half a tank is all you need…

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When the going gets tough…what can you do?

We’ve all experienced it. It’s that moment after the adrenaline of beginning your internship has worn off, the novelty of your coworkers and fellow interns is becoming rote, and your readings and papers for school are creeping up fast and furiously. Some of you may also hold a part-time or full-time job while juggling school and the internship. Your rose-colored glasses get darker and suddenly, you can’t remember the last time you smiled, laughed or ate something. Welcome to the Dark Days.

I only mildly exaggerate but there will come a point in time when things feel completely overwhelming. I wish there were a salve to rid us all of these days but this post exists to remind you that a) it’s normal and b) make time for self-care.

If you’re in the middle of it now, you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, what does she know? Trust me, I know! I was a full-time professional and student with a caseload of clients that demanded an immense amount of time and energy…I know what it feels like to not have the time to breathe. I also know that when you are experiencing exhaustion and the first signs of burnout, not only are you not doing any good for yourself but your work in the field may also suffer. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of self-care. It’s not just a concept in your textbook; it’s an important aspect of your development as a professional.

Self-care doesn’t always mean a two week stay at a beach resort with a Bahama-Mama at your side (though it sounds great!). It could mean taking 30 minutes in your day to do something for you. Stretch, journal, watch an episode of a funny show. Engage in anything that helps you reconnect to you and your interests outside of the counseling realm. (For more ideas, see this post featuring Shawn Achor)

Lastly, for those of us based in NY and surrounding states, Sandy has disrupted many of our lives. There are a number of resources available to help you and your clients address stress and trauma related to the storm.



Adaptation, Coping, and Getting Personal

The past few months have brought more than a fair share of events that have required adaptation and coping – the quick and painful kind. There have been major events in virtually every aspect of life. Each one bringing a heaping serving spoon of stress. Enter sleep issues, teeth clenching, the nothing-pie and air-soup laying claim to my appetite.

There are situations that actually do warrant the type of reactions that I would normally attempt to steer myself away from. All in all, I’d say I’m not coping too poorly. Not staying in bed all day, not missing work, not consuming anything “unsavory”, not weeping in a heap on the subway. On a scale of 1-10 for functionality, I’d give myself a solid 8.

But, still.

There are situations that are not fleeting. They linger and shift and change shape even as I struggle to get them into a solid grasp. The idea of more change – more reasons to adapt and cope – makes the room spin, lights dim, and I fall with Alice-like abandon into a dark unknown.

Life events – positive, negative, external or internal – can present opportunities for new and exciting revelations; but, when too many things are in “transition” it can quickly turn into a rabbit hole. But, still.

In all of the personal turmoil, there still needs to be the energy and mental wherewithal to work and be of use to clients. I appreciated Suze Hirsh’s account of “emotional shock” in a recent edition of Counseling Today and how to stay steady when distracted by our own issues. They involve many of the same techniques we might provide to Fly off the Handle Client. I had a chance to use some of her wisdom when Weepy Client boldly stated that I have probably not experienced any hardships in my life. I’m not sure what gave Weepy Client that impression but while my initial reaction was to retort with a fierce verbal karate chop, I followed Hirsh’s recommendations and breathed deeply, tapped on my clavicles (though maybe not as inconspicuously as she suggests) and was able to respond in a manner expected of a counselor. It made all the difference. Thank you, Suze!

Every once and a while, feeling that flash of anger or having a sleepless night is pretty normal (I’ve learned too that, a bowl full of cherries, mug of chamomile, and March of the Penguins seems to do the trick for getting to sleep).  Coping in and of itself requires adaption. It’s constantly in-motion and evolving.

Life will throw tacks in the road – figuring out how to navigate between them is part of the trip.  How do others cope with stress and stay calm in the professional arena?

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Try something new (and become a better counselor)

The process of engaging with something with which we have no or very limited experience with can be a difficult undertaking – particularly, I have recently learned, as adults.  The brain (and ego) suddenly create barriers that can make tackling a new skill overwhelming and challenging in ways vastly different than we experienced as children.  This came to my attention as I embarked on learning how to play an instrument and learn a new language a few months ago.

The last three decades have been spent figuring out what I’m good at and then doing everything in my power to hone those skills.  At the very least, I’ve picked out areas that I have some ability to perform well enough in and with minimal embarrassment.  As I struggle now with learning two entirely new skills, I find that this lesson in learning is something that can be applied to my work as a counselor.  Here are four things I learned about counseling and the counseling relationship based on my experiences with tackling new tasks.

1. Patience is a virtue.  This particular phrase always made me grimace, perhaps speaking to a shortage of this particular virtue, but learning how to do something new really drives this point home.  New skills do not come overnight.  It takes time, patience, and a positive attitude to learn something new.  The same goes for working with clients.  What we discover in one session might not stick until session 10 or 20.  Being patient with myself and with the client can go a long way in building a positive therapeutic relationship.

2. Practice makes perfect.  Learning a new instrument and language have been difficult for me because I have to deal with the many imperfections and negative feelings that present themselves when trying to get it right.  With time and practice, new skills and concepts get easier to manage.  Struggling with this first hand has helped me empathize more with clients and truly appreciate the way they grope and struggle with new ideas and ways of being.  It’s important to guide them, give feedback and acknowledge the bravery that it takes to show their “imperfections” week after week.  Freeing oneself of phobias, anxieties and those pesky automatic thoughts is no easy feat (if it were, we would be out of a career) and I can truly appreciate the tenacity that clients have to engage in the process of therapy.

3. Get creative.  If there’s one thing I despise, it is doing the same thing, the same way over and over again.  I always thought this is what real practice was but I’m finding as an adult learner, I have to spice it up in order to stick with it.  Not only does it make the concept of practice less daunting, but new ways of practicing skills enhances my ability to successfully use them in a variety of contexts and allows me  to constantly engage and challenge myself.  Practice makes perfect but it should not have to induce boredom.  What would make you practice your new skill everyday?  Figuring out what works for me has lead me to exercise more creativity with how I work with clients.

4. Create building blocks of learning.  Imagine your frustration if when walking into a Learning to Paint class, the instructor asked you to replicate the Mona Lisa.  You might become enraged that you’re being asked to do such a thing without leaning the basics or you might skulk out of the classroom feeling hopeless and embarrassed.  I am guilty of trying to fast track my own learning.  I skipped a few core lessons in my language practice and attempted to complete a benchmark exam at the end.  The failure was epic and I grudgingly went back to the lessons for novices.  What I thought might be a nice challenge turned into a complete failure due to my inexperience and gaps in necessary knowledge.  As I move closer towards the language benchmark exam (for round 2), I realize the importance of starting small and creating concrete steps of skill acquisition and a solid knowledge base.  As it applies to counseling, what might seem to be a reasonable challenge for me may seem an insurmountable task to my client which can breed negative emotional states and put the counseling relationship at risk.  Building blocks need to be set to allow the client to successfully meet benchmark goals and to try out more advanced challenges.  These are the foundations to long-lasting change.

You do not have to be in your client’s shoes in order to experience some of the things they might be facing as they come into therapy.  Bring your own experience in learning something new to the table and you might find that suddenly your patience is renewed, your empathy greater, and your focus shifted to finding new ways to engage and help your client practice the many new tools all that they are learning in therapy.