Today felt like a hard day to be human...
… This is a sentence I wrote and revised Tuesday after starting with it was a challenging day to be a therapist. Some days are hard in ways that transcend our professional training and hit at our humanity.
I spent the day in back-to-back zooms and calls with other clinicians mostly providing clinical supervision and consultation. Therapists said things like this:
How can we help people?
We don’t know what to do anymore.
We aren’t sure what to say.
Then there are the convos I have been having with clergy, professors and parents on repeat:
Them: I don't know what to say to them.
Me: Tell them you are there for them.
Them: I just want them not to be afraid.
Me: You can't control the presence of danger or their normal responses to danger. You can give them a safe place to cry, the confidence to trust their own instincts and feelings, and a sounding board for choices. That's a big thing.
At the end of the day, I climbed out of my home zoom room and joined what I expected to be a broader slice of the world. Here’s what people said to me:
I don’t know how to feel.
It feels like the world is impossible.
I’ve just walked around crying all day.
Compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is the experience — one therapists know well — when the repeated exposure to suffering becomes overwhelming. At first we may search for solutions to injustice as a function of high exposure, but over time, with no release in pressure, we may despair and even become apathetic.
Compassion fatigue is now a universal state.
The common wisdom for clinicians is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: diversify your caseload, back off work where you can, and create a greater investment in self-care, particularly cultivating relationships in which you can process your own feelings and experiences.
So much of this, however, doesn’t translate outside of our professional lives. It’s tough to diversify … everyday living. While you may be able to delegate and share tasks, ultimately the existential dread filling parents sending their children to schools and campuses can’t really be offloaded.
Here’s some guidance, however, that may better apply:
1. Diversify your worries. Anything can matter, but not everything should matter. Take stock of your everyday challenges. Teach your kids this type of judgment.
2. Stay human. Feel things and engage in meaningful relationships. Be joyful, connect when you are afraid, and recognize sadness as a form of intimacy when it’s shared. Our children need this most of all.
3. Narrow your scope of impact. Often the transition from a preoccupation with injustice to abject apathy occurs when injustice is experienced as rigid. Instead of taking on only the big, societal problems, identify proximal opportunities to use your unique set of skills and resources. Be a role model for your kids, so they can find their light, too…
4. Engage in flexible thinking. Add sentences to your own thoughts and in conversations through which you still hope and dream. I wonder how we will feel tomorrow. I wonder what solutions we will find in the future.
5. Make art, celebrate, pray. Acts of creation, expressions of joy, ritual observance — these are authentic expressions of who we truly are, in contrast to the sense that the basest human acts are somehow core. Rather than distractions to take our minds off traumatic events, such expressions are very adaptive responses that create the solidarity and resiliency to confront trauma and solve social problems.
Humans have hard days. At those times when it feels like all hope is lost, we can find strength again by returning to these fundamentals of humanity.
If you are a licensed clinician and are willing to be available to MSU students, please email Jeffrey Boyce, Referral Coordinator/Social Worker at MSU CAPS: firstname.lastname@example.org
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