Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can You Keep a Secret?

I started this post a couple weeks ago and have had it languishing in my DRAFTS file up till now...figured it was time I finally dusted it off and got it posted or else delete. Posting won out.

I've been thinking some about how I manage work stress and what it means to find personal balance when in the front lines of the helping professions.

Years ago when I was working Mental Health I went to a training about Coping With Helper Secrets. The guy who did the training, Dale Larson, talked about how those who work with people in pain or crisis are bound to have all sorts of different emotional reactions to what we experience. His research was based on work with people serving in Hospice. But he generalized the effect to any helping professional who routinely interacted with clients/patients whose lives were characterized by trauma, drama and/or generalized chaos.

No matter how proficient our skill sets may be for responding appropriately in the moment to our clients, internally we may be all amok with self doubt, disgust, frustration, resentment, anger or shame. Larson talked about the importance of having a safe place for appropriately processing those conflicts so the secondary trauma does not overtake us.

The agency I direct does re-entry services with felons after release from prison so I get opportunities to interact with all sorts of different people and to be in the front lines for a fair amount of drama.

Part of my job now requires me to work with sex offenders who I personally find reprehensible.

My work also sometimes has me associating with people who are dishonest, selfish and manipulative.

And on occasions I cross paths with people who are rude, ignorant or just plain difficult.

All of that takes a toll.

Sure, there are also some GREAT folks who have recognized the error of their ways and are genuinely trying to turn their lives around. But those are the minority, it seems. Day in and day out, mostly I deal with people who I have no reason to believe or trust. I have to be on my guard all the time. That wears me out.

I'm usually pretty good at how I manage my responses when I'm with the clients. But sometimes my internal response is more than a little skewed. All too often I have a hard time letting things go.

At the training Larson talked about how working with people in distress can trigger all sorts of personal reactions for the professionals serving them, and how if those reactions are not tended to in a suitable manner it can wreak holy havoc for the therapists, cops, priests, paramedics and others whose lives so often intersect with other people's pain.

I really do believe that to be true. I think it is important and healthy to have a safe place where one can drop the constraint of our professional role and authentically own the full range of the impact all that stress brings.

So the trick for me is to figure out when and where it is ok to share, ok to vent, ok to gnash my teeth over all the different stressors of my job - from the client drama to the funding woes - and when I need to just come to terms with it on my own. Part of the issue I need to be cautious of is client confidentiality. I can't talk about them in any identifying way to those outside the agency other than what is needed to coordinate specific services. Part of the problem also is the need to present my agency as strong and capable to help shore up the reputation in the community, even when I am aware of the problems inside that sometimes seem like insurmountable barriers.

Sorting out where to draw the line between my PUBLIC self as "executive director" of a particular non-profit and my PRIVATE self as a person who worries about XYZ or longs for ABC...that is an interesting kettle of fish.

Last Friday I had a meeting with one of the counselors up at the prison. As I was on my way out of his office he asked me "So do you like this kind of work? Do you enjoy working with offenders?" His question really knocked me for a loop. Up until now I had not asked myself that at all. I kept asking myself whether or not I was doing it well. My measuring stick was all about mastery. I wanted to know that I was proficient at the role. It never occurred to me to stop and ask if I ENJOYED my job.

Most days...no. I can't say I do. I'm too busy scrambling, dancing as fast as I can and still feeling like I may be dropping balls.

What does that mean? Does that mean I need to scramble to find something else and kick this one to the curb? I don't think so.

I think it means I need to examine more how I am managing the stress load. I need to learn how to do a better job of letting go.

I have much to learn from this position I am in. I really do believe I am serving right where I belong for now. I do not know how long I will have this job. I doubt it will be long term. But for however long it may be, whether 3 more months or 3 more years - I hope I can find ways of processing the complicated range of feelings that this work triggers in a more healthy, balanced way than I have so far.

And when my spirits are flagging, I do tell myself I'm ever so grateful I'm not bending over in a rice paddy day after day. I'm ever so grateful I don't work at Walmart. I am glad I don't work in a factory. I am glad I don't work for some mean boss. There are several parts about my job that have me tearing my hair out in frustration. But there are parts that I DO feel good about too. It's just a matter of how I balance and focus between the two. What will I pay attention to the most and what will I let go of?

Part of how I sort that out, for me, will be who I talk to about this stuff.
If I haven't learned anything else, one thing I absolutely know for sure is that when I feel connected with another person that can understand and relate to what I'm going through then my resilience increases exponentially. When I feel isolated and alone I get more scattered, less able to set clear priorities, my judgement starts to slip. I do way better when I can bounce ideas or vent or praise to another human being.

Knowing that about myself I need to work on identifying how to get more of that. I need to have someone out there I can tell things to, who will keep it confidential, not judge me, and be willing to give me feedback about when I'm over-reacting or making mountains out of mole hills. I need that outside perspective to help me see better when I'm on track and when I'm getting off the path.

I have some ideas of how to move in this direction...

but I'm also open to suggestion. So I'm throwing it out to the universe.

How do YOU deal with work angst? How do you find balance? How do you turn it off at the end of the day?

2 comments:

Rozel said...

In most of my past positions I have had I have been blessed to have at least one confidant that I can trust implicitly. If it is really bugging me I do vent to my husband. Mostly, I pray and pray and pray and pray . . . .

Torchwolf said...

I never have to work with anyone likely to provoke as extreme a reaction as sex offenders. So I don't know if there can be any comparison with my experiences and what would work for you.

But I make an effort to find at least some spark of goodness and humanity in everyone, and to firmly believe in the possibility of redemption for anyone. And also that however they seem on the surface, underneath somewhere there is a yearning for that redemption, buried under a deep layer of resignation.

Also I understand that many sex offenders were themselves abused as children.

When dealing with a difficult adult I find it often helps to remember the child they once were. And maybe the traumas that child suffered that led them to be the way they are now.

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