Two phone calls to struggling parents, one hospital visit, a support session with someone who has been going through a rough time in their marriage and that’s not counting the six voicemails and the 38 emails that are waiting for a response.
Oh, make that 39 emails.
Taking a deep breath you drink the last sip of your coffee and put your game face on.
“There’s no time to think about myself. “
“I’m here to serve others.”
“Their needs are very important.”
“If I don’t do it, what could happen?”
So you shut your mind off and focus on the needs of others.
There are two reasons why we guard ourselves and shut off from the work that we are doing: one, to protect ourselves from the hurt and trauma we see and hear. And two, we believe that our needs are not worthy in comparison to those of others.
Both of these mindsets unfortunately just compound the problem.
And here’s why.
It is a basic human instinct to protect ourselves when we feel threatened or in danger.
That is simply how your brain is wired.
And although you are not at immediate danger, such as a person who is experiencing domestic violence, your mind and your body interpret secondary trauma, or exposure to the traumatic story and recounting of events, as threatening.
So, it’s tempting to put your guard up and shut out anything that is potentially harmful.
Unfortunately, by numbing yourself to the potential danger, you are also shutting out feelings of joy.
Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma states it well: “In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.”
When we silence our emotions so we can push through and support others through tragic life experiences we are inadvertently numbing our ability to feel joy.
This, in turn, creates more hurt and depression requiring us to numb further to be able to continue as helpers and supporters.
If we believe our needs are not worthy of being met, or that other people’s needs are more important, we are contributing to the cycle leading to burnout and/or compassion fatigue.
We can be bombarded with lies of shame, fear of what others think and there’s often a huge amount of guilt when helpers tend to their own needs.
So what is the result?
You are always on call, lunches are skipped, bathroom breaks delayed and you carry your phone with you everywhere.
This behaviour is not sustainable.
The lies of guilt, shame and fear are from the devil, not from God and by numbing our feelings and emotions so you can first meet the needs of others will only cause you to be more worn out and depleted.
Now, you might be thinking: “So you want me to feel exhausted, resentful, frustrated and overwhelmed? How do I get through the day when I’m faced with so many needs!?”
Have you ever watched the children’s movie Inside Out by Pixar? If not, I think it’s a must-see. Without going into the whole plot of the movie, in essence it shows that feelings need to be felt.
Suppressing, numbing and avoiding feelings does not make them go away.
Feelings are meant to be felt.
So, to answer your question: Yes! I want you to feel all those emotions! They are not bad or sin or wrong. They just are. Just like a chair is not bad, sin or wrong. It just is.
By tending to your needs, like eating lunch, having a break and feeling frustrated you are better prepared and fueled to continue supporting others without sacrificing your own joy, health and relationships.
Here are 5 ways you can support others AND meet your own needs.
1. Silence and breathing.
Sounds a bit hokey I’m sure. But one of the greatest, and most underused, tool in counselling is the use of silence.
Sometimes as supporters, we just don’t know what to say. And to avoid an awkward silence we babble on just to fill the void.
Get used to having silence.
It’s amazing what can happen when we give people time to process their own thoughts. Use that silence for yourself too.
Often times, when I don’t know what to say I am silent and I pray.
“God give me the words to say.”
I also take a deep breath, as I am often on alert and breathing shallow.
I check-in with myself and ask: “How am I doing?” Not for self-evaluation, as good or bad, but asking “Is what the person saying evoking any feelings or frustrations in me?” And then I think, “What direction should we go next?”
If you are doing any counseling or supporting roles, I highly recommend getting comfortable with sitting in silence.
2. Go to the bathroom
It sounds simple, but this can be difficult to do when you’re running from need to need.
But I have even used going to the restroom during counselling appointments as an opportunity to stop and take a break. Politely excuse yourself, and slowly walk to the restroom stretching, breathing and use that time to consider the next steps.
If you are feeling resentful because you are at the hospital and it’s Saturday night and your family is at home, take a break to go to the restroom and use that time to evaluate if you need to go home or if you need to stay.
Leaving the room during a heated discussion, or when you feel stuck and don’t know what to do next, is an excellent way to acknowledge your feelings and then decide what you are going to do about them.
3. Eat lunch
Treat your lunchtime like you would a date with a friend.
You wouldn’t blow a friend off a lunch date at any request. You would consider it more carefully and you would be more likely to shift the time rather than cancel completely if something urgent came up. I encourage you to open your calendar and schedule in lunch every day for the rest of the year and consider it like an appointment you would have with a good friend.
When you sit down for lunch you are accomplishing 3 things.
- a) You are stopping your work and allowing your body and mind a break from the needs of others.
- b) You are eating something healthy and nutritious to give you fuel for the rest of the day.
- c) When you pray before your meal you are re-centering your mind and thoughts on Christ. It’s an opportunity to bring your frustrations, grief and feelings of helplessness to Him.
4. Be honest
Some of the best results have come when I have been honest in the middle of my counselling sessions.
If you are feeling exhausted from the story that’s being shared it can be helpful for the other person to hear that.
“Wow, I’m exhausted just hearing your story. I can’t imagine what you have been feeling.”
This expression of how trauma impacts us as humans can be very validating and trust-building for a person who is struggling.
Sometimes as caregivers we think there is an expectation that we have all the answers or that we can handle all situations. And to be honest (see what I’m doing here) I’m not sure if that is self-imposed or if it’s culturally imposed.
Either way, it’s A LOT of pressure on you.
So to tell someone that “I am not sure what to do in this situation, but I will get back to you by Friday.” or “You must be feeling overwhelmed because I am just hearing your experience.” is acknowledging both your needs and the other person’s needs.
As professional caregivers, we are not to use the session to meet our needs; but I think acknowledging the human experience of tragedy and trauma can be therapeutic.
5. Manage expectations
I left this one for last because this is something that requires more change in your day.
The first four suggestions can be applied to your current day, but managing expectations is a change in your workload.
If you are booking your own appointments be aware of what type of appointments you are booking.
For example, I don’t book any real heavy appointments in the afternoon. I’m often tired by that time and I’m not at my best.
I also don’t book them on Fridays. I generally use Fridays to tidy up any open issues or emails that are still outstanding.
By blocking your schedule, you are managing your time based on your needs and when you’re better able to support others.
Naturally, this limits the number of heavy sessions that I see in a week. This creates a system so I’m not having to measure or compare whose needs are more urgent.
If the spots are full that is not a personal judgement, much like any profession, like a doctor, accountant or dentist. If the schedule is full and you have to wait a week, people don’t often take that personally.
Obviously, this doesn’t account for emergencies, and when those occur you would apply the first 4 tips to ensure that your needs are being recognized and met.