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Holding Complexity

There are lots of clichés out there about our mental health. The cliches exist because there are certain things that we know are good for us. Do some exercise and you’ll feel better. Meditate for a clear mind. Eat well and your body will thank you. Those things are true and yet I fail to do them with such consistency that they become the exception and not the norm. The cliches are especially annoying when written in a curly font and posted in front of a beautiful nature scene on Instagram. I know what I should be doing, I know what I’m going to do, and those two things don’t always match up. The word for when our actions and values align is congruence. As a counsellor, I’m meant to be experienced as genuine and aligned by my clients. I’m meant to be congruent. To paraphrase crudely, I’m supposed to have my shit together. So, what are we all meant to do in a pandemic when it seems as if no one seems very sure what having our shit together looks like?

In the past I had worked as a teacher and school leader in environments the mental health industry would call ‘trauma saturated’. The imagery of saturation feels so apt. Sometimes I came home from a tough day and needed a shower. It felt as if the heaviness of those places was on me, and I had to wash it off. I loved those jobs. They taught me so much, but they also took a lot of my energy. And when, after many years, I needed a change, I ended up training school staff to work in a trauma-informed way using the experiences I had undergone to guide my instruction for others.

In this new job I would arrive at a school in the morning ready for a day training their staff. I’d be brought into the principal’s office in the morning (still a slightly scary experience, even as an adult), and I would sit down and ask if there was anything specific their staff needed. The principal would speak about the stresses of some of their more challenging students, and the few staff who needed to be ‘brought into line’ because of their outdated approach. The stories were incredibly similar all over the country. In fact, the staff often looked alike, but that is a story for another day. Then I would ask the principal, “and how are you?” A surprising number of them burst into tears.

Those tears from that question left a deep impression on me. As an education system we had developed an entire trauma-informed approach – I was training people in it every week, but we had neglected to ask the staff how they were, and then listen for an answer. One of the primary and core concepts of being a therapeutic teacher is that the teacher is congruent, and getting our shit together is often put under the umbrella of self-care. Finish the work day, and then spend the precious time you have at home to get your feelings and thoughts in order so that you can go back in and withstand the pressure of the next day.

I wish that the work I’ve been doing for the past 2 years wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it has shifted things from where they’ve been in a very meaningful way. My business partner, Ben Eretz and I have been providing one-to- one supervision for educators and other professionals during the work day - PD/mental health guns for hire. Many workplaces are increasingly aware that their staff need to look after themselves in order to perform at their best. Seminars abound that teach mindfulness and other incredibly important strategies for getting ourselves in the right head space to achieve great things. What we are doing is holding a reflective space for professionals to explore their work and themselves, free from the obvious and necessary confines of a chat with a colleague or a manager. We’ve learned certain things both from our practice and client feedback that we believe can improve the mental health of employees in any industry, particularly at a time like this.

1. Speak to someone

2. who doesn’t work for your organisation

3. who can skilfully listen to whatever you need to talk about

4. and empathically be there with you

5. to navigate the complexities of our current world

6. during the work day

And here is the secret to all of this. It sounds simple. And we are awash with self care advice. But now it’s my turn to give the pithy statement that adds to the torrent of advice.

Be OK with complexity.

If you can’t find someone during the work day to talk to, find someone after work. Is it perfect? No. But it is something. If I have learned one important lesson from the clients who have thrived through lockdowns, it is that holding complexity helps to navigate difficult situations. If the future is unknown it is both helpful to plan as best we can, whilst also trying to keep our thoughts rooted in the present. Be here, but also think about there. Don’t plan, but don’t forget to plan. Hold two opposing truths in our minds, and oscillate between them. These are the complexities, the paradoxes that we need to hold in these difficult times. And don’t forget to chat to someone.

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