Researching the Creative Aspect of Understanding Existentialism

By Lori McAndrew and Bari Glickman 

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We can’t believe we are already considered “second years” in the Graduate Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. So far our program director, Dr. Kestemberg, and faculty members, such as Dr. Wood, have given us a personalized learning experience that continues to support us in becoming the best counselors in training we can be.

When Dr. Wood announced in class last year that she was looking for two students to work with her on a research project for an upcoming conference and on-going research continuing into Fall 2016, we both knew it would be a unique opportunity. We are happy to share: It has been! This work has allowed each of us to enrich our learning experience in our chosen career, exposing us to new and unfamiliar territory within our master’s program. In addition, the chance to work with our professor in a more intimate setting has enhanced what we are already learning in the classroom setting.

We met several times in the Fall 2015 semester and brainstormed about various topics and ideas. Through a collaborative team effort, we decided to look at the creative aspect of learning and understanding the concept of existentialism. Existentialism is a counseling approach that empowers clients to make meaning of their life experiences and emphasizes the existence of the individual person as having free will in making decisions in their life in relationship to themselves and others. In the classroom, some existential topics in regards to counseling that we had learned about had been complicated for us and our fellow students, so coming up with a creative solution and researching it to hopefully help other graduate students understand and appreciate Victor Frankl’s existential theory was an exciting prospect!

We learned through our research that most young clinicians do not have experience with utilizing existential concepts in their practice and that there is a belief that existentialism “does not easily fit into a therapist’s toolbox” (Shumaker, 2008, p.377). This led us to develop our theory that using music might help to support the learning of the existential concepts, allowing these concepts to be more tangible and relatable, and in return, help them improve their application of existential concepts with clients in the clinical realm.

It was a team effort creating a diagram which was designed to show the inter-connection of existential core concepts. We then began to build a music catalog that would help exemplify these concepts. We spent several hours listening to music, reading lyrics and categorizing the songs into the existential concepts. This was ultimately transferred to a flash drive that we used as a handout for our poster presentation.

One of the most exciting moments occurred when a conference participant made a special effort to come see our poster presentation. Knowing that the project we are working on is as interesting to others as it is to us provided us with a feeling of confidence and success. This, coupled with the guidance that our professor provided us, helped to put our nerves at ease and enabled us to discuss our poster with confidence and enthusiasm.

We are in the process of developing goals to move forward with our research. One of our goals is to test pilot this research with the new cohort of students in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Master’s program that started this fall. We are looking to have our research published in the Journal of Creative Counseling and ultimately present our research at future conferences.

As the first cohort in Molloy College Master’s Program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, we have a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement. The comradery we share as a cohort allows us to be a community of learners, a group that supports each other in our studies and celebrates each other in our accomplishments.

Best Practice Begins With Presence

By Daniel Woods

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Think of a person in one of your classes. Maybe it’s a friend you know well or someone you’ve barely spoken to. Now imagine the two of you sitting in front of each other without breaking eye contact for two minutes. Does this sound uncomfortable? It is, and my classmates and I can testify to that. Each of us experienced the discomfort of being present and making prolonged eye contact on a regular basis last winter in a graduate clinical mental health counseling class called Foundational Skills in Counseling.

You might be wondering what is so important about making eye contact. Aren’t the basic skills used in counseling techniques like active listening and being empathetic? Yes, but even more foundational is the counselor’s ability to use their body to effectively connect with the client. With this understanding as motivation, Professor Wood set up a variety of exercises to get us in touch with our bodies before we learned how to say anything to our future clients. We practiced making eye contact and observing how it felt. We practiced grounding ourselves by doing walking exercises as a group. We would march, tiptoe, and side-step around the room in a procession. We practiced attuning to another person by partnering up and mirroring each other’s actions and listening to our partners’ stories then acting them out using our whole bodies.

The resulting transformation from these exercises and others was highly apparent. We started off as most anyone would, feeling nervous and fidgety, but as we practiced we became calmer and connected to each other like no other class I’ve ever been in. With this newfound presence to ground us, we dove headfirst into more challenging exercises which would have surely been much more difficult without the previous training. We would get into groups and role play; one person would be the counselor, one the client, and one the witness. This structure was used to practice techniques such as listening and reflecting back feelings and content, making empathic responses, and asking different types of questions. When we role-played as a client, we were asked to be vulnerable and share our feelings in regard to different prompts. The witness would watch and give constructive feedback to the counselor-in-training after each exercise. In this fashion we slowly but steadily improved our ability to connect with ourselves, each other, and ultimately with our clients. We came to understand how important it is to form a bond of trust with a client and how influential both speech and body language is.

All of the theoretical knowledge a counselor acquires will likely go to waste if a client does not feel connected to the counselor. A counselor must know how to actually be present with the client and do it. Getting into the shared space and being open to what’s already there is where the work starts. Fortunately for us in the program, this message is not only taught to us but also embodied by all our professors. Whether it was the aforementioned class with Professor Wood, Developmental Theories with Professor Seaman, or Psychopathology with Professor Kestemberg, each professor interacts with us in an open and genuinely caring fashion. This is most evident when we have struggles in the classroom, work, or at home, and they do everything they can to help us prevail. While the course content is essential to our education, I believe we can also learn to be better counselors by following the example of our compassionate professors.

Image courtesy of Daniel Woods.