by Joanna Maung

Suchman and Ramamurthy (2008, p. 1) suggest that, “the balance that each of us strikes between our own enrichment and depletion is critical to our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health and to our ability to care for others.”  In our training and practice as clinicians, most would agree that finding a “good” work-life balance is essential to fostering emotional health and well-being, combating burnout, and providing effective client care.  In my clinical practice, I often emphasize the importance of finding that balance between work and self-care, urging my clients to set intentional time for the activities, practices, and individuals that bring them joy and renewal.  Ironically, work-life balance, self-care, and all of those things in between are still things that I struggle with on the daily. Reflecting on my personal journey, I can’t help but acknowledge that it has been a tremendous challenge and growth edge for me to practice what I preach.

During my graduate school training, balance was something I strived for, but never really knew how to achieve.  My mentors, supervisors, and fellow program mates espoused the necessity of self-care, to be sure, but it wasn’t always my personal priority.  One of the reasons why I chose to pursue a graduate degree program far from home was that I thought that I needed the physical space to properly compartmentalize my professional and personal worlds.  Stressed out about exams or upcoming deadlines, I often kept my conversations with friends and family from home to a minimum, as I usually found it too “distracting” to think about what everyone else was doing while I was doing my best to simply survive graduate school. Sure, I would schedule an hour here and there for exercise or a nice cup of coffee, but it was sometimes a forced effort, and a sense of obligation that brought me to do those things.  And, even though I was present for a number of social engagements and occasions with my cohort-mates and partner, I wasn’t always there.  Rather, I was often stuck in my head, thinking about my to-do lists, and worrying frantically about a future that had yet come to past.

I confess that I, knowingly or unknowingly, had committed to a long-term relationship with my graduate program.  For the most part, I was okay with that. I was productive, goal-oriented, and chose not to dwell on what I was missing out on back home.  Rather, I lived and breathed my academic studies, research, and clinical training. I justified my tunnel vision by telling myself that someday, someday when I had my degree in hand, I would do it better.

And then, life happened. I woke up early one morning to a text from my brother saying that my father had had a serious stroke. Just like that, our family’s life turned upside down. I came back home to help my family navigate the insurance process, talk to medical professionals, and advocate for my father’s in-home and hospice care.  As the daughter of immigrants, I donned these responsibilities like an old coat, and made the daily trek to visit my father at rehab and to provide my mother with what I could in terms of practical advice, care, and compassion. Graduate school and internship applications felt a world away. With my father’s health on the line, there were days and weeks when I couldn’t even bear to think about my career or what the future would hold for me.

In those months of family tragedy, self-care took on a whole new layer of meaning and necessity.  Physically, I felt exhausted, tense, and had been having more tension headaches than I cared to admit. Emotionally, I was fraught with worry, sadness, and mourning the significant loss in my father’s physical and mental functioning.  Someday turned to now. With our family’s increased emotional and financial stressors, it became more important than ever for me to function well independently so that I could help my family function as a whole.  It took a huge life upheaval to do it, but I made a new commitment to prioritize my personal health and well-being. I took up a new mindfulness practice (admittedly, not the first time), went for long walks/swims, and made a conscious effort to reach out to family and friends for love, support, and care.  While I ultimately went back to graduate school to finish my coursework, I no longer saw my academics or career as my end all be all. Rather, I had developed a more informed and, dare I say it, “healthy” perspective regarding what truly mattered and what fed my soul at the end of the day.

These days, I help out at home while working full-time at a UCC and intermittently carving out time for research and post-doctoral residency applications.  While I still struggle to strike that balance between my professional and personal worlds, I try to remind myself that work-life balance is an intention, a process, and a journey unto itself. Yes, I occasionally fret about clients and paperwork during my lunch hour, work a little too late into the night, or fail to make time for meal prep or workouts on the weekends. The difference is that I now make a purposeful effort to extend loving kindness to myself when I can’t do everything I want and I am committed to trying again, maybe a little differently, next time. In this profession of constant giving and service, I have come to recognize that I am human, and that I, too, only have so much emotional and physical energy to give. Suchman and Ramamurthy say it best: “the foundation of our well-being is the acknowledgement…that we have needs and limits, and that to keep on giving we must know and have reliable access to those things that sustain and revitalize us” (p. 2).

Suchman A., Ramamurthy G. (2008). Chapter 6. Practitioner Well-being. In Feldman M.D., Christensen J.F. (Eds). Behavioral Medicine: A Guide for Clinical Practice.

Joanna Maung is a doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is a pre-doctoral intern at San Jose State University Counseling and Psychological Services and is the current Membership Coordinator of AAPA Division on Practice.

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