by Darlene C. Sutherland, MS
Very early in my career, a friend asked me how I view my job as a social worker. I didn’t give her a run-down of my various duties and responsibilities, because I didn’t really think that was what she wanted to know. “Social work at its core is really about helping oppressed people to bear the burdens of their oppression,” I answered. My response was instinctive, because that is what I believed it was all about. Fast forward almost 20 years, and I still believe that. I have also learned that genuinely helping people to bear their burdens can be a back breaking and spirit crushing endeavor. Social workers and other helping professionals need a well-developed set of coping mechanisms at our disposal if we are to have any reasonable expectation of longevity in our chosen helping profession.
One of the most vital coping mechanisms available to helping professionals is self-care. Self-care, to the helping professional, is like insulin to a diabetic. As insulin is critical in maintaining healthy levels of sugar in the blood, self-care facilitates our ability to decompress at the end of the day and to maintain a perspective that is objective and balanced. It serves as a palpable reminder that we need to be a priority in our own lives. Self-care affords us the capacity to detach and decompress at the end of the day. Going through these processes facilitates our ability to formulate fresh perspective. Fresh perspective enhances our ability to help our clients reexamine their perspective on their respective situations and chart a course for forward movement in their lives.
Many of us in helping professions struggle with the idea of self-care. For many of us, caring for others is not confined to our caseloads. We erroneously perceive that we are being selfish, and to a certain degree, we perceive that putting ourselves first somehow lets down those for whom we are caring. Sometimes, we simply tell ourselves we don’t have the time for self-care, because we often feel bogged down with work or school responsibilities and caring for our families. Carving out time for self-care can often feel like one more thing to do on an already long to-do list. That can feel very overwhelming and cumbersome.
Consider this: when we fly, we are always instructed that in the event of oxygen mask deployment, we should reach for our mask first before attempting to help someone else. Implicit in that admonition is the idea that says we cannot take care of others if we don’t first take care of ourselves. It really doesn’t take much. Sometimes, simply watching your favorite television program or indulging in a hot bubble bath after work could do the trick.
The next time you find yourself struggling to indulge in emotional well-being sustaining self-care, remember to give yourself permission to reach for that oxygen mask. It really is okay and necessary.
Darlene C. Sutherland, MS, has been in the field of social work for more than 20 years. Darlene earned her bachelor’s degree from Temple University and her master’s degree from Columbia University. Darlene’s passion for social work is largely informed by her personal experiences in the foster care system. She is a relentless champion for social justice.
Editor's Note: This article is part of The New Social Worker's Self-Care Summer 2016 Project. For more ideas on self-care, see The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals.