In last month’s blog, we focused on the importance of integrating self-care into your studies. This month, we are going to focus on an essential aspect of self-care, developing and maintaining healthy boundaries as you prepare for your LCSW or LMFT exam.
Similar to the concept of self-care, ”healthy boundaries” is another popular concept in the world of psychotherapy and counseling. As clinicians, we know that healthy boundaries are important and we constantly assist our clients in developing and maintaining them in their personal lives. And, as is the case with self-care, we sometimes fall short of developing and maintaining them for ourselves. My goal with this month’s blog is to help you identify and implement healthy boundaries that will allow you to study more efficiently and maintain a healthy level of anxiety.
What are healthy boundaries and why are they so important when it comes to studying for your LCSW or LMFT exams? In simple terms, healthy boundaries are the structures we set in place to meet our emotional, physical and spiritual needs. When it comes to your studies, healthy boundaries will include developing a clear study plan and setting parameters to support this plan in both your personal and professional life. In the absence of developing clear and healthy boundaries to support your needs as you embark or continue with your studies, there is a greater risk of burnout and developing resentment not only toward your studies, but also toward those around you. However, if you take the time to identify and establish appropriate structures, you will be able to study more efficiently, maintain a healthier outlook, and keep your anxiety at a healthy level.
When Amanda Rowan created the Therapist Development Center’s test prep materials for the LCSW and LMFT exams, her background in studying the neuroscience of learning informed all aspects of the exam prep programs. And based on this knowledge one thing was crystal clear - integrating self-care and healthy boundaries is critical to exam success. In fact, the first step in every study program provides clear guidelines designed to help you achieve this goal. When you begin your studies it will be extremely helpful to follow the guidelines offered in your study program and to personally identify what you will need to be successful in your studies. You will want to take some time to develop a clear plan for your studies, identify what will help you stick to this plan and ask your friends, family, and colleagues to be respectful of the parameters you develop. These exams are an important step in your career; it’s completely acceptable to put your needs first and there is no need to feel guilty for implementing healthy boundaries.
Now, let’s take a little bit of time to complete an exercise that will help you identify the healthy boundaries you’ve already established and those that you still need to implement. Even if you’ve already started studying, it’s not too late to revisit this and make some adjustments to take even better care of yourself.
Start by finding a quiet place to sit and give yourself some time to work through this exercise. Grab a piece of paper, as it will be helpful to write out what you discover as you move through this exercise.
1. Take an inventory of the healthy boundaries you have successfully established. It is very likely that you have already established some boundaries and are supported in maintaining them. Take a minute to reflect on what is currently working for you. Do you have a study plan in place? Do your friends, family, and colleagues provide you with the support you need? Are you engaging in self-care activities? Write down what is working for you, give yourself a pat on the back for these successes and keep at it!
2. Identify healthy boundaries that are lacking and develop strategies to strengthen them.
a. Have you created a clear study plan? If not, this would be a good place to start. What does your study plan look like? Is it realistic based on the other demands in your life (i.e. work, family, social life, etc.)? If not, take some time to restructure it to create greater balance. You can use a calendar to map out how many hours per week you can realistically study while still meeting other demands in your life. For instance, if you work 40+ hours per week and have small children, you might decide you only have 4 hours a week to study. This will mean you will study fewer hours each week, and will need additional weeks to study. But, this will allow you to also have time to relax and engage in other self-care activities.
b. Have you set healthy boundaries with friends and family? This can be challenging, but setting clear expectations and articulating your needs to others is important and completely appropriate. Consider what you need to be successful and how friends and family can support these needs. If you have small children, identify times you can study uninterrupted. This can include having a partner, family member or friend help with childcare while you go to a library or coffee shop to study. Do your friends and family understand the importance of this exam and demonstrate respect for the time and energy you are putting into your studies? If not, it might be helpful to discuss this openly and honestly with them. Share your feelings and assert your needs.
c. Have you set healthy boundaries with colleagues? This is an interesting one because you will have colleagues who already completed the exam, are studying for it, or are getting ready to begin the process. This shared experience can be very helpful, but it can also be extremely anxiety producing. Each person will approach these exams in their own way; what works for one person may not work for you. Set clear boundaries with your colleagues regarding how much you want to discuss these exams, and be assertive in stopping any conversations that cause you anxiety. It’s not uncommon for me to hear from people that they are worried they are not doing enough or feel guilty because their colleagues are studying every day, are taking a large number of mocks, reading books, attending lectures, you get the picture. If this is your experience, it is a good sign that the boundaries with colleagues need to be strengthened. These conversations are not helpful and your colleagues unhealthy behaviors are causing you stress. It is completely acceptable to tell your colleagues that you do not want to discuss the exams with them.
Social media, such as a Facebook support or study group, would also fall into this category. We all know how helpful and important it can be to connect with others; yet, as coaches we have witnessed the increased level of anxiety for some people engaging in support groups for test takers. Our wonderful coach, Heidi Tobe, wrote an excellent blog about this several months ago that could be help you to determine how participating in social media effects you.
If you take the time to develop healthy boundaries, your studies will be more enjoyable and less stressful. As you move through your studies, occasionally revisit what you wrote down while completing this exercise. Are the boundaries you developed still in place or do you need to take additional steps to strengthen them?
If, over the course of your studies you find anxiety is overwhelming you, remember you are not alone. We are here to help you and promise to be with you until you PASS WITH CONFIDENCE