"I don't even know if what I'm doing even matters anymore..."
Finish that sentence with whatever comes to mind first.
...because your clients don't seem to be getting any better? ...because your students aren't even paying attention to you? because your recommendations and concerns seem to be falling on deaf ears? ...because your patients don't even want to participate in therapy? ...because your family is being so damn ungrateful?
We all have those days when we wonder if what we're doing actually matters.
Or, more specifically, we fear that we're not being effective helpers. And that sense of powerlessness--combined with that (let's be real, now) self-centeredness--will inevitably lead to burnout.
I was having one of these "nothing I do matters" kinda days a couple months back. I was feeling like an asshole, because I just had what I judged to be a very unproductive session. I felt like I was pulling teeth with my client, and I could sense that neither of us really felt like being there. What made it worse was that I had to expend extra energy just to try and cover up the fact that I wasn't really feeling it.
What am I even doing here? I asked myself.
Unable to answer that question in the moment, I decided to take a walk to the Peet's Coffee up the street to get my juices flowing again. When I got there, I saw a familiar face: my barista, thin as a rail, a mop of tiny ringlets sprouting from his head, and a perpetual smile on his face.
"Hi Dee-ah-nah," he said, pronouncing my name in the glamorous way that he always does. "What can I getcha today?"
He looked at me straight in the eye, smiling, while he took my order.
I found myself smiling right back.
He handed me my coffee, and sent me off with his usual refrain: "Have a wonderful day, darlin'."
In my discouraged, verging-on-burned-out state, I had a strong emotional reaction to this simple display of human kindness. My barista offered his smile, his undivided attention for a few short moments, and his well wishes. And from that brief interaction, I was able to pull myself together and get on with my day.
Without being aware of it, and without any expectation of a specific response from me, he'd added value to my day.
It was a timely reminder that I was taking myself--and my purpose--WAY too seriously. Yes, I feel called to do good work in the world and make people's lives better, but it's no wonder that I'll question my impact if I'm thinking of "Purpose" with a big capital P.
Even something as big and important as your "calling" is doled out via tiny moments, through tiny actions, over the course of individual days. You don't just wake up one day and realize that you've successfully achieved your purpose, like reaching some kind of epic spiritual finish line.
Living your purpose is an accumulation of moments, and you get a fresh chance to pursue it every single minute of every single day, with whatever resources you have on hand.
Some days, you might not have as much energy, you might be stressed about your dog being sick, or you might not be getting the support from your colleagues that you want. So you'll be operating on fewer resources that day.
It's okay. You are human. Just give your best, knowing that you'll give more and do better later.
I realized that I've been obsessing over the wrong questions: "Am I being effective? Am I helping this person make progress? Were there improvements during this interaction?"
These questions are great for challenging yourself to be the best clinician or service provider or caregiver possible, but they're not so great when you're just trying to get through the day. They're not so useful when you're struggling to keep your morale up, when progress is slow, and you're wondering whether anyone would even notice or care if you just didn't show up one day.
The best question to ask in these moments, I've found, is this: "How can I bring value to this person's life right now?"
Emphasis on VALUE, not OUTCOME.
This question always shifts my perspective back into one of power and love, because it challenges me to take a small, immediate action for the benefit of someone else. Key words: small... immediate... action.
Remember: good work is done through tiny actions, strung together by tiny moments.
Can you bring them a momentary smile, a hopeful story, a little encouragement? Can you give them a listening ear, a calm nonjudgmental presence, a reason to stop focusing on their pain for a moment? Can you look them in the eye when they talk to you? Usually, the answer is yes.
Yes, you can.
Sometimes, that's all you can do. And yes, it most definitely matters.
What have you done today to bring value to someone's life? (I guarantee that you bring value to at least one person's life every single day!)
It's a daily practice in itself to not only keep doing good work and not give up, but also to give yourself some damn credit for doing it. Notice all that you do on a daily basis. Acknowledge it. Celebrate it.
Much love to you, and keep doing all the good that you do. xo