Snowed in. Blizzards. Cancelled school and work. As a counselor in private practice these words translate to one thing for me: lost income. (And yes I realize I am committing a counseling sin to focus on money for a moment- but really – doesn’t it go through your head how much money you are losing when you have “leave-without –pay” or a forced vacation day at your job- or a day of lost fees from a private practice? After all we are human too- not always the completely selfless and totally giving stereotype that we succumb to ourselves at times.)
But there is more to this story- a clinical parallel and learning opportunity. How do those of us independently practicing handle the unforeseen and unchangeable factors that directly impact our living and our practice? Also, can things like a weather emergency be a point of growth and healing for our clients when we address them? In the way we handle these events, like in every other instance, we are modeling a stance of coping, adaptation and acceptance of those things we cannot change.
At first, I like most everyone, enjoy the time with no scheduled duties, no places to be or places I can even get to. It gives me a glimpse of how over-extended I may actually be at times. But shortly I start to worry. To fret. To worry about that new client that barely got started before this unforeseen interruption. To add up numbers and look at my schedule book and try to figure out how to recoup the time, reschedule the clients, re-establish the momentum. The weather- whether blizzard, severe storms, tornado warnings (in my part of the country) or whatever it is in your part…. the weather is a common anxiety focal point but also an undeniable situation where we do not control something that can and often does dramatically impact our own daily life.
Of course first steps are to always have good communication and boundaries in place- so I change my message to indicate when the office will be open or when I will be rescheduling. This alone reassures clients calling in. But once we resume business, I have found it useful to see what we learned from our sometimes brief but dramatic interruptions into life. On a personal level I reevaluate my readiness- to respond to clients, to adapt, to be flexible, or even to re-evaluate my own schedule. Maybe I can even re-frame my opening statement from “lost income” to “deferred income”. Clients will reschedule, and business goes on. With clients the conversations are more around the stress created by the disruption and how can they adapt in the future- or what can they learn about other stress points.
Of course for someone with weather related anxiety- fear of storms, or being triggered by specific weather events- particular attention needs to be paid before the storm hits. I’m sure we have all worked out plans with clients on how to manage their own reactions in such situations- preparation is key, a plan, some resources, etc. But for most the weather disruptions are more a parallel to the many things in life that just “bug” us or throw roadblocks into our own goal or destination. Sometimes people will “surrender” more to the weather- realizing it truly is something they cannot impact. Can they pull that knowledge into interpersonal learning? Could they just realize once-and-for-all that their ex-spouse is not going to change and adaptation might be a better route than constantly behaving as if what they do or say will change that person?
I have often used the metaphor of the weather for those unchanging situations that folks still spend considerable energy on trying to change: a teenager’s attitude, an ex-spouses’s personality, an elderly relatives repetitive storytelling, your workplace rules. “Arguing with your ex-husband is like trying to stop the rain”, maybe better to establish better umbrella ways of communicating and let some of that rain roll off you without you being drenched or slowed down by it. The visual image at times is very useful to focus them on how they might adapt in the moment rather than get pulled into negative bickering that has no valuable outcome.
There are many things in life we cannot change- hence the value of the “serenity prayer”. Really letting go of the notion we can change others is a life changing moment. It frees energy for our own growth. Just like when I stop fretting about the lost income and focus instead on what I can do to reschedule folks and just enjoy my free time- snow days can be fun!
Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.