Being a Mentor

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I’ve been watching a Canadian show from 2009, Being Erica, which is about a thirty-something female in Toronto, whose life’s plans – love, career etc. – have become derailed.  Under unusual circumstances, she meets an even more unusual Therapist (Counsellor in British English) who helps her to time travel in order to answer all the ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ queries we all have of our pasts.  Throughout the show, Erica learns to appreciate the present more, takes greater control over her life, and eventually becomes a Therapist herself.

Whilst the premise may sound a bit wacky, it’s been a very popular show, highly entertaining as well as thought-provoking.  It’s Sex and the City, meets Frasier, meets Back to the Future.  And I, personally, believe it could be useful for Mentor training too!

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Granted, the topic in the show is therapy: more life plans than essay plans.  But elements in it ring true of the sessions I’ve had over the past year.  Therefore, I will attempt an overview of lessons I feel are applicable to our own work, substituting in practice, of course, the word ‘writer’ for ‘patient’.

  • ‘You are not your patient’. This lesson is about differentiating ourselves from the other person, not judging with same rulebook, allowing for the fact that others have different backgrounds and experiences that inform their outlooks, opinions, and choices.  This necessitates empathy in Mentoring, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, even if at the end you can’t wait for your own footwear again.
  • Linked to this, is the lesson from Dr Tom’s behaviour, that we can’t let our feelings enter into sessions. Mentors are human beings, of course, and sometimes a little of our own personal experience can provide useful examples or helpful advice gleaned from the woes of trial and error.  However, if we are having a bad day, it is not the fault – nor the problem – of our writers.  So this lesson is just to reinforce the professionalism we must bring to the Mentor room, as well as the fact that if we focus too much on ourselves and our own experiences, we are not only detracting from our Writers but also possibly alienating them if they have a different world view.
  • Having said that, ‘You are your patient’ is another valuable lesson from this show, emphasising that we have to see the similarities between ourselves and others. We are not so dissimilar in needs, fears, and desires, and it is best to keep in mind, especially in tricky sessions, that there are common denominators to explain that an aloof person may actually be acting out of pure panic, for instance.  It is important for Mentors to have patience, relate to the Writer where appropriate, and persevere with advice and examples.
  • But we need to be careful with the advice we dispense, for example where Brent – a colleague of Erica’s – is concerned in later seasons. Flippant advice, like ‘Just be yourself’ can be meaningless and not applicable to the real context it is needed for, while overly detailed advice might be too limiting for the other person.  Being a ‘shoulder to cry on’ as it were, someone who will listen and question and find out what the other person really wants and needs, allows Writers to find their own way, which will help them much more in the long-term.  It also occurs to me, as I write this, that there is a huge difference between someone coming to talk about a problem and someone actually asking for advice.  Only in the latter case, and possibly not even then, should we be considering dispensing serious advice and information.  But if we can find a way for the Writer to find out the information or come up with solutions themselves, so much the better.  An exception to this may be emerging needs as noted by a Mentor, such as realising that a Writer’s structure isn’t as logical as it could be.  But once this has been raised, it is perhaps then for the Writer to, again, come up with a solution, even through trial and error.
  • In fact, as with the character, Jenny, one of Erica’s best friends, we sometimes have to let people make mistakes so that they learn from them. We can’t wrap people in cotton wool, which is definitely one of the lessons I need to work on the most.  Just as with Erica’s friend and one-time boyfriend, Ethan, people have to, and often want to, find their own way, believing that one’s past – good or bad – is what makes you who you are.
  • And we make mistakes too, hence the importance of reflections and ongoing training. Like Erica’s ‘day without consequences that won’t stick’, a reckless approach to life, even in this fantastic one-off opportunity, can actually make you think harder about what to do in the first place once things start going horribly wrong.  Plus, the whole premise of the show is about confronting our mistakes, and our past, and to stop ‘if only-ing’ or ‘what if-ing’, remembering that today is tomorrow’s yesterday.  It’s all gone in the blink of an eye, and certainly that’s how most of my sessions feel.  So I’d like to get as many of them right as possible, and as soon as possible.
  • But just how to get it right can be tricky at times. There is no perfect prescriptive way for each and every session to go.  So, just as with Erica’s task to find her way off a deserted island, we often need to make our own path, particularly in difficult sessions.  Sometimes, there is just no simple right or wrong way to do something, or answer a question.  But if the Writer can leave with a clearer understanding of their work, and an action plan to tackle their (sometimes emergent) problems, hopefully feeling a bit happier too, then our work is done.  It comes back, then, to reflection, and exploring if there are lessons to be learned for future sessions.
  • This is a good place to end with the show’s final episode, about standing on your own two feet, as Erica becomes a Doctor in her own right, and not a patient anymore. The importance here, I think, is for the Mentee.  Mentors won’t always be around, so we need to build Writer’s skills and confidence to go on themselves.  And it’s often not us who will know when the time is right for a Writer to spread their wings.  But the Writer will, and it’s my favourite moment, though fairly rare and a little bit nostalgic, when I see the true light of inspiration and productivity in a Writer’s eyes, that they are now ready for their assignment; in fact, for their degree.

I hope this summary is of some use to others, while I highly recommend watching the show if you can – for fun as well as for function!

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