Does anyone else have moments (or even days/weeks) when you feel like your brain is a radio tuner spinning around and around, back and forth, filled with conversations you’ve had, conversations you’ve imagined, images you wish could get out of your head that you’ve seen, thoughts that won’t stop ruminating, patterns that you can’t unsee, and on and on and on?
On the outside, it can look like you’re 100% indifferent. Numb. Anti-social. Unfriendly, or rude, even. On the inside, it’s quite the opposite- because you’re feeling so. much.
There’s an amazing book called If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski that really spoke to me about this, in addition to many other books on empathy, and even an archetype known as the “indigo child”. I know I’m not alone in feeling so much because of how many people there are out there who write about the exact same experience. The thing is, helping professionals within this degree of functioning have a significantly more intense experience due to the nature of our work.
If you have a field-based role, like child protective services or outreach workers, you directly experience a traumatic scene in a visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile way. You’re there on the scene, and you are in it. If you are a therapist or clinician, you are indirectly experiencing the trauma of someone else through them telling you about it (at least, for the most part), but still can experience it in a very visceral, intense way. Witnessing suffering of any kind naturally makes an impact and takes a toll.
Now, if you take that to the next level and add someone in the helping profession who not only has a strong sense of empathy, but also has deep perceptual abilities, you’ve just multiplied the intensity of the experience by a whole lot more. What about a helping professional who has mental health conditions like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Schizophrenia Disorder, etc.? Specifically, people who have the ability to frequently detach from their bodies, perceive sensory information in a four-dimensional way, or have an inner-world of conscious experience.
These are the people who experience the most noise. And, in my opinion, have some of the greatest capacity for vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue because of how much they experience. And also a deep capacity to do incredible things.
For those of you who have been with us since the beginning, you know that Natasha and I are very open about our mental heath diagnoses. I identify with many of the above “categories”, namely because of having synesthesia and OCD. That, plus the fact that I see patterns, sound-associations, and image overlays everywhere I go, because I’m an artist and a constant “thinker”. I could (and have) literally be still and just think for hours at a time.
It’s hard, if not nearly impossible, to turn my brain off.
This isn’t something that’s unique or rare- most of us nowadays have been conditioned to multi-task and seek a stimuli-overload in order to fill our time and avoid our growing collective anxiety within the state of the world.
Sometimes, everything just feels too much.
And that’s what made me want to write this post. How do we process it all? The micro, mezzo, and macro stuff that surrounds us constantly. How do we make sense of it? How do we continue living our lives knowing what we know, unable to unsee what we’ve seen, unable to forget the emotions we’ve felt, and the violence we’ve expeienced?
When should we stop processing and start accepting?
I can sometimes feel guilty if I’m not actively thinking about solutions to problem-solve the conditions surrounding my clients’ lives and their service provision. If it’s not visualizing Venn diagrams of psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioral/feminist/systems interventions, it’s listing and crossing out financial/legal/medical/community resources that will break the cycle of my clients’ oppression and trauma cycles. Even though I’m a processor/feeler, I will still tap into that solution-focused mindset that I have recently acquired after starting to work in field-based services.
I’ll give you an example. Lately, I’ve felt guilt and anxiety over not feeling competent in working with psychosis and the major impacts it can make in vulnerable people’s lives. It’s not that I don’t have experience- I do, thanks to my job. But the idealistic thought of “if there was a class I could take in fully understanding psychosis and all of the evidence-based interventions, then I would know everything there is about psychosis, and I would be competent” is so real. My blunt (though understanding) office-mate frequently reminds me that this is not how it works.
But the struggle is still real. Especially for anxious folks.
We’re not satisfied with answers that support gray area, take away the belief that we have control over everything, or that disprove fearful situations can be solved using strategies that are categorized into nice, neat little boxes, all tied with string.
Same goes for fighting for the world’s injustices and battles. If I just spread the word and educate people enough, then I will be moving the cause forward, and if I fight hard enough, I will force change to happen.
If I ruminate enough over this situation that I experienced, I will find a different way to approach it. I will find a different outcome.
If I punish myself enough by replaying that traumatic scene over and over again, I will understand more and strive to deserve the privilege of helping people through my suffering.
If I play music in my head all day long, it’ll keep the things I’m avoiding at bay and make me keep going and moving and going and moving and going and moving, like the energizer bunny.
And so it seems that feigning the possession of control and obsession with finding absolute answers are the things that create the most noise in my brain. And that’s only work-related, let alone my personal stuff.
Is there anyone else who experiences this?
So what do we, feeler-empaths-thinkers, do?
The thing that scares us most: let it go.
I’m not talking about letting the questions go- I’m talking about the beliefs go, the ones that inform the questions. Like, knowing how everything works prior to exploring the world will make me “live the right way” and “do the right thing”. Or the belief that says I need to suffer to deserve joy. That I have no right to be in this field if I haven’t experienced the exact same thing my clients experience. That I can’t feel happiness if my clients are still out on the streets and dying. That I, alone, can solve all of the world’s problems, “if I only work hard enough”.
But it’s just not true. None of it is.
Life isn’t a video game where you have to earn points to get to the next level. Every level is already overlaid around you, everywhere; you’ve just got to live it.
I’ll say it again: you’ve just got to live it.
And be kind to yourself. Doing the best you can includes making mistakes and then doing it a different way the next time. Operating from a justice-informed mindset includes remembering that losing the battle doesn’t mean you’ve lost the war. Remembering that there is no book or class that is going to prepare you for everything you will come across. Only holding space for the bad stuff, the trauma, isn’t going to solve it; and not holding space for it doesn’t mean you care any less about solving it.
Directing the energy of that noise-ridden whirlwind in your head into moments that bring you joy and peace has a ZERO-PREREQUISITE policy; there’s no such thing as “earning” it. YOU GET IT!
You get it.
There’s a reason why there isn’t just one social worker, one first responder, one therapist, one healer. There are many of us, all over the world. We are many. We are everywhere. Because no one of us is ever doing this work alone. And it helps me to remind myself of that.
We’re never alone.
So I check in with myself when that lonely, bitter, murky, heavy feeling sneaks in to blow drowsy, numbing smoke over my eyes; and I say/think, “Not today.” The same way I would tell someone trying to sell me something at my front door. No more or less energy, just the same. Here are some other ways that have helped me GET OUT of my head:
These are just some things that have helped me get out of my head, into my body and into the world. The noise will still follow me off in the distance, but sometimes it just gets tired of waiting and slinks off somewhere that’s not around me. Even if those moments are not as frequent as I’d like, I have to be kind to myself- the same as I’d tell a client. It takes practice and time. Something I’m learning to be quite patient with.
And that’s okay.
So, to anyone who also has a case of the ever-lingering “headnoise”, I get you. You’re not alone. Give yourself permission to practice letting go of what you think you can control and explore what lights you up. You will not save the world. But you will start a ripple in people’s lives that evolve into waves of hope and change. Smile knowing that you are doing that by starting with the basic care of your Self. You are 100% worth it.
A QUICK NOTE:
Welcome back everyone! Sorry for the radio-silence- there has been a lot of transition going on in our lives. Natasha will be taking a break from the blog to do some much-needed self-care. In the meantime, I'll still be posting and hope you will continue to share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas. We love you. -Kristen
I love being a supervisor. If serving clients is an honor, then serving people who serve clients is an even greater honor. Not only because of having the role as an advisor, but also that of a mentor in what it means to be human with people who have experienced inhumanity.
I had a rare jumpstart into this role, in that my first “social work job” was as a supervisor/field instructor for Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students in their field practicum. It was at an agency that served as my own undergraduate field practicum, and my former supervisor was the one who offered me the job. I was scared shitless and had the hugest case of “imposter syndrome”, but I did it anyway and ended up falling in love with it.
The thing about supervising is that it challenges you to look at your own stuff in a different way than it does directly working with clients (and even more-so if you also see clients and supervise). Because you can’t hide behind statements like, “Well I’m really not able to disclose that.”
Instead, your real self is more likely to be used, and your reservation of it is less likely to be effective.
We’ve all had those “bad” supervisors. You know, the ones that are either leaking their own shit or sob story all over you so that you are taking care of them, the stiff ones who are squared up so tight that nothing can get in except productivity reports, the burnt out ones who are more disorganized and exhausted than your clients, the ones that are never there and always absent (hello attachment trauma, there you are) and, last but not least, the ones whose own lack of self-work prevent them from going into the deep with you or allowing you to disclose the depth of human experience that comes up in this field. Maybe you’ve even experienced sprinklings of all of these. And if you haven’t had any of this, then you’re a lucky dog (that, or just give it time!).
But what about the helpful supervisors? The ones who motivate and inspire us to be bigger versions of ourselves, who challenge us in the ways we’re resistant to, but still provide the safety net for when we fall and the safe space to process it afterward? Like most people, I’ve had helpful and not-helpful supervisors. And even then, I can still say that every supervisor I’ve had has taught me something incredibly important, even if that has been teaching me what I absolutely do NOT want to ever do.
As someone with Bipolar Disorder, anxiety, and borderline personality elements, I have learned more about my own attachment styles and why they are the way they are because of my own supervision. I’ve had supervisors with every kind of attachment style, and it has been fascinating. The good, the not-great, and the ugly have all come out and taught me so much about myself. For example, I’ve learned that I absolutely HATE disagreeing with someone I admire and respect (and don’t know what to do with it, other than go into despair, feelings of betrayal, loathing, and rumination!), and I have absolutely no qualms about bad-mouthing someone I absolutely 100% disagree with on their own turf. All or nothing much? Yeah. Never said I was perfect!
My current supervisor told me something that impacted me a lot. It was on a day when she had made a decision about a client that I really disagreed with. I was awkward, ambivalent and bright red in supervision. In response to me saying that I felt really uncomfortable disagreeing with her, she said, “But that’s okay. I’m going to disappoint you sometimes. And that’s okay.” And BOOM, came my realization for why I’ve cut out so many people from my life. Like my brain, I have difficulty integrating positive and unpleasant feelings, idealization and derealization.
A healthy attachment style is all about knowing that someone is there for you, even when they’re not physically there or you don’t see eye-to-eye.
This has influenced so much of how I’ve come to find my own supervisory style. I incorporate what I know with what I’ve learned. What I know about myself is that I am fiercely protective. I’m an alfa wolf at heart, and I protect my pack. What I’ve learned is how to empower my pack and trust that they are more resilient than I know, without fearing that they will not feel like they are enough.
I’ve integrated trauma-informed care into how I supervise both staff and students, and I’ve taught this model to other supervisors. In trainings I’ve conducted, I have learned that many other supervisors are scared of “crossing the line” between professional and personal. The thing is, there is an ethical line, but it’s not what you think it is.
The line isn’t talking about personal stuff or crying in supervision, nor expressing how something made you feel. THOSE are the pillars of REAL supervision. What the LINE is, is when the relationship could become exploitive and being wary of when your power and influence could take advantage of someone. It sounds so obvious (and hopefully it is to most people), but I really don’t think it’s more complicated than that.
In terms of finding a supervisor you “vibe” with, know that this may not always happen and that this is okay. If you have a supervisor who doesn’t hold space for processing your emotions or experiences (both within and outside of your work), then find someone else who can. Every supervisor has something to teach us, even if it’s literally just to indirectly remind us of what NOT to do. If this is a situation you are finding yourself in, then find someone like a colleague or friend who can relate with you and give you space to process and pick your brain. In the helping professions, we all need someone to consult with. It’s one of the things that prevents us from burning out and keeping our desire to learn alive.
I can tell you that I’ve learned so much from my supervisees over the years, and it’s only been six years. I’ve found my joy in teaching. I’ve experienced the honor of people disclosing that they are survivors themselves and how this actually influenced them to get into this field. I’ve found the beauty of saying, “Me too,” when someone is talking about something hard and how this response softens the look on their face and shifts into one of relief. I’ve been given the privilege of being with someone who learned that their client was assaulted and deceased. I’ve had the immense pleasure of witnessing someone discovering that they are capable of more than what they think they were and that they have a place and a purpose in serving others who are just trying to find the same sense of meaning.
Supervision is an opportunity for a parallel process.
This is why I love it so much. I am to my supervisee what my supervisee is to their client. We’re all just trying to guide and support each other through life and the fields we’re in. And there’s something very beautiful to me about that. If you ever get the opportunity to supervise someone, whether they be a staff or student, I really recommend it. You don’t have to be perfect or an “expert” in order to be a good supervisor. I sure as hell have learned that, and I’m so grateful for my supervision experiences. I’ve learned just as much from my supervisees as I’ve taught them. Which is just so cool- because that’s what the human experience is all about: equality.
Thank you to all the supervisors reading this. You are so valued and needed. And thank you to everyone who has been a supervisee and dared to open up. We need you.
We would love it if you left us a line in the comments :)
Feel free to use your name, a pseudonym, or "Anonymous" in the name requirement field.
If you choose to contribute anonymously as a commenter on our blog or upload your own post under Your Voices, we want you to know that we do NOT have access to any of your personal identification. The only exception is if you subscribe to our newsletter- in this case, we will only have the e-mail that you provide us with.