“Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” ~ Henri Nouwen
I often find myself asking a client, “Which coping skill did you or could you have used?” in response to a story in which said client was in emotional distress and then acted in some way that was damaging to relationships, their health, their ultimate goal, or their self-respect. I later find myself engaging in similarly unhelpful behaviors after I “punch my time card” – isolating myself from my support system when feeling depressed or existentially confused, numbing out on a Netflix binge to distract from loneliness, or anticipating the end of my sessions so I can open that nice bottle of pinot in the kitchen knowing that it will “take the edge off.”
It is no secret that helping professionals in varied fields often suffer their own periods of distress and mental health crises. Clay Siebert & Siebert (2007) even explored how heavily identifying as a professional caregiver increases the risk of experiencing personal distress. It is also a common, not-too-far-off assumption that people go into the field of psychology to figure out their own histories of trauma or mental health struggles. Have you ever heard that doctors are the worst patients?
Part of being resilient as providers, is being able to adapt to difficult factors, both external and internal. That means taking our own advice. That means practicing deep breathing when we notice our achy, tense shoulders or being irritable with coworkers, family, or friends. That means making sure we invest our time in things that are rejuvenating instead of mind-numbing and distracting. That means catching yourself when starting to get sucked into social media and playing the comparison game. Our own internal suffering and struggles can serve as a point of connection with our clients, making us that much more relatable and compassionate when clients share about how much work it is to be in therapy and deal with their stuff. YES! It is! And we have to do the work too.
Sitting on the Other Side
I have my own list of coping skills on my fridge for use when I’m in emotional distress, bordering on a crisis, created with my own therapist. Some of my options include laying in bed petting my cats, coloring, or plunging my face in cold water. In Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), these coping skills are part of Distress Tolerance Skills, which are designed for a short-term, quick decrease of distress, so that other skills like problem solving or other strategies can be used. I use DBT with most of my clients and have found the concepts and skills helpful personally. I am drawn to DBT because of its core belief of balancing acceptance and change, and because of its user-friendly skills.
I’m thankful for my own experience of being supported and validated by a skilled clinician who regularly helps me talk my feelings out while identifying and celebrating the use of “more adaptive” coping strategies. He helps me make a plan to use alternative sources of support, and encourages my plans to listen to music instead of the news podcast that has been triggering my existential anxiety. He has helped me identify patterns that have led to me prioritizing various activities, including daily mindfulness, that keep me centered and in balance. I believe the fact that I have been assisted by a few “master” (in my opinion) clinicians, makes me a better clinician for my own clients. Many counseling and psychology programs require their students to do a short stint of therapy, as a criteria to graduate, but not all. I strongly believe in therapists having their own therapists, whether it’s a weekly appointment or a less frequent check in. Investing in our own healing, self awareness, and improved personal relationships all contribute to the level of resilience we can exhibit and model for others.