“Ask me permission before you ask me a question,” the teenager shared. I quietly paused, to think about what this youth was telling me.
It was our second session together and we were just beginning to cultivate a relationship. I was in my mid 20’s and had been in the social service field for a few years. I thought I was doing well as a caseworker and felt an earnest humility and confidence in my work with youth. The teenager at the counseling center dropped more on me that night than he knew.
He proceeded to share that he had been in therapy since a young age and had many therapists, psychologists and teachers asking him for his story. He stated he was tired of re-telling the story as it often didn’t bring him healing, he decided that he was going to stop telling it to everyone that asked. What I learned that cold winter night in the 1990’s is that I have to earn the right to hear a person’s story. Just because I was a youth counselor didn’t give me the right to know this young person and dive right in quickly to “fix” his issues.
Earning the right to hear someone’s story doesn’t come easy – as therapists we have to earn it and do it from a place of authenticity. We earn it in the way we invite clients in to the therapy relationship: we start slowly allowing the client to tell their story, identify their goals, and prioritize those goals starting with the one that makes sense to them. From that point my posture began to change. I began to look at my work as a transformative process and not a transactional one. Individually, I worked on creating safety (emotional, social, physical, and psychological) as the foundation in holding space for youth and families who came to the counseling center. Building relationships slowly takes a trust that comes over time through hearing the other person’s stories and ways in which they see their world. It is a privilege to occupy this space and one that an intentional therapist holds sacred.
My practice has been evolving. Over twenty years, I’ve learned from mentors (both youth and adults) that serving and building relationships with clients who come in for therapy, isn’t just about doing the work itself, it is how we show up to do the work and who is at the table. If a clinical practice is serving a diverse population, it is critical to the healing process to have therapists who reflect that diversity.
What has helped to grow my clinical practice is truly understanding that while trauma happens in community, so too must healing come from within the community. When I left agency work , I knew that I wanted to find a dynamic place to grow next. A former colleague who knew about my transition from direct service invited me to talk with the owners of the clinical practice she worked at and it was a fit. I’ve found a home at Beverly Therapists on the South Side of Chicago. This group of committed therapists is comprised of people from diverse backgrounds (race, gender identity, ethnicity) that share a commitment to working with individual clients in therapy to help build more meaningful lives. In addition, we have a commitment at the community level to holding events and groups that are low fee or no fee.
I often think about the conversation I had with the youth at the counseling center nearly 20 years ago and how this young person’s insight provided me with a jumping off point to radically build my practice. That conversation led to so many others and a deep belief that social work and therapy is about working with individuals from a strengths based, transformational space that recognizes the innate wisdom in each person. And that this very journey they are on…is uniquely theirs and so important to hold as sacred in this world. This is the healing and power that therapy can have in a person’s life. I feel humbled and inspired every day to continue to partner with clients to build meaningful lives in which they not only survive…but thrive.
Learn more about the author of this post: Bonn Wade, LCSW