This summer I have been reflecting on the concept of “self-care,” mostly asking myself, “What is self-care, anyway?” It’s a buzzword in the world of social work, and probably any other helping profession with risk of ‘burnout’ and the more recently coined term ‘compassion fatigue.’ We must engage in self-care to prevent the loss of inspiration which ignited our ambitions to enter the social work profession in the first place. Burnout is dangerous because we lose sight of our motivation and become overwhelmed by our work rather than invigorated by it.
Burnout is something we can all understand through imagining a fire raging wildly and uncontrolled through a forest – it literally destroys everything in its path and leaves a desolate and barren landscape. Yet, we can also imagine a fire contained in a woodstove gently roaring, being constantly fed new pieces of wood, and able to produce heat which continually alleviates the cold and comforts others. (We’d rather be like the latter: a gentle, controlled fire which can continually generate efforts for benefitting others.)
So, to prevent burning out, I’m determined to engage in self-care. Yet, what is self-care anyway? Is it walking on the beach? Is it scarfing down a pint of ice cream or two pints of beer? Is it a phone call to a friend? Is it drawing? Is it getting a massage? Is it giving a massage? Is it being with people? Is it being alone?
Perhaps it’s all of the above. Yet, while in the grips of stress-laden nervous system, none of these rejuvenating activities would really be helpful if I wasn’t fully able to relax and enjoy them. We’ve all had those moments where someone has given us the unsolicited piece of advice to “just relax” while we are whirling in the midst of stress/anxiety, and perhaps this piece of advice generates some aggravation – “If it were that easy, I’d be relaxed already!!” Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much what we do for self-care, but rather how we engage with our activity.
The most dangerous part of burnout, I think, is that our mind becomes unbalanced. Rather than taking life in stride, we become easily pummeled by our day-to-day responsibilities. Part of self-care’s job is to allow us to regain balance, to realign with our intention, to give ourselves the space we need to feel like ourselves again. We are much more strong and able to face the world when we feel empowered to be ourselves. Rather than self-care being a way to “just relax,” it can be a way to reconnect with our deeper motivations.
A friend once gave me a piece of advice when I was gripped with stress and discomfort: Find what brings you joy and go do it, she urged me. I realized that we all come into this world with certain joys that we cultivate and grow into; they are activities that feed us and inform us of who we are. Sometimes I get so caught up in trying my hardest to succeed that I lost sight of the simple things I do in my life that make me, me.
This past June I went on two meditation retreats up in the redwoods of Northern California; I used this time as a form of self-care. A million other options for my summer plans had reeled through my head before deciding upon these activities, yet I only needed to ask myself, “What brings me joy?” to make my decision. (For a more adventurous soul, the answer might have been something more stimulating than sitting with eyes closed among tall trees.)
When questioning self-care and its role in my life, I find it might be just another way to say, “Know yourself and what feeds you.” It’s like knowing when and how to add another log to the flames of inspiration. Social work is a profession where clients will bring us their pain, their suffering, their struggles – we all know this and have deeply altruistic motivations for engaging in this work, yet if our mind becomes unbalanced we may feel overwhelmed when bearing witness to suffering. The wisdom of knowing when and how to engage in self-care will allow us to stay connected to ourselves and maintain our inspiration to do the work that we do.
Nina Tomkiewicz is an MSW student at SDSU.