We are drawn to service work for many reasons. We want to help others, we find human beings fascinating, and we are called to make ourselves available to the suffering of others. The work can be engaging, demanding, and draining. For those of us who are introverts, the energy expending and restoring aspects of the work can be critical.
The introverted brain is more active and stimulated relative to the extroverted brain. Because of this, extroverts will feed off the energy of social interactions while introverts will get drained. The type of interaction matters such that superficial banter is more exhausting than a deeper conversation. However, social energy expenditures need to be followed by periods of restoration in order to prevent burnout. The quality of our attention also matters in how energy is spent during work time. We can bring mindful attention to our practice and, through that presence, engage in higher quality care and self-care simultaneously.
The default mode of the brain is self-talk. Neuroscientists have confirmed this self-referential thinking as the default mode network of the brain (DMN) and have mapped its pattern of activation. This is how we spend much of our time—engaged in storytelling, projecting ourselves into the future, dragging along the past, and generating opinions about the present. As introverts, we may be more prone to this internalized self-talk.
In clinician groups that I train in mindfulness which often include social workers, I survey the participants and ask them how often their DMN is active during sessions with clients. The range spans approximately 30 to 70 percent of attention on the task at hand and the rest rattling around loose in imagination. The average tends to be 50 percent. We are all well-meaning and care for the people we serve, but these informal surveys reveal that we can do a lot to improve our attention. Closing this gap and shifting from the DMN to the experience of the encounter-at-hand will, no doubt, make us more empathetic.
Regular practice of mindfulness meditation can help us to be more present. Studies by Yale’s Judson Brewer and others have shown that experienced mindfulness practitioners can more readily withdraw attention from the DMN and redirect to the embodied experience of the present moment. In addition to regular meditation practice, you can bring mindful attention to your work hours.
Mindfulness works by focusing attention on something happening in the present moment such as the physical sensations of breathing. Each time attention moves away from the breath to the DMN, you refocus your attention on the breath. This process is repeated as needed, which is usually quite a lot!
I teach a technique that I simply call “divided attention.” If, as the survey suggested, a large chunk of our attention is not with our client, then we can take let’s say 10 percent of that attention and ground it on the breath. That is, we aim to be mindful during the service time such that we speak and listen with an awareness of our breathing body. Now, close to 90 percent of our attention is on our person because we have steered our attention away from the DMN.
This kind of attention takes practice. It’s easy to get caught up in the stories of the moment—our own and those of the people we treat. Having a regular daily silent meditation practice can help us to develop the skills necessary to be mindful while communicating. When we bring our full presence to the work, it tends to be less exhausting because we are getting the benefits of mindfulness practice through the service hour. Mindfulness helps us to bring a sacred attention to the work. It conveys that we care deeply enough to be present and become the vehicle of that presence. Compassion, empathy, and equanimity will follow.
We can also take the moments between sessions to have mindful breaks. Instead of peering into your smart phone, take three minutes to be with your body and mind. These little mindfulness hits can help to keep your energy tuned during the workday.
Mindfulness practice is a form of quiet solitude that is especially important for those of us who are introverts. It can be beneficial for everyone, but we need it for the restoration of energy. Being mindful during sessions, as suggested above, can help to offset the energy drain that inevitably occurs in social work. Getting yourself on the cushion on a daily basis will also help to build a foundation of energy that can be drawn upon in all the challenging situations of your life.
Arnie Kozak, Ph.D. is clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and the author of The Awakened Introvert: Practical Mindfulness Skills for Maximizing Your Strengths and Thriving in a Loud and Crazy World. He conducts workshops at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and the Copper Beech Institute. He has written several books, including The Awakened Introvert.