When I was on a panel at a high school career fair recently, a student asked an important question: “How do you prevent yourself from being regularly traumatized by the stuff people tell you?” she asked. “I mean. How can you stand it?”
My fellow panelists talked about the importance of developing our own coping skills, using mindfulness and other techniques to ground and having good boundaries. All true. What I felt compelled to add and seemed to surprise some of our young audience was the importance of having a fulfilling personal life.
I first articulated this idea when talking to a young supervisee who proudly told me that her work was everything! She was shocked when my response was “Oh no! I hope not!” As important as our work is, as vital as it is to be able to get in there and touch our patient’s pain, as crucial as it is to really, genuinely, care, there really is such a thing as working too hard and too much. When our work becomes our “life,” we aren’t doing ourselves or our patients a service. We need to experience life in its fullness to both take care of ourselves and to be effective as therapists.
Having “a Life” Isn’t Optional
Our personal life is what keeps us centered and feeds our souls. Having good boundaries is meaningless if we don’t have a personal life to bind. Grounding ourselves after working with challenging client material requires having a place to ground to. Mutually caring relationships are what most makes coping possible.
Ultimately, having a life also makes us better at what we do. Experience with the range of human experiences (triumphs, heartaches, disappointments, victories and defeats) helps us develop an intuitive understanding of patients as they deal with similar experiences. Participation in the full cycle of life enhances our appreciation for our clients’ struggles with life’s milestones and challenges.
I want my supervisees to boldly and willingly jump into life with both feet. To me, that means courageously and continually working on the following areas (in no particular order):
Ø Love: Being loved by family, friends and/or a lover is our emotional safety net. The balance to a hard day doing hard work is having quiet moments of intimacy with others who care. Knowing we can return to someone’s loving embrace, whether verbal or physical, makes it possible to venture into what is scary or unknown.
Not everyone has the luck to find the person with whom they can spend 50 years or more. But everyone can make the effort to have intimacy in their life. Loving, loving and losing, loving and staying loving and loved, losing love and having the courage to try again or making a decision about whether to be single or to make the compromises required over a long run, are all parts of the human condition. Exploring love in all its many dimensions expands our understanding of our clients’ experiences and struggles with relationships.
Ø Be comfortable with your own sexuality. Sexuality is being acknowledged as far more fluid and complex than was thought even a decade ago. It’s important to our mental health to be clear and comfortable with that very central part of our identity. Being firmly grounded in who we are is essential to being nonjudgmental and supportive when patients struggle with defining their sexuality and deciding who to tell what and when.
Ø Have three to five good, long-term friends. Research shows that people who cope well have on average three to five mutually satisfying friendships. Indeed, our resilience depends upon it. Good long-term friends are witnesses to our growth, give us honest and caring feedback when we need it and celebrate our milestones. Friends who are not clinicians keep us in touch with other walks of life. Navigating the challenges of making friends, maintaining friendships and even losing friends helps us be a better support to our clients as they manage the complexities of human relationships.
Ø Parent or be an important, regular participant in some children’s lives. Socializing children is one of the most humbling things adults ever do. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child keeps us in touch with wonder. Spending time with kids reminds us to play. Whether we have kids of our own (birth or adopted) or become an honorary “aunt” or “uncle,” being closely involved with some children over time helps us better understand ourselves when we were young, our young clients, our clients when they were children and, especially our clients who are struggling with the mysterious and often challenging job of parenting.
Ø Spend some time with elders. There is wisdom and perspective to be gained from the stories of people who can look back on 60 or more years of life. We, as well as our patients, will at some point struggle with the aging of parents, the death of people dear to us and with our own aging and mortality. Being close to elderly friends helps us learn to face aging and death with courage and even appreciation.
Ø Develop a hobby. Yes, doing therapy is creative. But we need to stay in touch with that part of our brain that transports us to another place through art, nature and/or physical activity as well. Stepping outside our profession can free us (for at least a few hours) of the stress of maintaining a business or our worries about the clients we are worried about. Just as importantly, it helps us explore the human drive to go beyond the familiar, to experience our surroundings in a new way and to exercise the imagination.
Our work as clinicians is certainly defining for all of us in the mental health field. It gives us meaning. It gives us joy when it works. It frustrates us and engages us in new ways when it doesn’t. True. But it’s been said that very few people on their deathbeds wish they had spent more time on the job. To live fully outside of our work day enriches our life, feeds our spirits, protects us from stress and, perhaps ironically, makes us better therapists.