I dropped a block on my gerbil’s tail once. It bled way more than one might expect and left a path of tiny crimson droplets on the carpet in my room. I cried a lot, also way more than one might expect. Looking back on it, I am not surprised by my response, nor by the fact that I still remember it. Vividly, in fact. I’ve always had a knack for empathy, which may be an odd thing to have a knack for, but it’s the truth. The current challenges we face draw me in, and also call for my most important protection: boundaries.
As a licensed clinical psychologist, I am regularly in the trenches with my clients, working to help them see light through deep depressive episodes, find the calm in the storm of anxiety, or grasp the safety lines during times of addiction and deeply unhealthy behaviors. One of the most important things that I have learned over the last 15 years of working with individuals is that if I am not keeping myself healthy and keeping track of my own boundary structures, I am in trouble. And this time is, of course, no different. Except for one thing: The empathy given now is not just, “I see you and I hear you,” but rather, “I am with you.” Because in so many ways I am. We are all experiencing this time differently, but there are some real commonalities that we all face: fear of the unknown future, uncertainty around whether our own physical health can hold up, and grief for what we have lost and may never get back — be it money, a level of naïveté, or a loved one.
The hard truth is, we are both in struggle. While I am working desperately to maintain the boundaries in place between myself and my clients, ensuring that I separate their struggles from my own — and taking much-needed moments of self-reflection in order to be present for each client — I am also suffering with them. And so I must work even harder to ensure that my own experience of current struggle does not get entangled with theirs. I need to be especially careful that the invisible boundary between us remains so.
And this is what I work with each and every day that this crisis continues: a deep acknowledgement of where they end and where I begin. One might interpret this ever-present navigation as a burden, a reason to step away. How do I carry my own suffering — as well as that of my family’s — and still hold much-needed space for the suffering of my clients? Isn't it all too much? The reality is that this is exactly what I was meant to do. And if you too are on the front lines in some way, shape, or form, you know what this feels like. Your purpose and contributions are counted upon in such a way that you are reminded of how much, in fact, you are precisely where you are meant to be, doing exactly what you were meant to do.
What keeps me grounded, present, and stable during these times isn’t complicated. I remain committed to a few practices that allow me to keep calm, focused, and grateful.
Dr. Lara Pence's Expert Tips to Remain Calm, Focused, and Grateful
Tip #1: Remember That Your Contribution Matters
You may not be on the front lines, serving others, or in the thick of this mess. That doesn’t mean that your contribution to the world is insignificant. Perhaps you made a friend laugh the other day, consoled a family member, posted something heartfelt that left others responding in kind, or shared a business idea with a colleague. No matter how big or small, what you do and say matters. Remember your value.
Tip #2: Make Time for Yourself, By Yourself
Right now, there is so much content out there that’s encouraging you to be productive, start new projects, engage, engage, engage. It can feel like a lot, and we already have tons going on around us. It’s OK to disengage. Make some time for yourself, and make sure you're by yourself. Take an EXTRA long shower. Go for a walk, ALONE. Close your bedroom door, turn off the lights, lay on the floor, and just be with your own thoughts.
Unbreakable Stories: An FDNY EMT on the Front Lines, a Survivor, and a 'Slob'
Tip #3: Dial in on Your Non-Negotiables
What are non-negotiables? They are the things in your day that you CANNOT live without. One of mine? Going outside. I normally go for a run outside, but on my days off, I will take time to just sit outside and breathe the fresh air. Ask yourself: What do I need to do every day to become exponentially more present and capable?
Tip #4: Communicate Your Needs
The people around you, whether under the same roof or not, are not mind readers. We all need support. We are in this together! Your friends and family won’t know how to help you, or encourage you, if you don’t tell them. Feeling lonely? Tell your significant other that you need a hug. Feeling scared? Ask your friend to tell you — yes, using these exact words — "It'll be OK.” Need some space? Tell your kids that you need some time alone. Being clear with what you need is kind, not entitled.
Tip #5: Drop the Comparisons
When we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, one of the first things that can fly out the window is the security we have in ourselves. What fuels this insecurity? Comparisons. If you find yourself comparing what you’re doing to what others are doing, then you’re putting yourself in a nasty position. Drop the comparisons, get off social media if you have to, and be OK with where you are.
Now is the time to be strong, but it's OK to crumble, if you need to. Continue to do, with conviction, what keeps you stable. Take care of yourself. Hold on tight and find comfort in knowing that your contribution matters at an extraordinary level. We are all needed, for each other and with each other. And continue marching onward.