Recently, while staying in a hotel with my family, my 8-year old daughter and I went down to the pool.
Because of COVID, it had been well over a year since she had been in the pool. While she has always been a fairly strong swimmer, the time away from the water and the doubts and insecurities that come with growing up led her to enter the shallow end tentatively. After a few minutes she became more familiar and confident, and jumped into slightly deeper water, bobbing up and down as her head popped above the water. She boldly moved down the pool deck toward the deep end, where neither she nor I could touch the bottom. With a big splash she was in, before I was ready.
After her plunge, she came up for breath and went back down again. Her face emerged for a quick gulp of air and then quickly disappeared back down. Looking like she was struggling, I scrambled to rescue her. As I grabbed her, holding her above water as well as I could, she startled. Her sweet, wet face looked at me and cheerfully said, “Hi mom!”
After pulling her to safety, we checked in. She explained that she was doing just fine. I said, “It looked like you were struggling, bobbing up and down like that, like you couldn’t breathe.”
Filled with excitement, she announced, “Mom, it was like my body knew I needed to come up for air and it just did it—before I could even tell it to. So I came up, got some air, and then went and touched the bottom of the pool again! Mom, I touched the bottom!”
I breathed a sigh of relief. She was fine.
Knowing When We Need Air
I wish my body was a bit more like that.
I wish that when I needed air, it automatically popped above the water to grab a deep, fresh, cool breath of air. I wish my heart knew when to take time away from work.
‘Maybe it does know but I just don’t hear. It’s not instinctual, even for a counselor like myself. I have to push my body above water and intentionally decide when it needs rest—before I drown. I have to constantly tell my body when to breathe and when to rest.
As helpers, we are often prompted to rest only AFTER the actual need has come and gone; after we are already struggling for air, for breath, for margin.
The Cost of Giving
There has never been a time in the history of our current, lived experiences that helpers (therapists, pastors, doctors, social workers, nurses, teachers, etc.) have had to do their jobs under the stress of a pandemic.
Never have we needed to cope with our own pandemic-related traumas (kids learning online, family members getting sick, loved ones dying, missing hugs from grandparents/grandkids, constant worry about the medically fragile among us, and so much more) while simultaneously taking care of our clients, parishioners, or patients struggling in similar ways.
So many of us are depleted, and yet we continue to give.
We give because we feel called to give. We give because we feel honored to give. We give because it’s our job, our career, our training, our mission, our identity, our life. So day in and day out we listen, we hold, we hear, we provide, we continue to give.
There Are Helpers Everywhere
God created you to be a holder of people’s stories, a container for pain, brokenness, trauma, disconnection, confusion, and suffering. We can feel impassioned in our desire to care for others to the point that we ourselves drown. Getting pulled down into deeper water can sometimes feel like a calling; it can even feel like our life’s mission. At times, it’s tempting to become arrogant or self-righteous about our need to provide for others.
As a new counselor, I remember wrapping up my doctoral internship and transferring clients to a new therapist. I was certain they would feel hurt and abandoned. My mentor pointed out, “You know you’re not the only person who can help them, right?” I was crushed. Of course I was the only person that could help them! But that was not reality.
The reality is that there are helpers everywhere. But we think we are the best and only.
Ultimately, I recognized that it was my ego that had pushed me forward in my work long after I stopped being truly available to my clients or myself. I have carried this lesson with me over the years.
In the field of counseling, we have many terms for this scenario: compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, empathy overload, burnout. It’s what some counselors, therapists, pastors, church leaders, doctors, nurses and other professionals experience when they open their hearts everyday to be a container for the trauma and pain of others. Being a great support person requires empathy, and with that comes the risk of experiencing physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion.
The exhaustion is mental and physical. We may feel irritable, burnt out, anxious, depressed, or numb. We may experience sleep issues, disconnection from others, and the inability to turn off our “work mind.” At some point, you might even feel like you’re drowning, alone in the deep end of the pool. Despite awareness of this, we tend to try to push through. Gritting our teeth, we try harder. We give more. Other times we ignore the signs that we are drowning, altogether. We believe we are (or should be) equipped to deal with other peoples’ issues; that our degrees, licenses, and certifications serve as invisible armor, protecting us from harm. This false sense of security prevents us from identifying the symptoms and warning signs of our own exhaustion and inability to BE with others the way they need us to be.
I believe helpers are aware of compassion fatigue and burnout. My hope is to offer a reminder to breathe, to come up for air, and to know when it’s time to climb out of the pool to rest. I want to remind you that it’s okay to have someone else pull you out of the water. Sometimes that’s just what we need.
Finding Help as a Helper
Knowing what we need is one thing. Doing it is quite another, and requires focussed intention.
Intention requires us to make room for our own internal process, creating space within ourselves and our lives to heal.
It requires clarity to discover for ourselves what we need to continue. We have to find ways to bear witness to trauma without surrendering our ability to care for ourselves the same way we care for others, if not better. We must give ourselves permission to attend to our own needs, which can become a profound challenge for helpers. It demands a high level of awareness and mindfulness. It requires that we, “be aware of our awareness and pay attention to our intention,” as Dan Siegel says.
Paying attention to our intention requires us to “try softer” (Kolber, 2020).
It can be hard for helpers to offer kindness and love to ourselves like we do to our clients. We’re comfortable being the ones who help others, not the other way around. As helpers, we can easily judge ourselves for not using our professional skills to help ourselves, or worry what others (and ourselves!) will think if we ask for help. These thoughts not only serve as a hindrance to greater well-being, but they can also strengthen a negative stigma toward therapy and mental health issues in general.
It’s important that therapists and professionals know seeking help is not a weakness. Rather, seeking help is a true sign of strength and a testament to a person’s commitment to become emotionally and mentally well.
I often hear helpers tell me, “It’s so hard for a therapist/pastor to find a therapist.” They’re often in the same social and professional groups, and it’s hard to find someone outside of that community that feels safe and private. There are some clinicians (myself included), who specialize in working with counselors and other helping professionals.
It’s crucial that we model for others the value in taking care of ourselves.
Everyone needs help and support.
As helpers, it’s important that we serve by ensuring our own mental wellness—by putting our oxygen masks on first and filling our own lungs deeply with air—you’re worth it! Then we can do the work we are called to do.
Article by Dr. Michelle Engblom-Deglmann, PhD., LMFT, Clinical Director at Living Wholehearted.