Emma quickly checks her watch as she turns her key in the lock. It’s 9:57 p.m. She sighs as she pushes open the door and quickly moves to her room to drop off her bags before heading to the kitchen to make dinner, her second meal of the day since leaving at 6 that morning. She fills up a pot and turns on the stove, dropping in some noodles before opening her laptop to check emails and begin working on her course readings. It’s 10:03 p.m.
Emma’s eyes glaze over as she skims through the endless screens of text, and her head nods until she is awoken by a text from her boss: “Hey Emma, I just had someone call off. Can you open tomorrow morning?”
Emma immediately replies, “Sure thing, see you tomorrow!”
She glances at the time on her phone — 11:13 p.m. She panics and runs to the stove to turn it off. Greeted by a pot devoid of water, she throws away the burnt noodles and closes her laptop. She has finished only one of her five readings, but she needs to be up early tomorrow morning for work. She has six hours of classes after that and internship the following day.
It’s 11:30 p.m. Emma lies in bed with closed eyes and an empty stomach. Her mind races thinking about the different clients she has been working with and how they are holding up. She considers which clients might have which urges — and what she could do to help them, if anything. She thinks about the classes that she didn’t complete readings for and wonders whether she can get by without doing the readings. She thinks about herself as a counselor and questions whether she can ever be successful if she is already struggling.
It’s 12:25 a.m. Emma is asleep, but she will wake up in three hours to get ready to do this all over again.
As a second-year graduate student who is also working on-site at a residential treatment program, I have discovered it can be difficult to not let every piece of life bunch together and form one massive challenge. It seems that everything of which I am a part is geared toward becoming a mental health counselor. It can be hard to engage in clinical experiences and separate the emotional intensity I experience on-site from my schoolwork, personal life and all other aspects of life.
In our field, being emotionally present and available and working through the sensitive topics of other people’s lives is our daily bread. But being able to stay engaged with a client can be a challenge, especially when you are burned out from the day before, or the events of that morning, or the previous client — not to mention school, work and other life tasks. Taking time to check in with yourself, support yourself and separate one facet of life from another is a skill I have found to be useful when applied in a genuine and purposeful manner.
“Tap in dedication” is a technique adapted from theater creators when dealing with highly intimate work on stage. It has been used for scenes ranging from a staged slap to simulated intercourse, and the intended purpose is to allow the actors an opportunity to establish their readiness to engage in sensitive and potentially harmful work.
My experience with this technique stemmed from my theater work during my undergraduate studies under the direction of Carin Silkaitis and Gaby Labotka, the latter being a certified intimacy director with Intimacy Directors and Coordinators. They introduced the technique of “tapping in” to those of us in the show, focusing on respect, safety and well-being for ourselves and for those with whom we were working. We used this technique regularly during scenes of overt sexuality, abuse, trauma and death.
We would physically tap each other’s hands, like a “high-ten,” as a way to say to one another, “I am ready to engage in this work with you.” When work on that scene or sequence had been completed, we would perform this action again to provide a physical symbol that communicated, “We did the work, and now we are stepping outside of it to be ourselves.”
Adapting this technique for counselors to use is a nice fit because of the themes of respect, safety and well-being — something that we helping professionals are adept at offering to clients but may not always apply to ourselves. In the counseling profession, it is important to find ways to respect ourselves and our work because if we do not, it can become all too easy to face burnout, experience vicarious traumatization or even fail to respect our clients.
I coupled the technique I learned in theater with aspects of dialectical behavior therapy to allow helping professionals to engage in mindful participation in their careers while providing them the time to check in with themselves before and after a day’s work. In the case of a particularly difficult session, counselors can also use this technique quickly between clients. Depending on site regulations, it may even be used with some clients.
The goal of the technique as I describe it here is to provide a way for counselors, counselors-in-training and other helping professionals to deal with sensitive subjects, to be present and engaged for the difficult work they take part in daily, and to be able to “leave work at the door” when they reach the end of the workday. It can be detrimental for helpers to bring troubling work home with them because it can impede their self-care and have a negative effect on the relationships they have outside of work. Ideally, using this technique will make it easier for clinicians to allow themselves to be engaged fully in their work life while helping them to separate this time from their personal life.
Practice self-care: Begin by entering or coming to the place where work will be done for the day. Next, take a moment for yourself by performing some action that is soothing and regulating for you. This could be making a cup of coffee or tea, enjoying a snack, reading a few pages of the newspaper, doing a crossword puzzle — anything you find that helps you feel relaxed or calmed. If this is a technique that you would like to use several times per day, between sessions or simply as it feels necessary, an activity that takes less time may serve you better.
Engage in mindfulness: Once you complete your self-care activity, it can be helpful to become grounded in your work environment. For example, take a few minutes to use a “five senses” grounding technique: Identify five things that can be seen, four that can be heard, three that can be touched, two that can be smelled and one that can be tasted.
Skills for distress tolerance can also be beneficial. An example is radical acceptance — taking time to accept one thing that you cannot change about how your day may go, while acknowledging that you can affect your own presence in the day. A technique such as one-mindfulness could be used to promote purposeful attention by focusing on one thing and allowing yourself to see, hear and appreciate it, whether it is physical, emotional or something else (e.g., a plant, a feeling, a thought). Any activity that helps you feel mentally at ease and instills feelings of calm and preparedness can be used for this activity.
An important consideration is to decide where and when you will engage in this process daily. For example, will you do it before you leave home? In the car or on the bus while traveling to work? Once you arrive at your office? From my experience of using similar techniques in theater, once the actions have been set, it is helpful to always do them the same way or as close to the same way as possible to preserve the integrity of the actions and process.
With practice, you will likely be able to engage in your self-care and mindfulness processes anywhere, although a change in environment or process initially could make it difficult to establish and maintain the mindfulness you hope to achieve. If you are in a position where you must travel regularly for your sessions, it can be helpful to have one specific action that you engage in prior to each session. It can also be useful to practice that action several times in settings that are calming before engaging in the activity in a more fluid and potentially stimulating environment.
Literally tap in: After you complete your grounding activity, you will literally tap in. This means to physically tap your hands on a surface or object. Your physical tap in signifies that you are mentally, emotionally and spiritually ready to be 1) devoted and engaged in the activities that follow in an effortful and conscientious manner, 2) fully present in your interactions and 3) aware of the effect that your effort and presence can have on clients and others.
Your physical tap in action serves to signify that your day has begun, and you will give conscious attention to all that occurs from that moment forward. Importantly, tapping in marks the time that is about others (rather than about one’s self), while the preceding actions were exclusively for the individual performing them (i.e., you). This can allow you to engage and deal with more demanding emotions and experiences by allowing you to acknowledge that this time is about being wholly devoted to another, just as the actions before were devoted to taking care of yourself. And in essence, you are taking care of yourself while caring for others because you have intentionally prepared yourself for your service.
Literally tap out: After your sessions, work or treatments are completed (or between sessions if content was particularly difficult), it is time to tap out — literally — just like you tapped in. This is a physical action in which you physically tap the same surface or object you used to tap in. It is important to use the same object every time if possible to symbolize the ending of the specific dedication to your work.
This tap out provides a physical action to close out of what has been occurring during your workday and allows you to engage with the nonwork you again. Additionally, this action signals that the feelings and emotions that may have come up during your work are meant to be kept in that specific time; they are not necessarily meant to exist beyond the scope of that session or that day.
Enjoy your post-tap-out activities: At this point, it is time to go about the doings of your personal life and nonwork time. This means to do anything you would normally do after work — exercising, playing with your children, grocery shopping, attending to your home, spending time with friends and so on — without interruption from what occurred during your work time.
Additionally, some people find it incredibly helpful to engage in some kind of self-care at the end of the day, similar to what they did at the beginning of the day. This might involve watching a specific show, enjoying some ice cream, doing another crossword puzzle — anything that can help you to decompress and relax. This activity can be done at any time but may be more useful to do soon after tapping out so that it can serve as a nice, calming cap to your workday.
This technique was adapted from a theater practice used in scenes in which violence or intimacy was approximated that could cause effects similar to reliving traumas or increase actors’ emotional discomfort. It is important to recognize when something goes beyond the scope of dedication to work. It is up to counselors to use their best judgment to determine when an event may need further intervention to protect their well-being. Some subjects may be difficult to “leave at work,” and if this circumstance arises, it may be wise to seek support. If a counselor has a troubling response to a client’s trauma, it may be useful to discuss this in the clinician’s own therapy sessions or to process it with trusted colleagues or supervisors so as not to shoulder the burden alone.
Using this technique can take up a fair amount of time depending on the self-care actions the counselor chooses to use. Given that reality, it can be useful to find a quick-and-easy action, or to incorporate parts of the technique into one’s daily routine so that it does not become a burden to the user. However, taking the time needed to prepare for one’s day is imperative to staving off burnout and to increasing wellness.
Although this technique is not intended as a catch-all for reducing stress, it may prove useful in helping to establish firmer boundaries between personal life and work life, which is a common stressor among counselors. The goal is not to fix every stressor that clinicians may experience, but rather to provide an opportunity for clinicians to have a solidified and intentional process of entering and exiting their daily work in a demanding field.
In the event that a counselor must travel between environments during the workday, it may help to tap in and tap out before and after each client and to use travel time for a bit more mindfulness. Especially because of the variety of possibilities, such as traffic or accidents, that can occur when traveling between places, practicing mindfulness during the journey may be helpful in terms of keeping travel stress separate from your work. Additionally, using this technique can allow helpers to reduce personal stressors that often are carried over into work with clients, thus enabling a fruitful and intentional work experience.
Suffice it to say there are many situations that may not benefit from the ability to tap in and tap out. Using this technique ultimately comes down to each person’s discretion. It is simply meant to give them increased autonomy in how they choose to handle their time in a helping profession.
Ask yourself the following questions to get started with the tap in dedication technique:
- What would it be like for you to intentionally tap in to your workday and tap out of it? Do you have any hesitations? What can you do to resolve those hesitations?
- What self-care routines would you like to use to start your day? Which ones are you doing already?
- Mindfulness is an integral part of preparing to tap in. What mindfulness practices do you have established on which you can draw? If you do not participate in mindfulness, do you have other religious or spiritual practices that you might use (e.g., prayers, religious texts, songs)?
- Where will you tap in at the beginning of your work and tap out at the end?
- What does it mean to you to practice your work in a conscious way?
- What practices do you want to establish if your work life enters your personal life after you have tapped out?
- What resources do you possess to process particularly difficult clinical workdays? Jot them down and use your list when you need it.
Nicholas Salazar is a second-year master’s student at Marquette University in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology. He works part time and is an intern at Rogers Behavioral Health in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Contact him at email@example.com.
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