As a Mental Health Counselor, I’m often on the receiving end of questions such as, “How do you listen to people’s problems all day and not let it affect you?” Or comments that they couldn’t do what I do because they’d “go crazy”. Or (my favorite), “Are you analyzing me right now?” to which I always answer, “not unless you’re paying me” (queue canned laughter).
Having been in the field for 10 years, I took pride in the fact that my work didn’t negatively affect my personal life. I was always able to distinguish between my issues and the issues my patients were facing. An important and necessary distinction for someone in my field because owning someone’s problems inherently hinders your ability to help that someone works through them.
Then COVID hit. I was one of the fortunate ones. Through social distance measures and Teletherapy, I was able to continue seeing clients. It was clear that this pandemic was gravely affecting people’s mental health. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to help everyone. Things picked up quickly and I was pushing myself harder than ever.
On some days, I’d see up to ten clients. I saw myself as a lighthouse in a squall, nobody was turned away and If someone needed help I was there. As I tried to help my clients deal with these unprecedented times, my “therapist brain” couldn’t help but observe their behavior.
I began to notice how the isolation of the quarantine and the health anxiety triggered by COVID began to affect people. I became concerned. And then things began to change within me. I was negative, sad, irritable, and tired. I stopped exercising, gained the “COVID 15”, and had no drive to do anything. It was clear my work was getting to me. I thought about reaching out to colleagues, but they were just as busy as I was. What’s a Mental Health Counselor to do?
I decided to take a week off during which time I met up with an old friend of mine. He asked “What is going on with you lately? You’re off, I’m not used to seeing you so gloomy!” I opened up and told him how I had been feeling. His response was humorously simple “Well, what would you say to your patients?” I rolled my eyes and replied, “Ha, ha, right- Healer Heal Thyself. I’m great at helping others but I can’t seem to help myself with this”. “Of course you can!” he replied. “A wise man once told me to write a simple gratitude list every day and every night. Just five things in the morning and five things at night that I’m grateful for. Then answer the question “what went well today?”. He smiled too-broadly at me, probably expecting me to roll my eyes again since I was the so-called “wise man” who had given him that particular reframing tool. I didn’t roll my eyes, I felt like I was just opening them for the first time. I couldn’t believe it. I had never tried gratitude. I immediately started to work gratitude into my days.
After weeks of being grateful for the things I had, I started to notice changes in myself. I started to express gratitude for my wife’s love & kindness, my oldest son’s dedication and loving nature, my youngest son’s mischievous smile when he says something funny. I began to be grateful for all of my patients who trust me to help them navigate and cope with their life’s challenges. I was grateful for the people who work at my favorite stores, my colleagues, my ability to work, walk, listen, and speak. Before I knew it, I was writing 10 things I was grateful for in the morning and at night like it was second nature.
I’ve been doing this for three short months, and it’s truly unbelievable how such a simple practice can re-wire what your mind focuses on. It changes how you perceive things and situations. Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to stay focused on things that can keep you fulfilled today. After all, today is all we have.
Thankfully, things have gotten much better since that brief difficult time. Everything excites me now. I look forward to every minute of my life. I do my best to stay present and fully engaged with what I am doing at all times.
So, if you are skeptical about this whole gratitude thing, I get it. I’d like to challenge you, though, to try it for a few weeks before you throw the idea into the reject pile. You may find your way of thinking needs a little re-wiring too. Practicing an Attitude of Gratitude will help you feel more fulfilled. It will allow you to bounce back from a negative situation faster, which is a key metric for happiness. So go, be grateful and enjoy what the process brings.