Following my vacation last week, I’ve returned with a renewed respect for the importance of time off from work. Since I first launched this site, and even moreso since undertaking my book on psychological defense mechanisms, I’ve been working very hard to develop good content and enlarge my audience. I’m passionate about this project; ensuring that my posts are of high quality demands a lot of energy. I’ve also taken on a number of new clients this past year; I can’t do my best work without a significant emotional investment, so these additional relationships have also called upon my internal stores. By the time I delivered a draft of my book to members of my writer’s group, just before vacation, I realized I was very tired.
This is not to say that I don’t get “fed” in important ways by my practice and my writing. I do. But when you’re in the business of caring for others, with underage children still at home, it’s easy to get depleted. When you have important goals you want to meet, it’s easy to ignore your own limitations in the drive to achieve them. At the same time, because I absolutely refuse to give up my time at the piano when life’s other demands suggest it would be wise to do so, sacrificing sleep instead, I can easily exhaust myself. So by the end of July, a combination of professional and family demands, ambition and brattiness had worn me out. I needed a vacation.
As a therapist, especially when you have clients going through crisis periods, it’s difficult to balance your own needs with those of the people you see. When we do take a break, we usually leave someone else on call, but this has always felt like an inadequate solution. How can a stranger, with no knowledge of your client, step in and fill your shoes? Such a substitute can’t possibly make up for lost emotional contact. So how do you take a vacation knowing that someone you see will suffer as a result? Sometimes, if you’re taking care of yourself, respecting your own needs and limits, you have no choice. I know that for a couple of my clients, this past week was an unfortunate time for me to be away.
But I can’t be of much help to them if I’m emotionally depleted. The therapist needs to be fed in order to go on feeding his or her clients. It’s one of those unavoidable facts, difficult for the client in crisis to accept. Especially with someone who has become emotionally dependent, the vacation break can be felt as an intolerable kind of abandonment, often linked to early experiences of parental neglect or absence. For that reason, the weeks leading up to and immediately after a vacation break can be very difficult as awareness of need comes up, along with powerful and sometimes angry defenses against it. In my experience, clients may “retaliate” by cancelling sessions or even quitting in response to “abandonment”, as if to say, I don’t need you after all. I discussed some of these dynamics in an earlier post about the way clients may respond to vacation breaks.
In that post, I talked about the break from the client’s perspective; today, I’m thinking more about it from my own. We all need vacations. But how long? In the psychoanalytic community, especially in Europe, a lengthy vacation break in July/August is the norm. I know several analysts who take a six-week summer break, and a site visitor recently told me that her own therapist would be gone for two months. This seems excessive to me — based more on the widespread European tradition of long summer vacations and with little regard to the realities of a psychotherapeutic practice. My own therapist used to take off three weeks every fall — a more appropriate length, in my view. I probably should have taken a longer break myself this summer but felt I couldn’t do so because I’ll miss another week in September when I leave to settle one of my sons at college.
All the same, this past week gave me some needed rest. I decided not to write any new posts or respond to comments on my website; I read but did not reply to most of the emails I received from current and prospective clients. I slept late several days and twice (!) chose indolence over piano practice. In addition to respecting my limits and getting rest, I hiked the Colorado Rockies with family and close friends, spent time out on the lakes, watched some Olympics coverage, dined out and read novels. I had soul-satisfying conversations with some of the people I love most in this world and have returned to work feeling refreshed and well-fed … though perhaps not as much as I’d like.
Because the first draft of my book is complete and off my plate, I can compensate for the extra week of vacation I didn’t take by working at a slower pace than usual. I’ve already approved and responded to all the website comments from last week. After this post, I can take the rest of the week off from writing. This will make re-entry much easier, with more time to rest.
Now I just need to get my inner brat under control.