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Self Care for the Helping Professions

As part of RSG's efforts with Trauma Informed practice, we are pleased to share insight from a friend and colleague, Luc Watelet. Luc provides insight to perhaps a new way of looking at "self-care" for those of us who help others such as teachers, therapists, social workers, school counselors, etc. We invite you to take a look at Luc's introduction to work he will be doing with RSG in Adams County and perhaps other Pennsylvania Communities.

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If you look online what self-care involves, you will find various blogs or articles mentioning that self-care includes paying attention and attending to our physical and emotional needs. Some may also mention our mental and spiritual needs. They then list things to pay attention to about each of these needs. For instance under physical needs, they may list nutrition, sleep, exercise, and medical care. Under emotional needs, they may list counseling, journaling, relaxing/meditating, having healthy boundaries, and then they all stress the importance of taking time for our self such as scheduling leisure activities.

It sounds like if I do enough of this or that with the right balance and I do everything right, I will be happy.

My experience is that that’s just a beginning. There is more to self-care.

Let’s start from the beginning. The awareness that we need to pay attention to our self usually happens when we face some overwhelming stress. A little stress motivates us to do better, but at some point the stress passes a level beyond which we can no longer perform, or we continue to perform with little motivation and a heavy burden.

When I reached that point in my life, I was a student doing my Ph.D. and I first sought help from a doctor to take care of my physical symptoms and she was wise enough to tell me that my symptoms were due to stress, so then I went to see the university psychiatrist and he had time for 3 sessions for me. I told him my life story and he concluded I lacked assertiveness. This may have been true but I did not know what to do with that information. Time was up though and I could not see him any more so I was sent to a social worker who could see me for 10 sessions or so. Part of the problem I was facing at that point was that I had the mental capacity to do my Ph.D. but I did not have any passion for it. And I did not know how to make peace with that.

The social worker was not really helpful in that quest and I had a dream that showed me walking to my therapy session but the elevator brought me beyond the floor of therapy office to where students were graduating from the program I was in. They were drinking champagne and invited me along but, after greeting them, I went my own way. I climbed a cord ladder to where I was greeted by people dressed in business suits. So the dream showed me that I no longer needed therapy, that I would finish my Ph.D. and that I would do something on my own and be successful. So that dream solved my problem for me. But it also started to tell me a little about where stress comes from and how stress is handled and it is not quite just relaxing and having healthy boundaries and a good physical regimen, it has to do with learning to listen to one self.

To understand self-care we need to understand where stress comes from.

If we were machines stress would simply come from our various parts being over used and/or old. But we are not machines. I was young when I was a graduate student. The stress came from an inner conflict between what I was doing and my sense that I wanted to do something I was more passionate about in my life but without knowing what that was. The stress did not come from the outside, although it was triggered by the outside. Instead, it came from not knowing how to deal with my inner conflict. The solution came to me in the form of a dream, so it came from inside me. The therapists I saw somehow did not know how to get me there.

If I have an inner conflict it is because I have different voices in me which tell me opposite messages and they each want to be heard. One voice comes from my practical logical mind and says: “Well, you have a scholarship to do a Ph.D., you should do that! What else are you going to do anyway? You don’t know anything else!” One voice comes from my body via various symptoms that are uncomfortable. One voice comes from my heart and says: “Yeah! I can do it, but I hate it!” And the voice in the dream seems to come from a higher knowing, let’s call it my spirit or my soul. So the solution to resolving stress is to listen to the various voices in me and come back to a place where I am one within myself. This is a place I call being in integrity, or being one’s authentic self.

So releasing stress comes down to realigning within myself my mind, my body and my heart and soul.

My mind is full of “shoulds” and “should nots.” My body is full of trauma memories and insecurities, but it also contains my heart that remembers my deepest dreams and my passion and is my connection to my soul.

So here is my take on self-care. First, we meet stress and challenges. At that stage we cannot think clearly. We may become anxious, depressed, overly emotional, or try our best to block all of that to go on with our lives. These emotional issues can get so heavy that we have mental health diagnoses for them. Or we can get physical problems such as rashes, illnesses, pains and aches etc. We get to a place where we can no longer avoid facing what is going on. We do this by listening to all of our voices equally. It is no longer enough to listen to the “voice of reason” from our mind. So various forms of meditations and disciplines such as yoga are very helpful. In the process of reconnecting with our self, we are naturally led to face our past trauma and when we release it we have a more open heart and we can feel our passion more freely. As we do this, we remember how much what we are passionate about is directly related to our purpose in life.

So for a clinician facing difficult situations in other people they attend to, it may become overwhelming to see the burdens others have to bear. But this overwhelming feeling is different for each one of us. I would say that this overwhelming feeling has a different message for each of us.

The program is to listen to the responses from our mind, our body, our heart and our soul concerning this overwhelming feeling and a totally different picture emerges.

Some of it will touch on the current experience, some of it will trigger past trauma, and some of it will help you reflect on why you are choosing to do the work you do and what you wish to achieve with it. ~Luc Watelet

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