Fire Your Therapist
By John VanDeGrift
You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right? Well, Michael Behmer isn’t just breaking them – he’s riding by on his bike and throwing them at your therapist’s office. It may sound extreme, but it’s working. The thing is, Michael is a therapist himself and has been an industry leader in the mental health world for over twenty years. The yolk-splattered aftermath he’s leaving behind is a break from tradition. It’s a controversial one, but it might just be the change the therapeutic community needs to help better care for those in its employ. A few months ago, Michael decided to trade in his own therapist for an endurance coach, and he’s suggesting that we, as caregivers, do the same.
Around 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, Michael sits in his backyard, taking a short breather after an intense workout on the bike. Before his body can even begin to recover, Michael’s mental wheels are already spinning, planning interventions for clients, thinking of the future of his practices, and ruminating on past obstacles. Michael’s momentary lapse into anxiety is abruptly interrupted when a text comes through on his phone. He’s gotten a similar message – or phone call – every day for the past nine weeks.
The person on the other end asks how he’s feeling. He asks if he got a good night’s rest and a good meal this morning. He asks if his kids are having a good summer, how his business is coming along, and if he has a free day coming up so they might get together.
They talk for a bit, and although the exact words might be different each time, the conversation always ends the same way. The person on the other end of the phone asks:
Can I do anything for you today? Do you need help with anything? Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything at all. I’m here to help.
As a 20+ year mental health veteran, it’s not often Michael is asked how he can be helped. He spends his days being asked to help others and the majority of his time facilitating acute crisis situations with therapeutic strategies, either in a room with a suffering family or overseas with a suffering community.
No stranger to what those in the field call compassion fatigue
(that physically and emotionally drained feeling that comes from
helping others), Michael is acutely familiar with the emotional
toll and vicarious trauma that comes from being the point
person in crisis situations. To help cope, it’s a tradition in the
therapeutic world that caregivers receive their own care to
prevent burnout. It’s a cliché: Therapists must be in therapy. “It’s
been that way since I was in grad school,” says Michael. “But I
came to find that moving from one couch to another does little
to ease the stress.” In fact,he’s found the opposite to be true:
“The times when I am most able to give my full attention to
creating the best care for my clients and teams is after I’ve been
out of the therapy room, living.”
Whether it's riding his bike, skiing, doing yoga, hiking, running, feeding his chickens, or getting his hands dirty in the garden, Michael finds that he revisits the therapy room invigorated and excited by the opportunity to serve. It was when this dawned on him that he began to ask, “How do I make a routine out of living? How can I fit the care of life into my day-to-day?” You see, the person on the other end of the phone isn’t Michael’s therapist or colleague… He’s a strength and endurance coach.
What’s being suggested here will be considered sacrilege in some circles, but let’s just think this through before you hit the back button. We need to treat the body and brain in unison to offer the most substantial relief, to ourselves or to our clients. In 2017 – even in situations where medication is necessary – it would be negligent to exclude healthy food, exercise, and adequate rest in a treatment plan. So why would our treatment of caregivers be any different?
Consider these well-known facts:
During sleep, the brain builds neural pathways that are necessary for learning; without it, our decision making and emotional regulation go haywire, and evidence shows lack of sleep can lead to depression/suicide/risk taking behavior (source).
Exercise increases endorphins, making you feel good, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), helping your brain grow new connections (source).
Healthy eating not only gives your body the building blocks it needs to naturally produce feel good chemicals in the brain, but also prevents a host of preventable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer (source).
To be clear, Michael is not simply suggesting we spend more time at the gym. He wants us to experience the relational aspects that come specifically from a strength and endurance coach who is invested in your well-being and actively removes the guesswork of daily training. “From the moment I met my coach, I could tell he wasn’t just interested in pumping out top level athletes. He was extremely relational - and his coaching, it turned out, was no different”.
Michael continues with the story of his first experience, “The first ride we did together was a steep climb, gaining about 3,500 feet of elevation in 10 miles. I was struggling, sweating, embarrassed, and ready to give up. My body and my bike it turned out were literally breaking down under the weight of the task. The final ascent was incredibly vertical, and on a dirt road no less, so I couldn’t just stand on the pedals to give my legs a break. The only way to the top was to sit in the saddle and suffer.
Just as I’m ready to get off my bike, and take a seat in the dirt – I feel a hand firmly brace my lower back. It was my coach, riding beside me, gently helping me reach the top of the peak. He told me to stop pedaling. That’s something you never hear in cycling.” Michael describes the experience as transformative, and I can think of no better metaphor to describe the role of a caregiver. The imagery of a hand guiding you along is a metaphor in therapy, but the hand isn’t a metaphor in this case– it’s real. When you need a nudge, the hand is there for your support, and even more importantly, when you need to ease off, that same hand slowly pulls you back. As Michael’s coach, Jim Capra of Tyler Hamilton Training, describes it, “Most often we have to dial it back, save [people] from themselves, show them how to rest and recover… it's really rare that we have to tell someone to do the work.”
Another aspect that fosters trust in their relationship is the coach’s urge for rest and recovery. “When we’re doing our jobs right, we create a balance. Done correctly, training is a good release, it's therapeutic. But we also see when people’s performance becomes their identity. I’ve seen it at all levels – from Olympians to someone who has just purchased their first bike. It quickly becomes unhealthy when your daily measure of success is based off your performance in training.”
Here’s the bottom line: Michael no longer keeps a list of things that pertain to his physical health – his coach does that for him. He’s no longer worrying about how he’s exercising – his training plans are tailored specifically to his needs and delivered on his phone. His days of running himself into the ground trying to get a good workout in are over, and he’s resting more than he has in years. All of this also helps Michael to manage his stress with work.
Michael’s final thoughts on this, “My fitness on the bike is better than it’s ever been. I’m losing weight, and I’m being constantly reminded that relational interactions bear fruit in my life and my work. My coach is never patronizing. He is thoughtful and compassionately steers me toward my goals reminding me that the journey is where we learn our greatest lessons. It’s not often we feel seen, heard and valued in the busyness of our daily lives, but if you would like that to change today - hire an athletic coach.”
Jim Capra @thtraining, the Head Coach of Tyler Hamilton Training, brings vast knowledge and hands-on expertise to training athletes at every level, across the globe, after years of training alongside Tyler Hamilton as a professional cyclist. With a combination of a love for cycling, extensive coaching experience and a passion to motivate, Jim is the driving force behind THT's relational and personalized approach to keeping clients on track to achieve their goals.
Michael Behmer @MichaelBehmer is the founder and CEO of the internationally acclaimed Aspen Counseling Group, Inc. Michael is an industry leader in the entrepreneurial and business community and known for being a serial founder of companies with the sole initiative to make life better for as many as possible while integrating our relational core into product and service design.
John Vandegrift @AspenNeuroLab is a Certified Addictions Counselor with the team at Aspen Neurofeedback and in the process of getting a degree in Psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder. At Aspen, John mentors individuals and provides sobriety support. Like his own recovery, John thinks that no recovery is the same and that every individual has specific needs to make the right steps toward a life without dependence on drugs and alcohol.