“Know Thyself” –Self Help and Avoiding Burnout, and Dealing with Stress

Socrates long ago promoted the useful saying, “Know thyself”. Self knowledge is the key to avoiding burnout and dealing with stress. The problem is, as St. Augustine noted in this quote from him, “Lord, you know us better than we know ourselves”. That is, we don’t know ourselves just off-hand and we need time and experience to gain this knowledge. This means, that we will sometimes miss-calculate and make mistakes. As the popular saying goes, “To error is human, to forgive is divine”. So, don’t we need to acknowledge our mistakes and forgive ourselves and others? Of course we do, but easier said than done. Sometimes we just can’t see the forest for the trees.

Sometimes we can get caught in a situation we can’t exactly grab hold of in order to see what is wrong with it , or us, or us in it. One size doesn’t fit all. What may cause us stress or anguish might not affect another chaplains, healthcare workers, pastors, counselors caregivers and other helpers in the same way at all. Thus, even when we try to communicate our troubles to our supervisors or co- workers, our pleas fall on deaf ears, so to say. Sometimes outside friends can lend a friendly ear, but sometimes a more professional help is needed. Again, we need to know ourselves and what we need from the professional counselor, but that is the exact problem – we sometimes don’t know what we need and so how do we go about knowing this and knowing ourselves better?

I can think of two keys to knowing ourselves. Experience and discernment. Experience is based on lived trial and error and training. The role of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) is partially to provide varied experiences to the future chaplain so that judgments can be made in the context of these experiences. Discernment, also depends on particular experiences, but it also includes rules to be used in judging present or future actions. Let me give a personal example:
Along time ago, as a newly trained chaplain with 4 units of CPE completed, I was looking for a job when jobs for lay people were scarce and hardly ever advertised. Upon seeing an ad that possibly might include a lay person I called the Sister CEO (that’s how hiring chaplains was done in those days). As I talked to her she made the statement, “I’m looking for someone to do exactly as the wonderful Sister X did”. I asked what this specifically was that Sister X did. The response was, “Sister X was so ideal. She worked seven days a week and evenings too plus took call every night of the week”. Inspired by the spirit, I asked spontaneously, “And what happened to Sister X”. “Unfortunately”, said Sister CEO, “Sister X had a breakdown and burnout and had to quit”. At this point we agreed that we should both think about whether this job would work out for us. Sometimes, discernment is easy. For me, this was easy. This wasn’t a job for me. For someone else, this may have been just what was wanted and what they felt called to. Also, in retrospect, and with more experience behind me, I can see that I might have tried to negotiate about this position, but at the time, it didn’t occur as an option.

Sometimes discernment is not so easy, or we make mistakes from lack of experience about ourselves. Here is another personal example. A night position was open and the pay was good. Great I thought, and I got the job. What I didn’t know was that I couldn’t sleep during the day. I would get home at 07:30 am, go to bed at 9 am, and wake up at 11 am. Then I would be awake until I started work at 10:30 pm. Day after day I did this. When the weekend came I would then sleep 16 hours straight after again being awake all day Saturday. This put me back on a day schedule every weekend. After three months of doing this, it became obvious I couldn’t continue, and I quit. Unfortunately, prior to quitting, I tried to blame the overwork and long hours for my stress, and also the general lack of good management and hospital policies and I even got involved in the nursing shortage spat that caused the nurses to be overworked and in my stressed situation I was trying to advise them what to do. In this case, discernment was hard to come by and the very lack of sleep made my judgments liable to errors. Only my miserableness seemed to speak to me and cause me to act and finally to quit. Again, perhaps negotiating this position might have been wise when I first realized the difficulties, but this didn’t occur to me.

I’m quite sure that all chaplains, counselors, healthcare and social workers have stories that illustrate difficult and stressful situations they’ve been in and sometimes the situation ends in seeming disaster and sometimes they ended in very good solutions. Knowing one’s self and discerning how the situation affects the self is the key to finding a way to a solution. And just as individuals vary in how a situation affects them, so does the solution vary. Then, there are other factors to consider. I remember when a co-worker who was working on his degree needed to begin work a half-hour later than everyone else due to a class he had to attend. He would stay a half-hour later. Unfortunately, the administration was so rigid, that they denied him this privilege because, they said, if they made an exception for him, they would have to make it for others. So, he was basically forced to quit; this was an unhappy situation for all of those concerned and added to discontent and stress. Of course he could have quit that class, but he chose not to do this. The general sense among his co-workers was that he was in the right; perhaps other solutions are possible in retrospect or perhaps learning took place for all concerned.

If knowing ourselves requires learning and experience (and making mistakes), so does discernment and applying principles of discernment require learning and experience (and making mistakes). In this context, I’m using the word “discernment” to mean a sort of enlightened decision process which would include both spiritual and psychological principles. Of course the epitomy of discernment is St. Ignatius and his “Rules for the discernment of spirits” which form part of the “30 day spiritual exercises retreat”. This form of retreat is geared towards making a decision that is in one’s best interest and which would ideally choose what God has in mind for one. Many people have neither the time nor the opportunity for such a retreat but modifications include eight day retreats, and a retreat in the daily life that takes a time period every day and goes on for even a year. Generally, this sort of retreat would be for making or renewing a major decision. Short of this, many of the discernment principles are quite applicable to daily life.

I believe that all those who help others want to listen to the Spirit and to do good. And this, really, is the first principle; that we are choosing between good actions. We are not considering a “bad” action. That is, an evil action. Now, when we choose between good actions, as we think about and imagine the different paths we might take, we feel different affects. The one path might feel “right” and the other “wrong”. For us. We don’t worry about what path someone else might take or what we “should” take. Of course, we also have thoughts that arise depending upon which path we might choose. The rules for “Ignatian discernment” and other methods we might use to make a choice all basically depend upon our coming to what would be a peacable solution for us in dealing with whatever choice we are making. There are many books on discernment methods and on making choices. I think that probably each person has to find an author that speaks to him or her. The same for finding a counselor or spiritual director. In general all methods depend upon our personal history and also are part of a life-long process of learning and are not infallible. I suppose we will really never know ourselves completely, as St. Augustine pointed out, nor will we ever be free of making mistakes. But we can trust that God knows us and God is a God of Mercy. 1