Last month I started teaching a session of my online compassion fatigue class for animal care workers. The group of women that I’m working with right now inspire and humble me each week. I feel really privileged to be taking this walk with them.
As you can imagine, we talk a lot about self-care in class. That’s because it is the foundation for being well while we do good in the world.
Self-care is deceptively simple in that the basic stuff really works. The hard part is that we have to convince ourselves we’re worth it and then commit to practicing it. Easier said than done for almost all of us. That’s why I built the class.
For those of us who work or volunteer in helping professions (as animal care workers do), there are actual Standards of Self-Care Guidelines which serve as a constant reminder that self-care is our professional obligation. That’s because there’s a correlation between ethical violations and compassion fatigue (Gentry & Figley, 2007). And what’s one of the ways we effectively address compassion fatigue? Through self-care.
Of course, when you talk about self-care, lots of questions come up. Like what the hell is it and do we really deserve it? So with that in mind, here’s a Self-Care primer!
What Self-Care is NOT:
What Self-Care IS:
Our ethical obligation
You Don’t Need To Earn Self-Care By:
working the hardest
saving a million lives
giving until it hurts
putting yourself last
finishing the to-do list
waiting until everyone else’s needs have been met
You don’t have to earn it at all. It’s your right to take care of yourself.
Who Is It For?
Self-Care Is For EVERYONE.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, old or young, black, white, or brown, rich or poor. If you are alive, self-care is for you.
What Self-Care Looks Like:
Authentic, healthy self-care is much more than just comforting or treating ourselves. That stuff is ok too (bring on the massages and Netflix!), but healthy self-care goes much deeper than that.
It is sustainable. This isn’t about extreme makeovers and impossible New Year’s resolutions.
It meets our basic needs. That’s stuff like fresh foods, rest, exercise, medical care, etc.
It is a regular daily practice. It’s not something we save for vacations or when all the work is done (which is never).
It meets our needs in a variety of areas: physical, spiritual, psychological, social, professional, and emotional.
It is thoughtful, intentional, and it feels alright. Self-care isn’t punishment. It’s stuff we enjoy or benefit from.
It is given to ourselves guilt-free and with enthusiasm (you know, like how we give to others all the time).
It means we say no, set limits, and respect our personal boundaries, so we have enough time and energy left for ourselves.
How Do You Know If It’s Really Self-Care?
If you’re not sure if eating a bowl of ice cream or watching a movie or exercising is self-care or numbing/avoiding/[insert unhealthy coping method here], ask yourself why you are doing it and how it feels.
Are you mindfully eating that ice cream and enjoying every last bite, stopping when you’re full? Do you feel refreshed and alive? That’s self-care.
Are you attacking a gallon of ice cream with a soup ladle while zoned out in front of the computer, totally unaware that you’re even eating it until the container is empty and you feel sick? That’s not self-care.
Not sure? Ask yourself: How does this sustain me?
How Do I Start?
You start by picking something that matters to you and making a commitment to do something about it.
After you are successful, you move on to the next area you’d like to address. One step at a time. If you’re not sure, then I think getting better sleep is usually a good place to start. Being sleep deprived is no joke.
Expect to drop the ball sometimes. That’s life and, in our line of work, there are always crazy circumstances that throw us for a loop. Whenever you find that your self-care practices aren’t what you’d like or need them to be, just be kind to yourself and start again. You’re not a failure. Don’t waste time or energy beating yourself up.
Begin again, wherever you are, and start taking baby steps back towards your self-care practices or goals. Make it easy to succeed by lowering the bar and just get back to it in whatever way you can.
Why It Matters:
Because you deserve it. Because you’re alive. Every one of us deserves to reserve enough time, energy, and money to take care of ourselves. All of us. No matter who we are or what we do for a living.
But if you DO choose to work in a helping profession, then you have to engage in self-care as a professional obligation. It is not selfish and it doesn’t hurt or take away from those who need your help. Self-care is simply putting your own oxygen mask on first, ya dig? It’s what keeps you in the game for the long haul, doing good work.
Looking for ideas to help you get started? Take a look at these super University of Buffalo School of Social Work’s free resources.
And if you work or volunteer with animals, perhaps you’d like to take my self-study course Compassion in Balance or connect with me 1-on-1 for some coaching on self-care and compassion fatigue!