By Tom Ferro, LCPC
AMHCA President, 2010–11
Happy New Year, everyone! As I think about New Year’s and making resolutions, the word that comes to mind is balance. I think it is one of the most challenging concepts many of us in the counseling profession face. How do we balance our family, faith, friends, career, professional growth, recreation, exercise, and down time? (Down time—what’s that?)
When I worked as an elementary school counselor, I was once in a training workshop on how to deal with stress. The workshop leader did a simple but powerful exercise to help us all understand what we are up against when we counselors try to balance our lives. The leader put us all in a circle and asked one person to volunteer to be in the middle. He handed everyone in the circle a long piece of string and then asked the person in the middle to name all the people and responsibilities that he had pulling on him for his time and attention. Then each of us in the circle took our strings and attached them to the person in the middle, so that each string represented one person or responsibility. Pretty soon the person had 15 or 20 pieces of string attached to all parts of his body.
Then the leader asked the man in the middle to name one of the people who needed his time or attention, and when he did, the person holding the corresponding string was asked to pull on it. We saw right away that he could handle one or two people “pulling his strings,” but when half of us in the circle began tugging, the man in the middle obviously became out of balance. And when we all pulled on our strings at the same time, the man in the middle became immobilized! It became very clear that this is what happens when we have too much on our plate or get overcommitted.
Balance or the lack of balance is what brings many of our clients to our office; however, I believe most of us in the counseling profession struggle with balance ourselves. So how do we come to a healthy balance in our life? I really think it takes some serious thought and time with loved ones to communicate what is important. What’s important can often change as we go through life stages. Our careers can be more demanding at times, family responsibilities can change as children get older and leave the home, and our professional responsibilities can also change.
For example, when I decided to run for president of AMHCA, my wife and I talked a lot about the responsibility that was involved and the travel that would take me away from my practice and from our time together. I also talked to my two partners in my practice, since they may have to cover for me while I am out of the office. I am very fortunate that I have loving people in my life who supported my decision to run for president. I am sure everyone who takes on an AMHCA position has to go through the same process.
We at AMHCA are very fortunate to have such great commitment from the members of our board of directors, and our volunteers and their families, on the state level. I have personally experienced the dedication and time that our AMHCA volunteers give to their profession on a daily basis. Might I add that we also receive a lot of satisfaction and great experience being an AMHCA volunteer! (See pages 11–17 for the statements of the candidates who have volunteered to run for positions on AMHCA’s board this year.)
As I work with my clients, I am constantly reminded that we all have to evaluate our balance in our life. It seems to me that when we become out of balance and stressed, the first thing to go is routine and regular exercise. I hear lots of excuses such as, “I am too busy,” or “I am just exhausted by the end of the day, how can I work out!” I challenge people with this perception and just don’t buy it! We have to make time, and to do that, we may have to “cut some strings.”
I believe it is a matter of life or death to take care of ourselves. We as counselors or counselor educators need to practice what we preach! If we have not been taking care of ourselves, the beginning of a new year is a great time to reevaluate our balance. Do we need to cut some of the strings that bind us, say “no” to some people or responsibilities? Can we have those discussions with the people we love to see if our priorities are in sync with each other?
You have all heard the saying, “time is money.” I believe “time is Love”! I often find that the people who deserve our time the most are the ones who often get the least time, or our leftover time. How can we create more time for the people we love, including ourselves?
My wife is a social worker for hospice and comes home almost daily with stories about how someone’s life or that of a loved one changed in a second after learning they have cancer. She helps them with that incredible journey through the end of life. Many of her patients have unfortunately lived unbalanced lives. This is our opportunity to learn from them. If we were diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow, could we say we are in balance? If not, what would we change? What strings would we cut to feel more balanced, centered in our life? Are we checking off our list of hopes and dreams, our “bucket list,” or are we just putting things off because we are too busy and overwhelmed?
Every six months to a year, my stockbroker helps me take a look at my retirement portfolio to “rebalance” my stocks and bonds. As mental health counselors and counselor educators, we have such a great opportunity to be constantly evaluating and rebalancing our life portfolio each day as we work with clients and students helping them in their balancing process. I hope you all take advantage of that opportunity.
Find your strings, be aware of them, and cut the strings you need to cut to be in balance. You will be a better therapist, educator, spouse, parent, and friend—and most importantly, you will be happier!
Thank you again for your time, and for all the work you do for others. Happy New Year and Happy balance!