#55 - Enrich Thyself

[00:00:00] Emily:  We can’t meet the needs of those who are in our care if our own needs aren’t being met. Or at least I should say we can’t optimally meet the needs of those in our care. And also, the animal welfare professions are really hard to be in. There’s a whole lot of burnout, turnover, and compassion fatigue. And imagine how much better our field would be if everyone in it was fully enriched themselves.

[00:00:36] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:47] Emily:  …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:48] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week we heard from Valerie Bogie and one of the topics we discussed was how your self-care is enrichment. This week, we’re going to dive further into self-care as an enrichment, our own enrichment journeys, and implementation for real life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about how our therapy sessions are often us just realizing how we can apply what we teach to our clients for ourselves, watching birds and drinking tea as flight cues, and support groups versus echo chambers.

I’m super stoked for this topic because even though we’re not really talking about non-human animals in this episode, this is a topic that is really applicable to everyone who cares for them, and especially for our fellow professionals.

[00:01:55] Emily:  Yeah, this is so important because we can’t meet the needs of those who are in our care if our own needs aren’t being met. Or at least I should say we can’t optimally meet the needs of those in our care. And also, the animal welfare professions are really hard to be in. There’s a whole lot of burnout, turnover, and compassion fatigue. And imagine how much better our field would be if everyone in it was fully enriched themselves.

[00:02:25] Allie: I agree. I know that personally, I am a much better professional when my needs are being met, and I’m also a better pet parent.

[00:02:33] Emily:  For real. There have been periods in my career where, looking back now, I am eternally grateful for the clients, colleagues, friends, and family members who put up with me, because I was definitely not my best self in those moments, And it always boiled down to the fact that I had multiple unmet needs that were impacting my ability to show up for the humans and non-humans in my life.

 And those unmet needs resulted in chronic toxic stress, shout out to Dr. Kristina Spaulding for that term, that compromised every aspect of my life.

[00:03:10] Allie: So, when I was starting out my self-enrichment journey, I needed that recognition piece. As you mentioned, it’s so much easier to see in hindsight when we’re stressed or our needs aren’t being met, but it’s much more difficult in the moment.

One of the things that’s helped me is to identify and write out my own ladder of escalation. One of the things that we teach our clients to do with their pets is to identify their ladder of escalation. What does it look like when your pet is slightly stressed, moderately stressed, unable to learn, over threshold, all the things.

And when I was starting out, I was getting frustrated that one day something would work to lower my stress levels or meet my needs, and then the next day that same thing wouldn’t work. And I felt exactly like how my clients feel about their pets when that happens. Frustration, exasperation, hopelessness.

I mentioned this to my therapist, and she started explaining why I might be experiencing this and I realized that she was essentially explaining a ladder of escalation to me that I use with my clients. And that I could understand. So, I started observing myself to create my own ladder like I have my clients do.

Now, the nice thing about creating your own is that you have access to your internal thoughts, feelings, and sensations. I’m able to include a lot more signals in my own ladder than we can for another beings. The harder thing is that it can be really difficult to observe yourself in the moment. So, I needed to piece together present and past observations, and then write all of that out so that I could better identify in the moment where I was in that ladder of escalation. And when I know at what level I’m at, I color code mine for ease of implementation. I know exactly what will and will not work to meet my needs.

[00:04:57] Emily:  As you know, Allie, my journey has been so similar to yours in that regard. Another aha moment that I had where my therapist explained something to me that I have been explaining to my clients for a long time was that when we are too high on our ladder of escalation, we reach this critical point where we can’t manage that stress anymore, and we just start acting out in ways that are counterproductive. My therapist was like, “In those moments, you need to remove yourself from the immediate situation so that you can complete your stress response cycle and come back when you’re better able to handle the situation in a way that is more successful.”

And I was like, Oh, right. She’s talking about a flight queue. Yep. Got it. Once I recognize that I’m high enough up on my ladder that I’m not going to handle a situation well, the thing to do is remove myself from as many stressors as possible. And like, there are a lot of stressors outside of my control, so I focus on reducing what I can.

And this can look like a lot of different things, but the first thing I’ll do is assess whether or not the stressors are even necessary. A lot of times I’ll notice that I’m just absolutely racing up that ladder of escalation, and then I’ll be like, “Lols, this is a TV show! Why am I putting myself through this for the sake of entertainment? Can it even be called entertainment if it’s more stressful than the entire rest of my day was?”

Or like, I don’t know this internet rando at all, why am I giving them so much of my emotional labor and my cognitive bandwidth? So, those are really easy decisions, just get out as soon as possible, right? Turn off the TV, end the internet conversation, block the internet rando if their behavior is intrusive enough.

Other times, however, I’ll realize that, yes, this is a major stressor, but it’s either unavoidable or it’s worth it. So, that’s when more nuanced communication is necessary. I may tell someone outright, like, “I can’t have this conversation right now. Can we circle back when I’m in a better headspace?”

Or, if it’s on the internet or in my inbox, I’ll just set it aside for 48 to 72 hours and give myself time to think, process, sometimes even ask advice about how I should respond. If it’s a deadline, I’ll actually stop working to go take care of myself and meet my needs, so that I can come back to the task refreshed and ready to work instead of like terror flailing in a rage panic. And in any of these scenarios, the key here is removing myself from the stressors first. But obviously, escape is not the only tool in our toolbox because constant avoidance isn’t healthy either.

[00:07:52] Allie: There have been times where Ellen and I are talking about some complicated tech decision, and I’ll just stand up and say, I have to watch the birds for a minute, and leave mid conversation and go watch the birds at my bird feeder.

[00:08:06] Emily:  I mean, there have been multiple occasions where you and I have been at an impasse and we’re both like, time for a tea break.

[00:08:16] Allie: Yeah, we definitely have our codes for when we need to take care of ourselves among our team.

And that brings us to today’s last takeaway, which is building your own support system. Emily, you mentioned just a moment ago that we need several tools in our toolbox, and obviously there are a lot more than the ones we’re mentioning here today.

We need to have systems that we can fall back on when we’re struggling. And a lot of times when people are talking about a support system, they’re talking about having other people who will listen to you, like Valerie was talking about in last week’s episode. And the first that often comes to mind is a mental health professional. We learned from Valerie last week that all of those titles, counselor, therapist, psychiatrist, technically mean different things. So, we’re just going to lump them all together in the category of mental health professional.

[00:09:07] Emily:  And sidebar, we have linked last week’s podcast episode with Valerie in the show notes for this episode. Valerie provided us with many resources for building a support system, which you can find there.

[00:09:22] Allie: I think for both Emily and I, having a mental health professional or professional’s plural in our journey has been hugely helpful. And I know I personally can’t recommend finding your own professional enough for folks who are able to do that.

We also know that this option isn’t available to everyone, whether that’s for financial or geographical reasons, which leads us to our next option for support systems.

[00:09:47] Emily:  Yeah, I’m excited to talk about the rest of these because they’re all cheap or free and therefore much more accessible. And the first one of these is building your own support network, that means intentionally cultivating relationships with the people in your life who get you, who support you, and who fill your cup.

People that, you know, feel comfortable and easy to be around. The people that you just click with. Having that support network is so, so, so important to mental health. Because we are a social species, and we need to be with people who feel like family.

And as an aside, I was talking with one of the mentees and PETPro about this a few days ago, and they asked me, “I totally get this, but I don’t want to just exist in an echo chamber. So, how can I build a support team without it becoming an echo chamber?” And y’all, I loved this question so much I almost peed myself from excitement because yes, in order to learn and grow and challenge our assumptions, we need to step outside of our echo chamber, but a support network is where you go to rest, recover, process, and remember that you are not alone in this world.

An echo chamber, on the other hand, is where you go to feed your confirmation biases. So yeah, we need to step out into the world and see a variety of perspectives so that we don’t get stuck in our own little ruts, but we need to come home to our support networks to recharge our batteries.

[00:11:23] Allie: And as Valerie mentioned last week, if you’re struggling to find that support network within your own friends, family, or colleagues, there are free or cheap support groups that exist out there. And I know that a lot of people are concerned about the idea of support groups because they’re afraid that they’d have to spill their innermost secrets to a bunch of strangers.

But that’s not how most support groups work. And if you find yourself in one like that, maybe you should reconsider. But for the most part, support groups are all about protecting privacy and giving members control over how, when, and what they share. And a lot of the time, it can be really helpful just to sit, and listen, and realize that you’re not alone, that there are other people who are walking a parallel path. And there are several that are not location dependent, so you can be in the comfort of your own home while also getting that support network online.

[00:12:18] Emily:  Sidebar, I love that we have more online options for support groups because if something is super triggering, you have a much easier escape plan. You can just like, peace out of the session as opposed to like, you know, making a scene and getting up and walking out of a room or something. So, like, it also makes the flight cue easier to do when you’re online.

[00:12:39] Allie: Just stand up and walk out of your office saying you need to watch the birds.

[00:12:43] Emily:  Exactly. We’re like, time for tea.

All right, so up until now, we’ve been talking about social support systems, but now let’s talk about our individual support systems. First up is the Healthy Mind Platter by Dr. Dan Siegel. Y’all, did you know that there is an enrichment chart for humans? This is one that Allie’s therapist gave her, and then Allie shared it with us, and then we’ve shared it with practically everyone within the earshot, either our team members or members of PETPro.

Dr. Siegel basically identified seven categories of activities, or practices, or habits. I don’t really know what you’d call them. But anyway, they all contribute to our physical, behavioral, and emotional health. In other words, our welfare, our well-being, our enrichment, if you will. And y’all, it has been life changing for me personally, and I do not use that term lightly because it gives me actionable items that I can do and keep track of to measurably improve my quality of life. Which is so important when you exist in a defective body, and work in an emotionally high stakes profession, and just generally exist in 2023. I’m going to be a shameless shill for Dr. Siegel and his healthy mind platter. We’ll share the link to an article about it in the show notes.

[00:14:16] Allie: I’ll be a shameless shill with you on that one. When my therapist was telling me about it, I exclaimed, “It’s an enrichment chart!” And she just kind of gave me this, sure, okay. If that’s what helps you think about it, then that’s what it is, look. Which always cracks me up when I get that look.

Finally, let’s talk about boundaries. I feel like we talked about boundaries in a previous episode. I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but really what I want to say about this is since we’re talking about how so much of what you and I are learning in therapy is just generalizing what we do for other non-human animals for ourselves.

What I want to say is that setting boundaries is part of antecedent arrangement. And here’s my example. I had a previous therapist who told me that we need to be careful about what we consume, and that what we consume is more than just food and water. We also consume content. And that blew my mind and drastically changed how I consume content from TV, to internet, to social media. And I can say that my brain is a lot happier for that decision.

So, Emily’s been hounding me to watch this show. And before she watched it, I had watched an episode or two with my partner and decided that it was too anxiety inducing for me. I told my partner that it was too much like real life right now, and it just stressed me out so he could go and just watch it by himself.

Then Emily comes in doing a hard sell, y’all, on why I need to watch this show. And I told her the same thing. Nope. Too much like real life. I can, I can. feel it making me stressed. I can’t watch it right now.

[00:15:58] Emily:  And here’s an important aspect of this conversation. Content isn’t intrinsically stressful or calming, anxiety inducing or affirming. It’s about evaluating our emotional responses. To the content we’re consuming. So, for me, even though the content of this show that Allie’s talking about portrays people who are in an incredibly stressful situation, for me, my emotional response to watching it was feeling so seen and so heard and so understood and like, we are not alone, and then watching them navigate their stressors, and find paths forward, was just incredibly cup filling for me. And that can change too. When I’m in a really good headspace, I enjoy watching those silly alien shows because the absolute lack of critical thinking skills makes me belly laugh. But when I’m stressed out, I can’t touch those shows with a 10-foot pole because they make me cranky AF.

[00:17:02] Allie: Normally, we do stories at the end, but I feel like we did a lot of stories throughout today’s episode, so let’s go ahead and wrap this up. Today we talked about some of the ways that you can incorporate self-care, or self-enrichment if you prefer that term, into your life, including identifying your own ladder of escalation, using flight cues for humans, and building your own support systems.

Next week, we’ll be talking with Darian Fambro about animals who are cold blooded but warm hearted.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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