A while ago I woke up in the middle of the night. I couldn’t stop thinking about a client. I had done a suicide assessment with them earlier that day, and I couldn’t get them out of my mind. The anxiety and irrational fear wouldn’t leave me alone long enough for me to fall back to sleep, so I just waited and tumbled and spiraled.
“What if they hadn’t been truthful?”
“Did I miss something?”
“Should I have referred them to someone else just to make sure that my assessment had been correct?”
“What if they…”
I could never bring myself to finish that last sentence. It was the thought that wrenched at my gut and made my breath stall.
I work as an advocate for survivors of gender-based violence. The majority of my clients have experienced sexual assault, but I also work with a fair number who have experience prolonged intimate partner violence and stalking. My days are spent meeting with clients, providing them with information and resources, and empowering them to get the help that they need.
Whatever is done is always decided by the client. They are the experts in their own lives, and I treat them as such. If they’re not ready to report, we don’t report. If they need help with school we work with their university. If they want to file a stalking injunction, I’m there with them at the court helping them file the paperwork. It’s incredibly satisfying and rewarding work, and I love it.
Early on though, I didn’t realize the impact it was going to have on me. In my proud young social worker mindset, I was going to be Superman. I had a temperament that allowed me to process difficult information fairly well without much effort on my part. I had intense empathy, but I didn’t often internalize other’s problems and make them my own, or so I thought.
I had heard of self-care, and I had even started to practice it in a simple way. One of the professors from my social work program had made self-care a weekly assignment complete with submitted journal entries. I had found meditation to be helpful, but I didn’t practice it often. I knew that I needed an outlet for my creative energy, so I would write poetry as a way of releasing stress. It seemed to do okay for me. I thought it was enough.
Fast-forward again to my restless night after a routine suicide assessment. I was not okay. Writhing in anxious oppressive thoughts was not the norm for me. I didn’t know what to do. The next day proved that everything was fine. My client was fine. We had a productive meeting, and they spoke of their new therapist who had brought them a lot of hope. There was no need to worry, yet I was still anxious and frustrated.
Luckily, I had a supervisor that cared enough to stress the importance of self-care. Her philosophy was grounded in the true meaning of those words. She didn’t just mean that we had to occasionally treat ourselves to our favorite lunch or a bubble bath. She understood that if we really wanted to develop self-care, we’d need more than that.
I feel it is important to pass on what I learned from her. I recognize that most people do not work in social services, but that doesn’t make you automatically immune to burnout. There are so many parts of a good self-care routine, but I have identified what I believe to be the 3 most important guidelines that will work for anyone regardless of your occupation or training.
Early on in my quest to be Superman for my clients, I would often stay late at the office to finish up some work. I gave clients my work cell number, and I would respond after hours to answer questions or make appointments. When I was told that I shouldn’t work outside the hours I was getting paid, I thought that was a selfish and anti-social work philosophy. I was dead wrong, and I paid for it with many sleepless nights and absent-minded interactions with family and friends.
Setting appropriate boundaries is incredibly important. I now explain to my clients that they are welcome to call or text my work cell during my office hours, but that I set it on “do not disturb” when those hours are over, and it would be much better if they called our 24-hour hotline for any assistance after hours. As a result I am able to enjoy the presence of my partner, friends, and family.
The activities that we think of as being self-care are rendered completely useless if our attention is divided and we are unable to be present for them. If we do not establish clear boundaries, we are in real danger of being a flash in the pan, burning out within seconds.
When I was in my early teens, my family was into bowling. We participated in leagues and tournaments, and we each had our own bowling ball and bowling shoes with matching bag. It is a highlight of my childhood. The experience I had in bowling may be similar to others who have worked hard to develop a golf swing, a free-throw shot, or a penalty kick. I was taught by my instructor to perform the same ritual every time I got on the approach, and though I am no longer as seriously involved in bowling as I was at age 14, I still pick up the ball with my right hand, and, using my left hand, push it up onto my shoulder. I take two steps to the board, and I slide my left foot into the correct position. I place the ball directly in front of my nose and give it a whiff before beginning my approach, and I stare intently at my mark the whole time. When this ritual is followed, my chance of success increases dramatically.
I have found rituals to be most effective for two things: Like in my bowling approach, they are effective in preparing you mentally and physically for an activity, and they are also good for reframing your mind and detoxing after an activity.
Every morning I walk up the same hill to get to work. As I do so I listen to a playlist I have titled, “Important”. On it are songs directly related to activism and social justice issues. They help me reframe my mind toward things that I need to remember. Things that will help me get in the zone.
On my way down that hill every day, I listen to another playlist called, “Detox”. It has exactly three songs that always finish right as I’m pulling up in the driveway of my home. The first is calming and soothing, the next is more upbeat, and the last is the definition of fun. This simple playlist and drive home are enough to set me up for home life. It places my work where it belongs in the office, and allows me to focus my attention to myself and my partner.
Your own rituals do not have to follow my formula. You can make them using anything. Some people have a quote that they say before every activity, or start the morning with a run. Others have a particular beverage that cues their brain that work is over. Whatever your ritual, stick to it and evaluate it from time to time. Ask yourself if it helps you prepare for work and prepare for life outside of work.
3. Intentional Discomfort:
This last guideline is counterintuitive. If the goal of self-care is to make me more comfortable, happy, and content, then why would I seek out intentional discomfort? I believe that one of the most common reasons people burn out is not because their work or life is too challenging. Instead, I think they are not being challenged enough. Rituals are important for creating the right mindsets for good work and good play, but if nothing ever changes, rituals can become doldrums which can sap energy and cause burnout.
Your chosen method for making yourself uncomfortable should be unique to you. Find something that you are afraid to do, but still want to do. This could be growing a garden. It could be learning to cook. It could be singing in front of a group of people. It doesn’t matter, so long as it gets you out of your comfort zone and protects you from the doldrums.
My own intentional discomfort came in the form of a blog. I liked writing, and I wanted to do more of it. I was nervous about having other people read and criticize my writing, but I decided that it would be a good project for me. It has provided me with a great outlet for my thoughts and feelings as well as a challenge to be thinking of new things to say.
You are an expert in your own life. Listen to your mind and your body. They’ll tell you if you need to change things up. Using these tips may do just that. Hopefully, you’ll be able to sleep well at night and stay happy in your work and your play. Good luck!