Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

The inner life of the counselor

By Robert J. Wicks and Tina C. Buck April 28, 2014

inner-lifeA psychiatrist’s wife once questioned him about why he was so faithful in going to see Zen master Shunryu Suzuki for mentoring and guidance. His response was simple: “Where he is, is where I want to be … in that place of sanity.”

One of the greatest gifts we can share with those who come to us for counseling or supervision is a sense of our own peace, resilience and healthy perspective. However, we can’t share what we don’t have. It is as simple as that. And so, for those of us in the counseling profession, strengthening our own self-care protocol is not only an important undertaking for ourselves, but also a gift to our clients and colleagues.

To enjoy and share our signature strengths as counselors, we must:

  • Be willing to let go of that which is nonessential or destructive
  • Practice a greater sense of self-regulation
  • Incorporate at least a brief informal mindfulness practice in our day
  • Embrace approaches that help us maintain a healthy perspective regardless of the darkness that may be encroaching on our professional and personal lives

To encourage some movement toward these goals, this article will “dust off” and emphasize what is essential to remember about the value of “alonetime,” mindfulness and self-nurturance. In addition, we will offer several ideas on integrating these concepts through the practices of personal debriefing, rituals for renewal and releasing judgment.

Our bodies, minds and spirits are the instruments that we bring into our sessions as counselors. Our view of ourselves both as individuals and clinicians affects how we engage our clients, express our thoughts verbally and share our essence. Thus, knowing ourselves is a foundational element of self-care. With this awareness, we need to continually challenge and encourage ourselves by asking an overarching question: What do we seek for our own lives, and how does that translate into a mission or theme for our vocation as counselors? If we know what we are working toward, then we will know when we go off course — as all of us surely will at times.

There are occasions, of course, when the workload will be extremely heavy, and there is little we can or probably should do about it at that moment. However, if we find ourselves working 60 hours a week in private practice and missing our teenager’s sporting events, our anniversary and other things that we hold dear on an ongoing basis, then we know that adjustments need to occur. Also, by having a balanced life and valuing the fragility and impermanence of our human state, we are more likely to remain in the moment and be attentive to who we are and what we are doing now. Whereas, if we are too tired, hungry and/or stressed, we naturally have a tendency to lose focus and make poor judgments such as crossing boundaries and seeking inappropriate gratification from our clients, students or colleagues because the resources we are drawing from in our own lives are so sparse or currently unavailable. One of the best ways to ensure this scenario does not develop or is caught early on when it does is to place greater value on periods of alonetime.

 Valuing and accessing ‘alonetime’

We become vulnerable to physical, mental and spiritual decay when we do not slow down long enough to invest in ourselves consistently. However, when we appreciate, explore and enjoy designated and spontaneous time alone and gentle-clear reflective periods within ourselves (what we are referring to here as “alonetime”), we can lessen and more quickly withdraw our projections, become easier on ourselves and become less discouraged when personal or professional successes aren’t granted. Instead, we may feel a sense of inner ease and intrigue about the life we can live that is before us right now rather than constantly being postponed into some uncertain future.

Although as caregivers we live in an especially demanding, bustling world, there are simple, effective ways to uncover and enjoy crumbs of alonetime. In doing this, we can also:

  • Uncover the existing resistances to seeking more space in our lives
  • Access more readily the surprises about ourselves that are getting lost in the busyness of the day and our practice
  • “Positively contaminate” the rest of our day with the new learning and “unlearning” that becomes possible during even brief periods of mindfulness

Sitting with mindfulness

Experienced counselors and clinical supervisors are not surprised when the following paradox is present in those they guide (or even in themselves): Often we are gentler with our clients than we are on ourselves as counselors.

We possess the capacity to make each session we have with someone fresh and new. But first we need to approach ourselves — especially during periods of silence and solitude that we have set aside or that unexpectedly appear — with no preconceived notions of what will happen and without picking up leftover thoughts from earlier in the day. Our goal is to empty our minds so the most relevant ideas reveal themselves. The stability and awareness offered by informal and formal mindfulness meditation practice counters unproductive movements. This helps us to:

  • Recognize the importance of focusing on personal and professional faithfulness to the process of counseling rather than on specific successes we want — even if we believe those successes are for the client’s benefit
  • Appreciate when we are becoming too easily upset — often over the wrong things such as a client being late or resistant or wishing to change therapists — and missing what life is offering us in all interactions and events
  • Uncover personal character traits, habits and rules that continue to sap life’s freshness for us
  • Limit our dwelling on the past or rushing through precious moments of our life by living with “if, then”
  • Note when we have a tendency to spend too much of our time in a cognitive cocoon of judgment, worry, preoccupation, resentment, fear and regret, thus missing the chance to experience life’s daily gifts
  • Gently confront ourselves when our emotions alert us that we seem unable or unwilling to see transitions as being as valuable as our destinations, even though transitions make up much of our life
  • Increase our sense of intrigue about ourselves, including both our gifts and growing edges as persons and counselors
  • Limit instances in which we a) project faults onto clients or colleagues whom we don’t see as supportive, b) shoulder an inordinate amount of self-blame or c) stay immersed in discouragement when we don’t succeed as we would like

What we are emphasizing is that a mindfulness practice allows us to psychologically lean back and, in the process, more often get onto the psychological lane of greater inner freedom — the very same lane we call our clients to merge onto.  Silence, solitude and mindful moments have the power to stop us in our tracks and make us ask: Why, especially as counselors, are we continuing to live in ways that are not renewing?

If we are brutally honest with ourselves during those reflective times, we might wistfully respond, “We must live this way. We have no choice. It is practical and normal, so there is really no other way. As a matter of fact, most of my colleagues live this way — even the ones I admire or who were my teachers and supervisors.”

Paradoxically, when this helpless response occurs, the first gate to new inner freedom opens to some degree because in our hearts, we know that what we are telling ourselves is not true. So, once this portal is nudged open a bit, we can begin to access a healthier, freer perspective because even if we choose to ignore or unconsciously forget the portal, it never closes completely again. And that is what the permanent gift of leaning back for the first time (even in the reading of this article) offers us.

Self-care, self-knowledge and expanding our resiliency range

Self-nurturance is a sense of full awareness that requires attention to self-care and self-knowledge, as well as a desire to maximize our resiliency range. It also necessitates a spirit of unlearning and relearning. This exploration is undertaken in more depth in the books The Inner Life of the Counselor and The Resilient Clinician, but for our purposes here, it will suffice to ponder a few central themes to set the process in motion.

  • Patience and pacing: If we are moving so fast that we cannot catch our “psychological or spiritual breath,” we may be losing the purpose behind why we became counselors in the first place. By practicing mindfulness with ourselves and when we are with our clients, we will receive more, and so will they.
  • Chains of the past: Most counselors have gone through their own personal therapy and extensive supervision, but there may be a tendency to forget that unfinished business doesn’t disappear once and for all. How we have addressed the past will affect our lives and our sessions. We know that if we view the memories as bad, then we will want to deny, avoid or embrace them in ways that are not helpful (for example, self-blame). On the other hand, if we look at our past with a sense of intrigue, the results can be strikingly positive. Likewise, if we can accept our growing edges, we can be better counselors and more integrated persons.
  • Immature and/or unproductive thoughts and behaviors: As counselors, we are constantly assessing our clients’ stage of change and ever watchful for relapse. Often, it is hard to turn this spotlight back on ourselves and objectively examine what we are doing unless we have made the time to reflect.
  • Gratitude: Many of us in the profession feel that counseling “chose” us. But as we struggle to build our careers and manage busy practices, we can forget the core reason for the work that we do. We need to focus and reconnect to our purpose.
  • Self-care protocol: Developing a self-assessment and guide to enriching our personal time alone encourages us to explore our thoughts and beliefs more carefully. Likewise, it also challenges us to align our actions with our authentic selves and to refresh and renew our inner beings. A self-care protocol should especially include personal debriefing approaches, rituals for renewal and ways of releasing judgment.

Personal debriefing

As we journey with those who come to us, we provide a safe holding space where they can experience their emotions, process their hurts and, in time, heal. Similarly, as we reflect their emotions, we strive to model and teach our clients about self-regulation and debriefing. Given the intense work, it is also imperative that we process the emotions within ourselves in a deliberate way so we don’t become unnecessarily vulnerable to the point of poor self-regulation.

As counselors, all of us experience physical and emotional exhaustion, anxiety that a client is not getting better or wants to change therapists and, if we are honest, even boredom with what the person is sharing, who the client is or the problem being presented. As a result, we can and sometimes do become hypersensitive when the client is able to zero in on our own unfinished business, lack of knowledge or personal issues. That is why it is worthwhile to conduct a daily  “countertransferential review” in which we systematically reflect on our feelings, cognitions and beliefs.

An end-of-the-day review might include basic questions such as:

  • What made me feel sad or angry?
  • What overwhelmed me?
  • What sexually aroused me?
  • What made me extremely happy or confused me?
  • What was my responsibility given these reactions?

Quiet reflection at the end of the day can reframe our perspective, help us to be kinder to ourselves and jettison that which is beyond our control, especially when that reflection is accompanied by scheduled and specific actions and routines that refresh us.

Rituals for renewal

A thoughtful personal ritual can help us center ourselves, create order and offer comfort. For example, rising early to enjoy a cup of coffee while sitting propped up in bed for about a half-hour may allow us to awaken slowly, appreciate the joy of being alive and center ourselves for the day ahead. We let any thoughts that arise move through us like a train. We do not stop the thought train, hop on and indulge the issue that comes up. Instead, we merely notice it nonjudgmentally. It can be faced or possibly solved later. After this initial part of our ritual, perhaps we can share a cup of coffee with a significant other, chat and watch the morning news. This second part of the ritual opens up space for us and between us and those we love before we are bombarded with all of the day’s events and experiences.

The best time of day for such rituals is based on personal choice. The key is carving moments out of the day when we can stop, breathe and enjoy what is before us. It is not the length of time that is important but rather our willingness to be aware without effort or judgment. Without this practice, we run the risk of rushing through our lives in a cognitive cocoon, while deluding ourselves that this is all life has for us. If we choose the latter, we will find ourselves disconnected and depleted until there is nothing left for self, let alone clients, colleagues, family and friends. Not surprisingly, the extremely busy clinician needs a ritual more than others because it offers the needed space to recharge if the work is to continue in a good way.

Other simple but potentially powerful rituals might include:

  • Taking a brief walk — not a “think” — in the morning, at the end of the day, during a break or after a client cancellation. In this way, we can experience all that is around us rather than being in a cognitive cocoon.
  • Practicing meditation or simple mindfulness techniques
  • Involving ourselves in activities in which we simply “flow,” such as playing music, racing, researching areas of interest, creating or preparing something with love, volunteering or writing
  • Playing with pets

There are so many rituals that renew. What other ones come to mind for you? How can they be expanded and built upon? When under stress, we need to ask ourselves the very questions we ask our distressed clients.

Releasing judgment

As counselors and people involved in so many renewing and depleting activities, we can have greater sensitivity to stressors that may be present and learn how to recognize those stressors early. We can also adopt healthy attitudes and approaches for bouncing back and even learning from their presence. The ability to allow information to flow over and through us without passing judgment is an essential aspect of mindfulness.

In The Mindful Way Through Depression, Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn detail how people can release themselves from chronic unhappiness by the way they face all of life. Their suggestions are also relevant to counselors and how we greet aspects of our lives that we don’t like. They ask us to examine our feelings during our sessions and through the rest of the day and question “negative” emotions instead of avoiding, retreating or attacking. They also ask us to explore the real facts about a situation rather than dwelling in the “shoulds.” By retooling our perspectives with more positivity, we can better begin to see people in a more balanced way and experience events for what they really are.

By employing an attitude marked by openness, intrigue and hopefulness, we minimize self-condemnation and projection. Instead of playing host to discouragement, there is greater opportunity to learn and go deeper. What follows are some examples of “energy sappers” that we may need to uncover and confront.

  • Scheduling clients back to back, which leaves no space to take a breath or psychologically decontaminate ourselves prior to the next session
  • Developing a style of living that is not in line with the guidelines we offer to clients, family members and friends
  • Failing to carefully diagnose situations, resulting in our demonstrating a “tyranny of hope” that risks having goals for clients that are impossible/impractical for them to reach given their personal and other resources
  • Overlooking the effects of workaholism, including ongoing fatigue, emotional distance and/or overidentifying with clients
  • Responding sharply, flatly, cynically or intellectually to inquiries or feedback

The good news is that with a little attention, these issues can be resolved. With ongoing diligence and a willingness to prune all that takes us away from our purpose, unexpected gifts will become evident, even when things are difficult. As the literature on posttraumatic growth teaches us, this can be the case even with significant stress or trauma.

Being a counselor is truly like being in treatment for a lifetime because the process and content of what makes life good for people is our daily fare. If counseling is done in the right spirit, with good support and supervision and a sense that it is a “wisdom profession” that can transform even failure into something that makes life deeper and better, this profession can bring joy and fulfillment equal to the richest vocations in the world.

Because we step into strangers’ lives and hear their intimate, powerful, poignant stories, we must be prepared to journey with them as they achieve greater integration of their perceived past and present selves. By uncovering the source of what has held them captive, they can choose freedom and grow into their futures. A steady practice of alonetime, mindfulness and self-nurturance shores up our resilience so we can remain true to our clients and ourselves. What could be better than that?

 

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Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

 

Robert J. Wicks, the author of The Inner Life of the Counselor (Wiley), The Resilient Clinician (Oxford University Press) and, most recently, Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm (Oxford University Press), is professor emeritus at Loyola University Maryland. He is currently involved in presenting on clinician self-care to state counseling associations. Contact him at rwicks@loyola.edu.

 

Tina C. Buck is a licensed graduate professional counselor at Carroll County Youth Service Bureau and group facilitator for the Abuser Intervention Program in Montgomery County, Md. Contact her at tcbuck@loyola.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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5 Comments

  1. Teresa Oglesbee LPC-S

    This article is a breath of fresh air. It is just what every counselor/therapist needs, not to mention every other person on this earth. I have printed this article and have already shared this article with supervisees. Great subject for supervision.
    Great job Robert Wicks and Tina Buck!
    Sincerely,
    Teresa Oglesbee, LPC-S

    Reply
  2. Tom Gagliano

    This article awakened so many feelings. I was a bully as a kid, and a recovering addict. . I needed to fix what was broken inside of me. When I did that, my goal was to help others who suffered as I had from negative childhood messages, and to give my children what my father couldn’t give me, A SAFE PLACE TO SHARE MY FEELINGS WHATEVER THEY MIGHT BE. I started to facilitate groups in schools and churches for those who suffered as I had from destructive childhood messages..Went back to school at age 51 for my MSW and wrote a book called “The Problem Was Me” with Dr. Abe Twerski http://bit.ly/1g04oK4 . If you check out this 4 minute you tube, please let me know your thoughts.

    Reply
  3. SIPW

    I am a Finance professional with over 28 years of work experience in the field of Finance. I am just about to start a diploma of counselling in a weeks time. Looking forward to this as it is a field that has interested me for a long time. This article was so useful. Made me think how lucky i am for the “alone’ time I do have in my life and made me determined to use it to the fullest.

    Reply
  4. Lisa Mitchell, MFT, ATR, LPCC

    This article is powerful in its breadth of practical suggestions for mental health professionals to implement in a self care regimen. I particularly love the concept of using mindfulness experience to “psychologically lean back”. That’s a lovely image.

    I think it is also important to mention that a self care regimen is not meant to eradicate uncomfortable feelings, exhaustion, or professional self doubt. Rather, as mentioned, it is to promote and expand resiliency. I see too many therapists embarking on self care regimens that end up being a source of the very stress and judgments that they are trying to get rid of. Somewhere in our “therapist culture” we have adopted a standard that paints an ideal and inauthentic picture of a therapist–higher evolved, wise and calm, expert in the subject at hand. When this is not being achieved (which is most of the time) we end up running to the next continuing education training that we think will help us achieve this image. And/or criticizing ourselves for having lousy self care regimens. It becomes a never ending cycle–a rat wheel–and I think the end result is a group of professionals who are too self critical and on the brink of burn out.

    I like your suggestions for renewal rituals and would like to add that partnering with creativity in an intentional way can be another renewing activity. When therapists partner with their creativity, they learn to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and doubt as necessary components to creating masterpiece sessions. You can learn more about my courses at http://innercanvas.com/artfix.

    Reply

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