By Mark Covington (’13), LPC, Psychotherapist and PhD Candidate, Washington, DC
Disconnection, dysfunction, dysregulation, and distress are what therapists and those in academia call “The Four D’s” of why most people enter into psychotherapy. These are also reasons why I believe that my clients enter treatment. Most find that they are dealing with the throes of grief (if they even accept that they are having this emotion), interpersonal disputes with others, identity, or in an institutional setting (like employers), role transitions (new role at work, or at home), or suffering interpersonal deficits (in social or practical relational skills). These are the issues I take on mostly when working with clients in the clinical setting.
With this understanding it is critical to begin with acknowledging that mental health is all encompassing, and most do not recognize that accepting emotions and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them, provide more options than struggling within them. One of the places that people do not believe that they are allowed to express emotion, and most of the time restrict emotion, would be in the workplace. The work environment these days is mostly in our homes, or in some cases, a varied version of going into the office and interacting with others. Just because the physical work environment is different does not mean that the strains and stresses are not still there. Patients report to me that while they are physically removed from people, other human beings are still making things difficult. Stressful interactions with colleagues still exist virtually. For example, some aspects of their roles are not clear, or they do not even feel safe and comfortable in the company or organization to which they dedicate hours of their lives.
Feeling heard, establishing boundaries, and learning communication skills, are some of the tools I teach when patients bring up workplace issues. Learning how to actively listen to the needs of those on a team, or listening to a team member when they need support is critical. Establishing boundaries and knowing when to tighten or loosen them with certain people, projects, and at the right time is crucial for maintaining balance at work. Knowing that you can disagree with others respectfully, and not feel pressure, and to advocate for oneself are issues routinely brought up in psychotherapy.
Further, those who may be in minority groups, whether it be racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, disability status or a combination of identities, may feel additional pressure to perform and feel less likely to communicate their authentic feelings about a situation. They may also experience microaggressions, comments or gestures (whether made intentionally or not) that feed into stereotypes or negative assumptions created around oppressed or marginalized groups of people. These are the experiences of “The Four D’s” I mentioned earlier. The distress one may feel about being the only person of color in the office, or the dysregulation one may have after experiencing a microaggression or flat-out racist remark or behavior leads some into my office. I sit with them week after week, processing and determining the best way to heal.
So what do we do about this? Tensions like these are not only found in the workplace, but in everyday life for people of color. It is imperative that I utilize a holistic approach that encompasses how to heal not only in respect to the office environment, but in every aspect of life. Solutions such as: self-care, taking time off, forming relationships with other members of the office that share your concerns, reaching out online, may be a few ways of healing.
I also encourage clients to try their best to take perspective and visualize themselves in their particular contexts, similar to watching a movie. This way you remember to give yourself compassion, and talk to yourself as you would a friend in life who goes through a tough time. I also encourage clients to keep a journal. Clients should learn how to separate the situation from their own internal thoughts and emotions and find meaning in the situations that they are thrown in to. This leads individuals to generate more alternatives and solutions that they may not have seen before. I always remind my clients that they are the experts on themselves and that they hold the way to healing, even if they are weary. The reasons that clients come in for treatment, such as “healing a relationship” or “dealing with a difficult boss,” are relationships that are healed through a secure relationship with me, their therapist. Relationships keep us strong and healthy, and I urge clients to always strengthen bonds with themselves, and then with others who are accepting.
Although, work environments have changed, it is clear that individuals still feel the pressures of the workplace. Utilizing some of the aforementioned methods, may help alleviate these stresses, and provide individuals with the ability to cope.