When I used to work for a major corporation, I spent a lot of time complaining (sometimes crying) about how much it sucked.
The thing I love most about my current job is that the urgency, the issues, the work is all directly applicable to human beings (and not appliances, as was the case with the major corp). If I’m going to get invested in any way in something, it’s much easier to do so with humans than washing machines or fridges. (And yet, I was probably still overly-invested in those fucking appliances.)
An acquaintance/friend of mine recently became a middle school teacher in the US. She has been struggling with it for a bunch of reasons (one part being that it’s all new) and has been writing quite openly about some of her feelings, the challenges, etc. As much as her discomfort sucks, I have also been laughing a little bit behind my screen.. because hooboy, I recognize myself there.
What I’ve learned from working directly with human beings is that.. human beings are messy as all get-out. You can’t (generally) control someone else’s emotions or thoughts or behaviours. You can’t anticipate their needs. You can’t shove them into doing the right thing(s). You can’t control what they do when they’re not around. You can’t fix their childhood issues (whether they’re children or adults) and you can’t undo biology.
The only thing you can control is yourself. Set boundaries. Re-evaluate and reset boundaries.
We all know that’s easier said than done.
You could not pay me enough money to attempt to teach a classroom full of middle school kids. I’d be lucky to last an hour and, at the end of that hour, I’d be irreparably damaged (and I’m only slightly exaggerating). Honestly, chances are really good that I’d end up being one of the teachers in the news – a wonky, half-drunk mugshot posted next to a couple paragraphs describing how the students found me completely passed out in the parking lot before school in the morning.
(Large groups of children make me nervous. Give me a bunch of people high on meth and I’m much, much more comfortable.)
The hardest, and best, parts of my job are.. humans. The clients, the client community, my coworkers, the partners, the families, the community in general. I am not always confident that I am working well with humans – some days it all feels like a perfect flow and other days it feels awful.
I’m constantly trying to figure out my boundaries. I’m trying to figure out why I’ve set them where they are, whether they need to shift (tighter or looser), trying to adjust them to different circumstances and different people.
The people that I work with, generally speaking, have completely different boundaries from my own – out of necessity, out of learning to survive, out of circumstances. It can make me feel like I am too rigid, too cold, too uncaring. It can make me feel like I am not helpful, like I am not doing my job well. There have been many days where I have spent a lot of time wondering whether my reaction to something was appropriate – too much? too little?
Many of the people I work with have intense needs – both in terms of their physical needs (housing, food, health care) and emotional (nurturing, caring, support). I am constantly reminding myself of what my job is – which can be hard since my job is not black and white. It is not a perfectly-boxed set of behaviours that I plunk on the table with each person.
My job isn’t to fulfil everyone’s needs. Sometimes I need to help people find other resources to support them. Sometimes it’s to nudge them.
Often, and it’s hard, my job is to step back and see the gap – the big, pressing, ugly need – and simply accept it.
It is always hard to see emotional pain – and every single person I work with contains a lot of it. it is hard to step back and acknowledge to myself that I can’t fix it, or even patch it up, within the context of my job.
I have to refocus. I can help people by helping them feel they belong, that they have worth. I can help with certain practical things. I can help by listening (within certain contexts). I can help simply by accepting them as-is, where they are, regardless of what’s happening. For some people, I can provide structure and reliability and predictability. For some people I can offer encouragement.
I can’t wade into any part of someone’s darkness if I don’t tie a rope around myself so I can climb back out – and the rope is being very clear with them, and myself, about my limitations.
Sometimes people are very angry about that. Sometimes they try to manipulate me into changing my behaviours to fit what they need. And this is also really hard for me – because I know I could make them feel better (and, by extension, relieve myself of feeling bad for making them feel bad) if I just relaxed my boundaries a little bit.
But what they need is consistency. They need to see that boundaries can be filled with love and respect – even when those boundaries are different from what they’d like. In some cases, people will back off and leave. They need something else, or something more, than what I can give them – and that’s okay (as much as it suuuuucks). Sometimes people will fight the boundaries, push against the limits, demand that I justify/explain everything (repeatedly) so they can argue their side. That’s okay. It’s hard, and it sucks, but it’s okay.
This is not unlike my friend teaching middle school kids. Kids are learning about the world around them and how far they can push things and they’re learning to be independent creatures (apart from their parents) and.. just typing those things makes me feel anxious.
I don’t say these out loud much, but this is the gist of what I would say to my clients if I could give them a schpiel about things:
Let me tell you what’s going to happen between us. Here’s what you can expect from me. Some of you will not like me. Some of you will think I am great. Some of you will try to fight me every step of the way. We will have conflict but that’s okay. You may move away from me or you may move closer. You will see that no matter what you’re doing, or how you’re doing it, I value you. There are things I cannot help you with no matter how much I wish I could. I have a role in your life and I need to stick to that role. I will try very hard not to make you wonder where I stand on things. I will work hard to never make our relationship about my needs (and I will spend a lot of time thinking about my own needs). Here are the things I can do and here are the things I cannot. I will try to be direct when I answer your questions. I will hold on to confidentiality.
When I think about what I appreciate most in my times of.. difficulty.. it usually boils down to someone who feels steady (read: my beloved husband). Someone who can accept whatever’s going on with me and still be consistent. Someone who shows empathy but doesn’t make it about their own discomfort around whatever’s happening for me. Someone who doesn’t run in the face of my crap and who doesn’t take it on. Someone who agrees that things suck, yes, but doesn’t immediately try to fix it.
And so, this is what I try to do for others. It is hard work.
I am a big fan of the instagram account @notesfromyourtherapist for reasons like this: