Self-Care A-Z: Practicing Self-Care, Especially When You Love Your Social Work Job

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by Cortney Downs, MSSW

Social workers and other helping professionals often help people process difficult situations and we work in demanding contexts.  We’re expected to be keenly aware of the negative impact this work can take on our well-being.  However, during my first years in the field, my understanding of self-care was synonymous with (and limited to) taking a bubble bath or getting a massage, after a bad day at work.  I had only an elementary understanding of how burn-out and vicarious traumatization manifested.  Unfortunately, attention to these areas wasn’t prioritized at the agency where I worked and, admittedly, I didn’t seek information.

What I Didn’t Know, Was Hurting Me

As unbelievable as it seems, the longer I stayed at my job, and the better I became at engaging with my clients, the less aware I was of how their stories could negatively affect me.  I was blissfully ignorant of the long-term toll this work could have. Why? Because I loved my job!

Most mornings, I jumped out of bed as soon as my alarm went off, if not before, excited to start my day.  I rarely, if ever, took time off and frequently (and happily) brought work home with me. I thought: “Why would anyone not want to do this work, 24/7?”

One year, I took a vacation for my birthday, even though I didn’t really “need it”—or so I thought. When I returned to work, I felt rejuvenated, rested, and had lots more energy. I recall being surprised by how good I felt. It was an aha experience that I needed that break. I needed balance that would allow me to be as committed to myself and my personal life as I was to my professional life.

Burnout: When Our Fire Becomes Ashes

George Carlin famously said that a cynic is merely a disappointed optimist. Similarly, maybe a burned-out social worker is one who was once “on fire” for the work! In my passion for the work, I didn’t understand that burnout is a “progressive state of inoperability” (Smullens, 2012), not a static state of being. Smullens noted that new helping professionals may not know how to objectively assess the negative impact of the work on them and how to restore their equilibrium. This imbalance is especially true when the symptoms aren’t identified until they’ve reached overwhelming proportions.

For me, change came when my perspective shifted about what self-care really is: ongoing actions and attitudes that help me live my best life.  A profound sense of illumination and liberation came when I learned that creating color-coded organizing charts; focusing on quality over quantity; redefining success; pursuing professional development; and, yes, taking time off can all be considered self-care (Grise-Owens, Miller, & Eaves, 2016).

And, why should these things only be pursued when working in a particularly stressful environment or after a negative event? Self-care is an individualized lifestyle; it is both unselfish and necessary. It is Breath. It keeps the fire burning in our spirits, without turning into ashes of burnout.

image of cortney downs the writer of this article.