Genius Saints

Posted on December 12, 2014

There is a statement that has become a staple in my trainings. It came out spontaneously a few years back as I was presenting the challenges the traumatized brain has when trying to make difficult change. I said, “Nothing in this training will leave you with the impression that your job is easier than you thought.” In the months since I made this spontaneous statement, I have given a lot of thought to why our work can be so difficult, and I would like to share why I now say that, “We have some of the most difficult jobs in society.”
My thinking can be divided into two types of justification: intellectual and emotional. Emotionally, few would argue that our work can range from challenging, at best, to dangerous, at worst. In their book, Destroying Sanctuary,Sandra Bloom and Brian Farragher present the concept of emotional labor. They define emotional labor as, “A deliberate disconnect between felt and performed emotion, ‘surface acting’ that is explicitly a part of the job and is encouraged and supported in performance evaluations.”
We suppress our natural reactions to client statements and situations. We bear witness to suffering without being overwhelmed by sorrow. Helpers sit with clients whose decisions are ruining their lives and fight the urge to confront and yell at the top of our lungs, “What the hell are you thinking!” We sit empathetically and patiently with clients, setting them up for their own insights, while seeing the pain and suffering caused by their present state.
What we do every day would paralyze most people. While emotional labor is part of the job we signed up for, we can’t help but be impacted by these demands. We are seeing the power of this impact through the widespread occurrence of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma. While we do work in one of the most physically dangerous occupations (Bloom and Farragher show that outside police, public health and social service workers have the highest rates of threats or actual violent attack), the greater danger more often is to our own mental and emotional health.
I understand this all too well in my role as a trainer. In my Motivational Interviewing trainings, I try to convince people that clients’ ability to change increases when they work with an empathetic and compassionate helper. In other words, in order to be effective, we must open ourselves up and feel the clients’ struggles and pain. Then, in my self-care trainings, we talk about the danger inherent to this opening up, and how trauma can be transferred from the client to the helper.
Emotional labor is exhausting, and due to high caseload size and the intense suffering many of our clients share with us, we should be overwhelmed. In the face of this reality, we continue to bring hope, compassion, and love into our work. I have seen the research to back up the statement I often make that, “You almost need to be superhuman to do this work and stay healthy and engaged.”
I believe that the amount of emotional labor needed for our work places our jobs as some of the most difficult in our society, and this is before we consider the intellectual demands of helping. A client comes in with a personal history, which has created a unique physical brain. Every client has their own motivations, triggers, resource issues, attachment history, experience with the system, cultural experience, educational/occupational successes and failures, relationship history, social network, etc. I cannot think of another profession whose success relies on the strategic management of so many complex and interrelated variables.
The path to success for this client depends on the helper finding a path through these variables with the client, and then helping the client to find the motivation to take the difficult journey. In most professions, there is a high level of control for a project or task, and one project is the prime focus of the person’s job. We are expected to help people we see maybe for an hour or two a week (at most) to make complex changes, with little or no control over what faces the client when they leave our office, clinic, or school.
The brain is much more complex than any construction, computer coding, or manufacturing process ever created. We work directly with the most intricate thing ever seen in the universe. Yet, we do not even get to see the organ we are working with, but are left to our own devices to diagnose based on the energy and information we receive from clients.
Then, there is the reality that we manage just not one client, but a whole caseload, each client with their unique brains, motivations, and paths to healing and change. We are given little time for reflection and planning, and struggle to help clients’ meet their basic needs, much less the higher level needs that are so important to growth and healing.
I have been a student of the brain for two decades now. I have realized that in order to build my own expertise I could not focus on just one area. I have come to the conclusion that to teach helpers, I need to have knowledge in neurobiology, genetics, evolutionary psychology, physics, leadership, human performance, stress, developmental psychology, history, sociology, chemistry, and medicine. Even with two decades of learning behind me, I’m am still humbled by the challenges facing our clients and the difficulty of the work we are doing.
One last challenge I feel obligated to mention, is our pay. On the macro level, society does not value our clients or the work that we do, which is reflected in the resources allocated to our services. In work that is considered purely intellectual labor, the more intense the labor, the higher the pay. However, the converse is true for emotional labor occupations. The more emotional labor needed, the less pay one receives. 
I do not use the words saintly genius lightly. We are called to this work. Helping connects to something deep inside our own souls and experiences. Without this deeper calling, the work eats us up and spits us out. There is something magical about those of you that thrive in this work. Only a small fraction of people in society could do what you do, and fewer still could do it so successfully.
I count myself fortunate to spend a lifetime working with these saintly geniuses. There is an underlying compassion I feel as I travel around the country and work with the brilliant people in our professions. As I look for hope in the mist of all the problems facing our society, I find it in the rooms packed with these saintly geniuses, hungry for knowledge to help them do their work just a little better.

I want to leave with a note of thanks. The work you do for your clients and our society is beyond measure or
comprehension. There is every reason to walk away, and yet you stay in the hardest jobs with the lowest pay because, through all the struggles, you understand the importance of the work and the incredible opportunity we have to witness the people we care so much about make meaningful and lasting changes. Changes that not only improve that client’s life, but the health and future of our communities as well.

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