Navigating Self-Care in a Helping Profession

For a while, work-life balance was pretty trendy. Then, balance became “uncool” because, I think, people became fearful of the idea of being unsuccessful at balancing work, life, family, wellness, whatever. The thing is, though, that you don’t have to always be successful, but you certainly have to be mindful in attempting a work-life balance. I think that’s important across the board, but particularly in helping professions. In this post, I’ll explore what I’ve learned about navigating self-care in helping professions and make some recommendations for next steps. But first, if you need the permission to take care of yourself when your whole job revolves around helping others, here it is. You have permission.

Hiking is one of the best ways I take care of myself (Cowles Mountain in San Diego)

Helping professions pride themselves on putting others first. How could you not feel guilty about putting yourself first when it’s in direct conflict to your profession’s mission? I get it. There are a lot of factors that encourage or prevent people from taking care of themselves emotionally, physically, and more, which is why I felt compelled to write this post.

Many helpers, women in particular, feel the burden to put others first, at the cost of their own mental health. This comes from gender socialization to remain small, say yes to helping others no matter what, and nurture others above yourself. This is a noble pursuit, don’t get me wrong. But it will kill you if you let it. Listen here, and repeat after me if that sort of thing works for you–you will be more effective at your job if you do the work to take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup, etc. etc.

Work culture can be a big part of your ability to engage in appropriate and effective self-care. In some work environments, it’s encouraged to work through lunch or stay late. In other places, you’re encouraged to take your vacation days because, god damn it, that’s what they’re for. I had the opportunity to lead a yearlong professional development for my staff about trauma-informed teaching. A critical part of this was addressing vicarious trauma (the kind of trauma that helpers experience when working closely with those that have experienced a lot of trauma) and how effective self-care can help mitigate this. I’m lucky to work with a team that knows the importance of self-care, but in other jobs people might be implementing their self-care practice against the grain.

The way I see it, there are two types of self-care. There are specific isolated self-care practices that you do when you’re not at work. They are the things that are trendy, like taking baths with epsom salts or reading a book or getting a massage, that help reset you and allow you to go back to work as your best self. And then there are in-the-moment self care practices. These are the small things you do every day at work to ensure that your job stays a job, and not your entire life. Both types of self-care are essential in being your best self in your work, but not becoming your work.

Simple strategies for isolated self-care:

  1. Meditate. I get it, this seems scary and overwhelming. I’d recommend reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris to alleviate some of those fears and bust some of those meditation myths for you. I use the Headspace app to meditate and I can feel a huge difference in myself when I get that 10 minutes of meditation in each day.
  2. Socialize with someone you love. As a true introvert, nothing sounds more exhausting than talking to people after a long, hard day. Yet, coming home and talking to my boyfriend feels like peace. Just simply connecting with someone can be enough to metabolize those difficult feelings you’re having.
  3. Pet an animal. Research has shown time and time again the joy that comes from being around animals. If you don’t have a furry (or non-furry) friend at home, go to a shelter and play with some pups or kittens.
  4. Move your body. By no means do I think you need to do a HIIT or boot camp workout to feel good. Just going for a short walk or doing some gentle yoga can be enough to help your body and mind reset. Endorphins y’all.
  5. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Hard feelings, and all feelings really, are a pendulum. The harder you push them away, the harder they come back to push you on your ass. Allow your feelings to flow through you. Notice them and be curious about them.

Simple strategies for in-the-moment self-care:

  1. Take a deep breath. I always tell students that they are always in charge of how they respond. In my own growth, I’ve focused on responding and not reacting. Taking a deep breath allows me to access my best self in frustrating situations instead of reacting with a gut (typically negative) comment.
  2. Say no. No I don’t want to talk about this right now. No I don’t actually feel that good. No I can’t take on that project right now. “No” is the best tool for setting boundaries and boundaries are the key to taking care of yourself in a helping profession. If you never set boundaries, never say no, then you’re never really leaving work. If someone judges you for not taking on extra work, that’s their issue, not yours. Being exhausted, busy, overworked isn’t cool. At best it makes you ineffective, and at worst, in some helping professions, it can even be unethical.
  3. Practice self-compassion. When I find myself beating myself up about a mistake or a shortcoming, I ask myself if I would say that to a friend. Re-framing in this way helps me give myself a little grace.

Self-care is a continually evolving practice and is absolutely imperative in helping professions. I’m no expert. I’ve stayed late once or twice and I almost always eat lunch at my desk. Yet, I say no to things that are not within the bounds of my job and if I have a yoga class to get to, you bet I’m leaving work right on time.

Don’t wait until ten years from now when you look around your office and think “wow I can’t remember the last time I laughed.” Start practicing effective self-care that works for you. If you hate bubble baths or animals, fine. Find something else that nourishes and replenishes you so that you are able to go to work as your best self, and still able to leave work as your best self.

Want to know more? Tell me in the comments below or on Instagram. I have a lot of resources about self-care for helpers and would love to share if there’s interest.

Thanks for reading! Check back soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s