Earlier in this series of blogposts, I wrote about counselor self-care. I wanted to address it early on as it is such a critical element of our practices right now; we cannot afford for it to be an afterthought. The consultations that I’ve done with other therapists since then have confirmed this; it’s often one of the areas that professionals want to discuss. For these reason I’ve decided to address it further, and specifically examining the question of, “How do we separate work and home when they are in the same space?”
Those of us in cities that are under shelter in place orders, who have been able to continue working, are likely doing sessions online from our homes. Some may already have a dedicated office space for this, and therefore be accustomed to doing at least some sessions at home. Others may have had to improvise, appropriating space from a guest room, den, or even their own bedroom.
Under normal circumstances, it’s common for counselors to have rituals around the leaving the office in order to emotionally make the transition to home, but if we are already in our home, how do we manage this? How do we separate the personal from the professional?
In attempting to answer this, first of all I would say that it may not entirely be possible to do so. Just like we cannot remove our person from the sessions that we conduct professionally (nor would we want to!) it is not entirely possible to remove professional experiences from our personal time. So as with many things, we want to approach making this division with gentleness and compassion for ourselves. Certainly we do what we can to set boundaries around our work but with the knowledge that it may not go perfectly. We are all doing the best we can with the situation that we’re in right now.
But in examining how to go about doing this, there are both elements of practical behavior strategies and also emotional ones.
In addressing the former we can experiment with having some sort of ritual to demarcate the end of counseling sessions and a return to home life, just as we might if we were leaving a physical office. I would encourage being creative with this and doing what feels authentic to you. It may be something like changing clothes, putting your computer away in a drawer, or opening the windows to the room. You might even have an anchor phrase that you say to yourself, something to the effect of, “the workday is done, I’m home now.”
Journaling is another way to recognize the transition in mindset. Even if it’s just for two minutes, to respond to a prompt such as, “After my sessions today, I’m feeling…” Taking a brief few moments to download any feelings lingering with you from sessions can be a useful element in self-care.
From an emotional perspective, setting boundaries around how much we take with us from a session can begin even within the session itself. Observing if we feel that we are doing more work than the client in a particular session can be a good barometer for this. We are there to facilitate healing and growth, but it is not our responsibility to be a master problem solver or attempt to fix things for the client. If we take this approach, we risk not only exhausting ourselves but also disempowering the client from fully participating in their own journey.
So we need to monitor carefully in sessions how much we take on responsibility our clients’ outcomes. We give what we can based on our training and knowledge but ultimately we must keep in mind that they are the drivers of their own lives.
Likewise for continue to carry the content of our sessions around in our heads after the sessions are over. This can be a significant contributor to burnout, just as taking on more responsibility than our clients for their own outcomes can be. Taking a few moments to process emotions, particularly after a difficult session, is an important way of leaving the session in the session. This doesn’t mean we don’t care. To the contrary, we care so much that we want to make sure our energy is as recharged as possible before the next session. While occasionally reflecting on a session during our downtime may help us to arrive at an idea or insight we hadn’t thought of before, too much of this and we risk rumination, which not only drains our energy but also makes us absent from our families or relationships.
If we are noticing that we are struggling significantly with the urge to take on clients’ distress as our own, it can be worthwhile to seek consultation or supervision. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I find that reaching out to a colleague helps us to feel less alone in shouldering our work. It can also help us to gain greater perspective or see stuck areas in a different light. Rather than seeing seeking consultation as meaning that we are somehow falling short, we need to see it as a resource, and an important part of burnout prevention. We are not alone in our work, and so there is no need to push forward as though we are. By connecting with other professionals we afford ourselves a greater opportunity to learn and grow.
During this time where a physical separation between work and home are not as possible as they usually are, making the internal separation described here is all the more important. And in a way, by challenging ourselves to develop in how we do this, we then have an opportunity to afterwards return to our usual pattern of work even better equipped to take care of ourselves. We are the instruments of our work, protecting and caring for those instruments is what makes it possible for us to continue to be helpful and meaningful to others.
Christine Forte is a counselor working in private practice online with the globally mobile community. She has recently repatriated to the US with her family after ten years of living and working in Shanghai, China. You can contact her at Christine(at)forteklotz.com or read more about her practice at www.forteklotz.com