After the Webinar: Building Career Sustaining Narratives in the Face of Burnout. Q&A with Michael Gomez

Webinar presenter Dr. Michael Gomez answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Building Career Sustaining Narratives in the Face of Burnout. Here are just a few of his responses.


Audience Question: Does a career narrative evolve over time or is it usually the same throughout a person’s career? 

Dr. Michael Gomez: Oh, good question. The way I answer that is I do this work, this with my students, a lot of my direct supervisees when they’re doing internship or fellowship applications because everyone has to make this personal statement and it’s always very rote. I was on the Internship Selection Committee at the University of Oklahoma, which sounds very prestigious. It’s not. It’s the new guy’s job, they say you’re first-year faculty, this is your job.  The applications all kind of sound the same, these personal statements especially. The ones that stand out have what I call the reason behind your reason.

My go-to example is Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz Gonzales, who works here in Texas. She’s an amazing provider. An amazing psychologist. And her personal statement was great, and I said, “Elizabeth, you’re not in this statement. You’re not in here.” And she said, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “It’s really good. But let’s start with your reason behind your reason.” She was born and raised in Cuba, by the way. And I said, “You’re now in Lubbock, Texas, at a Texas Tech University Doc Program. How’d you get here?” She’s like, “Well, I just wanted to help people.” So my rebuttal is What about Law, biology, medicine, social work. And she says, “Not that way.” “Well, what way?” “Well, people’s minds.”  So I counter, “neurology, genetics, psychiatry…” She says, “That’s not important.” And so, I kept having to get to her narrative.  I believe that we have a nucleic narrative, and that it gets reinforced over time, or it gets hidden over time. I also think we don’t have just one core narrative; we have I think several stories we tell ourselves. But often this is also why people resonate with certain narratives and others. Think of little kids, little kids tell stories at a very young age, right? Narratives are the way our brain works. There’s a lot of neurological research showing that our brains think in a narrative format of the beginning, middle, and end. And so, I think we’re doing that at a very young age. Point is, we do have one, we do have a narrative inside us. I also will tell people that it’s fine to change it. It’s fine, because some of my colleagues at this point of the career will say something similar to my example just a second ago.  I did this because I thought I needed to atone, and maybe I did. But now I think there’s another narrative I can accept. I think my I outgrew that original narrative, and I can accept another narrative.

So, we want people to have choices in their narratives, and sometimes presenting these narratives is helpful. But I always start with listening. What’s the narrative you have right now? What are the narratives you’ve been told across your life? Especially, I go really young, like, “When you’re a little kid, what did you want to be?” And I say that question a lot to my trainees and they say things like, a teacher cause they help.  Me? I wanted to be Batman.  Now being a billionaire doesn’t hurt. But the reason I wanted to be Batman is Batman is the guy that when everything is lost, when there is no hope and no one can help you, and you’re in hell; he’s the guy you call because he’s the one who can do it. He’s the one who can help

And I always wanted to be that guy. And that’s one of my very core nucleic narratives that I have for myself. It fits me, but may not fit another person, and that’s fine. The poet, Muriel Rukeyser, I believe, has a quote that says “The universe is not made of atoms. It’s made of stories.” So, find your story.”

Host: Oh, my gosh,  it’s so funny because I’ve always said when we’re talking with speakers that people are hardwired for stories. We remember stories. We may not remember all of the different components of what you talked about, but we will remember the stories you told during the webinar. So, I’m a firm believer in storytelling as well.


Audience Question: You said a quote earlier that I wanted to make sure that we got here. A couple of people are asking for it. It was something along the lines of “You are now absolved of obligation, all that’s left is opportunity.” Can you say that again? 

Dr. Michael Gomez: Sure, when my colleague asked me “Was it worth it?” The thought that went through my head was that I felt like I was obligated for so long, and you know, and at this point haven’t I paid the thing I owed? Whatever I did? Haven’t I paid it? Haven’t I done enough? And so, the phrase I use in my head, one of the schemas, I now have that I’d like to give my trainees is “No obligation. Only opportunity.” And especially those of you who did your training during COVID.  Are you really going to try to look me in the eye and tell me that you really owe something such?  Are you going to try and convince me that you didn’t do enough. This was the worst public health crisis in over a century, and you were out there on the streets, working in the field, working with your people, working with your advocates. And you want to tell me you are in a combat zone, and you think you need to do more?

An additional thought is something one of my students, said, “We’re in a very low power position, obviously, what can we do?” And I said “Honestly, the thing you can do is just be please be kinder to yourself. You’re so you’re so mean to yourself. Please be kinder.” And that narrative of no obligation, only opportunity is, I think, a way to help you remember that. I’m not saying something like, if you go to work and collect your paycheck, but don’t do your job. That’s illegal.  But if you well, I’m talking about more the emotions, psychological experience that a lot of us do, where a lot of you do this work because you have a beautiful service philosophy that you believe to serve is the greatest thing, your duty. The cops blow me away with this because I never need to ask them about duty, they just get it. Their positions are different from a lot of other jobs. I never need to talk with a cop about duty or honor. It’s very rare that I’ve had those conversations. With other disciplines, I have to. But even then it’s like “Okay, you’ve served enough, my friend. Your tour of duty is over now. You have an opportunity, though, to do other things should you choose to.” So, no obligation only opportunity


Audience Question: What are some new narrative-provoking questions that I can ask my coworkers?

Dr. Michael Gomez: The CE-CERT manual has some good ones. Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship and Age of Overwhelm are great resources. I’m actually kind of thinking about one of the other questions asked earlier. “We have someone who’s burned out. How do I approach them?” Because you ask them the standard questions like, “How are you doing at home?” “Fine!” “How’s your sleep?” “Cool?” “How are your interpersonal interactions?” “Great.” The question that gets them is, “Would your spouse say the same thing?” And then there’s a lot of hesitation like. One of my colleagues said, “I’m not married.” So I said, “Would your dog say the same thing?” And that actually got them because they said, “Yeah, my dog’s always worried about me.” I’m like, “I wonder why they’re worried about you.” Especially the higher up you get, the more we’re impacted.  By the way they used to think that the older you get in the field the more insulated you are. We’re finding our data is the complete opposite. The younger people, like the example I was giving earlier for the person who’s only been doing it 5 years. They’re actually more ahead of the game and more insulated. And they’re more healthy. And it’s probably the same for those of you who’ve been doing the job like me for about 20 years, plus. Come on! Are you really surprised that you get older, and things get worse in your body? I mean, really, seriously like, when I was 20, “How’d you throw your shoulder out?” “I was rock climbing.” Now, “How’d you throw your shoulder out, Michael.” “I was reaching for a jar of jam.” It’s eye level, too. These are the people in senior positions leadership positions and director positions. And so, one thing, this is how Dr. Miller got me, by the way, is now, my trainees are becoming faculty, and they’re doing the same crappy habits I did back in the day. One of my trainees said, “Yeah, I just pulled 80 hours.” I’m like, “Why are you doing that?”  And it’s kind of like those old 1990s PSA commercials for drugs like, “Where’d you learn to smoke?” “I learned it from watching you, dad” And, it got me. I’m like, “Oh my god, I got to change my way,” because I still have trainees, and I don’t want them to pull the 80-hour weeks I pull. I don’t want them to do the same crap I do. And so, I often can find especially for my middle leadership into senior leadership this question will get them. “Would you want the same narrative for your people? Would you want the same practice for your trainees?”  In psychology. We call this The Best Friend Technique –  like if your best friend said the same thing to you, what would you say? And it’s a very different answer than what they say to themselves. And so, that’s one I use very commonly.

The other one I use is just kind of to clarify the narrative. Let’s start with you’re consolidation narratives. What are you telling yourselves at the end of the day, end of the week? Because oftentimes the thing that’s really shocking to them, is they never actually sat down and analyzed their own narrative. Y’all are all very intelligent on this call. You all are very capable. If you see it in front of you, it’s very different than if you just try to kind of eyeball it. And so, I say, no, let’s write it, literally write it down at least once, and examine it, and see if that’s the one you want.  There’s a lot of data that just by writing something down honestly it gets you a lot of mileage psychologically. I was actually surprised when I started doing it with my trainees that their narratives would come out so clear, writing it out in front of me. So hopefully. That answers the question.


Audience Question: Do you have any other resources for learning how to update a narrative? And also, what are some good self-confidence practices to help with the conscious mind narrative? 

Dr. Michael Gomez: Great question, Tracy. The first thought that went through my head, as I heard that question, was the video I showed by Dr. Russ Harris where he is showing in real time how to update your narrative. He has a great book that can help with that, the Happiness Trap. I would get that immediately. Hope that answers your question. Steven Hayes, the developer of the acceptance and commitment therapy, and Russ Harris, the ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy trainer are great resources. Stephen Hayes also has one called The Liberated Mind which has a lot of good stuff in there, too, and I think can really help update narratives. Martin Seligman. I mentioned earlier Authentic Happiness, and Learned Hopefulness. I think are really good.  Basically, anything that you see talking about positive psychology is a great resources. There’s a book called Happier. It’s a bright yellow book with some red font Tal Ben-Shahar is the author of it. It’s the most popular undergraduate course at Harvard University. It’s just about being happier. And, as Dr. Harris said in the video you saw, meaning is what makes us happy. That’s really what does it.

Another resources to think about are a series of workbooks that Guildford Press publishes called Learning from the Inside. So, like learning CBT from the inside. It’s designed so you don’t have to be a clinician to use it. The one specific to your question is Learning Compassion Focus Therapy from the inside. As one of my colleagues who does compassion-focused therapy says, “I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t benefit from having more self-compassion.” But seeing it and applying it are 2 different things, right? And so, it’s like, I’m going to lose weight. And you actually lose the weight. Those are 2 different things. They give you a lot of nuts and most practices. So, I would look up those resources, Dr. Harris, Dr. Seligman, Dr. Stephen Hayes. the Compassion focus therapy, those are some really good in-the-pocket resources. And I’ve had supervisors who have nothing to do with psychology or mental health, find those helpful. For those who are therapists and have a clinical background, I can use some more technical ones, but those are the ones I gave are non-technical, they’re meant for people who don’t know anything about therapy other than that exists.


Audience Question: Where does compartmentalization fit in? The audience member goes on to say, “That’s how I’ve been coping for 30 plus years in criminal justice. At the end of my work day, I put it in a box, and I don’t think about it again.” What is compartmentalization? And does it work? Is it a useful tool? And how does this fit into the overall topic of today’s conversation?

Dr. Michael Gomez: We’re definitely not anti-compartmentalization at CE-CERT We think there’s a time and a place for it, anyone who works in disaster zones, things like that, understands that. Honestly, I tell people, if self-care is working, if compartmentalization is working, you don’t need me if it’s working. Because implicit in our model is there’s not anything pathological about you if you’re not doing this stuff. “So how are you doing?” “Really good?” “Okay, cool.” You probably don’t need me. It’s when it starts failing, when it stops working, that that’s when these things are very helpful. I say, we’re vampires; we do not go where we’re not invited. And so, if it’s working, cool. The danger we see with compartmentalization is that there’s usually a pressure building process. So, my suspicion is you are actually letting it out, and it is working for the load you’re getting. For some people holding it in that, it won’t work even for a brief time. You’re maybe not one of those people, and that’s great. If you’re one of those people who can do that, awesome. You probably don’t need a lot of this. But the danger is when it’s not either coming out enough or it’s just not functioning. The other thing we point out from the system level is that we talk about the systemic danger of compartmentalization as well as self-care.  Basically, compartmentalization (and self-care) are kind of a way for systems and organizations to take a pass on the problem. They can say, “Well, you know, John, compartmentalize it, which means I guess we don’t need to do this like secondary trauma burnout stuff. It’s John’s problem.” Right? When no, I think John should be honored and should be appreciated enough that the system at least does something, or at least they comment on it, or at least they have some type of support should he need it right, should it stop working. Maybe it won’t. But we want to make sure that, you know, it’s kind of like a fire extinguisher. You don’t know you need it until you need it. And so, even if it is working, we then want the organization to communicate that this is important to you, this is a priority to us. Because that message can be ignored very quickly if the primary strategy for the system is “John compartmentalizes.” And so, even if it’s working, we still want people to know that they have the right to this more sophisticated toolkit, like CE-CERT, that they are valuable enough for us as an organization to communicate that value through our organization taking this seriously and not just telling people “go compartmentalize”. You deserve this, at the very least, you deserve for us to give you some of these skills, some of these resources. You don’t need to take them, but they should at least be offered to you.




Click Here to Watch a Recording of Building Career Sustaining Narratives in the Face of Burnout


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