Protective clothing and personal safety equipment are required to be worn by those entering dangerous or potentially unsafe areas. Firemen, policemen/women, construction workers and those involved in military service. They all wear protection gear. When these professionals enter danger zones their bodies are protected from falling debris, trip hazards, falls and work place equipment.
But what about psychological harm? What about the impacts of vicarious trauma experienced by professionals who case manage and support of people experiencing a range of challenges: homelessness, domestic violence, mental illness, substance dependence, release from prison or child protection dilemmas. Such professionals don’t wear steel-capped boots, hard hats or other protective gear. In order to protect themselves from the harms associated with their work, community workers need to take care to minimise the the risks associated with their profession. We do this by engaging in activities that nurture and renew our lives and work. It is called self-care.
So what is self care? What does it look like?
It is our ability to function effectively in situations that include multiple challenges. The benefit of effective self care helps to maintain our confidence, provide a work/life balance and keep us healthy in body and mind.
In the not so far distant past I experienced burn out and while I understand burn out and trauma do not happen because of one event; frustration upon frustration and the constant compromising of personal values eventually wear us down. I realised I was beyond immediate rescue when I returned from yet another morning in court with yet another disastrous outcome for the refugee parent with whom I had been working for the past ten months. I left feeling completely empty. There was nothing inside: no emotion, no passion, no drive, no will, no desire. Nothing more to give. The well was dry and the spirit gone. It was a dark day.
When the month of staring into the space finally passed, I started researching and implementing some self-care strategies. Self-care involves listening to our minds, body, spirits and emotions and taking care to nurture each of the aspects of ourselves, daily. In our work we are entrusted with the care of vulnerable others and yet so often we fail to take care of ourselves. It took a hard fall to realise that everyone else’s needs are not more important than my own.
I learned that self-care is not a one-off emergency operation. It is an on-going practice of evaluating the balance of life – every day. Being able to let go of people, situations, attitudes, deadlines, meaningless activities and unhealthy behaviours is an essential factor in self-care. Yesterday I wrote about letting go – although from a different perspective to that of work. However, it is as important to let go of relationships that are harmful at worst or do not promote balance at worst, be they work or home relationships.
Healthy self-care is about being a good steward of your body, mind and spirit. After all we cannot take care of others if our reserves of energy, vitality and resilience are low. As we listen to our bodies and hearts and watch our thoughts, we become aware of the internal critic and when that voice becomes the only one we hear, we need time out.
One of my self-care activities has been a return to writing, something I set aside some years ago when things became too much. Rather than pressing in, I gave up. I am back now and find the daily focus on something quite outside of work to be energising yet calming.
I am grateful for the concept of self-care. It has helped me to remain in an area of work about which I am passionate and which helps me to live out my personal values and beliefs every day.
In the end “self-care is not about self-indulgence it is about self-preservance” (Audrey Lorde)