Why Getting it Wrong Can be the First Step to Getting it Right in Practicum

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By: Aneesah Muhammad, Irvine Graduate Campus

Practicum, it’s the part of our education experience where any graduate student in a marriage and family therapy program, contends with the most anxiety. We anticipate practicum with hopes that our prerequisite courses will have magically transformed us into experts who can fix our client’s lives. Although Anxiety tells us that this is not even remotely possible, we still hope that it is the case. When we reach practicum, we find that anxiety spoke the truth to us. We have not become experts, and our clients cannot be fixed. This is the bad news. The good news is that not being an expert is fertile ground for lots of wonderful things to blossom such as a curiosity about who our clients really are and a burgeoning of ideas about how we can collaborate with them for their treatment. As a first semester, practicum student, I found it refreshing that I was not the only one to bring wisdom into the therapy room. The responsibility to address problems affecting my clients did not rest solely on my shoulders. Clients bring their wisdom, and hopefully agency, to the treatment process. In light of this new insight, I was able to give myself permission to get things wrong and not be perfect.

As students, we can be so afraid of getting it wrong, especially in front of other people. The fear sometimes creeps up on us, beckons to us, and convinces us that we shouldn’t put ourselves out there. “If you reveal your ignorance, you will look like a fool,” it says. But what better time to appear not to know than when we are expected to know the least? Although we will never know everything— even after becoming licensed—practicum is a time to demonstrate what we don’t know as much as what we do know. Our supervisors need to be made clearly aware of what we are doing in the therapy rooms so that that they can offer us guidance and correction when we need it. Sometimes we are being recorded, and sometimes we simply have to tell our supervisors what makes us unsure when sitting with a client, what makes us uncomfortable, what came up for us and what real questions we have. Otherwise, we will be moving around in the dark with no one to help us to see. Ultimately what we want is to become better therapists. In Practicum, we are no longer just graduate students working towards high GPAs, but student therapists applying theories learned and testing out interventions.

My practicum training is in narrative therapy which requires me to think about problems in a vastly different way that I am accustomed to thinking of them. Having a supervisor who is informed by narrative ideas, and is very empathic and collaborative, is just the nurturing environment that I needed to take calculated risks. My goals as a therapist and my chosen practicum site were a perfect fit. The culture at my site gives me the courage to engage and be vulnerable about what I don’t know. This transparent approach enables my supervisors to assist me with aligning my intentions for interventions with postmodern ideas and approaches to treatment. As therapists, it’s not always what we are doing that matters but how we think about what we are doing. That said, I can think of an instance where one of my fellow therapists, at my practicum site, proposed an intervention to help with a couple in conflict. She asked our supervisors for their thoughts about her assigning reading material to the couple: a pop psychology relationship book. At the time, I was sure that she would be told that this is a bad idea based on my knowledge that there are not a lot of books, of that genre, written from a narrative approach. This is not what she was told. Instead of being advised one way or another, she was questioned about her intentions. She was asked how she thinks that the ideas in the chosen book would inform her work with the couple. I suspect that if my colleague were to say that the intent of the book was to discuss dominant ideas about relationships and to give the clients background for deconstructing those ideas, the proposal would have gotten a green light. The approval would have been in spite of the fact that the proposed literature was not likely to come from our chosen theoretical orientation.

The above anecdote is why many supervisors will not tell their student therapists what is right and what is wrong. This might be a source of frustration for students, just starting out, as it was for me. We want to know the correct way to treat our clients. Conversely, the reality is that there are many right answers or right ways to go about treatment; just as there are many “right” ways for our clients to live their lives. To contend with the frustration, we student therapists need to start trusting ourselves. My practicum site is fantastic in teaching theory and interventions, but the art of therapy is learned through trial and error. Based on my practicum experiences, so far, I have concluded that designing therapeutic questions or exercises, with my client’s well-being in mind, ultimately leads to a favorable result. With these collections of positive outcomes, my anxiety over doing the right thing has gone down tremendously. Subsequently, my confidence as a therapist is steadily on the incline.

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