At 36 years old, 15 years into my career as a mental health professional, I had a wake-up call that shifted my perspective on how I approach my career, relationships, parenting, and even compassion.
To give some context, in July 2018, I was working full time at a community mental health organization as a counselor, was building a part-time psychotherapy private practice, raising two children under age 6, living in an increasingly crowded city with a 2 hour round trip daily transit commute, had aging parents, a tenant in our basement apartment, and was trying to maintain a healthy marriage and friendships. I thought that drinking plenty of water, squeezing in a weekly yoga class and monthly massage was self-care, and it was, but what I required was self-compassion, a term I realized I understood academically, but was having trouble applying to myself.
On the brink of burn out, I went to see my doctor who told me I have a mood disorder. My therapist said “take a little time off of work”. My initial reaction was that it wouldn’t be necessary to step away from my work. People are counting on me – my clients, my colleagues, my boss, my kids…
After chatting with my husband (a fellow psychotherapist), I reluctantly agreed that a couple weeks off could be beneficial. My doctor had a different idea—a minimum of 6 weeks off and she wanted it to start later that week.
It felt like a metaphorical brick hit me in the face as I walked home from the doctor stunned by the recommendation. Returning home to my husband and telling him the recommendation, he said “I agree completely”. As it turned out, every person I mentioned it to, including my employer, a few trusted colleagues, some friends, family members and of course my therapist were completely on board with the idea. The only one who gave any push back at any point was me.
I knew that my way wasn’t working, so I trusted the professionals and loved ones in my life and took 6 weeks off. My instructions for this leave (per my therapist) were to “be messy” and “feel your feelings”. It felt intangible and unnecessary – which paradoxically was why it was so necessary.
Like I have through my entire life, I turned to writing as a method for exploring my thoughts and feelings. I wrote daily in a journal, read a large stack of self-help books, listened to self-improvement podcasts and started opening up about what was going on for me to people I trust and respect.
The 6 weeks actually turned into 14 weeks. It was exhausting. It was enlightening. It was healing.
It is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It is the hardest work I continue to do. Because, I am a work-in-progress.
I GOT BACK TO MY VALUES AND PRIORITIES.
I want to focus my energy on what matters most to me. I don’t want to be approaching retirement and be a shadow of my younger self. I want to be the best version of me.
I want to demonstrate self-compassion to my children, my clients, my friends, and not just talk about it. Self-care is a practice, not a task. It takes courage to step out of our comfort zone and find ways we can help ourselves.
In sharing my story with other professionals, I realized my situation was not unique. So many people I admire, who are great at their jobs and outwardly seem to “have it all together” were having similar internal struggles to me.
So, while at first I hid that I took a mental leave absence from work, and felt ashamed of asking for help, now I wear it as a badge of honor. My silence only increased my sense of isolation and failure, putting voice to it has made me stronger, more courageous and better able to appreciate what I most value.
My own healing has inspired me to want to provide greater resources to fellow professionals (especially women), who may be heading toward burnout. As a result, I co-founded the Behavior Elevation Academy to share practical resources, exercises and articles so that we can all spend less time in survival mode and learn to thrive.
I’ve learned that one of the hardest things to do is show self-compassion and take the advice you’d give a loved one. Balance takes practice, so let’s practice together!