Grad School · Mental Health · Personal

When Your Work Can’t Help But Follow You Home: A Self-Care Guide

Helping professions. I can’t imagine a more beautiful and rewarding set of careers, but I also can’t imagine a more difficult and exhausting place to be. Compassion fatigue runs rampant, even in people who are practically superheroes, because the cost of caring is high. There are many aspects of self-care to maintain as it is, because we are multifaceted beings with many aspects of health and identity. In the midst of all of this, what does it mean to find a work-life balance when sometimes, the stories that you hear at work ring in your ears long after work has finished for the day or week? Here are a few ideas that I’ve found helpful.

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  • Learn what compassion fatigue looks like so you can identify it in yourself. Compassion fatigue is nothing to be ashamed of, and it comes in many forms. You may be experiencing exhaustion, difficulty empathizing or wanting to go to work, anxiety, anger, trouble sleeping, repetitive thoughts about the stories you hear, and more. There’s even a thing known as secondary, or vicarious, trauma.
  • Learn to say “no,” and in turn, learn to say “yes.” Both in your professional and personal worlds, you’re likely asked to do things that you don’t want to do. Sometimes, you have to do them, but sometimes, you don’t. And guess what? If you don’t, you can say “no.” Saying “no” may be the very thing that allows you to say “yes” to whatever it is that you haven’t had time for. Learn how to say “no” so that, as much as you can, you can have your calendar filled with things you actually want to do. (Sometimes, you will have to say “no” to things that you want to do, but don’t have the energy to on a particular night – that’s okay, too. Just make sure it’s not a pattern).
  • Talk to other people in your field about what you’re experiencing. (You may even want to see a therapist.) There’s the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who watches the watchmen?). Answer: We all have to look out for each other, especially when we work jobs that very few people can understand from the outside. Vent to your peers and let them vent to you with the understanding that you can’t, and won’t, fix what the other person is going through. However, you do understand one another, and that is huge in fighting a sense of isolation and need for perfection. Get a mentor if you can and learn about how they face this now and how they have developed better boundaries since the beginning of their career.
  • Accept the limitations and boundaries of your job description. It’s all too easy to want to do the work of the other care providers in a person’s support network. You cannot. If you are a teacher, you cannot be someone’s parent, doctor, social worker, and so on. Hold onto faith that other people are doing their jobs adequately because you have to in order to be able to sleep at night and to let clients’ stories stay in your hearts, but not overwhelm them. If they’re not doing a good enough job, try to get in contact with their governing bodies, and if you believe that a client of yours could benefit from another type of resource, tell them or refer them directly. Do also delegate within your particular organization among other people with the same job description, if you have that option.
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[image description: Two hands holding each other against a black background. One hand is white and the other is blue. Both are made out of text with encouraging words like “I am here for you.” Source].
  • Accept the limitations of your own skillset and embrace your common humanity. Guess what? It’s not “if” you fall, but “when.” Learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself for making them because even the highest up people in your field were once in your place (and in their own doubts, too). If you are willing to accept this common humanity and recognize that you are no more flawed than any other helping professional, you will feel less alone and ill-equipped. Adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, which means that you believe that hard work and effort can – and will – change how skillful you are at something (rather than it just being based on raw, innate talent). Most importantly, avoid developing a Messiah complex – you are no one’s savior, and you will hurt both them and you by believing you can or should be.
  • Make a bad moment bagThank you, Mayo Clinic, for this wonderful idea that has helped me in many a moment when I’ve felt stuck and discouraged!
  • Change your clothes immediately upon getting home. This is a simple physical boundary (and if you work in a place like a hospital, key for infection prevention). It signifies that you are home, not at work. Treat yourself to comfortable and casual clothes that you could never be caught in at work. You deserve it.
  • Get moving. Do a little something every day that gets you up (if you’re physically able). I’m not even necessarily talking about cardiovascular exercise, though that’s an excellent idea for so many people (talk to your doctor!). Take a walk. Go on the elliptical. Dance in your bedroom. Whatever it is that makes you feel a little bit more present in your own body, do it. It’s easy to incorporate socializing into this, if you feel like you’re running short on time – take your walk with a friend! It may even be the thing that helps keep you motivated to get up and move every day, even just a little bit.

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  • Get out of your usual environment. Take yourself on a half-day road trip if you need to get out of your head. Plan a vacation. Even just go to a different park from usual. And yet…
  • Keep going with your regular life. This goes back to learning to say “no” and, in turn, say “yes.” If Tuesday trivia night is your thing, go, no matter how exhausted you may feel. If you are a Wine Wednesday, surrounded by friends on your couches kind of person, keep inviting them over. You need to hear other stories in order to see that not all of life is troubling. You’ll be glad you went. (And sometimes you won’t be, and you’ll go home early – and that’s okay, too!).
  • Turn off your phone. Go AWOL often if you don’t have to be on-call. I love apps like Moment, Unplugged, and Forest to monitor and reward myself to use my favorite piece of technology less. I’ll be writing a whole post on this at some point because of how much it’s changed my life to say “goodbye” more often and have fewer unplanned interactions and distractions.
  • Meditate. Whether it’s something more passive like watching a YouTube video or something more active like doing tai chi or coloring a detail-oriented coloring page, many people feel a sense of peace and presence by putting their mind to something deeply.
  • Be creative. Even if you’re afraid you’re really bad at your chosen art medium, put your feelings somewhere in a different form – coloring, painting, singing, playing an instrument, writing, taking photos, whatever stokes your fancy.
  • Keep a journal. Get your thoughts about work out in a HIPAA-compliant way, and be able to express all of what you’re feeling without the constant interruptions.
  • Find activities that restore you and make you feel alive, and do them on at least a weekly basis. If you don’t have a “thing” that you love yet, keep looking and keep them in your schedule. It may be something as simple as cooking your favorite meal or something as complicated as rock climbing. You’ll find it, and make sure that you make time for it once you do.

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  • Treat yo’self to something seemingly frivolous, if you have the extra cash. Nails. Netflix binging. A nice meal out. A new dress. Whatever it is, you deserve it. I know the pay in these fields is usually appalling, so you may not have the cash available, so here are a few consumption-free self-care ideas, too!
  • Do not give this professional kind of service to those in your life. You are not your friend’s or family member’s therapist, social work, or chaplain. You cannot be, professionally, and you cannot be for their sake and yours. It will blur the lines of your relationship, making the boundaries unhealthy, and it will exhaust you deeply, making compassion fatigue come on more quickly.
  • Accept care from others. We are often so good at caring for others and so terrible at letting others care for us. If you have the money, see a therapist occasionally.
  • Be willing to give less than 100% sometimes. If you try to be inspired and “on” every moment, you will burn out quickly and feel terrible about yourself as you do. Know that only very rarely do people function at 100% at any particular moment, and you are no different, though you may be partially superhuman for choosing to do this job in the first place. Instead of feeling frustrated, just do what you need to do anyway. Not everything will be A+ quality, but you will still be able to make a difference because your mere presence is likely the biggest gift, anyway.
  • Be determined to rise to the challenge anyway. Despite all of the nonsense that goes into this aspect of your life, you do it for a reason. (If you’re seriously doubting it, that’s okay, too – talk to people who are farther in your field than you are so that you can gain their perspective on your situation.) But this bullet point is for those of you who don’t doubt it, who may hate it at times, but who are in this. You got this, dear one – whatever “this” is.

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