Healers Need Healing: A Case for Awareness of the Needs of Helping Professionals

Today I thought about my Nana.

In your family of origin she might be referred to as Abuelita, Grandma, Granny, Grammy, Memaw, or Grams.

She was my mother’s mother. She was a to this day continues to be one of the most amazing women I have had the privilege of knowing and loving. She became a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor when she was in her 60’s. She worked with Chican@ youth through volunteering as a counselor in a community-based program and was a foster parent to teenagers. Even when I was a young child I remember being struck by her ability to connect with those youth who were temporarily members of my family. Her connections with young people blew me away.

Now, she was no saint. She could be tough, relentless, and stubborn. These qualities endeared me to her and those who were lucky enough to have known her even more.

Possibly more than anyone else who had an influence on me during my childhood and adolescence, my Nana most impacted my decision to go into the helping professions, first as a community and campus activist, tutor, special education instructional aide, and eventually as a psychologist.

Now that I’m writing, thinking, and engaging in constant discussion with clients, family, friends, and colleagues about depression, anxiety, and self-care, I wonder about my Nana.

As many of us imagine our family matriarchs, I believed her to be indestructible; Teflon Nana. I imagined a nuclear raid would never slow her down.

But I was wrong. She too proved herself to be human, as we all are; beautifully, vulnerably human.

Just as many of us realized with shock as children that our elementary school teachers went to the movies, did grocery shopping, and (shocking!) went on dates, I wonder how many of us imagine, even as adults, that our professional, familial, and informal helpers (teachers, therapists, nurses, doctors, caretakers, case managers, firefighters, emergency service workers) are as indestructible and Teflon-like as I imagined by Nana was?

Gabor Maté, the brilliant physician who has dedicated his life to understanding and advocating for the humanity and dignity of people living with addiction, writes beautifully in one of his best known works, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction about the toll working as a helper can potentially take on one’s psychological, interpersonal, and physical health.  

For helpers from marginalized backgrounds, and/or who are underrepresented in their respective fields, there can often be experienced a double burden due to the pressure they often experience to represent an entire group.

For those of us who work as helpers, or work with helpers, what can we do to alleviate their often hidden burden? What may we do to appreciate their role in society?

Before I go into some suggestions on this topic, I feel obligated to point to the complex and multifaceted nature of this topic. Possibly in future posts, I will take the time to explore the social, political, and economic ramifications of a system in which our professional helpers are often overworked, underpaid, and constantly fighting burnout. I will also dedicate in the near future a blog to burnout; what it is and how to fight its power over your life.

  • If you manage helpers, make it part of both your policy and workplace culture to allow Mental Health Days along with traditional sick leave. Along those lines, work towards a culture where the ability to be present, the ability to know one’s limits, and the active engagement in regular self-care are provided with as much (if not more) praise and reinforcement as conventional standards of performance. Satisfied people who have meaning and stability in their lives make satisfied and effective workers.

  • If you are a family member, intimate partner, or friend of a helper, know that when they come home at the end of a long day, stressed out and possibly tearful, they are not looking for you to find solutions to their problems, they are looking to be seen, held, and listened to. It’s understandable if you experience distress seeing your loved one upset or anxious. You love them, so that’s inevitable. However, those of us who often go into “fix it” most or who resort to habitual advice giving in the presence of intense emotion from our loved ones may unwittingly be communicating our inability or lack of willingness to handle their distress. So, instead of trying to solve your beloved helper’s problems, sit down, put the phone away, make eye contact, and listen. Your loved one spends most of their waking hours listening and holding the worries and stresses or others. Even just ten minutes of being listened to would make a difference for them.

  • If you are the coworker of a healer from an underrepresented or marginalized racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, sexual, gender-based, or ability-based identity, do not insist that they exclusively work with clients, patients, or students from similar backgrounds because of your assumption that they will understand or that they can “handle it,” unless they make that preference known and explicit.  As a fourth generation Chican@/Mexican-American, my Spanish language skills are modest but sufficient in most social contexts. However, when coworkers insist that I translate in complex psychiatric or medical contexts, I become extremely uncomfortable due to my own self-knowledge of my linguistic deficits and desire to ensure that all clients receive the best services possible. Because of this, I am very careful about the contexts and situations in which I offer to help with translation for others on behalf of clients that are not my own.

  • If you are part of a community of healers, assume and share your identities outside of your work titles. This does not mean that every coworker at your school, agency, hospital, or clinic will necessarily become your friend. I do believe that our workplaces would benefit from increased opportunities to know ourselves and each other outside of the hats we wear as healers. This process could take many forms, such as yoga classes, organized sports, movie nights, board game nights, potlucks, karaoke, or even forming a band.

  • If you find difficulty locating an identity outside of that of a healer or helper, it may be time to take stop, take a deep breath, and take stock. As helping professionals, finding meaning outside of our professional roles is a necessary precursor to preventing burnout. Seek the advice of a mentor, colleague, or trusted supervisor. If you find yourself struggling further, seek the support of a fellow professional, such as a therapist. Remember that as helpers we’re in it for the long haul and like those we serve, we too are human, vulnerable, and need support along the way during our journey.