Self-care is a professional responsibility

-by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

All of my clients are people who work in caring professions. As leaders and practitioners in organizations that helping others, their commitment to compassion, professionalism, and justice is genuine and profound. For them, knowing that their work makes a difference holds tremendous intrinsic value, and is the reason why they persist.

Yet, when I check in with teachers, school leaders, police officers, physicians, nurses, community organizers, employees in nonprofits, and social workers, they tell me that they feel:

  • Stressed
  • Overwhelmed
  • Unappreciated
  • Tired

And, worst of all, I am hearing more frequently that people in these caring roles are not always sure that their work is truly helping. Now, more than ever, self-care is not simply important—it’s essential. 

Self-care is not about massages and herbal tea.

While I’m encouraged to see self-care discussed more widely in caring professions, the conversation around self-care can feel superficial. If you can afford a monthly massage and have time to make hedrbal tea, these might be important self-care habits for you. Enjoying the massage or the tea, though, isn’t the point.

Self-care is about preserving and enhancing our physical and emotional well-being. This means knowing our body and our heart well enough to know what to do to stay safe, well, and happy. People who are good at self care make their own own wellness a daily priority. What has helped me take better care of myself is to think less about self-care as an event on my calendar and more about caring for myself as part of my day. 

For example, every time I stand up, I do two calf-raises and take a deep breath. Before I go to bed, I tell me spouse I love him and I think about something I’m grateful for. When I finish my lunch, I write down something I’d like to improve, but not until I write down three things I need to accomplish for the next day and three times I succeeded. What I don’t do: Anything that feels hard, annoying, goofy, or boring. I know I’m doing it right when my body and heart feel better.

Self-care is a professional responsibility.

Since March, every single group of professionals I work with reports chronically high levels of stress. And, they don’t expect the stress to go away in the near future.

For most of us, helping others is an integral part of our professional identity. We are used to eating lunch in 5 minutes and using the rest of our short lunch break to take care of other work. Unfortunately, planning lessons all weekend and working through dinner to finish remote parent-teacher conference schedules is seen as a sign of dedication rather than a cause for concern. 

While I am grateful for the level and amount of work teachers across the world have invested in helping children learn and grow, the truth is that eating a healthy lunch takes more than five minutes. Planning quality instruction requires a rested mind. This is true in any caring profession, agency, or nonprofit setting—we serve others effectively only when we ourselves are physically and emotionally well.

Self-care is not a luxury to indulge when the work gets done. Caring for ourselves is our duty.

You deserve to be safe, well, and happy.

I am struck by how Dr. Lyiscott emphasizes our healing as essential to the work of justice.

For many of us, the focus of our daily work is to help others. Right now, helping others is more complicated and requires more time and effort than ever before. If you are coming home from work tired, overwhelmed, or stressed, you are not alone. What you are feeling is real, and you deserve to be safe, well, and happy. 

Often, our own understanding of each other’s trauma can be a barrier to practicing self-care. We may feel selfish to show ourselves kindness when we know others have struggles worse than ours. Yet, neglecting ourselves does not help anyone else. Rather, when we neglect ourselves, we both diminish our capacity to help and model for others behavior we don’t want them to adopt.

Dr. Jamila Lyiscott is an educator supporting schools throughout the United States in dismantling systemic racism and achieving justice within our school communities. Here is a quote of hers that speaks to me:

“Healing is not the absence of pain. It is the decision to act in the service of your development rather than your defeat.”

Dr. Jamila Lyiscott

Those of us who believe in the development of others would do well to feel the truth of Dr. Lyiscott’s words. Self care is not about massages and herbal tea. It is our professional responsibility to preserve and enhance our physical and emotional health. And, we all deserve to be safe, well, and happy.

Click here to register for a free webinar on personal and systemic self-care on Wednesday, 28 October 2020 and Thursday, 29 October 2020 at 3:30pm Pacific Time.

4 thoughts on “Self-care is a professional responsibility

  1. As someone with a full time job, contract work, and starting a company of my own, this was an important read for me. With time being so valuable, and also so finite, I HAVE to commit the right amount of it to me. Otherwise, everything else just falls apart. Thank you for sharing Tim!

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