Sabbatical as Rest

Amanda Grieme Bradley describes how the unexpected way she chose to use her sabbatical is influencing her as she returns to campus for a fall semester full of unknowns.

August 31, 2021
 
 
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What did you do for your sabbatical? This is the common question I receive as I interact with colleagues and friends. My internal reaction is one of both fire and fear: anger at the implied expectation that I am producing something significant, apprehension about telling the truth of my experience.

This encounter is not one that feels comfortable within the realm of academe. The expectation is to produce, research, publish, do more, be more. The cultural value of productivity seeps into academe via the expectations for publication and activity in our fields. This pressure differs based on area of expertise. For me, it comes in the form of clinical work in addition to teaching. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I maintain a private practice seeing clients and supervising counselors who are pursuing licensure. As an associate professor, I teach both undergraduate and graduate students about counseling. Those two roles combine to expose me to a high volume of traumatic themes every day. With the additional mental health impacts of COVID, my typical load became more emotionally intense.

At the start of my sabbatical, I had grand plans for my line of research. But the timing of the sabbatical and COVID did not align to offer me the best opportunity to pursue that research. I found myself drawn instead to the topic of compassion fatigue and burnout within counselors. That led me down the content path of exploring burnout experiences of university faculty. As I read through hours and hours of research, I found myself astounded. I was burned out. I was experiencing compassion fatigue. The headaches, irritability, insomnia and dread were signs I had been overlooking for months.

The reason for this astonishment is that I am an ardent advocate of self-care from the clinical perspective. My students have heard me rant about self-care not as a fad, but as a serious practice for those of us who work in the helping field. Trained in mindful self-compassion, I am aware of the importance of a daily practice to ground me and empower me. Yet, over time, implementing those practices became more difficult. The needs of my students, the faculty in my department and my family began to take importance over my own mental health needs.

After stumbling upon my astonished insight and self-assessment of being in compassion fatigue, I made a bold decision. I was going to rest during my sabbatical. This decision was risky and vulnerable. I have a strong desire to achieve and experience success. I had research plans! Yet this felt like the best choice for me. I should mention that my schedule continued to include a few clients and supervisees each week. But I was resting from teaching, leading and producing. I only worked on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The other days were reserved for me.

I rested. I read fiction, did yoga, hiked, read books in my field I’d been waiting to read. I got back in touch with myself through journaling, contemplation, leisurely lunches with friends.

Throughout my sabbatical journey, I experienced peaks and valleys. Many days, I was filled with joy to have time to read and reflect. Other times, I dreaded the days with an empty calendar. Who was I if wasn’t engaging in one of the many roles I fulfill? It was an uncomfortable space for me to reside in, but it was a necessary space. In it, I was reminded of my worth, value and calling to be a professor and healer. Serving people via mentoring, counseling and teaching is the greatest gift in my life. Engaging in the intensity of my work, however, is not a long-term strategy. My sabbatical helped me realize that some things had to change in order for me to flourish and thrive.

A Reintegration

So where does this leave me now? We are gearing up for the fall, the Delta variant is rampant and I have two kids under the age of 5 and a full load in front of me. I’ve been thinking of my return from sabbatical as a reintegration. My university is filled with beautifully inspiring, hardworking and intelligent people. I’m thrilled to start working alongside them every day! I’m also eager to witness the learning that takes place both inside and outside my classroom. This is all extremely exciting and invigorating to me.

At the same time, I have some fear about taking the direct path back to burnout and compassion fatigue. I know who I am and that I tend to overcommit. My ambitions sometimes underestimate the amount of work and involvement that tasks demand.

This leads me to my intentions for the year. I plan to do the following.

  • Go slowly. I tend to be in rapid movement -- both physically and intellectually -- during my days. I schedule things closely together and am always thinking of new ideas and concepts. Now, however, I plan to take time throughout each day to slow down. To take a breath before responding to an email. To gaze out the window to see what’s going on with the weather. To truly listen to the person in front of me. To experience present moment awareness.
  • Connect with my community. Academe has gifted me with beautiful friendships with dear people. Those people see me for who I am, support me in my dreams and keep me grounded. Connecting with them helps me prioritize myself and remember who I am.
  • Continue to study. During my sabbatical, my thirst for knowledge was insatiable. Reading new theories, understanding alternative perspectives, learning new concepts are all things that help me thrive and stay alive. I want to continue that practice.
  • Move my body. I’ve often ignored the wisdom of my body. Sometimes I’ve sat in front of a computer all day, disregarding my body cues. I now plan to go on a hike at least once a week. I also intend to move my body at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon -- to, say, walk up and down the stairs twice, schedule a walking meeting, or pace while I’m on a phone call.
  • Stick to my schedule. This may sound ridiculous to some people, but it’s hard for me to close my door. I like to have an open-door policy and invite students and colleagues to stop by at any time. This policy is great for connecting but not so great for completing my tasks. My plan is to shut my door and turn off my email during scheduled times each day so I can focus on my tasks and get some things completed.

As we move into another interesting academic year with continuing unknown variables, I hope to engage in these practices to stay grounded and present in the moment. May you find your own practices that help you do the same.

Bio

Amanda Grieme Bradley is associate professor of psychology and chair of the department of social and behavioral sciences at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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