Every weekend I take my dogs for a walk along a stony beach not far from my home, and while I’m walking, I gather stones to add to the paths we’re creating in our garden.
I walk for a long time, and by the time I get home, I find myself weighed down with all the stones I’ve collected on the way out, and the way back.
It got me thinking, as a counsellor, about how I carry heavy things. People come through my door every day, and give me their stories, their stones. Grief, pain, hurt, confusion, rage, trauma, sadness, despair. And when they leave my room, some of that weight remains with me. Here’s what I’ve learned about carrying heavy things.
1. Only I know how much I can carry and sustain.
My husband can carry many more stones than I can – he’s 20 kilos heavier, and his muscles are bigger! It’s not helpful to compare the difference in what we can carry. As counsellors, there are so many differences in our workloads: the numbers of cases we are expected to work with, the types of cases we are seeing, how experienced we are, what other unseen things we might also be carrying (Dependents? Challenges in our own personal lives? Illness?). Only I can truly know the optimal and maximum weight that I can safely carry.
2. Some stones are heavier than others. Lots of little stones do add up to one big one – an accumulation of multiple pebbles is just as heavy as one rock.
I can usually remember that a “big” case is fatiguing and can impact on me in terms of feeling triggered myself, or affected by shocking or heart-breaking situations. However it can be easy to forget the cumulative effects of “smaller” cases.... the accumulated weight of others’ sadnesses, low mood, depression, grief and so on is just as heavy, though it can creep up on me.
3. I need to know how to assess, gauge and monitor my own fatigue – and do it.
My body tells me clearly when I’m carrying too many stones – my arms ache, my back hurts, I have to slow down and take lots of breaks from carrying bags since my hands hurt! There are fewer external cues that I am struggling under the weight of client stories, and those cues are different for each of us.
When I am feeling fatigued by the work, I notice that my sleep is affected, my sense of optimism and energy is dimmed, my ‘gas in the tank’ is low.. How do I check in with myself? I’ve taken a leaf from the wisdom of SFBT, and developed my own Julia-flavoured scaling measures to do exactly that – where am I on a scale of 1 to 10? For me, 1 is depleted, pessimistic, weary, not looking forward to the day; and 10 is optimistic, light, strong and hopeful. I track these scores daily, and usually across a work week they do start to decline. For me, I like to maintain a rating of 7-8; anything less than a 5 demands I take action
4. Carrying heavy things definitely makes me stronger – but the overload principle – a basic sports fitness training concept – definitely applies here. In order for athletes to improve, they must continually work harder as their bodies adapt and adjust to existing workouts.
One of the great things about experience is that we grow skilled at what we practise. When I started as a counsellor, each day I felt quite overwhelmed with the privilege, responsibility and weight of hearing others’ pain as they unburdened themselves in the counselling room. As I have gained more experience in managing my own professional boundaries, reflected on my casework and my own role as a counsellor in clinical supervision, and seen many, many clients day after day, I look back to my early months and realise I have adapted, and I am definitely stronger than I was!
5. It’s important to stay aware of the terrain.
Carrying stones when you’re walking on a flat, hard surface is much easier than when you’re walking on an undulating or soft surface....or if you’re going uphill. Pay attention to what’s going on for you in the rest of your life – this can absolutely affect how much you can carry.
6. Little by little, things get heavier – sometimes I forget to pay attention.
As we carry more, it’s really easy to forget just how heavy things become. We become habituated to weight. Like the frog who knows to jump out of the boiling water when he’s plopped in to it, but ends up boiling to death if the tepid water he’s placed in gradually heats up to boiling, we can over time lose sight of just how heavy our work can be.
7. I can stay completely present collecting stones – but I can also remember why I’m here, the bigger picture.
When I’m trudging along looking at the stones, I can quickly forget to stand up straight, stretch, and look around me at the beautiful ocean, the vast sky, smell the salty sea air, and bask in the beauty of Aotearoa. Similarly when I’m seeing client after client and immersed in my mahi, how quickly I can forget to keep perspective! I need to remember there is joy, richness and beauty in my surroundings, engage with colleagues, walk around the block at lunchtime, stay connected to people in my life who matter to me, prioritise variety and fun.
8. Putting the stones down is important! How do I do that?
Having clarity around my personal and professional boundaries is a daily discipline, and one I am still learning. I read every article about self-care in the helping professions that I come across, and glean strategies and ideas that make sense to me. I believe this is a deeply personal issue, and what works for you might not be a good ‘fit’ for me – what is crucial is that we DO know how we put the stones down, and that we hold ourselves accountable to do so.
9. I can be proud of what I’ve done.
This is part of remembering the bigger picture – when I am living a life that is aligned to my own core values – and for me, counselling is absolutely that – I know how that feels.
10. There will always be more stones. Once my hands are full I can’t keep on picking them up – I need to make peace with that. I need to remember I can’t save the world.
This was an epiphany for me, quite early on in my counselling. I felt overwhelmed by the need, by the sheer numbers of people desperate for the unconditional positive regard and attention of another. At times I felt I was drowning in the need. The story of the starfishes helped me with that, and the relief of accepting my own finiteness. These days I have largely made peace with the truth that I can only do what I can do, and if I burn out from trying to help all of the people, all of the time, then I’ll help no-one.
Julia Field lives in beautiful Christchurch, New Zealand and has a rewarding position as a full-time counsellor in a large secondary school. When she's not at work, she loves spending time with her husband Mike and family (four adult children and two step-children), taking her beloved dogs for long beach walks, working on her PhD, and making music.
She can be contacted via email. Julia has just been published in the New Zealand Journal of Counselling "How adoption affects the experience of adult intimate relationships and parenthood: A systematic review", Vol 38, (2), July 2018.