stress

A Simple Self-Care Primer

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:

Indulgent

Selfish

Numbing Out

Pointless

Lazy

Weak

Avoiding problems

Mindless

Escapism

 

What Self-Care IS:

Courageous

Compassionate

Mindful

Restorative

Thoughtful

Necessary

Brave

Challenging

Radical

Self-preservation

Our ethical obligation

 

self care quote

 

 

You Don’t Need To Earn Self-Care By:

working the hardest

saving a million lives

being perfect

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.

Because:

jessica dolce quote

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!

Letting Go of the Outcome: How Do You Measure Success?

Today, the day after Election Day, I know there are more than a few animal welfare advocates who are feeling pretty bummed. In Maine, where I live, a ban on the cruel practice of bear baiting was voted down. And in Aurora, Colorado, voters were able to keep a pit bull ban in place (for now!). In both areas, advocates worked tirelessly to make a difference for animals in their communities. In both cases, despite their hard work, they lost.

The outcome wasn’t what they had hoped and worked for. But the outcome isn’t what determines if they were successful or not.

Does that sound a little crazy? I mean, obviously, we all wanted the votes to go in a different direction and we’d be celebrating today if that had happened. But the outcome often has little to do with the work itself.

These advocates gave their all. They did a fantastic job of outreach, education, and door-knocking work in our communities. They conducted themselves in such a way that they could be proud of themselves. They used their time well. None of that has changed now that we know the outcome of the votes. It doesn’t negate or undo the months of work they put in. That’s because:

 

That is how we can measure our success. Are we conducting ourselves in an ethical, compassionate, intelligent way? Are we using our time well and working to make things better for those around us?

Then we win, no matter what the outcome. This is important because the truth is:

Most of the time, we cannot control the outcome of our work.

 

Dog trainers cannot control whether or not their clients will listen to them. They can’t make their clients actually do the work (or do it right) each day in order to address the behavior issues that led them to seek training help in the first place.

Veterinarians cannot control whether or not their clients listen to them either. They can’t make their clients perform the medical care that will help address the issues that led them to seek veterinary care.

Shelter workers cannot control whether or not adopters listen to them during adoption counseling. They can’t make families follow through with what was agreed upon during the adoption process.

None of us can control whether our clients are telling us the truth or are just telling us what we want to hear. And we can’t control whether or not they will follow through on what we recommend.

Some of the time this means there will be negative outcomes and we need to work to accept them.

The dog trainer finds out their client didn’t listen to their advice and now the dog has bitten someone and is scheduled to be euthanized.

The vet finds out the client didn’t listen to their advice and now the dog has a chronic, painful, and more expensive condition that needs to (and may not) be addressed.

The shelter worker finds out that the adopter did not listen to them about keeping their new dog on leash and now the dog is lost and hasn’t been found.

The advocate finds out that the vote fell the other way.

These negative outcomes are not a true reflection of the quality of the work that was done (even though it may feel that way some times). When our satisfaction with our work or sense of success is attached to whether or not the outcome was a good one, it can  be very painful. It can feel like failure.

But so often, we aren’t in control of the outcome, no matter how hard we work or how perfect we try to be. Or how much the animals deserve a better ending.

We can’t control what others do. We can’t take responsibility for other people’s actions. And some of the time, bad things happen and it’s no one’s fault at all. 

The outcome has to do with so much more than any one person. These situations don’t begin or end with us. They’re often complex and always way bigger than you or me.

However, we are responsible for what we do – how we relate to challenging circumstances and how we conduct ourselves.

four fold way

 

So we can choose to commit to doing the daily work to the very best of our abilities. We can invest in the process, rather than just the end result. Instead of allowing our self-worth, happiness, and sense of success come from the outcome alone, we can determine our own conditions of success by asking ourselves:

Am I conducting myself in such a way that, no matter what the outcome is, I can be proud of and at peace with myself?

 

That is something we have some control over.

Everyone’s conditions of success will be different: Was I compassionate? Hardworking? Fully engaged? Flexible and creative? Calm and non-reactive? Did I make those around me feel respected and that I valued them?

Even when the outcome is a good one, it helps to consider how you felt getting there. Winning can come at a cost to ourselves and others too. We can choose to be mindful of how we’re engaging with our work each day and do so in a way that allows us to feel good about how we treated ourselves and others.

responsible for energy
If you haven’t read My Stroke of Insight yet, add it to your must-read list!

 

Letting go of the outcome is not easy.

Of course we want every pet to be adopted and for the adoption to work out. We want to help our training and veterinary clients in order to increase the quality of their pets’ lives. We want to win the vote and change policies so that laws are fair, humane, and effective. We want to do our best work and have our efforts succeed, so that every animal that we touch gets to live and be well.

Letting go of the outcome doesn’t mean that we stop trying or that we don’t work as hard. It’s not passive resignation. It means learning to recognize what we can and cannot control. It means being actively aware of the truth in the present moment. And trying not to attach our sense of success or happiness to the outcome.

It means that we stop beating ourselves up and have some self compassion when painful things (that are often beyond our control) happen. It means we allow ourselves to feel difficult emotions, so that we can process them and let them go. If there is something to learn from these experiences, then we do so, and we bring that knowledge with us as we move forward, so that we can do it differently next time.

And we can acknowledge that we did good work that mattered and made a difference, even if in the end, the outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for.

If we showed up, paid attention, acted with compassion, and stayed present to those around us, then we gave the best of ourselves and that is enough. That’s succeeding, each and every day.

 

Journal prompt: What are some ways you can measure your success internally, without it depending on the outcome? What would be your personal conditions of success?* 

 

*Fist bump to Jen Louden, who taught me about the Conditions of Enoughness which inspired this phrase!

 

A love-filled high five to all of you,

Are You Reacting Or Responding?

 

birds quote name

 

I love this quote so much that I use it in all of my presentations. Why? Because I’m trying to convince a bunch of stressed out animal shelter workers that taking a few deep breaths really is the single best way to lower stress and change the outcome of a challenging situation.

Deep breathing sends a message to our brains to relax. Then our brains relay that message to our bodies, which lowers our heart rate and blood pressure, among other things. Check out this handy infographic from Dr. Emma Seppala on the science of the benefits of breathing.

The next time you want to jump over the intake desk to grab a member of the public who is excited about “donating” their dog to your shelter, pause to breathe deeply. Doing so allows you to pump the breaks and slow down, influencing your body’s automatic response to the stressful situation.

When we take the time for a few deep breaths not only does it change our physical reaction to stress, but it also buys our brain – specifically the frontal lobe (the part of our brain that we need in order to consider our options and communicate clearly) – the time it needs to snap into gear and produce a thoughtful response.

We need our higher thinking brain to be online in order to influence the outcome of the situation in a positive way for everyone involved. This takes a few seconds to happen and in the meantime we’re in reactive mode!

Each one of us reacts to stress differently, but I bet I’m not the only one who, when my stress levels are rocketing, becomes reactively rude. That’s a nice way of saying I snap at people.

Deep breathing allows me to get a handle on my reactive behavior and gives my brain time to catch up to my internal knee jerk reaction, so that I can choose to respond instead.

In his book Full Castrophe Living Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn shares the difference between a stress reaction and a stress response.

A stress reaction is when we react habitually and automatically to a situation. We aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing. We just react.

A stress response means that we give ourselves a few seconds to stop, become conscious of the situation, and then choose how we want to respond.

Reacting = stressed and not thinking

Responding = mindful and thinking

 

You know, just like dogs. Reactive dogs aren’t thinking when they’re over threshold. They’re just reacting to the trigger or stimulus that makes them feel aroused, anxious, or fearful.

We’re the same. When someone or somethings triggers me, my stress levels go up. If I’m not aware of and managing my stress, then I’m likely to show a habitual stress reaction and behave rudely.

But when I’m paying attention to my stress levels, monitoring the sensations in my body and the thoughts in my mind, and I address my needs by taking a few breaths to give my brain a moment to collect itself, then I can more easily access a calmer response.

Remember to focus on what you can control when you’re experiencing stress. It’s you. That’s it.

You always want to give yourself the opportunity to move from reactive to responsive. You’ll feel better and you’ll get better results.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when stressed, anxious, or angry, has said things that only made the problem much worse. Instead of helping to put the fire out, our stress reaction only fans the flames. And so our stress cycle continues, because now we have to resolve the original problem and need to deal with whatever fallout we’ve caused by our knee jerk reaction.

Allowing ourselves a moment to calm down means that we give ourselves the opportunity to choose to respond instead of react. Our response might be that we are more thoughtful, compassionate, or effective in how we communicate.

It might also mean becoming aware that we need to ask for help from our co-workers or boss. Or that we need to implement other stress management techniques ASAP. But breathing creates the…wait for it…breathing room to make those mindful choices.

 

Like Viktor Frankl says in that gem of a quote, it’s our response to our triggers that leads to our growth as human beings. Thoughtful responses will lead to better outcomes for all of us. But first, we have to give ourselves the space for that important reactive-responsive shift to occur. The easiest way to do that is to pause and breathe.

How will you create the space you need to respond instead of react in stressful situations? Think about it now, while you’re at ease, so that when the hot spot shows up, you know what you’re going to do to create enough space to allow for a response that will be more beneficial for the animals and people you work with and healthier for you!

 

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