August 10, 2020
Working with young people who struggle with their mental health can be challenging. And to fully commit to the work, counsellors, clinicians and all those with vital roles in mental health treatment need to be able to turn their skillset inward, focusing on themselves when it's time to re-engage with life outside of Work. I call this loving detachment. The phrase may seem rather contradictory, especially in the field of child development where we know that strong attachment is what forms the basis for healthy neurodevelopment, and provides the foundation for success and resilience later in life. When we think of meeting the needs of our clients, we think of healthy attachment. But when we think of meeting our own needs, we are hopefully thinking of healthy (loving) detachment. They may seem like opposing ideas, but are they really?
I'm a frontline worker, not a clinician. So my reconciliation of these terms is functional rather than technical. The key point is that healthy attachment leads to individuation. The goal of healthy development is not that we become enmeshed, indistinguishable adults, but rather independent-and-connected: having thriving relationships with healthy boundaries. Strong attachments get us there. Healthy attachment and loving detachment are dance partners, not combatants. It is within their interplay that the real rhythm is found. Framing it this way helps me to hold both concepts/principles at the same time.
Each circumstance and relationship is different, so providing a universally applicable formula for healthy relationships is impossible. Within the context of this work, where it is our job to support and guide some very challenging people into self-actualization, application of these principles can be pretty tough.
With all that said, here are 10 principles I apply to make my work healthy and sustainable for me. I am making the assumption that you're engaging in self-care basics, such as sleeping, eating, and exercising well. If not, please do those things (insofar as your situation allows). Those things addressed, here's a few more:
- Develop a mindfulness meditation practice
There simply is no substitute for this. A couple years ago, I disallowed myself from reading yet another book on meditation until I had actually built a strong practice. Meditation is like surfing: you can read all about it, but until you've experienced it, you don't know it.
Meditation is truly a radical act: to take a few minutes from each day to stop striving, clinging, and asserting, to just be. Though there are surface-level benefits to a meditation practice (such as decreased anxiety), there are deeper truths to be recognized within a robust practice (not that I'm claiming to have fully discovered these). There is almost no better antidote to the problem of ego (which, in my experience, is the root of my suffering). There is almost no better way to learn loving detachment.
- Stay in touch with your Why
I have this written down for myself, and I revisit it regularly. When in the thick of it, it can be hard to remember my purpose, or my motivation. Staying in touch with my "why" on a regular basis helps ground and reconnect me. It can give me a reason to keep going on the tough days.
- Work only as hard as your client is willing to work for themselves
This is one of those things that will be different with each client's ability and level of motivation. For some clients, success is just getting out of bed, or not hurting someone else, and some of their actions which may appear easy to us may in fact require incredible amounts of their limited willpower and motivation. But you must not do all things for your clients. They must show some participation or willingness to engage. Otherwise, you are not helping: you are enabling. This is like eating donuts: rewarding in the short-term, and terrible in the long-term. Further, it can really hurt you. Expectations can creep in, and unmet expectations become resentments. Ensuring that you are meeting your clients partway helps you minimize resentment.
Side note: Partway looks different with each client, due to their circumstances and their developmental (not chronological) age. The same action could be enabling for one person and empowering for another. It is your job as a practitioner to decipher the best action in each case.
- Develop a strong social support network
I have had the sincere privilege of having excellent team leaders in my time with Wood's Homes. This is an integral part of me staying emotionally healthy and present in my work. A reliable professional support brings two things to the table: emotional presence and a strong knowledge. The person must also be at least one step removed from direct interactions with my clients, and regularly available to me. I don't know how I would do this job without having a team leader who meets these criteria.
I also have this kind of support in my personal life. My friends and family may not have a strong knowledge of my work, but I have people who are emotionally present and available to me, with whom I can vent in a healthy way (see previous post). A strong social support network has helped me avoid many years of therapy I would have otherwise needed (although I've done therapy as well).
- Build in fun things for yourself
It's ok to want to like your job, and your daily activities. It's not all about self-sacrifice. It's ok to not only do activities that your client likes. Find ways to incorporate your own strengths and interests into your work. Find ways to build play and movement and outside time into your day. If you are happy and engaged, your client is more likely to be the same. Joy is contagious.
- Practice emotional presence with your loved ones
This often requires conscious, concerted effort. Especially when our clients get the best hours of our day, and our loved ones get the leftovers, it can be very challenging to stay present. A hack for this is to build in relationship routines that help you prioritize your relationships, even on the hardest of days. My wife and I do 30-second long hugs. I make a point of playing with my son for at least fifteen minutes every day (whenever I'm home in the evening). Another I've heard about is called the five for five practice: spend five minutes within five feet of your partner upon your return from work, focusing on reconnecting.
Whatever practices you choose for yourself, ensure that the focus is on connecting with the other, and that you are mentally and emotionally present to them. Make sure your loved ones matter to you more than your clients and that your loved ones feel that.
- Develop a compassion cultivation practice for your clients
Perhaps this is a lovingkindness practice. Perhaps you consciously and frequently visualize the client as an infant, innocent and unmarred. Perhaps you regularly pray for your clients. Whatever practice you choose, find something that allows you to cultivate an inner sense of compassion for your clients.
It is an astonishing thing that feelings are not just something that arise spontaneously in response to outside stimuli; you can foster desired states of mind and heart. This is an incredibly powerful tool for your own well-being and sanity, particularly when you use your clients as the focus of your positive feelings.
- End with the beginning in mind
Finish each work day with your arrival the next morning in mind. Set up your environment so that it welcomes you back the next day. Ensure your work space is clean and organized. Write down any unfinished tasks for yourself so you know where to start. If possible, spend a few minutes journaling about your day.
Further, develop routines for separating work from home. Change clothes when you get home. Leave your work phone and computer at work. Or turn off your work phone at a scheduled time. Do not check your email or phone calls. The truth is, you probably are not so important that you need to be reached at all times. Few people are.
Whatever routines you develop for yourself, focus on creating margin, some distance between work and the rest of your life. Be creative. If you really are one of those people who needs to be available to work after hours - again, most of us aren't that important - then figure out routines within those restrictions that accomplish these ends. Find routines that will help you be present and grounded where you are.
- Practice healthy venting
I covered this in the first article, but it bears repeating. Healthy venting focuses on your feelings, and your subjective experience. It focuses on your inner orientation or relationship to the outer circumstances, which is often the real cause of your suffering. I am not discounting the legitimate challenges and painful experiences you might be having in this work. But healthy venting guides you toward those things that are in your power to change or control, which is self-empowering and expansive.
- Do your own personal work
Embrace the long, hard work of the soul. There will always be something within yourself to address, the next painful memory or character defect or challenging relationship or existential crisis. Often, our clients mirror to us the thing we most need to work on. Do this work. Lean in to what is arising. The next thing that arises is both the obstacle and the path to a bigger and brighter self. Go to the dark places within yourself, and let some light in. Otherwise, your workplace and work relationships stay the arena where you act/live out your pain or trauma.
This list is not exhaustive. Add to it! You know, deep within yourself, what you need to be healthy and do this work in a sustainable way. You know what you need to lovingly detach. Dig in, and foster this for yourself.