Midnight phone calls, Sunday night worries, frustrating emails. Every job has its varied challenges in setting boundaries between work and home. Perhaps due to their emotional nature, the helping professions seem to be particularly full of pitfalls in this area. Interestingly enough, a lot of what we might work on with clients in terms of work-life balance is not too different from what we all might also deal with as counselors.
All counselors have most likely had the experience of a session or client which we found it difficult to stop worrying about. While we do want to make sure we aren’t legitimately missing important information or insight from a session, we don’t want to lose sleep by worrying excessively or making ourselves anxious. Rather than worrying about it in an destructive way, however, we can write a post-session reflection. It’s an exercise that we all learned in graduate school, and in fact many of us had to do it for our entire practicum and at least some of our internships. During this reflection we dig a bit deeper than we would in our normal progress note. What went well during the session, what we feel didn’t go so well, what was our internal process, what did we notice about the client’s internal process and the connection between us?
We might have thought we were done with the added task of this written reflection when we graduated. But I’ve found that pulling back out this old tool can be really helpful to understanding my own interpretations and emotions. Taking some time to consider what we can learn from a session and what we should probably do differently next time can be really useful to building our skills and also to giving credit where credit is due. And of course when we write about it, there’s usually the added benefit that we’ll be able to actually close the book on the sessions and give ourselves permission to not continue the mental dissection of dialogue.
When you find a self-critical or worrisome tape of the day won’t stop replaying in your head you can imagine switching the tape. Instead of repeatedly trying to turn it off, work on playing a tape of things that went well during the day and savoring them. As you remember each part of either moments where you felt like you did something well or things just were clicking along smoothly, try to focus on enhancing the details of each part of the memory and really remembering what about it was good. If we consider how much time we spend coping with difficult events in our lives, it makes sense to work on spending at least as much, if not more, savoring the positive moments, the success, and the times we really felt we were helpful to someone.
A third way to separate work from personal life is to have an end of day ritual. It doesn’t have to be complicated, a cup of tea at one’s desk, listening to some favorite music in the car, taking a short walk before beginning the commute home. The ritual doesn’t have to take a long time, even just a few minutes can be sufficient, or finding a way to build it into the trip home is also a possibility. The important thing is that we are mindful during it that we are now switching off and moving into “home time” or “off duty time.” While it can sometimes be a challenge in terms of schedule to make time for this, I think it’s worth the decompression it provides. We’ll often find that we have more mental resources available for friends and family when we’ve taken the time to take off our work hat.
And finally, if we find that we’re really repeatedly getting stuck, it’s helpful to bring these things up in our peer consultation or supervision sessions. We can admit that we don’t cope perfectly with all of it all the time: after all, it’s what we ask of our clients every day.
Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here: www.balancedheartcounseling.com