The Space Between Stimulus and Response

Reflections on addictions counseling and creating change

Too much stress, and the overuse of self-control resources


In the last few years, I found myself working with an addictions counselor who was very vocal and direct. I was new to the field, yet I felt strongly that her approaches were not always therapeutic, and sometimes not professional— too much self-disclosure or inappropriate topics under discussion. During our group, I allowed the clinician in me to be swallowed up by her dominating presence. I felt at a loss for how to redirect the group, and I stayed quiet because I worried that I would be even less effective. I would come out of group seething, but felt helpless to do anything. I was crippled by self-doubt. During this time, my self-efficacy as a new clinician plummeted, making work I used to feel somewhat comfortable with even harder. I felt down and ineffective, and I dreaded going into work. I felt tired, and slept more though it never felt like enough. (I have learned that I experience stress physically first, meaning I may feel exhausted and sick before I can tell that I feel overwhelmed emotionally and cognitively.)

I coped ineffectively by blaming my co-clinician, instead of acknowledging how frustrated I was with myself for not interjecting more in group or suggesting that we facilitate groups individually, alternating hours. I stood still, treading water, instead of taking action to get additional supervision or wisdom about the situation, instead of taking additional time to plan topics for group so that I would have a clearer way to contribute. Due to fatigue, I also let basics of self-care go, eating less nutritiously, exercising less, engaging with my own interests less. It was a difficult time. The difficult thing about depressive symptoms is that you do indeed feel down, but then you also self-select behaviors that are detrimental to your sense of self and your mood. Of course, interventions such as behavioral activation are built on this principle.

Now I believe I would handle this situation differently. I have better supervision in place, I would re-involve myself more regularly with my own therapy, and I might consider psych medication to help with my mood. I also have a little more willingness now to take risks in the group treatment setting in which I work. I am more comfortable working with my group without a co-facilitator. Now I don’t always wait for anxiety to pass before trying out a skill or teaching something new. What I do is not always perfect, but I make myself ACT anyway because this is how I learn, because it is my job to model tolerance of discomfort, and because my job demands that I be proactive.

2 thoughts on “Too much stress, and the overuse of self-control resources

  1. Hi Meg,
    I have always abided by the idea, “If you feel uncomfortable, than that is exactly where you need to be.” Meaning, when you find yourself struggling, that means there is something there to be learned. I believe we actually learn more about ourselves in difficult times, then we do when there are no bumps in the road. You seem to have learned a great deal about yourself from this experience, all of which is insight and growth, making you better prepared for the next challenge.
    Mental health is a very hard field to navigate at times, particularly for counselors who are just starting out. We often have to trust our instincts, and have confidence in the direction we may take at a moments notice. But the twist is that we have to be confident to become more confident. Good times for the new counselors who get to build their confidence by practicing on actual human beings!! You pick the intervention behind door number one, when the right answer was door number two…. no worries, it’s only going to be a small emotional scar inflicted on the client!
    My point is that starting in this field can be brutal. I still miscalculate at times, and I haven’t ruined anyone’s life as a result. There are a lot of people working in this field, that just really don’t belong here. Unfortunately, when we see those people performing their jobs poorly, we our profoundly aware that looking the other way means that damage could be done to a client. Our natural instinct is to go to the concrete thinking of experience and seniority- “They’ve been doing this for ten years, they know what their doing!” Not necessarily! The important thing, which you accomplished, is to grow from our experiences- good and bad, take care of ourselves- mentally and physically, and trust our instincts when all else fails!

    Thanks for such a personal and sharing post!

    • Melissa, Thanks so much for taking the time to write these words of comfort. It is really a helpful mindset to view challenges as opportunities. And “leaning into discomfort” is still a skill I am learning. I also like your thought about having to be confident to become more confident. There is definitely something to be said for “faking it until you make it.” 🙂 Take care, Meg

Leave a Reply to megdavis63 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s