For those who work in the helping professions—such as medicine, nursing, therapy and counseling, social work, education, public health, human services, criminal justice, and religious leadership—caring for the well-being of others is all in a day’s work.
However, spending so much time caring for others can sometimes cause problems for helping professionals. Stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue are all fairly common in these professions, which can lead to high employee turnover and have lasting negative effects for workers’ health and wellness. For example, an estimated 21–67% of workers in mental health services may be experiencing high levels of burnout, which can lead to a variety of physical and emotional health impairments, research shows.
The good news is that robust self-care practices can help to mitigate or even prevent symptoms of work-related stress and burnout. With International Self-Care Day coming up on July 24th, we’d like to help caregivers and helping professionals who are looking for ways to improve their self-care.
Exploring the Many Dimensions of the Self
To begin, it should be noted that we each have a professional self and a personal self, and both of these must be nurtured to maintain good self-care.
Our professional self is that part of ourselves that identifies with the work we do for a living. It is nurtured when our work is personally meaningful to us and when we believe our career is progressing in the way we’d like it to. A healthy professional self is important to our overall well-being, but we’d like to focus more closely on our personal self, which comprises all the parts of us that are not associated with our work.
In fact, our personal self can be divided into 12 distinct parts, which are:
- Emotional self: the part of us that thrives on experiencing and expressing emotions of all kinds
- Financial self: the part of us that looks for ways to earn and save money
- Humorous self: the part of us that loves a good laugh
- Loving self: the part of us that needs to express affection and receive affection from other people
- Nutritious self: the part of us that craves healthy foods to provide fuel for our bodies
- Physical self: the part of us that enjoys being active and exercising our body
- Playful self: the part of us that likes to “joke around” and be silly and light-hearted
- Priority-setting self: the part of us that’s most comfortable when our to-do list is organized
- Recreational self: the part of us that likes to have hobbies and interests outside our professional obligations
- Relaxation and stress-reduction self: the part of us that desires peace and serenity
- Solitary self: the part of us that enjoys being alone from time to time
- Spiritual or religious self: the part of us that seeks connection to something larger than ourselves
Caring for Each Part of Our Personal Self
The dimensions of the self described above are universal to all of us. We each have these unique selves inside us, although how they are expressed and how much nurturing they require varies from person to person. In order to achieve good self-care, you’ll need to determine how much you must nurture each dimension and what methods work best for you.
However, there are a variety of activities that are successful at nurturing these parts of the self for many people. Here are the 12 parts of the self again, this time listed alongside ideas and strategies for nurturing each part:
- The emotional self: keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings; engage with different forms of art; talk with friends and family
- The financial self: create and maintain a financial budget; put money into a savings account or 401k; keep money set aside for emergency expenses
- The humorous self: look for humor in everyday life; use humor and laughter to lighten stressful situations
- The loving self: spend time with friends, family and loved ones; volunteer or donate to causes you believe in
- The nutritious self: eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains; avoid highly processed foods and refined sugars
- The physical self: engage in physical activities that you enjoy; exercise regularly; get plenty of sleep to rest and recover
- The playful self: develop personal relationships with work colleagues; find ways to respectfully joke about work situations; do things just to make others laugh
- The priority-setting self: set realistic goals for yourself; maintain control over personal and professional responsibilities
- The recreational self: engage in leisure activities that you enjoy; take up a hobby you enjoy; take vacations or travel in your free time
- The relaxation and stress-reduction self: balance your personal and professional life; practice self-awareness and mindfulness; take vacations from work
- The solitary self: spend time by yourself; read for pleasure or education; engage in quiet leisure activities
- The spiritual or religious self: develop a set of personal values; develop personal spiritual practices
Poor Self-Care Situations to Avoid
As we mentioned above, self-care can look a bit different for everyone, because the ways we choose to nurture our personal selves may vary between individuals. One person’s successful self-care regimen may appear insufficient to another person, depending on how their priorities differ. Therefore, it’s important to discover which balance and which self-care activities work best for you.
There are some situations that are almost universally harmful to a person’s self-care and well-being, though. You should be on the lookout for these situations in your personal and professional life and take action to rectify them if at all possible.
These situations include:
- Toxic supervisor and/or colleagues. Poor relationships with our work peers can be extremely draining on our motivation and emotional state. Sometimes, we can compensate for this by increasing self-care in other areas and seeking emotional support from friends and loved ones. In other cases, it may be necessary to change our working situation.
- Little fun in life or work. Taking life too seriously all the time can often make it seem joyless and dull. If we find ourselves in this situation, we can work at “manufacturing” fun by actively exercising our humorous and playful selves.
- Lack of a professional development process. We may lose all joy in our work over time if we’re unable to see a clear path of professional progression. It can be helpful to map out the “big picture” of where we’d like our career to go and then strategize each step we can make toward that goal. This might also be a topic to discuss with a supportive supervisor.
- No energy-giving personal life. Even the most fulfilling work in the world can leave us feeling empty if we don’t have a rich personal life to balance it. This is why it’s so important to develop and nurture the 12 dimensions of our personal self!
- Inability to say no to unreasonable requests. As helping professionals, helping others is what we do, sometimes at our own expense. But we must have boundaries in place that prevent us from giving so much that we can no longer care for ourselves. This is where our priority-setting self comes into play.
- Giving too much in our personal relationships. Again, it can be easy for helping professionals to slip into the habit of giving too much, even in our personal lives. We must work to build relationships where we both give and receive support in order to keep our emotional and loving selves well cared for.
- Constant perfectionism in work tasks. Being consistently too demanding of ourselves is a guaranteed recipe for frustration and burnout. We must give ourselves permission to make the occasional mistake, just as we do for the individuals we serve.
- Professional success defined solely by client success or appreciation. When our job is to help other people get better, it can be difficult to separate our success from their success—or even from their appreciation of our efforts. To counteract this tendency, it can be helpful to develop the parts of our personal self that are more inwardly focused, such as our solitary and spiritual selves.