Commentary

Cleaning Out Your Emotional Junk Drawer

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Most people pile a metaphorical “junk drawer” with stress and unresolved emotions that spill over once the drawer is filled. This mental clutter can be cleaned out—but it’s an ongoing process to avoid further buildup.


 

It’s no secret that health care providers are at high risk for burnout. In my time as a provider, a patient, and a supportive companion to family members, I have witnessed too many of what I call “walking dead” providers—those who barely function in their jobs, leave the profession reluctantly, or count the days until retirement.

One key to avoiding burnout is self-care. I know, you’ve heard this before. But knowing something and acting on it are entirely different.

In my case, it was my employer who broke down my self-care barrier. Through the hospital I work for, I received repeated invitations to participate in free workshops. The first email read: “Healing loss workshops provided for interested staff.” The workshops were based on the Kübler-Ross model (otherwise known as the five stages of grief). First introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, the model postulates a series of emotional reactions to loss.

At the time, I thought grief and loss were only about someone dying. I didn’t know that it could encompass other forms of loss, such as relationships, jobs, physical mobility, major rejection, childhood dreams, or children. So, even though around this time I was in the middle of a divorce, ending a 20-year relationship, breaking up a family, and leaving a house I had lived in for two decades (talk about grief and loss!), I deleted several of these messages before I decided to consider the invitation.

Even when I did, my reason for filling out an application was based on the fact that the workshop, food, and lodgings were free—and I would receive continuing education credit! My mindset was focused on what I could gain tangibly rather than emotionally. I was surprised when I was accepted as a participant—and unaware of how much this experience would change both my personal and professional lives.

I arrived for the two-and-a-half-day seminar with no expectations. I knew that the workshop was touted as providing a safe, comfortable, and confidential environment in which facilitators and staff would provide education on and tools for healing. It was emphasized that this was not a form of medical therapy and that participants could choose to discontinue the workshop at any time. The goal was for participants to learn how to resolve inner issues they have built up and carried around with them.

It is difficult to explain in words the internal change that took place within me during my first workshop. The group participation helped me to recognize that everyone carries a mask. Behind that mask, every individual—strangers, colleagues, patients, even family—has his or her own story and journey. Witnessing others sharing their personal pain and grief in a confidential, nonjudgmental environment made me more compassionate.

Continue to: But I also learned more about myself ...

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