Dr. Thomas Skovholt on The Resilient Practitioner

Kristi White: Today I have a really amazing guest that I am so excited to share with you. If you have done any research on the professional development of counselors, you have seen this man's name - his CV is 39 pages long! Dr. Thomas Skovholt is the author of 14 books, including the very notable and well-regarded The Resilient Practitioner, which is in its fourth edition.

Dr. Skovholt has authored and co-authored 109 articles and book chapters. The most recent currently being printed in the Journal of Holistic Healthcare titled, An Open Letter of Love And Care to Healthcare Professionals, With Resilience Strategies For Covid-19 War. He has presented to over 300 professional organizations.

Dr. Skovholt is the Morse Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the counseling psychology program of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. He has over 19,000 hours of psychology practice spanning 50 years, which continues today. He has received numerous awards and accolades, including the Fulbright award, the University of Missouri College of Education Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement, the Research Award for the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, and the APA division 17 international section Lifetime Achievement Award—to name just a few. Here is Dr. Thomas Skovholt.

First of all, such an honor that you agreed to meet with me today. And that just speaks a lot to, I think, the character of who you are as a teacher and somebody who wants to pass on important information.

Thomas Skovholt: thank you. I'm excited about your podcast and what you're doing for counseling students and new

Kristi White: Yeah,

Thomas Skovholt: and everybody else.

Kristi White: I came across this article in Positive Psychology. It listed the three books that they felt were most important for new therapists to read.

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah.

Kristi White: Number one was Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Of course. Incredibly important book, probably one of the most important books in my life. Number two, On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers.

Thomas Skovholt: This is going to make my day.

Kristi White: Number three, "The Resilient Practioner" by Thomas Skovholt.

Thomas Skovholt: Oh, wow.

Kristi White: How does that feel?

Thomas Skovholt: It just doesn't feel real. But yeah. So I guess.

Kristi White: You're the real deal.

Thomas Skovholt: Nordic Lutheran culture by background. If I was a female, it'd be and that's the genderize things, but I'd probably be fainting.

Kristi White: That's right, exactly. What an honor.

I too loved what your book is about, and that's what I've been wanting to talk about with people on this podcast is being a resilient therapist. What does that look like?

So I was going to read just a little section from chapter one and it says,

"Exhausted when saying yes, guilty when say no, this tension is between giving and taking between other care and self care.

"This is a universal dilemma in the human drama. It is just more intense for those who are by nature and inclination, emotionally attuned to the needs of others. It gets highly illuminated when intense human interaction, helping, teaching, guiding, advising, or healing is the occupational core. Here, giving of oneself is the constant requirement for success.

"Caring for others is the precious commodity." Ooh, I love that. " How much should one work for the other this moment, this hour, this day, this week, this month, this year, this decade, this career. How much to give this hour to the one I'm trying to help when there would be another day of many hours, another week of many more hours. How much to give of the self for the other this hour?"

That is powerful. Just this morning I was having an online conversation with a therapist who was asking how many hours do you work? Try to find that, how do we stay balanced? So we need to add how much to give the other during this pandemic?

We often hear of nurses and teachers leaving the field in droves, but we see it happening in the counseling field some, too.

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah.

Kristi White: Just talk a little bit about what burnout is and what are those contributing factors that lead to burnout?

Thomas Skovholt: I think first of all, responding to what you read this constant tension maybe is the reality of always kind of hanging it to oneself and how much a person is giving or being able to save for themselves and balance as a word of course it's overused. But what better word is there in the balance beam?

And go off on both sides, but constantly trying to find the place. I think it's an ongoing tension. Yeah. If a person thinks about that way, it really is helpful. So just in terms of burnout, Christina Maslach, back up one step, Freudenburger's article 1974 and using the word burnout with New York City counselors and so in an obscure journal. He talked about burnout for the first time, because that's what was happening to his staff.

Kristi White: Okay.

Thomas Skovholt: then she at the University of California - Berkeley developed an inventory that a lot of people use that really has three scales. One is the exhaustion, which is the most important one, probably in a sense of depersonalization and morphing into the role, in a way. And then another one is getting angry or cynical or frustrated with the people you're trying to help. Those are the three key scales. So if you think about those things, that'd be fine. I also throw in the pot of what is burnout, this idea of "meaning burnout".

Which is, it doesn't mean anything anymore. I don't care. That's another part, but it's not meaningful that counseling doesn't work, teaching doesn't help, doing certain kind of medical stuff doesn't work. It doesn't really help people cause they don't pay attention.

They said the second one "caring burnout", meaning burnout, caring burnout. The terms are, explain themselves simple terms. But meaning burnout, caring, burnout. I no longer care.

And then what do you do about that to keep going?

First of all, a lot of people can't do it anymore. So they're quitting. And I think this term "moral injury" is a good newer term, which is used probably, I think it came from combat actually in some ways. Soldiers, we don't really want to pay attention to what military people do, which is young men kill other young men.

And then they come back and then what am I feel about that? But the moral injury probably in our field is I didn't do as good a job as I wanted to because I had 12 patients and I only can care for six. And I can't stand doing such poor work. This is burnout and moral injury. One more thing in the burnout topic.

I have these four scales in those little inventory I developed, which is professional vitality, personal vitality, professional stress, personal stress. And the idea that again, self explanatory terms, too much professional stress, personal stress, too little professional vitality, personal vitality. It just doesn't work very well when our job is to develop these one- way caring relationships.

Kristi White: Right.

Thomas Skovholt: Another term I learned long time ago from a teacher was the other persons hot center is what you focus on.

It's just it just means where their life is, where their intention is, what they're thinking about all the counseling experiences you've had when you talk to maybe a child or a teenager, or adult, what are they focused on their life? And in our profession, we focus on what their focus is center,

Kristi White: joining with them wherever they in that

Thomas Skovholt: wherever they are. Yeah. And so I think burnout is a version of all those kinds of things that I just talked about.

Kristi White: As you were saying that the word hopeless kept coming to my mind that if you don't feel hope that people are going to change or that they're going to do the things that you've suggested, whether you're a nurse or a teacher or a counselor, feeling that like drudgery of, I'm doing more work than the person sitting across from me is.

Thomas Skovholt: Yes. That's

Kristi White: that thought that could be a dangerous place.

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah, that is, that's a classic one, isn't it? But hope, I think that's one of the things that we offer, we have these methods and techniques and ideas, but in some ways it's hope, we offer hope to the other person. And when the practitioner can't be hopeful, let's say counselor, and that's really difficult.

And one of my thoughts. The reason we have new theories or techniques or methods come along, isn't necessarily for the new techniques or methods because there's a lot of old fish in new wrappers. But it's the idea that the practitioner, especially younger ones, learning stuff, get really excited and hopeful and they pass along their hopefulness to the client who is to use the old, your own frank term demoralized. And the hopefulness is really important because yeah, and we actually, I'm reading a book by Jane Goodall who's the Chimp researcher, or, went to Africa and the title of the book is, "Hope". So her version of hope, but she's expanded that beyond the chimps to hopefulness for the world and ecology.

But, I'm trying to read and think more about hope because that is really something we offer. But if you can't offer hope anymore, then maybe you can't do the work.

Kristi White: Yeah. And I could see in her work hope being really connected to connection, connections to a chimp. But transferring that to us is like hope involves being connected with someone or something beyond yourself.

We are in this pandemic and it has been a challenge. One of the unique challenges for counselors is that we're experiencing a lot of the same challenges and difficulties that our clients are now, though, of course, they come in with all of their unique takes on that, but

Thomas Skovholt: Yes.

Kristi White: at the beginning, especially when, counselors had their kids in the other room and we're trying to educate them and the anxiety of sick relatives or, that kind of thing and feeling like you just want to say, Yeah. me too, with their clients. And so I just wondered What is the particular nuance of resilience that has to be in place for counselors in the stage that we're in this life stage, that we're all sharing.

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah. Yeah, it is more difficult, but also I can argue that it's about the same or less difficult than other time periods, but the idea that let's just say you're in a room with someone. Now, and you're afraid of your own health as well as their's or, as you mentioned, it seems like one of the most stressed group are the working mothers with young children.

It just extremely stressed with the children, or it could be fathers too, extremely stressed with doing the work with a client on the phone or video while the children are in the other room and then the teacher of the children.

And then all the worries about the virus in different forms. I guess I'm just agreeing with you about it's a difficult time and the resilience things is difficult. There are a lot of little things like having a little, some of this feels trite in a way. But having a bath, laughing, maybe not watching the news so much, then the national news is I been saying it's actually the bad news. Because news tends to be about tragedy.

And of course we want to know about tragedy and we, I don't know about what's happening in the world. We want to know about Ukraine. We've honored. But on the other hand, if your whole day is filled with sadness and despair, which is from your clients that, I think one of the great contributions we make, if we walk into negative affect or feelings and stand

and it's such a great contribution and it's a version of the hope, I understand you I'm present with you I think they're little pleasures in one's life that really help in as much as possible. These things like having loving relationship, I can sale this, but the new it's a lot more difficult, so I, I understand that. So positive, loving relationships in one's life, there's some kind of physical exercise, having meaning in the work, in one's life, really working, these are just a list, working on getting better. And I think working on getting better, has two things. One is getting better and feeling better about that. But the process of development is the process of development is invigorating. We have a theory of professional development -me and my friend, Ronnestad was at the University of Oslo. And it starts with the idea of, for practitioners, there are struggles and struggles, so don't start with the idea of there aren't struggles.

There are struggles. And so within the idea development is our struggles. I think of my clients, I'm still seeing clients. I think what I'm going to try to be helpful. Also that having process definitions of success, I can I can be engaged; my level of engagement and finding the right way to do that dance is my part. What's the outcome is for the other person is a whole different thing.

Kristi White: Yeah. I had a, little sticky note the first, probably six months of the pandemic when I was starting to do zoom care for clients. I had a sticky note on my computer that just said "just connect". Just

Thomas Skovholt: go.

Kristi White: Because I may not feel like I can change everything.

Things are out of control, but I just to connect.

Thomas Skovholt: No, I love it. It's very simple, very profound. And in a way describing the whole job. If you can't connect then that's a problem. Then you've got the burnout stuff and then you have to figure out how to be resilient, to be able to keep connecting. And maybe I'm using your words.

If you're trying to connect with too many people, maybe that person can't do that at that time. Or figure out ways to connect or having some breaks, but, if the job is just connect, which is beautiful. It's hard when you're teaching it counseling students as you go on and they get, learn all this stuff and then it kinda summarizes to them, but that's how the field is, a lot of ways.

So resilience is how to continued to just connect and maybe having some experiences that are disappointing or the person goes away, and I think this whole thing about you are attached and separation and loss . And so one of the questions is about just connect. How do I connect to new people when I've been abandoned by a person that I was connected with before. How do we deal with our own professional losses?

And so it's really a tremendous amount of energy that goes into the idea of.

Accept the consequences, but be so engaged in it, and then keep doing it over and over. Don't take yourself too seriously, but really work hard. I think the privilege of being in the profession in person, it was really big. And if you lose that,

and I have a friend who's, actually he's a chaplain, but he uses this term "relationship intense professions",

Kristi White: Oh, that's good.

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah.

In school, we always teach content, but it, it's a relationship intense profession. So again, if you can't do the relationship, the intense relationship, the one way caring relationship, the focus on the other person's hot center. Just connect. Those are all the things that fight against, and so for me personally, as a counselor, as a teacher, as a person, how do we keep figuring out sources of vitality? When I listened to people talk about what they do for vitality.

We could all talk about stress factors; it's all about the next day and.

Kristi White: Right. Finding those those things that give you life that bring you passion,

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah.

Kristi White: that light your world up. That's what keeps you going for the

Thomas Skovholt: And I like all those terms. Yeah.

Good. And sometimes I've thought about the old model for the public school teachers is what you and I use the cycle of caring idea, which is in the fall, they connect with new kids who want attachments and then the winter it's all work in the spring they get a chance to say goodbye.

Kristi White: Oh yeah.

Thomas Skovholt: it's a beautiful thing because in counseling, a lot of times we don't have that formal goodbye. We had the picnics, they have a little ceremony and then they close a door and some summer is, this is theoretical, renewal.

Kristi White: Mmm hmm.

Thomas Skovholt: I think in some ways, we have to invent our own cycle of caring for ourselves and other fields that don't have a formalized like that nobody else gets three months off and teachers would say, I don't get my of too, but, know, In theory it's a beautiful thing,

Kristi White: Oh, that's such a, that's such a great visual for just the idea of attachment and and relationship.

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah.

Kristi White: That their's comes in such nice package seasons. The other piece I was thinking about and all this is perspective. You started to mention a little bit earlier, you said I could argue this isn't the worst time the counselors have had. And I agree with that. I just had this really beautiful conversation with my 88 year old dad the other day. And he said, we had that same kind of.

Fear of the unknown coming out of the depression and the wars, and just really gave me this perspective of this all being seasonal and cyclical. It's a different kind of. Stress this pandemic than we've had for a while. But again, having perspective, I think is so important to say this isn't going to be forever this way and we will adapt.

We will figure out how to do this.

Thomas Skovholt: Yeah.

Kristi White: and just like we would say with our clients who are going through a hard time do tomorrow, one day, tomorrow.

For me that helps with the burnout piece and we just have to make it through tomorrow and things will change.


Thomas Skovholt: Right?

Kristi White: Can always count on.

Thomas Skovholt: right. No, I think it's true in the small steps. I, bike quite a bit now and one of the things that's helped me is when I look at it hill, I try not to look at the hill. I try to look at right in front of my tire because I realized when I work with the hill, my whole body gets dejected.

And when I look right in front of the tire, I can do that.

Kristi White: Then you could, look back and go, oh my goodness. Look where I just came from. That was successful. And that's great. So any last thoughts about um, encouragements for counselors? Maybe maybe brand new ones, but ones who have been in the field forever, are just struggling right now.

What would be your encouragement?

Thomas Skovholt: Well, I think one of the encouragements is how wonderful our field has developed and how it's become much more valued and esteemed by the public. And part of it is the stigma of mental health was, is changed dramatically and the use of psychological knowledge and the value people attributed. Everybody takes psych one now in college including, part of the medical school admission test for the first time has psychology. So I think the idea, a little textbooks that intro psych a hundred years ago were about 20 pages and now they're about 300 pages.

Oh my God. But it's just that I think that the stigma of mental health has gone down the use of psychological knowledge and value is gone up.

That's a big difference. Yeah. And then the esteem of people in the counseling field. It wasn't too long ago that people would say all the shrinks are crazy, which is that it's a terrible term. And, we don't use that as much. And so I think that's the psychological counseling methods, whatever we want to call them, behavioral science, applied behavioral science is just valued much more. I mean, It wasn't that long ago when we, I use example, you put a kid in the corner and put a dunce hat on and have them faced Beat the devil out of them. All the punishment methods, the whole rehab, chemical dependency, domestic violence, we have new language.

So I think that's the most exciting thing. Now people in the field will say, or people will say school is so expensive. I have to go to school so long. There's so much competition for jobs. Those are all true, but the foundation is really strong and valuable.

The other thing is people are talking about using counseling services a lot more. The universities, the students are lined up to get in on the counseling center and I think there are two arguments for that, right? One is, oh my God, there's much more stress and students are worse off and, we could talk about that.

And maybe that's true. On the other hand, they're admitting the things.

Kristi White: They even know some of that language

Thomas Skovholt: Named on the language and . and sometimes used, I've used dentistry as an example, at one point, you know, they put a rope around the tooth and they got the horse and they get the up and that. And it comes out and that's dentistry, and one point, I guess we've put people on big state hospitals and just let them work in the garden and, hallucinate.

And now dentistry is wow. And counseling and mental health is the same thing,

Kristi White: And there's so much more to learn still that excites me that there's so much more, we can just know that the more we understand the brain, and neuropsychology that, oh, it's very exciting to think about where this fields can go in the next 20, 30 years

Thomas Skovholt: Right, true. And things like your podcast is a new reality, distributing information, valuable things to people.

That's terrific.

Kristi White: Thank you. Thank you so much for joining me today to talk. It's truly an honor. I mean, You are an inspiration and such a help in our field for talking about important things. So I really appreciate your time.

Thomas Skovholt: That's a pleasure for me.

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