boundaries

Atlas Complex: The Weight of the World

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Have you ever felt like the weight of the world was on your shoulders? Like you have to take on all the projects, help everyone around you, just to maintain a sense of order? By modern standards, this experience is identified and defined as the Atlas Complex, thus describing a need to take on all the responsibility and all the stress of the world as you navigate through it. Why would one experience the state of mind that they must take on the world? There are many reasons that encourage the behavior of being responsible for everything around us, including internal and external factors that drive us to action in search of relief.

 

Need to be Needed

One external motivation for taking on the world can be our relationships. For some, the avoidance of conflict by saying yes to others’ needs is enough of a reason to take on more than we can handle, and to make do for the sake of friendship, approval, or respect. Connecting and helping others isn’t all negative, however when our own needs are sacrificed for others with no opportunity for self-care, resentment, burnout, and poor mental health can follow. So how do you know if you are experiencing symptoms of the Atlas Complex in the scope of relationships and boundaries? Below are some questions you may ask yourself:

  • Do you secretly resent the request to help but feel you can’t say no?

  • Do you feel like you are the only one who can help, so you say yes?

  • Do you feel like you have to say yes out of avoidance of conflict or judgement?

  • Do you fear disappointing someone if you don’t take on their request?

  • Do you need to be needed? Do you feel most worthwhile when helping others?

It isn’t uncommon to identify with one or more of the questions above when connecting with others. One way to check in with yourself around your boundaries is to explore how you are helping yourself in addition to others. Remember that you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. Similar to the airline directives about oxygen masks, you must first put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, implying you are no good to them or yourself if you aren’t conscious from lack of oxygen in trying to address others’ needs before your own.

 

Escalating Anxiety

Having solid definition of your boundaries with others can be important in having quality relationships and can also improve expectations of what you are able and willing to do to help. You may feel anxious enforcing new boundaries when they weren’t present before, especially if loved ones’ question or push back against new boundaries out of confusion around the change. Change itself can also be a trigger for anxiety. The Atlas Complex can be present out of a desire to control something because you feel out of control in other areas. For example, if you feel like you can’t control the declining health of your parent, you may find yourself controlling your living environment, cleaning compulsively, and snapping at your partner when small messes are left in the kitchen. This increased irritability and urge to control several things at once manifests in response to internal anxiety that isn’t as easily controlled, making things more difficult in your relationships, work, and home life.

Awareness of your anxiety can be a first step in addressing it in healthy ways. By being aware, you can track patterns and make changes in your thoughts or behaviors, which can then have a positive effect on your emotions. Below are some ideas of what you might say or do to address the anxiety you feel:

  • Change the scene. Try getting out or away from an area that aggravates anxiety to gain some relief or perspective on what’s happening in your life.

  • Move your body. Movement can help reduce anxiety in the form of exercise. Take a walk to think things through, which helps anxiety by both serving as light exercise and as a processing tool, giving you time to explore what’s happening that stresses you out.

  • Think happy thoughts. Studies show that how we interpret a challenge can impact our anxiety.  For example, if we think, “nothing will ever change,” our emotional reaction will feel heavier and more helpless than if we think “this is temporary, I can do this.”

  • Try coping skills. Taking a drink of water, breathing, listening to music, or healthy distraction can help address the anxiety you feel to make it more manageable.

Managing the Atlas Complex and all it represents can have positive effects on your mood, relationships, and life. Check in with yourself frequently to determine the motivation behind urges to hold the world on your shoulders and you may just find that the world looks and feels lighter than it once did.

“Optimism is a happiness magnet. If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you.” Mary Lou Retton

Setting Boundaries with Parents Who Have None

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Working with children in a therapeutic setting can be very rewarding and can prevent further problems with mental health and behavioral issues down the road. Most therapists that choose to work with kids are comfortable sitting on the floor, engage easily with children and are comfortable setting boundaries around safety in the play therapy room. Engaging and setting boundaries with parents can be an entirely different ball game. And unfortunately, establishing a supportive and collaborative relationship where firm boundaries are set in place with the caregivers may be as important as your relationship with the child in order to facilitate positive change. If you are in a private practice setting, there is another layer of importance to engaging parents. Your income depends on you maintaining a caseload of happy parents, as well as children who are improving.

You and the child can do great work in the play therapy room, improving self-regulation, verbalization of feelings, and allowing for an unconditional, child-centered relationship to allow the child to process the most difficult situations and it can be completely unraveled once the child returns home for the week if they are not set up for success at home. Taking two steps forward and then one or two steps back each and every week can be disheartening for the child, caregivers and us as therapists. This is why it is paramount to engage your parents to be a helpful partner in this process. So what do you do if a caregiver to one of your kids is unwilling to make changes or is so stuck in their trauma or emotions regarding a divorce that they are not acting as your partner in the therapeutic process? What if all they are looking for is for you to provide testimony in family court that supports their beliefs about the family situation? How can we as therapists, advocates, and potentially the only objective person in the situation bring about positive change in the lives of these children?

Thorough Preparation is Key

In my twelve years of experience working with children and teens in a therapeutic setting, I have learned that the most important aspect of creating an appropriate and collaborative relationship with caregivers where boundaries are respected and maintained starts before your first interaction. It is important to have a clear understanding of your scope of practice, what you are or are not willing to provide for families, the laws around decision-making and custody in your state, the laws of age to consent to mental health services in your state, and the policies and procedures for your practice or the agency you work for before you call that parent back to set up an initial session. If you are not clear in your own mind of these things, you are more likely to set up a relationship where you have to back track or get stuck in a situation later on.  For example, if a parent calls to get their child in for counseling with you and you do not inquire if there are any issues with custody or if any other parent shares decision making responsibilities in that initial phone call, you do not know if you are able to see that child. You are putting yourself and credentials at risk by not asking the right questions during that initial phone call. If there is shared decision making responsibilities, then you can educate the parent about the laws of your state and request the appropriate court documents to show any current orders in place. Along with having clarification in your own mind about these issues, you also have to have them represented in your initial paperwork so that you have a way to discuss all of these issues with the caregiver. It is important to have fees, policies around communication, policies around providing court summaries or court testimony (including fees), and the rights of the child in your disclosure and consent. This way, the parent has the information upfront and has signed in agreement that this is in fact how you will be running the show. And then, it’s up to you to put it into practice.

Documentation

How do you engage parents and maintain this engagement even when they do not agree with you or have a specific agenda they expect from you? Even if you have started off the relationship with strong boundaries, many parents are still so stuck in their own stuff that they will test your boundaries. Working with these parents is frustrating to say the least.  You see the positive changes that the child is making in session and know that they could improve significantly more if the parent followed your recommendations or if they weren’t so focused on making the other parent look bad. Two things…continue making the recommendations that will benefit your kiddo, continue being their advocate, and document, document, document. Unfortunately in our very litigious culture, you will need to have good documentation of what was recommended and why, as well as if caregivers followed through with the recommendations. If you are ever grieved, you have everything you need documented to show appropriate care.  It can also be helpful for you to keep track of specific recommendations that were attempted, versus the ones that are not. This can inform the recommendations you make in the future.

Communication Strategies

Another area that I have consulted with many child therapists on is how to manage parents going through a conflictual divorce, specifically so that they are not being triangulated into the relationship and can continue to focus on the best interest of the child. Again, the importance of having the discussions around your policies is paramount. I typically have two separate intake sessions if I have the chance, so that I can go through the information thoroughly and so that there is not the perception that I have a better relationship with one parent or the other. I also recommend that most correspondence is done through email (if both parties agree to using email for therapeutic information after understanding the possible issues with confidentiality), and that all correspondence is sent to both parties. This way there is less possibility for he-said-she-said concerns about what your recommendations are. I stick to this policy unless there is a significant safety concern or if there is a no-contact or restraining order in place between parents. I ask that caregivers put the other parent on any emails sent directly to me, however this boundary is always broken. I have already let parents know that anything I send out will go to both parents, so if they need a reply, it will get sent to both parents. If it does not need a reply, I keep the emails as documentation, reply that it is important that all emails go to both parties unless there is a safety issue, and use it as data for my own conceptualization of the case.

There are many other logistical tips that could be provided to working with difficult parents. The tip that I have found the most helpful in maintaining positive relationships with parents that I have to continually challenge or set firmer boundaries is to remember that they are human beings with their own histories. I believe that most parents are doing the best they can with what they’ve got at the time. This may not be very good at all, but there are reasons for their behavior. Remembering this allows me to be personable with them even when extremely frustrated. And remembering that you may be the only safe person in your child’s world at this moment, provides enough incentive to do the hard work of managing their caregivers.


Guest post written by Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS

Guest post written by Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS

Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS is the owner and clinical director of Arvada Therapy Solutions, PLLC. Sybil's specialties include working with children, teens and families dealing with family trauma including conflictual divorce, child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. As an Approved Clinical Supervisor, she also supervises Master's level interns and clinicians working towards licensure, as well as providing business consultation to therapists embarking on the world of private practice.

Strategies for Self-Care: Scheduling Intention

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Self-care is a word we hear a lot in our industry, not just for clients but for professionals as well. How does one define self-care? Is it true that we need to implement self- care in order to prevent burnout? To better understand fatigue, burnout, and the concept of self-care, let’s take a closer look at each of these elements and how they contribute to wellness.

 

Symptoms requiring Self-Care

For many professionals, self-care becomes something to explore when functioning declines. Our clients come to us because their lives are being disrupted and self-care may be needed to recover balance. We are our own worst clients in the idea that we can talk about the importance of self-care to others, but don’t always put it into regular practice for ourselves.  The result of limited or absent self-care is burnout, and burnout can be long lasting or pervasive as it spreads beyond our careers into our personal lives and beyond. In order to explore the impact of burnout for ourselves and our clients, we may find the following list helpful (adapted from Vital Hearts).

  • I don’t know how to relax.
  • I feel irritable more than I’d like.
  • I feel disconnected from my emotions.
  • I’ve isolated from my family.
  • Nothing makes me laugh anymore.
  • I take comfort in sweets.
  • I have no energy to listen to my family when I get home.
  • I escape by sleeping more.
  • I have no empathy at the end of my work day.
  • I’m ignoring my relationships.
  • I can’t seem to disconnect from work.
  • I am experiencing more anxiety.
  • I just want to get away sometimes.
  • I’m angry at my clients for asking so much of me.
  • I feel underappreciated.
  • I can’t read or watch the news anymore.
  • I don’t share my work with my friends, they just don’t get it.
  • I don’t socialize with friends much anymore.
  • I feel restless but don’t want to do anything.
  • I have lost confidence in myself.
  • I feel pessimistic as the result of my job.
  • I feel sadness.
  • I feel drained, I have no energy.
  • I feel angry.
  • My health has declined.
  • I feel like nothing I do makes things better.
  • I can’t concentrate.
  • I cry much easier than I used to.
  • My road rage has gotten worse.

For some, the list above starts the conversation about how much and to what degree life has been impacted by factors of our work as helping professionals.  Burnout untreated can lead to long lasting decline in quality of life and connection to others. Burnout can take away the passion of why you do this work. As we struggle to practice what we recommend to others, how do we change our patterns to support reduction of the negative impact of burnout? Below are some action steps.

 

Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP)

Several organizations in Colorado see the importance of self-care, including the Colorado Mental Wellness Network. Selected by the Colorado Mental Wellness Network and endorsed by SAMHSA, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) is being utilized with various populations to support health and well-being. Colorado Mental Wellness Network supports change through peer to peer connection and wellness education. Through these efforts, they continue to implement WRAP plans within various communities, including those experiencing homelessness and within Department of Human Services caseworkers. What they found was that empowering individuals to notice wellness as well as health decline could support putting self-care into action. Below is an example of a wellness plan that can be used for both professionals and clients to best support their process of identifying and implementing self-care.

 

WRAP

 

Building in Boundaries

In addition to exploring and customizing self-care for meaningful change, boundaries may need to be re-evaluated to prevent burnout. For many helping professionals, long hours, after-hours texts, emails, or calls, client crisis, and urges to help, prevent successful disconnection from work. Technology makes it easy to check work emails 24 hours a day and calls may come in from various parties regarding client care. If there is flexibility to re-evaluate the schedule of work versus home life, it is encouraged. However, the schedule assigned may not be in your control. If this is the case, other means of implementing boundaries may be needed and can include the following:

  • Put an out of office message on email and voicemail to notify others of when you will respond.
  • Separate work and home phones to leave the work phone off during days off.
  • Identify a crisis coverage person to give to clients during vacations or other scheduled absences.
  • Schedule time off in your calendar(s) to support appropriate boundaries.
  • Schedule windows of self-care, even if just for 20 minutes, during your work week.
  • Be concrete with hours for yourself and your clients as to when and how they can reach you.
  • Find self-care you can commit to and put it in the calendar monthly or weekly.

It is with hope that we can create momentum from the talk of self-care into action steps as we continue in our roles as helping professionals. Modeling self-care is both in the benefit of our clients and ourselves as we navigate the busy world of demands in hope of positive change. May we all begin to develop quality self-care in order to find wellness in the path of hard work!

Bolstering Boundaries: Exploring Needs in Community Practice

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She calls at 10pm, he gives you a present, they ask for a hug, she asks for a ride.  How do we navigate the gray area that is clinical practice in community or home settings? Mental health professionals have found several benefits to working with clients in their homes or communities, including more consistent access to resources by meeting clients in alternate settings. Perhaps the client can’t get to an office due to transportation limitations or anxiety preventing them from feeling comfortable in your office? Could the family dynamic be better observed in the home to support current treatment goals?

Boundaries continue to be important in conveying professional roles and limitations to clients, including interaction with their therapist outside of scheduled sessions. Boundaries can look different to each individual, including being physical, such as proximity and touch, or emotional, such as how much we disclose about ourselves to clients in our effort to build rapport. Boundaries are necessary to prevent burnout, which can manifest as fatigue, avoidance, and increased irritability and concern of clients taking advantage of us when boundaries are inconsistent.

 

Self-Exploration

Can you ask yourself how you would respond to the following questions?

  • Do you feel taken advantage of by those you care about?
  • Do you tend to meet other’s needs before your own?
  • Do you say yes to avoid a confrontation?
  • Do you worry about the loss of a relationship if you say no?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, you may want to look further at your boundaries and their limits in supporting your well-being. Many mental health professionals are inspired to help and serve others, sometimes at the risk of our own health. It would benefit each of us to explore and strengthen our boundaries to allow the most supportive interaction between us as providers and the clients we serve.

 

Bolstering Boundaries

So how do we navigate implementing boundaries? Has your agency supported you in providing expectations of your role in writing to your client? Does your disclosure statement clearly identify your limits in communication outside of scheduled sessions? Can your voicemail redirect callers after hours to a crisis service? These are just a few examples of boundaries in the mental health workplace that can provide the consistency we are seeking in implementing healthy boundaries with our clients. Just as when we guide clients in developing boundaries of their own, new expectations take work to implement and remain consistent. Anticipate push-back from those who are used to old patterns, as they may struggle to accept the change. Remain firm with new boundaries to allow adjustment and acknowledge any anxiety or fear that can come with implementing new boundaries. Lastly, consider putting boundaries or expectations in writing to discuss with your client so that they may have a copy for future reference and can consider signing a copy for your records.

 

Support from Others

Implementing boundaries can be easier with the support of supervisors, consultants, and colleagues. Consider reaching out for support around implementing boundaries with a client, as many professionals have experienced similar concerns and have had to navigate the discomfort of boundary setting in their own work. Would they take the same steps you are considering when reinforcing boundaries? Can they support you when your feelings of guilt or anxiety attempt to derail the boundaries you’ve created? It can be helpful to share your boundary goals so others can support you and you can do the same for them.  

 

Burnout

Burnout can be the result of poor or unhealthy boundaries. Can you relate to any of the following symptoms of burnout?

  • I don’t know how to relax.
  • My road rage has gotten worse.
  • I feel disconnected from my emotions.
  • I escape into eating sweets.
  • I’m ignoring my relationships.
  • I can’t seem to disconnect from work.
  • I’m self-critical.

These are just a few symptoms of burnout that other professionals have reported as signs of their fatigue and ongoing challenge in the workplace. Boundaries can help address burnout along with communication, exploring your values or what drives you, and creating a wellness plan. The Professional Helper Healing Training: Supporting Boundaries to Prevent Burnout is one training in Denver, CO that supports professionals in these tasks and there are others! For more information, visit us at catalystcounselingpllc.com and search professional workshops.