Overcoming Stress in the Workplace Via, Counseling, CBT, & IFS
By, Sam Schaperow, MSMFT, LMFT
Psychotherapy involves meeting with a person in order to meet goals that overcome fears, anxieties, stress, etc. However, there are many models of therapy used by many therapists in many different ways. This article seeks to highlight potentially beneficial options of how psychotherapy and counseling may help patients to overcome stress in the workplace.
There are many ways that people can decrease work stress. People can meditate, eat something delicious during breaks, do daily yoga, get coached on how to do their job differently, have a backup plan if they are stressed out about the possibility of being laid off, etc. But that deep process of psychotherapy, which still has some stigma about being just for the mentally ill, how useful can it be? This article answers this question from the perspective of an actual psychotherapist with years of experience treating actual clients for work stress.
Psychotherapy for work stress often starts off with some counseling. The counseling involves providing specific feedback on how to make changes in the job so as to reduce stress. For example, if you work on a salary and end up doing 60+ hours work weeks that wear you out, the counsel may be to find ways to be just as productive at 50 hours as you were at 60+ hours. A suggestion for others may be about improving delegating efficiency, especially for those who micromanage.
Sometimes all the behavior changing feedback in the world is not enough. Being told to not micromanage, along with specific suggestions on how to improve delegating, would work if we were computers ready for reprogramming. Human beings are thinkers and feelers. It is not easy to break old habits. In such cases, a next step may be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT involves learning new ways to think about old situations, leading to new emotions that make it much easier to change behaviors that normally would be very difficult to change.
Let us apply CBT to Beth, the manager who micromanages and has trouble efficiently delegating. The therapist can first ask Beth to spend a week writing down what she thought and felt whenever she could have placed more authority onto her workers. Her thoughts included, “Others are not as effective at the tasks required for the research project as I am, so if I do not give detailed instructions on how to do each task, as well as to do as much of the work myself as possible, the job will not be done well.” The therapist helps her identify feeling that followed her thoughts, which were “untrusting” and critical. Ironically, the more she micromanages, the more dissatisfied her workers become, decreasing the overall productivity. She also loses patience both at work and with her family, due to stress.
The therapist teaches her how to override her thoughts, thus creating new emotions, by coming up with incompatible thoughts. An example would be, “The more trust and ownership of the project I place in my well-trained workers, the more they will come through for me. Also, the better I can delegate, the more patience I will have, therefore I will be better able to assist people with difficulties by listening and troubleshooting.” Over time, and with enough practice, these new thoughts can trigger the emotions of being trusting and confident. She then becomes patient both at work and at home, as she thinks and feels differently, resulting in new behaviors and lower levels of stress.
In my practice, I find that the vast majority of people who apply CBT to work stress, as prescribed, experience a significant reduction of the stress in a matter of weeks or months. If someone does not respond to CBT, what can be done? The therapist may suggest including what some call a deeper form of psychotherapy, utilizing a more psychodynamic psychotherapy. This healing approach may involve working with conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, working with how they intersect w/personality and behavior.
For a portion of the population, CBT does not work. In such cases, I may then go to the deepest layer of psychotherapy, seeking to get to the root of why change has yet to occur. One such approach to getting to the root of the difficulty is called Internal Family Systems (IFS), of which I integrate many aspects into my practice. IFS does not involve other family members, but instead helps a person to get in touch with their different subpersonalities (“parts”). Per the theory, we all have different parts of us with different viewpoints, agreeing or disagreeing with different ideas, much like real family members. An example is of a guy who wakes up and wants to go to work, while another part of him feels like staying home to read a novel, and yet a third part of him wants to take his family on a road trip today. Working with each part, understanding each of their reasons, and even uncovering deeper fears and emotions, can help to resolve his internal conflict. He can then reach a point of being ready to make decisions in line with his true self.
The previous column talked about a manager (I’ll call her “Beth”) who was very efficient with tasks she did directly, but often micromanaged, in part due to being a perfectionist and critical of others. Her trouble with delegating led to excess stress. Continuing with the manager example, imagine that Beth relaxes in front of me, the therapist, and thinks about that part of her that is critical. Speaking from the perspective of that part of her, she answers relevant questions about criticism. It is discovered that she had critical parents, as well as critical teachers throughout most of her schooling. She has internalized this criticism, and is now her own worst critic. Any time others do something that can reflect poorly on her, she unconsciously criticizes her inner self (the “self” is the core of who a person is). Her self-criticism overflows, transforming into criticism toward her workers and colleagues.
The above insight is helpful, but does not complete the therapy process. Through further exploration, she and I also learn that the critical part of her does not trust her inner self. Theories such as IFS further explain the “self” as being a person’s inner core that is inherently positive, possessing traits such as “curiosity” instead of “judgment” and “creativity” instead of “rigidity”. If her critical part cannot trust her inner self, then it will be difficult to ever learn to trust others.
How can she learn to trust her inner self? I may have her voice her critical part’s fears about why trusting her inner self would be scary to her. Thinking and speaking from the perspective of that critical part of her, she says she was told for years that she has to do things just right or it is a failure. I ask that part if it is exhausting to try and maintain this standard day in and day out. I get an emphatic “YES!”, and that leads me to ask if we can do an experiment. Intrigued, she says “maybe”. I suggest that her critical part gives her self a chance to relate to employees for one day under its own traits (curious, compassionate, creative, etc.) and to see how that goes. I further entice the critical part by reminding it that it is only a day, and the rewards of not being exhausted can be worth this risk, especially as I am going to be supporting her through this process.
Oftentimes under this scenario people who function from the positive traits of the self, even for a day, can feel like a burden has been released. The actual IFS theory, which I use portions of with my own clients, includes an unburdening process. This process, beyond the scope of this article, enhances the change from “critical” to something preferred such as “determined”. Other methods I may use are to look at how my client reacts to what I do. Sometimes other client’s parts involve themselves in the process. Still, other times my own parts may react to my client, leading me to get my own parts in check so that I may do practice psychotherapy from my own inner self. Understanding this, as well as how Beth’s personality interacts with mine, is a part of this process.
Should a therapist not do therapy from their self, but rather their parts that are not being lead by the positive traits of the self, this can be a case where the therapy will not reach its potential. For example, if a therapist works with a person who brings up politics and the therapist has opposing viewpoints, each of the therapist’s and patient’s parts can become polarized with each other, setting up a dynamic that may become untherapeutic. And so the use of the model, if not most therapeutic models, is best done with the therapist coming from a perspective of his or her inner self.
If you would like to learn more, feel free to contact me directly through my current email found through PsychologyCT.com
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