While this post was initially written for those of us in the field, it applies to everyone in a caregiving role.
Self-care during these challenging and exhausting times is critical for all of us. Even if you are not in the
field, hopefully there are aspects of the post that will resonate with you.
These days, as we head into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a lot of talk
about self-care and the risk of burnout in therapists who have been providing services nonstop
through this period of collective stress and trauma. It is compounded by the fact that so many of
us hold multiple professional roles as therapists, educators, and advocates (just to name a few) in
addition to our personal responsibilities to our families of origin and/or choice. Self-care is great
in concept, but way more challenging in execution. Therapists often do not practice what they
preach, but can pay a terribly high price of compassion fatigue, burnout to the point of leaving
the field and their own stress related health issues. Self-care is a trendy term – but what is it, and
how can we actually make it happen?
What IS self-care and how do we practice it:
Self-care enhances well-being and involves purposeful and continuous efforts that are
undertaken to ensure that all dimensions of the self will receive the needed attention that is
needed to make the person fit to assist others (Moore, Perry, Beldsoe & Robison, 2019). It is
even defined by the World Health Organization (2014) as the process of promoting and
maintaining health and preventing disease. There is both personal self-care and professional
self-care. Professional self-care, specifically, is the utilization of skills and strategies by social
workers [and other mental health professionals] to maintain their own personal, familial,
emotional and spiritual needs while attending to the needs and demands of their clients (Figley,
1995; Newell & Nelson-Gardell, 2014).
Using these skills and strategies requires what Haley Dalphon refers to as “….a collection
of practices that social workers can draw from when they are experiencing stress in or outside of
the workplace” (Dalphon, 2019, p 85.). Her six-pronged approach includes:
1) taking a personal inventory of stressors
a. this requires both an informal and formal measurement of one’s own current
stress level including internal and situational factors.
2) seeing one’s identity beyond social work?
a. Who are you outside of your work? How do you define and value yourself, and
what roles do you hold outside of being a clinician?
3) personal relationships
a. Who recharges your personal energy ‘battery’ and who depletes?
4) saying no
a. This probably requires its’ own separate blog post!
5) practicing mindfulness
a. How can you stay right here, now, in thought and body, without focusing on the
past or what is ahead in the future?
6) practicing physical care
a. How are you moving your body these days? What are you putting into your body
that nourishes you and/or depletes you?
What would it take for you to engage any and all of these approaches? What do you do
to inventory your own stress, to step out of your role as therapist and caregiver? And how do
you practice saying no? As a clinician in the field for 17 years, I have had periods of success and
outright failure related to my own self-care, but as I head towards my third decade of practice, I
have finally gotten to the point where self-care is a priority for me to do my job and to do it well.
Authentic self-care is an act of social justice and an aspect of ethical practice sorely overlooked
in professional training programs and education. Rather than adding it to a class module, or
briefly discussing it in a seminar, self-care needs to be its own core foundational course and be a
foundation for discussion in pre-licensure required hours. The active practice of self-care
requires a deep self-assessment of one’s own cultural value system of what work ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’,
one’s own positionality, both in the personal and professional sector, self-awareness about the
concept of ‘rest’ and an understanding of one’s internal narrative and cognition about sense of
self. Authentic self-care is not always comfortable, for it requires looking at one’s negative
habits, dissociative and/or workaholic tendencies, challenges structural violence within the field
of mental health (that often treats providers as expendable) and requires personal change so that
we may be agents of change with our clients.
Here are my some of my favorite reads on self-care (no affiliation disclosure here, these are just
books I have loved for my own practice – please consider purchasing them from Powells,
thriftbooks or your local independent bookstore):
Haley Dalphon (2019).Self-care techniques for social workers: Achieving an ethical harmony
between work and well-being. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 29, 85-
Marlee Grace (2018). How to not always be working: a toolkit for creativity and radical self
Naomi Ortiz (2018). Sustaining Spirit: Self Care for Social Justice.
Loretta Pyles (2018). Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers.
More to follow on this topic in the future, but may you find an action today that helps you care
for yourself so that you may care for those in your life.