This month is Abortion Wellbeing month, a time in which our community highlights the importance of wellbeing for those who have a personal abortion story. As an Exhale talkline counselor, I had the privilege of listening to many women and men share their stories of deciding to have an abortion and navigating the both expected and unexpected outcomes of their decision following the abortion. In return for this privilege, I offered patience, nonjudgmental acceptance, and a humble curiosity. Being a talkline counselor was very rewarding.
Being a talkline counselor was also not always easy. As a counselor, I worked alone and didn’t have the luxury of turning to a colleague to let off some steam when I’d just finished an especially difficult call, the way I could at work. In addition, it wasn’t uncommon that in explaining to some people what I did as a Pro-Voice talkline counselor, I would be met with judgmental looks and unsolicited opinions at the very mention of the word abortion. My wellbeing was not immune to the highs and lows of being a talkline counselor.
To counter the lows, I recognized there were some simple things I could do to attend to my well-being. My encouragement to callers that they consider ways of engaging in self-care, struck me as equally good advice for myself. As they say, “what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.” So to the gander - those individuals who step up with openness and humility, offering an ear, a shoulder, or a hug to someone who’s chosen to share their abortion story with them - I would like to share some tips that helped sustain my wellbeing as a counselor.
1. Engaging in Reflection. I found that reflecting on why I was a talkline counselor helped quell the negatives of being a counselor (e.g., the isolation or fatigue) and kept me focused on the positives (e.g., the gratitude of my callers). Thinking about how some folks’ judgment of me as immoral simply for supporting those who’ve had an abortion filled me with so much empathy for my callers and so much motivation to continue being a support to them.
2. Taking Deep Breaths. After a call, just taking a moment to breathe deeply and focus on nothing else but my breath could be very helpful. It was a way, after the call, to acknowledge the gravity of my caller’s experience and then respectfully let it go. While I felt a responsibility to make space for my callers’ stories, I knew it wasn’t my responsibility to carry it for them. Taking this deep breath also prepared me to be fully present for the next caller.
3. Practicing Self-Compassion. Sometimes after a call, I would feel like I’d said something wrong or like I hadn’t been very helpful. It was pretty easy to fall into the rabbit hole of negative self-talk. To pull myself out, I would remind myself that no one asked me to be perfect; they simply asked me to be present. I would remind myself that I was good enough and that all I could do was my best. I would encourage myself to keep learning and to be forgiving of myself if and when I made mistakes.
4. Creating (Physical) Space. Recently, I was sitting in a supervisor’s office remarking on how I appreciated the aesthetics of her office. She exclaimed that space was everything. “It can really affect your client’s mood. And your mood” she said. I couldn’t agree more. As a talkline counselor, I used to take calls from my bed because it was where I felt most comfortable and stable and it was closest to the window so I could get plenty of sunlight. I understood that the physical space I counseled from had to be a space that allowed me to work most optimally.
So there you have it: my list of tips for helping counselors address their own wellbeing. This list is by no means exhaustive and none of these tips may even fit for you. That’s absolutely fine! My main hope in sharing this with you is that it gets you thinking about what is important for your wellbeing. Talkline counselors, like the callers they support, have a personal abortion story and deserve to spend this month (and every month!) focused on their wellbeing, too.
Written by Ijeoma Ezeofor, a counselor with Exhale