Have you ever had a hard time leaving work at work? Have you ever given all the emotional juice you have to your job and you finally get home only to have work thoughts creep back into your consciousness? It can be a lot like dealing with that creepy clown with the red balloon from IT. You’re having a nice supper with your family and you go to the fridge and the creepy clown is sitting next to the broccoli ready to hand you a red balloon full of troubling thoughts about work. You load things in the dish washer and there he is again with another balloon you don’t need.
Later when you go for a walk, you leave the house and right next to the mailbox you see the creepy clown again. All of a sudden your thoughts go back to your day and all its unfinished business. You try like crazy to ignore the clown but he keeps coming back again and again. How do we fix this? How do we separate our challenging work from our precious time at home? Is there some magic technique to help us shut off the endless stream of work related thoughts that can pollute our time off?
I was running my workshop The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World for a group of caring professions and we were collaborating on ways of helping ourselves deal with stress and burnout. I asked “What specific challenges do you face?” The stakes were high for these highly skilled pros. They work in a beautiful but isolated community, their caseloads are heavy and burnout was starting to take its toll.
Somebody said “I have a hard time leaving work at work! I take all of these worries about my clients home with me!” I asked the group if this was a common problem and there were nods all around.
The room came alive and we immediately collaborated on solutions. One person said “After
a tough day I gather up all the files I’ve worked on, stick them in my filing cabinet and lock them up.” Somebody else offered, “I drive home by the lake and let myself think about work until I get to the end of the road and then I’m done!”
Somebody else said “I go for a really fast walk and when I get to a certain point, I act like I’m dropping all of my work troubles out on the road.” Another one was “I put all my papers away and then say goodbye to my plants, turn off the lights and I’m done!” What useful tool had we stumbled upon? Transition rituals! Transition rituals provide a definite end to our day and let us know that it’s OK to leave our concerns behind. We are creatures of habit after all and our brains like nothing better than following a pattern. So by using our transition ritual on a regular basis we get better at it. Our psyches embrace the idea that we have ended one part of our day and begun another. By using this technique and doing something after work as simple as going for a walk or driving down a certain road; we are literally training our brains to relax and to switch gears from one way of being to another. This can help us leave work at work so we can reduce our stress and chase away that evil creepy clown.
Here are some transition rituals that we came up with that day.
1: Go for a brisk walk after work.
2: Go to the gym and do a brief workout.
3: Have a specific way of leaving the office “Turnout the lights and say goodbye to the plants”
4: Say out loud, “I’m done playing in this sandbox. This can all wait until tomorrow”.
5: Say out loud “This is yours, not mine.”
6: Take a specific route home, allow yourself to think about work until you get to a certain point, then stop.
We all know that being in the caring professions takes a lot of skill, empathy and emotional juice. All of that giving can wear out our bodies and psyches. Transition rituals can be a useful tool to help keep the creepy clown away so we can recharge our batteries and give ourselves a chance to serve not just our clients but ourselves as well.
When I said this to a participant at The Canadian MPN Network Conference, it got a huge laugh. One of the great aphorisms of comedy is “Its funny ’cause its true!”
In this case, the lady I was speaking to was telling me that as a result of her being sick, she said she felt more empathy for people. She could understand others’ feelings more and she could cut other people more slack. Isn’t that fascinating? You would think that after a tough time, a lot of people would become bitter or resentful.
Often we have a chunk of adversity in our lives and somehow we manage to keep on keeping on, but after getting through the stress and navigating our way through a very difficult time often we are different. You could even say we are transformed. Some of us develop more empathy, others of us (like myself) get unreasonably pissed off for a while and pray that someone will steal candy from a baby on our street so we can start a round of fisticuffs. (After a while this anger calmed down into a state of assertiveness. I am really glad because fisticuffs are inconvenient.)
But what I have found after working with healthcare professionals and people going through life altering diseases is that our most arduous experiences change us.
One of my favourite questions to ask during a keynote is “In the experience of your journey with cancer (or another issue) what learnings or insights have you made?” People always have an answer. Nobody ever says “I feel exactly the same!” I have heard people say they are more sympathetic, more adventurous, more thoughtful, less resentful, more independent, more open to new ideas, more resilient and that they eat more dessert– to name a few.
All of this is good stuff don’t you think? I do. I love all of those things (especially the one about dessert).
So, where does this come from? Well, you may heave heard of a friend of mine called Joseph Campbell. (OK, He’s not my friend, but I like to pretend he is.) He came up with the idea of The Hero’s Journey which in a very tiny nutshell, is the idea that when we go on an adventure and face challenges and adversities that we are transformed and even improved by the experience.
I really think that is what happens to us when we deal with a transformative experience with our health. Our experience changes us, it molds and shapes us until we can look at who we used to be in the past and say “Hey, I’m a better person than I used to be.”
It sounds like the set up for a joke doesn’t it? But that’s what we had on June 30th. The very first Self Care Movement Summit in Toronto went off like crazy.
People came from far and wide to participate. We had folks drive in from 5 hours away just to be there for the evening.
When you see a large conference room packed tight on a Monday night, you know that there is a real need for this. Folks needed to not only learn about what they are going through and how to deal with their situation, but they also wanted to connect with each other.
Some of the things we addressed were mindfulness, dealing with chronic illness at work, sex, intimacy, and using humour as a tool to help us every day. We had a patient panel that shared stories about what it was like to deal with our different conditions and we even managed to squeeze some laughs out of it.
OK, so we may have tried to cram too much really good content into one evening, but can you blame us? That’s like complaining that a meal has too much food or that somebody gave you too much chocolate or that your birthday present is too big to fit into your car. You get my point.
After working with cancer patients and their families for years, one of the most common things that I have heard is that once we are finished our primary care, we often feel lost. That was certainly how I felt after I got over my initial cancer treatment. My physician even looked at me and said “You’re cured” I was expecting triumphant movie music to come in as we hugged in a manly way, but the hug didn’t happen. Instead I thought “Really? I don’t feel cured. Besides, the cancer might be gone but I have this chronic situation to deal with for the REST OF MY LIFE. So, how is that cured?”
That’s what the summit was for. We were all there to talk about what happens now. How do we adjust to our lives in this “new normal”. How do we not just exist but help ourselves to thrive with the capabilities that we have?
When several hundred committed, smart and passionate people stand up and start sharing ideas, you feel it. You feel the energy shift from complacency and acceptance of the status quo to hopefulness and possibility. On Monday night a group of patients who were strangers just hours before, shared their wisdom and strategies to help people just like them.
So, back to our original question: What do you get when you have 400 people dealing with chronic conditions in one room?
Answer: A huge amount of courage and hope.
Celebrity Fan Moment
Don’t you love when you meet someone famous and they’re more impressive than you thought? I was very excited to meet Margaret Trudeau and I actually got to say hello to her backstage. I am rarely at a loss for words. However, in meeting Margaret, I was virtually tongue tied. When she did her keynote, she spoke with such wit, honesty and vulnerability that I became a fan immediately. The standing ovation she got was proof that she connected with our group.
If you’re a patient, you know about getting through tough times. If we reach out to other people, things get easier.
When I had cancer, I lived alone in a one bedroom apartment and quite frankly I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I thought I was tough enough to handle the challenges on my own. I wasn’t. Not only were the physical symptoms of my disease difficult, but I also suffered from depression and isolation. My story isn’t unique, or even close to the toughest one you’ll hear. Many patients like us stare down dark nights at 3 am and wonder how we’re going to make it to the morning. Being alone makes the journey much tougher. Helping each other makes it easier.
If you or someone you love is sick, connecting with other patients can be the difference between languishing alone and feeling completely overwhelmed or tapping into a sense of community and accessing resources to make your journey easier.
The first time I connected with other patients was 3 years after my treatment. I sat in a circle with other folks in recovery and thought “Oh My Gosh! I should have been doing this from day one!” There was such power in meeting people who had similar challenges. People shared ideas and strategies on how to get through a tough day. We all breathed out as we realized that we were not alone in what we were facing.
It has been my honour as a speaker and author to work with groups of patients and their families for years now. Something almost magical happens when patients get together in the same room and support each other. It would be great if you could come to the…
The always entertaining and insightful Margaret Trudeau. We get to hear her speak! How cool is that?
Do you know who’s going to do the keynote? Margaret Trudeau! Really. Impressed? I am. There is also going to be incredible content on wellness, self care and managing chronic illness in the workplace. As well, I will be doing my presentation “Taking The Laughter Pill: Humour and The Patient Journey.”
Oh, Did I mention its FREE? And there are APPETIZERS? (At least there will be until I get there)
The appetizers may or may not be salmon. I’m not in charge of the food. But frankly, how can you go wrong with salmon? Just sayin’.
All of this content is valuable. Just as important is the opportunity to connect with people who are going through similar challenges and help each other realize that we are all going through this together.
However, sometimes our “muscles” of compassion and empathy can get tired. You might be easily distracted when you’re with the people you serve. You might not care as much or be using your skills to the best of your ability.
It can be hard for us to admit that this is happening to us. We’d rather just push through it and pretend it isn’t there.
Then kablam! You realize “I’m suffering from compassion fatigue!”
It can feel like everyone is dealing with this better than we are. I’ll tell you a secret about humanity though, we all have our issues. Even the well adjusted “superstar” of your team can have a hard time with compassion fatigue.
So, how do we help ourselves through this? One of the great ways is to collaborate with our peers.
Really. Collaborating with our peers can help us like crazy.
It struck me that that there are literally thousands in the caring professions who are working really hard, giving generously of themselves and sometimes feeling really worn out in body and psyche because of the nature of this demanding work. I am guessing that no one in the world has this whole thing solved. Yep. No one. However, if we have one small piece of the puzzle worked out, shouldn’t we share what we have?
I had the honour recently of presenting my keynote “The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World” for The Canadian Mental Health Association: Waterloo Wellington Dufferin. I asked people to share how they dealt with this when they were having a tough day.
What happened my friends, was significant.
People stood up, talked and joked. They shared solutions and strategies to help each other with this tough issue and the energy of the room took off. As a speaker, it was so much fun to see more than a hundred people dive in and collaborate. In fact, folks were so pumped about helping each there that I had trouble ending the exercise and getting on with the show. It was a real testament to how generous people in the caring professions are and how, when we share what we have, everybody wins.
When the day ended, people were happier knowing that they helped their colleagues and that they had learned some valuable tools they could use the next time the elephant tried to sneak back in the room.