While group orientation sessions like they have at schools are extremely helpful in dealing with the anxiety of a new situation, mentorship goes one step beyond. Mentorship is a uniquely powerful one-on-one relationship with someone who is farther along at whatever is it you’re embarking on.
I’ve had my own mentors, both as a student and as a therapist, and I’ve also had several informal mentors. These are people I go to for specific guidance – like a friend who’s also been married for 25 years, other parents whose children are older than mine or inspiring people who have had business successes.
Ideally, a mentor is someone who has your best interests at heart and so just wants to help. Usually, this person will have their own mentor, and helping you is a way to pay that person back for their time and guidance.
12-step programs use a form of mentorship called sponsorship. One person, who has already applied the 12-step model to recover from addiction and heal their life, acts as a sponsor to another addict who is newer to the program and just starting to deal with their problem.
I recently saw the movie The Soloist, about a brilliant musician with schizophrenia and a man who helps him. One character in the movie comments that sometimes you can change brain chemistry just by being someone’s friend. There is something so innately healing about the feeling that someone is there for you.
It’s important to discuss the difference, though, between a mentor and a friend. In friendship, there are times when we each step into the role of giver and receiver. We’re not usually able to be truly objective with a friend or family member, because we may want specific outcomes for them.
Mentorship is more one-sided, although you do help the mentor by giving them the opportunity to help. Helping someone else feels good; it’s very fulfilling. Also, remember that mentoring you is a way for that person to pay back their own mentor. As well, sharing their wisdom helps refresh their memory about what’s been helpful, for the times that they need to apply those very same strategies in their own life.
In our groups at the White Picket Fence Counseling Center, we sometimes help to match our clients with mentors who are father along the path of recovery from their problems with eating. We’re careful not to foster any kind of hierarchy or dependence, but rather to give each new client access to someone who can walk this journey with them, someone they can talk to in between therapy sessions. For many of our clients this relationship with a mentor becomes an important extension of the therapy process.