One of the benefits of working on multiple projects is that seemingly unconnected areas of study can create amazing synergies when they cross the same space. One such breakthrough in my career occurred in the 1990s. My organizational work had kindled an interest in how individuals sustained exemplary performance and health in high stress human service environments. At the same time, I was studying activities of daily life that marked the most durable and enriching styles of long-term recovery from addiction. I found four core activities to be the key to both questions.
Centering rituals are activities usually performed alone that allow one to re-assert important life values, clarify personal priorities, and maintain congruence between the internal self and the social self. Prayer, meditation, reading inspirational literature, positive self-talk, daily goal-setting, and an end-of-the-day review are examples of centering practices. Such rituals draw upon resources deep within us that help focus our decisions and actions. I have used two centering rituals throughout my professional life. The first involves taking a few moments before each significant activity to clear my mind of everything but the impending event, whether that be a client interview or a presentation I am about to give. I ask myself what is needed in this situation and then try to find that missing ingredient inside myself and focus on it. The second centering ritual I use is to focus my mind each morning on what I want to be and do that day and then to review each day at its close to evaluate how well I performed. I tick off the things I'm pleased with, the areas in which I fell short, and rehearse in my mind how I could have done things differently. I then let go of the day with the closing thought, "I will do better tomorrow."
Mirroring rituals involve the act of relating to people who share our aspirational values and who lift us up and draw the best from within us. I have spent a lifetime collecting such people, and I've used regular contact with these individuals to elevate my character and spirit. I have people who stir my energy, people who stir my mind, people who console pain and disappointment, and people who tell me to slow down and take care of myself. If centering rituals reveal to me what I need to do, mirroring rituals deliver the people into my life that will help me do those things. Email has dramatically enhanced the accessibility and presence of such people in my life and became increasingly important as my travel limitations increased.
Acts of self-care and acts of responsibility are activities that support one's physical and emotional health, acts of caretaking toward one's family and intimate social circle and acts of responsible citizenship. While self-care has long-been recognized as a crucial foundation for sustained service to others, less attention has been given to the importance of taking care of our most important relationships. Acts of responsible citizenship flow from the realization that we must balance our acts of individual healing with efforts to shape a world where wounds can be prevented and the health of the healed can be sustained.
Unpaid acts of service outside the professional helping role constitute the fourth ritual of renewal. This is quite counterintuitive and when I first began to talk about it in the late 1980s, I feared someone would throw a blanket over me and cart me off to Minnesota for co-dependency treatment. But when we ask exemplary performers what they do outside the human service environment to sustain their health and professional vitality, large numbers of them report volunteering for this or that. When asked what those activities do for them professionally, they often respond that such acts help remind them of who they are and why they originally chose to enter the helping professions. I have tried to consistently maintain involvement in "service work" that I am not paid for and that I gain no professional recognition from. I do service work to make amends, give back, and shape my character.
I am frequently asked how to sustain oneself and one's performance over a long career. I've never found anything that improved on these four rituals of renewal: centering rituals, mirroring rituals, acts of self-care and responsibility, and unpaid acts of service.
I have always viewed training events that I conducted as an opportunity to receive as well as give. I think such learning tends to decline in tandem with the popularity of a trainer and the size of the training venue. For this reason, I tried to continue training in small venues, even as demands for large conference keynotes increased. One of the organizations I trained for using this small group (less than 30 people) format was Prevention First in Illinois. One of the workshops I gave was on managing personal and organizational stress. As part of this workshop, I often talk about the need for balancing one's professional and personal lives and the value of caring for oneself and one's closest family and personal relationships. It was in this discussion that one of the trainees shared an adage that his father had shared with him. The adage is, "One must be careful in carrying light to the community to not leave one's own home in darkness." It is perhaps one of the most profound statements I have heard in my life?and one that professional helpers and social activists would be well-served in heeding. How many of us have entered our personal lives so drained that we had little light to offer those we most loved? On a day I was expected to offer great wisdom to my students, one of my students imparted instead a wonderful gift to me. I have tried to heed his father's admonition. Do those closest to you need some of your light today?