Saturday, November 2, 2013

Holding On to Self-Care and Promoting a Holistic Approach

About a year ago an article with the intriguing title "End of Self-Care" by organizer B. Loewe was going around. It took me a long long time to read it and all that time I was under the wrong impression of the article's focus. I thought it highlighted community-care, encouraging social workers and caring professions to rely on one another for support as opposed to emphasizing internal and self-reflective coping methods. I finally read the article, agreed with a few points and disagreed with some of the author's main points, and went on to read a few responses. I wanted to share writer and activist Spektra's response in particular. 

Though it may be more than fashionably late to respond to the original article but it's not too late to talk about self-care and respond to some of B. Loewe's statements that I've heard elsewhere, if not explicitly then implicitly. I did like that the article sparked conversation about a topic that stirs a reaction in many a social workers and case managers. An eye roll from the very compassion fatigued professional, an anxious tug from another who looks at self-care forlornly, a third holding it closer more confidently and comfortingly. It also brings up a valuable need to define what self-care means.

Back to 'End of Self Care', most of the message I got was Loewe encouraging care providers to reframe our work so it is not exhausting. He makes an argument that certainly sounds reasonable: if we work for something that we deeply care about and, importantly, its purpose is positive then it should not be draining. The article indeed discusses community care, in the sense of let's be involved with each other and support each other as a community, which I agree with. 

I agree that as social workers, organizers, care providers, we often work towards positive goals. Ideally this is rewarding. Hearing thank you from clients also, developing good rapport and trust makes difficult work easier since you feel like you're working in partnership with your clients. But -- just like conflict is usually inevitable in interactions with others (which does not mean it cannot be it worked through) I also remember vividly going to protests or engaging in community actions that felt discouraging when I considered the obstacles that we deal in reaching social justice goals. I know the challenge of working with individuals with psychological or physical disabilities who face systematic obstacles that are very real in hampering their growth. 

Taking away our need to self care and self compassion invalidates not just the discouragement we understandably feel at times but also downplays the challenges we consistently face -- and our clients. Yes, we should be working towards improving the services we offer or our organizing approaches and methods so they are more effective. But even as these continue to improve we will find obstacles to client and community success. Real obstacles, not just because of me as Anatolia or us as individuals, but systematic blocks. And the answer to feeling frustrated or exhausted or sad isn't to forget that I have an idea of 'self' (generalize this sentence to we). Does it help to feel and behave (completely) selfless to do this job well? To work towards social justice? If it works for ya, great, but it doesn't work for me and it doesn't have to. 

Let me say it again. We deserve to give self-care and self-compassion to ourselves (both professionally and in our personal lives) and this is something that I did not get from End of Self-care article. I find self-care especially crucial to promote when the same concept gets pushed down the priority list over and over again. Not just by us, but our employers.

It seemed that Loewe equated self-care with going off on yoga excursions or otherwise luxurious activity. The idea of self-care how I define it and often hear it discussed is care we give to ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually, creatively, intellectually, and professionally. Exercising, which I am really able to do if I enlist a friend (if that's what it takes...) even though I feel much better afterwards. Something so basic. Singing. I've been wanting to take a art class for a while to do something completely different. Self-care also means caring for basic needs, getting enough sleep, eating well. Seeing the dr. regularly. Having friendships and relationships outside work. Practicing (or discovering and developing) self-compassion.

I do think that community care has deep value and this is something that I use informally, relying on colleagues and offering them support, learning from fellow case managers and social workers in other agencies and online journals. Self-care can be limiting if it's done only introspectively. Both in our personal lives and professional lives, camaraderie may be so nurturing. When morale at an agency is good and when colleagues help each other work satisfaction is much improved.

And, and this I will emphasize too, our agencies, our bosses need to give us supervision, fair compensation for our work, good benefits. Professional support. Staff duties should be clear, caseload manageable, and we should be forced to have lunch breaks. The time and money to train new workers is not worth the short term cost cuts of lower wages and reduced benefits (that lead to higher turnover). Yeah I know, between supportive jobs and reality there is discrepancy in many places. I would love to hear from folks who advocated for themselves or caring professionals in their organizations for improved conditions.

In the meantime, I'm here holding on to self-care so it doesn't slip from my fingers -- it does have a tendency to try and do that.