The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.
– Rachel Naomi Remen
This has become one of my favorite quotes in reflecting on psychologist self-care. As mental health providers, we are surrounded daily by some of the deepest losses and crushing experiences that the human race faces. Death, loss, separation, divorce, conflict, isolation, fear, anxiety, anger… we truly are immersed in these painful experiences for multiple hours a day, every day.
Although most of us will tell you that we wouldn’t trade our careers for any other and that we find insurmountable reward in our work, it does not change the fact that our work requires great strength to wade through those waters and then return home to our families.
For many early career psychologists (ECPs), however, their professional day doesn’t end when their sessions do. For those of us who are new, we face several additional potential stressors to becoming a successful psychologist: marketing a new private practice, balancing the anxiety of feeling underqualified and inexperienced, finding effective consultation to continue to grow, learning to integrate continuing education into practice, studying for licensure, finding a position that allows working with a clientele of particular interests, seeking certifications… the list goes on.
Then, ECPs find the time to go home, they are more likely to be facing the stressors associated with a growing family, given the stage of life many ECPs are in: raising young children, family member illnesses, caring for aging parents, tending to a partnership or marriage and the typical tasks of maintaining a household and a family.
Somewhere, in all of those obligations, the ECPs are told that they must learn to “set good boundaries.” This seems laughable to many of us starting in the field, almost as if being told that we are privileged to have the opportunity to choose whichever 23 hours in a day that we’d like to work.
So how can those who are new to the field begin the process of establishing good boundaries and caring for ourselves, while also propelling their careers forward and nurturing our families? Miller and Sprang (2017) offer a very comprehensive approach to doing just this, inspired by evidence-based treatments in a model: Components for Enhancing Clinician Engagement and Reducing Trauma (CE-CERT).
Although a brief synopsis of their model will be detailed below, their 2017 article entitled “A Components-Based Practice and Supervision Model for Reducing Compassion Fatigue by Affecting Clinician Experience” is an excellent read for any psychologist looking for a structured means to reducing stress.
Experience rather than suppress
The first step to effectively managing the very strong feelings associated with all of the needs an ECP is asked to tend to is allowing oneself to actually experience and label those feelings. The neurobiology of emotional experiences reminds us that feelings are transient. Whatever emotional reaction you may be having to any stressor (professional or personal) is temporary. Allow yourself to acknowledge the emotions you experience associated with your stress rather than using valuable energy in suppressing those reactions.
Regulation of rumination
It’s natural to dwell on those stressful or hurtful experiences, regardless of what part of your life they originate from. The next step to managing your stress is to take control of this tendency. Take note of when you are ruminating and find a means of re-directing your thoughts (e.g., through social interaction or a specific task). Take your mind off of your rumination and onto something specific that does not allow you to dwell.
A very common aspect of work with trauma survivors, creating a narrative of distressing events, is not a typical intervention recommended to psychologists. However, creating a narrative that not only reminds you of your occupational purpose and drive but also organizes your distressing experiences can provide the same benefit that has been shown to be evidentially effective in the treatment of trauma.
Articulate your experience of distressing events, reflecting not only on what happened, but what your experience was. Remind yourself within your narrative(s) that there are going to be challenges you face that you cannot change, without giving in to feelings of impotence.
Reducing emotional labor
It takes great effort to experience very strong emotional events on top of managing the dissonance associated with muting those experiences (for whatever reason you may feel the need to). It is important to explore opportunities to increase the congruence between your emotional experience and expression, both professionally in sessions with your clients and personally in your relationship with your family.
It is important to remember that the best self-care tactics tend to your spiritual, physical and cognitive-emotional-relational needs. The means of achieving this homeostatic state will be accomplished differently for everyone. From taking a longer shower in the morning to seeking supervision/consultation on a regular basis, it’s important to find those tactics that help you to self-soothe and to incorporate them as regular practice into your day.
ECPs in particular may not have substantial time to take a yoga class, but can most certainly find five minutes in their day to doodle, watch a comedy short or go for a quick walk. Also ensure you have some alternatives under your belt for when you can’t engage in your preferred means of self-soothing and a partner who helps to remind you to care for yourself.
The path to becoming a seasoned and experienced psychologist is one that is coupled with potentially high levels of emotional distress and discomfort, partnered with exhilarating moments of achievement and feelings of self-sufficiency.
Although your time may be limited and external obligations are likely high, it is vitally important to begin the process of caring for yourself. Allow opportunities for authentic emotional experiences and expression, coupled with a healthy cognitive perspective on your work and a host of skills to achieve a sense of homeostasis during those times it is needed most.
And above all, be patient with yourself. The possibilities within this field are endless, and with perseverance (which you likely already possess or you wouldn’t have gotten to where you are) you will find a way to create a work-life balance that offers you the rewards that can outweigh the challenges you face.
References available from author
Meghan R. Prato, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist practicing just outside of Philadelphia, Pa. She specializes in working with couples, children and families, as well as psychologists’ self-care practices. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org