• “You need to take care of yourself!"
  • “You need to leave your work at work!"  
  • “You shouldn’t be thinking about your clients when you're not at work.”
  • “You must have poor boundaries and must not be a very good social worker if you can’t separate yourself from your work.”

We  may have heard our friends and colleagues share with us some variation of these statements.  If they haven’t been said aloud, many of us may speak them silently in our minds.  And when we aren’t taking care of ourselves, when we are thinking about our clients over dinner with our family, and when we have a dream about something someone said to us earlier in the day, we don’t talk about it because we fear it is an indicator that we are doing something wrong and that a better or more seasoned social worker wouldn’t feel the way we do.

Being Gentle With Ourselves

Rather than chastise ourselves for having the feelings and thoughts we do about our work and our skills, what is most important is recognizing when we do feel depleted, when we're thinking a great deal about our work when we're not at work, and/or when we're having trouble in our personal relationships because our work sometimes intrudes.  Engaging with people who are struggling in one or more ways, as a fellow human, it is impossible not to be affected by stories of pain and suffering.  In fact, our ability to empathize and feel with others is as much a strength as it is a vulnerability.  The capacity to feel deeply in our work is what allows us to connect with others and allows others to feel safe in our presence. 

Our challenge is to notice when the “noise” of our work is louder than the “noise” of the other parts of our lives.  When this happens, and it will happen, we need to be as gentle with ourselves as we are with others and reach out to those with whom we feel safe.  We are not less professional or less competent because our work affects us.  However it is our responsibility to notice when we are affected and engage in practices that mitigate the impact of our work on our day to day living.

If we notice how our work is affecting us, but we are silent with our peers, our supervisors, or our mentors, it does not make them see us as more competent or help us cope.  In fact, our silence may create more feelings of isolation and distance from those we care about.  Hopefully, we work in a setting that is trauma informed and acknowledges that trauma takes its toll on everyone.  Solid, trauma informed organizations create space for us to talk about the impact of our work and to make plans with colleagues around self-care.

What Does Taking Care of Ourselves Really Mean?

Being gentle with ourselves is the first step toward self-care.  But what does it really mean to take care of ourselves?  We're often told "take care of yourself" or "take good care" or simply to "take care."  This is said so often at this point, that there is no universally agreed upon understanding of thoughtful and intentional self-care.

One way we can begin to think about taking care of ourselves is to think about what actually needs taking care of.  If we agree that the work we do has an impact on our lives, it makes sense to consider the nature of the impact.  I often think about how my work impacts how I see myself, how I see my relationships, and how I see the world  When I think of this triumvirate, it makes it easier to think about self care.

How I See Myself.  I might begin to doubt my effectiveness as a social worker if the people with whom I'm working are still struggling, are still in pain, or aren't changing as quickly as they would like.  My work in this instance is impacting how I see myself.  When I think about self-care then, it would be important to engage in self-care activities that restore my sense of agency or effectiveness. One way I personally do this is to putter in my garden or create a new planting bed.  When I've spent several hours designing, digging, and planting, I have a finished product.  I can say to myself:  "I did this!"  "I accomplished this."  "I made this happen."  I can counter my doubts about effectiveness with the effectiveness of my gardening.

How I See My Relationships.  There are some nights when I come home from work and my phone rings.  I can see from the caller ID that it's a good friend of mine, but I'll choose not to answer the phone because I feel relationally depleted.  I can't talk to another person because I am tapped out as a result of the many intense and intimate relationships I have through my work.  When I experience this, it's a sign that I need to find a self-care strategy that replenishes me relationally.  Sometimes, I can do this by simply cooking dinner with my partner.  Other times, playing with my dogs who provide me with unconditional love without seeking anything in return is enough to engage again in other relationships.

How I See The World.  And sadly, there are times when I start to worry about the world and doubt the existence of any kind of higher power.  So much of what I do involves seeing the pain one person can inflict on another.  I was raised to believe that "good things happen to good people" and "if you work hard, you will be rewarded."  Yet I see many people---good, kind, caring people---who have experienced unimaginable hurts.  I'm left questioning how God can allow such things to happen.  When I start to notice my doubts about the world or about a higher power, I'm reminded to re-engage in spiritual practices; to light a candle, to say a prayer, to create a ritual, or to consciously and intentionally notice small kindnesses throughout each day.  When my worldview is depleted, I need to consciously find ways to restore it.

Effective self-care requires that we understand how our work is impacting us.  Once we understand how our work impacts how we see ourselves, how we see our relationships, or how we see the world, we can choose or create self-care strategies that directly address where and how our work is depleting us.  When we think about self-care in this way, "take care of yourself" actually has a specific meaning!

Where The Wild Things Are

On the last day of the trauma class I teach, I read aloud "Where The Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak.  The book is about a little boy named Max, who is sent to his room and, while there, takes an imaginary journey to where wild things live. While there, he tames them but realizes he misses his home and wants to return.  Waiting for him, he finds a warm supper his mother has cooked for him.  

After reading the story to my students, I share thoughts about how the book is a metaphor for our work.  On any given day, each of us, like Max in Sendak's story, leaves the comfort of our homes. We travel by car, bus, train...to a place far away from the safety and security of our homes and the comfort of the people we love and those who love us. We travel, like Max, to where the wild things are.

Unlike Max, our wild things aren't living and breathing monsters. They might include:  community and gang violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, poverty, torture, terrorism, war, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Our job is to tame these wild things; to each day "stare into their yellow eyes, without blinking once."  We are challenged to find a way to join with people touched by these wild things and to somehow, participate in their "wild rumpus." Also, like Max, our job is to travel back from where the wild things are; to find a way to return from our physical journey and to find a way to return from the emotional journey we make each day. 

We return on our private boat, setting a boundary with the wild things.  We say goodbye, "sailing back over a year, and in and out of weeks, and through a day and into the night of our very own room." Unlike Max, however, who finds a warm supper waiting for him when he returns from where the wild things are, each of us is responsible for our own warm supper; for preparing the metaphorical food that will replenish us so that we can return to where the wild the wild things are; to tame them once again the following day.

Our Work Is Also Inspiring

When we travel to where the wild things are, there are times we are able to witness incredible bravery.  Sometimes our work replenishes us!  It can inspire us.  Stories of survival, strength, and tenacity infuse us with hope and continued energy to do the work we do.  When we take our work home, we also take the indefatigable human spirit of our clients and hopefully, there are times that this balances some of the pain.  

Hernandez, Gangsei, and Engstrom> (2007) write about the concept of vicarious resilience.  In a study they conducted with therapists working with survivors of war and political violence, they found that many therapists spoke of their experience of their client's strength and ability to overcome adversity.  Instead of looking only at the negative impact of our work, they invite us to consider  how we see ourselves, our relationships, and the world might change positively as a result of witnessing the strength of the human spirit.

We are human beings and it wasn’t an accident that we chose a helping profession.  We help because we care.  And when we care, the caring doesn’t stop when we step through one door and into another.  Our work changes us.  It is inevitable.  It is important, however, to consider how our work changes us so that we can reinforce positive changes, and replenish ourselves as a result of any negative changes.  We need to take care of ourselves...

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.

—Maurice Sendak