How Do You Look After Yourself?

John Koop HarderCounselling1 Comment

Awhile back, a new client asked me an important question (a question I encourage all people to ask their counsellors), “How do you look after yourself”? He then proceeded to tell me that if he was to work with me regarding his experience of trauma, he needed to know I was healthy. As helpers, we often ask our clients about their health and self-care. We need to reflect on this as well.

Part of my looking after myself is to reflect often on my relationship with the work. To be in a relationship means to influence as well as be influenced. This happens in our personal relationships as well as through our work. As helpers, our work has the potential to change us both for the good and for the bad. Regular reflection on the implications of our relationship with the work has the potential to ward off the downsides of helping: compassion fatigue, burnout and vicarious trauma and build on the upsides of our work: vicarious resilience.

I regularly reflect on my relationship with my work through a series of self-guided check in questions:

A. How are you in this relationship?

B. How do you want to be in this relationship?

C. What inspires you in this relationship?

How are you in this relationship?

What qualities and behaviours are coming out as a result? This past June, I had a most interesting (and telling) dream the night before a training. In the dream, I was approached by Nathan (CTRI’s training director) who informed me that I was giving off toxic energy through my body language prior to the start of the training. I was strongly encouraged to deal with it. Gee, I wonder what this dream was trying to tell me about my relationship with work?

At times when I ponder the above question I become aware of the downsides to my experience of helping. Some of the qualities that I value in myself (e.g. having a good work ethic, being caring and compassionate) in their excesses can lead to working too much. This, in turn, can affect my mood, energy, perspective, coping and can bleed into other relationships. I am happy to say, although these experiences do occur, for the most part they are few and far between. Most of the time, I like what I see when contemplating how I am in this relationship. I am constantly learning and growing as I work alongside others. As a counsellor, I recognize that I get paid to become a better person, partner, father, friend. Not only that but I frequently end my days with the words “I’m good at what I do” stirring in me. I love my work.

How we are in all relationships shifts and changes for a wide variety of reasons. Reflecting on how we currently are in the relationship allows us to pick up on challenges and hopefully address them as well as build on the benefits. Given the potential downsides of helping (e.g. compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and burnout) knowing the warning signs allows us to be proactive.

How do you want to be in this relationship?

The longer a person is in a relationship, the greater the potential (and danger) that they go on “autopilot” – doing what they are doing without much intention. This is where problems can develop. When I began my career as a counsellor, I spent a lot of time reflecting on and planning my meetings. As a “seasoned” counsellor, I run the risk of just doing what I do without much thought as I have been doing the work for so long.

A key quality I value as a counsellor is intentionality. As such, continued reflection on counsellor qualities is important to me. As I do so, I am more likely to embody them. Richard Schwartz, in his eight C’s of self-leadership describes key qualities to include being: calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, creative, courageous and connected. Frequent personal reflection on such qualities and their occurrence (or absence) helps keep these in the forefront of my mind and action. Rooting these in recent examples/stories is a key way of doing this.

What inspires you in this relationship?

When sharing about my work, I am often met with responses such as “I could never do that. How do you deal with hearing such pain and struggles?!” The reality is that in working with those dealing with the aftermath of trauma, addictions, mental health concerns, etc., I do hear stories of pain and struggle. It is equally or even more important to acknowledge that I too hear stories of meeting that pain and struggle with creativity and resilience.

I have been gifted with many such stories of resilience. And it is these stories that inspire and energize me. As I reflect, and better yet retell them, their influence grows.

I met Sam during one of my first visits to the Nunavut as a trainer. Having never been so far north before, I asked the group to educate me on the area. The following day Sam approached me during one of the breaks and asked if I had a few minutes. Sam reached into his pocket and removed a small round badge on a string, declaring, “Eskimo Identification Number #####”. He then shared his experience of being forcibly be removed from his home at a young age, sent to live in a very remote residential school. Sam did not go into details but shared how the experience stole him from his home, his family, his traditions, his fun and his sense of safety. After a brief pause, he placed the badge in his pocket then slowly rolled up his sleeve revealing a well-muscled bicep with a tattoo of the badge he was forced to wear and be identified by as a child. He said, “This is part of me and I carry this experience with me everywhere I go. This is a reminder of what was, but look at me now. I am a father, a son, a partner, a coach, a friend, a helper. I am strong and I am good.”

Sam’s story (and others like his) helps keep me healthy in my relationship with my work. His story is more than overcoming adversity; he transforms hardship to better himself and his community. Sam’s story reminds me of the potential and power of change despite the extremes of adversity. As I retell these stories of transformation, they become stronger, thicker and more integrated with my own personal stories of resilience. These also act as a buffer or an vaccine for the more painful stories I hear of trauma and suffering. It is here I find inspiration, encouragement and energy.

My relationship with my work shifts and changes (as all relationships do). When I continue to reflect on how I am; how I want to be; and inspirations around this; I foster choice in this relationship.

What do you see when you reflect on your relationship with your work?

John Koop Harder, MSW, RSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.

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  • Bill

    Thanks John. Sorry to miss your workshop in GTA, was tied up. I like your 3 self test questions and the Nunavut story which resembles Nazi Germany tattoos. As Cindy Blackstock says it best. Resilience is needed for good work but that work also includes calls to action against racism. Very best! Bill