23 July 2009

Being Professional -- What Does That Mean Anyway?

One of the worst ideas -- in my opinion -- that mental health counselors and naturopathic doctors get saddled with in graduate school is the notion of what is or isn't professional looking. I'm not talking about ethics, record keeping, or other business practices. Just the more subjective qualities of professional appearance and personal conduct.

Hidden in this idea that there is some "professional" way to look and be as opposed to some "regular" way to look and be is, I think, a particular ego trip. It's an intention to feel better about ourselves by giving the impression that we are more successful, more competent, more experienced, more wealthy, more something than we actually are.

Or, it's an unconscious defensive posture designed to get past normal insecurities about being self-employed. It's trying to match someone else's level or idea of confidence or success, rather than being comfortable with what's real for us at any given time.

Either way, isn't that type of professional appearance or conduct dishonest? Seems to me it's an attempt to impress prospective clients and colleagues by being something other than what we are.

When I was first out of graduate school, I rented a room in an office park suite overlooking a lake, where there was a mix of solopreneur businesses and a busy reception office to serve us all. I thought this would make me look "professional."

It ended up making me feel like a pretender because it didn't fit who I was as a person or a clinician. I moved out when I realized that I was trying to emulate my father the lawyer -- putting priority on what his 1950s vision of "professional" was, rather than developing my own 1990s personal version.

Over the years I've decided for myself that being professional doesn't require having a receptionist, waiting room, or prestigious magazines on expensive coffee tables. It has nothing to do with what car I drive, or whether my address is in the "right" part of town -- although it does require me dressing one notch above the jeans and t-shirt attire of most of my clients. It's not about how much I spend to impress prospective clients or referral sources.

Being professional, for me, means:
  • being on time, every time, for every one
  • unfailingly doing what I say I will do, and being quick to say what I can't or won't do
  • taking nothing personally, not publicly showing discomfort, frustration, or anger when I'm annoyed
  • being clear and firm in interpersonal expectations and business policies
  • at all times remembering that my mission is to be of service, and to give a little more service than is anticipated
  • serving the clients best interests at all times, even when others disagree with what those are
  • using the common courtesies and normal social manners
  • being congruent -- that is, as good a model of what I advise as I can humanly be
What's your personal, confidence-based, ego-less vision of being professional?

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