Helping the Helpers Help Themselves
People in the helping professional are fortunate. Doctors, nurses, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, physical therapists, etc. have careers that are fulfilling and meaningful. Yet helping profession jobs, though enriching, can also be very demanding and draining. Self-care is essential in this line of work.
Every helping professional knows this. We all know that our work can lead to burn out if we’re not careful. And yet, the burn out still happens. It usually happens insidiously, over the course of years or months, rather than all at once. So we know it’s preventable. And yet, why are so many people in the helping profession neglecting themselves? Why is self care usually placed at the bottom of the priority list?
This blog is not about practical self-care skills. There is plenty out there already about how helping professionals can engage in self care. It’s also not about the dangers of neglecting self-care. I think most people are pretty aware, at least on an intellectual level, that self care for helping professionals should be an integral part of life. Rather, I’d like to briefly look at the reasons as to why helping professionals neglect themselves.
- We come up with excuses to not take care of ourselves. And we believe them. The excuses may be that our problems aren’t so bad, or that we should be able to handle it on our own. Or we may minimize the importance of self-care—we see it as a luxury, rather than a necessity.
- We become isolated. This is especially true for helping professionals in private or small practices. The isolation leads us to getting stuck in our own heads, and we don’t get the needed feedback from colleagues that may help us recognize that we need a break.
- Time and money pressure gives way to self-care. Yes, time and money are practical concerns and both are limited resources. Yet if the needs of time and money always win over our personal needs, our work and ourselves will be sacrificed in the process.
- Self care never became a habit. Many helping professionals go into the field because they’re naturally adept at nurturing other people. They’re really good at being able to focus on other people’s needs. And yet this very strength can also be the greatest detriment. Perhaps it’s habitual or perhaps the nurturing need is strong due to family of origin dynamics. Just the act of engaging in self-care can feel strange or unnecessary for a person who’s much more comfortable with caring for others.
- You may think that the work you do is self care. I’ve heard some helping professionals say they don’t take of themselves because the work they do is enough to recharge and energize them. This is simply not true. The work in and of itself can be energizing and inspiring, but ultimately we need more. We need something(s) that focuses solely on ourselves.
- Over-identifying with the martyr role. This martyr mindset seems to be especially prevalent among nurses. As though it’s a badge of honor for a nurse to see how many things she can overload herself with at once. Some have relayed to me that, in certain hospitals, nurses derive great pride from being able to work through lunches, skip bathroom breaks, and take on more patients even though their caseload is already overly full.
- The “power through it” mentality. This unfortunately seems to be especially common when major life stressors and events happen. A divorce, a lawsuit, a new baby, a job change, a death in the family—these things happen to everyone. No one is immune to them. I think what happens in this case is that the helping profession is going through major stressors/changes and is thrown into survival mode. They get tunnel vision and believe that if they just “power through” and continue doing their job as normal, even though they are emotionally impaired, things will get better over time. And this may happen. But unfortunately, the side effect of this is that patient care is usually compromised. How could it not be? An impaired helping professional certainly can’t do her best work and in many cases, isn’t even able to do adequate work.
If you’re in a helping profession, I hope self-care is built into your daily life. And I also hope you can recognize your own personal blindspots that may lead you to neglect your own healing. The whys of self care are just as important as the hows. Healer, heal thyself!