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Professional Pain Points

Region IV-W
January 13, 2021 Hannah Rushe Piechowski Missouri Western State University

There are moments throughout our careers in Student Affairs and Higher Education that become little pain points… events, perspectives, behaviors, or situations that continue to live in our subconscious; memories serving as little warnings or reminders of past difficulties. 

I certainly experience these. I’ve seen these develop among colleagues and friends who serve as Directors, Deans, Residence Life Coordinators, even student leaders and work study students.  I don’t think these pain points discriminate.

They are more than “growth opportunities”.  I typically feel comforted by the concept that difficulties and challenges are in our path to help us grow… goodness knows that there are PLENTY of difficulties that come across our paths on a daily basis.  Immediately knowing that good and growth is going to come out of a situation helps me push through.  I take refuge in knowing that something better will be the result, and I am able to be calm, collected, and helpful.

Repeat policy violator?  Time to get to know that student more, learn what resonates with them and try to better understand how the conduct process is not serving them and their education.  Good, possibly as a revised conduct philosophy, is surely to come out of this.

Frustrated parent?  This is an opportunity for me to learn how to listen and be present with someone in their current pain before I respond or take action.  As a result, I’ll become better at parent relationships.

Harsh faculty opinion about Student Affairs? Opportunity to think about the college experience from the faculty lens, what their expectations and disappointments may be, and dive in to build a positive relationship with that faculty member so they feel heard and I develop a partner in solving problems.

Feedback from supervisor?  Take a deep breath and listen to what is being said, and then embrace opportunity to practice constructive methods of processing… immediately addressing concerns, responding with graciousness, listening and taking some time to sort through the message, reaffirming myself, looking for more information, or making a plan.

But, there are challenges that are different than such opportunities for growth.  I hesitated to call them traumas, but the truth is that they almost meet the general definition of “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”with theresidual effects that are hard to grapple with until years later.  I also recognize that I am using this term more loosely than any medical or psychological diagnosis may allow.  In respect of that, we’ll continue with “pain points” for now.

Pain points are unique to each person, and often internal.  For me, I have some experiences that leave me very sensitive to not being part of strategic conversations about my position or division.  For a colleague, her pain point is a sensitivity to not feeling trusted to make supervision decisions.  For a friend, his pain point is a sensitivity to not feeling like he is part of the team.  And another colleague, their pain point is a sensitivity to appearing as though they are not knowledgeable or experienced because they have not finished a degree.

These are sneaky things… not always on the surface of our operation, but can pop up when triggered by a current event… waiting in the back to come out and remind us that this is a sensitivity, and that we hold strong feelings about it.  In some ways, these are protective and natural emotions as they alert us to something that we need to be keenly aware of.  But these pain points have the tendency to turn bad, and quickly.


In accepting that these kinds of experiences are more prevalent throughout our professional lifetimes than we’d like to admit, I want to share a little bit about what I’ve learned about these kinds of experiences.  (Caveat: I still have much to learn.)  In no particular order:

The pain points that we tie to our worth hurt the most.  Cue Brene Brown and her extensive writing and research on worthiness!  We should know that our worth is not defined by our work, but it makes sense that there is a strong connection given the amount of time, energy, and passion we give and receive from this field.  My poor dog thinks I’m a guest visitor in my own house!  This is why breaks are crucial for our work.  To showcase a lifestyle of busyness is not admirable and not productive in advocating for our worth.  Human Resources gave us the time for vacation for a reason.  Our minds are dynamic and continually building networks, and need experiences and space and time away from work in order to be healthy and vibrant. 


Setting aside our ego when navigating a pain point can feel impossible.  And rightfully so!  Sometimes these pain points are the result of exclusion, changes without input, disrespect, etc.  In all of those kinds of situations, something has been taken away from us - typically, our choice.  We are denied the opportunity to have any kind of choice of how to be involved or not.  Maybe it’s in regards to a new program, a change to a process, or just being invited to join colleagues for lunch.  It’s variable to each person; not all pain points are the same.  It is human nature to cling, desperately, to the things that remain when other things have been taken away.  And unfortunately, in these kinds of situations, that clinging turns into defensiveness which is the OPPOSITE of what Student Affairs is all about.  Setting aside our ego, accepting the situation, can feel like defeat and as though we are confirming that we were wrong, or are not valuable.  But you are valuable, and always will be.  You are awesome, and setting aside your ego does not make you ANY less fabulous, passionate, and committed.


Yes to counseling… and meditation.  What I love about counseling is that it is, in so many ways, it is a sacred space and time for us to process our emotions, reactions, and needs.  It is a dedicated time to rumble with the tough stuff.  It is not necessarily supposed to make us feel positive, but it provides safety and stability.  Much as the same that meditation does - focusing on the breath or sounds in the room, and training the mind to set aside discomforts or distractions, allows us to get to a place of being without judgement or mission.  These two things reinforce that we are worthy, dynamic, and more than our work.


Learning how to let something go is personal.  Getting to this critical moment is powerful, and scary.  This has been one of the most fascinating developments in my professional psychology.  I typically stick with things for a long time, and I passionately work for them.  I am fiercely loyal.  This means that I invest a lot and care a lot.  This also means that when the direction of the university, program, or position no longer aligns with my passion (NOT my opinion… there is a stark difference here), I reach that crucial moment of deciding if I’m getting on board and will change my direction to match, or decide if it’s time to part ways.  This is such a tricky and hard conversation to navigate with yourself.  To stay and get on board might mean working in on something you disagree with, or it might be that you need to wrestle with the feelings of self-worth and ego.  To go might mean that you are seen as not really buying into the true mission of an institution, or of education - to develop students, to help them succeed.  Making that decision is so individualistic; it is a tug between heart and head.  I think this is also where we need to extend ourselves some grace… recognizing that we too are growing and learning.  We have to be attuned to our hearts and our boundaries, especially what we need to do and can reconcile in order to be healthy as we are serving others.


So, I’m going to end this reflection on pain points with a bit of positivity talk… for you, but also for me. 

You are not alone.  We are not alone.  Things are going to be tough, and there are going to be some things that you and I both have to rumble with.

But there are also going to be amazing experiences and opportunities for us in time.  Perhaps the tough stuff will make us value the positive even more. 

And I hope that you are extending yourself some grace and space in the meantime.  This is a new time for us all, and what was predictable in the past is not necessarily predictable any longer because of how our communities, universities, and world are responding to the pandemic and political atmosphere.


We’ll get through this.  All of it.