Breathing Space February 2024

by Dan Comer

Get Out of Your Own Way

I have been studying and teaching about self-care in the child welfare arena for a long time. It didn’t take long to recognize that our field seems set up for making good self-care a difficult practice to master. First, the values and ideals that draw people to social work can sometimes become actual obstacles to self-care. And second, the tangible realities of the job are a true barrier we need to work with.

To my delight, I recently came across the following assessment that perfectly asks about both areas (mindset/values and nature of the job). Take a minute to check the obstacles to self-care that you regularly experience.

Situational

  • Too many responsibilities on and off the job
  • Unexpected emergencies
  • Limited time in one’s schedule
  • Always putting the job first
  • On-call or shift work
  • Lack of sleep
  • Lack of coworkers who could fill in if you need a break

Personal

  • The feeling that if you say no you will be looked down upon
  • Concern about being perceived as weak
  • Self-criticism, not being able to modify high expectations under stressful circumstances
  • Never feeling that you can unplug
  • Wanting to be perceived as perfect
  • Always prioritizing others over self
  • Low morale

Attitudinal

  • “It would be selfish to take a break from this work.”
  • “I’m okay, I’m fine, I’m not even tired.”
  • “The needs of those I’m supporting are more important than my own needs.”
  • “I’m not doing enough.”
  • “I can contribute the most by working all the time.”
  • “I don’t want anyone to know how affected I am.”
  • “Only I can do x, y, and z.”

Behavioral

  • Working too long by oneself without checking in with colleagues
  • Keeping stress to oneself
  • Ignoring declines in functioning
  • Underestimating needs
  • Relying only on alcohol/substances to relax for extended periods of time
  • Becoming more disengaged/isolated
  • Overworking
  • Not doing enough self-care to balance out the demands of work
  • Not seeking help/expertise

Eckhart Tolle says “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” Change can only happen after awareness arises. If you are anything like me, this assessment has raised your awareness of what exactly your obstacles to self-care are. Now what are you going to do about those obstacles?

I have a couple of suggestions:

  • Cross off and don’t worry about any of the ones you checked that you (truly) have no control over (e.g., if you have to work on-call and that cannot be changed, then look elsewhere for where you might make a difference for your self-care).
  • Look at your attitudinal checkmarks and use the power of cognitive behavioral therapy to challenge some of those internal messages (e.g., “I’m not doing enough”—is that really true? What is a more accurate statement?).
  • Pick just one of the behaviors that you checked and make a small change for the better (e.g., if you checked “Not seeking help/expertise,” experiment with asking for help and notice what happens).

Good luck, and remember that burnout robs us of our ability to engage with families—and thus our ability to help them. Your self-care matters!

Source: Watson, P. J., & Westphal, R. J. (2021). Stress first aid for healthcare workers workbook. US Department of Veteran Affairs, National Center for PTSD. https://casatondemand.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/sfa-hc-workbook.pdf