If you grew up in a family business, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced the conflict between sticking with your roots and being called to explore a new path. Lex Dignam can empathise. At 18, he deviated from his family’s wood heating company to enrol in a psychology degree. Yet, when his brother needed a hand with the business, Lex did a career backflip and spent the next 12 years in heating installation, roofing sheeting and carpentry.
True to his nature, he still found time to connect with those around him over the years, doing his best to chip away at the tradie’s unspoken rule: ‘Don’t bring your problems to work.’
“Most of the guys I worked with were purely focused on the job in hand. But I always felt I had a calling to do something else. I’d be on the roof with them, trying to solve all of their problems, seeing if they were OK and if they wanted to have a yarn.”
By the time he was 30, Lex had achieved many of his goals in life. He’d fallen in love, raised a beautiful family with his wife, and they owned their own home. Yet at work, Lex felt burnt out and stagnant. He’d come to a crossroads and was yearning for a vocation that would reawaken him. It was time to make a move, and he knew where to go.
When the time was right, Lex enrolled in a Bachelor of Applied Social Science Counselling at the Australian College of Applied Psychology in Sydney. It was incredibly difficult studying as a mature age student, but he was determined to see it through. During his final year, Lex was delighted to be offered a placement with Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains in Emerton.
“I underwent extensive training at uni, but putting that theory into practice was a huge eye-opener. Initially, I was working predominantly with Indigenous clients, in a predominantly Indigenous community. Being in a minority was a big learning experience for me – I felt a bit out of my depth. But over time, I realised I had to earn that sense of feeling welcome; I couldn’t just expect it. I needed to recognise that I had plenty to learn from others. In time, I opened my eyes and my ears.”
Having overcome some initial cultural barriers, Lex found he was able to truly connect with his clients to offer them support and guidance during some of the most challenging times of their lives. He’s quick to explain that it’s not all about finite, happy endings.
“Much of our work is about a process as opposed to a single outcome. It’s often a cycle. I worked with one couple who had their kids removed because of drug use and related issues. Over time, they made great progress and their kids were returned to them. Then they fell into drug-use again, and the kids were again removed. It’s tough. Being removed two or three times is massive for kids. The parents understand why. We stay on this journey with them.”
Despite the challenges, Lex is clearly driven by an unwavering belief that change is possible.
“It’s about truly believing in anyone’s capacity to change. I work hard not to make a negative judgement about my clients. If you construct a positive judgment around someone, it benefits the counselling. You can build rapport. And when kids are reunited with their parents who really have made a change for the better… it’s all worth it. You know that those kids are no longer facing the same sort of neglect. These moments always stick with me.”
Lex listens more than he talks. But you soon get a strong sense of his own self-awareness and his ability to empathise. Indeed, it isn’t a surprise when, right at the end of our interview, he shares that he too has been through counselling, sitting ‘in the other chair’.
“It was just before I switched careers, to pursue a career in counselling. I was 29 and knew I needed help to find direction in life. I also needed to go to therapy to work through my own childhood traumas – stuff that I was still trying to deal with. I still am today.”
Lex is a huge advocate of experiencing counselling, both to support your own life, and in preparing to become a counsellor yourself.
“There’s nothing quite like being the client; that journey was more valuable to my education than going to university. It showed me how the counsellor affects the client, and how they can affect you. Recognising this two-way relationship is essential if you’re going to be able to support your client.”
Lex has now worked as a Family Relationship Counsellor at Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains for over six years, while also still working with his family business. He shares his key takeaways about a career in counselling.
“Counselling is about listening and opening yourself up to learning. To anyone who wants to pursue this work, ensure you’re always listening. It’s part of the hope that we hold: change is possible. And change always happens when you’re listening. My other piece of advice would be to learn about yourself and work on yourself. See a therapist if you need to. Before you can nurture a long term connection with your client, you have to know what’s going on inside you.”
As we end our interview with Lex, he shares one final thought:
“Counselling is the hardest work I’ve ever done. But it is incredibly rewarding. I feel very privileged to travel with people who allow me into their lives.”