This blog post was written by Amanda Serrano, our Clinical Director.
The motto of psychotherapist everywhere, but what does it really mean?
All clinicians know that we never go into a space intending to cause harm to anyone, but what happens when we are not present to our therapeutic selves in session, what happens when as therapists we come into the space without getting enough sleep, feeling hungry, feeling angry about a personal issue or stressing out about our issues? How does that translate into the care we are providing? Something I have noticed over the years is that a majority of clinicians, particularly clinicians who got into this work to give back because some clinician in the past made a positive impact in their lives, develop superhero syndrome.
Now, superhero syndrome is what I call it, it means wanting and trying to be present to EVERYTHING and EVERYONE without being present to yourself as a clinician. Before I get into the dangers of superhero syndrome, I want to discuss the beauty of it. Clinicians are superheroes for clients. Clinicians have the power to talk a person off that cliff, they have the ability to uncover strengths those clients never knew they had within them and nurture them and walk with those clients to a brighter future.
As we teach our clients, you have to come first, without fulling your bucket first, you cannot be present to everyone else. The problem with a lot of new clinicians who are energetic and ready to throw themselves into the work and help everyone is that a lot of new clinicians forget to fill their bucket, and the mental health system is saturated with persons who need to be seen that a new clinician can be given 2-3 distinct jobs in their respective agencies because there is such a need, and without being vigilant about self-care, a clinician can easily start to burn out when they are only beginning.
Now superhero syndrome also means that clinicians forget that all superheroes have a version of kryptonite that will affect them. That kryptonite is different for each practitioner. Examples of clinical kryptonite are: overconfidence, over-extension, boundary blurring, cultural encapsulation and transferences. These can show up in each clinicians work, and it takes a great deal of mindfulness reflection and support to stave these clinical kryptonite. This work is a consistent practice. And often a topic of clinical supervision.
Living though a disaster can be as devastating inside of ourselves as it can be to the outside world. Disasters can be very unpredictable. Everything from a car accident to a weather event can be a disaster. This post will focus on recognizing that you have been through a disaster, what to expect from yourself in a disaster and finally how to be of service to others who have experienced a disaster.
First it is critical, before anything else, to understand that safety is not negotiable. If you are in a situation pre or post disaster and you are not safe physically, emotionally, spiritually, or communally, it is imperative this be the primary focus. You cannot help others and cannot be useful in a disaster when you are affected by it. So, the key is once you are out of danger and have “come back to yourself” then you can be helpful to others.
Second, disasters cause the limbic system to activate the “fight or flight” response. This causes the body to be flooded with adrenaline and hormones that prepare us to run or to fight. This will last as long as the disaster does. So, burnout among those first responders whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual is common after a time. The key is that no one can stay in this heightened space of awareness for a really long period of time.
Third, disasters are unexpected and not a normal part of life. So, we can feel as though we are “caught off guard” to the point where we no longer remember how to respond to the environment. This “shock” factor is a part of the well documented grief process. The grief process is the way in which the body, the emotional and spiritual self, and the mind realign so that we feel okay and safe again. The main point about grief is that there is no timeframe. You cannot expect others to do at the same pace as you do. We as helpers know that grief is a core issue that causes many of the other “ripple” effects of depression, anxiety, addiction, or self-destructive behaviors.
When faced with the consequences of a disaster there are some key things we can do to make the recovery process easier. Once we are safe again and have the capacity to do the work we must first acknowledge the disaster for what it was – not what we think or wanted it to be. Especially if death or injury occurred many of us want to to channel our feelings toward something to make the disaster make sense to us. For example, if we lose our home we may say that “Flo, that damn storm, stole my house.” This projection is a way of helping us target an outside entity and make it responsible for our grief and loss. This is a smart move initially, and especially with kids, but it cannot last forever.
The key is to accept the disaster as it is. Now what we want it to be. Then we can accept the fact this happened to us and begin the work of grieving the loss. This grief takes the form of a roller coaster of emotion that bounces from shock, to extreme sadness, to rage (not anger but rage), to a bargaining behavior of “I can accept this if…,” until finally acceptance. This process is not linear. It is the worst roller coaster ride in the world.
The closer someone is to a disaster or in the experience of a loss because of disaster then the longer it may take to make sense of it. We should never force someone to be where they are not with something like this. Mental health professionals can help if someone seems to become stuck and cannot get through the grief process. For some people there is a delayed reaction to a disaster. This delay could be short in terms of days or maybe even years. For some there is a “layering” effect where disasters build on each other. Carrying this much around inside can be detrimental to someone’s well-being.
Compassion and gentleness with the self are also great tools in these moments. This is not a normal event to occur in life. So, there is no real way to prepare for it. All any of us can really do is be present to what we really feel and what we need in the next moments to be okay again. Even if for a little while. Many helping professionals specialize in grief and loss/disaster recovery work. If you find yourself stuck reach out. There are many of us who understand and can help you through it.
Final note here, disasters can bring forward feelings of powerlessness. For some people this may lead to feeling hopeless and lost. If someone stays there too long they may begin to have thoughts of suicide. The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255. If you or someone you know is really struggling because of a disaster reach out. Help is there.
Let us know what you think. Join the conversation.
On the way to work you find yourself in traffic and realize you will be late, again. Suddenly someone pushes their way in front of you nearly causing an accident. Many of us would probably react to this with a well-placed “F-bomb” and a one finger salute. Afterwards we find ourselves struggling to contain the anger and resentment. If left unaddressed the anger and resentment carry with us throughout the day.
Consider another scenario that while getting the news of the day you come across a story that demonstrates a tragic miscarriage of justice and you absorb the horror that someone went through. You find yourself becoming upset to a point of feeling nauseous and maybe even tearful. Chastising yourself to “pull it together” because isn’t fair you come back to your reality but find yourself down the rest of the day.
Sound familiar? For many of us our emotions are the part of ourselves we wish we did not have to deal with daily. We find ourselves wishing we could “be different” in our response to the world but find ourselves powerless to make the change. This post will offer a different point of view. This post will suggest that emotions are energy and that energy is ours to do with what we will. This post will also suggest that since emotions are energy, our identity is not “I am (insert the emotion)” rather “I am experiencing (the emotion) and I do not know what to do about it.”
Consider the above situations. Depending on what you have experienced in your life so far you may be responding to the situation based off your current emotional state, your history, or your expectations about what others should be doing and not what you know to be really happening. For example, we all have had days where we are late for work and every light and every driver is seemingly out to get us. We know this is not true but feel as though it is. The key is to act from what we know – not what we feel. Feelings are not facts. They are energy to give us motivation to respond to the facts.
Humans have a built in “warning system” called the limbic system. When it gets activated the “fight or flight” response part of us kicks into gear. Over the last 20 years the research in neuropsychology has shown us that when activated the limbic system floods the body with adrenaline and hormones that help us be ready to fight or to run. Much like the idle of our car, if the body is left at this heightened state too long this becomes the “new normal.” We find ourselves “stuck” in this heightened awareness.
It is well documented that soldiers coming home from war can and often do have a really hard time adjusting to civilian life. The same is true for anyone who experiences a situation where they felt unsafe and at risk of being hurt for a long period of time. This mentality causes us to see the world as unsafe and to act in unknown situations in the same way we would in situations where we could be harmed.
But what do we do about this? The first step is acknowledging that who we are as people is separate from what we experience emotionally. Our actions, not our emotions, become the important measure of how we handle a tough situation. If we can see suffering in the world and say, “I feel bad about this and want to do something to help,” then we can act and not get sucked into the whirlwind of emotion. For example, if we see animals being abused online and then decide to make a monthly donation to the local animal shelter we have decided to act. This action allows us to feel the feelings without being lost in them. Emotions are the fuel for our actions not the road map of what we will do.
A critical point here is that we cannot deny feelings. We cannot get rid of them because they are uncomfortable. In basic science principles we all learned that energy cannot be destroyed merely transformed. If we deny feelings today, they come back up later in other ways that can make life very difficult. The only way to deal with feelings is to feel them and then let the energy fade. Emotions are part of being human. Our next discussion will center on mindfulness and the use of breath as a tool to re-center ourselves when we get caught in waves of emotion.
Join the conversation and tell us what you think.
Many of us can relate to the power of being hungry. We have in fact created the term hangry in our culture to signify that not only are we hungry but angry as well. When we are empty physically we cannot be at our best. In the world of mental health & mental wellness hunger has a broader definition. This entry will discuss how the hungers that come with being human directly affect our ability to be present to ourselves and to others. We will also dive into how to determine what is happening when your hungers are at odds with each other (yes, there are more than one types of hunger) and what you can practically do about it.
Foundationally it is important to understand that human beings are far more complex than any of us think we really are. Many people I work with will tell me that when I bring this topic up to them they believe it does not apply to them. Or, my favorite, I can “will” myself to not experience that hunger. Here is the hard truth, if we do not address our hungers they will come out in other ways behaviorally, emotionally, and in our self-talk.
Hunger can happen physically when we need food or rest.
Hunger can happen emotionally when we need to express our feelings about something that is important to us or we need connection with someone important to us.
Hunger can happen sexually when we need physical contact and sex with someone we care for and who cares for us.
Hunger can happen spiritually when we are struggling with finding purpose and meaning in life.
Hunger can happen psychologically when we are struggling with identity or knowledge to implement our purpose in life.
Hunger can happen socially & with family when we feel at odds or lost because we do not know our kin or tribe.
When we do not know where we belong we can feel lost and confused. These hungers can be independent or happen in groups or all at once. It is also important to state that these are broad brush definitions. They are not meant to define everyone in the same way. The categories are what is important. How they get interpreted depends a great deal on the person asking the question.
Consider how you are experiencing this conversation right now. Are you uncomfortable? Are you asking yourself if any of these apply to you? Consider how often we judge the behavior of others without knowing what is really happening. Have you ever done something you later regretted because you were “hungry?” I am not in any way condoning behavior that harms others here. When we act in a way that causes harm we have moved beyond the stage of hunger into another place. I will leave that conversation for others to attend to in their expertise.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who in 1943 developed a tool that is still widely used and criticized today. It focuses on the hierarchy of needs. In Maslow’s pyramid below we see that there are many layers to the pyramid. The gist of his work was to demonstrate that without accomplishing the foundation and then each layer in turn, many goals in human development cannot be attained. You cannot become a neurosurgeon or a dog catcher if you are starving for food and medicine. See the image of Maslow’s hierarchy (from Wikipedia)
With this framework we can now begin to understand what we do when we are in trouble. When we find ourselves stuck and confused we need to go back to a basic question what am I hungry for right now? What do you need in this moment to allow you to return to a place of balance and harmony? Once we can answer this question we then can create an action plan.
For example, imagine you have held anger toward your sibling for years because of an argument you had in early adulthood about something important to you both. Consider that this argument was bad enough that you both have had resentment about it and have not interacted in some time. Consider what the “cost” is to you to hold on to this anger and resentment. Would you consider this a “hunger?”
All we as humans have the power to do is to tell others how we feel, what we want, and what we have the capacity to do to get this accomplished. That is, it. The rest is on those around us. How might this tool help in the above situation? I tell my sibling I am angry because of the situation; I want them to acknowledge their part in it as well and how they treated me; and I am willing to do what I can to make it right between us. What they decide we have no power over at all. Even if in the end it is not resolved the way we want it to be we have stepped forward in a new and different way.
What do you think? Does hunger play a role in your life? Join me in the discussion and let’s chat.
One thing different today
I find that there are many times I get stuck in my head and in my feelings. In these moments it seems as if time stops and I am unable to see what is happening around me in the real world. Like many who live with the unwanted house guests of depression and anxiety, my experience of being stuck usually is related to expectations I have created in my mind about who I am supposed to be or what I am supposed to be doing.
When this happens, I can become so overwhelmed by this hamster wheel of thinking that I end up giving more fuel and energy to the depression and anxiety. To give myself a new path I use the mantra of one thing different today. This means that today I will do one thing different than I did yesterday. I will set my intention toward this as a goal. Here is an example:
Let’s say it has been a long week at work. I have a mountain of laundry, the house looks like a dorm room, and I haven’t touched the bills all week. Looking at all of this can be overwhelming. So, I say to myself:
“What is one thing I can do different today that I did not do yesterday to make this easier?”
It may mean I make a list. Or, I could begin the laundry then start on the kitchen while it the load of laundry washes. Whatever it is, I set my intention on the one thing I want to do differently. Normally I would feel so overwhelmed I might go sleep or feel as though I am a bad guy because my house looks like this. But this small step starts a different path.
By taking one different step we are allowing ourselves permission to focus on our goals and to not get caught in negative self-talk. Self-talk is that voice we all have inside who we know well. Sometimes it sounds like us and sometimes it does not. In those moments it may sound like a parent or authority figure. We may be mean to ourselves because that is what we experienced when we were young. We may be so critical that we can become self-abusive.
When our self-talk becomes negative we have feelings and then thoughts about those feelings and then feelings about those thoughts and so on. Whew, that takes a lot of energy. This can become a spiral of intensity that it can be hours of “being stuck” because we cannot move forward. Using this technique allows us to break this cycle and start over.
The amazing thing about growth is that you can start over as many times as you need to make things different. When we allow catharsis like this to happen it can be difficult at first. But if we stick with it and continue to be loving toward ourselves by getting out of the trap of negative self-talk we can have a new lease on life.
So, what do you think? What is one thing you can do different today that you did not do yesterday?
This space is designed for our team to share with the community thoughts on how hard change is when issues of mental health & wellness, addiction to processes or substances, and just growth can be in life. Catharsis is a process of transformation, but it can be incredibly painful and slow or lightning fast. Our logo is a phoenix. This is the symbol, for us, of catharsis. Here we will discuss events of the day and how this impacts our capacity and ability to change and grow. We invite you to participate with us in dialogue. Comments are welcome that are constructive and thoughtful. Please join us in dialogue as we grow and change together building community along the way.
Jack, our CEO & Amanda, our Clinical Director, are the admin for this blog and we reserve the right to delete any comments that are not constructive or relevant to the posts discourse.