I'm sorry I have been so silent. To be honest, I still don't have an answer. I know- that sucks. Not having an answer and sitting in silence can be extremely uncomfortable. Our brains don't like unanswered questions. In fact when we sit in silence or don’t have answers our brains try to make up stories to make the painful silence, well, less silent. However, when our brains get stuck in survival mode, those stories can end up causing even more pain. It's in these times that our minds can start to feel like a battle ground. Waiting for an answer and sitting in the silence is what I now call "Living in the in-between".
I wish that life had less in-betweens. Less wondering why, less doubts, less moments of silence, and more answers. But, unfortunately, life is full of these in-betweens and I know for a fact that everyone goes through at least one. It's called puberty. I even hate the word puberty. In an effort to become amicable with the term, I looked up the definition. It basically means "the process of maturing."
Have you ever looked back at your middle school picture? I'm going to speak for myself and say that it’s a sight for sore eyes. It felt like my whole body was rejecting me while in the awkward brace-face, fizzy hair, and pimples stage. One day I'd like to ask God "did maturing have to look so awkward and be so painful?" At the very least, it's comforting to know that we have all experienced puberty, even if it wasn't in the exact same way.
I will never forget my "pubescent" years of counseling. I was eager to start grad school but honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. On the third day of my classes everyone entered the room to find all but two chairs in a circle. The two alienated chairs sat in the middle, facing each other. We were directed to take a seat. My teacher asked for two brave volunteers. Obviously I wanted to make a good impression, so like a naïve yet eager pre-counselor, I raised my hand.
As I found myself sitting face to face with a peer of mine, my teacher began to explain the exercise. She stated "Today, we begin counseling. Because nobody in here is licensed, we will start by counseling each other. Yolandi will start as the client and her partner will be the counselor." Her next sentence about killed me.
"Yolandi, I want you to pick something real to talk about in your life that you are having a difficult time with."
My eyes grew wide and I shuffled in my chair. Everyone giggled. My mind immediately starting racing. I felt like I was back in middle school trying to figure out what cool thing I could say to fit in. Was she joking? My inner voice mocked me sarcastically, "Yeah, let me just unpack all of my emotional baggage with people I hardly know, and then then we can skip out of here singing kumbaya!". I wanted to make a good impression on my peers and on my teacher, not share with them how I was barely keeping it together. And when I say barely, I mean it. I had just moved to a new town after a hard breakup, and the only people I knew there were ghosts from my high school that I hadn't seen or heard from in several years.
In an effort to minimize the anxiety that both my classmate and I felt settling in, my teacher said "Empathy is one of the biggest characteristics of a good counselor. By becoming the client, we begin to know what it feels like to be vulnerable. By being the counselor, we gain courage and the confidence to walk with any client through uncomfortable situations without knowing the outcome. You will have to learn to trust the process."
I didn't entirely understand the second part of her sentence. I wanted to stand up and demand that I be exempt from this exercise. Little did she know, I'd been in counseling! I already knew what that felt like! None the less, I knew all too well what she was implying. In order to pass this class we would all have to do this exercise.
With a deep breath, much hesitation, and FOURTEEN pairs of eyes on me, we began. Despite my best efforts not to cry, I did. It was beyond uncomfortable and embarrassing. It felt like the first time you look at your pores in a make-up mirror, but with 14X magnification.
At the end of the session my teacher shared a quote with us from Dr. Brene Brown.
"Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage."
She reminded us that the best thing we can do for ourselves moving forward is to continue to show-up.
So showing up is what I did. I thought that being the client was the hardest part. I thought that if I could cry in front of my peers and spill out my guts, anything after that would be easy. I was wrong of course.
The internal battle that came next was equally challenging, if not more-so. The following week it was my turn to be the counselor and the moment I sat in that chair I instantly felt insecure. My insecurities taunted me like middle school pimples staring back at me in a mirror, each one with something to say. "What are you doing?! You are going to make a fool out of yourself. How could you possibly help someone else when you don't even have your own life together?".
I then understood what my teacher meant about gaining the courage and confidence to be a counselor. I didn't have any when it came to professional counseling. I had never known the pressures of handling someone else's life. Especially not in a room full of people listening and watching my every move. But we all have to start somewhere.
Things were going decently well until I stepped on an emotional land mine. I asked my client/peer "What do you fear the most about this situation?" Her eyes got watery and then streams of tears ran down her face. I had no idea what to do. So I did what counselors do best, and handed her a tissue. Then, like a deer in headlights, I looked up at my teacher and she was smiling. After what felt like four hours of silence, my teacher stepped in. She asked my client how that experience was for her and my peer stated:
"It was freeing for someone to just sit with me and listen to what I had to say. I feel lighter".
I was confused. I hadn't done anything except panic and then sit in an awkward silence. My teacher asked me what I thought. I wanted to say that I loved it and that I would to do it again. But what came out of my mouth was the truth. "It was extremely stressful. The whole time I was thinking of what I should say next. The silence was the most awkward thing. I didn't know what I could say to fix her situation."
My teacher laughed and said "Well it isn't your job to fix her, and one of the hardest skills to master is sitting in the silence. Knowing when to speak and when to listen is very important. Even though you don't hear anything, the process is taking place and you simply have to trust it." My peer nodded in agreement with the statement, then thanked me for sitting with her in the in-between.
I still very much consider myself a growing counselor and human. I am far from maturation. But I am learning that life is full of questions and in-betweens. It is also full of awkward and uncomfortable situations. But even when we feel like there is nothing happening, we are definitely growing. You just have to have the courage to show up and trust the process.