Clinicians in agency settings or private practice are surrounded by grief, sadness, toxic behavior, depression, anxiety, and questions about the meaning or purpose of life. The influx of heaviness and sorrow sometimes seems to never end. Then, the work day is over, but the feelings of desperation and despair, frustration and anger, etc. persist within the healer as s/he leaves the office for the trip home. Where do those feelings go? How do we dissipate them from inside our guts — and sometimes, inside our very souls?
Much has been written about wounded healers. Some of us come to the profession seeking, unconsciously or not, our own healing. Some of us are drawn to take care of others’ pain. Most of us do not seek this profession of healing to get rich, but we do become wiser over the years. The latter is a gift.
The potent question that I have been pondering recently is how can we increase our ability to maintain resilience and a healthy emotional balance while helping others who are struggling with deep pain — or while struggling with our own personal life anguish?
Many have written on the subject, but one recent book that may be helpful to all of us is The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout Prevention and Self Care Strategies for Counselors, Therapists, Teachers, and Health Professionals (2nd ed.) by Thomas M. Skovholt and Michelle Trotter-Mathison. A review of the Table of Contents gives us some of the salient ideas of the book, but the one aspect of this publication that I want to focus on in this blog is: “The Need for More Self Care at Times of Personal Crisis or Excessive Stress.”
When we are most stressed by a particular client, some personal crisis, or a combination of the two, our coping mechanisms will be our saving grace, but how do we employ ones that serve us well when we often have little time to practice self-care? Some personalities (I can relate) tend toward trying to obtain more control over the situations at hand when faced with uncertainty, despair, and/or helplessness in the face of some type of challenge. Control can be a combination of attempted control over the situation, as in gathering more information to make a better decision. Or, it can take the form of trying to control others, which, of course, never really works out too well, but is often employed as a self-preservation technique. The goal of any type of control-seeking behavior is safety and the reduction of stress. The fight-flight mechanism in our brains is activated with severe or prolonged stress and we try to “get a handle on it.” This method — often unconscious — is generally bound to disappoint and, in the process, sap us of the necessary solace that we seek.
The old adage “the harder you push, the more bruised your head becomes” (or something like that) is oh so true. Trying to exert more and more control over a situation in which we are truly helpless is a form of insanity that only serves to keep us more stressed and fearful. Yet, it is a difficult habit to give up for some of us who like to feel that we are the Masters of Our Universes.
That assertive, self-confident emotional and intellectual position is great for us most of the time, but in the face of extreme challenges, betrayal, overwhelming sadness, etc., which helping professionals encounter frequently, if not consistently, the tendency to continue to employ control may not be as helpful as an alternate, if counter-intuitive approach: increasing resilience.
How can we shift gears and become more receptive, open, fluid — in the face and feeling of intense vulnerability? Not an easy task.
I am not so bold or arrogant to think that I can offer anyone the solution(s) to this dilemma. My goal here is to pose the dilemma and suggest that we all consider our own personal approaches to deeply caring for ourselves during these trying times in our lives. How can we take the best care of ourselves while still caring for others who are so wounded (e.g., our clients) or, in our personal lives (e.g., children, elderly, etc.), so needy and dependent upon us for consistent care?
Perhaps just musing over the outcomes of different types of coping strategies might inform our future responses. Maybe we can try something new when a horrendous day evolves and our heads are pounding, our hearts are aching, and our souls are wondering what the ultimate meaning of life really is. Maybe we can think about trying something new — rather than turn to that after-work glass of wine or comfort food, maybe we can find some alone space/time if only for half an hour to tend to ourselves and comfort our inner children before we end up at home or at an evening meeting where we have to turn away from ourselves once again. Maybe we can find some space during the tough and challenging days (and all days, eventually) to practice some self-care that speaks to us individually during our 10-minute breaks between clients or meetings. Maybe we can postpone returning phone calls or writing notes for a period of time while we nurture ourselves.
I am looking for the 10-minute power nap equivalents: what can help us center ourselves and regain the equanimity that we need to smooth out our emotions and recharge our energy during the day so that we are not quite so depleted at the end of the day? A friend of mine, who works as a Liver Transplant Social Worker with people constantly around her all day long who are sick and dying, told me that she sometimes goes to a certain rest room in the hospital where no one usually frequents when she starts to feel overwhelmed and gets a bit of respite on her cell phone for about 10 minutes. It serves her like the power naps that I employ during tough days — a 20-minute nap will help me awaken refreshed and ready to begin again, renewed and rested. Unfortunately, they do not provide cots for the medical social workers at the hospital!!
No one thing works for everyone and sometimes our special techniques for ourselves even quit being so helpful. If that occurs, we need to develop new approaches and practices to care for our Selves. We are the only ones who truly know what we need — and sometimes we do not take the time to really figure that out for ourselves until we are desperately down and burned out.
Email me the methods that have worked for you and I will post them in a future blog.
Here is hoping for your continued success of caring for yourself and becoming more and more resilient in your life!!