As I deal with the inevitable semi shock of leaving my nurtured, protected cocoon of graduate school (where we talked about empowerment, micro aggressions, and anti oppressive practice) and entering the work force of crisis mental health in a very rural area (where examining our values is all too often replaced with "we just received another call from the ER, we have 2 other workers out on crisis, who's got this?"), I find myself struggling with the classic symptoms of overworked social workers everywhere:

Feeling overwhelmed
Waking up at 3, wondering if I turned paperwork in
Failing to keep a work/life balance (and not being the most popular professional in the room when I bring that up)
Feeling resentful that my time is never really my own
Letting my other interests lie dormant

It's different for everybody.

Self care is a strange topic in the helping profession, I think. We know that we need to care for ourselves as we respond to the critical needs of others. We know we need to at least try to pretend to prevent burnout. So we throw around ideas like "take a warm, relaxing bath" or "read a good book" or "exercise at least 3 times a week."


I know very few workers who actually do these type of things.

My own personal belief is that most of the workers I know are female and have also taken the responsibility of caring for their partners and children as well. They'd love to take a bath.

There's no time.

(That paragraph was astoundingly gender normative. I apologize and acknowledge that families are complex and varied. And I would like to applaud my dear MSW friend, B., and her husband, The Mr., for what seems to be a beautiful blending of responsibility sharing and mutual support in their family).

I've no doubt that things like baths and walks and reading books help some people. Truthfully, though? As I start to address my own needs as I continue to respond to dear souls near suicide (as that's now the limited scope of our crisis mental health agency), "taking a bath" just doesn't even feel close enough to what my soul needs.

My soul is a hungry, thirsty little creature that needs much more than that.

We talked about this in grad school. I had an advanced practice instructor who believed, absolutely, we should get enough sleep and eat good food and take care of our bodies. And she didn't believe it was enough.

Because here's the problem, dear hearts: when you work with people for so many hours during the day, and then sometimes visit the ER again at 2:00 am if it's your on call night, the emotions and metaphors you start to have and identify with aren't full of peace, love, and unicorns tooting glittery, anti oppressive rainbows.

I'm tired. I'm frustrated. I don't know if this person's situation will change. I'm upset with the police / nurses / docs. I'm scared I don't know what to do right now. I can't be a part of this dysfunctional social service system anymore.

But we're professionals who are continually trying to advocate for humanity, right? So how can we possibly admit that sometimes we have human emotions and that sometimes we are just so over everything. All of it.

This advanced practice instructor I had believes this is where the heart of self care is. We must know what we're feeling. We have to take time to check in with ourselves so that we're not completely overwhelmed later. We have to know that we're feeling exhausted, infuriated, grieved ... And instead of warring with ourselves (you're a terrible social worker who should never feel irritated; your co workers never do; keep it together, genius), we need to be gentle with ourselves and meet these feelings with compassion.

It's like this: if a child we loved came to us with a serious problem, our hearts would be moved with compassion and we would immediately respond, most likely, without judgment because we would just want her to feel better. We would join with her and nurture her and soothe her.

We are deserving of that same compassion.  We need to truly know what it means to accept whatever we've got going on in that moment (for better or worse) as what we've got going on in that moment.  If we don't know that for ourselves, we will, dear hearts, have a very difficult time modeling that for our clients.  I like myself needs to be more than a pop psychology phrase.  I like myself is more I understand what I'm going through right now and I meet that need with compassion.

I think Susie (the instructor) is right.  I think this is the heart of self care.

Here's what else helps me for self care.  This is my frosting:

1. I remember my faith roots.  I am a progressive, left, social worker.  I am a Christian.   For me, these two things do not compete.  (If you have questions about this, please let me know.  I'm happy to expand and engage in dialogue about this.)  On my way into work, I spend time in prayer. 

2. I also meet with a meditation / walking meditation group. Sometimes my days go from 4:00am to 9:00pm (from the commute to work, to making dinner and taking care of the dog at night) and I don't always have time for a daily practice. That's ok. That's where I am right now. So I meet with a group on Sundays. This is an hour and a half of clearing my brain and breathing. Sometimes I spend time in formal prayer during this time, too. A little unorthodox, but I have to do what works for me.

3.  Remembering to communicate well with my husband and to voice my feelings / needs.  Sometimes, at the end of the day, I am so very tired of talking about emotions.  I'm exhausted, but I still have needs.  Taking a deep breath, and honoring and speaking to my needs actually honors him:  he's not a mind reader.  The more open communication we have, the more I am fulfilled in  my marriage.

4.  Vinyasa Yoga.  I have chronic shoulder pain that is exacerbated by stress.  I usually only have time to do this once or twice a week.  That's ok.

5.  I take time on Sunday evenings and plan my week.  A look at the planner, especially as we're trying to buy this house!,  helps me focus on what the week will look like (as much as I can.  Crisis work is crisis work.).  I also use this time to plan our menus for the week.  This helps a TON with not eating out at night.  Additionally, because I commute an hour each way to my job, it helps me think about what food I want to be eating for lunch (and therefore avoid fast food) and what snacks I want to put in my crisis bag.  This is a little tricky; fruit and veggies are perishable and mashable (and oh, man, is that gross when that happens).  I like nuts.  Power bars.  Bottles of water.  Sometimes I'll cut up veggies and put them in a Ziplock bag; I just don't always remember to eat them.

These things help.  But, as I've mentioned, it's the frosting.  The heart of self care is taking care of the center of us.

Sometimes this blog gets quite a few readers, but few commenters.  That is perfectly ok.  I've kept this blog for six years with commenters coming and going.  But if you, who are involved in social service, are reading, and you do have a moment to share, what do you do to take care of yourself?  How do you know when you've forgotten to?  How can we honor each other and support each other in doing this?


  1. Andrea on November 10, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    I definitely relate to many of your feelings and have experienced those burn-out symptoms at one time or another! I'm so thankful you shared these ideas and experiences, being involved in a helping profession is such a strange mix of rewarding/challenging moments and adrenaline/complete & total exhaustion. Like you, I try to find time for exercise (Wii fit now that the weather has turned) and quiet time to read, either scripture or a book that can take me away from reality for a bit ;) If I find myself feeling short tempered at home or laying awake at night with thoughts about students running all over the place I know it's time for some self care. I find a walk in the woods is the ultimate way to soothe my soul. We also have a health plan that covers massage therapy so I use it as often as I can. And I know this isn't possible for everyone, but we currently have someone come in to do the big cleaning jobs around the house (which I hate to confess as I am not a person who is easily able to delegate work or accept help from others!) but I consider it a contribution to my time management and mental health. I love your snack ideas and I am totally with you on #3. Your clients are lucky to have you my dear! xo

  2. Lisa on November 10, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    Andrea, these are beautiful ideas. They're all so good - and all so you!. I love that you have someone to come in and help with the big cleaning jobs; it's such a frustrating thing to come home, exhausted, and then notice something that needs to be done. Feels like you never get a chance to catch up. I'm so glad that you're delegating that! ;) And walking in the woods, reading and massage therapy? What lovely ways to quiet down and clear the mind out. Your students are lucky to have you! :)

  3. Anonymous on November 10, 2012 at 10:42 AM

    I have this underlying sense that people are not meant to do crisis work for so many hours. I don't know how to bridge the issue of agencies that want a 40-60 hour week out of you for you to get benefits (or even the job for that matter), or the economic need to have that full-time paycheck. I have this sense that balance will be way more than that. Almost like 20 hours a week doing crisis work, and 20 hours a week planting flowers and digging in the dirt for a local nursery...or some such fill in the blank balanced activity that engages with nature and the physical and allows the brain to shut off a little.

    I didn't ever find it. I had to leave...but was ABLE too. And the chaos of the demands, and the illnesses of the institutions eventually overshadowed the reward of the trenches. Perhaps I never should have been in the work to begin with...that's very possible. My bleeding heart bleeds buckets. Maybe stellar self care should be a demonstrated skill before you can graduate.

    I don't know the answers. They will be different for everyone. I have the luxury of a working spouse now, and trimming out the extras has allowed me to rest and rebuild my adrenals a bit. And from here, I have chosen a more removed engagement if that isn't a contradictory term.

    I help my neighbors and my aging mom. I am i my own way part of my husbands self care routine...I maintain a home of peace and comfort for the out in the world work he does. When people call for "off the books" "counseling appointments" I see them, and typically there is not exchange of money.

    For me it is about the VOLUME I am capable of handling and still maintain my sanity and for each person that will be different.

  4. Anonymous on November 10, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    sometimes something as simple as a smooth rock in your pocket or on your desk that you can hold in your hand to remind yourself to ground, part of the remind yourself "in this second, I'm OK". Sometimes the small stuff is the big stuff.

  5. Lisa on November 10, 2012 at 2:00 PM

    W - You're so right. The system that is currently in place is not sustainable in so many ways. Our crisis workers are on shift for 72 hours at a time. I love that you are connected in the ways you'd like to be connected - what an amazing place to arrive to.


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