention.
Back then, I never really talked about mental health. Or about the inner well-being and resiliency that all people have access to.
But today, I do talk about these things. I share that a mental health diagnosis is not a permanent sentence to which people are doomed to struggle with for the rest of their lives. I have found the transition from a mental illness professional to a mental health educator delightful and surprisingly practical.
Stress, pressure, and tedious efforting have been replaced by ease, continual learning, and deep connection.
I listen deeply now. No longer clouding conversations with my personal thoughts. I accept where my client is, where I am, and that everything is ok in that moment.
Excitingly, I witness the magic that happens when a client gets a fresh thought. A fresh insight and new perspective. When a person taps into their own mental health and wisdom. I now witness real and powerful change unfold naturally and frequently.
What incredibly different feelings and results, than those that come from trying to force-feed someone the latest technique, tip, or self-help quote.
I invite you to experiment with this in your own life. That we all have a built-in psychological immunity. An immunity, that like the blue sky, gets covered up with the clouds of busy, habitual personal thinking. But, the blue sky hasn't gone anywhere. It is still there.