by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW
One of the primary differences between seeing a clinical social worker and seeing a psychologist is the emphasis on person-in-environment which is unique to the social work profession. This dual focus on the individual as well as the ways in which she or he is shaped by environment comes from the social justice movement.
Social workers have their roots in the social justice work started by Jane Addams and the Hull House settlement in the late 19th century. Working with recent immigrants in the Chicago area, Ms. Addams organized education, parenting, sanitation, and nutritional support for people who were desperately poor and without help would have been at high risk for starvation, domestic violence and alcoholism due to the extreme challenges in their environment.
We humans do best in life when our physical, emotional and spiritual needs are met. These needs are unique in detail but universal in overarching structure: we all need to feel loved, a sense of personal contribution, a feeling of belonging, and the types of challenges that raise our skills rather than overwhelm our sensibilities.
Some types of stressors are completely self-made. We need to cultivate the discipline to overcome our own bad habits and the bad examples around us. This enhances our mental health more thoroughly and quickly than any pharmaceutical or therapeutic intervention.
With this environmental influence in mind, here are my top “Do’s and Don’ts” for the holidays (as well as for the New Year, spring, summer and fall):
Do remember that your body needs movement. You are evolutionarily designed to walk six to twelve miles a day while gathering or hunting. Today we sit almost the entire time we are awake. Walk with friends, walk a dog, walk during meetings, go out dancing, go to the gym, take every opportunity to move.
Do give others the benefit of the doubt. When someone behaves in a way that disappoints you or hurts your feelings, ask yourself if it was intentional or just a failure on the other person’s part to understand the significance of this particular issue/event/activity. Many conflicts are interpretive problems, meaning that the motivation we assign to the other person’s behavior is actually what creates the problem.
Do not “give them another chance” if you are being mistreated. Mistreated is not getting your feelings hurt due to a misunderstanding or the other clumsy stuff we humans do to each other as a result of our limited time/energy/understanding. Mistreated is dishonesty, abuse, consistent failure to provide reciprocity.
Do not make lifestyle choices that require carrying debt at high interest. If you can’t pay off your credit card at the end of the month, don’t buy it. We live in an economy that seems to encourage the neglect of the very basic laws of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every impulsive big ticket spree there will be protracted and compounding debt.
Do protect your health. If you drink or smoke or do any toxic activity (including constant worrying!) with abandon, your body will not last as long—or even worse—will last a really long time in a constantly uncomfortable condition.
Do refuse some requests. If you leave your house on a regular basis, you will be asked to do things that you don’t have time for. “I’m sorry I can’t help with that,” is a perfectly reasonable answer to requests made when you are barely meeting your current obligations. Sometimes you may even have to apologize for agreeing to do something you later realize that you cannot comfortably fulfill.
Don’t let your fears rule. Every choice we make requires giving up something we want in order to have something we want MORE. The fear of making the wrong choice, of making a mistake keeps us paralyzed. Go ahead and screw things up and learn that you can fix a mistake. Once you trust your capacity to repair you can show up in the world with ease.
Do remember that we all have vastly more in common with each other than we are different. Therefore, you can and should take social risks, open up and connect with others regardless of what might look on the surface to be differences between you and them.
Happy holidays and happy beyond!