I was at Yogaville a few weekends ago after a busy March and April. It's a typical retreat center with no-frills rooms, lots of open space for reflection and a large dining hall where people gather to eat together, many of whom are strangers. I sat down for dinner on Friday night with half a dozen other folks who all turned out to be there for a one month stay. One woman was a recent graduate for a local college, another was a retired nurse and another gentleman had just left the military. The nurse asked me what I did and her first question- which I get a lot - was "is your background in counseling or social work?". Of course the answer is neither but it's really hard for folks to wrap their mind around the fact that I do work with survivors and also professionals who serve survivors but I'm not a counselor or a therapist. I don't need to be, frankly, and neither do you.
Strictly speaking, my background is in coaching and training but I also have a Masters of Arts degree in Women's Studies and have spent ten years working with survivors. But what serves me most in what I do, and one of the reasons that I am so good at my work, is not my graduate degree or even my history as an abuse survivor, it's my desire to see the potential of the person in front of me. We all have that potential in us. But what I have found is that all too often, professionals who work with "disadvantaged people" or "vulnerable populations" tend to see the client in front of them as someone unlike themselves and/or damaged beyond repair.
Unfortunately for everyone, that attitude doesn't go unnoticed by the client. It's likely one of the reasons she doesn't come back to see that professional, return her phone calls or take advantage of any of the services that are offered to her, even if she really needs them. I remember being asked in a job interview if I was an abuse survivor and my reply ("yes, like pretty much every other woman in the world, I was raped in college.") was met with an immediate look of disgust and pity from one of the interviewers. I will never forget it. Even without her saying a word, I was pegged as one of "those people". People feel it when you marginalize them, even if you don't say a word.
I have areas of improvement that I need to work on in my own professional life but this "othering" of clients is not one of them. My ability to see someone's potential in spite of the crisis she is in, her troubled background or the challenges that she's facing is what separates me from others who do similar work. Even if it is is "just" that she is another woman; I often find myself in a mode of parallel thinking: she's like me. And when I wear that advocate hat, I'm more inclined to be a learner, to get curious instead of being judgy or all-knowing. When I ground myself in the commonalities between us, instead of the differences, I'm in the best possible place to serve her. And she is in the best possible place to receive that help.
I truly believe that anyone can do what I do. The education that you need, you can acquire and, by the way, that doesn't have to mean an additional degree. The desire to see someone's potential, however, is essential. So the better question is not an assumptive one about someone's credentials, instead it's "why do you do what you do?". An answer that includes curiosity and open-mindedness will always tell you what you really want/need to know, not what you think you're supposed to.
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