Is it me or are you getting on my last nerve?
Written by Kelle Watson, M.A. LPC
Director of Mental Health
Being in a helping profession is a noble calling. It can be rewarding beyond anything money can buy. It can make you feel fulfilled and left with a feeling that all is right with the world. This is how we all begin as helpers, wide eyed, naïve, with lofty notions of changing the world one person at a time. While being a helper is truly an altruistic thing to do, it can leave us feeling stressed, defeated, unappreciated, resentful, exhausted, and angry. If we are not careful, being a helper can lead us down the road to a bad case of burn out.
Think back to a time when you had a bad friend. You know the one who always talks about themselves and interrupts you if you try to change the subject and if by some chance you do get to talk they don’t remember anything you have said to them? The friend who borrows money from you and doesn’t pay it back and also forgets that you loaned them money to begin with? The friend you dread when you see their number come up on your phone or in a text because you know it is them wanting to drain the life out of you? The friend who is so dramatic you wonder why they didn’t go into acting? The friend who has a string of horrible relationships and wants your advice about why they keep ending up with the same type of person when you’ve already told them three relationships ago? The friend who meets you for dinner, forgets their wallet and then challenges the tip you are leaving the server? We have all had this kind of friend. This friend left us feeling pretty resentful, unappreciated, and angry. Most of us eventually realize the relationship is neither a relationship nor reciprocal and we cut our losses and are no longer friends with these people. We walk away.
When we are a helper, it is not about us, it is about the other person as it should be. This one sided relationship can be extremely draining. The lack of reciprocity combined with the continued giving of ourselves can cause us to feel resentment towards the person we truly want to help. If this festers and grows, resentment turns to anger, anger turns to fatigue, fatigue turns to burn out and the burn out may make us want to walk away from the helping profession.
I remember years ago meeting an older man at a counseling training. He told me he had walked away from the profession for several years because he was, “just so burnt out”. He looked at me with little to no confidence in his eyes and said, “I hope this doesn’t happen to me again”. I remember wondering what his plan was. Was he planning on leaving the profession again and again? That didn’t seem like much of a plan. I remember being grateful for meeting him early on in my career as it made me realize I did not want this to happen to me. So, I began to put a self care plan in place.
What is self care? Self care is attending to all facets of your life. If you break your foot you would go to the doctor and get it fixed and no one would call you selfish for doing so. You are just taking care of yourself. People empathize with our broken foot, open the door for us as we hobble through it, or ask to sign our cast. We get the compassion and empathy we deserve for our broken foot. While everyone can spot a broken foot, not everyone can spot a weary soul. So, when a weary soul asks for time to take care of themselves emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, unfortunately they may be viewed as being selfish or self indulgent.
Think back to the last time you boarded a plane. You excitedly or maybe anxiously were awaiting takeoff. The flight attendants began their safety talk as you buckled in half listening. They instruct you if the oxygen masks drop, put yours on first so you can help the person next to you. I’ll admit the first time I heard that I thought that seemed selfish but then again I was new to the helping profession. Logically, if you are gasping for breath you are in no shape to help the person next to you. You have to take care of yourself before you can begin to help the person next to you.
Part of my job is teaching counselors how to learn the balance of helping others while also remembering to care for themselves. I know they will not last long in the field if they don’t find this balance. Balance is very important in life. You can’t continually withdraw from your bank account without putting more money in. You can’t continually drive without filling up your car with gas. You can’t continually give to others without giving to yourself.
A helping professional needs to have a self care plan in place. If they do not have one, burn out may begin to creep in. Burn out may start slowly and then build. Some common signs are anger, resentment, irritability, apathy, and stress. By the time these signs begin to appear, it is time to take action and address these negative emotions before they get worse.
If your engine light comes on in your car and doesn’t go out you wouldn’t ignore it because you know if you do, you are eventually going to break down on the side of the road. You would make an appointment with a mechanic. You would learn what the problem is before something worse may happen. Think of the beginning of burn out as your engine light coming on. Your emotions are trying to tell you something is not quite right. You need to slow down, listen to it and attend to it. Becoming self aware is the first step. Once you become self aware you are heading towards burn out you need to take action. Taking action is what calms you down, what destresses you, and also what builds your reserves back up. Building your reserves back up allows you to continue on so you can help others.
I’ve heard miraculous stories of people surviving in the open sea for hours. One thing they always mention is that for a while they just floated on top of the water not expending much energy. It helped conserve the energy they needed to keep treading the water because they didn’t know when or if they would be rescued. So they would tread, then float, tread, then float. No one would call them selfish for floating. They were conserving their energy and building back up their reserves. Not only was this a smart thing to do, it ended up being life saving.
As helping professionals, sometimes we are working with clients who are also experiencing burn out. Our clients may be giving to others in their lives at the expense of themselves. Sometimes our clients allow others to take advantage of them, use them, or worse, abuse them. If we, in the helping profession, have our own self care plan in place we can easily teach clients how to do the same. If we do not have a self care plan in place, then we will have little success in trying to teach it to others.
So what does a self care plan look like? It is as varied as we are. For some it is being alone, for others it is being with friends and family. For some it is going to the beach, for others it is going to the mountains.
The following is a list of self care options to put into practice to reduce the stress in your life and build your reserves back up. It is not an exhaustive list but rather a starter list so you can begin to think about what your own personal self care list would look like:
Take a 20 minute nap
Learn how to meditate
Sit outside and enjoy nature
Take a long bath
Talk with a supportive friend
Write in a journal
Do something creative like draw, paint, or play an instrument
Make something creative, bake, create a new recipe, knit a scarf
Close your eyes and count slowly to 100
Do some deep breathing
Spend 5 minutes being grateful
Take time to exercise
Try yoga, Pilates, or tai chi
Spend 10 minutes stretching
Go to a park and swing on a swing
Light some incense, close your eyes and let it take you to another place
Have a cup of tea
Go to the bookstore and read for hours
Watch you tube videos that make you laugh
Watch you tube videos of animals and babies
Work in the garden, arrange some flowers
Take a long hot shower
Unplug from social media
Go to a museum
Go sit on the beach
Tell corny jokes
Go to the spa for a massage or facial
Google inspirational quotes
Doing things that you enjoy, that are relaxing, restful, creative, restorative, and good for you helps build your reserves back up. Once your reserves are built back up you are ready to help others once again. After all, that is why we all chose a helping profession in the first place. I encourage you to take the time to care for yourself and incorporate a self care plan into your life. Once it is incorporated, it will become second nature. You will have a go to list that replenishes your emotional reserves and gets you ready to give to others once again.
I would like to leave you with one final thought. Have you taken care of yourself today?
When talking about adoption I often hear it referred to as a journey. When I think about a journey I think about something that is ongoing with no definitive end. One of the definitions for the word journey is “passage or progress from one stage to another.” I think it is that definition of the word journey that best describes the journey of adoption. You see, adoption is not a one time thing. It is not just the event that happens on the day that your child is placed with you. It is an ongoing journey or “passage or progress from one stage to another.”
Last year Catholic Charities started a post adoption program to support families who have adopted. It doesn’t matter if you adopted the child as an infant, internationally, or through foster care. It doesn’t matter if the adoption happened a month ago or 11 years ago. The program was designed to support families through all stages of their adoption journey. As an adopted child myself it has been interesting to work with families who have adopted. Every story is different, each adoption is different, and there are no two stories that are the same. The only commonality that I see is that each family is on a journey trying to navigate the world of adoption.
I was brought home from the hospital at just a few days old. Having been adopted in the 80’s I have little information on my birth family. I know their ages and that is about it. My parents have always been open and honest about the fact that I was adopted and have always been supportive of whatever decisions I choose to make when it comes to searching for my birth family (but that is a whole different story). I was never that kid who asked a lot of questions about my adoption; it never bothered me. In fact, it has never been a big deal in my family (immediate and extended). Truth be told I think that most of my extended family forgets that I was adopted. I have always been secure in who I am and never really struggled with the fact that I was adopted; at least until my late 20’s. It was during that time that I was diagnosed with a genetic medical condition. I remember being on the ultrasound table and the technician who was working on me was giving me a really hard time about not knowing my medical history and how irresponsible it was of me to not have pursued avenues of finding it. To be honest, I was shocked. I didn’t know how to respond. I had never in my life had anyone respond to the fact that I was adopted in that way. I remember leaving the office, getting into the car, and immediately calling my mom upset. I would say that this was the first time in my life, in my adoption journey, that I had ever struggled or had doubts. Was I being irresponsible or was that woman just being insensitive. My mother talked me through it of course and by the time that the conversation had ended I was fine and had just chalked up the woman’s comments to complete ignorance. But, it was at that moment that I realized how adoption is truly a journey.
It is a journey that will bring great joy to both the adoptee and the adoptive parents but it is also a journey that can bring sorrow, hard questions, and strong emotions. November is National Adoption Month. It is a month to celebrate the joys of adoption. And adoption does bring so much joy. However, I also see the struggles. The parents who can’t understand their child’s extreme behaviors. The adoptee who is trying to come to grips with the loss of their biological family. It is important to remember that these struggles can hit at any time. Your child could be like me and have a really tough day when they are in their 20’s. Or, it could be the 8 year old who has experienced extreme trauma before coming to you and doesn’t know how to properly express it.
What I want each adoptive parent to know (whether you are just starting out or you have been parenting for years) is that the journey is continuous. Have a support system, especially a support system of other adoptive families. Seek out training opportunities; there are some wonderful conferences and trainings out there. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; there are agencies out there that will support you. It is a personal passion of mine to walk beside families throughout their journey so that they know that they are not alone. I know many other adoption workers who feel the same way. But we can’t help if you don’t ask for help. Be honest about both your joys and your struggles and remember that this journey of adoption that you are on is an amazing one.
For more information on Catholic Charities’ Post Adoption Program go to our website www.adoptionandpregnancycenter.org
Contributed by Kelle Watson, M.A.LPC, CCEVA’s Director of Mental Health Counseling
It is a rare parent who has not said or at least thought this sentiment. While kids can be wonderful, charming and funny, they can also be challenging, exasperating, exhausting, and frustrating. An old Doris Day movie depicts her multiple kids following her around the house and calling her name over and over, “Mommy” “Mommy”! She turns away from them rolling her eyes and muttering under her breath, “You know you can grow to hate that word”! We can all relate to this in a lighthearted way, but when is a kid being more than a typical, non stop energy, full of questions, driving you nuts kid to a kid that may need counseling?
Kids present differently in counseling than adults and experience emotions on a whole different level. If you would for a moment, imagine yourself living in a world where a lot of the population knows more than you. Most people are bigger than you and the people who are the same size as you don’t know any more than you do and are just as confused as you are. You are changing and growing so rapidly that your clothes don’t last long. You are driven to places without a say in where you are going. Sometimes you don’t even know where you are going until you get there. You have little money or power or control if any. You have emotions but you are not self aware of what they are or when they will show up or how they will make you act. You can’t even name them as emotions because you have had such little experience with them that you don’t have the slightest idea how to deal with or process them.
When kids get to this point they “act out” because they don’t quite know how to tell you what is wrong. All they know is they are confused. They may start to do poorly in school. They may not hang out with their friends like they use to. They may do things that you thought you taught them not to do such as backtalk, lie, steal, throw things, yell, or hit. They may mope, be irritable, be hyper, or may want to be alone. Even worse they may try to hurt themselves.
It is important to talk with kids daily and check in with them on how they are feeling about their life. This can help them grow in their self awareness and emotional health. It doesn’t have to take a long time. Spending even 5 minutes a day of active listening time while giving them your complete attention goes a long way. Ask them to tell you one good thing about their day and one bad thing. Kids don’t respond to vague open ended questions. Asking your kid how they are leaves them feeling confused how to answer. Asking specific questions helps getting not only specific answers but gives you the information you need to know if everything is ok at school, if they are being bullied, if they are sad, if they are angry. It also helps to let them know it is okay to have emotions and to feel them. This sets up a healthy life skill of learning to experience emotions, learning how to control them and learning how to communicate their feelings.
If you are communicating with your child and you are not getting anywhere and the acting out behaviors continue or increase, it may be a good idea to schedule an appointment with a counselor. How do you know who may be a good counselor for your child or adolescent? A good child counselor should have a fun personality, should have a love for working with children, should be respectful to your child, should listen to them, should give them choices as well as structure, should be age appropriate and plan activities with your child. While an adult will come to their first session and can tell you what is wrong, a child may not know what is wrong and will need help sorting it out. Sometimes parents struggle with bringing their children to counseling feeling embarrassment or shame or hurt that they not only can’t figure out what is wrong with their child but that they are not able to help them. A good child counselor can provide an objective listening ear where the child feels the freedom to open up and talk without letting Mom or Dad down or feeling that they may be punished for what they say or for the acting out behaviors they have been displaying. A good child counselor will also work with Mom and Dad facilitating open communication between parent and child, educating Mom and Dad on the difference between child and adult counseling and explaining the age appropriate interventions that may be used.
Interventions for a child are very different. Since children aren’t skilled in conversation they need to be occupied with a task when talking with you. They may need to draw, or roll out some playdough or hold a toy. They may need to listen to music. An active child may need to toss a ball or get up and move around as they speak to you. A shy child may be content sitting still coloring. Each child is different and requires different interventions that are individualistic to them. A good counselor will adjust accordingly.
In a first session with a child, I ask them to make a journal. They have the power to design it however they want. They also have the power to show it to whoever they want. Sometimes children like to share with parents and other times they want to keep it private. Parents sometimes feel hurt by this but it is a way they are learning to corral their emotions and release them at times and keep them to themselves at times. If a child never learns to control their emotions they will become an adult with emotional management issues who may loose their temper in the grocery store because their coupon wasn’t accepted or screams at another driver out their window because they didn’t use their signal.
The child’s journal is then kept in my office locked up in my file cabinet and I let them know that. I let them know that what they say and what they think is important to me and that I will protect it. I am showing them that their emotions can be private and they can be brought out at times in an appropriate way. They are learning to have control over their feelings. The more they practice this, the more they are able to articulate their feelings. The more they articulate their feelings, the more information I have to help them.
Emotional psychoeducation for children needs to be age appropriate with pictures and games to help them to identify and name their emotions. Kids think they are having fun and playing while in counseling but they are actually learning valuable life skills. Because they are having fun, they look forward to coming to counseling. Because they are learning valuable life skills they are working on what brought them to counseling in the first place. They are changing emotional outbursts into conversations about their feelings. Mom and Dad are often included in the conversations as well as the interventions and homework. Behavioral charts can be made for home use that show the progress the child is making with their emotional health. This is a visual reminder that encourages both child and parents. The more Mom and Dad can be on board with counseling, follow through with interventions, and apply what is learned at home the more success there will be in therapy.
Art is a wonderful expression for children and so much can come out in a drawing. I often, in beginning sessions, have kids make family trees. They think they are coloring and having fun while I am assessing their family dynamic and social support network. Based on who they include and don’t include in their family tree I can learn how they feel about family members and themselves within the family unit. Kids often include pets as members of their family. Pets provide unconditional love that can counterbalance feelings of disappointment they may have in themselves due to their acting out behaviors at home. Pets help them feel that no matter what happens, no matter what they do, someone accepts and loves them. Technically pets are not human, but for kids pets truly are part of their support system and very often are part of their family tree.
As children progress in their experience, self awareness and knowledge of emotion they begin to hold conversations that help them learn how to express their emotion without resorting to acting out behaviors. This control that they feel empowers them. The progress gives them confidence. They are pleasing their parents. Relationships improve. Home life has become better.
While the goal is for children to improve acting out behaviors and no longer need therapy, this presents the sensitive topic of ultimately closing the case altogether. While adults understand this, kids can look at closure with both confusion and sadness. They are bonded with their counselor. They feel connected. They don’t want to say goodbye. A good counselor will handle this with the utmost gentleness and sensitivity. While I prepare them for closure, I encourage their progress and explain that we will be gradually stretching the sessions out. I encourage them on how far they have come and how much they have grown. I explain to them again what counseling is, how it progresses and how it helps us gain the skills to live a better life. I also let them know while it may feel like we are saying “goodbye”, it may be more like “see you again someday”. I explain they can always come back if they need to talk, or work through something. I make sure to give them my card again with my work email so if they need to contact me they can. This gives them the power to decide whether this is “goodbye” or “see you again”. This gives them the sensitive closure they need. Parents also like to know if issues come up they can bring their child to someone the child knows, trusts, and responds to.
If your child is driving you crazy, they may just need to talk with you, or they may need more time from you or they simply may be trying to figure out their place in the world, at school, or at home. Sometimes it may be something more serious that is bothering them such as anxiety or depression or grief. Whatever they need to figure out, we are here to listen to them, respect them, guide them, encourage them, and help them get back to being that wonderful kid that you have come to know and love.