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Fence Stradler- Daily Word Prompt

I was a fence straddler for years because I learned that in my family if I didn’t want to be judged unfavorably, then I could not verbally express how I really felt. I was the baby and I saw everything. There were some very opposing views on religion and culture and ethnicity, and how religion, culture and ethnicity was to be expressed.  Even though I was born in America, I couldn’t take on too much of America’s ways either.  I learned that by professing that I preferred one side, that I would be denouncing the other side of me…of my family. The truth was that I loved them all.  Even though, no one ever told me to take sides, I believe that they secretly rooted for me to take their side.  I felt powerless, but in a way, claimed my power by withholding my true feelings.

Sadly, this didn’t empower me. In fact, it crippled me because I went through life living to not commit, to not disappoint, and more specifically, to not disappoint other people. I really struggled in my teens to early 20’s with discovering who I was and what I wanted out of life.   This alone was not unique to only me because lots of people struggle with this, but the complexities of religion and wanting to fit in with my judgmental, Haitian family was not easy.

Although I tried to ignore the fence, mostly through incessant daydreaming, and later on inaction, the fence became too large to ignore…too large to continue to straddle.  As I think about this, I realize how brave I was in taking the risks that I did.  There are risks to just about everything I can think of and I reached the point of not caring about what those risks would be. All I knew was that I had to find my voice and I could only find it through listening to God, not everybody else.

This has been a long road. I began practicing using my voice, which meant that people did get disappointed.  But you know what, they eventually got over it and so did I.  Using my voice has also allowed me to help a lot of people. Despite all my progress, it is interesting that every now and again, I feel the fence and I feel the impending judgement. For example, I felt the fence in a class I had in graduate school when a classmate called me out my views on politics.  More recently, I noticed that I was withholding my view in a conversation at work. Now, I do tend to withhold strategically because negotiation is a part of my job. However, when I’m withholding for fear of judgment (doesn’t happen as often), that’s a different beast that I need to continue to work on.

There are many great things that came out of my upbringing, including but not limited to my ability to see and understand opposing views, to accept people as they are, to hear the unspoken words, and to appreciate other cultures,  ethnicities, and religions. A huge lesson was that I could be my own greatest advocate and be loved regardless.  And if someone walks away, as they have, that’s ok too.  I simply show my appreciation even more to the ones that stick around.

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Awe – Daily Prompt

This post is in response to the daily word prompt. I’m in awe of people who end their work day with clear minds, sans the paperwork, the after hour email checking/responding, or the overall emotional work place baggage. There are aspects of my job that I do enjoy, but pressing work demands along with personal and professional expectations make it difficult to leave work at work.

I chose a career in social work because of a deep passion to help others. When I first started out, it was very difficult to not  think about the problems faced by my clients. I was often in awe of either how resilient many were despite their experiences or how tragic some of their lives were.  Sometimes, I would even dream about them. I hated it when that happened, but I couldn’t control it at the time.

Then, there was the paperwork, which was a beast. The seemingly ceaseless progress notes and assessments that had to be entered. Our psychiatrist lamented on more than one occassion that if it wasn’t documented, then it didn’t happen. Talk about pressure. Although I enjoyed working as a clinician and I worked with a great bunch of characters (that often joked that we should video our daily work lives), the work demands were stressful. There are a combination of reasons for burnout and the work environment along with my perfectionism was a great recipe.

I haven’t worked in direct practice in a few years (part of my self-care strategy), but my work demands are even higher. I continue to struggle with leaving work at work, but I have instituted some strategies that seem to help, which I’ll share at the end of this post. I think it simply boils down to boundaries. I’ve sacrificed advanced positions because I don’t want to see burn out again by working incessantly in the evenings and on the weekends and I am by no means a slacker. I do have a family and I choose to have a life. I do struggle with why can’t I have it all, but I haven’t figured all of that out yet…different blog post.  The fact that work advancement in this country means sacrificing a personal life and family is a whole other issue…again, a different blog post.

What I’ve done in recent years to begin the separation from the work day is to call my mom in Chicago on my daily, hour commute home. We talk about her day, she provides news updates, we catch up on family matters, we argue (not kidding), and I even sometimes tell her my work problems (at a very high level – she doesn’t understand what I do plus she’s a worrier). In the process, I’ve gotten to know my mom as a person really well, which I’m proud of. I know her so well that I realized my call window happens to be the same time that she takes her afternoon nap, so I recently started calling her earlier, around lunch time. By the way, she’d never admit to taking naps because she likes to complain that she doesn’t sleep at night.  I still make calls on my way home, but to different people such as my family and friends…anybody else to help me not think about work.  This has become a pretty solid part of my routine.

There are times that I do bring work home, but I have much better booundaries. If I bring work home, I give myself a timeframe to do the work and that’s it. It’s all a learning process. I’m just thankful that I no longer have dreams about clients.

Open: Daily Post

I’m one to open myself up to new experiences and often operate outside of my comfort zone. The very act of writing a blog and publicly publishing these posts are testaments of my openness. I welcome all the good that comes with trying new things, but it does not come without fear and vulnerability. In my view, being open is an act of courage.  Opening myself up has been a slow process over the years. Imagine a flower’s metamorphosis from a bulb to a beautiful and vibrant bloom. Openness puts you in position to grow.  This is what I’ve seen in myself.

Living authentically and in accordance with my purpose are what drive me to be open to new things. I was conditioned early on to be afraid of people, my surroundings and the world. It is a struggle and I think it’s important for others to know that fear may be a constant presence.  At this point/age in my life, I most often don’t succumb to fear, but admittedly, there are times that I do. Old habits and old ways of thinking (that no longer serve me) die hard.

For anyone struggling with this, what helps me is to focus on the gains rather than the risks. It doesn’t have to be a new adventure either. It could be a different way of thinking, a different way of being, and a different way of relating. It could be engaging with a different set of people, trying a new food, moving to a different city, going back to school, getting a new job, applying for a promotion, traveling to a foreign country or  doing whatever is daring for you.. Whatever it is, the key is to decide to do something that gets you closer to where you want to be.  Decisions you make will take you closer or further away from the life you want. It’s been the small, daily decisions that have brought me to where I am today and I still have plenty of room to grow.

To be open is liberating. To be open despite fear is courageous.

Understanding – Dailypost

I understand.  I understand what you mean.  How often have you harmlessly said those words when someone was explaining something in an attempt to acknowledge what was said and convey your understanding.  I’ve said those words many times in my personal and professional relationships.  Empathy does allow us to imagine what it must feel like and find some common thread so that we can come to an understanding of whatever is going in that experience.  As a social worker, I have a lot of empathy.  Although I have experienced and seen a lot, how can I profess to really understand what someone is going through when I have not walked in their shoes?  Are those words being used too loosely?  Is it about truly understanding or a need to feel/appear knowledgeable or something else?

In the past, I worked as a mental health professional for years and I was careful about not saying that “I understand” to clients because I did not entirely.  I knew the etiology of certain conditions along with statistical and demographic information, but in terms of what it felt like to be in my office with that specific story, I did not know.  More importantly, I avoided saying “I understand” because I didn’t want to belittle anyone’s experience.  

My goal was to engage so that I could earn trust, which would make our work together less painful and more productive.  The quickest way to losing that trust is to come off as fake by saying things that aren’t totally true.  There were lots of circumstances that led people to my caseload and one common element was that they were involved in the criminal justice system.  And my clients were very sensitive to fakeness.

Even if I could relate to things said like, “I don’t like taking medications” or “I’m having a hard time juggling family, work, and school”, I avoided saying that “I understand”.  There are details that make our stories unique even though they sound similar, and from my experiences, people don’t like you to assume that you know their story.  It’s a turn off.  My favorite thing to say in my authentic way was, “I hear what you are saying “.  It worked for me because it let them know that I was listening without making assumptions. In some cases, I would say, “I can relate”, which I think is different than saying “I understand“.

With a close friend, I might have said that I did understand the reasoning for not liking to take medications, but would I really understand her reason(s)?  That’s the question I will ask myself the next time I think about saying “I understand”.  This will be a challenge in listening, asking follow up questions, and not making assumptions based on my own experiences.

Understanding