I’ve always had a hard time admitting that I have limitations. I used to pride myself on being able to “handle it all”, whatever that means. Come to find out, pushing through isn’t sustainable or healthy. I realized, somewhat recently, that self-imposed limitations are healthy and don’t make you weak. Acknowledging my boundaries, protecting my heart and being true to myself have become increasingly important tasks. It’s taking me longer to identify and define my professional limitations, mostly because I recently dove head first into my career and I’m still trying to find some sort of balance.
I’m incredibly grateful for the lessons that my clients teach me about myself. I’m vulnerable, which means that every meaningful interaction I have teaches me something about myself and the world around me. The interactions I have that are uncomfortable are generally the best teachers.
Recently I had an experience with a transfer client that impacted me to my core and forced me to question my abilities. I hated almost every second of it. Long story short, this client exhibited antisocial and narcissistic traits that were piercing and honestly, gut wrenching. The heaviness in the room was indescribable and I left feeling emotionally violated every single time. Needless to say, I didn’t continue working with him. There’s a lot more to this story, but it’s not relevant.
I tried everything I could think of with this client. I tried being structured, I tried going with the flow, I tried changing the power dynamic in the room, I tried focusing on rapport building and engagement, and I tried just starting therapy. I consulted with multiple people about his case in order to gain some extra insight. If it sounds chaotic, it kind of was. I scrambled outside of session to be as prepared as possible, but ultimately I left feeling incompetent (his words, not mine), anxious and eventually, angry.
After some major de-briefing with supervisors and colleagues, I realized a lot about myself (and him). I realized first and foremost that I did my absolute best. I continued to prepare for our sessions even though my gut was telling me to run. I also realized, more importantly, that I found my first major limitation. I can say with certainty that at this point in my career, I’m not ready/willing to work with someone who exhibits those specific traits at that level of intensity. My soul can’t bear it.
I will admit, that was a tough pill to swallow. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was selling myself short or if I was just being dramatic. I felt like a failure. It took some time to acknowledge that I did what I could and I managed his case ethically. I advocated for myself and for him (because no one should have a therapist who feels this way about them) and I did what I felt was right. I set boundaries, I respected them and then asked that my supervisors respect them (which they did!).
It’s hard to put a name to your limitations and to make your boundaries known to those around you in a professional setting. It can feel counterintuitive because we’re just supposed to handle it. We’re helping professionals, this comes with the territory and we just need to deal, right?
At least it’s wrong for me. Yes, I’m a helping professional and yes, I work with people who are experiencing the lowest lows of their life, but this felt different. My gut was screaming at me and I trusted my gut. I’ll sit with you in the trenches, I’ll be here for you and support you in any way that I can, but I won’t be treated like that. I had to learn firsthand about this limitation and I’m glad I did.
When I was thinking about my professional boundaries before writing this post, I realized that one was missing. I didn’t identify the one limitation that I expected myself to have given recent personal experiences.
I didn’t identify working with individuals who are battling substance use. I recently experienced a death in my family related to substance use and honestly, I was petrified to go back to work. Substance use and mental health are so enmeshed and I was afraid that I couldn’t manage my countertransference in the room. By the way, it’s okay to not be able to manage yourself and your feelings after a loss, I’m definitely not trying to minimize people’s experiences. What I am saying is that somehow, I was able to use my grief as fuel to inform my clients about risks, concerns and available resources. I was able to utilize my heartbreak and transform it into passion. I want my clients who are struggling with substance use to know that they are cared for, which is something I hope my family member felt.
I strongly believe that my ability to be vulnerable is the reason why I’ve been able to transform my sadness into passion and strength. I’m not going to pretend like it’s been easy, because it hasn’t. I have my moments and luckily, I have an amazing team to lean on when I need to. I have greater empathy for people fighting this disease and I feel like a fire has been ignited within me to do what I can to support those in search of sobriety.
So, maybe certain experiences that you feel might limit you actually trigger something in you to soften, to feel differently and to continue to grow.
Just something to think about.
Thank you so much for reading this long-winded post. I hope it made sense. I just kept typing because it felt SO good to be back. Also, thank you again for your patience. For the first time in a long time I feel like my head isn’t completely in the clouds. I’m remembering all over again that I am enough.
Wishing you love and light.
*Trigger warning. Dark stuff ahead. Including SRA.*
Since I was very young, I’ve always pushed myself over the edge and into black holes that I usually end up wishing I had never gone down. It’s like a traffic accident; you know you should keep going, but you just. can’t. stop. looking. away. Until you realize that you’re about to hit the person in front of you like a total idiot. Admittedly, that’s how I am with dark things.
I’ve always been drawn to dark stuff, and that hasn’t really changed at all. I started reading memoirs about survivors of rape and articles about kidnapping when I was six. What can I say? I’m weird.
I say this, because as much as being drawn to complex, painful topics has led me to do extremely meaningful work, it has also recently forced me to challenge my expectations of myself. It’s so cliché (which, of course, most commonly shared experiences are), but I discovered two weeks ago that *GASP* I have the insatiable need to be good at everything and understand everything and make everyone proud of me and impress everyone.
Oiy. I’ve gotta, once again, thank my dear supervisor for pointing this out to me. Someone who’s only known me for six months. Go figure. Bastard. JK. I love her.
Let’s backtrack. This came up because I began researching some of the darkest of the dark kind of sexual abuse (which is all dark- make no mistake): SRA, otherwise known satanic ritual abuse. Cults and fringe communities have fascinated me for a while, so, mentally, I just sort of clumped SRA together with all of “them”. Turns out, it’s a whole other kind of creature.
What took me over the edge and into that black hole is that a domineering component of SRA is animal and baby mutilation, torture, and sexual abuse, not to mention the veneration of parental incest. I won’t say anything further.
I’ve heard about and seen some pretty dark shit. Death, incest, rape, torture. And it’s all horrific, all painful. But something about animals and babies just struck a fucking chord in me that happened to be my pain threshold. I honestly thought that my only pain threshold was a very specific degree of anxiety and panic, not even physical.
That was a surprise.
We’ve all heard of the stages of grief, and it’s sort of funny how I actually played this out in accepting that I have limits IN MY PROFESSION. I thought my limits were only in my personal life! My professional life has been where I feel most confident and stable. Like who I want to be all the time. But, damnit, I found my Self in my professional life when I wasn’t expecting to find her.
Why am I feeling this way?! Sexual trauma has been your specialty since the beginning of time! What makes this any different?!
The rare kind. Only animals and newborn babies are without the dark yin to the bright yang of humanity’s cruel fallibilities. And not even my professional self can intellectualize, nor process, the wordless [fill in the blank, cause’ there is no word for this] experience that is the knowledge of hurting someone so new and exquisitely delicate to the world.
And it makes me want to die.
Maybe that’s the specific chord this experience struck: my suicidal one. Because thinking of those things existing (and I know they do) makes me not want to live anymore.
And it’s SO bizarre because, I am in NO WAY saying that all the other fucked up shit out there is “not as bad”, or doesn’t shake me to my core. I guarantee you it does. Just something about the underground, venerated nature of it, masqueraded as a religion...just makes it seem that much deeper hidden in the ground, where we can’t stop it, or even reach it, which is how it keeps perpetuating. And it makes me want to erase myself from a world where that resides within it.
Fwew. I told you this would be a dark one! But I suspect I’m not alone. Or I really hope not. I know this makes me human. But when you’re constantly surrounded with trauma 40+ hours a week and literally in the shit of it (no joke- I mean literally, just days ago, but that’s a different story), it still shocks the hell out of you when you find out that not EVERYTHING is numbed out to you. And the job opportunity I was recently offered for treating survivors of SRA? Well, turns out, I’m not so numb to it.
So that’s what I learned. There are jobs I KNOW I couldn’t do. Like undercover work in animal cruelty cases or working with sex traffickers or perpetrators of torture. I’ve had clients who came to see me for experiencing trauma, and it came out later on that they ended up perpetuating violence against others, for a number of reasons; that’s always hard for me to hear, but I already know who they truly are and where that came from long before they told me that part, so it feels different. I can still see them.
Someone coming to me already in that violence-perpetrating space, that would be something I don’t know if I could do. And you know what? That’s okay. I still see the importance and positivity in someone else being able to help them who will be able to see them as a person. Because they shouldn’t have to work with someone who looks at them and only sees the faces of every traumatized survivor she’s served. I can own that. I’m proud that I can say that, because I know it’s the ethical and healthy thing to do.
Because at the end of the day, we all started out as innocent kids. Even if it was only up until you went home from the hospital that day.
I need to forgive myself for being so hard on myself about being human and having emotions, having empathy, even having opinions. That’s the human condition. My thought in having this aha-moment about limitations brought up a guilt-laden fear that came with the idea of me setting down limits: if I don’t help them, who will? These are the most vulnerable, underserved souls out there. Well guess what:
THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE BESIDE ME WHO CAN HELP PEOPLE.
I’m not the only one, for fuck’s sake! How comforting is that?! And I want YOU to say that over and over to yourself, if you’ve felt any of these things too.
I’m working on my perfectionist, people-pleasing, insecurities. I would never want my interns or staff to think that it’s “imperfect” or “not okay” to feel a certain type of way. Oh my gosh, I want them to embrace that. Be your own person. Acknowledge and honor your limitations. For me, I know that not honoring my limits negatively impacts my mental health and will ultimately compromise my life. Challenging yourself and violating your limitations are not the same thing.
Limits are a form of sacred self-care. They tell you when to hold your heart a little closer, because that’s your emotional and spiritual dam that keeps your joy alive.
I hope that all makes sense. I feel like Natasha and I always say that at the end of our posts, and it’s probably because despite all of our badass vibes, we still just want to be heard and understood. Just like everyone else. You know :-)
Thank you so much for listening. Love you.
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