People who are motivated to actively seek out opportunities in the social impact sector are those who feel a need to make a difference in their world. This often means pursuing roles that involve being in the service of, or caring for, others. Care professionals are those who are in roles that involve direct interactions with clients such as social workers, home health aids, or program coordinators. These professions require a balance of emotional sensitivity and intellectual distancing. When this balance is off, the risk of compassion fatigue or overworking your empathy muscles becomes all too real.
While self-care is important in any career, the need for a consistent check-in with yourself is uniquely heightened when your work involves directly caring for others. Before you can take on the emotional burdens of others, you need to take care of yourself.
John C. Norcross, Department of Psychology at the University of Scranton, suggests 10 research-based strategies for self-care. After reviewing his research, I’ve selected and adapted five strategies that every self-care professional, particularly those in the nonprofit sector, can begin using today.
1.Face the hazards of your profession.
You wouldn’t suggest your clients run from their discomforts and tuck them away for later. Accept that blaming yourself isn’t going to get you anywhere. Give yourself permission to acknowledge the difficulties and share them within your community, rather than dwelling on them and trying to face them alone. By talking about your difficulties with others, you’ll learn what problems are unique to you, what are simply hazards of the profession, and how others have dealt with them.
“You’ll be surprised how many times people say “me too!” when you open up. When we are going through it, we think we are the only ones but as soon as we seek out groups of people, open up, and other people in the room say, “yes, me too”, we find invaluable support.” – Michaela Haas, author of Bouncing Forward
2.Start with strategy, then find the techniques
Much of the information about self-care readily available today focuses on techniques – try yoga, meditate for 10 minutes each day, get more sleep. Starting with techniques may be the wrong approach for you. Do crowded yoga rooms stress you out? Does setting a dedicated bedtime not work with your schedule and leave you counting down the minutes until your alarm goes off? Develop possible strategies to address your problems and goals, then use these to research techniques that may work for you!
Here’s how I’ve used this:
Problem – It’s too often that I wake up and am already tired 15 minutes later
Goal – Get more restful sleep to help keep my energy up
Strategy – Create more restful evenings before I go to bed
Techniques – For a few days, I will do a five minute breathing exercise before bed, regardless of the time. Depending on how my days go after this, I will either try more meditative techniques or I will commit to no screen time (TV, phone, computer) for at least 30 minutes before bed. Depending on how my days go after this…..etc
You can look at a strategy as a plan of action to help you reach a specific goal, as opposed to a specific task or activity that may reach that goal for others yet not work for you. This way, you are free to try out techniques with less pressure. In the above example, if I found that I was still feeling tired shortly after waking, I might switch my strategy to “create an energizing morning routine” and try out techniques for that. In the meantime, I may have stumbled upon a few night-time techniques that I wanted to keep in my routine because they may have helped me with other problems, even if they didn’t address the original problem.
3.Monitor yourself and take in feedback from those close with you
Be aware of times you feel you’re working at your best and when you feel sluggish, unmotivated, or disheartened. Ask your supervisors, friends, and loved ones if they’ve noticed any patterns in your mood, behaviors, or how you talk about your job. People who spend time with you are invested in seeing you at your best. They will appreciate the opportunity to hear what you are going through and feel included in your growth. Finding a pattern in how you operate will help you identify self-care strategies you already use – both the ones that work and the ones that are not improving your well-being.
“I had reached the point of burnout and hadn’t even realized it. It wasn’t until my supervisor and I sat down for a midyear review and she said one of my goals was to take time off. It was hard for me to recognize it. She sat me down and said that there is value in having a day to yourself and not feeling like you always have to be doing something. When it was written down as a goal, it made me look back and think of how much better I could do my job if I took some time just for my mental health.” – Jacqueline Kling, Dance Director at Boys and Girls Club of Central Minnesota
4.Make your work environment work for you
You’ve read the research on arranging physical work and learning spaces. Whether it’s to ensure students can best learn or to create the most therapeutic setting for clients, there are recommendations for ways to provide an optimal physical space. What works best for you? How have you arranged your home? Incorporate what comforts and energizes you into your work space.
5.Appreciate yourself, your work, and your growth
Congratulations on taking action about a cause you are passionate about! You are really doing it! Your clients may not always thank you, but you showing up to work and doing your best is making a difference.
Your work has changed you and that can be a good thing. Exercising your empathy muscles can make you wiser, more appreciative, and better able to communicate with others. How have you changed because of your work? Your growth and resilience is a testament to your knowledge, dedication to others, and investment in yourself.
Mirror the same thought and care you put into others, into yourself. Use the knowledge you’ve gained from those who are close to you or in your profession to your advantage. Most importantly, don’t stress if a “self-care technique” isn’t working for you! Go back to the drawing board, start with strategies, and spend as much care investing in yourself as you do other.