ELI5: How do you leave Work at Work?

This is a question that, as a mental health professional, I often receive from my clients about their lives and about my life.  I’ll speak from my perspective and let you generalize from there.

Psychotherapy is, at the core, a study on how building relationships can change people’s lives for the better.  Of course it is a bit more complicated than that, but without empathy for someone’s experience clients won’t feel like their therapist cares and getting past the surface will become impossible.  So if my job is to hear genuinely sad stories about why the person came to see me and my job is to emotionally understand that story, then how do I not take that feeling home?  After all, if the person coming to see me could stop thinking about this problem, then they might not be in my office.

The answer lies in boxes.  The way that I envision each client is that they have their own space in my mind, but their space is contained in their own box that has its own space on the shelf.  I can hear about the best and worst of humanity and can genuinely empathize with that person’s experience.  Once I have spent enough time feeling, understanding, conceptualizing, and treatment planning for that client, I am able to place all of that energy into a box.  If needed, I can take that box off the shelf and come back to the problems that the client brought to session and even revisit my work in understanding my relationship with the client.

Viewing these relationships as boxes also allows me to pay attention to how many boxes are open at once.  I can then see if the information that I am relating between the boxes are purposeful empathetic connections or lazy overgeneralizations that can be malicious.  Anyone who has had more than one romantic relationship has had to do this in their dating life – when girlfriend #1 told you she was fine but meant she was ticked, girlfriend #2 may say she is fine because she chooses her battles;  valuing harmony over conflict.

The metaphor of the box is one that I live, but live through practice.  Compartmentalization isn’t perfect, but it provides a system that has been effective in my goal of being a present and engaged therapist, while not letting the pain my client shares dim my ability to help the next person.

Generalizing to your life, it is possible to have work box, a romantic relationship box, a difficult parent box, a financial box, and others as needed.  This way you are able to be present and effective in the places that demand your attention.  To wit, you can pay your bills and have pride in the work whilst struggling with your partner or being worried about finances.

A critique of compartmentalizing different aspects of life is that it could quickly slip into avoidance.  I believe that there is a great deal of merit to this argument, and I believe that organizing your boxes and taking time over the course of the week to open the important ones keeps lids from staying shut.  This is the difference between a labeled system where boxes can be easily reached and an episode of Hoarders about a guy who lives next door to the shipping department at Costco.  Boxes everywhere!

Take time this week to look at the boxes that are in your life and think about how you are addressing the difficult ones while keeping them from overflowing.

-Logan Williamson, LPC
University Counseling Center

*For the uninitiated, ELI5 stands for Explain Like I’m 5 and is a place online to ask questions about complicated concepts and usually receive an answer from experts.  By definition, the answers generally capture the answer in understandable, layman terms without condescending or patronizing the reader.*

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