Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

February 10, 2015
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

This article does not reveal any “secret sauce” that’s been around for years about dealing with disruptive behavior. Rather, my intent is to help you start a conversation, or way of thinking, about what you can do today to be a more effective caregiver, have less stress and duress, have more engaged interactions with care receivers, and make more differences in the lives of those you support at your organization.

Not a Children’s Story

This is not a children’s story, nor am I trying to assess who may be the “fairest of them all.” The mirror in the title and at the heart of this article is intended to serve you as a visual reference point to consider the next time you’re frustrated, at your wit’s end, or facing an escalating situation with a person in crisis, a colleague, or a parent.

The mental image of a mirror can serve as a reminder to be careful not to get caught up in a power struggle, to not “pick up the rope” or “take the bait.” Early in my teaching career, a student challenged me in front of twenty-seven other students. The student questioned me about how I was qualified to be a teacher. I “took the bait” hook, line, and sinker, which resulted in a classic “lose-lose” situation for all involved. Perhaps you or a colleague have had this same thing happen to you?

Your Typical Day

Think for a few minutes about the start of a typical day for you, as you prepare to go to your place of work, or on your daily commute. Think of those daily conversations you begin to have with yourself, inside your own head, as you prepare for your day. Or think of the conversations you have with a family member, or colleagues, before work, at lunch, or in a common work area. You may begin your day with a brisk morning jog. Others start by waking their children to hustle them off to school. Perhaps for some of you, your day starts with a shave, a shower, or a few moments contemplating what to wear to look and be at your best. Others may meditate, or seek spiritual assistance to be in peak mode for the day. Maybe you start with a quick breakfast, an energy bar, or a cup of coffee, tea, or something to get kick started. Likely for most if not all of you, at some time during your well-established daily routine, you will position yourself in front of a mirror on the wall. Hold onto that thought.

Attitudes of Others in Your Workspace

You may have conversations with yourself when you begin to mentally review or rehearse your schedule for the day. You may also start to get that occasional knot in your stomach, because you’re beginning to worry about what a certain client has up his or her sleeve today. You may also have a challenging conference scheduled with a family member or colleague, or a meeting with a supervisor about your performance.

During some conversations today with your colleagues, the topic may slip to “If only we had a few less care receivers, we could accomplish more.” You offer a nod of agreement. If only we did not have so many meetings, appointments, or paperwork, we could do better. We wish we had more administrative support. As hard as we work, we wish we were paid better. Why do we have to take so much work home at night? Others around you may also lament about how life was before recent budget cuts. If only senior management could understand how hard you work every day!

Avoiding “Energy Vampires”

A lady in a recent training talked to me about what she calls “energy vampires.” I asked her to elaborate. She talked about a colleague who can drain out all of her positive energy in just minutes over a cup of coffee. No matter how good of an attitude you came to work with today, energy vampires convince you that your life is miserable, that clients and caseloads are not like they used to be, and that work is meaningless. Others around you carry on about the reasons why a new initiative will fail, or how a new approach is doomed—even before your facility launches it.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes these “reasons” can sound more like excuses? Have you also noticed how if we do what we have always done, we will continue to get the same results we have always gotten? Some staff can become fixated on why a given approach will not work, instead of what it will take to make a substantive change, innovation, or improvement succeed. During my career in schools, I sometimes challenged these staff by suggesting:

“If we all try hard enough, we can make anything not work.”

Some of them never figured out who I was really talking about.

Who Are “They?”

Have you ever noticed how easy it is for some colleagues to default to blaming “them”? Have you ever wondered who “they” are? Or how often “the Administration” becomes the scapegoat we blame for all the challenges in our work lives?

I know a principal who tells about a staff social event she attended where the teachers had been consuming beverages for a while, and were continuously complaining about “the Administration.” These naysayers made it sound as if she had some malicious intent toward teachers. She confronted the group and reminded them that she was “the Administration.” All in the room said, “Judy, we’re not talking about you.”

To say the least, this conversation left Judy perplexed. Some staff speak as if “they” are wearing different colored jerseys, or “they” sit in meetings all day, and emerge with newly devised schemes to make our lives more difficult. Or “they” issue mandated new initiatives that will take more time, for no more pay, and require even more observable, measurable, quantifiable, and documented results. Or the latest round of state-legislated mandates have been passed on to “them,” and now on to us, and by the way, these are now directly linked to one’s performance review and future pay.

Is Your Work Still Fun?

New staff come and go like a revolving door. Veteran colleagues get worn down and tired over the years. Perhaps you have heard similar conversations:

“Things have changed.”

“Clients used to do what I told them to do.”

“In the old days, we were respected.”

Some purport that the grass is greener elsewhere, and quietly disappear. Others are simply hanging out and hanging on until retirement, often earlier than they had originally planned. A colleague once recalled how her supervisor had reported having “only eight more years left to hang on.” Needless to say, she did not find this person a very motivational leader.

Let’s Get Real.

So let’s be real honest. Your work may not be as much fun as you had hoped it would be. Perhaps you’re considering an alternate career path. How many of your friends report that they’re making so much more money and never seem to be working as long and hard as you have to?

I hope to restore some of that desire you once had when you chose your profession. Perhaps you’re like me. I went into education during a very altruistic period in my life. I wanted to save the world, one child at a time. And that’s exactly why I’m still trying. Hopefully this article, and sharing some anecdote, thought, or conversation, will regenerate such a spark, or challenge you to reignite that same passion within you again.

Changing Your Paradigm

Wayne Dyer, an author and motivational speaker, suggests:

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

What if you could begin to change how you think about yourself? What if you could begin to think differently about your clients? What if you could begin to think differently about your work site? What if you could begin to think differently about your colleagues? What if you could begin to think differently about your job?

If you could change how you think about your clients, your workload, or your job, these too may begin to change.

If you change the way you think about yourself, you can begin to change as well.

Think back to the reflection you saw in the mirror this morning. As I have grown a bit older, and am now at an age that begins with a 6, I appreciate each and every day even more. At airports, coffee shops, and shopping malls, when I am told by others to “have a good day,” I now respond by saying, “Each one I get is a gift and a true blessing.”

As a human services provider, you have an incredible opportunity each and every day to impact those within your circle of influence.


Many of you may recall The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

You can spend much of your day and much of your life fussing and wishing for “if only.”

Take a hard look in the mirror today.

What are the components of yourself, your attitude, your commitment, your passion about your work that you can control, or impact and change? Who is the one person looking back at you each and every morning during that daily routine? You are the best equipped, trained, and talented person to influence or act toward positive change.

The Decisive Element

Haim Ginott offers the following perspective about the power and influence of one teacher. I believe this also applies to caregivers in hospitals, group homes, mental health centers, assisted living facilities, and everywhere. Just replace the reference to schools with your setting.

“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate; it is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture, or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, or a child humanized or de-humanized.”

Ginott gets it. Would you agree?

If not you, who? Can you think of who else really is in control of what happens with your attitude, on your job?

You have the power and responsibility to bring forward the best “you,” on each and every day of work.

Dr. Nicholas Long talks to “being a thermostat,” not a “thermometer” in your circle of influence. Don’t just dip a toe in the water and take the temperature. You need to set the temperature, set the climate, and establish the conditions of how your work looks, sounds, and feels. If a visitor came to your work assignment location today, what would it look like, sound like, and feel like? If the visitor could spend one day, or several days, next to you in your work, would the person be inspired? Engaged? Feel your passion? Would they feel safe emotionally? Would they matter? If the climate in your unique work area is not controlled by you, then who?

When the Oxygen Mask Releases

Take better care of self. When I first started traveling by air, I would question the announcement “When the oxygen mask releases, place it on yourself first. Then assist your children or others around you.”

The airplane example serves as a constant reminder that if you don’t take care of you, you’re not as good for them.

Step away from the train. Positive self- talk, mental imagery, breathing, exercise, nutrition, and sleep are just a few examples of what each of us can do to take care of self.

Remember to detach; it is not always about you. And remember how our behavior can impact those we serve and support.

Starting the Journey Today, Not Someday

So are you ready for a journey to explore more about the image you see in the reflection on the wall? Are you open to thinking about some aspects of your life and work from a new paradigm? Do you want to reduce your daily stress and stressors? Are you interested in spending less time frustrated day after day, with the same person that you find challenging?

Who is the one person looking back at you in the mirror on the wall? If you are totally happy with all parts of your life at work and at home, then don’t let this article get in your way. If you are open to introspection, some tweaking and fine-tuning, and oh my God, even change, remember:

If nothing changes, not much changes.

Start the journey today. If you delay until “someday,” that day may never come. Look at the mirror, mirror on the wall and make some upgrades and changes in 2015 to the one and only person who you can change or control the best. You.

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