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A Guide for Helping Professionals: Dealing With Your Own “Stuff”

Throughout the course of your education, work experience, and supervision, you will hear words such as “compassion fatigue” and “various trauma.”

From 2008-2015, I went from a community college, to 4 years at a public university for undergrad and then another 2 years at a public university for graduate school. While I was getting educated, I was a foster parent, a domestic violence advocate, crisis line volunteer, school social worker, mental health clinician, and I worked with youth and adults in public housing. Upon finishing grad school, I worked as a caseworker for child welfare for close to two years. As can be expected, I worked with people who have endured and perpetrated abuse and neglect, people who abused substances, people with mental illnesses, but most frequently, people with a mixture of these factors.

Through supervision, I became more aware of my own codependency issues — my tendency to seek approval, my tendency to want to rescue people, and my tendency to base my worth on the successes and failures of my clients. Working long hours built resentment. I did not feel appreciated. I did not feel valued. I constantly felt that what I was doing was not enough. I rarely took breaks. I worked through lunch. I was afraid to take time off. I felt overwhelmed. The best way I can describe it is feeling like a deer in the headlights. Frozen.

Here is an example of the impact of unprocessed trauma: Once my job with child welfare ended, I started experiencing flashbacks to a traumatic experience from my childhood in South Korea. I stumbled upon a man beating a dog that was hanging, covered in a sack. I can still remember the fear and powerlessness. My supervisor encouraged me to journal and suggested some art therapy techniques I could use.

During my most recent session, I talked about a friend of mine who committed suicide at age 21. We talked about survivor guilt and self-compassion. I mentioned that, as a child, I was quite sensitive and emotional and my father made fun of me while my mother was often irritated and angry with me for it. Working on yourself can be about returning to the person whom you were originally designed to be.

We also talked about me being triggered by my husband’s best friend’s wife’s recent confession of infidelity. My supervisor wondered if I felt my marriage was threatened and I talked about some of my first relationships and the accompanying feelings of betrayal. We also walked through some of my thought distortions because I was dwelling on how my husband’s best friend “should” have reacted. The Stages of Grief explain his initial reactions.

My supervisor’s theory is that my traumas are surfacing because I’ve been so preoccupied with school and work that I was too exhausted to deal with my own personal traumas as well as the traumas I was exposed to. I’m grateful because I have lived with anxiety for years and I am finally starting to feel that it’s manageable. The common analogy used is putting on the oxygen mask in the plane before assisting others with theirs. We can only give what we have. We cannot pour from an empty cup.

What I try to do is practice mindfulness, radical acceptance, and gratitude. While it is easy to eat absent-mindedly when you’re stressed and tired, I am making an effort to pause and savor. I used to get so frustrated that I had nothing left for my family when I came home from work. Now, I am making a conscious effort to spend some quality time with my husband and daughter. I make myself do the things that I tell myself I am “too tired” to do.

My supervisor has talked to me about being proactive with my health. She noticed my allergies and recommended probiotics to fight candida. She’s been a huge proponent of eating right and exercising. When the weather is nice, we take our conversations outside. As a result, I try to get outside as much as possible. Sometimes I just sit on the porch. Other times, I’m in the pool or the garden. I’m working up the courage to take nightly walks as my elderly neighbors next door often do. What I have noticed is that I try to talk myself out of doing things more than I try to talk myself into doing them.

As you can tell from what I’ve shared, there’s always room for growth. Can you think of some changes you need to make to help you become a more effective practitioner?

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