Have you ever talked to a client about developing a self-care plan, keeping a journal, or practicing mindfulness? I have. I've even taught classes about it! But until recently, my own self-care track record has been pretty awful.
I've always been a bit of a workaholic- especially because I love my job. But, when the pandemic began, I found myself with unlimited work-from-home hours. As more and more families needed resources and support, the work load increased. It became way too easy to work through lunch and skip yoga. Why take the time to chop up a healthy salad when that bag of chips is so easily accessible?
The context of the work also started to shift as families (and providers) experienced serious crises and then discussed those experiences with me. The helper in me wanted to solve every problem! Most days, it felt like I couldn't turn my brain off. I lost track of time and rarely went to bed before midnight.
One night, I was searching for wellbeing tools for our CALM care packages (and yes, I do recognize the irony there) when I stumbled on an article by Susannah C. Coaston. Self-Care Through Self-Compassion: A Balm for Burnout The concepts in this article were not "new" to me- I had taught many of them before. But, I had never truly taken them to heart or used them for myself.
"Self-care is vital if we are to remain effective in our role and avoid burnout; however, many counselors do not regularly implement the techniques they recommend to clients in their own lives (Coaston, 2017.)"
I didn't like how I was feeling and I knew something had to change. But at some point during the pandemic, the word "self care" had really started to annoy me. I would internally roll my eyes when I heard it. Some of my colleagues went so far as to say that mentioning self care just made them feel worse.
"Self-compassion can be understood as 'being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness' (Coaston, 2017.)"
For some reason, the idea of self-compassion resonated with me in a way that "self- care" could not. Maybe the stars were aligned that night or maybe I had just finally hit my limit of exhaustion, but whatever the reason-- I decided then and there that I was going to make some changes. I was finally going to give myself the same level of compassion that I have always tried to give to others.
But... professional helpers are notorious for failing to practice what we preach. I knew that if I really wanted to add a self-compassion practice to my daily schedule, it needed to be easy and it needed to quickly become a routine. So I decided to try the plan below. There are only two steps: SCAN and FILL.
Step 1: Scan
It's a question that family service providers ask all the time-- "How can I help you?"
Step One of compassionate self-care is asking that same question to ourselves: Am I OK? How can I help... ME?
"...actively seeking awareness of one’s own signs and symptoms that indicate suffering can not only help counselors recognize burnout, it also can provide clues toward the first step in soothing (Coaston, 2017.)"
Do a quick body scan
How is your body feeling? Do you hurt anywhere? Are you thirsty?
Using your mindfulness skills, you can ask-- “What does my body need in this moment?” At first, you might have to set an alarm to remind yourself to ask this question throughout your work day. But soon, it will become habit.
Scan your thoughts and feelings too
Name your emotions. Are you being too hard on yourself? With so many changes and uncertainties in the world, everyone's lives have been turned upside down. Carrying the pain of others can weigh down our hearts (see the "occupational hazard" section below.) There is more work to do and less people to do the work. It's logical to feel stressed out, anxious or exhausted.
We're going to make mistakes and we won't always "get it right" on the first try. But stress and exhaustion can make it even harder to learn new things... and easier to make mistakes. Physical and emotional pain can make us impatient and less forgiving with our coworkers, clients or family.
Remember to offer kindness and grace to others- and to yourself!
You can ask-- "what does my mind/spirit/body need at this moment?"
"Self-compassion.... is characterized by gentleness with oneself when faced with a perceived sense of inadequacy or failure (Coaston, 2017.)"
As you scan your body, mind, and spirit- monitor your adrenaline and watch for warning signs. The HALT acronym reminds us to watch for signs of being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. When we notice those feelings, we need to practice self-compassion and heal ourselves with kindness. Self compassion reminds us to respond to ourselves in the same way that we would respond to a good friend.
Step 2: Fill
"Self-care can be defined as an activity to 'refill and refuel oneself in healthy ways' (Coaston, 2017.)
We can't share from an empty cup. We need to refill every day.
For Step Two, choose something from your unique List of Self Healing Ideas to address the need that you identified in Step One. Maybe you just need a quick break to stretch and breathe some fresh air. Or, you might try a Self Compassion Guided Mediation
If you have not been filling yourself up every day or if you experience something that deeply affects how you are thinking or feeling... you may not be able to refill in a quick 30 minutes. Give yourself enough time to truly fill up again.
A Caution About Self-Compassion
Self compassion is not a pain pill. Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher, author, and teacher explains that we need to be careful with the way we think about and use self-compassion. Because "what we resist, persists" and "the only way out is through."
"What we resist, persists" and "the only way out is through. We need to accept the fact that pain is present in order to heal." (Kristin Neff
Watch For Occupational Hazards!
Take a moment to read Are you experiencing compassion fatigue? This article for the American Psychological Association also includes resources on burnout and vicarious trauma.
Compassion fatigue is "an occupational hazard of any professionals who use their emotions, their heart." (Charles R. Figley, PhD, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University
Watch for the physical and emotional warning signs that you might be experiencing compassion or empathy fatigue.
Find more ideas here:
I wish I would have begun my self-care journey a long time ago. If you have been putting off self-care, please don't wait another minute! Try these 2 basic steps for one week. SCAN and FILL. SCAN and FILL. SCAN and FILL. I think you will notice a difference (and your family/colleagues/clients will too!)