Like a good many social workers I take awful care of myself. I don’t know whether my tendencies toward neglecting my own self-care stem from some inherent drive to give or whether they are conditioned from years of practice. What I do know is that such an approach to work (and life) is not sustainable.
Ironically, one of the main things that most teachers of social work emphasize to their students is that taking care of one’s self is important. Where we drop the ball—I feel—is we don’t necessarily teach them how to actually do that in practice-situations. Moreover, we surely tend not to lead by example.
One has to wonder where this cognitive dissonance comes from. Perhaps, thinking about your own needs when faced with the challenges and traumas of clients seems (and feels) selfish. Maybe, one’s own sense of duty to the profession and their clients supersedes any personal discomforts from fatigue, physical or otherwise. Whatever the reasons, the madness obviously has to stop with us.
Certainly, lack of self-care is not explicitly a social work ‘thing’. Reflecting, I have put all I had into any job I have done, pushing myself to the point of exhaustion on many accounts. Given this fact, I feel that this problem has more to do with the person, not the profession in question.
While the aforementioned reasons are very viable explanations, other factors are likely to have their influence: fear of failure, the need for success, and good ol’ male ego. I can own those. Not a problem. But, sometimes, it is also about just wanting more, more than one “plate” can handle.
Sure, it is possible that many of us have problems with taking on too much, but how much of that really has more to do with having problems making room?
I feel like we are conditioned to think in limited terms. We either have enough time in the day to do things or we don’t; therefore, we abandon the things we desire or take them on in a Hare Karee-style and hope for the best. Our egos will tell us, “Sure, you can do it,” creating all kinds of crazy operating schedules in our brains that seem logical and doable (purely based upon the level of desire we have to do specific things). Reality, however, always sets in and eventually we find we have bitten off more than a healthy mouthful. Yup, that sums of my crazy thought processes in a nutshell.
At no point during my craziness, do I ever think, “Yes, this is something I have to do! What do I have to let go of to make room?” I think part of the problem is that when I take something on, I do so with the perspective that I am locked into doing it forever. True, in some cases this is the situation (like with work and career) but not everything is like that. I have hung onto part-time jobs (side gigs, really) and personal projects for years that offered little but a pocket full of ‘fun money’ and a satisfying ego stroking, here and there. Never once had it occurred to me that maybe it was time to let go and move on.
So, with a packed schedule, when things of interest would come along, I would try to cram them in, scattering my time, attention, and energies to the wind in the hope that things would get done. That is an awful head space to be in, much less live in. It is contrary to what I want—what I feel most of us want—out of life: living it instead of managing it.
As I write this, I have a mental picture of my life as Scylla, the six-headed sea monster from Greek Mythology—big and black with lots of sharp teeth–and me standing in front of it (in all my tininess) with a paper helmet, toy sword, and makeshift shield made out of a frisbee duct-taped to my hand. Funny how the brain works, no?
Sometimes, jobs (part-time or otherwise) and projects run their courses or—at least—we get all we can out of them. But, there may be times when there is still a lot more to extract from them. If we do want ‘more’ then we need to figure out how to make space for growth—after all, why bother complicating our lives with “one more thing to do” if we aren’t going to evolve, somehow, from it. Maybe we will have to drop a project or reduce hours at a side-gig to make room. So what? Yes, that means the processes already put into motion will take longer and the fruits of our labors postponed. Big deal! That isn’t the point…or is it?
Part of ‘wanting it all’ and ‘having it all’ is we want both of them now. That is why we will push ourselves to the point of exhaustion, doing a mediocre job across the board. Ultimately–for many–we just want to say, “I knew I could do it!” If we want more and we want to be fulfilled then we have to exercise some much-needed patience, as well. After all, it is only in daydreams that little boys can kill six-headed monsters with toy swords from Wham-O in under a minute.
Ultimately, we really can have it all (or come pretty damn close to it). We can have work, play, creativity, spirituality, and anything else we want. But maybe, just maybe, we can’t have it all right here, right now. True, some time spent on things remains sacred, such as time spent with our careers and families. However, much of it is ours (theoretically) and we are still the stewards of it. ‘Wanting it all’ calls for a continuous re-prioritizing and the frequent deleting, adding, and editing of its content. That way our own personal narratives continue to flow smooth and clear.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will the stories of our lives. So, if we want to become something great, shouldn’t we slow down a bit and focus on ‘building’ something of quality? Truth is, we can’t do everything well. The construction of human bodies and capacities don’t support such fantasies. We only have so much of ourselves to give, healthily, and often to many things to give it to.
Slow down, constantly reprioritize, judiciously add more, and live a little for Heaven’s sake! We only live once.
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