Saturday, February 26, 2011

Practicing what I preach

Okay, full disclosure here... I am a work in progress. I do not feel like I often get to the point that I actually have to use the tools that I advocate in my therapy practice. I would like to think that I am self-aware and practicing enough discipline in my everyday life that I hardly ever get to the point that I enter the blame-game and the justification for anger cycle. But I did this last week. Here's what happened.

The company I work for holds a contract with the State of Texas to provide crisis counseling for at-risk youth and their families. Because it is a state contract, the company is required to undergo an annual audit to make certain that the contract is being carried out. Our audit starts next week. This year, I resolved to recognize that anxiety, like so much other stuff, flows downhill and that I would decline any invitation to be as anxious as the administrators about the audit. I would just keep doing my job the way I do my job and let them worry about whether the i's are dotted and t's are crossed.

The past few weeks, my email inbox has been busting at the seams with emails about meeting our numbers, documenting our work and efforts to meet with Youth and Primary Caregivers. "Best Practice" dictates that we should complete paperwork in a timely manner and with the looming audit, that has meant increased scrutiny on our files. I can be quite honest about my attitude toward paperwork: I hate it. (Therapist Jeff says: Jeff's feelings about paperwork reflect his insecurity with his own efforts. Because he projects self-confidence, his lackadaisical performance in keeping up with his paperwork reflects his fear that people will see him for his true self: lazy and lacking internal motivation concerning small details) Yes, I hate paperwork. I justify my hatred of paperwork with a complex series of arguments about small minded bureaucrats who developed the guidelines for our program without any insight to what the actual job entails. Anyhow, the short story is that I have my own timeframe for getting my paperwork finished that does not always match up with deadlines that I have been given.

I feel that because it has been previously established in supervisory sessions with the people who are in charge of my program, that this should be taken into account when evaluating my efforts. Read: it has caused problems before. Truth is, my supervisors have all been reasonably flexible in allowing me leeway with my paperwork deadlines. However, with the added anxiety and desire to present the best possible filing for the auditors, the grace extended to me regarding my timeliness vanished. And that is what it has always been: grace. Now, understand, I am a good worker. I believe the outcome of my efforts readily reflect that I am a great therapist and gifted clinician. I get my work done, and I do make most of my deadlines, but paperwork and time management continue to be growth areas for me.

I was up at the office late on Thursday making sure all my paperwork was done, all my files were in compliance. I looked over the bevy of emails regarding requests from my supervisor and, confident that I answered them all, I stumbled off to bed to get a few hours sleep before I got up to do it all over again. Friday morning, I attended several meetings and then prepared to go meet with some more of my families, I stopped off at my supervisor's office to show off at how caught up I was on all my paperwork. "What about those extra notes I'd asked about on your closed files? The ones the auditors requested...?" D'OH! I'd somehow overlooked those! Despite the fact I was on my way out the door to a school to meet with a family, I promised I'd get them done immediately.

I rushed back to my desk and banged out the four notes. Now, my files were not incomplete or in bad shape. The notes were simply to assist the auditors and invite them to not scrutinize the file and nit-pick it. It took me about 25 minutes to update the files and I carried them back to my supervisor, feeling good that I was being a team player and done my best to be helpful. My supervisor thanked me for my efforts and then handed me a note to sign. It was a written notice that I'd been given a verbal warning due to not having those extra notes by 11:00 AM. It would go in my HR record. It had been emailed to the program director.

Suddenly, my feelings of helpful pride shifted to seething anger that I was being reprimanded for missing a deadline by an hour and a half. In my mind, my self-talk went something like this: "Why? I know that I missed the deadline, but it was an arbitrary one made up for this occasion... it is not like there were dire consequences... This doesn't have to be done, I'm being singled out for this... It is unfair... It is mean spirited... I would have handled this totally differently if I were the supervisor... this is how you go about ruining morale... I'm being set up to fail..." and on and on in this fashion.

For several long minutes, I stared at the paper, weighing whether to make a big scene about it or suck it up, sign it and let it go. The minutes stretched out and I knew that my silence and inaction were communicating to my supervisor that I was struggling about how to respond. I knew that anything I said would sound defensive and self-justifying. I knew that my supervisor had the technical truth to support the reprimand. I had a choice to make.

Now, I want to point out that this whole thought process took several minutes. I stood there like a idiot while I literally thought all this through and came to my decision point. I surrendered the thought that my supervisor was responsible for my anger. I swallowed the blame I wanted to level and let go of the self-justifying arguments that popped up in my head. I signed the form and left the office.

I decided to not be angry. It was harder than I thought it would be! I kept wanting to step back in my anger box and allow it to dictate the rest of my day. But the more I thought about it, the more I clung to the notion that if I teach others this stuff about being responsible for one's own emotions and behavior, then I better be able to back it up with my own experience.

Was my supervisor wrong to reprimand me? Technically, no. Subjectively? Maybe. It is possible to do the right thing but to go about it in a way that invites defensiveness. Was it within my supervisor's power to let it go and to not document the incident? Yes, but that is not the point. Truth is, by not being more proactive with my own behavior and attitude toward the paperwork, I was inviting my supervisor to see me as lazy with my paperwork. Doing my part to help out with the audit was all well and good, but really has very little to do with my own previous behavior. It is just a handy self-justifying argument I tucked away to allow me to blame someone else for my angry feelings.

My point in posting this is not to gain sympathy or even admiration for my self-analysis. I wanted to point out that handling one's own emotions can be difficult. If I had entered into a blame cycle, who knows where it would have ended up? I can guess at some outcomes: I might have decided that being a team player wasn't worth it if I was going to be treated so badly. I might have started subtly sabotaging efforts to meet our numbers or do things that would put my supervisor in a bad position. I might have subtly started undercutting the management by my own way of being toward the company. I might let bitterness suck the joy out of the job I love.... etc. The end result is that I would also have diminished myself in the process. That is not the person I wish to be, or become.

This experience is another reminder that grace is an amazing gift. I'm thankful that God invites us into His kingdom, where we experience no accusations or blame or guilt, despite our continued deservedness. Over and over, God invites us to be better, accept His perfection and clothe ourselves with it. God's redemption of my broken, sinful heart is not a one-time event, but a continual process whereby I (hopefully) become more like Him each cycle. This time, I hope that I've picked up some pointers about being gracious... not only to myself, but to those that I feel have wronged me (whether they actually have wronged me or not). God is gracious. Thank God.


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