Wednesday, May 29, 2013


   Each day as therapists and counselors we are in the psychological energy field of so much suffering and struggle. In one morning or evening of work some patients will be depressed,anxious,grieving, angst-ridden,doubtful,despairing or enraged. Or a combination of those feelings. Our office reverberates  with the energy of those feeling states,day after day,week after week, month after month for years.

   Each of our patients needs us to be a compassionate listener, a source of loving kindness, and a carrier of hope. How do we sustain that level of presence and not become exhausted, emotionally distant or numb? How can we be in the psychological energy field of that amount of suffering and then go home and be emotionally available to our spouses, partners and children? This is one of the greatest personal  challenges of doing this lifework.

   I call the process of replenishing the energy supplies of our emotional,physical and psychospiritual batteries recharging. I have developed ways of recharging myself both outside of and during sessions that I would like to pass on. Before I discuss these it is important that I ask you to consider this question: why are psychotherapists and counselors so good at taking care of others and not good at taking care of themselves? 

   It is important that each of us explore that question in depth in our individual psychotherapy. From my own personal experience, and of working with psychotherapists whom I've had as patients, the answers were found in exploring how the role that I played in my family contributed to my choosing this lifework. As a child being the emotional caretaker of my mother was a reliable source of love and special status with her. That led me to unconsciously take on the role of emotional caretaker of others as a primary source of approval and love from others and self-esteem from myself. In my own psychotherapy I discovered that my struggles in taking care of myself were connected to an unconscious fear that others would no longer love me if I took time away from them to take care of me. That fear made me anxious about and resistant to doing things for myself. I would encourage you to learn what are the psychological roots of your difficulty in taking care of yourself.

   I have found two primary pathways of taking care of ourselves outside of sessions. the first is to take regular solitary time- at least a few hours each week - away from everyone, to do something that is nourishing for you. For me that involves taking a contemplative walk in some local nature setting at least once a week. For other therapists and counselors that I know that solitary time is by riding a motorcycle, horseback riding,spending time in the garden or in an art studio. The essential aspects are that the captivity feels replenishing and that it occurs in some place where no one can access you. Because the nature of our personalities tends to be that when we are with other people we think of their needs before our own it is critical to have regular time when we take care of only ourselves. the second pathway is to regularly spend playful time with playmates. Playmates are people with whom we share a passion and who have no psychological need for us to take care of them. I have friends with whom I share my passions for jazz and college basketball. other therapists that I know are in community theatre. have a weekly poker game, play music or sing with others.

   It is also possible to recharge ourselves during sessions. Within the limitations of this brief blog I will describe effective ways of doing this that I have evolved. Whenever I am with a very fearful patient I spend a few moments looking at a Taoist painting behind the patient's chair. It depicts a man sitting in a small boat in a tranquil lake and to me it symbolizes serenity. It reminds me of solitary time that I've spent by a local pond. As I glance at the painting I take a few meditational breaths - imagining with the out breath that I am releasing any fearful energy from my patient that might have entered my field of consciousness. When I am with a patient who is deeply grieving I look at a wood carving behind the patients chair again with some meditational breathing imagine myself releasing any sadness from my patient that may have entered my field of consciousness. This redwood carving is of the head of a bearded old man - it is my image of Wiseheart, my Higher Self whose Big Heart is capable of much more compassion than my ordinary small heart. When I am feeling depleted or overwhelmed by what a patient is describing I look at a large poster in a corner of my office. It is of a giant redwood - to me a symbol of great strength and stamina. I recall what it felt like to walk underneath those giants and to walk among the big trees near my home. With the in breath I take in that feeling of strength and with the out breath I let go of feelings of depletion.

   Having done this kind of recharging for years I am pleased to report how effective it has been in helping me to sustain a sense of open-hearted compassionate presence for hour after hour and not feel the need to become distant in order to protect myself from the cumulative effect of the enormity of feelings that we are present to in this work. Hopefully this will help you to find something similar that will work for you.

   This entry is based on the Recharging chapter in Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy